Welcome to “Indigenous Stories of Uncertain Times,” an ongoing open call series to share perspectives and reflections on the pandemic from Indigenous people and communities. For each post I’m donating to a cause supporting COVID relief in Indian Country. For more information on the series, submission instructions, or if you would like to contribute to author honorariums and donations, please see this post.
By Stacy Roberts
Stacy Roberts is Pecháangayam Payómkawichum, The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Granddaughter of Lucille Garbani Leake. She is a Momma of two, and Auntie to five, but happy to Auntie anyone who comes along. You can find her work at StacyNRoberts.com and on Twitter @StacyNRo.
When we first started to quarantine, I called my Grams. She answered the phone, but I am pretty sure she didn’t want to because she knew I wouldn’t approve of her shenanigans. She was out buying dried beans–because God forbid the family is in lockdown without fresh beans and tortillas. She says she is getting pizza and that she will head home after. I am not sure what it is about “pizza” that does it, but I feel fear rising in my throat like bile, hot tears rolling down my face, and I shriek, “I can’t lose you…I can’t…I don’t know how…I…I am…I am not okay.” She knows. She knows just like she always does. She assures me that everything is okay, but I know it is not. I mean, it is right now, but how can we be sure that it will remain okay? My anxiety has overcome my knowing and it is speaking loudly; it is all I can hear.
Anxiety is something we talk about a lot in my family, like a drunk cousin who is always there, but never invited. It sometimes feels like a superpower–sharpening my senses, making me hypervigilant. Because of it, I am fantastic under pressure, a problem solver. I give myself permission to fall apart in the aftermath, but not in the moment. Never in the moment. My superpower can also be my undoing–shrinking me, telling me lies, making me forget what is real and good. It is the trauma–current, collective, generational—that brings on the anxiety. It is the trauma that ushers it in, but I am learning how to manipulate it, using the anxiety for good.
Every now and then I have my fill, and this time it is pizza that sends me over the fucking edge. I try to hold it together, but I can’t. My Grams is out of the house and the thought of losing her is more than I can bear. I try not to think of it, ever. She is strong and measured and kind, but she can verbally eviscerate you with a smile on her face, and you don’t even realize what happened until you walk away. She orders Jack and Coke at the bar, can still a room just by walking in, and her voice can send me into a fit of tears. She isn’t sick and still I am afraid.
My Grams can sense my anxiety. When it is out of control, she treats me like I need to be shielded from all the bad in this world. She is the only person who has ever protected me in this way. I did not realize what was happening until recently. “Slow down, little girl,” she always tells me in a voice that sounds more like a threat than a suggestion. But it is movement that manipulates my anxiety, work that quiets the shrill voice. My Grams knows that; she invites me to slowness, to be present, to feel.
My Grams, in all her wisdom, sends me text messages joking about toilet paper, while teaching my sister how to pick medicine, how to pray, how to protect us from the virus, from the fear, from the bad medicine. My sister then distills the information, sends me medicine, and tells me what to pray. I was jealous, but my sister is further along; she knows how to listen, to slow herself, to see what is in between this world and the next. Our grandmother teaches us. This is her way.
Since the pandemic started, I find myself with this visceral need to be back on the Rez, to be with my Grams and surrounded by my people. I never lived there, but I want to be there now. I grew up on my grandpa’s Rez. I dream of him and that place almost every night–his living room exactly how I remember it, but his house devoid of walls, floor, and roof. The burnt orange, threadbare area rug laying ridiculously on hard dirt and rock. My grandpa is there. He is wearing a white undershirt, blue pants, gray Velcro shoes–the same thing he always wore. He invites me to sit next to him on the worn sofa I don’t ever remember him sitting on, preferring instead the armchair closest to the TV. He smells like soap and Black and Mild Cigars.
He was gruff and fit almost every stereotype of Native grandpas. He worked hard and could fix damn near anything. His hands should have been worn, calloused, and rough, but they weren’t. He had the softest hands, like little pillows of clouds for fingerprints. He was like that. Most people knew him as a hard man, but I never saw him that way. He loved us and made sure we knew it. In my dreams, I lay in his lap as the stars shine where the roof should be. He caresses my hair with those gentle cloud fingers. There is a peace in this dream place that I do not experience in my waking hours. This world makes sense to me.
My grandpa was claustrophobic. When we would go camping, he would haul his bedframe, box springs, and mattress all the way up the mountain. He set up his bed just on the edge of the tree line so he could see the stars. He slept under his blankets, in his own bed, and woke every morning to make that bed with the tightest hospital corners I’ve ever seen. I’ve always admired his “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want” attitude. Tents are for suckers, anyway. I miss him so much, every day, that it makes me feel like I might vomit. I do not want to miss my Grams like that. I do not want this virus to touch her. She knows that I am afraid. I wonder if she is sending me dreams of home, and him, to comfort me in the restlessness of night.
This pandemic has awakened something old and deep within me; a thing that lives in my body, and is as resilient as my grandfather and as clever as my grandmother. My knowing is ancient and is being cultivated in prayers and silence and stillness. My knowing can get suffocated by my anxiety, sounding too much the same; my sister is better at differentiating the two. My knowing tells me that I can do hard things, that my people have always done hard things. Memories of eating commodity cheese and powdered eggs flood my mind. I feel the pang of hunger in my belly. I hear the wind whipping the thin walls of our single-wide trailer. I feel the synthetic fibers of ‘70s shag carpet on my bare feet. I smell the dust and desert rain. My body remembers; I have done hard things. The anxiety screams all the possible outcomes, the devastation, the pain. My knowing reminds me of strength in the face of fear. She does not numb, she does not shrink me, and she does not tell me lies.
So, I do the things we have always done. I light sacred medicine, and the smell of my grandmother’s house fills mine. I watch the embers burn, and I thank our ancestors for their protection, for their resilience. I know this same resilience lives inside of me, inside of us. I put on a pot of beans and try to make tortillas like my Auntie. I suck at it, but I will get better with time. I call my Grams who tells me she has never seen anything like this in her life, and she is staying home and being safe. (I will text my Auntie and cousins to confirm this.) I feel homesick, but these rituals make me feel better as they still the anxiety. They are ancient and a part of me, so I slow down and remember.
Stacy’s donation will be going to the NDN Collective COVID-19 Response Project. The NDN Collective’s COVID-19 Response Project is designed to provide immediate relief to some of the most underserved communities in the country. NDN’s intent is to quickly distribute resources to frontline organizations, Tribes and individuals to provide gap services during this health crisis, and to artists and entrepreneurs who have suffered the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.