Always remember you were loved

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

I’ve been flying to Los Angeles every few months for years to visit the last of my father’s family. I was there about a month ago and it had been six months since I was last there. She had been calling me often to find out when I could come and see her. The summer was busy and we’ve been short on doctors and getting away was hard.

Every day was the same to her and she spent most of her days lying in her bed in the nursing home. She fell about 6 years ago and a hip fracture took away her independence and I could never convince her to move back to Minnesota. Three days ago I was the guest lecturer for the first year medical students at the UMD Medical School and I had my phone shut off during that talk. I had lunch with the medical students, then went to the public television station to film the first three segments of Health Matters for Native Report. I’ve been doing that for the last year or so. After we were done filming, I had a meeting. I turned my phone on afterward and there were multiple calls from Los Angeles. My aunt had fallen and was in one of the big hospitals there.

I called the hospital and I talked with her nurse and she brought the phone in to her. She was in a lot of pain and the conversation wasn’t very meaningful and the nurse told me they were planning surgery for the morning. An hour later I got a call from the hospital telling me she had gone into cardiac arrest and they were doing CPR on her and about ten minutes later I got a call from one of the doctors. He was very sorry, but they were unable to save her.

The clinic allowed me to go to Los Angeles and I left on the 5:10 AM flight the next morning. I called the funeral home in Minnesota and they strongly recommended cremation and said transporting her otherwise would be complicated. I contacted a cremation service in California and they told me this was a five to seven day process.

As soon as I got to California I went to the hospital and asked to go to the morgue to see her. This is not usually allowed and security wanted me to go through the nursing station. This sent me through several levels of bureaucracy with no resolution and the security guard at the desk finally took pity on me and dialed the morgue directly and handed me the phone. I explained to the director that I was a physician and wasn’t concerned about any tubes or IV lines left in and that I just wanted to spend some time with my aunt before she was taken for cremation. He came up personally to get me and left me alone with her.

“You have fifteen minutes.”

She was in a plastic bag with a zipper and was on a table in the middle of the room. She still had an endotracheal tube sticking out of her mouth from her resuscitation and she was pale and her eyes were closed. But it was her and I took her hand and leaned close and spoke softly into her ear.

“Bertie, its Arne. I wanted to tell you on the phone yesterday that I love you. I know we say that and we said that to each other a month ago when I saw you last, but I wanted you to hear it. I’m sorry I didn’t say it yesterday.

You told me you didn’t want anyone to see you after you died because at ninety-four years old you weren’t beautiful anymore. That simply isn’t true. You have the beauty that comes with standing up for yourself and making it in a big city on your own. You have the beauty and strength that come with enduring and persevering in spite of your pain after falling six years ago. You stayed mentally sharp and you kept the ability to laugh when crying would have been easier. All of that shows in those lines you worry someone might see.

You told me you didn’t feel you contributed anything to anyone anymore. My father, your brother, died when I was four years old. I have maybe three or four actual memories of him and some memories that are from stories someone else told me and I took them as my own memories. I didn’t get to see his smile except in old photographs. I didn’t get to hear his voice and I never had the chance to hear the advice he would have passed to me from his parents when he thought I needed to hear those things.

I was able to see his smile in yours. I heard his voice in your voice. I was able to listen to those lessons from him through you, and only through you. You gave me my father.

Your mother, my grandmother, was the strongest and most loving person I have ever known. I can imagine her at the railing of a ship leaving Finland when she was only nineteen years old. She would have had a small handful of money and would have been at the mercy of every predator on that ship and again when she landed in New York City. I imagine her standing at that railing watching her homeland get smaller and smaller in the distance and there would be a moment when it finally disappeared and she would have known she would never see it again.

When we went to Finland in 2010, I truly felt I brought her and my grandfather with me. I could feel it before the plane landed and I knew she was back home.

You told me how you left the farm in Minnesota when you were nineteen years old and made your way to California. You worked as a secretary and during the war the men were in battle and you worked in a factory building bombers. You were the only one light enough to put the rivets into the bomber doors and you put in hundreds of rivets per day. The Governor toured the factory and he saw you kneeling on one of those doors with your rivet gun and he shook your hand and smiled at you and thanked you for your service.

You asked me to bring you back home when you died so you could be with your mother and your sister and I promised I would. I will keep that promise and that’s why I’m here. I showed you pictures of their gravestones with ice candles glowing on them on Christmas Eve and we will put one on yours. Those late December nights have been cold and starry and still and there is no traffic out there. The only sound is a slight breeze blowing through the tops of the white pine trees and that breeze speaks to me.

It tells me I am loved and it tells me my ancestors are strong and they are together in that small cemetery and all their years of hardship were so that I could go to medical school and so I could stand here with you now.

I wanted you to hear these things and I wanted to say them to you. But mostly, I wanted you to know you are loved.

I wanted you to know I’m bringing you home.”

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is the grandson of immigrants from Finland. He is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation and he can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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