“Everyone is here for a reason, everyone has a purpose ”
Frank had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago and he was able to have the affected part of his pancreas surgically removed. Pancreatic cancer is usually spread too far to do anything about by the time it causes symptoms, but Frank’s was initially picked up when he had a CT scan for another problem.
About 6 months ago he had a repeat CT scan to see if any cancer had returned and there was a new tumor in his chest next to his heart. It was about the size of an orange and a biopsy showed that this was a different cancer than his original pancreatic cancer. The plan was to surgically remove it at one of the specialty hospitals in Minneapolis. A second CT scan several months later showed the cancer to be rapidly enlarging and it was now compressing the left side of his heart and had more than quadrupled in size. This caused his heart to go into an abnormal rhythm and made him short of breath. He also had new tumors around his stomach and his pancreas cancer had returned.
The cancer was now into his esophagus and was growing into his aorta. Surgery would have been devastating and the cancer was too widespread to respond to radiation. He was too sick and weak to tolerate chemotherapy. Since there was no treatment available, he was sent to a nursing home for end of life care. He was developmentally delayed and was at about the level of a 7 or 8 year old. His mother stayed with him in the nursing home as they had never been apart. He died over the course of several weeks.
We went to see them in the nursing home on the day Frank was admitted. He was able to visit a little bit, but mostly slept. I touched his arm when I left and told him I would stop in when I could.
“As soon as I can.”
“When is that?”
In spite of his developmental delay, he always remembered dates and birthdays. I knew he would be expecting me on Wednesday. We grew up as cousins, though he was 12 years older than me. I remember him being teased and tormented by other kids. He was afraid of ghosts and was an easy target. In spite of the teasing, he never held a grudge and his forgiveness was total and absolute.
He believed in wrestling on TV and he loved to bowl. His best ever game never broke out of the one hundreds, but he was always proud of his score. He watched scary movies and sometimes had only his eyes showing from under the covers. His voice was high pitched and worried when he was watching those movies. “Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” I remember him saying to the TV when something bad was about to happen. Even the old movies with the fake monsters had the exact same effect on him.
He loved to play slot machines and we always gave him a roll of quarters on his birthday. As soon as he unwrapped them he wanted to go and gamble. Like a true gambler, he only told when he won and never mentioned any money he might have lost in the process.
He and his mother would go fishing when they were younger and Frank always had to bait the hooks because his mother was afraid of worms. Once they were driving back from Minneapolis and bought nightcrawlers at a roadside bait stand. Frank didn’t put the lid on right when he was done looking at them. His mother looked down and saw one crawling out of the container, panicked and drove the car into the ditch. The Highway Patrol was called and he could see that Frank was truly sorry and let them go with a warning. Frank was always careful to keep the lid on tight after that.
One time we went to visit them when I was a kid and Frank made my mother a glass of tea. He wanted it to be fancy, but he didn’t have an orange slice to cut and hang on the side of the glass. My mother graciously drank the tea with a potato slice where the orange should have been.
Frank’s funeral was 4 days after his death in traditional Ojibwe fashion. There are many preparations to be made and many things need to be done on certain days. This is the responsibility of the family, but there is no way any one family could do all of this. The community came together and made sure everything happened as it should. Frank’s traveling bundle had to be made by hand and his clothes had to be sorted though to be given away. He had to be dressed according to tradition by men who knew the proper mide ceremonies. Ivy had one of our friends make his moccasins. Personal items and food and supplies for his journey had to be prepared the way our ancestors prepared them. The grave had to be dug by hand on the day of the funeral in the pouring rain, but there were no complaints. A group of men and boys got together and started early in the morning and the grave was ready on time.
The ceremony at the wake and the funeral service itself were in Ojibwemowin and were done just the way they have always been done. Watching the community come together to make sure Frank will join our ancestors is a powerful reminder of how important our traditions really are.
Frank was accorded the same respect any elder would have earned. The fact that he was different made no difference at all. The elder who performed the ceremony told us that everyone is here for a reason, everyone has a purpose. Developmental delays, seizures, gay, lesbian, short and tall, everyone is here to teach us. In many ways his childlike view of the world was naďve, but is really a reminder that we do need to see the world as fresh and new sometimes. Buying car insurance and making house payments changes us somehow. Life makes us forget to look up at the night sky and we forget to lose ourselves in bad movies and fast wrestling moves.
In the 4 days following his funeral, we were told Frank’s spirit would be made whole again. He has taught his lessons and now he goes to join his ancestors and loved ones free of the worldly disadvantages he had here.
I always drink my coffee black. For now I’ve been drinking it like Frank did, with lots of creamer and Sweet and Low. I’m going to dig out my old VHS copy of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I hope I can see everything from under the covers.
Gigawaabaamin, Frank. I’ll see you again sometime.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.