“Tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon,” I asked of Grandma Alice, who despite her frail figure, seemed an indestructible spirit.
She closed her eyes and dropped her head, as if to see him. A sweet smell of corn and carne radiated from the kitchen behind us.
It was a strange web of circumstance that brought us all together here in Alice’s home, way out on the Navajo Reservation. Two years ago I had been passionately engaged in the writing of this very blog. Each week I sought out someone in Albuquerque who had never ridden the city bus (which was easy to do), and together we would go on a terrific adventure, rolling up and down Central Avenue or mingling with the riffraff at the bus stops. Then I would go home, edit photos, and spend hours writing up the story. For me, this was part sociological inquiry into the world of society’s leftovers, part desperate search for meaning amid an existence governed increasingly by impersonal, soulless institutions. For the people we met on the bus, it was an opportunity to tell the world about their triumphs and their struggles. For the readers, I will of course never know.
Like all things, my blog project lived for a while and then died. Or at least so I thought.
Two weeks ago, a message from a woman named Clara appeared in my inbox. She wanted to talk to me about one of the subjects I wrote about in my very first blog post, a man who called himself Two Crows.
“Two Crows was my brother, and we lost him on 9-22-15,” she wrote. “PLEASE contact me on my email.”
The news struck me hard. I remembered my encounter with Two Crows very well, yes, as if it were yesterday. Two Crows had the air of a charismatic, a great peacemaker, a prophet, I remembered. He spoke with a wondrous poetic eloquence matched neither by those of the street nor those of the tower. And he had the power, in the hail of his breath, to bring a man’s anger to heel, or to lift the spirit of she in despair. He was only thirty-three years old, and healthy as one could be under such conditions. How could he have perished?
When Clara and I spoke by telephone, she explained that her brother, whose real name was Levon, was killed instantly by a speeding car while trying to cross Coors Road near I-40 here in Albuquerque. She said that by miraculous chance, or something of the sort, my blog article about Two Crows came to her attention just weeks after her brother’s death. She told me how the article deeply touched her. She felt as if her beloved brother were speaking directly to her through its words. For so many years she had sought answers from him, only to meet with reticence and flight. Why did he leave his family? Why did he leave his home? Now she found great comfort in his message, which was a message to her:
“Everything you do in this life is a decision,” Two Crows had said to me. “Happiness is a decision. This [his arms spread wide to embrace the world of the street and all its vicissitudes] is a decision!”
Clara and I cried together over the phone, two complete strangers, connected only by radio waves spanning a great and mysterious horizon. We cried for her brother’s soul, and we cried for our own. And then, like the midday sun interrupting a matinee at its climax, an awkward truth rushed suddenly in, bathing our magic moment with unwanted light.
“The man you refer to as Two Crows in your article is the one who appears with you in the photo, right?” she asked me timidly.
“Umm…uhhh…oooh….well, no,” I replied achingly, taken totally by surprise. “Two Crows is the other guy.”
And so it was, Clara’s brother Levon and the prophetic man called Two Crows were in fact not the same man. We had been crying over two different people, and this sudden realization set me to crimson. The deep intrinsic meaning I had attributed to this strange encounter with Clara threatened to melt quickly away like the year’s first snowfall. And this was largely my own fault, for in the article I had described Two Crow’s overcoat incorrectly. I had described it as the very overcoat that Levon wore in a different photograph, the one in which I appeared beside him.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. Clara and her sisters had already invited us (me and my fiancé Paula) to come visit them in their home, and so I felt extra bad. “I totally understand if you would rather us not come up next weekend.”
“It’s okay,” she said with some sadness in her voice, but she was no longer crying.
Attempting some consolation, I began to tell Clara what I knew of her real brother, now that we had confirmed his identity. But the truth is that I knew very little about him. Levon, who was fifty years old at the time when I met him, barely spoke at all. I don’t think he was able to speak. He smiled a lot, and he stumbled a lot. He stared stoically into the setting sun alongside me, and he pointed almost hopefully—but perhaps just blindly—at God knows what out across the endless golden skyline. Wordless as our encounter was, however, I could tell that deep down this man was a gentle soul. Perhaps his mind was broken, but he had love in his heart. That is all I could share with Clara, and it felt like so very little.
To my surprise, Clara recovered from the confusion very quickly. She said that it didn’t really matter, and in a way, she believed that the man called Two Crows might have been speaking for her brother, because her brother could no longer speak for himself. Yes, yes, indeed! I thought. A prophet Two Crows might really be, a voice not for himself but for the voiceless, for Levon and for all like him whose minds have been silenced but whose spirits still yearn to speak!
Clara insisted that we still come up to meet her and the rest of Levon’s family that coming weekend, despite that awkward little confusion over her brother’s identity. And of course we accepted her invitation.
“Alice? Grandma Alice?” I said again. Clara had introduced me to her mother only a few minutes earlier, yet we were already getting on dazzlingly. “Would you tell me about the last time you saw your son Levon?”
At eighty-six, Grandma Alice’s pensive calm might at first be confused for dementia, but this would be an entirely false assessment. Her clarity of mind is nothing short of shocking (her mind has far greater clarity than my own, to be sure), and in wit and humor she is sharp as a whip. When I asked her what year she was born in, she said “thirteen fifty-six,” and scolded me for asking a grown woman’s age. When I took her picture, she winked and made me promise not to pass it on to any boys. But I really wanted to know about Levon, and so I asked again. She heard me. Her eyes shut. And finally, her voice almost inaudibly soft, she thus began:
“It was at least a year ago…no, it was more than a year. It was longer than that. It must have been early March, yes, because I remember it was still very cold, and it had been raining a lot. It was Sunday, and I was going to Church in Farmington, and all of a sudden there he was, Levon, my son. He was wearing his overcoat. He was drenched to the bone…”
“Lunch is ready!” Mike, who is Alice’s grandson, yelled from the kitchen. “Have you ever had a Navajo taco?”
“I think so,” I turned my head to reply, unable to stop this interruption for the delicious calling of fresh fry bread, beans, beef, and corn, hot and steamy and ready to eat.
“I bet not,” Mike said. “You’ve had an indian taco, I bet, but not a Navajo taco. It’s almost the same, I suppose, but everything in this taco is from right here on the res. I would know, I made it all myself.”
Mike, who stands well over six feet tall and would aptly be described as a bear of man, was in fact the only man at all in this home of many women. So where were all the men? I thought to myself. Some husbands and sons were surely out at work or relaxing at home, but there was something more to this. A lot of men seemed to simply be missing. But missing where?
Despite her arranged marriage, Grandma Alice’s had been a fruitful one, if not entirely pleasant. She bore nine children, five girls and four boys, just as evolutionary science would predict. But science would have difficulty explaining the discrepancy that followed. Like their father before them, all of Alice’s sons took to the bottle early on, and alcohol eventually killed all but one of them. One fell to cirrhosis of the liver, another to drunken bloody murder, and now Levon, hit by a passing car while stumbling across Coors Road. Alice’s sole surviving son probably would have suffered a similar fate, I was told, but some years back he found the strength within him to put down the bottle and take back control over his life. He now leads Alcoholics Anonymous support groups on the reservation and drives a big rig. Meanwhile, despite challenging times, the women were able to stay on their feet, to come together. This was largely thanks to Grandma Alice, who they refer to as the “rock” of the family, the great matriarch.
As tragic as this one family’s story is, it reflects a more generalized tragedy for the Navajo and other American tribes around the country. According to the CDC and the Indian Health Service, twelve percent of all deaths among Native Americans are directly related to the problem of alcohol (more than three times the rate among non-natives), and nearly seventy percent of these deaths are among males. Car accidents and cirrhosis are the number one assailants, while homicide and suicide come in second. What, then, is the more heartbreaking tale: the loss of Grandma Alice’s three sons to the same terrible vice, or the fact that this is nothing extraordinary?
“Why-y-y-y?…” I stuttered through this dumbfounding revelation. “Why is alcohol such a huge problem here?”
“Poverty,” Mike quickly replied.
“Boredom,” said one of Alice’s daughters.
“No jobs. No money. No hope,” said another.
There are no simple answers to such a question, of course, for the root causes of any societal pathology almost certainly lie as much in deep historical processes as they do in the decisions of individuals as they navigate the structural barriers and opportunities presented them by life. Levon’s decision to give himself to the streets instead of fathering his two daughters, for example, presents a terrific puzzle. According to his niece, Smeenie, he once spent a whole month in sobriety in hopes of setting his life straight. He lodged at a local church in exchange for custodial work. He seemed so happy, proud, and strong, she recounts. This could have been his chance to turn things around, yet despite it all—or in spite for it all—one morning Smeenie found him packing his rucksack, and she watched as he walked off down the road, never to return to the church or to sobriety. But what was it that pulled him away from life? What pulled him away from the people who loved him so dearly, those whom he also clearly loved? Was it mere boredom, or was it a force much greater, perhaps much older, than himself?
“Grandma Alice,” I said, recalling suddenly that she never finished her story. “What happened the last time you saw your son Levon?”
Our stomachs were now full, our attention redirected. It was now definitively Alice’s turn to speak. And when she spoke, the world around her bowed reverently.
“As I told you, it must have been more than a year ago. It was early spring, I know, because the winds were icy and cold. It had been raining, and when I saw him, my son Levon, he was drenched with that ice cold water from head to toe, through and through. He had his coat on, but it was drenched, too, and I know he must have been terribly cold. And in that state that he was—drunk as always, he was always drunk—he walked right up to me with his arms stretched out wide, and he tried to hug me.
“‘No, no,’ I told him, and I put my hand out like this to stop him from putting his soaking wet arms around me. I told him, ‘you can’t come up to me like this in front of everyone from church, it’s embarrassing!’ I told him, ‘if you can’t come sober, then you have to go.’ That’s what I told him, and I told him just like that. ‘If you can’t come here sober, then I don’t want you around at all.’
“’I know when I’m not wanted,’ he told me. ‘I don’t want you like this!’ I said. ‘I’m going to go away, then,’ he told me. Then I told him to get in the car, even all wet like he was, and I would drive him over to Kirtland and drop him off, right out there, right out on the road there where he wanted to go. And that’s were I took him. He got out of the car and I drove back home. That is the last time I saw my son Levon.”
A long silence followed that no one dared to interrupt.
“After that,” Grandma Alice continued finally. “Word came around that he was telling folks that his mother was dead. He was telling people that he didn’t have a mother at all…that his mother was dead. That’s what he was telling people, they say.”
* * * * *
An hour later Paula and I were carefully maneuvering our fragile little sedan over deep mudded gullies towards the most massive and most magnificent stone outcropping I have ever laid eyes upon. It is called Shiprock to the outsider, but the Navajo and their ancestors call it Tsé Bit’a’ í, the “rock with wings.” The evening sun blast its west face like a furnace, while the easterly winds seemed to freeze its backside. We parked the car and began prancing about to ward off the chill, but before long a strange and distracting image caught our eyes and brought us to complete stillness. Up above, way up high atop the pinnacles of those immense mirrored wings of stone, fully alight in the setting sun’s rays, there stood two enormous black birds. Suddenly and from afar, a tremendous crack tore through the sky above us, shaking the earth beneath our feet. We looked again towards the massive stone beast before us. One to the East, the other to the West, the two crows took to flight, and in so short a moment that our hearts mightn’t speak, they disappeared forever into those infinite, mysterious horizons.