Read an Excerpt
The First Night
Something was wrong. My husband, Joe, had left my hospital room only a few minutes before, but already a foreboding feeling was enveloping me. I would be alone through the night, alone on the eve of one of my most frightening challenges. Thoughts of death began creeping into my mind. Thoughts like these had not come to me in years. Why were they so pervasive now?
It was the evening of November 18, 1973. I had entered the hospital to undergo a partial hysterectomy. As a thirty-one-year-old mother of seven who was in otherwise excellent health, I had chosen to follow my doctor's advice to have the operation. Both my husband, Joe, and I felt comfortable with the decision. I still felt comfortable with the decision, but something else was bothering me nowsomething unidentifiable.
In our years of marriage we had rarely spent nights apart, and I tried to reflect on our family and the special closeness we enjoyed. Although we had six children at home (one had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when she was an infant), we were sometimes reluctant to leave them. Even on our "date nights" we would stay home and let the children plan our dates for us. Sometimes they catered a dinner for us, providing candlelight in the living room with a fire crackling in the fireplace. We usually had just the right music toomaybe not the music we would have chosen but perfect nonetheless. I recalled the evening they served us Chinese food on a decorated coffee table and provided large pillows for us to sit on. They turned the lights down low, kissed us good night, and giggled as they hurried up the stairs. Joe and I seemed to have found a little bit of heaven on earth.
I reflected on how lucky I was to have a companion as loving and considerate as Joe. He had taken vacation from work to be with me before I went into the hospital, and he planned to spend another week at home while I recuperated. He and our two oldest daughters, who were fifteen and fourteen, were already making plans for a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner.
The feelings of foreboding settled more heavily upon me. Perhaps it was the darkness of the room, the terrible darkness I had learned to dread as a girl. Or maybe these ominous feelings came from another experience, an experience in a hospital years ago that still filled me with questionsand wonder.
* * *
When I was four years old, my parents had just separated. My father used to say that "marrying an Indian woman back in those days was probably the worse thing a white man could do." He was a fair-haired Scotch-Irishman, and she was a full-blooded Sioux Indian. As the seventh of ten children, I hardly had a chance to know either parent before they separated. My mother went back to live on the reservation, and my father went to live with his parents in town. At that time, six of us children were placed in a Catholic boarding school.
It was while at the boarding school that first winter that I developed a terrible cough and began shivering constantly. Forty girls shared one large room, and I remember leaving my bed one night and getting into my sister Joyce's bed. We lay together and criedI in my fever and she in fear for me. When one of the Sisters came by on her nightly rounds, she discovered me and took me back to my bed, which was damp and cold with perspiration. Joyce tried to convince the Sister of my illness but was unsuccessful. Finally on the third night I was taken to a hospital.
The doctor diagnosed me with whooping cough and double pneumonia, and he told a nurse to contact my parents. I remember his telling her that he didn't expect me to live through the night. As I lay on the bed, burning with fever, I seemed to slip in and out of sleep. Once, I felt hands on my head and, looking up, I saw a nurse leaning over me. She ran her hands through my hair and said, "She's just a baby." I'll never forget the kindness I felt in those words. I snuggled farther down into the covers and felt warm and content. Her words gave me peace, and I closed my eyes to sleep again.
I awoke to the doctor's words: "It's too late. We've lost her," and I felt the covers pulled up over my head. I was confused. Why was it too late? I turned my head and looked around the room, which didn't seem to be an odd thing, even though the covers were pulled over my face. I saw the doctor and nurse standing by the bed. I looked around the room and noticed that it was filled with brighter light than before. The bed seemed huge to me, and I remember thinking, "I'm like a little brown bug in this big white bed." Then the doctor walked away and I became aware of another presence nearby. Suddenly I wasn't lying on the bed but found myself in someone's arms. I looked up and saw a man with a beautiful white beard looking at me. His beard fascinated me. It seemed to sparkle with a bright light, a light that came from within the beard. I giggled and ran my hands through the beard and twirled it on my fingers. I felt perfectly calm and happy with him. He gently rocked me, cradling me in his arms, and although I didn't know who he was, I never wanted to leave him.
"She's breathing again!" the nurse called out, and the doctor came running back into the room. But it was a different room. I had been moved into a smaller one that was very dark. The man with the white beard was gone. My body was wet with fever, and I was scared. The doctor turned the light on, and they took me back into the first room.
When my parents arrived, they were told that they had almost lost me. I heard the words but still didn't understand them. How could I have been lost if I was there the whole time? But it was good to be with my parents again, with people who really knew me and loved melike the man with the white beard. I asked them who that man was and where he had gone, but they didn't understand what I was talking about. I told them about the doctor saying that it was too late and how the man with the white light in his beard had come and held me, but they had no answers. They never did. This experience would be mine to cherish as an oasis of love throughout my young life. The memory has never changed, and each time I remember it I get a sense of the calmness and happiness I had in his arms.
* * *
I tried to recall these memories now as darkness seeped into my room. Since those early days away from my parents, darkness had terrified me. Now, alone in the darkness again, a strange feeling was in the room. Death seemed to swirl everywhere around me. My thoughts became filled with it, caught up in it. Death. Death and God. These two seemed eternally linked. What awaited me on the other side? If I were to die tomorrow, what would I find? Eternal death? Eternity with a vengeful God? I wasn't sure. And what was God like? I only hoped that he was not what I had learned as a child in boarding school.
* * *
I can still remember details of that first school building with its gigantic brick walls and dark, cold rooms. A chain-link fence separated the boys' dormitory from the girls', and another fence ran along the perimeter of the school. We were locked in from the world, and away from each other. I still remember that first morning when my brothers were ushered to one building while my sisters and I were led to another. I'll never forget the fear in their eyes as they looked back at us one last time. I thought my heart would break.
My two sisters and I were taken to a small room where the nuns deloused us in chemicals and cut our hair. Then they gave us two dresses each, one color for one week, the other for the following week. These uniforms would help identify runaways. Our oldest sister, Thelma, whom we called Sis, was separated from us and sent to another room for older girls. That first night Joyce and I lined up with the other girls and marched into the room where we stood by our beds until the Sister blew a whistle. Then we got promptly into bed, the light was clicked off, and the door was locked from the outside. Being locked inside this big darkened room horrified me. In the dark I waited in terror until sleep finally, gratefully, overcame me.
On Sunday all of the children attended church, which offered my sisters and me the possibility of seeing our brothers on the other side of the chapel. As I fought through the crush of girls to get a glimpse of my brothers that first Sunday, I felt a knock on my head. I turned around and saw a long pole with a rubber ball on the end. The Sisters used this instrument to correct our behavior in church, and this would be only the first of many times I felt it. Because I found it difficult to understand what the bells meant and when I should kneel, I was tapped by the pole often. Still, though, I was able to see my brothers, and this was worth any punishment from the ball.
We were taught about God there, and I learned many things I had never considered. We were told that wethe Indianswere heathens and sinners, and, of course, I believed this. The nuns were supposed to be special in God's eyes, and we learned that they were there to help us. My sister Thelma was often beaten by them with a little hose and was then forced to thank the Sister who had done it or be beaten again. These were God's chosen servants, as I believed, and I began to fear God immensely because of them. Everything I learned about him intensified this fear. He seemed angry and impatient and very powerful, which meant that he would probably destroy me or send me straight to hell on Judgment Dayor before then if I crossed him. This boarding-school god was a being I hoped never to meet.
* * *
I looked at the large clock on the wall. Only minutes had gone by since Joe had left. Only minutes. The tiny light above the sink in my room produced only enough light to create dark shadowsshadows that hung in my imagination like nightmares from my past. My mind must be racing, I thought. Propelled by my isolation, my mind was racing through the dark corridors of my memories. I had to control it in order to find peace, or the night would be endless. I settled myself and tried to find happier thoughts from my past.
A ray of light began to shine.
* * *
Brainard Indian Training School was run by Wesleyan Methodists. I'll never forget reading on my first day there the large sign that stood in front of the school: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." I thought, of course, that the sign referred to the Indians and that since this was a training school, we were there to be trained to have more vision. This idea was probably reinforced by other signs I saw in town, such as: "No Indians or Dogs Allowed."
Brainard Indian Training School proved to be a more positive experience than my earlier ones had been. We enjoyed a cozy, less formal atmosphere, and the teachers seemed to appreciate being around the students. I learned that God meant different things to different people. Instead of the angry, vengeful God whom I had come to know before, these people taught of a happier God who was pleased when we were happy. In our devotionals people often shouted Amen and hallelujah, and it took a while to get used to their sudden outbursts. Although I recognized that there were different ways to view God and to worship him, I think I remained convinced that he was still the God who would punish me if I ever died and appeared before him.
During summers I attended both Lutheran and Baptist churches and occasionally the Salvation Army. Where I attended church then did not seem as important as the fact that I went. My curiosity about God grew as I matured because I recognized that he was playing a major role in my life. I just wasn't sure what that role was or how it would affect me as I grew older. I approached him in prayer to get answers, but I didn't feel that he heard me. My words just seemed to dissipate in the air. When I was eleven I summoned my courage and asked our school matron if she really believed that there was a God. I felt that if anybody really knew, she did. But instead of answering my question, she slapped me and asked how dare I question his existence. She told me to get to my knees and pray for forgiveness, which I did. But now I knew that I was doomed to hell because of my lack of faithbecause I had questioned the existence of God. I was sure now that I could never be forgiven.
Later that summer I moved back in with my father and had an experience that paralyzed me with fear. One night after getting in bed I opened the curtains to the window next to me and lay there gazing at the stars and passing clouds, something I had enjoyed doing since very young. Suddenly my eye caught a ray of white light coming down from a cloud, and I was frozen with fear. It moved from side to side as if it were searching for us, for anybody. I knew that this was Jesus coming in his Second Coming, and I screamed at the top of my lungs. I had been taught that he would come as a thief in the night and would take the righteous with him and burn the wicked. It was hours before my father could calm me, finally convincing me that I had only seen a search light advertising the arrival of a carnival in town. It was the first search light I had ever seen. I closed the curtain and didn't stargaze for some time.