On this sweat lodge night the sunset was magnificent with the mountains of the Wind River Range in the distance turning purple. The few streaks of clouds in the sky turned bright pink to pastel orange and then the first star (a planet really) appeared. A new moon, the stars would be glorious at this altitude tonight.
Molly was beginning to get very nervous so Stanford had talked to her for awhile in the kitchen and loaded her up with a big bed spread and other large beach towels. She was told to sit beside him. I was also to sit close to him (and of course, Molly!) so that I could hear him tell me when to remove my hearing aids. He didn't want me to wear those as the heat would be too much but he didn't want me to miss out on any of the sharing and things that would be said either. So Molly and I were put beside Stanford, who lies on a mattress by one of the two doors.
We already knew to have towels to cover our skin to protect it against the heat. One of the young Arapaho girls doing the sweat educated us on how to get as low as possible and completely cover yourself with the larger towel if the heat got to be too much. This was really good information! Molly practiced this and with her bed spread she was completely covered and therefore protected.
Stanford spoke softly to me while everyone was getting settled and asked if I would be willing to share my story with everyone. I agreed that I would. I knew that this is part of a sweat; participants share the pain in their heart, the purging of emotions that must be purged. He asked that the doors be closed - the "doors" are just heavy blankets that are pulled down over the 2 entrances to the lodge. It is pitch black once the doors close. I moved closer to Molly and she and I grasped hands through our towels.
Stanford thanked everyone for coming and for all the help he got in preparing the sweat tonight. He then said "Mary, would you share your story with everyone please" ... and I did. My voice was very shaky but I was able to get through it without breaking down. I shared my story with the 5 women who already knew it intimately and with a dozen Arapaho people who didn't even know my name. I shared that my husband, Jim, was diagnosed with brain cancer on December 29th, 2008 and how he survived for sixteen months, almost twice as long as all his doctors predicted. I shared how his right side had become paralyzed and he lost his ability to speak, how strong and beautiful his spirit was, how the Eagles had circled Jim and I that morning back in April, so close that we could see their eyes and this prompted me to contact Stanford to have this sweat for Jim ... but Jim died in May and I decided to come anyway and that perhaps this is what the Eagles saw as what was needed all along.
Stanford quietly thanked me for sharing, thanked me for all the work and caring I must have needed to do to take care of Jim. My tears were now flowing silently and freely. Then he asked for the water to be poured on the rocks. I suddenly realized, since on one else was asked to share, this sweat was devoted to Jim and that all those gathered were now going to support me in my healing. And then with a large hiss we were hit with a wall of heat like nothing I have ever experienced before.
There are four rounds to a sweat. Each round lasts only 10-15 minutes and then the doors open and everyone gets to take a break. As I emerged with bare feet I saw my friend, Willo, sitting with Daniel - Stanford's adopted son, the biological son of Stan's dead brother - and Daniel's girlfriend on a rug beside the lodge. They called me over to sit with them. Daniel leaned over and asked "who are you?". I was taken aback by this question as I understood now that this was not really asking me my name. Who am I? For a few seconds I thought of saying I'm the woman who traveled from sea level where the air is salt kissed to 7,000 feet and a sage scented land. I'm the woman who lies down alone at night with a heart so heavy I'm never sure I will be able to get up and carry it again come morning. I'm the woman who, after all these years, must try to navigate a whole new life without an oar anymore ... or an anchor. But I looked at Daniel and said, "I'm Mary".
Willo leaned over and told me that nobody knew who was talking. OH! Yes, I'm Mary. Daniel - who has jet black hair that flows to his waist and the high, strong cheekbones of his people - leaned over, took my hand and looking me in the eye said "I'm sorry for your loss". His girlfriend then did the same thing and told me that her grandmother had died in April from lung cancer and she understood how terrible it is to lose someone to this disease.
I realized that this is what a sweat lodge does, all who share in it are equal, everyone has pain, everyone has some kind of tragedy in their life ... and in the sweat lodge all are embraced because of this pain, because we all share it, because we are all connected. It's truly a wonderful thing to experience.
Stanford had spent the break talking to one of my comrades who, due to a severe jolt of claustrophobia, had to make her escape from the lodge before the second door got closed, thus missing the first round. I don't know what Stanford said to her but she entered the lodge again and sat by the door determined to stay for the entire second round. I was incredibly proud of her and my respect for Stanford rose even higher.
Round two was about to begin .....