Friday, June 17, 2011

The Will to Survive

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As I read the tale of the Two Old Women, I became embedded in the hearts of the two

women. Not knowing the outcome of their courage or survival, I kept being pulled to

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read more. As I continued to read, I was confronted with my own views of aging and

survival. The two old women rediscovered that they were able to do far more than they

thought they could when it became a matter of survival. Do we as a society condemn our

elderly to the same fate? Do we gradually take away their self-worth and dignity by

trying to make them more dependent on us? How do we respectfully allow our elderly

generation to maintain their once useful skills without putting them into a position of

harm, or is it only in such a position that humans “arise” to their inner strength? This is

only few of the questions that arose as I read the book. I was saddened with disbelief

with such doubt that one could be capable of doing such a horrible thing. But on the other

hand, I was filled with joy to see the two old women overcome their trial. The tribe had

betrayed them and condemned them to die. In spite of that, the two women stood strong

full of courage and with a will to survive.

At the age of seventy-five, Sa’ and eighty-year-old Ch’idzigyaak are abandoned by

their tribe during one of the most harsh winters of severe starvation. At first the women

accept this as the natural order of things, but as they sit waiting for the bitter cold to

overcome them, they realize that they do not want to lie down and die; they have more to

give and more to do. However, their will to live asserts itself and they declare, “if we are

going to die . . . let us die trying, not sitting” (P. 16). Although, they had grown use to

complaining and letting others do for them, the two agree not to wait passively for death,

but to fight against it. Leaving their walking sticks behind, they begin to travel, make

camp, and remember the skills of hunting and survival they learned as girls.

They were left with a small fire, a bundle of babiche, and a hatchet made of sharpened

animal bones. With these things, the two women set out on an adventure of survival.

From finding food to building shelters, they begin to recall their skills. As Sa’ sees a

squirrel and aiming her hatchet, “she ended the small animal’s life in one calculating

throw with skill and hunting knowledge that she had not used in many seasons.” Sa’

remarks, “Many times I have done that, but never did I think I would do it again” (P. 1).

“The two women had not known each other well before being abandoned; but had

been neighbors who thrived on each other’s bad habit of complaining and on sharing

conversations about things that did not matter. Now, their old age and their cruel fate

were all they had in common” (P. 55-56). Ending the first night of a long and painful

journey, the women not knowing how to converse with one another, began to dwell on

their own thoughts.

As the two old women sat, they began to open up and discuss their emotional reaction

to abandonment, memories of their youth, and the traditional gender roles in their village.

Ch’idzigyaak recalled a time that took her way back in time when she was a little girl.

“Once when I was a little girl, they left my grandmother behind. She could no longer

walk and could hardly see. We were so hungry that people were staggering around, and

my mother whispered that she was afraid that people would think of eating people. My

heart filled with fear as I clung to my mother’s hand (P. 57).” As I looked at my grand-

mother, knowing that she was too deaf to hear what was going on. “When they bundled

her up and put her blankets all around her, I think Grandmother sensed what was

happening because as we began to leave camp I could hear her crying (P. 58).”

As I got older, I learned that my brother and father had gone back to end my

Grandmother’s life, for they did not want her to suffer, and they burned her body in case

anyone thought of filling their bellies with her flesh (P. 58). “ I remember other times of

empty stomachs, but none as bad as that one winter” (P. 5). Remembering too, as the

food became scarce they too had to leave the old behind.

Sa’ smiled sadly, understanding her friend’s painful memories. She also remembered

some painful memories. She shared the time when she was young, described herself as

being like a boy, always with her brothers. “I learned many things from them” (P. 5).

As she remembered the times when her “mother would try to make me sit still and sew,

or learn that which I would have to know when I became a woman. But my father and

brothers always rescue me. They liked me the way I was” (P. 5). She smiled at her

memories however, recalling it as the worst winter ever.

“Even babies died, and grown men began to panic, for as hard as they tried they could

not find enough animals to eat” (P. 61). When the chief decided to leave an old woman

behind for the sake of the group during this time Sa choose to fight for the old woman

and did not believe it was right. She thought, “The People were being lazy and were not

thinking clearly (P. 6). So she felt like it was her place to stand up and talk some sense

into them. As a result, Sa’ was left behind with the old woman as she remarks “I never

did know her name, for I was too busy trying to keep us alive” (P. 64). The woman died

that summer leaving Sa’ all alone. Like wise, Sa too recalled as a child, their tribe had

choose to leave the elder behind.

The two women became strengthened by their friendship, as they recalled their

trapping skills, which they had not used for years. The two old women feared what lay

ahead. Knowing that just yesterday they both had been judged too old to live with the

young. They thought they were old then because they had spent so many years

convincing the younger people that they were helpless, and that they were no longer any

use to the world. (P. 8) Sa’ said, “We are going to prove them wrong! The People. And

death!” She shook her head, motioning into the air, “Yes, it awaits us, this death. Ready

to grab us the moment we show our weak spots. I fear this kind of death more than any

suffering you and I will go through. If we are going to die anyway, let us die trying!”

(P. 8) The women became one another’s strength.

The two women survived the winter to ultimately come face to face with the members

of their tribe. The tribe was in a desperate state and many were frost bitten. Luck had

gone against the tribe. Despite the sentence that the tribe had placed upon the two women

a year ago, they were able to put their pride aside long enough to remember the suffering

of the children. As a result, “the people kept their promise. To never abandon any elder.

They had learned a lesson taught by two whom they came to love and care for until each

died a truly happy old woman.” (P. 16)

The impact of “Let Us Die Trying” still rings through me everyday. In spite of the

obstacles, betrayals, and unkindness, I know that I would hope to find the courage to

survive and the courage to forgive. I now believe that all eras and cultures have a place

for elders. (Internet) Although, we have a choice on how we develop that role. I loved

this book and even purchased a copy for my sister. It has been a very long time since I

enjoyed a book as much as I have this one.

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