A letter from the Executive Director
The blizzard and following arctic blast slammed into Pine Ridge with particular vengeance last week – as it does somewhat regularly in South Dakota. Bitter cold, driving winds and feet of snow wreak havoc and spare virtually no one, especially in a place where heat, comfort and shelter are in short supply to begin with. This is one of the legacies of the reservation system.
My phone began ringing as soon as the arctic temperatures descended on the reservation. We put out a call to our local network for the supplies that were being requested and they quickly came in so my wife and I traveled up to Pine Ridge during the storm to distribute the food, water, space heaters and firewood.
At one point, as the temperatures had plunged well below zero, we reloaded the truck with a fresh supply of firewood, water and food and headed down a snow-covered road to a cabin in which a father, and his three children live in a cabin that likely dates back to the early 1900’s. When we rounded the last corner on the snowed-over rural road and down the final approach, I was disheartened to see that there was no smoke coming out of the stove pipe – I could only hope that the firewood had run out not too long ago and certainly not in the opening days of the arctic cold. I reluctantly approached the cabin door – fearing what I might find inside. I was relieved when the man, whom I consider a brother, responded to my pounding on the weather-beaten wooden door. “Hello?”, I heard him call from inside. When I opened the door and ducked inside, my relief gave way to what I saw inside . . . . my breath in a tiny room only slightly warmer than the frigid outdoors by the lack of a wind chill, but still well below zero. And my brother’s huddled body – leaning over a lifeless dog that was oddly covered by a flannel blanket literally tucked under its lower jaw as one might tuck a child into bed at night. The body was set in an old pink laundry basket and cradled by my brother’s grieving hands.
There is no running water in the cabin and so, the night prior the dog had gone down to the creek to quench its thirst. The drifts, wind and bitter temperatures had taken no mercy on this particular creature that night as it must have stepped through a snowbank and fallen into the creek, which in some cruel irony was not frozen over completely. My brother did not know what had happened until he heard his dog whimpering outside the old cabin door after what must have been a virtually heroic struggle for survival to pull itself out of the ice water, through the snowbank, up the hill and to the door. My brother told me of how he and his son had tried to save the dog’s life, but could not get enough warmth back into its struggling body . . . . given that the firewood had also run out that night and there was precious little heat available anywhere nearby. And so, he had done all that he could do. . . .
We left the cabin that night, and the reservation the next morning . . . . as the bitter cold remained. We had run out of firewood also by then and the truck could not get through the drifts that towered and covered virtually all the roads on the 3,000 square mile reservation. The calls continued to come in with requests for warmth, for food, for transportation to shuttle families to a safe place . . . . but we had had done all we could do. . . .
In the week since, I have thought often about my brother and his best friend that night. . . . about how he and I aren’t that different . . . . and about how different we are. I chose to leave the reservation that day when I had nothing else to give. I drove home and distracted myself with all that my world offers me to distract myself with. Again and again, I chose to shut out the haunting of the storm, the families, my brother and his dog’s death. I have been grateful for the choice to leave it -- and those around me tell me that I have done what I can do. That I have given support where I could and that there comes a time to let go . . . .
But I think of my brother and his dog. I imagine it is true that when he answered the whimper at his cabin door, that his dog might have looked up at him with the same plea for heat and comfort and life that those in desperate need in an arctic blast might look at me with a load of firewood and a large truck pushing through drifts. And I know that my brother reached out, picked up his companion and did all that he could to breathe life back in – to provide heat and comfort and life. We are the same that way.
But we are also different. My brother had little choice but to stay . . . . and he did. I don’t know this to be true, but I do believe it to be: When the moment came that the little dog began to let go of the life that had been taken and there was no more heat left and nothing left to offer, my brother gave comfort with his prayer, the inadequate blanket, a hand on the lifeless body and whatever death song may have come at that time. I also don’t know, but hope it’s true, that the dog felt that comfort. Perhaps the death at that moment was painful. Perhaps it was peaceful with the presence of another living being standing watch and witness. But I do know that my brother stayed and gave the only thing he had left . . . . and, in so doing, gave me a gift for my life also.
It is not uncommon for those who join us in our efforts to help those living in poverty to feel overwhelmed by the scope of problems endemic to reservations. Some of those who join commit to a life of service, volunteerism or other efforts to help. For me, I know that my efforts are driven by both compassion and a resolve to never give up on those whom we are called to help. But I also know resolve like that can be driven by fear of not having enough to give, or ultimately of not having the power to ease suffering. The fear of not being able to push back suffering, of not having enough to provide at least some modicum of comfort is perhaps more terrifying to some than to actually face the suffering itself. My brother’s bravery that night he heard the whimpering at the door – especially after he realized he could not ease – in any way -- what was to come, but to still stand in love and compassion – will remain a gift to me in its teaching that I hope to live into from here on. To my brother, and to the beautiful dog that left that night, I stand in gratitude and awe.
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