Last Thursday evening, I sat at my desk with the window open to the cool dusk air, answering a few last work emails without much enthusiasm before shutting down my computer for the night. A hummingbird chattered softly to herself as she sipped nectar from a scarlet Indian paintbrush just a few feet away.
I smiled as I watched her feed, and then turned my attention back to my screen as my computer signaled a new batch of emails. I was tired, and ready to do yoga and head for bed, but I scanned them to make sure none needed an immediate response.
One subject-line caught my eye: “A Thank You (Nearly) 20 Years Later.”
I opened the email.
“Dear Susan,” I read,
I thought I should drop you a quick note to say thank you for your fantastic book, Meet The Wild Southwest. I still remember how great it was when my parents bought me a copy in the University of New Mexico bookstore when I was nine. I took that book everywhere with me, and I loved it. These twenty years later, I was reflecting on books that mattered to me as a child and how they shaped me today. I thought of your book, and realized that there must be some part of me that was molded by [it]…
I smiled, thinking how honored I was by the man’s words, and how grateful I was he had taken the time to write and let me know a book I wrote for kids to convey my love of the deserts would have helped shape the course of his life. And then I read on,
I am now a Ph.D. candidate in environmental economics at the University of Wyoming. … I owe a portion of my passion for my work to your book. I really deeply thank you for that.
I stared at the words through a film of tears, my heart throbbing as if the scab that had grown over the hole left by the death of my love, Richard Cabe, had been ripped off. This reader could have no way of knowing that my Richard had been a Ph.D. candidate in environmental economics at the University of Wyoming when we met in the winter of 1982.
Richard Cabe, Ph.D. student in economics, Wyoming 1982
Or that Richard went into economics for the same reasons that this graduate student cited, to influence people to do something positive about the world’s environmental problems.
I laid my head on my desk and cried, overcome by grief at losing Richard, and the stunning coincidence that a book I wrote would have influenced a child to grow up and follow a path into economics so eerily similar to that of my late love.
After a while, I lifted my head and dried my eyes. The hummingbird was gone along with the last of the daylight. A cricket stridulated from the tall grass outside the window, its chirping a call for a mate. I blew my nose and headed to the bedroom to do yoga, my heart sore.
It took me an entire day to find the balance to respond to the graduate student’s beautiful thank-you email.
When I did, he wrote back promptly, and I learned more points where our lives coincide. His father is a professor of Agriculture Economics at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where Richard was a professor of Economics (similar fields, different colleges); my correspondent had earned his bachelor’s in Economics at NMSU (though after we moved home to Colorado).
At University of Wyoming, he has had classes from some of Richard’s major professors; his dissertation co-chair is married to one of Richard’s grad students from NMSU who is now an administrator at Wyoming.
The world is full of unexpected connections. This particular set brings me a great deal of joy in thinking that my work had a positive influence on this reader–and that he would be thoughtful enough to acknowledge it.
If that acknowledgment also hurts my heart, it is a reminder not just of great loss, but of the great love I was blessed with for so many decades. The extent and duration of the grief, in this case, is a reflection of the depth and persistence of that love.
Molly, Richard and me in Boulder, 1987
The scab that covers the hole in my heart will grow back. The hummingbird will return to feed from the scarlet flares of the Indian paintbrush in my formerly industrial yard.
And I will go on writing, aiming to heal myself this battered world, one reader and one place at a time.