WARNING: This is part of a series of stories to be published over the next few weeks that contain potentially trauma-triggering material.
Opal, the brown Chihuahua mix, raised her head and smiled her snagged-tooth dog smile at me. She was curled up on the daybed in the main room of the little cabin, so I could see the full affect of her charming under-bite. I was vacuuming the floor, hand-placed flagstones covered by numerous throw rugs. The unevenness of the stones and the fringe on the rugs made it slow going for the old upright as it loudly tried to eat some of the smaller rugs. Opal and the other dog, a coyote/Shepard mix, were undisturbed however, calmly moving aside whenever the machine approached them. I’d come to visit Kai and her family as they began a new phase in their lives. Kai’s 32-year-old daughter Naivara had just been released from a nursing home. After nearly dying from sepsis brought on by injecting heroin, Naivara is mostly paralyzed from the neck down. She is in a wheelchair and needs constant help. The little homemade artist’s cabin in the mountains was not wheelchair-friendly and Kai was struggling madly to get everything in place so that Naivara could remain at home. (Everyone in the family requested that their names be changed for fear of reprisal by gangs)
Kai is also raising Naivara’s children, Chas 4 and Luna 8. Both children share a peaceful life in the eccentric little cabin where Swiss chard grows inside the combination greenhouse/living room/bedroom/ studio that also holds a homemade flagstone bathtub for cleaning up.
Kai tells me she is almost out of adult diapers for Naivara, that laundry needed to be done, there was an emergency involving Kai’s funding at the university and the Medicaid people wanted more papers filled out. I offer to stay with Naivara and Chas. Gratefully, Kai rushes off, taking Luna with her.
Naivara has regained some use of her arms and hands, but it’s difficult for her to move her wheelchair across the uneven cabin floor. She and Chas want blue corn pancakes for breakfast. I rush to catch falling items as she tries to get them out of the refrigerator. She wants coffee in her special cup, with lots of sugar. Chas wants whipped cream on his pancakes and nearly falls off his chair reaching for it. Naivara wants a cigarette but since smoking isn’t allowed in the cabin, I roll her outside. I locate her cigarettes and lighter, light her cigarette and go back to see if Chas is doing ok. He has wandered into the road, picked up a piece of ice, and is now gazing through it at the sky.
View of mountains from Kai’s house. (Mary Annette Pember)
View of mountains from Kai’s house.
Naivara then announces she has to pee. This is a small emergency, so I tell Chas to get out of the road, and pull Naivara into the bedroom just off the main room and try to locate the urinal. I am too late. Since the toilet is in a small closet in the back of the cabin and the doorway too small for the wheelchair, Naivara must go into the bedroom if she is to have any privacy. I remove her wet diaper, pants and pad. When I locate a pair of clean adult diapers I realize they are the wrong size so I cut apart one of Chas’s pull-ups instead and use it as a liner. Naivara is able to hold her weight off the chair for a few seconds so we are able to change her clothing. I clean the urine from the floor and take her back outside to smoke. She has been talking calmly the entire time, her voice dreamy and cottony, tranquilly unaware of the chaos swirling around and through her. I realize she is a little high.
She describes for me a frightening cocktail of drugs prescribed to her by her doctor in addition to her maintenance dose of methadone. Although Kai told me they had managed to wean Naivara off methadone in the nursing home, she asked for and received the drug from her doctor before leaving.
As I retrieve Chas from the road, I turn and see her sitting alone in her chair. Although covered in defiant tattoos, with her hair a shade of fuck-you red, she looks vulnerable and afraid. She clings to the stingy methadone high, the only thing standing between her and this monstrous new life.
As I clean up and fetch things for her, Naivara tells me about her life before heroin put her in a wheelchair. She wants me to know that mostly she didn’t need a pimp; she took care of herself. Even now she knows a way of raising money; she could sell some of the pills she has now for over $1,000; she knows whom to call.
Kai returns, breathless but smiling. Overjoyed that she completed her tasks, she tosses newly-empty recycle bins (another chore out of the way) in a corner and asks what we want for dinner. Awed by her unflagging spirit and generous heart, I feel a little ashamed for allowing my sore back to make me tired. Navigating the maze of health and social service agencies, Kai keeps up a constant pressure to gain even the most basic services and support. After endless hours on the phone, she has finally secured physical therapy and help paying for diapers. So far, however, there is little prospect of mental health or addiction services. Kai has a history of doing what needs to be done; she has survived abusive men, limited funds and resources but she has lived her life as a shinnobikwe (Ojibwe woman). She has brought her child home and expects to care for her in the traditional way.
Kai’s shadow over the Mother Pool. (Mary Annette Pember)
Kai’s shadow over the Mother Pool.
Unfortunately, the addiction spirit has made itself comfortable in this little paradise, licking its tongue into all the corners. It doesn’t care about the carefully chosen organic food and medicines or the alternative healing methods Kai is trying for her daughter.
Kai can’t understand why Naivara asked her doctor for the methadone again or why she’s talking about selling her pills. Shouldn’t this paradise surrounded by her loving children and mother and supportive friends be enough?
She is exhausted and wonders if she will be able to continue, especially if Naivara takes up her old ways of lying, stealing and using.
I see that my visit is a welcome diversion from her problems. Kai and I have come to know and like each other via regular social media and phone conversations. We are happy to be together and she is eager to show me her home and surroundings.
Kai insists on taking me to see the hot springs above the house. It’s a terribly steep walk; the snow reaches over my boot tops as I cling to a rope placed along the rugged path as we climb.
She tells me the story of this spring of how a white man owned it back in the ’60s and built a huge swimming pool to contain the warm medicinal waters. It became a notorious party spot for bikers and all sorts of people. After his daughter was raped and killed there, however, he dynamited the pool and sold the land. The jagged remnants of the concrete pool are still visible but the mother pool above remains unchanged. It reminds me that as Ojibwe women we are the ones who care for the water, who carry our children in the water of our bellies.
Therefore, we feed this water as we have been told. Afterwards, as we make our way back down the mountain, I can’t help wondering if it will be enough for Kai, Naivara and all that is coming.