Lessons From Dying

Sarah Agaton Howes is an artist, designer, and cultural arts teacher. She has organized the KwePack, an Indigenous women’s running group, and is a resident with the Minnesota Historical Society. (photo by Ne Dah Ness Rose Green of Green Photography)

I should have known that babies died, but in 2005, I did not. 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 is not like I had lived a blessed life, but I had not known tragedy this way. My parents loved me, but I watched abuse and addiction around me. I thought I would be the lucky one. I did not know yet that there are no lucky ones. 

I did not 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 is 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, 

I stared at her for 24 hours to be sure there had not been a mistake. That she would not 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 could not breathe. 

Losing your child is losing yourself. I could not 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?

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 it was full of mosquitoes and mud and not romantic at all. 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 did not 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 did not make it past month two. The Death Trap strikes again, I told them. My dead gods cursed me. Fuck the greeting card condolences and all the optimism. All I had was death. And my song. 

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.

I never let this child out of my sight. On a plane, the flight attendant offered to watch him so I could use the bathroom. I said, “I don’t know you!” She 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.

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.

“Lessons from Dying“ by Sarah Agaton Howes, excerpt from “What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color,” edited by Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Used by permission. upress.umn.edu

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