Untimely Farewells

The three of us were in the hospital room.

My middle sister, Pauline and I were sitting around the bedside of our oldest sister, Barbie. There was heavy silence that hung in the air. It was the three of us. Together. Barbie was dying. She had cirrhosis of the liver and was in the late stages of the disease. We had gathered together to say our final goodbyes to each other.

Barbie drank most of her life to try escape her nightmares. It was her residential school past that haunted her. Tormented her even in her waking hours. So she drank to try to escape the horrors of her mind. She only shared the worst of that history with our sister, Pauline. I was the youngest in the family. Even now when we all had grey hair and families of our own, my older sisters were still protective of me and wouldn’t share their stories with me.

It felt comforting to be in the same room with my sisters. Despite the sad occasion that brought us together, we were still able to laugh and share fond memories of our children. It was when we looked into each other’s eyes and saw that similar pain reflected back at us. Pain of our shared past. A dark shadow of our lost childhood. The laughter would die away and the heavy silence sat between us.

I was lost in my own thoughts. Feelings of anger were stirred up inside me. Angry at what the residential school had done to my sister. Angry at the church for stealing another loved one from me. My oldest sister. My protector from all things that were bad and scary.

Barbie, who was only in her mid-50s, was a mother and a grandmother. Learning always came to her so easily. She had so many gifts in her to share. Gifts that were not going to be shared with her loved ones.

She passed away a few weeks later.
I remember getting the dreaded phone call early in the morning. I went out to my back yard. I wept. A mixture of grief and anger in my tears. Then I looked up to see there were still stars up in the fading light. I imagined my sister’s spirit up amongst the twinkling stars. Free from the inner pain that haunted her. My sister’s beauty was amongst the stars.

My family began the process of saying the final goodbye to our loved one. We gathered together back on our home reserve.

My home community held a traditional wake for my sister. It was difficult to see my sister’s grown children grieve over the loss of their mother. My three nephews, grown men. Tall and manly. Almost broken by their grief at the loss of their mother. My sister’s grandchildren playing beside the coffin where their grandmother lay. Barbie’s only daughter had made the final arrangements. No Christian burial; it was to be a full traditional burial. Barbie was going to be given back her dignity that was stolen in in her childhood in her final farewell.

My sister was buried on our traditional land in our home community, next to family members that have passed on. I have lost an older brother and now my oldest sister. Siblings that have died too young and too soon. Alcoholism. Suicide. The legacy of the residential school was slowly robbing us of our family members.

Sadly the rest of my surviving siblings are in poor health. One brother is losing a battle with alcoholism. Lately I have been struggling with my own health issues. Bad food or not enough food as a child. Tuberculosis and other ailments are creating on-going health issues for all of us. All allegedly from our residential school experiences. There will be similar scenes where family members will gather by the bedside of a loved one.

Final goodbyes. Being said all too soon.


About Vivian Ketchum

My name is Vivian Ketchum. I was born and raised in the Kenora area. I am a Anishnabe of Wauzhushk Onigum, a First Nation Community outside of Kenora. I currently live in Winnipeg, Man., and have for the past 20 years.