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Weweni sago


Weweni sago. It’s a phrase in Anishinaabemowin that can mean “take care.”

A few weeks before his first birthday, I bounced my son in my arms, trying hard to savour the moment while chasing harsh memories from my mind. A family celebration was looming and that should have been my focus, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he and his mother almost died the day he was born.

They both fully recovered and now thrive in the most beautiful ways. But for some reason, I kept replaying that traumatic moment and those precarious first days. I didn’t know why I thought that way and it really troubled me. I cradled him close with determined care in my arms and immense love in my heart, while fear and anxiety lingered in my head.

There was no reason to be afraid or anxious. We were blessed with happiness and health as a new family. And while his birth was physically devastating for both him and his mother, I felt like it was “only” emotionally traumatic for me, and that I should have gotten over it by then. Their strength and resilience inspired me every day. Why couldn’t I embrace the wonder, beauty and power of this life and stop the trembling in my fingers?

This internal tension peaked when I couldn’t really bring myself to speak during those bizarre new episodes. I found myself unable to express exactly what I was feeling, which was something I had never experienced. My wife Sarah – ever kind, supportive and loving – noticed, and we tried to talk some of it out.

Together we identified a persistent grief from those moments in the hospital that I had never really addressed. I kept thinking about what my life would be like without them, even though they were tangible, real, beacons of love and might right in front of me. All this time later with no real reason to worry, I knew those were irrational thoughts.

Then she reminded me about what else happened in the last year. My grandmother – one of my life’s pillars – had died in the spring. So did my uncle, the man who made me a rock n’ roll fan. There was great loss in her family too. Her great-grandmother and family matriarch also died in the spring. It was a heavy year of loss. And another person very close to me also experienced serious trauma, but I won’t explain out of respect for their privacy.

While those tragedies had compounded in a short time, I realized there were even more in my past that I still hadn’t emotionally resolved. A few years ago, two cousins of mine died in the same week – one of an overdose, and the other of suicide.

My aunt, who was a storytelling and traditional mentor to me, died suddenly a year before that. There were many more deaths and victims of violence close to me. A lot of my serious grief goes back to the loss of one of my best friends in a car accident when I was 16.

I hadn’t even considered how that grief could accumulate, like stubborn black soot in a stovepipe. Up until then, I thought I had grieved enough at each funeral. The ceremonies around death in our culture make time and space for this very important process.

A fire burns for four days of mourning to make way for a relieving celebration at the end when the spirit leaves this realm to find their way to the spirit world. It’s a beautiful practice that helps the family and community heal from the loss. But when so many of them happen in a relatively short time, maybe it’s harder to fully expunge that sadness.

It’s no secret now that tragedies strike First Nations much more frequently than other communities. A long list of human calamities plague reserves: disease, suicide, violence, abuse, and so on. These are well documented, and the immense weight of these ongoing losses is devastating. A friend recently wrote that being Indigenous in Canada is to be in a perpetual state of grief.

And with all kinds of media constantly feeding reminders of these disproportionate tragedies to First Nations, it’s almost like they become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It’s easy to convince yourself that grief and suffering are ingrained in Indigenous identity, and that sadness is permanently fused to our DNA.

All these troublesome thoughts and feelings swamped my mind as soon as it idled. It felt like gravity quadrupled as soon as my focus shifted from my family, my job, or other activities that kept me occupied. Grief was dragging me down, and although it hadn’t taken a major toll on my professional life or my home life yet, it was only a matter of time before it became truly burdensome and I wouldn’t be able to function or focus on work or the happiness that flourished in my home.

Thankfully, my wife saw this become more serious as I became a little withdrawn. My silent sorrow hinted at inner emotional turmoil she’d never seen in me up to that point. She suggested I seek out and speak with a grief counsellor. She helped me find one here in Sudbury who was Anishinaabe and could help me look at my situation through a cultural lens and get me back on a positive path.

I was open and willing to receive this help. Throughout my life, I’ve always considered myself the one others go to when they’re grieving or down. I’ve always believed that I’m emotionally and spiritually strong. I grew up going to ceremonies, which built a strong cultural foundation that created a powerful link to my family, community, and Anishinaabe identity.

But I wasn’t strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was too apprehensive to discuss it with family and friends. I didn’t believe my personal issues were as serious as what other people were living through. I needed an outside perspective to ground me once again.

So I went to the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre for help. Without going into the details of the discussion, the person I sat with was able to bring me back to centre. She helped lift a massive weight off me. I understood what had happened to me. And I realized that unresolved grief can have serious consequences. I’m very thankful for this person’s guidance, and to my life partner for leading me to her.

I’ve never suffered seriously from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, although I do my best to advocate for people who do. Through this all, I’ve learned that grief isn’t fleeting. It doesn’t disappear when the fire goes out at the end of a funeral ceremony. Sometimes it tucks itself away, hiding behind those fulfilling moments of relief and celebration when family and friends come together in death. It’s an infectious mould that propagates as the years go on and the death toll rises. It has to be acknowledged and confronted, or it never goes away.

I share this for the sake of transparency and to encourage discussion. As a journalist, I write regularly about the grief and loss of others. As an author, I often adorn my own emotional hardships with the mask of fiction. But I believe it’s important for someone like me to be candid about these very real difficulties. It’s helping me, and hopefully writing this will support others in getting help as well.

Weweni sago.

A grandmother’s everlasting embrace

Waub and Grannie
My very beloved grandmother Ruth Shipman died on June 9, 2017. She embodied everything wonderful about the richness of life, and nearly a month later, it’s still hard to believe and accept that she’s gone. But she lived a very impressive and inspiring 92 years, and I’m extremely proud to be part of her legacy as her grandson. I look back on my life with her with great fondness, adoration, and love.

She was a constant presence throughout my childhood, teaching me to be kind, patient, and creative as she helped raise me. Our time together back then was always filled with all kinds of fun activities. She always encouraged me and my brothers and cousins to engage in pretty much anything that enriched our lives. She was a very passionate storyteller, and often made up vivid stories on the spot to entertain us. She inspired me to let my imagination take me anywhere, and I credit her with leading me to the journey that I’m on today.

I was motivated to succeed in school and in my professional life just to tell her about my accomplishments. I took so much pride in the faith and belief she had in me. She held me up in so many ways, and I became a confident and passionate person because of her influence. She was a huge CBC fan, and being able to tell her that I was hired by CBC to be a reporter was one of the proudest and best moments of my life.

She was a nurse who was committed to healthy living. She was hospitalized for years when she was young because of tuberculosis, and she survived that to emerge as a true force for living in a good way. I really thought she was invincible, which is what makes her death pretty hard to accept. But I can honour her by making sure I live as long as possible as well.

It’s pretty mind-boggling to know that a person who is one quarter of who I am is physically gone. But I feel her with me and in me, and I know that she will always be there. And I see her in my son, and I take great comfort and pride in knowing that he will carry her with him throughout his life as well. I’m very grateful that they were able to share moments in this world together. I can’t wait to tell him all about her.

I love you, Grannie. Rest well.

“You had a plan for us”

Sarah and Jiikwis in the special care nursery.

Sarah and Jiikwis in the special care nursery.

Our son Jiikwis is now three months old! He arrived in early December, four weeks early, after his mother suddenly became eclamptic one morning. It was a frightening medical crisis, but thanks to the quick thinking of our midwife and doctors and nurses at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, an emergency c-section saved both of their lives. It was a very traumatic event, but they both fully recovered, and after six days in the hospital, we were all able to go home. Those first days were the scariest and most stressful of my life. But as the trauma has subsided, the memories of that time have also started to fade. Sarah and I wanted to make sure Jiikwis knew everything about his birth, so we recorded a conversation we had with him to explain the details. I decided to transcribe some of that and post it here, for the sake of documenting this important time in our lives, and to share our story with other parents who may be experiencing something similar. I’ve edited the transcript for length and clarity.

Waub: Jiikwis, we first found in the spring that your mama was pregnant, and we had a summer of excitement.

Sarah: We were planning on giving birth at the Ottawa Birth and Wellness Centre. And we had a midwife all set up – Jessica. We saw her a bunch of times, and we made the decision that we were going to have a natural birth. There was always going to be the option of going to the hospital if we needed to. We had it all planned out. We even went to prenatal classes. We did hypnobirthing classes. So your mama was gonna do it all. And we were very excited about bringing you into the world in a very quiet and calm and beautiful way.

W: As time went on I had my own vision and wishes as to how it was going to happen. We were going to play some relaxing music. I was going to sing you in on the hand drum. I wanted to say some things in Anishinaabemowin. Because I thought it would be really cool if the first sounds you heard in your life were the drum and your native language. That’s what we were hoping would happen, but it didn’t really work out that way.

S: The night before you were born, your mama wasn’t really feeling good. I had a really bad headache that night, and I couldn’t sleep. I had pain in my ribs, and it felt like I had really bad gas. And then I started getting pain in my diaphragm as well. I ended up pacing around the house all night, and I didn’t get any sleep. I vomited twice early in the morning. So at 6AM I emailed my boss and said I wouldn’t be in to work that day. I already had an appointment with the midwife scheduled, and I told my boss that I was going to go see her to see what was up. I told your dehdeh (daddy) to go ahead to work, and that I’d be able to drive myself to the appointment on my own.

I got to the appointment and I really wasn’t feeling well. Waiting to go in and see the midwife felt like torture. I finally got into her office and I was describing to her how I felt, and she was very concerned. And then all of a sudden my head started turning. I was trying to look at her, but my head kept pulling back in the other direction, and it was really shaking. And that’s the last thing I remember.

W: I went to work and your mama and I were texting back and forth. She was keeping me posted on how she was feeling. She still wasn’t feeling great, but the fact that she was in touch with me was putting me at ease, because I knew she must have been okay. And then I had an interview to do at work. I was at a hotel downtown to do a story about a conference. That interview took about ten minutes, so after it was done I checked my personal phone, and saw that there was a missed call and a message. I checked the message and it was the midwife’s office. They said “Waub, Sarah has collapsed. She’s gone in an ambulance to the hospital. You should go there right away.” So I called back to confirm that’s what was going on, and they said yes, she’s at the Civic Hospital. Go there right away. So I ran back to the newsroom to get my stuff, and went back outside to get a cab to the hospital.

I went right to the emergency room, and asked for your mama, but the woman at the desk looked at the computer and couldn’t find a Sarah Rice. She said sometimes it takes a little while for patients to show up in the system, because they’re most likely being cared for by ER staff. So I said okay, I’ll wait. And at that point I wasn’t really that worried, because I knew she was with her midwife, and they got her to the hospital as quickly as possible. I figured she was maybe dehydrated, or maybe feeling weak or sick, which made her collapse. So I decided just to wait some more.

But the longer I waited there, the more worried I got. There were no updates, and they still couldn’t find her. I thought, well maybe she’s actually in labour, and I thought that maybe you’d be coming later that day. That made me pretty nervous. About 20 minutes passed since I got to the ER at the Civic, and they still couldn’t find your mama for me. I started to get really irritated. Then, out of the blue, the midwife’s office called me again. They said “Where are you? Are you at the hospital yet?” And I said “Yeah, I’ve been waiting in the ER but no one can tell me where she is!” Then they said “You need to get up to the labour and delivery unit on the 4th floor. That’s where Sarah and your baby are.” And when they said that, I felt like I left my body. It straight up stunned me. Because that’s when I first learned that you were in this world, Jiikwis. It totally blew me away.

One of the ladies at the ER desk told me how to get up there. My mind was racing and tumbling as I walked through the halls. When I got up there, there was a whole team of doctors and nurses waiting for me. They basically explained to me everything that happened. They said your mama had a seizure at the midwife’s office because she had really high blood pressure. The paramedics came and got her, and she regained consciousness. They took her to the hospital, and Jessica the midwife rode along. But when they got your mama into a bed in the hospital, she had another seizure. So they checked on you, and found your heart rate was dropping dramatically.

S: And this was when you were still in mama’s belly.

W: Yep. So they said we have to get the baby – you – out as soon as we can. They made the decision to do an emergency c-section right away.

S: I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember being at the hospital that day. I don’t remember anything. My last memory was at the midwife’s.

W: The doctors told me what happened. It was a pregnancy condition called eclampsia, that basically means sudden high blood pressure that causes seizures. Obviously I was shocked, because the pregnancy was problem-free up until then. They said you were both in critical condition at first, but were now in stable condition. Then they said “do you want to see your baby?”

They led me down the hall and into a little room. The first person I saw was Jessica, who looked very exhausted. But she smiled and said, “Waub, you have a baby boy!” And I looked to my right, and there you were, on a table with nurses all around you. You were moving around, your eyes were open, and that put me at ease right away. You were so beautiful. I was so thrilled, but also still really scared. But there you were! And I knew that you were gonna be okay. I could just tell.


They put you in an incubator and hooked you up to a ventilator and other machines, and they let me walk with you down the hall to the special care nursery, where they said you were going to be for a few days. We hung out there for a little while, then a nurse took me back to the room that your mama was originally in when she had the second seizure. And they told me I would have to wait there for a while, because mama was still unconscious from the operation. They told me they transferred her to the intensive care unit, but it would be a couple of hours before I could see her. I had some time to kill, so I started calling all your grandparents and aunties and uncles to tell them you were here. I still didn’t realize how serious the situation was, though.

The mid-afternoon came, and that’s when they let me go down and see your mama. And it was pretty scary. She was laying in a bed, hooked up to all kinds of machines, and she had a big tube in her mouth. The doctors and nurses there said “she’s gonna wake up soon, and right when she does, you have to let her know that the baby is here, and he’s okay, because she’s going to be able to tell that the baby’s not in her belly any more.”

So I sat beside her, and held her hand, and I saw your mama stirring, and her eyes start to open. I leaned over, and I said “Sarah, our son’s here.” And your mama knew right away. She understood. And that made that part a lot easier. Those were our first moments in this world of being a family. We were all apart, but we both knew you were here. I showed mama the pictures I took of you when I first saw you.

S: I don’t remember that, unfortunately. My first memories were the nurses taking the catheter out, and giving me a sponge bath!

W: There was another scare, where your mama’s blood pressure went back up. So the doctors kicked me out of the room to see what was up. I couldn’t see in, and got really worried. But it stabilized after a few minutes and I got to go back in.

S: During the seizures I bit my tongue really bad. And my tongue ended up black and swollen. It wasn’t very nice. I couldn’t feel anything or taste anything, or even talk very well. They brought me food, but I couldn’t eat any of it. I also had a big scrape on my forehead, because when I had that first seizure I fell face first on the floor in the midwife’s office.

W: So that night I called all the relatives again and told them the whole story, and I think it was a shock for all of them. Because when I first called that afternoon, I didn’t know all the details. I didn’t know it was a critical situation. I think it was hard for everyone to hear, but they were glad that everything was fine, and you both looked like you’d recover. So I spent that first night and all the next day walking between you in the special care nursery, and your mama in the ICU, which were on different floors at opposite ends of the hospital.

S: Mama knew that you were a boy right from the very beginning. As soon as I started feeling inclinations of what kind of baby you might be, I always maintained that you were gonna be a boy. I don’t know why. Mama’s intuition, I suppose.

Waub and Jiikwis

W: The next afternoon at 4 mama was finally able to leave the ICU. We wheeled her bed up to your floor, and as soon as she was ready, we put her in a wheelchair and took her down the hall to see you. It was a pretty special moment. I cried and cried and cried. When mama got to hold you for the first time, that was really special. Because that’s all I wanted to see that whole time. I kept thinking, as long as they can get together, everything’s gonna be okay. Everything got better. We had to wait for the breathing machine to come off. Then we had to wait for the IV to come out of your head. Then we had to make sure you were eating enough. But every day there was something new. Always something to look forward to.

S: The IV was very hard to look at, because it was right in the top of your head. And all that time, mama was trying to get her breast milk to come in. I was seeing a lactation consultant. Day 4 you were released from the special care nursery, and they brought your bassinet into mama’s room, and that was really special. And dehdeh and I – we started taking care of you ourselves. Feeding you, and changing your diaper. I never thought I’d be so happy to change a diaper!

W: Then on Day 6 we got to take you home. Everything looked different that day. It really felt like life had changed. The sun was shining in a new way. The snow on the ground looked brighter. You had a plan for us, which is why you came early, I think.

S: I was so relieved. We were going home with a new baby we hadn’t been totally prepared for, because you were four weeks early. But we were a family, and we’d already overcome some serious challenges already. We’re home now, and we haven’t looked back. And we’re getting stronger every day. We love you so much.

Photo by Shilo Adamson

Photo by Shilo Adamson

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