When I was young, my mother always told me, “We are one of Native American.” “You should be proud of yourself,” she said. That was 30 years ago. Now I don’t live like a typical Native American, one that other people may imagine. For those years, my clock never stopped, unlike my mother’s. I left the reservation, went to college, went to law school, and became a lawyer. I worked hard, studied hard, and tried so hard to be involved in mainstream American culture, but she didn’t. She didn’t want to admit that there was a world, an American nation, outside of our tiny reservation, and even that had changed. I still can’t forget when I told her I would marry a white woman named Jessi.
I met Jessi in the same apartment building. I was living in 408, and she was living in 508, just one floor away. She was a teacher in an elementary school nearby the apartment. She had two dogs, and they were very big. Every morning, I jogged and she did, too, with her dogs. When we met in the elevator, I didn’t have much interest in her but her dogs. The dogs really reminded me of my last pet when I was 5 years old. I only had one dog, Jake, and he lived for 10 years roughly. I still remember when he was dying. I told him to go out and play, and he shook his tail even though he couldn’t get off from the ground. That’s how I met her. I asked what the dog’s name was. She said Charlie. And we got closer, unintentionally.
In my mother’s mind there are only two types of people: Native American and non-Native American. I couldn’t see my mother’s face at my wedding because she wasn’t there. I didn’t see her for a year after my wedding or even hear her voice. It was the birth of my son that made my mom’s closed heart re-open. I flew a long way from NYC to Arizona, with my infant son on my lap to introduce him to his grandmother. She was 80 years old and alone. My father had died two months before my son was born. He was just like my mother. He was very proud to be a Native American. Sometimes I think my parents were the perfect couple. Like I said, they were proud of themselves as Natives. There was no haunting, no battle between other tribes though. They still loved nature and knew how to communicate with it. In fact, I don’t know how, but one day when I was about 10 years old or so, I saw my father with a wild eagle on his shoulder, and he was feeding it. I thought eagles do not follow people easily, and I’m still wondering how. But now I can’t see him with anything since he died of lung cancer. He started to smoke after our territory was taken back by the government. The government gave us some supplements with some money. One of the supplements was cigarettes, which became his best friends. He was not like before when I was a young boy. He got weak and old When he was dying, he told me that he wanted me to take care of my mother. He didn’t want to leave her to suffer without anyone.
Even now, she still can’t get out of her sadness because of such big losses –my father and me. Now was the time to bring her to reality, the new world she did not want to face 30 years ago. It was about to time to present her with her grandson, the new world. I had come to take her with me to my home.
By the time we got back home in New York, it was 11pm. I was exhausted but happy in a way. When we got into the apartment, Jessi came out to welcome her, however, my mother ignored her, pretended she wasn’t even there, which didn’t entirely surprise me. The door of my mother’s room closed, and Jessi stood there, stunned. I didn’t know what to say, and I started to wonder if bringing her here was a good choice.
That night, I had a dream that a big eagle on a cloud was twittering so loudly, like it was looking for someone. I saw an injured and small eagle moving slowly on the ground. The small eagle looked so tired. The wings were twisted like somebody intentionally did it. The big eagle came down from the cloud and took the small eagle on its back. Before the big eagle went up again, I felt it was staring at me with eyes gleaming with tears. I woke up. I knocked on my mother’s room in the middle of the night. The door was locked, and she didn’t make any sound. I woke Jessi up to find the spare key. When we opened the door, the window was wide open and a small totem pole that was in the shape of an eagle with broken wings was the only thing on my mother’s bed. It seemed the small eagle of my dream went back to the place where she was supposed to be, leaving behind a small wooden token of herself. She had finally found her way back to nature.
Writer: By Hyun Woo Choi
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 297C
This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.