Sarah Agaton Howes
I should have known that babies died, but in 2005, I did not.
I didn’t know how to watch for the page turns. I remember the nurse’s face when she looked at my ultrasound. I didn’t know I could watch and analyze her face and see my daughter’s death written all over her eyes. I didn’t know that going straight to the hospital meant things were wrong and the sprinting nurse meant things were over.
I was five days past my due date with my first child. I didn’t understand when the nurse said, “There is no heartbeat.” I told the nurse to revive the baby.
It’s not like I had lived a blessed life, but I hadn’t known tragedy this way. My parents loved me, but I watched abuse and addiction around me my whole life. I thought I would be the lucky one. I didn’t know yet that there are no lucky ones.
I didn’t know that you had to go through labor to deliver your dead child. Our beautiful daughter Mahali Josephine was born August 31, 2005. She had long wavy hair and was “perfect in every way,” according to the nurse, “except she’s dead.”
I carried her out of the hospital. The nurses thought we were delusional. But one thing about Anishinaabeg is we follow our own sets of rules. I knew there would be no explanations, no autopsies, no funeral homes. So I wrapped her up, they wheeled me out like the “real moms,” and we drove her home.
Did you know you could keep your tiny baby this way? I stared at her for twenty-four hours to be sure there had not been a mistake. That she wouldn’t suddenly gasp for breath. That this all wasn’t some cruel hoax. Nothing. There was nothing left. I had no ceremony for this. I made things up. I gave her tiny moccasins and tiny special pajamas. Her grandpa made her a tiny box. We made up prayers and rituals and poured dirt over her tiny box. And then after a person buries their tiny baby in tiny moccasins in a tiny box, they are supposed to walk away from her.
I came home to a house full of baby clothes. Tiny diapers, tiny blankets, and bags of baby gifts lined the house.
After that, every movement felt slow and labored. And then I realized that I had also died. I couldn’t breathe.
Losing your child is losing yourself. She died, I died. I didn’t, I couldn’t protect her. My body, what became known as the Death Trap had killed her. Or maybe the air had. The water? God? Who, who had killed my daughter?
A short list of what died that day: my daughter, me, my dreams, her future, all my gods, my laughter, the cabbage I covered my engorged breasts with, and this part of my stomach where I keep her sadness.
After 2005 I knew dead children were a thing. They became the only thing.
I built shrines and forts to her and all the other babies. Planted trees and burned things. I walked and cried to stones. All my dead gods continued their silence.
I had no songs, I knew no songs, I had no ceremonies, no gods. But there was a moment. I stood by a river, and I cried at the rocks. This sounds mystical, but in fact it was full of mosquitoes and mud and not romantic at all. But I got a song. It was really more of a call for help. It was me calling from the grave. Asking the mystery of this universe to help me. Please, please, please, please, please, please.
Everyone told us to wait to have another baby. But I became maniacal in my desire for another baby, any baby. Those crazed women who kidnap children began to make perfect sense to me. I told my husband to “give me another baby.” I didn’t care about anything else. Before I was even sure my body was healed, I decided to force my body into pregnancy again. My tiny baby number two didn’t make it past month two. The Death Trap strikes again, I told them. My dead gods cursed me. Fuck the greeting card condolences and the meant to be bullshit, and all the optimism. All I had was death. And my song.
There was nothing for me but washing my hair. Washing the dishes. Dirty clean dirty clean. I stopped answering the phone.
Grief and total desperation joined me to so many women. My grandmothers are the survivors of boarding schools, rapes, abuse, child abduction, and so much sadness. They surround me with their stories, their hands, their laughter, their bitterness, and their sheer determination to not die. I came from this legacy of sadness. But I also came from their legacy of survival. I came from their hardship. Without my knowing, I had prepared for this. I built them altars to add to the dead children altars.
I hated when people called me strong.
Against all sage advice, within the year, I was pregnant again.
I waited for this baby to die. Every day I waited for it. I fed the baby orange juice to make it move, went into rounds of endless ultrasounds, and somehow he survived. The Death Trap had produced a breathing, crying child who looked at me, and he saved me. My tiny Giniiwens flew over the world, saw my sadness, and came to bring me life. I decided to be a soldier to stand between death and my boy.
I wish I had been able to be better. But instead I just decided not to sleep. I watched him to make sure his chest rose and fell for eighteen months. I held him while he was asleep and awake. I kept our breathing in sync in this magical thinking way of making him stay with me. An owl, the messenger of death, perched itself out our communal bedroom. Every night I screamed at that goddamn owl. I told my husband to get rid of it or I was going to start shooting at it. But now, I wonder if that owl wasn’t telling me that I was no longer dead either.
I never let this child out of my sight. Once on a plane the flight attendant offered to watch him so I could use the bathroom, and I said, “I don’t know you!” She leaned in and said, “Ma’am, we’re on a plane, where will I go?” But she didn’t know that I was a soldier, and I dreamed magical thoughts, and I was terrified every day that my child was going to die.
But remember I had that song?
Repeatedly people in my community suggested I try ceremony, but my gods were dead, and I knew no ceremonies for this. I grew up a Christian-school, assimilated Indian girl and had become a dead assimilated one. But there was this little boy and his eyes. I wanted to be healthy for him, physically, spiritually, all the healthies. For him, I just went. I took a list of what I needed and went to ceremony. Alone.
There was not a magical moment where the lights shone down on me from the clouds. There was no mysticism. Through this searching, this desperate clawing at the grave to be alive enough to raise my boy, to meet his eyes, I found ceremony. My gods were dead but so were my ancestors, and so maybe I pray to them. Through this clawing I found so many beautiful people, and their love found me. Through this digging I found running and a community of women to surround me in running toward my life. Somehow through digging myself out of the grave, I realized it wasn’t only me digging. This world offered life as much as death. Out of my deep sadness a hole had been dug out so deep I experienced joy in a way only the grieved can.
Every day when I see my children, I am again amazed that they are breathing and have survived another day. Trauma changed me forever. But now my heart so gouged, my heart so billowed, my heart so open can explode with love. My heart has depth I am certain grief gifted me.
It turned out there was a whole universe waiting for me. A world of ceremony, art, laughter, prayer, songs, and my ancestors. I died to get here.