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I start my day before sunrise, throwing on running clothes and laying a pinch of semaa at the eastern base of a tree, where sunlight will touch the tobacco first. Prayers begin with offering semaa and sharing my Spirit name, clan, and where I am from. I always add an extra name to make sure Creator knows who I am. A name that connects me to my father—because I began as a secret, and then a scandal.
I give thanks to Creator and ask for zoongidewin, because I’ll need courage for what I have to do after my five-mile run. I’ve put it off for a week.
The sky lightens as I stretch in the driveway. My brother complains about my lengthy warm-up routine whenever he runs with me. I keep telling Levi that my longer, bigger, and therefore vastly superior muscles require more intensive preparation for peak performance. The real reason, which he would think is dorky, is that I recite the correct anatomical name for each muscle as I stretch. Not just the superficial muscles, but the deep ones too. I want an edge over the other college freshmen in my Human Anatomy class this fall.
By the time I finish my warm-up and anatomy review, the sun peeks through the trees. One ray of light shines on my semaa offering. Niishin! It is good.
My first mile is always hardest. Part of me still wants to be in bed with my cat, Herri, whose purrs are the opposite of an alarm clock. But if I power through, my breathing will find its rhythm, accompanied by the swish of my heavy ponytail. My legs and arms will operate on autopilot. That’s when my mind will wander into the zone, where I’m part of this world but also somewhere else, and the miles pass in a semi-alert haze.
My route takes me through campus. The prettiest view in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is on the other side. I blow a kiss as I run past Lake State’s newest dorm, Fontaine Hall, named after my grandfather on my mother’s side. My grandmother Mary—I call her GrandMary—insisted I wear a dress to the dedication ceremony last summer. I was tempted to scowl in the photos but knew my defiance would hurt Mom more than it would tick off GrandMary.
I cut through the parking lot behind the student union toward the north end of campus. The bluff showcases a gorgeous panoramic view of the St. Marys River, the International Bridge into Canada, and the city of Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Nestled in the bend of the river east of town is my favorite place in the universe: Sugar Island.
The rising sun hides behind a low, dark cloud at the horizon beyond the island. I halt in place, awestruck. Shafts of light fan out from the cloud, as if Sugar Island is the source of the sun’s rays. A cool breeze ruffles my T-shirt, giving me goose bumps in mid-August.
“Ziisabaaka Minising.” I whisper in Anishinaabemowin the name for the island, which my father taught me when I was little. It sounds like a prayer. My father’s family, the Firekeeper side, is as much a part of Sugar Island as its spring-fed streams and sugar maple trees.
When the cloud moves on and the sun reclaims her rays, a gust of wind propels me forward. Back to my run and to the task ahead.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, I end my run at EverCare, a long-term care facility a few blocks from home. Today’s run felt backward, peaking in the first mile and becoming progressively more difficult. I tried chasing the zone, but it was a mirage just beyond my reach.
“Mornin’, Daunis,” Mrs. Bonasera, the head nurse says from behind the front desk. “Mary had a good night. Your mom’s already here.”
Still catching my breath, I give my usual good-morning wave.
The hallway seems to lengthen with each step. I steel myself for possible responses to my announcement. In my imagined scenarios, a single furrowed brow conveys disappointment, annoyance, and the retracting of previous accolades.
Maybe I should wait until tomorrow to announce my decision.
Mrs. B. didn’t need to say anything; the heavy scent of roses in the hallway announces Mom’s presence. When I enter the private room, she’s gently massaging rose-scented lotion on my grandmother’s thin arms. A fresh bouquet of yellow roses adds to the floral saturation level.
GrandMary’s been at EverCare for six weeks now and, the month before that, in the hospital. She had a stroke at my high school graduation party. Visiting every morning is part of the New Normal, which is what I call what happens when your universe is shaken so badly you can never regain the same axis as before. But you try anyway.
My grandmother’s eyes connect with mine. Her left brow raises in recognition. Her right side is unable to convey anything.
“Bon matin, GrandMary.” I kiss both cheeks before stepping back for her inspection.
In the Before, her scrutiny of my fashion choices bugged the crap out of me. But now? Her one-sided scowl at my oversized T-shirt feels like a perfect slap shot to the top shelf.
“See?” I playfully lift my hem to reveal yellow spandex shorts. “Not half-naked.”
Halfway through her barely perceptible eye roll, GrandMary’s gaze turns vacant. It’s like a light bulb behind her eyes that someone switches on and off arbitrarily.
Copyright © 2021 by Angeline Boulley