“I’m apparently, a really good bear,” Akask pulls up a chair to the counter in our kitchen. “I heard someone say that from the train,” the small tour train that runs every half hour through the park, in the First Nation’s tourist village where he works.
I imagine my brown-eyed son blinking behind a mask carved into ovoids by a local artisan, bobbing his head back and forth in a lumbering bear kind of way. Long loping strides through the underbrush along the side of the tour train, over ferns and salal bushes. “How do you like the work?” I ask.
“It’s fun,” he says as though having a job is a normal thing for him. Like he has many other jobs to compare it to.
The knots along the cords of the tendons of my neck release until my head rests just a little lighter on my shoulders. “Well that’s great,” I try hard to sound casual. “Is the costume hot?”
He brushes his hair back from the sides of his face and tucks his long unruly strands behind his ears. Then he laughs. “Ya, it’s hot. I have to run to three different stations and act like a bear while they are on the train. It’s tough.”
I take out a comb and slip two black elastics onto my wrist. I part the back of his hair in half and then comb it into three even thick sections. “Maybe we’ll come down this weekend with the kids (his litter sister and brother) to see you.” He’s no longer counted as one of the kids, except to perhaps his parents and anyone else over the age of thirty.
“Cool,” he says, “I’ll try to get there first so I can be the bear.” Otherwise he’d be raven or frog. But it’s clear he likes bear best.
I twist and turn the strands into one braid, down his side past his ear, so that it lays flat against his head. Although I had done it a thousand times to my own hair, I had done this only once before when he was a child, when he would let me.
“Now I’m a real Indian,” he laughs.
I kiss the top of his head. When he and Wolf, my younger son, were three and four years old, they were playing cowboys and Indians with a neigbour’s boy. They had been divvying up roles when Wolf announced that he wanted to be an Indian. The other two boys, both a bit older, teased, “You are an Indian!” Wolf was all excited by this discovery—how could it be? We’ve joked about this ever since, so I don’t know if the boys actually remember the event or just the story—either way, it doesn’t matter.
I wrap a single black elastic around the end of his one braid and comb out the second half. “Does anyone ever braid your hair?” I ask, thinking that his former Native American and very proud girlfriend may have.
“Just once. At work,” he says. “But I work with a bunch of Natives.” He said this with both humour and warmth. I could feel him smile through the crown of his head and the plaits in his hair that I concentrated on.
When did he begin to find his heritage? Not an easy thing for non-Native parents, despite my research and graduate degree in educational experiences of First Nations’ women artists. My smattering of language hadn’t helped, nor my bannock baking efforts, long since abandoned. The years of support from the school’s First Nations’ workers did little more than to show the boys that they weren’t the only Natives in the school. Though they did teach them stories and pull them from class for cultural activities, some of which were questionable (since when does bowling count as a cultural event?), I mostly appreciated their help with classwork and the kindness they showed.
Eventually he lost interest, not only in seeing the First Nation’s support workers, but in school all together. Not just another statistic: “Native teen quits school,” but my son. My son quit school, not once, but three times. And then, on his own accord, he completed a program in Aboriginal tourism: he attended, participated and completed. These teachers had succeeded in connecting with him, in making what he was learning meaningful in a way that others had not.
I separate the strands, letting them fall loose over his head, and start over—this time pulling back the strands to line up behind his left ear rather than over the top. He sits still. I brush, pull and cross one section over another until it becomes too thin to braid further. I slip the second elastic from my wrist onto his braid, wrapping it around to hold it all together. Red rings crease my wrist where the elastics had been. “There, what do you think?”
He runs his hands over his braids. “Thanks mom.”
“When do you work again?” I ask.
“Friday, then I work the weekend too,” he says.
“I’ll bring the kids down sometime then.”
“Cool, I have to work though. You won’t recognize me.”
“I’ll know it’s you.” Like a mother bear wouldn’t know her cub.
At 19, he’s managed a whole year on his own. Not the most brilliant of years, but not terrible either. He seems happier than he has in a long time, and this makes me breathe easier. I slip the comb into my pocket and tuck his chair under the counter. It’s time to start on dinner.
After a week of chill and rain, the sun cracks through the clouds and sweetens the air with the scent of spring lilacs and moist earth. Finally. It’s Friday at three when Chloe and Finn pile back into the van and beg for sushi. I have a surprise: they get bannock hotdogs, juice, and a chance to see the village. We drive over the Burrard Street Bridge, along Pacific, around the far edge of Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park. We finally stop in the parking lot just past the rose garden; we are going to see Gussy (that’s what the kids call him), to surprise him at work.
That was now over two months ago. A lot has changed since then. On this morning my eyes are itchy and my head still a little full of lack-of-sleep fog, but I can’t force myself to rest any longer. I think back on his summer, his part-time job as a bear; it had been brilliant on many levels, but then how it faltered into layoffs and disappointment. Then his housing situation dried up. We wanted him to get another job, to find a roommate, to carry on with things. He had a good start. But last night he phoned from a party over two thousand kilometers away. He’s ‘on the res’, the remote northern First Nation’s community where I taught at my first job, where I lived for two years, married my ex-husband, who left us behind as a family, and where my ex-husband returned less than two years later.
I had suspected that one day he would be curious about what it was like there, who these relatives are that he had only met as an infant. And now he’s there, phoning home at 1:45 in the morning to talk to his brother, whose not home, but we talk anyway. I wanted to hear his voice, to know he’s okay. “Heh, there’s someone here that wants to say hi.” And before I could say okay, or even as who, a drunken female voice began.
“Hi, I remember you. It’s Cheech. I was five years old. You were a teacher here. Do you remember me?”
I strain my memory, but came up blank. The name means nothing to me. I apologize. “I remember you. You went out with Victor before you went out with Max,” she said.
“That wasn’t me. That was my roommate.” I clarified. I never went out with Victor.
“Well, that’s what I remember,” her words were slow, not in deliberation, but in a wavering justification. “I have a picture of you,” she said after a long silence, “with your,” she pauses again, “your frickin’ … blonde hair. I remember you.” She said this with insistence, but not at all unkind.
Again, I apologize, and tell her that it was a different teacher she remembers. It was Ms. Hunchak, my roommate who had a platinum blonde bob that she showed me how to touch up her roots so she could avoid a flight south for a salon visit. She, in her Marilyn Monroe aerobics teacher glitz was memorable. I, with my mousy brown hair, make-up free face, was not. The phone went silent, and then was fumbled; I had dashed her recollections. This time it was my son who apologized when he got onto the phone. “I’m sorry mom, for calling so late. I don’t know the time difference, and I just wanted to get a hold of Wolf.” I don’t know what else to say, other than I love him, and it was good to hear his voice. I can always scold him later about the time. “I love you too, and I’ll see you soon,” he said.
I had trouble falling asleep again after that. I wonder what he thinks of all that, of all of Pukatawagan, the fly-in only place I’d ventured to as a young teacher, where the lake’s obsidian ice reverberates under your feet with a voice, a ka-kunnk that you feel through your whole body like you’ve been spoken to by the lake itself. Where the green and purple shards of the northern lights so tease above your head that you can’t help but to try to reach up to touch them, but they are further than they seem. That place of dangerously poetic beauty is also a place where he will always have blood ties. He will always have a connection there, whether or not he’d ever received more than one letter or gift box marked with its postal code: Rob I Go. He’s there because he wants to see what the culture is like, to learn to hunt, to fish and to have an adventure. I am sure he will. It is always an adventure when you are remote like that, on your own. It is hard to believe that he’s only three years younger than I was when I was first there.
To him, I never said a bad thing about the place, or about anyone there. Besides, there were good people. Though I never made excuses as to why his biological father left us, something I didn’t, don’t understand. Leaving me was one thing, leaving the boys was incomprehensible to me. I always thought that Akask could make his own opinion when he was old enough. He knows who left us to manage on our own, and he knows there are many ways to build a family. He remembers having only a mom, and then getting a dad. “Mom,” I remember him asking, “How do kids get dads?” I explained to my then four-year-old son that some kids are born with them, and other children get them later. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that some children never get them at all.
Shortly after that his family became one with two parents, and a younger brother, and then later on a younger sister and a baby brother. Yet, he knows that there was a man who fathered him for a year and then left. This he should know is not part of the Native American culture, nor part of a tradition, but just a bad call by a young man who couldn’t be a father to him for more than that.
My little bear is exploring a landscape less wild and yet more remote than he’s been before. He’ll be home next week or next month, so he says, though I don’t know exactly when. I will be looking for him, waiting to hear all about his discoveries, his adventure, and then we’ll see what he decides to do next. I’ll hold my opinions close to my heart and listen to him, and I will weave his hair into long thin plaits, if he likes.