Emotional Anniversaries & Bless the Birds

Richard Cabe two months before his death in 2011, his head misshapen from five brain surgeries and swollen from steroids, but his smile undimmed.

Ten years ago today, I was preparing the guest apartment at Terraphilia, the house that Richard built for us, for the arrival of our friend Grant Pound, director of Colorado Art Ranch. Richard came in from his studio, his steps slow as he leaned on the cane he had begun to use to aid his wobbly balance after we returned from the Big Trip, our 4,000 mile honeymoon drive to the Pacific Coast.

“I feel like a sculptor again.” He beamed, his once-chiseled face now round from the steroids he took to combat the swelling from the brain tumor threading its way through his right hemisphere, but his smile undimmed.

“Because Grant is coming?” Grant had suggested a sculpture apprenticeship with Richard BC–before brain cancer–when Richard was busy with commissions. But now, he hadn’t worked in months. I hoped teaching Grant might revive Richard’s passion for working with native rocks as, in his words, “Ambassadors of the Earth,” revealing their inner beauty in functional sculptures.

Richard before brain cancer, with a local boulder he was carving into a sculptural sink.

“Yes.” Richard’s smile erupted into a laugh. “Even though it looks like my brain exploded out there,” he said, referring to the chaotic state of his studio, where dozens of hand-tools were spread willy-nilly on every surface, since he no longer had any spatial memory. “Working with Grant will help me get organized.”

It did, for a short while. Until his once strong and muscled body began to fail. For those few weeks though, he reveled in having his hands on the rocks he so loved.

I didn’t remember that moment in Richard’s journey with terminal brain cancer when I woke this morning with my heart racing and my mind awash in unsettling dreams.

I got up and did yoga, which almost always settles me, but didn’t this time. My balance was bad. I took a hot bath, but the anxiety only got worse. My hands shook. My stomach hurt. I got dressed, and fumbled with the buttons on my favorite shirt. Even breakfast–a soothing hot cereal blend of organic grains with raisins, blueberries, and pecans–didn’t help.

I couldn’t imagine what was wrong.

“What is going on?” I asked out loud in the quiet house. “I don’t have anxiety attacks!”

And then I remembered a time when I did, ten years ago. I was caring for Richard at home, and he was dying.

I looked at the date on my phone: October 10th. I opened Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my new memoir, and began looking for anecdotes from ten years ago. And I heard Richard’s voice in my head, as clearly as if he had been in the room with me: “I feel like a sculptor again.”

Richard (center) and Grant Pound in October of 2011, talking sculpture over the steel trestle dining table that Richard designed and made.

Ten years ago, he was doing his best to live with severe brain impairment. I had just begun to grasp how emotionally intense and physically demanding caring for him 24/7 was. And to wonder how long my energy would hold out.

That’s when the anxiety attacks began, waking me in a sweat at night, sending my heart racing and my body shaking at odd moments. My greatest fear was not living up to what I had promised: to care for him with as much love as I could through his death.

I somehow did. With a lot of help: Molly, my stepdaughter, moved home for the last five weeks of her daddy’s life to help out; my family circled around us with support; Richard’s hospice team, led by nurse Wil Archuletta, were there whenever I needed them. And, as I wrote in Bless the Birds:

Love continued to pour in from near and far. Cards bearing sweet and funny messages filled the mailbox, along with books, hand-knitted socks, and a cap “to keep Richard warm,” plus gift certificates for local restaurants. Poems arrived via email. A food drive through Ploughboy (a local grocery store) paid for our groceries. Meals appeared at our front door, plus other offerings: special stones, flower bouquets, and the monthly envelope containing four crisp $100 bills: “For whatever you need.”

I was grateful for the support, even as my pride resented our needing help. My emotions were all over the map. One thing was constant: My heart wanted a different ending to our story.

There wouldn’t be a different ending. Richard died on Sunday, November 27, 2011, encircled by love, with Molly and me, one of his hospice nurses, and our dear friends Doris and Bill.

After his death, the anxiety attacks vanished. I had kept my promise.

It’s not like everything was fine then. I was alone for the first time in my adult life and deeply in debt after setting aside my writing to care for Richard and my mother, who died earlier that year. I didn’t know who this newly solo “me” was. But I knew I could manage all that, though it took years.

And now, a decade later, the anxiety has returned. The rekindling of those muscle memories leaves me feeling frail and exhausted, as if those grueling weeks of 24/7 caregiving were just yesterday, not ten years ago.

Me in my favorite shirt

I don’t like admitting to frailty. But I hear the message: Slow down! I’ve got a feature-article deadline coming up, and I had planned a series of author conversations for the fall and winter. I need to seriously consider what I can handle.

Because when I was caring for Richard with as much love as possible, I also promised to care for me with love for the rest of my life. I want to honor that promise, too.

14 thoughts on “Emotional Anniversaries & Bless the Birds

  • Eduardo Rey Brummel says:

    And so it goes: Having to relearn again to take care of ourselves. We keep pushing our boundaries of what’s possible. We keep learning from our mistakes. We keep forgetting what we’ve paid a price to learn.

    I’ve been dealing with this, too. My mental health was shaky for a bit, just a month or so ago. I’m having to pay better attention to myself and pay better heed in caring for myself. I think a lot of us are being rung dry by current on-going circumstances of this seeming never-ending and continually-mutating pandemic.

    Continue taking care of yourself, Susan. Continue hearing what your body, your psyche, and your soul are telling you.

    • Dear Eduardo, I know you know this process, and I am glad you are taking your own words to heart. And I agree, a lot of us are on the edge because of the pandemic and the isolation of the past year and some. I’ll practice what I’m learning if you promise to do the same!

  • Monday, October 11 – 9:30 am. Hello Dear Friend, Today is Jim’s death anniversary. It’s been four years. I’m still in my reading chair and in my PJs. It’s a good day to sit and think. Maybe it’s since I’m quite a few years older than you that I’ve been taking better and better care of myself since I plan to live many more years and want to be as healthy as possible as I go on my way to the final curtain. Each time someone asks me how long I think I’ll stay in my home I tell them 15 more years. I’ll just keep saying that for quite a few more years … but I do realize as I get to a “certain age” I must cut back a bit on the number. Maybe by the time I’m 90, 15 more years won’t be very logical!! I had the realization some months ago that I won’t have a loving partner/husband to take care of me as I leave this earth. It was an interesting realization. We were there loving and caring and helping our true loves through all they had to deal with. I know I have loved ones who care and love me and will help as they can, but a true partner in life taking care of us is a very different situation. And on that cheery note, I leave you with loving wishes for your mental and physical health.

      1. Dear Roberta, I love the mental image of you in your reading chair in your PJs, sitting and thinking, and watching the high plains outside your windows. And I am inspired by your words and your response to Jim’s death anniversary. Will you do something fun for yourself that he would have wanted you to do today? I think part of staying mentally, emotionally and physically healthy is having fun and sharing laughter with those you enjoy every day. I agree about the loss of our partners; I wonder often who will be there for me when I exit this life. I think the Guy would if he could be, but we live 10 hours apart now, so it might not be possible. Perhaps a partner will find you in these coming years, and you’ll have that. If not, I know you will have friends and family to be your “circle of care” when you need it. Hugs from me.
  • Susan, Your so honest and truthful words speak the fact that we all have a need to do the some thing. The words you wrote in ” Bless the Birds…” expressed the same honesty and truthfulness. Bless you for being who you are. You are obviously loved by many for being such a person. I wish that my wife, your distant cousin Carol, could have met and known each other. The two of you would have seen eye to eye.

    • Dave, Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. As a Quaker, I value honesty (as long as it’s not hurtful) and truthfulness, as well as authenticity. I also want to approach every day with love, or as I say in my daily intention, “I am living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.” So your words are very meaningful! I too wish I had gotten to know Carol. Life goes by more quickly than we realize…. Blessings to you.

      • All though it has been nearly 3 years since Carol passed, I have been attending a grief/share class at my church. Today I gave Pastor Ross my copy of “Bless the Birds….” since I thought He would enjoy reading the pages that I turned down and perhaps even more. He helps caregivers and you thoughts on the topic were so wonderful….

    • Diana, It’s true that ten years is a significant anniversary. It feels at once like a very long time ago, and also like just beyond yesterday. Time is not linear, really. To me, I look tired, but I’m glad that’s not how that photo looks to you! Many blessings to you and yours.

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