This November Iain and I found ourselves in the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, MA. David had invited us for the Mashpee Wampanoag Thanksgiving service and meal, and after watching him lead the drumming group we listened to each member of the tribe describe what they were thankful for, and the overwhelming answer was…each other. Witnessing David acting as a leader in his community, it now becomes clear after reading his piece where that leadership came from:
I am more because of my mother.
My mom is the strongest person I know and she will live with me and through me forever. Throughout her life she has been a role model and inspiration to all who know her. Her love and compassion are paramount in how she lives her life, always fighting for what she cares for or believes in, with a selfless devotion to those in need. In dealing with a loved one diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s there’s often a difficult, frustrating and painful reality: watching deteriorating cognitive functions and communication. There’s no cure, nor is there enough in the way of treatment to combat these debilitating diseases, causing feelings of helplessness while your loved one’s quality of life slips away. In five years we have watched Mom lose her memory and ability to communicate. She was diagnosed with “primary progressive aphasia.” Memory loss started off slowly, now there’s clearly rapid decline in cognitive functions.
As a child I recall gazing at my mom’s wedding pictures and admiring how pretty she was, with the innocence of a four-year-old I would say “I’m going to marry someone just like you, Mom.” Being a middle child among four siblings, often I would fight for Mom’s attention, to be at her side just to help cook or clean. Chores seemed like a way to lighten her burden, therefore done with pride and enthusiasm. For 24 years Mom worked in the ER, often having to work double shifts resulting in fatigue to the point she once fell asleep face-first in her bowl of hot soup. My mother would run a foot race like a track star, swim with all three of us clinging on with the ease and grace of a dolphin, teach us how to fish, push us in sports, all after working long hours as a nurse in order to help provide for us.
There was a very strict upbringing in our household, with a deep respect for elders. Mom would take in elderly who were in need, because she genuinely loved everyone. At times we would open our home to complete strangers, grandparents and other aging relatives so that mom could care for them. This in turn provided opportunity for me as a child to listen to remarkable stories told by seniors sometimes in their last moments. Mom would always make time for family, so she would drive to the Cape from our Rhode Island home most every weekend instilling the importance of family, solidifying a generational bond with our maternal grandparents. The family stories spoke to the Mashpee of long ago, when we lived modest lifestyles, hunting, fishing, shell fishing, farming and foraging to supplement sustenance. Mom mentioned frequently how little they had, but how happy the times were then. How they looked forward to helping Uncle George with controlled burns on his farm, fetching water from the river to bathe, walking to school and the closeness of the small Tribal community.
Mom always spoke of the family ancestors and all their accomplishments, these stories were told frequently making certain each of us knew our roots. The Mashpee community were entrepreneurs, whalers, scouts, warriors, activists, spiritualists, politicians and inventors in a time when indigenous people had little to no rights in other parts of the country. The rich history instilled a sense of pride, belonging and consequently empowerment individually. We were often told when you get older you too will need to find your place in the Tribe and continue where the ancestors left off, for the benefit of future generations.
The underlying message of her stories growing up focused on living within your means, only take what you need, work hard and all ways be thankful for what you do have because there are others with a lot less. Additional teachings reinforced finding our place in life, don’t take life for granted, cherish those you love, appreciate and take care of your elders. These are all consistent principals within the tribe as part of our collective culture and traditions. Traditions instruct us to earn the love of our people with acts of kindness with the responsibility of caring for the elders.
As a grandfather I better understand all that our parents instilled and hope to pass these teachings on to my children and grandchildren, so that they too are well-grounded. Life’s experiences make us who we are and prepare us for things to come. In addition to working with the Tribe, I serve on several boards and commissions such as the Tribal Council, Town of Mashpee’s Planning Board and Cape Cod Commission. All of the day’s distractions conflict with our cultural teachings. Traditionally we are to take our elders in and keep them close as they age, no matter the circumstances associated with a particular illness.
My mom’s condition demands a level of care that is challenging with all that I’ve taken on, so she is being cared for at a nursing home facility which is culturally and morally conflicting. There are times when I would love to just talk with Mom and solicit her infinite wisdom. Mom’s love and devotion has always been among her most admirable traits, I personally know she would never give up on any one of us. There’s a helplessness that I feel relative to giving up on her, resulting in a disappointment in myself. I can only pray that my parents understand how much of an impact they have made on my life and hope that they approve of the decisions I’ve made.
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