Wilbert

By Brian Volck

When I stepped out of the Arizona sun into your house, Wilbert, it took awhile for my eyes to adjust. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t notice at first how much older you’ve grown in the past year. You lean back, heavy-lidded, on your couch, while June’s soporific heat conjures a listless silence over the mesa, but the nuns from St. Jude’s told you to expect me, and you remember who I am.

You make me smile, Wilbert.

It’s morning in the lower village, where you and your Hopi neighbors lived without electrical service until the 1990s. Power lines now writhe their way into many—but not all—of these stone and adobe houses overlooking the cornfields in the wash below.

I suppose you know that Warren and his family, who live farther down the slope, still use a kerosene generator at night. You’re among the technologically fortunate, Wilbert. My friend Bob will soon set up the air conditioner in your window—just like you asked.

But you and I know you’re no longer able to carry the water bucket from the pump by Sherrie’s house. I’ll make sure you have enough before I leave today and I’ll water your tomato and squash plants out front, too—just like you asked.

You tell me you’re 86 years old, or that’s the age you most often admit to now, give or take a few. How many years has it been since your wife passed away? Your Hopi tradition passes all property through the maternal line, so do you still call it your wife’s house? Who will inherit it when you’re gone?

Your sons come from their villages to tend your corn, but they have homes, families, and fields of their own and can’t be around all the time. The women in the houses nearby check in on you from time to time, and they’re the one’s who first told me you needed some assistance. I know you’ll sit on the chair by your front door today before noon, waiting for the van that takes you to the Hopi Senior Center for lunch and friendly conversation.

Right now, though, you’re still in the semi-darkness of your combined dining room, bedroom and parlor. The couch stands across from your bed by the window. The table is covered with your medicine bottles and stacks of papers. There’s a hole in the linoleum near the doorway to the kitchen, and the edges are coming up. I’ll make sure Bob brings down a patch tomorrow so you don’t fall. Bob is so much better at these things than I.

I’m not surprised when you tell me you want the weeds pulled behind your house. I’ve done this easy chore before, and it’s not much to ask, especially with Jacob, a teen on a service trip from my parish in Cincinnati, here to help me. We grab a hoe, shovel, and rake from your shed, and I notice how much more the roof has fallen under its thick canopy of desert dust and debris.

Unlike last year, you probably won’t come outside while we attack weeds to sing your favorite song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” You seemed oblivious then to the offensive language that prompted the state of Virginia to retire it as the official state song about ten years ago. I didn’t want to tell you. It gave you such joy to sing it.

You told me later that you learned it during World War II, when you were a Seabee. I remember how you pointed to your black and white service photo of a dark-haired, wide-eyed youth in Navy uniform and said with a wide grin, “that handsome young fellow there is me.”

The Hopi people are noted for their peaceable ways, yet you and Warren and every older Hopi man I’ve known is proud of his military service. I also know how many people crowded into St. Jude’s for Lori Piestewa’s funeral. I know I don’t need to remind you, Wilbert, that Lori, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military, was Hopi.

Your people have long been a mystery and a challenge to me, overwhelming me with hospitality, reminding me to attend to the lessons of my own tradition. You’ve probably never heard of Emmanuel Levinas, who wrote, “The encounter with the Other calls the self into being,” but your people were that beckoning Other for me, and I’m conscious of my debt.

Most of the lower village is getting ready for the Supai dance this weekend. Sherrie’s mother, who’s seen quite a few things in her long life, says forty years have passed since these kachinas last danced in the lower village. I’m looking forward to it, as I know you are. I remember last year in the upper village, how patiently you waited in your folding chair until the corn dance kachinas arrived with their blessings and gifts.

Jacob and Bob and I will be down with the rest of our group to share in your village’s lavish hospitality during the dance. We’re honored you’ve invited us. I know we’ll all be fed and looked after. There’s no escaping Hopi hospitality. Your people are still teaching me, my friend.

I’ll look in on you then. It does me good; I hope it does the same for you. I hope the summer treats you well, that you remember me when I visit again this fall and next year. I hope for these things, knowing our meetings will end, no doubt sooner than I care to imagine.

Until then, I’ll keep coming. I came today to help you. Can you ever know how much you’ve done for me?

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.