Dad’s Birds

I saw my first Curve-billed Thrasher of spring yesterday, that yellow eye bright, curved beak raking the soil for insects to eat. I've been thinking about my dad, Bob Tweit, ever since. (That's Dad and Mom, Joan Tweit, in the photo above, in their native habitat in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson.) Dad studied Curve-billed Thrashers, their lives, habits, and their taxonomy–in fact, he wrote the monograph on Curve-bills for Cornell University's Birds of North America series.

(It's really more correct to say that he and Mom co-authored it, since while he did the research for that monograph and all of his other research papers, and then wrote a rough draft, it was Mom who revised those drafts, adding color, depth, and clarity, making the whole readable. She was credited as co-author on later papers.)

My dad took up birdwatching when I was too young to realize what that meant. He and Mom were interested in all things nature. The collection of Peterson Field Guides on the bookshelf testified to their omnivorousness: volumes on rocks, wildflowers, insects, stars, seashells, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, animal tracks, fish, and birds. The drawers of the surrounding cabinets were filled with neatly labeled and organized rock specimens, seashells, and found animal bones.

When my brother, Bill, began to focus on birds at about age seven, Dad followed, and even Mom turned her musician's ear and perfect pitch to learning bird songs and calls.

The birdwatchers in Florida (photo by me using my Brownie box camera!)

Which left me the odd girl out. Plants were my people, as I write in my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:

I enjoy birds; they’re just not my life’s passion. As I have maintained since childhood, when I was periodically dragged out of bed before dawn to trek to some sewage lagoon where a rare Red-Legged Hoo-Ha had been spotted, birds get up too early and, unlike plants, they don’t hold still so you can easily identify them.

I was outnumbered. Our family vacations were soon shaped by the pursuit of new bird species. While 3/4 of the family had their binoculars up, watching the latest sighting avidly, I usually had my nose in a book. I didn't mind watching birds when they flew past, but the quest to see all of the bird species known from North America (that number is 993 according to the American Birding Association) did not light a fire in my soul as it did for the rest of my family, especially Dad and Bill. 

I remember one summer vacation day when I was 14 and hadn't yet learned to drive. On a lonely stretch of US Highway 50 in Nevada, 

Dad positioned my hands on the steering wheel as the camper rolled along, "Keep us on the road," he said.

Then he stuck his head out the driver's side window and turned his face up to the sky, binoculars in hand. Like a mirror image, my brother in the passenger seat put his upturned head out his window and scanned the heavens as well. 

… We cruised along across a wide-open desert basin on a deserted two-lane highway, my hands on the steering wheel and my eyes on the road, my dad's foot on the accelerator, his eyes on the sky. I was perched on the engine case between the two front seats; Mom, in the dinette at the rear of the camper, was engrossed in a book. The sky was clear blue and the air rushing in the open windows was so parched I could feel it sucking the moisture from my skin. 

I don't remember what species of hawk he and my brother were searching for, or even whether they spotted one. But I can still recall the feel of the steering wheel, thrumming with the vibrations of hte tires on the asphalt; the sweetly turpentine-like pungence of sagebrush on the air; and the sight of the empty highway unrolling in front of us. 

Joy soared through me. I felt weightless, the way I imagine their hawk might feel when a rising bubble of hot air buoys its outstretched wings, flexing feather and bone as it carries the bird upward.    

–excerpt from Walking Nature Home, A Life's Journey (Univ. of Texas Press)

When Dad retired from a career in a chemistry lab developing medicines, he and Mom took up volunteering in national parks and monuments, and Dad took up bird research. He got his banding license, and began to capture birds with mist nets set up in their Tucson backyard, which they had restored to native desert and mesquite bosque. They also began to travel more widely, eventually visiting every continent except Africa and Antarctica, looking for new birds along the way. 

Dad and Mom watching waterbirds at Bear River National Wildlife Refuge in Utah, using a camper as their "blind."

Late last September, when Dad was in hospice care at my brother and sister-in-law's house, I helped with his care near the end. When he felt like talking, I encouraged him to tell me stories about his childhood, and about his and Mom's travels. 

One afternoon, I found Dad gazing up at the wall opposite his bed. I asked if he was looking at the watercolor painting of Yosemite Valley by my great-grandmother, JV Cannon. 

"No," he said, his tone patient, as if instructing me, "Look higher." 

I did, and all I saw was the plaster where the wall joined the ceiling. 

"It's a bird," Dad said, still patient. "Soaring." 

I looked again, but saw only the walls and ceiling. 

"It's got long wings," Dad continued. "It's black with white patches underneath its wings." 

I knew this was a quiz. I took a wild guess: "Is it the Harpy Eagle you were telling me about last night from your trip to Venezuela?" 

"Harpy Eagles are gray," he said in a tone of disappointment, and I knew I had failed. Dad waited a moment, and then said, "It's a California Condor. You and Richard saw them on Big Sur." 

"Of course." I found myself trying to figure out how the largest bird in North America, with a nearly ten-foot wingspan, could soar in the confines of a nine-by-twelve foot room. "I'm glad the condor came to visit you." 

"Yes." Dad nodded, and his gaze continued to track the huge bird, a smile on his face.

I sat with him until his eyes closed, and then went to the kitchen. Later, I told my brother about Dad's hallucination.

"A California condor," Bill said. "Good one!"

I take comfort from the idea that one of Dad's birds came to visit, soaring with him as his spirit soared from this world to the next. I'm sure he and Mom are together again, Dad's binoculars around his neck, his hand in Mom's, and her ears cocked for whatever birds are singing. 

Bob and Joan Tweit, December 2008

Letting Dad Go

I'm back from spending two weeks at my brother and sister-in-law's house in western Washington, helping care for my dad, Bob Tweit, as he journeyed from being present and with us, to still and silent, doing the work of leaving this world. Tending to a dying loved one is a huge gift in the intimacy it inspires, the love that flows in the work of hands and heart–the changing of diapers, cleaning up pee and poop, the feeding and administering medications.

It's a time out of time, when day and night blur into a continuous stream of small and large blessings and crises, and the essential primacy of tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The hours may go slow as a toddler's first steps, or fast as a racing heart, but they are all dominated by the central task: keeping a person traveling between this life and the next comfortable, as pain-free as possible, and safe. 

I left Washington on Friday morning in cold rain, and drove the 1,100 miles home through snow and rain and fog and more snow, arriving here late Saturday afternoon–exhausted, and wondering how long Dad would hang on. 

Not long, it turned out. He died quite peacefully the next day, yesterday, in the early evening, with my sister-in-law, Lucy, my eldest niece, Heather, and my youngest niece, Alice, by his side. He's gone. 

I feel grateful for this end-time with Dad. The first week I was there, when Lucy and my brother, Bill, were away in Germany visiting my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, Alice helped me care for him part of the time, and then when she had to go back to school, I had Dad on my own. I got him to tell me stories of his childhood and his college years, to remember birding trips with Mom to far-flung continents, to talk about his best bird sightings.

His absolute favorite, he said, was a harpy eagle in Venezuala that was soaring only about 20 feet overhead, so close that he couldn't find it in his binoculars because the bird was too big for the field of view! (Harpy eagles' wingspans can stretch more than seven feet, a foot-and-a-half wider than I am tall, making them the largest hawks in the world.)

That was so Dad… 

Part of the extended Tweit clan out birding in earlier years (left to right, Molly Cabe, Richard Cabe, Bill Tweit, Joan Tweit, and Bob Tweit, our dad.) An affinity for birds runs in Tweit blood, unless you're me and you prefer plants…

Here is an excerpt from the remembrance I wrote using some of my favorite of the stories he told, to give you a sense of the man and the father:

Robert C. Tweit was born on July 26th, 1928, to Olav Mikal Tweit and Christine Faquharson Tweit in Orange, NJ, and grew up in nearby Mountain Lakes in the house his dad built. He ran track and cross-country in high school, and excelled in running uphill. “Everyone else slowed down on the hills,” he would say, laughing, “it was the only time I could get ahead.” He went to MIT for his undergraduate degree in Chemistry, and said that he benefited from having classmates who had returned from WWII and were going to college on the GI Bill, because they were more mature and focused on their education. 

After graduating from MIT in 1950, Bob bought a 1937 Ford sedan and hit the road for Berkeley, California, to attend University of California – Berkeley. Along the way, he visited national parks including Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone. It was Bob’s first taste of the West, and the experience left him with a lifelong love of travel, and also curiosity about the natural world. 

During Bob’s first year at Berkeley, he met a smart and lively, blue-eyed undergrad named Joan Cannon at the First Congregational Church. Less than two years later, on June 28, 1952, they were married in the same church. A year later, in June of 1953, the two picked up Bob’s last paycheck and set out a month-long tour of the West (in a newer Ford sedan) before Bob was due to start work as a research chemist at Searle Labs in Skokie, Illinois. On their way between Rocky Mountain National Park and points east, they picked up mail in Denver, and found Bob’s draft notice calling him up for service at the tail end of the Korean War. 

So instead of Illinois, Bob and Joan went first to New Jersey, and then Havre d’Grace, Maryland, where they lived for his time in the US Army Chemical Corps. Their first child, Bill, was born there in 1954. The next year, Bob was discharged, and the young family moved to Illinois, where Bob finally began work running a laboratory at Searle, and their daughter Susan was born. 

Bob spent the next 23 years at Searle developing drugs and other useful compounds, and enjoying the lab work, the research, his colleagues, and the stimulation of attending professional meetings. He was also active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and with the First Congregational Church of Wilmette. During that time, his father helped Bob design and build the first of two camper vans modeled on VW campers. Those vans allowed Bob and the family to explore the Midwest on weekends, and the rest of the country on longer vacations. He and Joan took their kids rock-hounding, wildflower-hunting, birdwatching, hiking, camping, and backpacking from Maine to California, and Florida to British Columbia. Bob’s nature-study interest eventually focused on birds, from seeing new species, to banding them to study bird populations. 

Bob retired from Searle in 1978 with over 100 patents in his name. With the kids grown, he and Joan began another career as volunteers doing interpretive work at National Parks and National Forests throughout the West. They traversed the region from Alaska to Zion National Park in Utah. After they settled in Tucson, they volunteered at Saguaro National Monument and Tucson Audubon Society, leading bird trips and interpretive programs. …

He and Joan traveled widely beyond North America, going on birding trips and nature-study tours to South America (from Venezuela to Patagonia) and Central America, including Costa Rica and Honduras, the latter with Bill, his wife Lucy Winter, and their youngest, Alice. They drove the Baja Highway, cruised the Volga River in Russia and the Rhine and Rhone in Europe, visited Bob’s cousins in Norway, and explored Scotland and England. They also took two extended trips to Australia, and spent time in New Zealand. 

After 23 years in Tucson, Bob and Joan moved to Denver to be nearer to Susan and her husband, Richard Cabe. They were active volunteers there with the Highlands Garden Village garden group, and enjoyed hikes and excursions in the Front Range. After Joan’s death in 2011, Bob moved to Lacey, Washington, and lived at Panorama, a retirement village, where he was near Bill and Lucy and their family. He took great joy in being the family “patriarch” and in spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bill and Lucy took Bob with them on several trips, including to Arizona for spring training (and birding), and to Wyoming to see Susan’s house-restoration-project in progress (and go birding).

It's hard to find words for how I feel after letting Dad go: a mix of deeply sad, proud of who he was and how our family pulled together to give him as good a death as possible, relieved that he didn't linger any longer, grateful to Bill and Lucy and my nieces, and to hospice for the help; and exhausted to the bone.

What I can find words for is my determination to carry on what Dad and Mom taught me: To cherish, study, and advocate for the community of species that makes this planet home. To leave my bit of Earth in better shape than I found it. And to live with love, always. 

Last Wednesday night, as I was tucking the covers around Dad after giving him his dinner-time medications, I said, "Love you, Dad." He responded without opening his eyes, "Love you all." By then he was preparing to leave this world: he hadn't eaten in three days, and hadn't drunk any liquids for 48 hours. And still he spoke of his love for our family: Love you all

Thank you for being gracious to the end, Dad. We were fortunate to have you in our lives, and you will live on in our hearts. Always. Love you. 

Dad, smiling without opening his eyes upon my brother's return from Germany, just over a week before Dad died. 

Five Years as Woman Alone

Richard Cabe (1950-2011) ogling wildflowers

Five years ago today, at 11:07 am, Richard Cabe, the love of my life and the father of my beloved step-daughter, Molly, took his last gulping breaths. I still miss him acutely, though not every moment and not with the sharp pain of that initial parting.

After five years, the missing him is more like a dull, nagging ache, a bruise in the part of my heart our nearly 29 years together live. 

It’s not that I’m not happy as Woman Alone; I am, by and large, something that is a continuing surprise to me. That happiness is partly my temperament, and partly a stalwart determination to forge a good life with what is. Even if it’s not the life I imagined stretching out for many more years together, Richard and I walking hand in hand into the sunset of our years. 

That wasn’t what we got. I accept that, and I have consciously worked to not pine for what isn’t, and more so, to recognize doors opening that wouldn’t have opened–or I wouldn’t have recognized as opportunities–in that other life where we lived hip to hip, inseparable. Until death parted us.   

Five years… It’s a good time to evaluate the path I’m on, where I’ve been and where I’m going. 

I’ve taken several big leaps in that time, including finishing and selling Terraphilia, the house he built for us, along with his historic studio next door. 

Helping design and build Creek House and Treehouse, my snug little complex that occupies the last piece of our “decaying industrial empire,” as Richard liked to call our sprawling and once-ugly property.

And now, in perhaps the biggest leap of all, I’m moving on, leaving Salida and the place we shared, the property we spent our last 15 years together restoring. The buildings were Richard’s province, his studio and the big house, which he helped design and did much of the construction himself.  

Richard assembling “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Steamplant Sculpture Garden, in front of his historic studio. (He designed and built the rolling crane for working with ton-size sculptures and rocks.)

The land was mine, the block of channelized, neglected urban creek, and the property itself, its river-bench-gravely soil scraped and “enriched” with industrial leavings, and then abandoned to invasive weeds. 

As his hands shaped and set brick and stone, steel and glass and wood; mine dug and weeded, planted and watered, nurturing soil and plants.

So while he is gone, his body and spirit cycling on to whatever is next, and I am moving away, there is a sense in which the twining of our lives with that physical place, our sweat and cells, the effort and lessons and dreams, the love we put into soil and stone, will remain. 

The we that was–a “we” that included Molly and her time in Salida–continues in the way that blighted chunk of land and creek now flourishes, green and healthy, home to songbirds and pollinators, browsing deer, mayflies and muskrats. In the buildings that rise from the soil, sturdy and cozy, designed to shelter many generations of families and stories. 

And the “I” that is, me, this Woman Alone at sixty, now moves on to the next chapter of her life in a new place, a landscape that has held my heart since I can remember first using the word home.

Northwest Wyoming calls. I feel the pull in my cells and synapses, in my heart. 

Five years today. As I sit in the sun in a cozy casita in Santa Fe near the end of an astonishingly productive writing fellowship at the Women’s International Study Center, I am grateful for the gift of this month-long time to simply relax and write. It is exactly what I needed right now. 

The sun-splashed window seat where I read and write…

Grateful for the five years it has taken me to absorb the wallop to the heart of losing Richard. For the 29 years we had to love each other before that. 

And now, I believe I truly am ready to move on. 

Wednesday, I drive back to Colorado; come late January, I’ll be home in Cody again after decades away. 

Richard and his beloved Salida, the valley and the peaks, our restored industrial property, will come along with me. Not in the physical sense of course. In the form of memories, of singing muscles and sweat, of frustration, inspiration and the joy of seeing the buildings, land and creek revive. As love. 

Those years are part of the person I know as me, imbuing my heart, mind and spirit, and also my muscles, synapses and bone. And–this shouldn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t expected it–urging me to look for new opportunities, to embrace the twists and turns in the path ahead. 

Five years, and I know it is time to go. To whatever’s around the next bend. 

Thanks for walking with me on this journey. Bless you all!

Photo by Santa Fe photographer Robert Muller, who understands light and shadow, and has more patience than I do! 

Memoir: Voice and Intensity and Love

I thought I was done with Bless the Birds. Ready to send it out in the world to find an eager publisher. (The photo above is the guy who the story is about, happily striding through the forest between brain surgeries two and three. Loving his moments.)

Until the thoughtful and complimentary rejection letters from editors who clearly gave manuscript a careful read and loved the writing ("beautifully written"), the story ("the love between the two main characters made me gasp"), and the musing ("deeply reflective"). All of which sound great, but… 

But… A thoughtful "but," mind you, but still a rejection. 

I began to see hints of a pattern. A few weeks ago, when I was in Santa Fe, my agent read me the latest rejection. Which as usual began with compliments:

This is a lovely project. The writing is beautiful, the story well told, and I found myself liking Susan very much. …There is a lot to like here—the haiku, the connection to nature and art; no matter what direction Susan takes the manuscript it is a wonderful project.

And then came the "but":

…I found there to be too much about the specifics of Susan’s story in this manuscript… Because she goes into such detail about her life, there is little room for the reader to see themselves in the story. The pinnacle moments would need to be distilled further so the emotional resonance was given more room to reverberate with the reader. 

Her words made sense in a way other's hadn't, and I saw what I needed to do: strengthen the objective voice to dial back the emotional intensity of the story.

Bless the Birds is about Richard's brain cancer, and how we lived with that terrible disease as well as we could, right up to the end of his life. It's inherently intense. I can't change that, but what I can do is change the way I tell the story: make it more objective and less breath-takingly immediate.

I started revising that very day, skimming the manuscript and "listening" for that objective voice. Wherever I felt a sort of gap, a place that voice was missing or hadn't quite finished speaking, I stopped and listened within for what came to me. And then I wrote. And revised. 

Here's an example of that new voice. The first paragraph is from the previous version of the memoir, at a point where Richard, post-brain-surgery and taking medications that affect his ability be aware of anger, threatens me physically without knowing what he's done. The second paragraph is the new objective voice, giving context to our story:

I stalked into my office. I sat at my computer but couldn’t write. I was still angry, but not, I realized, at Richard—I was furious and frightened by the sudden shift in our lives. Before brain surgery, our paths were intertwined but independent. And now? Now, he needed me in ways neither of us had foreseen. And his surgery-altered brain couldn’t recognize the changes.

Health crises can alter patients in ways they cannot see; their self-image is almost always slow to adjust to the new reality. One of the ironies of caregiving is that we who give the care, whether paid professionals or unpaid family or friends, face the delicate and difficult task of tending to someone who is no longer who they think they are. Because caregivers are in the most intimate contact with those whom we care for, we end up feeling the brunt of those changes. Another irony is the origin of the word care itself: it comes from a German root related to 'grief' or 'lament,' and a Norse word meaning 'sickbed.' We who care tend the sickbed. And grieve the inevitable losses. 

Can you hear the difference? That objective voice backs us out of the intensity of the story, giving us breathing room to think about what it means. What it all means is the essential "why" question of memoir, as in "why should I care about your experience?" Without that, memoir is just another exercise in personal storytelling.

As I have worked my way through the manuscript, I've also realized that in choosing to tell much of the story as dialogue, I've also increased the intensity. Dialogue (whether internal or external) makes a story go faster. Which can be good. It can also be claustrophobic, too much inside the charater's heads. 

So I'm evaluating the dialogue. I'm retaining sections that reveal important things about the characters or the story, and switching the rest to narration. Which gives a little more distance on the story, lowering the intensity and opening space for readers to pause and reflect. 

Why bother revising? I'm putting more work into Bless the Birds because the story matters to me. Because I want to give it whatever it needs to find a wide audience.

Richard and me with one of his functional sculptures, a ton-sized granite boulder carved into a firepit. 

It matters because Bless the Birds is a love story, not just about the love between a man and a woman and a daughter; it's about loving life itself, all the way through. It's about death as part of how we live, a passage we can approach with care and grace. And love.

It's a story we need because we're all going to die, and doing it well makes a difference to our passage and those who we leave behind. And because love is something we cannot have too much of. 

Normal Grief

It was a rare slow night at Amicas, the wood-fired pizza restaurant in my neighborhood, which meant John, my favorite manager, had time to chat after I ordered my pizza to go. 

“How have you been?” he asked. I haven’t been in for quite a while. Either I’m on the road, or home and feeling too vulnerable to be social–my loss, I know.

“Pretty good,” I waggled my hand to indicate the ups and downs. 

He waited for more, a warm smile on his face. John taught kindergartners and he has a background in counseling, specifically, he reminded me, in grieving and death, so he can be very patient.

“It’ll be five years this November,” I said. “You’d think that would be long enough.” (Richard, the love of my life and the guy with his arm around me in the snapshot at the beginning of the post, died of brain cancer in November of 2011.)

John bent his tall form toward me. “It takes three to six years.” His voice was kind. “So you’re quite normal.” 

“Which is funny, since I’m not normal about anything else in my life.”

John smiled again, and we talked about the layers of grief, and anniversary dates, and then the conversation turned to other things. Before I left, he looked me in the eye and said, “You have support.”

I swallowed sudden tears. “Thank you. It means a lot.”

As I walked home carrying the deliciously fragrant pizza, I thought about John’s words, and the idea that it’s normal for grieving to take three to six years. 

Amicas’ Thai chicken pizza, with peanut sauce, green chiles, thinly sliced cabbage, cheese, and avocado chunks–yum!

I’m 59 now, the age Richard was when he saw the bird hallucinations that led us to discover the brain tumor that would kill him two-and-a-quarter years later. By April of that first year of brain cancer, he had already had his first of four brain surgeries, gone through a course of radiation, and was adjusting to his first round of oral chemo.

Richard was seriously, lay-on-the-floor-and-refuse-food-and-drink miserable each month for his five days of intensive chemo–his “comma” he called it, alluding to women’s monthly menstrual cycles–until I coaxed him into taking the anti-nausea medications his oncologist had prescribed. Those drugs, which Richard resisted because he didn’t want to take any unnecessary medications, made the monthly cycle almost bearable.

That and his oncoologist’s “prescription” for eating his favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream every day, even for breakfast if he wanted. And he did want. (Thank you, Dr. Klein!)

I’m sure that even when I’m not conscious of remembering that spring five years ago, my body remembers the fear I fought to keep at bay so that Richard wouldn’t know I felt it, the nights I lay awake trying to reconcile the image of my brilliant, robustly healthy husband with the reality that he had brain cancer. The times when my all-too-vivid imagination persisted in exploring the ending my heart refused to believe we were heading toward. 

So on the days when I find myself staring at nothing instead of writing, my mind suddenly blank and tears filling my eyes; the evenings on the couch when I know I should just drum up the energy to do something besides read an escapist novel with a happy ending, because happy endings are all I can bear these days…

On those days, I will try not to be too hard on myself and remember what John said: It takes three to six years to journey through grief after losing someone we love. In my case, someone who was my other half, someone who I lived with for just a few weeks shy of 29 years, someone who I loved so deeply I never imagined living without him. 

Our shadows at sunset at Carpenter Ranch, on our last road trip, two months before Richard died.

It’s normal, this going along perfectly fine, happy most of the time, until some small thing trips me up and grief smacks me again. Normal.

I understand that intellectually. Emotionally though, I forget. I forget that losing the great love we were so fortunate to share means weathering the pain of loss as the small and large threads that bound us gradually unspool. Memories fade, habits fall away, the little rituals we so enjoyed are no longer. I miss the sound of his deep laugh, the feel of his heart beating under my head when I lay on his warm chest. The lovemaking, the sitting together in silence, each deep in our own thoughts, but still together; the road-trips, the walks hand-in-hand. Even the fights. 

All of that is normal. Which does not ameliorate the pain when grief sneaks in unawares. But it is reassuring. 

As is John’s reminder that I have support–from all around. 

Thank you, John. (Not just for the great pizza.)

And thanks to you all for walking this journey with me. Your company is both comfort and gift. 

Love Endures

For almost 29 years, I had the great gift of sharing this life with the man I loved almost more than life itself. Richard and I were as close as two humans could be–we held hands wherever we went, and we often completed each other's sentences, or knew what the other was going to say before the words came out. Our bodies knew each other as if we had been born twins, not six years and three states apart, on opposite sides of the North-South cultural/political divide and to very different family cultures as well. 

No matter. Once we found each other–and that itself took some doing and a previous marriage for each of us–we came together as if we had been designed for each other. As if we were soul-siblings. With Richard came Molly, his daughter, just three years old when I met her, and at home in my heart from almost that first moment. 

A friend once said about the three of us, "The air between you shimmers. It's love made visible." 

Richard and I didn't always use the gift well, though I believe we always did the best we could at any moment. We fought, we hurt each other, we sulked. (Okay, Richard sulked–I'm a redhead. I go off like fireworks, loud and blazing bright; but when my temper is over, it's over.). But always, the love won out over whatever we had allowed to get in the way. 

The better part of three decades is a long time in any life. Molly grew up, went to college, found a career, friends, and a place she loved to live.

Richard and Molly, February 2010

Richard and I grew too, changing as we did, and found our way home to the Rockies to the town where he had lived as a child. We settled, fell in love with a junky, all-but-abandoned piece of industrial property, which we bought and spent years bringing back life, along with the historic building that became Richard's sculpture studio and the block of frontage on channelized and abused urban creek that still makes my heart sing with its gurgling voice. 

Richard evolved from an academic into an expert witness and then an abstract sculptor who worked with native rocks as "ambassadors of the earth," bringing them into our daily lives as a way of reconnecting us to the beauty and wonder of the planet that is our home.

"Paula's Find," a sculptural firepit Richard created for an architect and interior designer.

My writing grew, stretched, deepened, and reached new audiences. 

And then one hot August morning, Richard–who had always loved and watched birds–saw thousands of birds that did not exist except in his mind. Those seemingly benign avian hallucinations portended the brain cancer that would kill him two and a quarter years later. 

I am 59 now, the age he was when he saw birds. Two months after my birthday last fall came the fourth anniversary of his death. 

And I still have the gift of our love, albeit in a different form. Whenever I notice something particularly beautiful–the colors of a vivid sunset, the sheen of a river-wet boulder, a bluebird with feathers as bright as these Colorado skies–I see again Richard's face-splitting smile. I sometimes hear his voice as if at the very edge of my range of perception, the words not quite close enough to distinguish, but the cadence and tone a comfort. 

I live with some of his work, and it never fails to give me both a jolt of recognition, a stab of grief, and a smile of pure joy when I run my fingers across the polished edge of a basin he carved, or explore the precise joint between curving steel and rock in a sculpture. His hands stroked here, I think to myself, just like this, as I wipe my eyes. 

"Prosthesis," steel and basalt

When I rest my head on my pillow at night, just as I drift off to sleep I can sometimes feel the cadence of Richard's heartbeat, as if my ear were on his chest once more. 

And his love lives on in Molly, who will turn 37 this Thursday. (Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, I remember that I had the gift of Richard's love for the almost 29 years we were together in this life. And I have it still.

Life gives and life takes away; what endures is love. It asks only courage, honesty, and patience to live with our hearts open.

It's worth the risk. Every bloody bit.

Lessons For All of Life

Friday was the fourth anniversary of Richard's death. In honor of the journey we took with his brain cancer, one in which we were determined to live well through whatever came, here are eleven of the most important lessons we learned. Some are specific, some are applicable to any stage in our lives:

  1. Don't waste time. Be present. Make the most of your days, no matter how difficult they are–live what you've got. 
  2. Expect respect. Seek out health-care practitioners who will work with you as partners. If their manner says “my way or the highway,” say thank you and keep looking. You need the best information possible, but your treatment has to work for you as an individual. You are the expert on your body and your life.  
  3. Be fearless about asking questions. No question is stupid. 
  4. Take notes–on what doctors say, on what medications you're taking, on how you feel at different times, on what you want. That data can help you decide which way to go.
  5. Expect health-care professionals to include your family and other caregivers. At the Veteran's Administration, Richard's practitioners often said, “We treat the whole family.” No one's problems happen in isolation. 
  6. Cultivate joy. Whenever. Wherever. (That's Richard juggling in the photo above. Juggling was part of his daily practice, even after brain surgery number two, which removed most of his right temporal lobe along with a splattering of tumors. He's concentrating hard to keep the balls in the air, but you can see the smile and the joy, too.)
  7. Request a team: Your docs and other health care professionals should talk to each other about your treatment, so you don’t end up having to be the middle-person who interprets and communicates for them. You have enough to do. 
  8. Follow your dreams. If not now, when?  
  9. Caregivers need care too. Make sure your spouse/family member/caregiver has a supportive community to rely on so they don't feel like Atlas, holding up Earth all by him/themselves.
  10. Go outside and spend time in nature. Every day. "Vitamin N" is our most effective and longest-lasting healer. 
  11. Love every moment. No exceptions. Embrace your moments regardless. Because they're what you've got.

This list was inspired by a phone call from a friend on Friday asking for suggestions for something she is dealing with. I was happy to give them even though her timing was… poignant. It jerked me out of a major sulk, and I felt useful. 

That evening, a friend and I took four luminarias to the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden, lit the candles, and placed the bags with their flickering lights around "Matriculation," Richard's sculpture, as a way to honor his life and work. (That's Matriculation with our luminarias in the photo above.)

This morning, I woke up with a deeper understanding of my hopes and dreams–my mission–for Bless the Birds, whenever it is published. (There's no news on that end, by the way. It's out for submission with various editors, but none have snapped it up–yet.)

My aim for Bless the Birds is to jump-start a national conversation about the end of life. For too long, we have denied or ignored the fact that we all die. We have wasted billions of dollars on unnecessary medical care and other procedures, caused needless suffering, and denied ourselves the wisdom and healing that comes with integrating death into ordinary life. As a country and as people, Americans cannot afford ignore death: Baby Boomers, those born during the decade-plus birth bump after the Second World War, make up nearly 40 percent of the US population. Some 128 million Americans are headed into the end of our lives, and if we're not facing that yet, we're dealing with the end of our parents' lives. (I'm at the tail end of the Boomer generation, so I'm counting myself.) 

We Boomers revolutionized how Americans live, love, marry, and work. Now it's our chance to change how we die, to return humanity and dignity to the end of life. Bless the Birds is my contribution to that revolution. It's time. Let's roll!

Driving Richard Home

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

Friday morning, I headed over the mountains in Red on an errand that was a long time in coming: driving Richard home.

Back in 2011, when it became clear that he was in the final stages of life with brain cancer, Richard decided to donate his body to the CU Medical School.

“I’d like to teach one last time,” he said as we snuggled in bed one morning. “Do you mind?”

Richard and Susan in the restored riparian area along Ditch Creek Richard and Susan in summer of 2010. Photo courtesy Jim Steinberg

“No.” I gulped tears. “A body’s just a body. Our love is what will last.”

On November 28, 2011, the day after Richard died, his body was “transported” to Denver to the Medical School’s Anatomy Lab.

The administrator there told me he had been placed in the “long program,” so it could be two or three years before I would get his cremated remains back. That seemed appropriate since Richard didn’t rush about anything. Ever.

Two years ticked toward three. I began to wonder. I called in September. Nothing. Last Wednesday, I called again. The nice administrator said he had “completed the program” and was ready for me to pick up.

She offered to mail him. But I realized I needed the ritual of driving him home.

Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red. Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red.

Friday afternoon, three years and fourteen days after his death, I chatted with the administrator, signed the papers and then hefted the box containing the ten pounds of Richard’s cremated remains.

On impulse, I mentioned that I planned to take photos on the drive, as a way to document his journey home.

“There’s a new memorial garden right outside the building,” the administrator said. “You could take one there.”

Richard in the memorial garden at the CU Medical School. Richard in the memorial garden.

As I posed the box, I realized that in far background was “Corpus Callosum,” his favorite of the outdoor sculptures on that campus where we lived in the winter of ’09/’10 during his radiation treatment.

Richard on the concrete barrier at the wave rock. Richard on the concrete barrier below the wave rock.

The next stop was the “wave” rock, a boulder along US 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon. Richard really wanted to use that rock in a sculpture. But he never figured out how to discretely retrieve the ton or so of boulder from beside a busy highway.

Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!) Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!)

After that, it was the Starbucks in Conifer, his coffee-for-the-drive stop.

Yes, that's ice along the edges of the North Fork. Yes, that’s ice along the edges of the North Fork.

And then a quiet stretch of the North Fork of the South Platte.

It's not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff.... It’s not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff….

The cliff going up Kenosha Pass where he found the boulder that became the sink in the guest cottage at Terraphilia, the big house.

"Let's go there," he'd say, pointing at "our mountains" in the distance. “Let’s go there,” Richard would say, pointing at “our mountains” in the distance.

And the viewpoint atop Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet elevation), where he loved to look over South Park, toward the distant mountains above Salida.

The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset

Another favorite rock outcrop, coming down Trout Creek Pass into our home valley.

It was almost dark by the time we got home to the little house he never knew, the one I helped design and build after his death, when I realized I couldn’t keep up half a block of property, our 2,400-square-foot house, and his 1,600 square feet of hundred-year-old studio.

I lifted Richard up on the flagstone shelf in the living room, the one that echoes the “cliff” he built for me at the big house.

Yesterday I walked to Gallery 150, the gallery that showed his work in Salida, and with goldsmith/gallery owner Jerry Scavezze’s help (and consultation from goldsmith Toni Tischer and fiber-artist Jane Carpenter–thanks all!) selected a porcelain urn with a lid by a potter whose work Richard had admired.

Richard and the urn Richard and the urn

I brought it home, poured Richard’s remains into it (which is not as easy as you’d think). They fit, exactly.

Richard, home at last (above the stove) Richard, home at last (above the stove)

This afternoon was Kent Haruf’s memorial service. The program included this poem from Rumi, a favorite of he and his wife, Cathy:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

—Jelaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273

Richard and now, Kent. In my heart still.

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

RIP Kent Haruf–Novelist, Neighbor, Friend

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, 1943-2014

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, beloved teacher and all-around wonderful human being died this morning, three months shy of his 72nd birthday. He had just finished copyedits for a new novel, Our Souls at Night, scheduled for release next year.

Kent’s novels reach to the heart of what it means to be human, the stories told in prose so spare and quiet the phrases linger in the soul after being read. Washington Post writer Mike Rosenwald calls the fictional town of Holt, on Colorado’s windswept eastern plains, the setting for Kent’s trilogy of Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction, “his version of [Faulkner’s] Yoknapatawpha County. It was as real to him as the world he lived in — maybe more real.”

Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy Plainsong, the first book in the Holt trilogy

Kent’s bone-deep knowledge of the sweep of the plains and the lives spun out in their isolated expanses comes from growing up there among people like his characters. He writes their lives with compassion, understanding our capacity for grace even, or perhaps especially, in the hardest of times. Their lives sing hymns of grace.

My friend John Calderazzo, writer and faculty at Colorado State University, remembers hearing Kent read a memoir passage from West of Last Chance detailing with loving humor the spread of food at 1950s-era church potluck that featured quite a few varieties of Jello.

After the reading, John writes, “I told him that the facts, the intense focus, and the precision of the details of time and place reminded me of James Agee’s A Death in the Family (my idea of one of the greatest memoirs ever written). He got this very slow deep smile, and he said that Agee had been his model all along and that no one had ever “caught him” at it. … That was a lovely moment, and that is how I will remember him separate from his wonderful work.”

Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy Eventide, the second novel in the Holt trilogy

In my small town of Salida (population 5,500 people) in rural Southern Colorado, Kent Haruf was simply Kent, a regular at the coffeehouse, a patron of the library, an attendee of concerts and plays, a hospice volunteer, part of the Buddhist sangha, a neighbor, a friend.

He was modest, unassuming, funny, and wise. When he asked, “How are you?” he listened to the answer. Because he wanted to know. He cared.

After the love of my life, Richard Cabe, came home to hospice care for terminal brain cancer in fall of 2011, Kent and his wife Cathy stopped by one morning. Kent sat down next to Richard’s wheelchair, I poured him a cup of coffee, and they plunged into a discussion of the meaning of the Buddhist concept of metta, lovingkindness, in daily life.

An hour later, Richard was tiring and Kent got up to leave. After he put on his jacket, Kent kissed my cheek and whispered, “Thank you for letting me come. It’s an honor.” He came back regularly, and always thanked me for “letting him” visit.

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

Last Saturday, I walked to Cathy and Kent’s with a bag of scones warm from the oven. “Come in! Come in!” said Cathy. “Go on through. Kent wants to see you.”

Kent greeted me with a welcoming smile, showed me a copy of the cover design he had just gotten for Our Souls at Night, and asked me what I was working on. I told him about my aha! realization about my memoir-in-progress, Bless the Birds:

“I finally understood that it’s not about our journey with brain cancer. It’s about the choices we made that shaped us into people who could live that journey and face his death with love.”

Kent beamed and took my hand. “Yes! That is exactly why people will want to read it. You’ve got it now.”

I felt like I had just won the National Book Award.

My heart hurts tonight. But as I go back to revising Bless the Birds tomorrow, I will keep Kent’s joyous smile in mind. He was right: I do have it now (finally).

Thank you, Kent, for that blessing. And thank you Cathy, and both of your families, for sharing Kent. The quiet grace of his voice lives on.

Salida at eventide tonight.... Salida’s eventide as I began this blog post….

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years.

Love: Baggage Worth Carrying

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years. Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in 2003.

I never want to be a person who can’t let go, who carries the tragedies and disappointments of her life as so much baggage. I also don’t want to ignore the past and how it has shaped my life.

I try to walk a path between those two poles, staying mindful of the passage of time and the “anniversary dates” that mark significant personal events. I do my best to honor each, and my feelings.

Still, sometimes those dates blindside me.

Friday, March 27th, was one such. Richard died on the 27th of November; each 27th, I am reminded that another month has passed in this life alone. March marks 2- 1/4 years since his death.

Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first mountain pass on my commute to Denver. Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first on my commute to Denver.

I remembered earlier in the week and thought, Oh yeah. I’ll be driving to Denver that afternoon to prepare for the next Wildscape 101 workshop. The route is familiar, one we took many times between home and the VA Medical Center.

I’d shed a few tears, I suspected, and think about how much we loved that drive, no matter the weather and the inconvenience of being three hours from the city, and how lucky we both felt to live in this spacious landscape.

A herd of about 200 elk gathered in South Park in winter, one of the benefits of the drive over the high country. A herd of about 200 elk in South Park in fall, one of the benefits of the sometimes difficult drive over the high country.

I’d remind myself of how our journey with his brain cancer was eased by the relative quiet and slow pace of our small town, its dark night skies and the river two blocks away, the peaks spearing up on the western horizon, and the community that surrounded us with such love.

I couldn’t know that Friday would end up bringing nasty mountain weather and that I would need to leave early in order to make it safely over the three mountain passes, all above 10,000 feet elevation.

Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday while crossing South Park. Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday.

Or that the organization sponsoring the workshop would schedule a last-minute conference call during which logistical issues would arise, requiring me to be on the phone while navigating howling wind, icy roads and blowing snow.

Or that the stress would distract me from honoring the date as I had planned.

It wasn’t until I was driving across Denver that evening and passed near the VA Medical Center that I realized why my shoulders and neck had set like concrete.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly outside the Medical Center after he saw the birds that presaged his tumor.

Right. It’s the 27th and I’m in the neighborhood where Richard learned he had a cancerous brain tumor, where he survived four brain surgeries, radiation and a course of chemo infusions, and I don’t remember how many brain MRIs and other procedures.

So before I went to bed that night, after I prepared for the next day’s workshop, I had a little conversation with the man I will always love, just catching up.

And then I slept soundly.

Saturday morning’s workshop was a success, with some 200 people in the audience, and knots of attendees surrounding Lauren Springer Ogden and me afterward to tell us how inspired they were by our talks and to ask eager questions.

By the time I drove back over the mountains that afternoon, the weather had turned balmy, but I was so exhausted I navigated on auto-pilot.

I was aimed for home. Not home to the house Richard and I shared. Home to the little house at the other end of the block I built for my solo self after his death.

Home to this harsh and glorious high desert landscape and the community where Richard’s spirit lives on in his art and in everyone he touched in his brilliant, incisive and generous way.

Home where I walk on alone, grateful to be here and to have had his company for almost 29 years. Yeah, I still miss him; yeah, I grieve. I smile and laugh too. It’s all part of carrying on the love we shared, baggage I never want to forget.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….