The trees first spoke to me in a small Native American village in Minto, Alaska 70 miles outside of Fairbanks and accessible by one 126 mile dirt road. I was there to attend the funeral of my youngest brother Eric who had died a week earlier after falling asleep at the wheel on the very same dirt road my family and I traveled to get there. Welcomed with open arms we were treated as one of their own. A testament to the relationship Eric had forged over the years with the small village of not more than 150 people.
Eric’s funeral was combined with an older member of the community who had died of complications related to old age. Because Eric was not Native American it wasn’t his body we’d be viewing. Our first ever Native American funeral, my parents, brother and I were surprised at the colorful and joyful energy of drumming, chanting and dancing that went on in the community center and home to any and all events that take place in the village.
While standing in line to view the body, with my brother and parents a few people ahead of me, I was deep into loneliness and sorrow. I tried with all my might to hold back the tears. This was especially difficult as the images of a week earlier flashed across my mind. I had been with Eric for a 10-day visit ending a few days before his accident. My first ever visit to Alaska, we had the time our or lives. Being five years apart in age, we were not especially close growing up. This trip brought us together in such a profound way after starting our canoeing journey from the very same town of Minto. First across an expansive lake then down river deep into bowels of Mother Nature. If anyone has ever experienced the Alaskan wilderness you will know what I am talking about when I say, “You feel the power of nature in Alaska.”
With the overflowing well of emotions the battle between tears waged on. That is until the presence of an elderly Native American woman who looked to be in her 90s and half my size dressed in colorfully beaded funeral garb came up behind and grabbed my arm pulling me down to her face and saying, “It’s okay, let go.” She continued to tug at my arm as if to prime the well. That was all it took for the tears to flow. Not in some dramatic way, rather like a river down my cheeks forming a puddle at my feet.
Moving ever closer to the body, the river flowed. With the line stopped just short of the body, I was standing next to an open window. Off in the distance was a forest so thick the only time you could see the clear blue sky backdrop was when a strong gust of wind caused the branches to sway back and forth. I don’t know if it was the old lady’s presence and arm tug priming me for what was about to happen, but the trees spoke to me. For some reason in that moment, the chanting and music stopped and in between gusts was silence. That is when I heard the voice of my brother telling me, “I will always be with you in the trees. All you have to do is listen.”
I still listen.