War Dances
by Sherman Alexie


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “hydrocephalus” as “an abnormal increase in the amount of cerebrospinal fluid within the cranial cavity that is accompanied by expansion of the cerebral ventricles, enlargement of the skull and especially the forehead, and atrophy of the brain.” I define “hydrocephalus” as “the obese, imperialistic water demon that nearly killed me when I was a baby.”

In order to save my life, and stop the water demon, I had brain surgery in 1967, when I was six months old. I was supposed to die. Obviously, I didn’t. I was supposed to be severely mentally disabled. I have only minor to moderate brain damage. I was supposed to have epileptic seizures. Those I did have, until I was seven years old. I was on phenobarbital, a major-league antiseizure medication, for six years.

The side effects of phenobarbital—all of which I suffered to some degree or another as a child—are sleepwalking, agitation, confusion, depression, nightmares, hallucinations, insomnia, apnea, vomiting, constipation, dermatitis, fever, liver and bladder dysfunction, and psychiatric disturbance.

How do you like them cockroaches?

Now, as an adult, thirty-three years removed from phenobarbital, I still suffer—to some degree or another—from sleepwalking, agitation, confusion, depression, nightmares, hallucinations, insomnia, bladder dysfunction, apnea, and dermatitis.

Is there such a disease as post-phenobarbital traumatic stress disorder?

Most hydrocephalics are shunted. A shunt is essentially brain plumbing that drains away excess cerebrospinal fluid. The shunts often fuck up and stop working. I know hydrocephalics who’ve had a hundred or more shunt revisions and repairs. That’s more than a hundred brain surgeries. There are ten fingers on any surgeon’s hands. There are two or three surgeons involved in any particular brain operation. That means that some hydrocephalics have had their brains fondled by three thousand fingers.

I’m lucky. I was shunted only temporarily. And I hadn’t suffered any hydrocephalic symptoms since I was seven years old.

Until July, 2008, when, at the age of forty-one, I went deaf in my right ear.


Sitting in my car in the hospital parking garage, I called my brother-in-law, who was babysitting my sons.

“Hey, it’s me. I just got done with the MRI on my head.”

My brother-in-law said something unintelligible. I realized that I was holding my cell to my bad ear, and I switched it to the good ear.

“The MRI dude didn’t look happy,” I said.

“That’s not good,” my brother-in-law said.

“No, it’s not. But he’s just a tech guy, right? He’s not an expert on brains or anything. He’s just the photographer, really. And he doesn’t know anything about ears or deafness or anything, I don’t think. Ah, hell, I don’t know what he knows. I just didn’t like the look on his face when I was done.”

“Maybe he just didn’t like you.”

“Well, I got worried when I told him I had hydrocephalus when I was a baby and he didn’t seem to know what that was.”

“Nobody knows what that is.”

“That’s the truth. Have you fed the boys dinner?”

“Yeah, but I was scrounging. There’s not much here.”

“I better go shopping.”

“Are you sure? I can do it if you need me to. I can shop the shit out of Trader Joe’s.”

“No, it’ll be good for me. I feel good. I fell asleep during the MRI. And I kept twitching, so we had to do it twice. Otherwise, I would’ve been done earlier.”

“That’s O.K. I’m O.K. The boys are O.K.”

“You know, before you go in the MRI tube they ask you what kind of music you want to listen to—jazz, classical, rock, or country—and I remembered how my dad spent a lot of time in MRI tubes near the end of his life. So I was wondering what kind of music he chose. I mean, he couldn’t hear shit anyway by that time, but he still must have chosen something. And I wanted to choose the same thing he chose. So I picked country.”

“Was it good country?”

“It was fucking Shania Twain and Faith Hill shit. I was hoping for George Jones or Loretta Lynn, or even some George Strait. Hell, I would’ve cried if they’d played Charley Pride or Freddy Fender.”

“You wanted to hear the Alcoholic Indian Father Jukebox.”

“Hey, that’s my line. You can’t quote me to me.”

“Why not? You’re always quoting you to you.”

“Kiss my ass. So, hey, I’m O.K., I think. And I’m going to the store. I’ll see you in a bit. You want anything?”

“Ah, man, I love Trader Joe’s. But you know what’s bad about them? You fall in love with something they have—they stock it for a year—and then it just disappears. They had those wontons I loved, and now they don’t. I was willing to shop for you and the boys, but I don’t want anything for me. I’m on a one-man hunger strike against them.”


After I got home with yogurt and turkey dogs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and my brother-in-law left, I watched George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” and laughed at myself for choosing a movie that featured dozens of zombies getting shot in the head.

When the movie was over, I called my wife, nine hours ahead in Italy.

“I should come home,” she said.

“No, I’m O.K.,” I said. “Come on, you’re in Rome. What are you seeing today?”

“The Vatican.”

“You can’t leave now. You have to go and steal something. It will be revenge for every Indian. Or maybe you can plant an eagle feather and claim that you just discovered Italy.”

“I’m worried.”

“Yeah, Catholicism has always worried me.”

“Stop being funny. I should see if I can get Mom and me on a flight tonight.”

“No, no, listen, your mom is old. This might be her last adventure. It might be your last adventure with her. Stay there. Say hi to the Pope for me. Tell him I like his shoes.”

That night, my sons climbed into bed with me. We all slept curled around one another like sled dogs in a snowstorm. I woke, hour by hour, and touched my head and neck to see if they had changed shape—to feel if antennae were growing. Some insects hear with their antennae. Maybe that was what was happening to me.


My father, a part-time blue-collar construction worker, died of full-time alcoholism in March, 2003. On his deathbed, he said to me, “Turn down that light, please.”

“Which light?” I asked.

“The light on the ceiling.”

“Dad, there’s no light.”

“It burns my skin, son. It’s too bright. It hurts my eyes.”

“Dad, I promise you there’s no light.”

“Don’t lie to me, son. It’s God passing judgment on earth.”

“Dad, you’ve been an atheist since ’79. Come on, you’re just remembering your birth. On your last day, you’re going back to your first.”

“No, son, it’s God telling me I’m doomed. He’s using the brightest lights in the universe to show me the way to my flame-filled tomb.”

“No, Dad, those lights were in your delivery room.”

“If that’s true, son, then turn down my mother’s womb.”

We buried my father in the tiny Catholic cemetery on our reservation. Since I am named after him, I had to stare at a tombstone with my name on it.


Two months after my father’s death, I began research on a book about our family’s history with war. I had a cousin who served as a cook in the Gulf War, in 1990; I had another cousin who served in the Vietnam War as a cook; and my father’s father, Adolph, served in the Second World War and was killed in action on Okinawa, on April 5, 1945.

During my research, I interviewed thirteen men who’d served with my cousin in Vietnam but could find only one surviving man who’d served with my grandfather. This is a partial transcript of that interview, recorded with a microphone and an iPod on January 14, 2008:

Me: Ah, yes, hello. I’m here in Livonia, Michigan, to interview—well, perhaps you should introduce yourself, please?
Leonard Elmore: What?
Me: Um, oh, I’m sorry, I was asking if you could perhaps introduce yourself.
L.E.: You’re going to have to speak up. I think my hearing aid is going low on power or something.
Me: That is a fancy thing in your ear.
L.E.: Yeah, let me mess with it a bit. I got a remote control for it. I can listen to the TV, the stereo, and the telephone with this thing. It’s fancy. It’s one of them Bluetooth hearing aids. My grandson bought it for me. Wait, O.K., there we go. I can hear now. So, what were you asking?
Me: I was hoping you could introduce yourself into my recorder here.
L.E.: Sure, my name is Leonard Elmore.
Me: How old are you?
L.E.: I’m eighty-five and a half years old (laughter). My great-grandkids are always saying they’re seven and a half or nine and a half or whatever. It just cracks me up to say the same thing at my age.
Me: So, that’s funny, um, but I’m here to ask you some questions about my grandfather—
L.E.: Adolph. It’s hard to forget a name like that. An Indian named Adolph, and there was that Nazi bastard named Adolph. Your grandfather caught plenty of grief over that. But we mostly called him Chief. Did you know that?
Me: I could have guessed.
L.E.: Yeah, nowadays I suppose it isn’t a good thing to call an Indian Chief, but back then it was what we did. I served with a few Indians. They didn’t segregate them Indians, you know, not like the black boys. I know you aren’t supposed to call them boys anymore, but they were boys. All of us were boys, I guess. But the thing is, those Indian boys lived and slept and ate with us white boys. They were right there with us. But, anyway, we called all them Indians Chief. I bet you’ve been called Chief a few times yourself.
Me: Just once.
L.E.: Were you all right with it?
Me: I threw a basketball in the guy’s face.
L.E. (laughs).
Me: We live in different times.
L.E.: Yes, we do. Yes, we do.
Me: So, perhaps you could, uh, tell me something about my grandfather.
L.E.: I can tell you how he died.
Me: Really?
L.E.: Yeah, it was on Okinawa, and we hit the beach, and, well, it’s hard to talk about it. It was the worst thing—it was hell. No, that’s not even a good way to describe it. I’m not a writer like you, I’m not a poet, so I don’t have the word, but just think of it this way. That beach, that island, was filled with sons and fathers, men who loved and were loved, American and Japanese and Okinawan, and all of us were dying, were being killed by other sons and fathers who also loved and were loved.
Me: That sounds like poetry to me— tragic poetry.
L.E.: Well, anyway, it was like that. Fire everywhere. And two of our boys, Jonesy and O’Neal, went down, were wounded and in the open on the sand. And your grandfather—who was just this little man, barely over five feet tall and maybe a hundred and thirty pounds—he just ran out there and picked up those two guys, one on each shoulder, and carried them to cover. Hey, are you O.K., son?
Me: Yes, I’m sorry. But, well, the thing is, I knew my grandfather was a war hero—he won twelve medals—but I could never find out what he did to win the medals.
L.E.: I didn’t know about any medals. I just know what I saw. Your grandfather saved those two boys, but he got shot in the back doing it. And he lay there in the sand—I was lying right beside him—and he died.
Me: Did he say anything before he died?
L.E.: Hold on. I need to—
Me: Are you O.K.?
L.E.: It’s just—I can’t—
Me: I’m sorry. Is there something wrong?
L.E.: No, it’s just—with your book and everything, I know you want something big here. I know you want something big from your grandfather. I know you’re hoping he said something huge and poetic, and, honestly, I was thinking about lying to you. I was thinking about making up something as beautiful as I could. Something about love and forgiveness and courage and all that. But I couldn’t think of anything good enough. And I didn’t want to lie to you. So I have to be honest and say that your grandfather didn’t say anything. He just died there in the sand. In silence.

I could not sleep. I was scared that I would die if I slept. And I didn’t want my sons to become orphans—partial orphans—as they slept. So I stayed awake and waited for dawn. Then, at 3 A.M., the phone rang.

“It’s me,” my wife said. “I don’t care what you say. I’ll be home in sixteen hours.”

“Thank you,” I said.


While I waited for the results of the MRI, I asked my brother-in-law to watch the boys again because I didn’t want to get bad news in front of them.

Alone and haunted, I wandered the mall, tried on clothes, and waited for my cell phone to ring.

Two hours later, I wanted to murder everything, so I drove south to a coffee joint, a spotless place called Dirty Joe’s. Yes, I was silly enough to think that I’d be calmer with a caffeinated drink.

As I sat outside in a wooden chair and sipped my coffee, I cursed the vague, rumbling, ringing noise in my ear. And yet when my cell phone rang I again held it to my deaf ear.

“Hello. Hello,” I said and wondered if it was a prank call, then remembered and switched the phone to my left ear.

“Hello,” my doctor said. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” I said. “So what’s going on?”

“There are irregularities in your head.”

“My head’s always been irregular.”

“It’s good to have a sense of humor,” the doctor said. “You have a small tumor that is called a meningioma. They grow in the meninges membranes that lie between your brain and your skull.”

“Shit,” I said. “I have cancer.”

“Well,” he said. “These kinds of tumors are usually non-cancerous. And they grow very slowly, so in six months or so we’ll do another MRI. Don’t worry. You’re going to be O.K.”

“What about my hearing?” I asked.

“We don’t know what is causing the hearing loss, but you should start a course of prednisone, a steroid, just to go with the odds. Your deafness might lessen if left alone, but we’ve had success with the steroids in bringing back hearing. There are side effects, like insomnia, weight gain, night sweats, and depression.”

“Oh, boy,” I said. “Those side effects might make up most of my personality already. Will the ’roids also make me quick to pass judgment? And I’ve always wished I had a dozen more skin tags and moles.”

The doctor chuckled. “You’re a funny man.”

I wanted to throw my phone into a wall, but I said goodbye instead and glared at the tumorless people and their pretty tumorless heads.


Mayoclinic.com gave this definition of “meningioma”: “a tumor that arises from the meninges—the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. The majority of meningioma cases are noncancerous (benign), though rarely a meningioma can be cancerous (malignant).”

It was a scary and yet strangely positive description. No one ever wants to read the word “malignant” unless you’re reading a Charles Dickens novel about an evil landlord, but “benign” and “majority” are two words that go well together.

From the University of Washington Medical School Web site I learned that meningioma tumors “are usually benign, slow growing and do not spread into normal brain tissue. Typically, a meningioma grows inward causing pressure on the brain or spinal cord. It may grow outward toward the skull, causing it to thicken.”

So, wait, what the fuck? A meningioma can cause pressure on the brain, and spinal fluid? Oh, you mean just like fucking hydrocephalus? Just like the water demon that once tried to crush my brain and kill me? Armed with this new information—with these new questions—I called my doctor.

“Hey, you’re O.K.,” he said. “We’re going to closely monitor you. And your meningioma is very small.”

“O.K., but I just read—”

“Did you go on the Internet?”


“Which sites?”

“Mayo Clinic and the University of Washington.”

“O.K., those are pretty good sites. Let me look at them.”

I listened to my doctor type.

“O.K., those are accurate,” he said.

“What do you mean by accurate?” I asked. “I mean, the whole pressure-on-the-brain thing—that sounds like hydrocephalus.”

“Well, there were some irregularities in your MRI that were the burr holes from your surgery, and there seems to be some scarring and perhaps you had an old concussion. But other than that it all looks fine.”

“But what about me going deaf? Can’t these tumors make you lose hearing?”

“Yes, but only if they’re located near an auditory nerve. And your tumor is not.”

“Can this tumor cause pressure on my brain?”

“It could, but yours is too small for that.”

“So I’m supposed to trust you on the tumor thing when you can’t figure out the hearing thing?”

“There is no physical correlation between your deafness and the tumor. Do the twenty-day treatment of prednisone, and the audiologist and I will examine your ear and your hearing then. If there’s no improvement, we’ll figure out other ways of treating you.”

“But you won’t be treating the tumor?”

“Like I said, we’ll scan you again in six to nine months—”

“You said six before.”

“O.K., in six months we’ll take another MRI, and if it has grown significantly—or has changed shape or location or anything dramatic—then we’ll talk about treatment options. But if you look on the Internet—and I know you’re going to spend a lot of time obsessing about this, so I’ll tell you what you’ll find. About two per cent of the population live their whole lives with undetected meningiomas. The tumors can become quite large, without any side effects, and are found only at autopsies conducted for other reasons of death. Even when these kinds of tumors become invasive or dangerous, they are still rarely fatal. And your tumor, even if it grows fairly quickly, will not likely become an issue for many years, decades. So that’s what I can tell you right now. How are you feeling?”

“Freaked and fucked.”

I wanted to feel reassured, but I had a brain tumor. How can one feel any optimism about being diagnosed with a brain tumor? Even if that brain tumor is neither cancerous nor interested in crushing one’s brain?