Richard and Susan in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992.

Life Changes in an Instant

Richard and Susan in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992. Richard and Susan (I’m standing on a boulder in a rare moment of tallness) in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992.

“What’s with all the birds?”

I scanned the surrounding landscape in response to Richard’s puzzled question.

It was seven-thirty on a late-summer Sunday morning, and we were driving a dusty, gravel road in rural southwestern Colorado, Richard at the wheel as always, headed for Durango and breakfast. The sky was cloudless, the air still and already hinting at the day’s heat.

“What birds?” I asked cautiously.

“On the wires,” he said, lifting a hand off the steering wheel to point at the utility wires dipping low over the valley, “on the branches of the willows by the pond, on the stems of the rabbitbrush.”

He half-turned in the driver’s seat, “Don’t you see them?”

A chill skittered down my bare arms. I looked again, carefully, searching with eyes trained by growing up in a birdwatching family.


That exchange took place four years ago yesterday. Although I didn’t know it then, those birds shattered the future I imagined, the years of work and travel with the man I loved, retirement, growing old together…. The pattern shifted like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope when the ring is twisted, reforming into a new pattern I would never have dreamed.

Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder. Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder.

Whatever was wrong with Richard’s brain became the focus of our days (and my nighttime fears) from the moment the words left his mouth.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

“Life as you know it ends.”

I understand the truth of those words now at the cellular level, in a searing way I did not when I first read them, before the birds appeared.

For Richard and me, the ending was not instant the way it was for Didion when her husband, John Dunne, died of a heart attack. Nor was our daughter gravely ill.

We had the (relative) luxury of two and a quarter years together before the brain cancer that caused massive swelling in his right brain, disturbing his visual processing center enough to cause a visitation of the birds that did not exist, ended Richard’s life.

Two and a quarter years that we lived as well as possible, loved much and regretted little, two and a quarter years to get used the fact that life changes in an instant. That life as we knew it would end.

Holding hands, even at the end.... Holding hands, even at the end….

Four years and a day after that moment, I am still assimilating that wrenching change, the biggest to shake my life since I married he and then four-year-old Molly 30 years ago. The love of my life is gone, moved on to whatever’s next, and I’m building a life alone.

“Life changes in an instant.”

I know his spirit’s still with me and always will be, and ditto for the love we nurtured so carefully over the years and which we shared not just with each other, but with every being around us and this numinous planet itself.

All that’s comforting and sweet, but I’m the one alone tonight, the one who spent the week from h***ll dealing with buyers who acted in what certainly seems like bad faith. A contract we had all spent a good bit of time and no small amount of money on fell apart at what is essentially the last minute in a rather ugly way.

I’ve lost a lot of sleep worrying about it for the past week, and it’s not over yet. I’ve done my best to take things in a positive way, and to sort out my end.

Richard Cabe at Carpenter Ranch, August 2010, just before his second surgery to remove a brain tumor. Richard at Carpenter Ranch, August 2010

I think it’s all going to work out in the end, but still…

I miss the guy whose thoughtful wisdom and thorough analysis, whose boundless creativity and bone-deep love would have made this all more bearable. I miss the rumble of his laugh, the warmth of his hand, the way his muscular body fit mine one as if we’d been made for each other.

Life changes in an instant.

We pick ourselves up, perhaps slowly, perhaps painfully. And then walk on.

With love.