Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Cherished Man's Final Walk

Shizhee Billie had a proud, happy look on his face when he opened the top kitchen drawer to pull out the two white envelopes. It had been nearly 20 years that he'd been away from silversmithing and now he was at his old craft once again, here at his new Window Rock home, in the big kitchen that had nothing familiar in it except the big old mahogany kitchen table we hauled there from Albuquerque.

The old house in Albuquerque he lived in for 40 plus years went the way of a bad loan and now in his late eighties, Billie was making brave plans to face his new life with vigor. "I'll build it all up all over again," he kept saying and Brian and I were determined to help get him going. So, Brian built him a wooden desk with a big center drawer, to house his silver materials and scraps, and we hustled to the Thunderbird store in Gallup to buy all kinds of silver.

It took about a week to fully set him up again, and then one morning shortly after that, Billie took his seat at the desk, ready for work. There was no doubt in my mind that he was wondering whether he still had the same skill at crafting silver that he did in his sixties, and Brian and I were no help when we laughed every time he messed up and the solder scraps went flying helter-skelter. But soon Billie found his way and fell right back into it like he never left. He created earrings, and rings and bracelets for his family and even some smaller stuff for me to sell to the Seminoles here in Florida.

Shizhee loved being busy with silver, especially during the long snowy cold winter days in Window Rock, and we would keep it going by ordering fancy rings and bracelets and barrettes for all kinds of occasions. What was really interesting was that Billie was always open to experiment and he especially enjoyed trying new things, using his trademark "eagle wing" design, the one that all the young silversmiths love to imitate but can never duplicate.

So that year when I visited in late May, I drew a sketch for him of a feather barrette that sprayed out from an oval piece of Morenci turquoise. That turqoise is well known for its beautiful bright blue color that is often flecked with gold. I had picked up the turquoise at Thunderbird the day before and had a vision of the beauty Shizhee could create with it. I kept on thinking about him working at the desk and hoped upon hope that he could do it because he used to tell me that barrettes were the hardest for him to do and that he often messed up.

I was back at the house in early July and decided to say nothing unless he did, because every time we spoke on the phone, he either forgot to mention the barrette or he just plain didn't want to. So, here we were in the kitchen, when he said with his silly crooked grin, "Oh, I almost forgot something," and opened the drawer containing the envelopes. "I made a couple of different styles," he went on casually, "so you see what you like."

One of the barettes was the one on my dreams, except only better. It was a long narrow silver eagle feather, with two pieces of Morenci turquoise set at both ends. This meant that Shizhee had made a trip on his own to Thunderbird to purchase another piece of turquoise that matched the first so he could design something that was "floating" in his head, he said. The second barrette was a fatty eagle feather with a beauty that stood on its own, without any stones. Needless to say, he wanted me to enjoy both, and I have. For the last five years, every morning, I have worn one or the other to honor him.

Shizhee Billie was a proud man and as he used to say, "The people in Window Rock will never see me all bent over because I'm a warrior and will always be". They say he was all dressed up for his final trip and he was wearing his boots, perhaps, for dancing. No, Shizhee would not go out quietly because that was not his way. He never lived quietly, and he would not pass on to the spiritual world quietly either.

Thank you, Billie, for coming into all our lives and for making us see the world through your eyes, in a new vision. I pray you have walked and will continue to walk in the next world in beauty, in that same beauty you created for all of us.