Amber's Memoir - Third Sundown - John's Ceremony
Have you ever wondered the significance of a sundown? Have you ever seen a sundown and wondered anything more than the time of day? Have you noticed the beauty of it, or actually stopped to watch the sun descend? Have you seen the colors of the sky and wondered what was going on below them? Sundowns for my family will never be the same.
It was the third day. The third sundown was soon to arrive and the timing had to be perfect. John had died three days before, on October 26, 2004. His death was a tragedy that will not soon be forgotten. For most of my life, he was my youngest and only brother. He was 23 years old. His mind was the torture he could not escape. He taught us that you can only save someone from themselves, if, and for as long as they wish to be saved.
Death was a normal part of John’s life. His first suicide attempt was when he was five. For our family, it was never a matter of “if”, it was a matter of “when”. He was a talented artist, good enough to be recorded and published, yet every one of his songs mentions suicide. His first published song included the lyrics “suicidal dreams like windstreams, penetrate your soul like holes through old sneakers.”
John was part Portuguese and part Cherokee Indian. He was always proud of both of his bloodlines. John had always expressed his wish to be buried in the Cherokee way, and though we could not save him in this life, we did our best to fulfill his wishes in the afterlife. During times of the deepest loss, the closest family clings tightly to themselves so that together they may be strong enough to do what must be done. That was our responsibility. It is our way. We had to honor him, honor his wishes and see him on his journey from this world to the next in the ways of old. It was only with the strength of three that we could light the way for him. We had three days to prepare for the ceremony. Days become short when you know you only have three.
It was the third day. The house smelled of honey baked ham, a co-worker had brought over for the family. The day was too bright, a glare on the edge of everything that made the world seem surreal. My mother was heartbroken, but determined. All of us were in the frame of mind that today was the third day. There is no putting off these next moments. The third sundown only came once and to miss it would be another tragedy we wouldn’t have been able to live with. My sister, Tevas, and I went through all of John’s hats to find enough hair for his ceremony. He wore his hair almost shaved, so it was difficult to gather the hair with no brush from which to gather. We meticulously went through every hat and bandana and gathered as much as we could. It would have to be enough. We probably had as much dog hair as hair from John but that was okay too, his dog would be with him in the afterlife.
The coffee table in the living room would be the stage for this ceremony. It was wooden and square and large enough for the four of us to sit around it. Who knew his favorite leather jacket would be the hide on which this ceremony would be performed. Though the ritual calls for deerskin, the jacket he prized seemed more fitting to John, and so we used it as a cloth to cover the table. On the end of the table was John’s ashes in an urn of ceramic covered in leather. Tevas and I had adorned the urn in wolf feathers and beads the day before. Beside it was the leather medicine bag I had sewn for John into the wee hours of that same night. In the center of this cloth was a hand crafted clay bowl, kilned in an open fire, adorned with Native design. As in the days of old this would be the vessel to hold the ingredients we had gathered. The ingredients were in small piles surrounding the bowl, while the four of us surrounded the piles. Three rings, on the third sundown.
Mom was the only one of us who knew the ceremony by heart so we all looked to her for guidance, for her to take the lead. She put some music on, “as the eagle flies away”, I remember it saying. She lit a wolf candle. John’s spirit creature was the Wolf, a loyal and powerful creature so often misunderstood. As the scent of the candle, a hint of vanilla filled the air, the light in the room began to change, the third sundown had begun.
Mom sat in the center, with me to her right. To her left were Tevas and her husband Mark. Following her lead, we each took a piece of the ingredients one by one and placed them in the bowl in the center. In unison we said the following: “Sage, for spiritual cleansing. Cedar, for physical protection. Sweetgrass, for blessing. Rose Petals for the heart and for love. Lavendar, for relaxation. Tobacco, to offer to the grandfathers. Peppermint, for a safe journey. May your journey be safe John.”
To the bowl we also added stones that we had chosen for John alone. Each had a meaning that would help him be calm in spirit when that same calm had eluded him in life. Pink calcite for comfort in loneliness. Red Adventurine for the healing light of the heart. Angelite dispels anger and aids with spiritual journeys and astral travel. Ametrine dispels negativity from the aura and fills the void with energizing and stabilizing light energy, releases tension. Indian Bloodstone gives courage to cool anger. And Aquamarine, the stone of courage, shields the aura and allows for spiritual awareness. To the stones we each add a lock of hair, taken from behind our left ears, so that John will have a living piece of us with him always.
When the bowl is filled, Mom takes the bowl and mixes the ingredients together. The smells of lavender and rose petals fill the air. As the contents of the bowl are poured into the medicine bag, she says, “Rest well my son.” The sun continues to go down, on this third day.
I placed the medicine bag in his urn as is the proper way. We added dried fruits and nuts to the urn so that he could eat on his journey. Dried pineapple, cranberries, cashews, apples, bananas and more were placed in the urn.
We believe that the journey to the grandfathers is a long one, which requires sustenance and love from family to let the spirit reach its destination. The spirit took three days to prepare itself for its journey and on the third sundown would begin the journey to the place of the grandfathers, a heaven as many believe. Honoring the traditions of our ancestors, we packed his medicine bag with love and strength and courage and foods for the journey as the candle of the wolf burned and the sun set nearby. If the spirit should not have the items needed for the journey, the spirit would be trapped here on earth and never be at rest. For John, his need for rest was so great he took his own life. In the three days that followed, our family made sure the rest he sought would be granted. For on that third sundown, we gave him everything he would need for his journey. On that third sundown, he began his time of peace.
I covered the urn, as Mom blew out the candle. In a puff of smoke, the sun sank below the horizon. John’s final journey had begun. “May the grandfathers watch over you and be at peace, my son.” As Mom took the urn to its pedestal, the third sundown ended.
As every journey ends, a new journey begins. I know John’s journey began as the sun dropped below the horizon that day, and with that sundown, so began the journey of my family’s life without him. With each sunrise, that journey becomes a little bit easier. I read a poem called Life’s Journey (anonymous) that says in the simplest terms:
Do not take for granted the things closest to your heart.
Cling to them as you would your life; for without them, life is meaningless.
Do not let your life slip through your fingers by living in the past nor for the future.
By living your life one day at a time, you live all of the days of your life.
Do not give up when you still have something to give.
Nothing is really over until the moment you stop trying.
It is a fragile thread that binds us to each other.
Do not be afraid to encounter risks.
It is by taking chances that we learn how to be brave.
Do not shut love out of your life by saying it is impossible to find.
The quickest way to receive love is to give love.
The fastest way to lose love is to hold it too tightly.
In addition, the best way to keep love is to give it wings.
Do not dismiss your dreams. To be without dreams is to be without hope.
To be without hope is to be without purpose.
Do not run through life so fast that you forget not only where you have been,
but also where you are going.
Life is not a race, but a journey to be savored each step of the way.
Some say that life is a test, a test of strength, and heart. These last months have tested my heart and my strength. With each sunrise, the test seems a little bit easier. Each day I awaken with a few more answers. I have learned to savor each step of this journey I call life. I have learned to not let my loved ones wonder if my love for them is there, even if that means giving it wings. I have learned that no matter how far away you take a bird, it can still find its way home, given the chance to fly.
As I travel the roads, and climb the mountains on my journey; the sunsets and sunrises have new meaning. As I watch the sunset today, I wonder how many journeys are beginning tonight, and how many have ended. I hope that those on tough roads find shelters in their storms. For tomorrow is a new day, and the third sundown will begin again.