Yesterday morning, I hopped into my trusty little Subaru Forester, the car I call "Mountain Goat" for its ability to nimbly handle seeminly any road conditions, and drove to Westcliffe, a former mining town on the upper edge of the wide Wet Mountain Valley to attend an all-day workshop on creating websites with WordPress.
I left home at quarter past seven, as dawn light fingered down the mountainsides from the high peaks, and returned at quarter past six that evening, as dusk was gathering in the day. (Westcliffe is an hour away when the roads are clear–as they were yesterday.)
My friend Bill LeRoy and his co-teacher, Terry Snyder had promised that by the end of the workshop, attendees would know everything we needed to set up and maintain our own websites, and would in fact have the basics of a site ready to go. Indeed, by the time we turned off our computers, I had built my new site and added some photos and words. I was elated–and completely wrung out. My eyes ached, my brain quivered like jello, and I was acutely aware that home was an hour's drive away.
Not just any drive: here in rural south-central Colorado, land of deep valleys bounded by the highest ranges of the Rocky Mountains, we live with jaw-droppingly spectacular scenery, including postcard-pretty peaks rising a mile or more straight from wide valley-bottoms. And two-lane highways that alternate between fast and straight, and narrow and winding and very slow. Add in snow at this time of year, and highway-crossing wildlife.
I left Westcliffe when the sun slanted low toward the peaks, all too aware it would soon be evening mule deer commute time. Much of the route ahead is locally called "deer alley," for good reason: muleys often amble across the highway at dawn and dusk, oblivious of traffic.
I forced my gritty eyes to scan the landscape as I drove, alert for twin-hoofed travelers. I wasn't five miles out of Westcliffe when I spotted the first ones, only they weren't deer: a herd of about 100 pronghorn drifted up the grassy slope, the last stragglers still crossing the road.
I stopped (there wasn't any traffic) to shoot a few photos. As I admired the sleek pronghorn, I felt a physical pang of grief that Richard was not with me to admire them. We shared a delight in all of the wild lives that inhabit this spectacular and harsh landscapes.
The pain was so sharp I pressed my hand to my chest. It felt like my heart was splitting. "I miss you," I said out loud, and swiped tears from my eyes.
After a moment, it receded. I put my camera down and drove on.
The road swooped around a curve and wound through scattered pinon and ponderosa pines. I slowed for a tighter curve, and three robins flew low over the road. Then two more, with a third behind them.
The last bird suddenly slowed, turned and flew right into the hood. I braked and ducked. I felt the soft thud of contact and looked up at the rearview mirror to see the robin fluttering. And I didn't stop.
Maybe it was the grief, maybe the exhaustion–whatever, I drove on. And castigated myself all the way home.
Perhaps that sounds soft-hearted. After all, it was "only" a robin, a common bird by all accounts. There are lots of robins. But only one specific robin, one specific life that hit my car. And I didn't stop.
It wasn't until I had hauled myself and my briefcase into the house that I realized why: I simply couldn't deal with another death. I hit my limit last Thanksgiving weekend when I helped the love of my life die as gracefully and mindfully as possible from brain cancer. My heart isn't ready to weather another death, be it robin or man.
Grief, I am learning, is no more linear than life. Both twist and turn, offering spectacular beauty and serious pain; the calm of long, straight stretches interrupted by hair-raising rises or drops; and without warning, events that sometimes simply fly straight at us.
We duck, a robin flutters on, and somewhere, love smiles.