Mashkikiwinini: In Ojibwe, there is no word for goodbye

By Dr. Arne Vainio
News From Indian Country

Dr. Haller’s cancer took him quickly. My wife, 9 year-old-son and I went to see him the day after I heard of his cancer. This was about a week after he had first fallen. He had a CT scan that showed a brain tumor, but it wasn’t known at the time exactly what it was. We went to see him, his wife Irina and his daughter at his house. He was already unable to walk, but was able to talk with us at length. We spent a long time with him that day. I thought I knew him well, but I didn’t know he was an artist.

He was a brilliant man, but had other talents. His wood carvings were in an exhibit in the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth, Minnesota, in the 1970s. The detail on them is amazing, his trademark is to have some part of the woodcarving stand out from the background. He played the violin. He was also working on setting up a scale model train that he had since he was a little boy. We had to help him walk into the room where it was set up. He had trouble getting the controls and switches to work properly and his speech was slow at times, but he was as articulate and gentle as ever. He thanked us for coming by.

He was in the hospital the next week for his biopsy. This came back showing he had glioblastoma multiforme. This was not the result hoped for as this can be a very aggressive cancer. He was tired and slept for most of the visit, but said he was glad to see me and thanked me when I left. Irina and I talked at length while he slept. She’s from Russia, they fell in love when Ed was on a visit there to promote U.S./Russia relations. She didn’t speak English very well at the time and when she was finally able to move to the United States he taught her English by having her read aloud. They read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I liked hearing that as they are both scientists.

Dr. Arne Vainio and Ed

The next time I saw him in the hospital, his sister had to feed him and it took him a very long time to eat. He was able to talk with me, but took a long time to gather his thoughts. Again, he thanked me for coming to see him.

I saw him later in the week, by then he was getting radiation treatments. That and the medicines needed took a lot out of him and he was very tired. I stayed with him for quite a while. He didn’t talk, but didn’t want to let go of my hand. That was OK as I didn’t want to let go of his.

The next time I saw him was early the next week. He wouldn’t wake up, and I let him sleep.

I stayed in touch with Irina, she had pretty much stopped working to stay with Ed as much as possible.

Within the next few weeks he was in a hospice house for respite care. This means that nurses and volunteers will give the family some time to take care of other business. This was supposed to be for a few days only, but his breathing worsened and he was hardly eating. He ended up staying there instead of going home. I went to visit him with my wife and son. He was only able to answer “yes” to one of my wife’s questions. He held her hand tightly for the entire visit. He was very thin, most of his hair was gone. When we drove away, my wife couldn’t stop crying in the car.

I had an eagle feather presented to me after I became a doctor. Ivy (my wife) suggested we give it to Dr. Haller. I knew she was right, now was the time to pass this gift on. I wanted to do this with as much respect as possible and wanted to honor our traditions properly. My family is tied closely to a traditional Ojibwe couple that we very much respect. I called Joe and asked him if this would be proper and how we should go about it. I feasted the feather by making some food that my mother and grandfather loved. I put this on a piece of birch bark with some Asema (tobacco) and put it outside so my ancestors could eat with me. We saged the feather that night and smudged ourselves before we went to the hospice house.

Irina was expecting us, we had called her earlier.

My son sat with my wife next to Ed. Irina stood at the head of the bed next to him. I wanted my son to see how we respect the people who so selflessly teach and nurture us. I talked to Ed and my son at the same time. I explained how the eagle is sacred to us, is an intermediary between us and the spirit world and can carry messages there. I’ve been told an eagle feather dropped at a pow wow represents a fallen warrior, and only a veteran can pick it back up after a special ceremony. Eagle feathers are given for achievement or courage. This was an eagle feather given to me for becoming a doctor, that achievement was partially Dr. Haller’s. He had to have courage to face what he was up against now. I explained that in our respective journeys, my son was just beginning and Ed was moving into a different part of his journey. Even though he was leaving us, he would remain as a larger part of the spirit that helps others. My son doesn’t know who will help him in the future, but those people are out there now. We don’t know who he will help in the future. But he will.

We explained how to care for the feather to Irina, she will honor that.

I went to see Dr. Haller the next night and sat with him for a long time. He didn’t respond at all. The feather was at the head of his bed. I have never taken it upon myself to present an eagle feather to anyone and do not take this lightly. This needed to be done, and I felt it needed to be the feather that was presented to me. I would much rather have had Joe or a medicine man do this, but time was very short. I accept any criticism for this. At some point we will return the feather to where it came from. Joe explained what we would need to do. Hopefully he will help us with that.

Ed died that night with Irina by his side.

Ed wrote Irina a letter, she wasn’t to open it until after he died. Part of it was “no one ever dies unless they are forgotten.” Many will remember him. My family and I will never forget him. He is a part of our lives forever.

Edwin W. Haller, Ph.D. 5/19/36 – 12/12/07.