Tim Giago: The pain of losing a child never ends

Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. But it happens sometimes.

Her name was Roberta, but I always called her “Birdie.” When she was just about two I bought her a tiny, toy pony. She loved that little horse and she carried it with her wherever she went. When I first handed her the pony I said, “Now here is a little toy for you.” From then on she called the pony “Toy.”

One Sunday evening we were visiting her grandma who lived in the South Valley of Albuquerque in a place where there was still plenty of open pastures. I was carrying Birdie down a little dirt road by grandma’s house when a black horse came galloping along the fence by the road. Birdie looked at the toy pony in her hand and then she looked at the real live horse and she pointed at the horse and said, “Toy.”

She grew into a beautiful young lady. Her mother and I had separated and I had moved back to my home in South Dakota. She wanted to come up and stay with me and work at my newspaper. I was only too happy to have her with me. Whenever I would introduce her to my employees and friends they would inevitably say, “What a beautiful girl.”

Roberta worked really hard at the newspaper, but she missed her mother and after several months she decided to return to Albuquerque. I know that she had been in some trouble down there and it had involved drugs. I was reluctant to let her go back because I didn’t want her to get back into the same situation she had just left.

I tried to get down to Albuquerque to visit her as often as possible and I ended up opening a branch of my newspaper down there and Roberta came to work for me once more. She continued to have problems, but she realized it and she was on her way to a total cure.

In early 2006 I went to visit her and my grandchildren. I helped her find a house to live in and then we had a lot of fun getting the furniture for it. By this time Roberta had four daughters and they were all happy and unique young girls. Before I returned to Rapid City I took Roberta and the kids to the local mall in Los Lunas. While the kids were shopping, Roberta and I walked out to the car to wait for them. We sat down on a bench in the shade of a mall building. Roberta told me that she was glad that her life was finally on track. She had enrolled at an extension of the University of New Mexico and was studying journalism. Her children were all doing well in school.

She put her head on my shoulder and said, “Dad, I just want to make you happy and I want you to be proud of me.” I told her that no matter what, I was always proud of her.

I left for South Dakota early the next morning and that was the last time I saw my Birdie. On April 6, 2006, she was racing home in the middle of the afternoon with my granddaughter Crystal seated next to her in their old pickup when she missed a curve. She threw herself across the seat to shield her daughter and she was killed. Crystal held her in her arms as she died. She had just turned 34.

Roberta always said that if anything ever happened to her she wanted to be cremated. So that is what we did. There was a beautiful place north of the Jemez Indian Pueblo up in the mountains that she loved. She used to take the girls there on picnics and she would relax and listen to the radio while they climbed and played in the boulders near the road. She had discovered an old cottonwood tree and it became her shade tree.

Her mom, her children, her brother Timmy, and I put her favorite song in the CD player of my pickup truck, Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynrd, turned the volume on high, and we buried her ashes beneath that beautiful tree as the sound of that song reverberated off of the mountains. My granddaughter Crystal, who had just turned 15, was the only one to speak. With tears running down her face she said, “My mom saved my life for a reason and I won’t let her down.”

As my son and grandchildren climbed the rocks above her resting place, I sat beneath that cottonwood tree next to her ashes and looked at the deep blue skies and the clouds that floated gently like cotton candy, and in the sky I saw that little girl I had held in my arms on that Sunday evening so many years ago, and I heard her voice as she pointed at that real live horse and said, “Toy.”

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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