The day after my big sister's burial on the reservation—after my mother had collapsed in grief ﬁve or six times—I returned to my farm-town school. The white kids, my friends, and fellow eighth graders shook my hand, patted me on the back, said awkward and graceful things. They were reticent in the presence of grief. They were polite about my pain. I didn't understand it. I'd been raised by a mother who was so emotionally expansive. She often wildly expressed the wrong emotion, but at least she was always emotive. I'd seen my drunken father weeping and incoherently singing love songs while pissing his pants. So, yeah, I had no relationship with reticence.
A year after my sister's death, one of my white classmates died in a car wreck. His name was Donny Piper. He was a farm kid who wore western shirts and cowboy boots every day. A constant smiler, he had a locker always ﬁlled with cans of Pepsi and bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos. And he generously shared his junk food. On certain days, when there'd been no money for breakfast or lunch, Donny's soda and chips were my only meal. Nobody at Reardan knew I was that poor. I never let any of them know when I was hungry. Though I qualiﬁed for free lunch, I never went to the cafeteria. I worried that being poor would negatively affect my social standing. Poverty kids are never popular kids, right?
My entire class, all 50 of us, went to Donny's funeral. I sat in a back pew and cried for a while. I liked Donny. I would miss him. He died so young. And because I'd already been to a few dozen wakes and funerals, it felt as if all of the separate grief had become one ever-growing grief, as if each grief was worse than the previous grief because of exponential math. So it felt like my grief for Donny was the same size as all the rest of my grief combined, plus one. But I stopped crying when I noticed that very few people were being openly emotional. I'd never seen that many stoic people at a funeral. I'd never experienced a silent and polite funeral. My tribe doesn't bury our dead that way. We wail, weep, and tell dirty jokes at the graveside.
I was completely shocked to see that Donny's immediate family—little brother, mother, father, and grandparents—were sitting off to the side behind a black mesh screen. I could barely make out their features. They were grieving separately from the rest of us. I was boggled. How do people grieve if they're not grieving with the entire community? How do they grieve in a separate room? I didn't doubt the epic size of their pain. I didn't judge the quality of their grief. I was simply bafﬂed by their ceremonies. That was the ﬁrst time I truly understood that I was a foreigner. I might have been indigenous to the land itself, but I was a ﬁrst-generation cultural immigrant to the United States. I was now living in a place where people did not grieve like me. Later, back at school, I was even more shocked to learn that it was the ﬁrst funeral that most of my classmates had ever attended. Donny Piper was their ﬁrst death. I thought they were kidding. But, no, it was true. My white classmates knew very little about death. We didn't keep a tally, but based on the stories I remember from that day, I think I might have attended more funerals than all of my white classmates put together.
Later that week, the teacher asked me to take attendance while she left the room for other business.
I quickly ran through the names, "A" through "O," and then I said, "Donny Piper."
The room was so quiet.
"Donny Piper?" I asked. "Donny?"
I was oblivious to my mistake. "Donny?" I asked. "Are you here?"
And then I realized that I'd been waiting for a response from my dead friend. So ashamed, so hurt, I put my head down on my desk and wept. Nobody said a word. Not then or later. None of the people in that classroom ever mentioned that incident to me. I was not reprimanded, teased, or consoled. I was left alone to feel my own emotions. So I cried for a few minutes, sat up, and ﬁnished taking roll.
A year earlier, on that day after my sister's burial, I sat at my desk and wondered how I would ever be happy without my sister in my life. She was the only one who'd ever thought I'd be a writer. I scoffed at the notion.
"Indians don't write books," I said. And, as far as I knew, Indians did not write books. I wasn't handed a book written by an Indian until a decade after my sister died.
In fourth grade, I wrote a Halloween story for my sister. I don't have a copy of that story, but I remember one line: "As the skeletons boned up the stairs, their bones sounded like powwow bells." Yes, I repeated "bones." Yes, I used "bones" as a noun and verb. My sister screamed when she read that.
"Junior," she said to me. "How do you think of shit like that?"
"I don't know," I said. "I just close my eyes, and I see things with my brain."
"You should write a whole book," she said. I laughed at that crazy idea.
I was surely not thinking about a writing career as I sat in that eighth grade classroom a day after my sister's burial. I was probably wondering why the hell I was going to school with so many white kids, so many strangers.
And then Barb walked into the room, saw me sitting at my desk, and gasped. She ran to me, hugged me so tightly that I coughed, and then knelt in front of me.
"You're alive," she said.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"I heard you died."
"No," I said. "My sister died."
"I didn't hear 'Sherman's sister died,'" she said. "I only heard 'Sherman died.'"
I didn't know what to say.
Barb grabbed my hand and said, "I am so sad your sister died. And I am so happy you are alive. I like you. Everybody likes you."
She hugged me again. Then other girls—Pam, Rachel, Tiffany, and both Lisas—also hugged me.
I had only known those girls for a few months. I think I was probably too shy to hug them back. But they hugged me. And Barb's words echoed in my ears.
Barb's words still echo.
My sister was dead. I was mostly a stranger in that school. I would become good friends with most of those kids. And most of those friendships went into suspended animation when we graduated from high school. I remain lifelong friends with a few of those kids, who are now middle-aged adults like me.
But I think I have only seen Barb twice in the past 31 years. And yet I often think of her. She was the ﬁrst person to ever look at me—to sincerely make eye contact—and say, "I like you."
And I am still ﬂabbergasted that she also said, "Everybody likes you."
That next year, on our ﬁrst day as freshmen, I was unanimously elected class president. Donny Piper would die later that school year. But, on that day, he raised his hand and voted for me.
I am weeping now as I write this, as I remember that morning.
I was sitting at a desk and watched all of my classmates—white people—raise their hands to vote for me.
Those 49 raised arms turned that classroom into an odd garden. And I proudly stood. And I bloomed.
From the book You Don't Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. Copyright © 2017 by FallsApart Productions, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.