Thursday, January 26, 2017

Entering the Hall of Remembrance

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By Mathew Aho

My Grandfather is the glue that holds our family together. He raised three daughters, but was never given the son he wanted. Ironically, all three of his daughters would grow to have sons of their own. My Mother and her sister would end up raising their sons as single parents. My Uncle and my Father had their own agendas and were not around. My Grandfather stepped in as the male role model, and father figure, that my cousin and I needed.

I would only see my Grandfather a couple times a year, but I remember counting down the days until it was time to visit. He took me fishing at the local creek, Big Greek, where I caught Crawdads, small Trout and Sculpines with him for hours. He also taught me how to tie and bait a hook. He took me fishing for salmon and Sturgeon, and crabbing on the Columbia River. He taught me how to shoot a bb gun, and even let me shoot my first real gun, a .22 caliber revolver.

I loved fishing so much, and still do. Being in the woods and surrounded by silence except for the sounds of nature—and Grandpa's quiet knowledge of local trees and plants, how to read a river and the tides--this is when I was happiest. Grandpa recognized my passion for fishing and being outdoors. He took me to Alaska one year, driving us all the way there from Oregon. We stopped at every lake, river and puddle so I could cast my line a few times. In Alaska we dug for Razor clams, fished for Halibut in Cook Inlet, Chinook and Sockeye on the Kenai and Russian Rivers.

Grandpa taught me how to run a chainsaw and split firewood, to stoke a fire. He taught me how to ride a dirt bike, a Honda XR 80. I remember how he laughed at me when I dumped it over while riding through a large mud puddle. I was embarrassed, discouraged, and soaked to the bone but he made me get back on and try again. He taught me to never give up.

But I was just a young boy in those days. As I got older, I started getting into trouble with the law and using drugs. Grandpa never turned his back on me, but instead sat me down and explained that I had a choice to make. He reminded me of the good times we'd shared and explained that one direction included all of those things, and the other way none of them. The choice was mine. I chose wrongly.

I continued down the path of destruction, a life of crime and addiction. Several felony convictions later--including a couple gun charges--and I‘m serving a sentence of 17 1/2 years in prison.

The trouble with being a hard-headed and drug-addicted youth is that you don't realize your own mistakes until it‘s too late. My biggest mistake wasn't in missing out on creating more good memories with Grandpa. Rather, my biggest mistake was in not realizing the hole I had dug for myself until it was too deep.

Grandpa deserved a better grandson than me. I regret most of all not being able to show him the man I have become. He will never be able to witness my redemption, and I will never hear him say he's proud of me. I am finally on the path I should have been on a long time ago. I have sworn oaths and dedicated the majority of my time to self-improvement and education, for the sake of my own children. But my Grandfather will never get to see me succeed.

Cancer is consuming his body. I can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt because my family needs me and the man who taught me so much needs me for the first time. But I cannot be there for them, for him.

I will never be able to take my Grandfather fishing, as he did for me so many times. Whenever I receive a Jpay message saying I should call home, my stomach churns and my thoughts immediately go to the worst. Will I even get a chance to tell him goodbye? Or will a sergeant appear at my cell front one day bearing the news I have been dreading? I do not want to hear it from DOC staff, especially the Chaplain.

I worry about my Grandmother. Who will make sure she is okay, that the wood is split and the fire stoked? I look a lot like my Grandfather. Could my presence comfort her? My Mother and aunt will need my help since they still live on their own. Yet I cannot be there for any of them.

I feel like a failure. I have failed my family, failed to make proud the only man in my life whose opinion of me matters. Regardless of what I am able to accomplish or what type of degree I walk out of this prison with, the pride I gain from it will be stained with the residue of my failures. 

Doing time used to be easy. I used to hear others—and myself--say, "A three-piece? A nickel? Shoot, I can do that standing on my head." But not now, not after being given this sentence. Sobriety and reality have set in. The realization that my children won‘t have their father present in their lives until they are adults made me focus on truly making it this time. The days melted together, the past five years becoming a blur. But now that I am so close to reaching my goals, time has all but stopped. I am haunted by the thought of losing my Grandfather. What if something happens to my family? My children? I am now painfully aware of every day I am serving, and with the passing of each another set of memories I am missing.

I am trapped behind a red brick wall and razor wire, unable to do what needs to be done. I hate that I am helpless in this regard, and have only myself to blame. I will carry this guilt for the rest of my life.

In the belief system of my ancestors, which I also follow, there is an afterlife. Reserved for those who have lived honorable and courageous lives, Valhalla is also for those warriors who have been slain in battle. Those who’ve shown no fear, honoring their ancestors and descendants through their deeds in life and actions in death.

Highly sought after and filled with glorious souls, Valhalla is literally the hall of the slain. Throughout the day there is much drinking, feasting and celebrating. At the end of each day the warrior souls, known as Einherjar, fight to the death only to be restored the following day so they can repeat everything again.

Upon entering this great hall you are greeted by the god Bragi, the divine Skald who sings of your exploits and welcomes you, reuniting you with your ancestors. You fight, feast and die everyday, in preparation for Ragnarok: the final battle, and end of time as we know it.

In the poem "Havamal," Odin tells of the importance of living honorably, being hospitable and having our deeds remembered: "Cattle die, kinsmen die, and everyman himself will die. But the one thing that never dies is the fame of a dead man's deeds." 

We honor our ancestors at days of remembrance, at Blots and at Sumbel. We tell their stories at family gatherings, commemorating our lineage.

When I was told that my Grandfather, who had been the only steady father figure in my life, was sick with cancer and only had six months to a year to live, I began to question whether I would ever see him again in eternity or not. To what part of the afterlife would he make it? Would he gain Valhalla? Does Odin's hall hold a seat for him? For me?

Valhalla, taken literally, can only be reached by those who are chosen or have died in battle. But what is Valhalla symbolically? Access to the hall requires honorable acts worthy of story or song, deeds worth reliving until existence itself ceases.

I believe Valhalla represents the importance of being remembered. To become a memory or have one‘s story written is symbolic of gaining Valhalla. Living an honorable life, leaving a mark on the world, will earn our exploits and deeds a place in the halls of the living. We live on in the minds of those we have affected. Our battles will be relived and refought every time we are remembered. A mead horn will be lifted in our honor, and we will each be celebrated in the minds of our descendants, our family and friends. To inspire those who follow in our footsteps, making them strive to emulate or continue what we‘ve accomplished--that, I believe, is the essence of Einherjar.

To gain Valhalla is to become unforgotten. Becoming memorable is gaining Valhalla. According to Odinist beliefs, a glorious death is defined by martyrdom or dying in war while fighting. But what about battling cancer? What about battling addiction, or fighting to feed, protect and provide for your family? Fighting life‘s obstacles without fear- persevering and striving forward, unwavering in the face of adversity. Are those deaths worthy of song? Worthy of being turned into stories passed down until the end of time as we know it?

Our ancestors strived for fame and renown so they would live on forever. They did not fear death, but rather welcomed it. If I die, went their reasoning, it will have been my time. Why worry about when that time arrives? Embrace life, and accept the inevitability of death.

I could attempt to trace my lineage back to All-Father Odin, as some kinsmen have done, and brag about being a direct descendant. But I need not go back further than two generations. For being a descendant of Kenneth Hoagland is worth bragging about. My heart swells with the pride and honor of calling myself his grandson. Without the gift of his blood in my veins, I would not exist, nor would my children. How can someone ever repay another for such a gift? All I can do is strive to become even half the man he is and offer this:
Grandpa, you will never be forgotten. I will not let your memory die. I will make sure that your descendants, my descendants, know you and love you. Even though you may never see it, Grandfather, I will do all I can to make you proud.

As long as Valhalla‘s gates still shine for those who deserve remembrance, I know he will be welcome there.

I will do my best to see you again, Grandpa Hoagy.

Update:  My grandfather passed away the morning of December 25th, 2016.  He will be missed...

Mathew Aho 841807
WSRU D-224
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
I am 35 years old, and the father of three wonderful children. About halfway through a 210 month prison sentence for firearm and burglary charges, I'm utilizing my time by earning a degree from Seattle Central College through University Beyond Bars at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington. I'm nearly there.


Anonymous said...

Mat, what a beautifully written memorial to your Grandfather. He is very proud of you. What a glorious, respectful reunion it will be. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Mat, your memories were touching. I am positive fighting the battle of cancer will qualify your grandfather to go to Valhalla.

deborah ramirez said...

Mathew, you're an amazing and heroic man. Your grandfather is truly guiding your every step towards your new life. Your commitment and dedication to yourself and becoming the man you were created to be is stellar. You're a true testament of strength and courage