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.
“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.”
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.
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.