We have a fantastic rooftop party for my 50th birthday: great Mexican food, wonderful friends—even a light show, for the dual lights of the 9/11 “Tribute in Light” shoot into the dark Manhattan sky from Ground Zero downtown. Post-party, and later that night we hear from Damon’s dad Orville that his brother Derrick has been in a car wreck, had numerous heart attacks and is on life support. Then they let him go…
SATURDAY We fly through Dallas to Albuquerque and rent a car, arriving late at Effie’s on Santa Clara Pueblo, where there is a tearful reunion with the family: nieces and nephews, aunts, and others. Then we go to Derrick’s house to stay. He had always wanted us to sleep at his house on our visits but invariably we’d stayed at Effie’s. On this trip Derrick gets his way: we would be in his house with his wife and youngest son 4-year-old DeeJay.
SUNDAY Waking up the next morning, Nina shows me videos of DeeJay dancing. He’s in a traditional Indian dance troupe and at Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, little showman DeeJay was a media sensation. Sitting on a beanbag chair with DeeJay, I choke up as I view the footage on a tablet, seeing Derrick on the screen, watching his son dance. This was shot by Nina’s friend Brit. Later, Brit shows us other clips; in some, Derrick is dressing DeeJay in traditional clothes for the dance, a father’s duty. Another clip was taken in Derrick’s garage hangout: Derrick and DeeJay dance together to a more modern beat.
When Derrick’s body is brought back from Santa Fe, we join the others in a procession of cars and meet it along the way. In Arroyo Seco, we wait in our rental car for the speeding police escort to pass, then join the fast-moving convoy back to Effie and Orville’s. At the house, a group of men, Damon among them, bring Derrick inside while the crowd waits in the front yard. After his body is laid in the front of the living room, everyone files in and stops by and kneels beside Derrick, then cries with one another.
Acoma Grandma Peggy is always a great storyteller; actually, her storyteller sculptures are popular items at Santa Fe’s annual Indian market. As the afternoon passes, she lightens the mood by telling Damon and me of her recent near-incarceration. Eighty-three-year-old Peggy is only allowed to drive short distances (though occasionally she literally goes off the reservation). Late for a meeting at the community center, she was doing 70 MPR when the police vehicle trailing behind her turns on its flashers. But Peggy keeps going because she’s really in a hurry, not pulling over until she arrives at the community center’s parking lot. The policewoman is pissed. Peggy explains why she didn’t pull over. “Is this going to take a lot of time?” she asks the officer. The irate policewoman answers that indeed Peggy is going to be late; in fact, she just might go to jail. Later, when Peggy appears before the judge at her court date she brings along a suitcase of clothes in case she gets sent away. She admits to the judge that yes, she may have been driving at 70. He fines her $60; she didn’t need her overnight bag after all.
That night we stay up with Derrick in the house. There are a few sleep-deprived moments when I don’t know if I’m going to make it but then I recover and am okay. Even as Derrick lay among us, the night passes slowly. Streams of people come see him. Gregarious and charming, he touched so many people: friends, coworkers, and his giant extended family. Church ladies come and chant the rosary and depart. There is laughter and tears and long silences and noisy moments and constant coming and going, inside and outside, where young people gather around a bonfire. Steams of people arrive and kneel by Derrick’s body and bless him, then move on.
Sitting with us is a slightly untidy, friendly young man named Sam, who strikes me as smart and amiable though it sounds like he has problems getting work. Later, when I tell Brooklyn how much I like Sam, she doesn’t say much, but Effie surprises me by telling me that Sam has a reputation for housebreaking. He’s been caught numerous times.
Aunt Ethel’s part of the family lives on the remote mountain pueblo at Picaris. She makes and sells traditional drums. Her wonderfully-named son Celestino tends to a herd of buffalo, and is known to wrestle friendly ones. Cousin Chunk is now sheriff up there. Aunt Ethel enters the house and tells us she just got a phone call from Celestino: he’s on his way, and is now walking on the highway from the other pueblo housing. Damon and I get in the car and find him hiking beside the highway. When we give him a lift back, Celestino is friendly and drunk. Later, he disappears again into the night.
New Mexico’s skies are always a great wonder but on this night the view above the bonfire is especially dramatic and awesome. At one point while I sit on the back porch, I watch as above silver clouds form a vortex around the full moon, resembling a passage between life and something like a birth canal.
Also that night, a meteor shrieks across the sky. Someone at the bonfire says it’s Derrick heading to Acoma, the pueblo south of here where his father was born.
MONDAY Grandma Peggy didn’t stay up all night. Instead, she stayed at a comped room at Santa Clara’s casino hotel. That morning when she stepped out of the hotel she felt a gentle rain though there were no clouds in the sky. She says this is a sign that all is well and Derrick is on his way.
We say goodbye to Derrick one last time the next morning before he is taken to Santa Clara Pueblo’s adobe mission church for a mass. He will be put in the graveyard near his little sister Vicki. Derrick never stopped missing Vicki and now he would be beside her. But first the service: Derrick lays in front of the church as we sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, during the Catholic mass. The priest is African, and he gives an odd talk about a woman who is a chronic highway speeder. Yet she is still trying to evade Death, even to the point of shaving her head bald as disguise. But the speeder’s strategy doesn’t work: it was her time and Death came for her. I thought of how Derrick had twice flipped cars and managed to walk away. The sermon doesn’t offer much consolation. Much better is Nina’s Aunt Val’s eulogy. She explains how big Derrick’s heart was and how he loved everyone in such a big way. One day Nina was listening to a song in Spanish, and Derrick said he totally loved this song. Nina asked how he could love the song—Lorenzo Antonio’s Mis Padres—without knowing what the words meant. When he asked for a translation, Nina told him the lyrics were about how much the singer loves his parents. Learning its meaning, Derrick said he loved the song even more. Now Aunt Val reads the translated lyrics, which heartbreakingly describe the close bond between Derrick and his mom and dad.
Mis Padres is played as we leave the church and follow Derrick’s body to the graveyard. Wrapped in colorful blankets, he lays on a pallet on a pile of dirt next to the open grave. When the service—in English and Tewa—is over, Derrick’s cousin and close friend Zack jumps into the hole and helps lower his body into the grave and arrange him and the blankets. I hold Aunt Julie’s hand. Damon is not far away with Nina. Everyone walks by the open grave a last time and adds a handful of dirt. Damon throws in a flower.
Derrick’s son Kyle, Damon and I silently walk back to the house. There, the extended family assemble and get lectures from the elders about how rotten all the younger generation is behaving, how there was drinking at the bonfire despite a four-day prohibition, and how the younger folks need to study and learn the Tewa language. These talks—sometimes in Tewa—are many and lengthy; after not getting any sleep the night before, as I stand by the kitchen sink, I start feeling woozy. I sneak a cookie. Ancient Aunt Candy tells the assembled group that if any of the young people disobey her and get in trouble she will beat them, she doesn’t care if she goes to jail.
Later at Derrick’s house, we hang out with Nina and various friends and cousins like Zack as everyone stops in to remember Derrick and have a smoke. Nina’s brother Peds (Pedro) rolls a joint almost a foot long. Nina is from San Juan Pueblo but her dad was Spanish. Some of her Spanish cousins are tough. When she was a pretty young thing, if any guy looked at her he was in danger of getting beat up by one of her cousins. Tonight Nina’s cousin Eli is coming over, which, she explains, is a rare gesture since he rarely leaves his house. Even if he and his girlfriend go to the store, he waits in the car. Eli comes over with his mouth covered because he claims he is sick. Nina later says that was an excuse so they wouldn’t have to stay long, who knows? Eli’s girlfriend is a riot. It’s nice when she remembers Damon’s sister Vicki; they’d gone to school together.
Many stories are told this night. Peds tells of the time Eli’s girlfriend ended up passed out in a ditch. “That was a bad place to be,” she says, deadpan. The guys egg on Nina to tell of her epic fight at age 19, which she then relates with gusto. Nina and cousins were at a bar and she and this other girl were not getting along. When Nina decides to leave, this girl jumps into her car’s passenger seat and says, “Drive me home, bitch!” It degenerates from there, and the two girls are soon fighting in the parking lot, Nina on top of her, pounding with fists, saying, “Let go of my hair, bitch!” In the telling, Nina stands and demonstrates with dramatic punches.
“I’m for a peaceful solution!” I yell in the melee of Nina’s vivid exhibition.
“She didn’t let go, she got hit,” Eli interjects, with comic timing.
TUESDAY Over the four days after his burial, a vigil is maintained at Orville and Effie’s. The room where Derrick was laying is never to go unoccupied. There are other rules: no one is outside alone at any point. On the road near Effie’s is found a large turtle, said to be an important animal for Derrick. “He’s around,” different people keep saying. We want to pick up Kyle that morning and take him for a hike but are told to wait: there are rituals happening at Orville and Effie’s. Then Orville comes by Nina’s to perform cleansing rituals on us; it’s the first time I’ve ever been part of a traditional ceremony.
Later, we stop at the house to pick up Kyle for a hike down the gorge—along the Rio Puebla to where it meets the Rio Grande Gorge. On our walk down the dramatic cliffside, Kyle steps directly on a timber rattlesnake’s rattle as it crosses his path. Damon calls out and Kyle scurries away. About four feet long, the green snake nonchalantly slithers up the hill. We go down to the gorge’s bottom, where the two rios (Puebla, Grande) come together. I get naked and jump in: the roiling waters are not too cold, and healing. Hanging out on the rocks, we don’t talk much; just listen to the sound of the river rushing over the rocks.
On the way back up, when we get to the thin part of the path where we had earlier encountered the snake, there it was again: coiled up and waiting right at about elbow level. It’s impossible to go by on the path without getting too close. Damon wants to try. “It isn’t rattling,” he says. Maybe its rattle was broken by Kyle’s foot. The creature has, it seems, laid in wait for us.
I insist we climb up the steep hill behind and make our way around the affronted serpent. We would not insult it further.
Later, back at Effie’s, Uncle Bruce calls Kyle “Snakewalker.”
WEDNESDAY When 6-year-old cousin Elesio is in the house, 4-year-old DeeJay is by his side. They’re electrically-charged balls of energy, Mutt and Jeff hilariously bouncing to and fro. They love action-packed and violent video games. Sitting next to them on the couch, I watch their characters scrambling across a grayed-out urban landscape in a virtual world on TV. “Pick me up in the helicopter before they get me!” says Elesio while malicious monsters appear on his character’s tail, blasting weapons his way. Each character has a motto, and when they make a big kill, the motto flashes onscreen with narration. Now, dapper Elesio looks over at DeeJay and drawls to me, “My motto is ‘Damn I’m good.’” Sitting between us, DeeJay pipes up, “Mine is ‘You are beautiful on the inside.’”
We drive to the nearby house of Nina’s mom. Norma had wanted and expected us to stop by earlier, so we could observe the traditional bread-baking in the outdoor adobe ovens. As we trod gorgeous rugs in various rooms, I realize Norma may suffer a lack of gay men in her life who provide the adequate amount of effusive praise due her beautifully decorated home. We oblige. I had met Norma once before on a visit to New Mexico, but she had ignored me at the time and now insists we never met. When she found out I have a sort of fancy job, she got friendlier and told me how she had Isabel Allende over at her house for dinner. Norma gives Southwestern cuisine cooking classes for people visiting the area from around the world. Her brilliance in the kitchen has been passed down to her daughter. Also, her steely nature. We’ve laughed hard at Derrick’s 19-year-old son Chris’ spot-on imitation of Norma. With his mouth mostly closed, he says, “I don’t want to be hearing any more stories about you, Christopher.”
Norma’s baking bread for the next day’s event: at Effie’s, four days after Derrick’s burial everyone gathers to feed him his favorite foods and send him on his journey across the river. At Norma’s this morning, we find fierce old Aunt Candy (the one who was ready to go to jail), along with her sister Aunt Nina. Before we eat breakfast, Auntie Nina asks Damon, “Did you wash your hands?” The breads now out of the ovens, we get to eat a few warm loaves with an egg breakfast.
We pick up a swimsuit for me at Walmart then head to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente. Taking a break from being sad, we soak up the sun. At a place that recommends whispering, we may be the loudest group as we try and let the waters heal us. Damon, Nina, Brit, Brooklyn and I take mud baths before being immersed in empowering iron springs.
Later, we stop at Orville and Effie’s, then take Brooklyn out for dinner at Dandee Burger, where I have a great burrito. When we get back to Nina’s, we find the house empty and locked. Waiting for the others to get home from dinner (at Dandee Burger!), we watch a giant moon rise over the scrubby low hills of Chimayo.
THURSDAY We are missing Derrick’s feast. We leave early for the Albuquerque airport. We stop at Effie’s house to say goodbye. Kyle gives Damon a carved box he made, and then we’re on our way back to Manhattan. In my luggage is clay collected from the gorge (to make mud masks) and quartzite rocks picked up on our walks. Along with our device chargers and cords, I wonder if my suitcase might look to airport scanners like a crude bomb. Though flying on September 11, we make it back to Manhattan without incident. When we cross the Williamsburg Bridge, to the south I see the blazing lights of the 9/11 “Tribute in Light.” It’s still shooting twin beams into a clear Manhattan sky until seen no more.