Losing a friend, mentor
I cried the other day. And I kept crying for several hours. I was crying over a woman.
Sounds a little funny but it’s true. I was crying over a woman who unintentionally broke my heart.
Renate Eigenbrod was the Head of the Department of Native Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba. She was also a mother, a good friend, and she was a mentor to many, including myself.
I first met Renate after she reached out to me via email in the summer of 2012. She had found me after I won a writing contest a couple months prior, and took notice of stuff I had written in Wawatay. She had a subscription to the paper. Renate wanted me to come to Winnipeg to sit on a panel of Indigenous writers at the inaugural Manitoba Indigenous Writers’ Festival as the “emerging writer” that fall.
I was very flattered, a little terrified, but also honoured to be invited.
I arrived at the airport in Winnipeg, Renate having told me she would be there to meet me. I really didn’t know what to expect as I’d only ever exchanged emails with her.
Renate was a very tall woman, and she had this beautiful silver hair. She was also German.
Renate had a very lovely accent. To be completely honest, I have never spoken to a German person before, and it was quite refreshing to hear her speak so admirably about First Nations literature and culture.
I spent a lot of time with her during that festival, and she introduced me to a lot of Indigenous writers. She liked to discuss my motives for writing, and also gave her feedback on various stories or columns I had written in Wawatay.
I was truly inspired after the festival, and Renate and I kept in touch after that. I’d often receive an email from her about a story of mine she read in the paper, or a column, and she would always encourage me to keep at it.
“You are getting better and better!” one email read over a particular column she enjoyed.
It wasn’t just the fact that I was writing in general, but to me, her support seemed to be more for the fact that I am an Indigenous writer and everything I write comes from the perspective of a third-generation residential school survivor.
She was always stressing the importance of our voice as survivors, which I think is why she enjoyed the short story “Jonas” so much because that story isn’t based on a first-hand residential school experience but the aftermath of it. The students in the story each felt the impact of a school system they had never been in.
I drew upon my own experience as “a survivor of a survivor” and also my friends and family when I wrote that story.
Sometimes it’s so depressing to think of how much was taken from us, and there’s always a longing for what might have been.
Renate let me know that it’s important to focus on what will be, especially if you work hard for it. That encouragement and support was something she seemingly blessed everyone she met with.
I can tell from the messages I read on her Facebook wall from all of her friends, family, students, and colleagues.
While Facebook is a place to interact with friends and share funny stories with people, it is also a place to read sometimes-sad news.
On Friday. May 9, I was informed from a friend on Facebook that our acquaintance, the supportive, intelligent, and kind spirit Renate, had passed away unexpectedly.
The words looked hollow as I read them. I did not want to believe it, as I was just thinking about her a few days prior and how we hadn’t talked in a while. I was planning on e-mailing her to ask her how she was doing and let her know what I was up to.
I felt this knot form in my stomach that day, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
I wasn’t ready to let her go, to not have any more discussions with her about writing, about life. I cried for the rest of the day as rain fell from the skies outside.
I wasn’t the only one to mourn the loss of Renate; I shared that hurt with many others. The next day, I went to a park with my son to enjoy the day, and I thought of her. I thought of everything she talked to me about writing, and I thought of the last time I saw her.
In January, Renate was returning me to the airport after the 2nd Manitoba Indigenous Writers Festival, and she wanted to have lunch at the café there.
She was so proud of my job so far as the youth editor of SEVEN, and she suggested to me that I apply for school at the University of Manitoba because it may help open up more options later when it comes to being an editor. I told her I would consider it. I thought it would be nice to be able to be around her more in Winnipeg and grow as a writer. Never stop learning, right?
I gave her a hug and thanked her for the opportunities she gave me, and I made my way towards airport security.
I stopped before lining up and looked back. She was still standing where I had left her by the café, and I could see her smiling at me just like the first time I saw her in the same airport.
She lifted her hand in the air and waved at me one last time before she turned around and left.
As much as it hurts that her airport wave was the last time I saw her, I am so thankful for the lessons and inspiration she instilled in me, and I am equally as thankful that her messages, her thoughts, her story will live on forever because that’s what words do. That’s what people do.
Even after you expire and move on to your spiritual journey, your words and your impression will remain, and your memory will be carried on by all of those whose hearts you touched in your life.
And Renate, you touched the hearts of so many people during your time here on Earth. Miigwetch.
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