2018. Before Loss.
When I drove up to the Liard Hot Springs with her in the summer of 2018, she was seventy seven years old. It was the long drive that Papa tried to take her on when he was sick with cancer. It was supposed to be their last trip north. They made it halfway there when his sickness caught up to him along the Alaska Highway. Papa’s blue eyes matched the colour of the mountain waters he would never see again. They were the kind of blue that made you believe in God and other wholesome things. In the same body that housed eyes so blue was his struggled breath. In the same body that made you believe in God, was a death rattle. The kind of rattle that made you realize mortality had always lived hidden inside the bodies of the people you loved. It reminded you that mortality wasn’t an anonymous figure but it had a name; a name that your tongue had memorized and learned to call out for. Mortality had always been right there. Asu and Papa returned home. He never made it north. His name still lives on my tongue. When I am feeling brave I whisper it knowing that his spirit smiles. In this small way Darryl Street is immortal.
I was finishing what Papa had started. I imagined my hands were his hands as they guided the wheel through long straight stretches and around continuous curves. I could see Papa’s eyes twinkle as we rolled up to each new summit. I drank in the vistas. I swallowed the endless green sea of spruce, pine, poplar, and birch. The sharper bold mountains of rock that braved the elements naked and without company. I swallowed it all, and I let the land make a home inside of me. Perhaps I have been swallowed by the land and it has allowed me to make a home inside of it? Which leads me to the age old question of what came first? The indigenous girl or her territory?
The entire way Asu told me stories that were tied to the land that we travelled through. She talked to me about her Dad, Charlie and her Grandpa, Chief Makenecha (Bigfoot), who walked through these mountains and bathed in these rivers. There is a small cabin outside of the Toad River store that Grandpa Charlie built sometime between 1930 – 1950. I made this window of time up with generous room for error because I am unsure of when he built it. I can only measure time from Asu’s stories that come from other stories that predate her that use the indicators “long ago” and “not so long ago”. The cabin still stands sturdy and fully intact. I placed my hand on the cabin as if to pull my grandfather into the present moment with us. To touch something that he built with his hands with my own. To be in places where we as a people have long existed. We are connected through the decades through place.
Land has always been the catalyst for Asu’s stories. Land is memory. Land is spirit. Land denies our colonial categorizations of time because it is the longest living record keeper. We have pitiful memories as humans. I am connected to my ancestors through territory. My future grandchildren know me through the land. The land will hold memory even when we fail to do so. If I do not know the land and the land does not know me, have I even existed? Where does my memory go if I am only recognized by concrete and wooden boxes? If no water, mountains, or medicines know my name did I ever have a name at all? I whisper introductions of my bloodline into the air.
I am surprised but not surprised, that I have never heard most of the stories Asu told on the trip. The last time I went through the mountains past Fort Nelson with Asu and Papa I was a child. It was on a trip to the Liard Hot Springs in a blue van with a teardrop window that had a bed in the back. The trip was a family childhood rite of passage. We all took our turns going north. I learned how to “pop a squat” for the first time during that trip and subsequently pissed all over myself. My cousin who made the trip with me still relishes this story. I then dutifully remind her that she fell off a log at the hot springs and got prickles from a rose bush stuck in her ass. She cried because she had a case of the prickle bum.
There is a picture of us, my cousin and I, sitting on a log situated off the main path at the hotsprings. Our small bodies beside each other turned inwards. It appears that we are in deep conversation. Sunlight is shining and bouncing off our brown hair from above like a halo. Bigfoot girls in our natural environment. Cousin would remind me that I inherited my dad’s last name. I am a Knott. I want so badly to be a Bigfoot woman by name as I am by blood. The flora and fauna that thrives in the unique climate of the hot springs surrounds us. We look like Indigenous angels in this photograph. I don’t remember what we were talking about but she tells me that she was sad because she didn’t want to leave and start the journey home and I was comforting her.
I don’t remember this, but I remember the miles of pavement we drove to our destination. I remember learning how to make fires with Asu and her showing me how little pebbles help clean a pot when placed inside of them. I remember the swishing rattling noise they made as she shook the pot in a circular fashion. I remember my cousin and I making pretend fishing rods from sticks and strings and casting our lines into Muncho Lake. I remember running away from the water because we thought there was a monster in it. The Muncho Lake Monster. I remember reading Archie comic books as we laid in the bed at the back of the van trying to decide which of us was Betty and who was Veronica. I am pretty sure I was Betty. I remember the sunlight and wind pouring in from all directions. I remember how impossibly new and large the world felt.
The trip as an adult was much different. I am a mother now. Asu is so old that I had to break her out of the hospital to make this trip. By breaking out, I mean that I got healthcare permissions and learned how to administer all of her medications because I am an adult now. My ten year old son was in the backseat participating in a childhood rite of passage that he didn’t know existed. I held Asu’s hand in mine as I drove. It is a practice that I often do with the women in my life that I love. I hold my Mama’s hand, an Aunties hand, a best friend’s hand, Asu’s hand. I am grateful that I have so many women in my life to love and hold hands with. As I drove on a straight stretch with one hand on the wheel I wondered who will hold my hand when I am old and take me on endless drives.
Asu pointed to things that she seen in the natural world around us.
Look. A witch is in the clouds.
Look. A bear is in that rock.
Look. An old man is sitting in the bark of this tree.
Asu has always been able to see things where others cannot. I am one of the people that cannot see. I often need to ask her to show me where she sees these things. After I ask a second time and still cannot spot the coyote in the sky or the rabbit in the puddle, I will pretend that I have seen these things. I nod my head to confirm Asu’s sightings. Seeing is a part of her magic. Asu is going slowly going blind now, but she sees in a different kind of way.
When I was in my early twenties and swept away by addiction and darkness. I remember how impossibly old the world felt. How the light and the wind existed nowhere. I was in such a disconnected state that I could no longer see myself. Asu’s hands would travel through my waterfall of thick brown hair while I cried. Eventually she would place each hand on either side of my face and lift it so that my eyes met hers.
“My girl, I love you very much. You can do anything. You know I am always here praying for you. I pray for everyone all of the time,” she would say.
Her eyes saw me. She saw me every time. She saw me when I couldn’t see myself. She didn’t see the addict or the woman with shaking hands. She saw me. I was the little girl she gave back scratches too until she fell asleep. I was the child full of possibility living in a world that was so big and so new.
Look. My granddaughter is in that struggle.
I held her hand while we drove away from Muncho lake and down the last stretch to the Hot springs. I am a cartographer. I am trying to make a map of Asu. I am trying to commit her hands to memory. I will one day be the one who must see things. Once I began my healing work, I started to see people like she saw me. I know what it means to be seen when you can no longer see yourself. It is an art and requires a summoning of love and experience in order to truly see people.
I can see below the layers of pain. My eyes can pierce the swaths of trauma and navigate its complexities. I am a Bigfoot woman by more than a name. I have the hands and eyes of Asu.
Look. There you are, lost in all that struggle. There you are. There is your truth.
When we reached the Hot Springs, it was raining. It is the month of June but in the North it feels like a southern city folk’s April. I try to keep Asu swaddled and dry. She shoos me away like a pesky mosquito that’s trying to suck the fun out of her old life.
After we are finished walking around my son and I swim. Asu watched from the sidelines under a wooden shelter. She smiled and nodded at my son emphatically. Her great grandson has just had his northern hot spring baptism. He splashed in the water unaware that he just helped Asu complete her last trip north. The world is big and new and full of possibilities for him. The world is big and new and full for me too.
Under Asu’s watchful eye I am a child again. I am a child swimming with her own child. I am a child who knows her time with the matriarchs in her family is limited. Under her eye, I am a child that is growing into a space held by strong women. Mortality is a thing housed in the bodies of the women that I love. Their names have made a home on my tongue. I am trying to remember what it feels like to be watched over by my grandma, my aunties, and my mother so the moments can carry me through the days that I will have to be the strong one for the family. One day the women will walk with me in spirit. One day I will have to wait for them in the dream world to hold their hands. Mortality is a thing housed in the bodies of the women that I love but spirit makes sure that I will be watched over always.
(Excerpt from a full chapter in upcoming book)