Book Club

Excerpt: “War Dances”

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He looked so small and pale lying in that hospital bed. How had that change happened? For the first sixty-seven years of his life, my father had been a large and dark man. And now, he was just another pale and sick drone in a hallway of pale and sick drones. A hive, I thought, this place looks like a beehive with colony collapse disorder.

“Dad, it’s me.”

“I’m cold.”

“I have a blanket.”

As I draped it over my father and tucked it around his body, I felt the first sting of grief. I’d read the hospital literature about this moment. There would come a time when roles would reverse and the adult child would become the caretaker of the ill parent.

The circle of life. Such poetic bulls–t.

“I can’t get warm,” my father said. “I’m freezing.”

“I brought you a blanket, Dad, I put it on you.”

“Get me another one. Please. I’m so cold. I need another blanket.”

I knew that ten more of these cheap blankets wouldn’t be enough. My father needed a real blanket, a good blanket. I walked out of the recovery hallway and made my way through various doorways and other hallways, peering into the rooms, looking at the patients and their families, looking for a particular kind of patient and family.

I walked through the ER, cancer, heart and vascular, neurology, orthopedic, women’s health, pediatrics, and surgical services. Nobody stopped me. My expression and posture were that of a man with a sick father and so I belonged.

And then I saw him, another Native man, leaning against a wall near the gift shop. Well, maybe he was Asian; lots of those in Seattle. He was a small man, pale brown, with muscular arms and a soft belly. Maybe he was Mexican, which is really a kind of Indian, too, but not the kind that I needed. It was hard to tell sometimes what people were. Even brown people guessed at the identity of other brown people.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” the other man said.

“You Indian?” I asked.


“What tribe?”


“I’m Spokane.”

“My first wife was Spokane. I hated her.”

“My first wife was Lummi. She hated me.”

We laughed at the new jokes that instantly sounded old.

“Why are you in here?” I asked.

“My sister is having a baby,” he said. “But don’t worry, it’s not mine.”

“Ayyyyyy,” I said — another Indian idiom — and laughed.

“I don’t even want to be here,” the other Indian said. “But my dad started, like, this new Indian tradition. He says it’s a thousand years old. But that’s bulls–t. He just made it up to impress himself. And the whole family just goes along, even when we know it’s bulls–t. He’s in the delivery room waving eagle feathers around. Jesus.”

“What’s the tradition?”

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