We sit in a teepee.
It’s moist and chilly. I had to drive down the mountain from the coast at 4 a.m. this morning so I could meet the elders as they broke for their morning fast.
At 5 a.m., they opened the teepee flap and Native Americans emerged. They all wore jeans and t-shirts (mostly). I felt my preconceptions crack.
I’m at my aunt’s house sipping badly flavored vanilla coffee before dawn and I’ve just been diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer a few days before, and I’m watching a bunch of Indians groggily exit a two-story-tall teepee on the edge of her property. Sur. Real.
It’s only been a week since my doctor called with those words you never want to hear: It’s cancer.
No, really, stop, I’m only 43. This isn’t supposed to happen for another 30 years. I’m right in the middle of shit. I have two kids in grade school. You can’t be serious.
And now, the sun has just woken and I’m entering a tent overfull with men, women, and kids who’ve all been awake all night – healing, connecting, and doing something I can’t put my finger on. Frankly, I’m too aware of myself to see what’s really going on. I’m a foreign intruder with my old aunt, mom, and uncle in tow, all entering someone else’s sacred circle because we own their land. How can it get worse? Which means in my heart, I’m feeling it’s still all about me, although soon it will be all about them and I will just have to catch up to that.
My aunt bought her house on what she discovered was Native American land – traditional land for celebrating and connecting. Years ago, some tribespeople approached her and asked if they could still celebrate on her land. Of course, yes (embarrassed that I own your land). So every month or two, a big teepee and picnic tables and Porta Potties appear, and an all-night ritual commences to connect us to the stars.
My aunt was blessed, right?
She called the tribe when she learned I was diagnosed. They said yes we’ll take your niece. Come before dawn.
So here I am. The Navajo healers have come from 4 Corners. The medicine woman, who co-leads the ritual, had breast cancer once. She knows.
Inside the tent, we all share. Tell us what hurts. What pains you. What you regret. What you fear. Let’s lift that. We share the food that’s passed in corn husks, each taking a dab from them.
We share the drink, sipped from the same tin cup. We all feel your fear and grief, and we dilute it for you.
My turn. The medicine man brings me to the front. It’s uncomfortable. So many faces I don’t know stare at me.
“You have the cancer.” (Or I’m guessing that’s what he says.) He speaks softly to the gods, to his ancestors, in his language, looking into the sky. The feathers in his hair quiver, and he begins a long, quiet conversation. “A woman is in pain, in fear. What does she need?” It’s a longer conversation than I expect.
In front of us, the coals of the nightlong fire have died to embers.
He tells me that the ancestors communicate through the fire. They share and dance through the embers. There is life in there, spirits in them. The ember spirits are the go-betweens who can talk to us.
My spirits apparently say it’s time for the peyote.
Hey ”¦ full stop.
I’m afraid, I tell the medicine man. It’s five in the morning, I’m really mentally messed up from cancer, and now I’m supposed to take peyote in front of my mom, aunt, and uncle before breakfast?
I’m really thinking: “What if it’s a bad trip? It’ll show up on my blood tests. It’ll mess up my mind. I have two kids to mother. Seriously, peyote doesn’t cure cancer.” I have way more fears than I realized. This itself makes me crack open a little more.
“Peyote is medicine,” he explains. “You take it, and the spirits can find you. Like a homing beacon. The peyote doesn’t cure you. But now your spirits, your ancestors, have a way in through you to heal you. To help you.”
I’m sold. Peyote is an energy anchor. I get that.
I hold a ball the of crushed peyote the size of a ping pong ball. Swallow, Summer.
Peyote tastes like shit.
My mom, aunt and uncle, all white-haired, lean in to watch, eyes like saucers.
Nothing happens. I don’t die on the spot. Everything looks the same. I’m clenched and tight and waiting.
The medicine woman talks to me. She talks about my mind, my heart, but I’m not fully here. I’m caught in the web of peyote and dawn and hot coals smoking the air and all the hot sweaty shuffly bodies of these men and women I don’t know who surround me on mats.
We are all here to heal. Healing from jail. Healing from that broken man who just left you. Healing from addiction. Healing from a girl rejecting you. Healing from not having enough money. Healing from cancer.
Spirit don’t care who you are, what race or age, or what you’re healing from. Don’t care. It just heals if you ask it.
Judgment is petty and stupid when you have such a gift as healing to share.
Fast forward – here I am today, twenty months later.
The doctors have cut and burned the cancer out of me. My naturopathic healers have soothed and moved the illness from me. I’m a rich white girl who did all the right things. And I’m still thinking of the teepee and the medicine man and woman. What did they heal?
They healed my heart.
Any brutality scars you – scars your body, and scars your mind. Medicine fixes up your body, but who fixes up your heart? Pills won’t do it. Your emotion, your spirit? If those break, you are a goner. And I’ve seen those break this year, watching people I love give up and die. I lost Bill, grandfather to my kids, as he died from cancer a few months ago. This shit is real.
Peyote was never meant to cure my cancer. It was meant to ope