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At the end, a rumination on a daughter’s complex relationship with her adoptive father

In this excerpt from "Bitterroot," American Indian author Susan Devan Harness explores powerful emotions as childhood memories frame her dad's final days

Susan Devan Harness (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes) is a writer, lecturer, and oral historian, and has been a research associate for the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. She is also the author of “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958–1967).”

The following is an excerpt from “Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction

IN MEMORY

It is March 24, 2002 at six a.m., an ungodly hour for just about everyone, except student teachers.  But that’s what I do; I’m a middle-aged woman teaching seventh graders. In the calm of the early morning I jump at the harsh jangle of the phone.  Dad’s wife, Norma, cuts to the chase, “The doctor says it’s time to call and give you a chance to get here. Your dad is here at Deaconness. I had to bring him in about an hour ago; he was really struggling.”  

Six months ago, Dad’s CT scan had shown a few spots in his lungs.  When the doctor opened his chest a couple weeks later for exploratory surgery, he sutured him up without removing anything; the cancer had spread and there was nothing he could do.  Chemo was Dad’s only option. But in previous calls Dad had sounded strong and I hadn’t heard that he’d gotten worse, so I wasn’t prepared for this call. But here we are.

I tell Norma I will be there by mid-afternoon, and with a calming numbness, I get ready and leave an hour later.   

My parents adopted me when I was two years old.  As a child, I imagined adoption as a cafeteria line, where parents place their order at the cash register and a nurse emerges with a baby from behind swinging stainless-steel doors.  The dad extracts his wallet, counts some bills and pays and the family goes home with its newest member. It seemed plausible; that’s how one acquires something.

As an American Indian, I was labeled “hard to place,” so my availability was immediate.  Mom was thrilled; after six miscarriages she could start a family. Dad, unfortunately, couldn’t return me to the store, a thought that entered my teenage mind years later.   

“Bitterroot” author Susan Devan Harness.

My relationship with my Dad is complicated, filled with love and hate and all those emotions in between, which war within me as I study him, an emaciated figure in a seemingly oversized hospital bed, an oxygen mask strapped tight across his face.  Beyond him, a lone, bright yellow daffodil sits in a cobalt blue vase on the window sill.  

When I was three, Dad seemed to be the tallest man in the world.  I would wait for him to come home from work, and when he did he’d lift me up and throw me into the air so high that I giggled at the weightlessness and anticipated the free fall into his arms.  I never once doubted that he would catch me.  

While we stand in Dad’s room, Norma fills me in on the details.  Evidently, Dad had been at the hospital three previous times, and doctors patched him up and sent him home.  “Who knows,” she adds, brightly, “It just might be the rest he needs before he can come home again.” Having never been privy to the action of dying, I believe her words for the simple fact that I can’t accept the alternative.  

I gaze out the window at the line of cars and am transported to a time when I was six, playing tag with our friends’ younger kids on their lawn, bordered by a similar line of cars.  In an abrupt, evasive maneuver I left the lawn and ran between the cars and out to the street. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dad caught my arm, his grip leaving bruises. His face was a mask of anger, the corners of his mouth pulled down and his pupils small black dots in brown irises.  I felt the slap of his left hand against my temple. He shook me then, his face inches from mine. “You run around like a crazy person, never looking at where you’re going. I don’t know why you don’t think about what you’re doing. You get around these kids and you just lose all your sense.”   He then illustrated my craziness by lolling out his tongue out, waving his arms about his head and rolling his eyes.

Dad’s rustling sheets draw me back, and I watch as he enters a realm where invisible beings visit him in his morphine-laced dreams.  He stares into empty space and speaks in broken, sometimes incoherent phrases, while his hands and fingers move in busy illustration.  Perhaps he’s outlining a management plan; perhaps he’s explaining population statistics. As a wildlife biologist, this is very likely.

The doctor arrives and asks Norma if there’s been any change.  “Not really” she answers, “but he’s only recently begun doing this.”  She gestures to my father’s liquid movements and unintelligible speech.  “That’s normal,” the doctor says, and scribbles something on a form that hangs from the foot of my father’s bed.  He tucks his pen into his front pocket and says, with no eye contact, “Let me know if anything changes. I’ll be doing rounds this evening.”  

When I was in second grade, Dad decided that we needed to take Fridays off – he from work, me from school – and go swimming at the hot springs up the canyon.  On our first visit, the sky was a brilliant blue (cerulean – my father’s favorite color) and the water danced with reflected light. We each dived off the springboard and swam to the deepest edge.  “Get on my back,” he told me. I did so, immediately wrapping my skinny legs around his chest while my small hands grasped his shoulders, their muscles sinewy and hard. I held my breath and we dove.  My eyes slitted against the water, I watched in blurry fascination as the ripples undulated in bright patterns on the blue floor of the pool and wondered if this was what it was like to ride a whale. We went the entire length of the pool before coming up for air.  For the next two hours, I was the center of his attention.  

We visited the hot springs six Fridays in row, after which we never returned.  Responsibilities of work had taken him away.

When the doctor does not appear for evening rounds, Norma and I return to the house and I escape to the guest room in the basement, where his small library sits rigidly upright on a set of shelves.  I’ve seen these books since childhood, and I run my index finger along their familiar spines. There are scholarly biblical texts, a tattered “how-to” for building a log cabin from scratch—dated 1916, botanical tomes and fiction and historical books detailing the lives of 19th century American Indians, a culture with which Dad has had a love-hate relationship.   

“Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption” by Susan Devan Harness.

I think he believed if he raised me just right, I wouldn’t be Indian anymore, and I would be free from prejudices, from the hatred so entrenched in Montana culture.  But, in the American West, being Indian is what you are, not what you choose to be, and I think he was as confused about who I should be as I was.

In the late spring of 1974 Dad put his passion into the yard.   One day after school, I was greeted by a cement toddler that stood in the center of our front yard’s circular garden.  Her angelic face, defined by wide eyes and a look of curiosity, tilted upwards as she pointed a pudgy finger towards an object off in the distance.  Her other hand, fisted, was curled near her jaw, an index finger curved toward her lower lip. Mom hated the statue, and I understood why, as I watched Dad from the front porch early the following Saturday morning.   

He’d taken a box of cheap watercolors from my bedroom and had painted her dress red, her curly hair yellow and her eyes blue.  He was in the process of staining the lips of her little bow mouth. As he pulled the brush over the concrete he weaved unsteadily while he crooned in a gentle, sing-song way, his words slurred by alcohol.     

“Oh, hey Suz.”  A smile of joy spread across his face as he once more turned toward this small, solid being.  “Isn’t she the cutest damn thing?” He paused, then looked directly at me, the smile still on his face.  “You know, I’ve always wanted a little blond-haired, blue eyed girl, and now I have one.”

That look of adoration stung, but his words stung more.  I was ashamed of my long black hair that was pulled sloppily into a ponytail, and at my brown arms, which would grow darker as summer dragged on.  I knew his adoring gaze would never focus on me the way it did on this painted toddler, and I knew, at that moment, I began to hate him. I also began to hate me.        

The following morning, on March 26th, the doctor still hadn’t visited Dad.  Norma, irked, leads the way through the labyrinth of hallways and over the elevated walkway that connects the hospital with the doctors’ offices across the street.   We located him a few minutes later, sitting at his desk actively avoiding our presence. I know because he never handles the manila folder in his hands though he gazes at it intensely.  After several moments of awkward silence, Norma asks, “Did you go up to see my husband last night?”

He shakes his head.

“Were you planning on seeing him this morning?”  He looks at her with weary, but unsympathetic eyes.  “There’s no point,” he says, and returns his gaze to the opened file.   

My heart drops.  This is the alternative. 

While we were gone, Dad was moved to a room on the “terminally-ill” floor, where there are no daffodils and colors of the wall are an unidentifiable tan.  His bed is now surrounded by netting, and his gentle hand motions of the previous day have been replaced with the frantic clawing of someone trying to escape; however, whether it’s out of death’s grip or into his concept of heaven, I don’t know.  

Each horrific coughing spasm produces copious amounts of blood, phlegm and lung tissue, which are vacuumed from his mouth and the contents stored in a half-gallon jar beneath his bed, which is continuously emptied.  It will dawn on me months later how many times that jar has been emptied. At some point, the chaplain arrives and talks with Norma in quiet tones. I hear only his voice. “What was his chemo dose,” he asks and nods at her reply. “Well, that’s enough to make him think he’s doing something but not enough to make him really sick.”  Their betrayal leaves me ill.  

That evening, without warning, Dad wakes up, as if he’s only been napping, and not filled with the incoherence of an hour ago.  His soft brown eyes are now clear, and they look at me with the adoration of that man who threw me into the air, of the father I went swimming with.  With a large, unguarded smile, he says, “Happy birthday, Suz.” His voice does not contain the rasp of disease, nor does it have the airiness of the dying.

While he eats dinner, he asks Norma about his garden and reminds her to turn the canal water on for the plants next month.  Although I don’t believe in miracles, I have no other explanation for what I’m witnessing. After dinner we sit on his bed, Norma one side of him, me on the other.  I grasp his hand and am surprised at the softness of his skin, like an infant’s. I contemplate how long it has been since I’d even touched my father.

Dad passes away at four a.m. on March 27th, my birthday, and Norma and I begin the end-of-life rituals.  After returning to her home, I stare out the window at the garden Dad took so much pride in and remember yet a different kind of father.

Dad had played a key role in a project that brought the trumpeter swan back from the brink of extinction.  I was five, and not familiar with this part of his job because the birds were large, and I was small, and he worried that I’d get hurt.  But one late afternoon in early summer, he asked if I wanted to help him feed the swans. He parked the Jeep near the large aluminum grain bin, which stood near the edge of the lake, got out and opened a small door at the bottom, where golden grains of wheat fell onto the ground.  Shoveling the grain from this pile, he filled a small rowboat that was tied up to the shore until the hull sat low in the water. When he got in, the boat tipped slightly, and he held my hand in his until I settled, then we shoved off.

I watched the shore grow distant and the lake larger.  Birds wheeled overhead, their calls carrying across the lake. The iron swivels in which the oars sat screeched in rhythmic protest at their long disuse.  Splash-pull, splash-pull.  Droplets from the raised oars made small rings that trailed behind us in the water.  After a while, Dad stopped rowing and we drifted until the boat came to a stop of its own accord. As my father dumped shovelfuls of grain into the shallow depths, the swans swam toward us with surprising speed, their massive size intimidating.  I felt relieved when Dad rowed us away from their feeding place.

We stopped again and except for the muted honking of the birds, it was silent.  The sun lay low on the western horizon casting a golden light behind the jagged summits of the Centennial Range.  The sky drifted from peach to dark blue and insects moved just above the water’s surface. The only sound that broke the stillness was a splash that seemingly came out of nowhere.  This splash was followed by a ringed circle that grew larger until it disappeared over the water’s smooth surface.

“That’s a fish rising,” my father said, his voice soft, like we were in a sacred place.  “It happens when a fish comes up and its mouth breaks the surface. The fish is eating the insects that land on the water.”  His finger then pointed to a circle a little ways from our boat. “That’s called rising, when it comes to the surface. Like when the sun rises in the east.”  A smile formed as he scanned the surrounding landscape, and that smile reached all the way to his eyes. And suddenly, I’m not sure if I’m still in memory, or in the present because I hear his words and see his extended arm reach toward something unseen, his fingers moving rapidly to illustrate a point he was trying to make, what happens to fish when they eat and where they go when they’re finished.  Tears blur the world around me as I recognize these hand movements as the same ones at the hospital. I realize then that this is the place where he was talking to someone, perhaps me, about the one thing he loved best — the swans.

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Interview: “Bitterroot” author Susan Devan Harness.


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