Learning Forgiveness

Richard and Molly with Isis on a hike.

Some years back, I wrote an newspaper column titled “Learning Forgiveness” about our Great Dane, Isis.

Isis was rescued from a puppy mill by Animal Control officers one January day ten years ago. She was emaciated, weighing less than 70 pounds and had borne at least one litter of dead puppies. Her body was dotted with sores; the skin on one side hung in rotting tatters.

No one who saw her then expected Isis to survive. She did–and then some. Six months later when we adopted her, she had gained 20 pounds and her burned side had healed.

She put on another 40 pounds in her first three months with us, and her snazzy black and white coat regained its glossy shine. When Isis pranced along with her huge black ears up and her long, white-tipped tail gently waving, as I wrote, she looked every inch the Goddess she was named for–on one side.

Isis’ burned side

Her other side records a nightmare life, a story etched in misshapen ribs and slick burn scars that crosshatch her flank from muzzle to tail, giving a tragic-comic droop to one eye and leaving one shoulder shrunken.

Still, Isis was simply happy: to be in the world, to take walks and eat three meals a day, to snooze on her cozy bed. Her friendly good nature was so obvious that her beauty, not the scars she would carry for life, was the first thing people noticed when they met her (along with her giant size). In that, I saw a lesson:

Isis in our kitchen garden. (She loved to browse the yellow pear tomatoes, nibbling them right off the vine. Funny dog!)

The two sides of Isis’ body stand as a permanent record of the duality of human nature: we are equally capable of unusual cruelty and extraordinary kindness, of great hatred and lasting love.

Isis’ gracious behavior toward all she meets makes it clear which path she has chosen. No matter the circumstances, her example says, our response is what shapes who we are.

Isis taught me true forgiveness. She might be (and often was) stubborn, she might be playful, but she was never aggressive. She loved everyone, drawing on a body of loving-kindness that was apparently as immense as her physical body.

In this year of learning to live as Woman Alone, I have thought of Isis often. Partly because I am lonely, having lost Richard, the love of my life, last November, and have thought seriously about adopting another Great Dane. (They’re easier to train than people.)

Partly because my most difficult and most urgent lesson this year has been forgiveness.

Not forgiving someone else–though this year’s succession of tragedies has asked that of us all. Forgiving me. For failing over and over again (I am nothing if not consistent) to find a sustainable, healthy pace for my life. Whether it’s writing or road trips, gardening or carpentry, managing the household accounts, getting my dad moved to Washington or throwing a luminaria party, I cannot seem to learn that I cannot just push through and do everything–today.

Forgiving myself for being surprised when I find myself on the couch alternately flushed and aching all over, and shivering and aching all over.

As if I didn’t know better. I have lived with a chronic illness my entire life. I know from extensive and bitter experience that there are unyielding limits to my energy; I know that the consequences of exceeding those limits begin with the nasty flulike symptoms and get much worse if I don’t pay heed.

And still I don’t.

Which is why while I have been on the couch this last evening of 2012, flushed and aching deep in my bones, I have been struggling to not be angry at myself. To forgive myself for pushing too hard. Again.

Isis with a doggy grin and a much younger Richard and me by the Arkansas River.

When Isis’ face floats into my mind smiling her immense doggy grin, it occurs to me that I missed part of the lesson: For, the first part of forgiveness, means “to renounce.” Renounce involves letting go: of the anger, of the tension, of the expectations, of whatever keeps us stuck in that unending do-loop, unable to change. Just letting go.

Which for me, may mean summoning up a grin, and learning to laugh at myself when I forget that I can’t actually do everything. Today. By myself.

That’s the lesson I’ll practice in 2013: Letting go. Lightening my load. Learning when to laugh at myself.

May your New Year be full of laughter and the light of true forgiveness. We can all use both.

Looking Back, Feeling My Way Forward

Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California

A year ago, Richard and I were in Denver at what turned out to be his last appointment with Dr. Klein, his oncologist at the VA Medical Center. We looked over his most recent MRI, taken the day before. Dr. Klein pointed out that the rapidly growing tumor in his right brain looked stable for a change, a surprise, given his increasing difficulty with his left side and the skin sores that had appeared since his last visit. His mind was still clear, his sense of humor quick, and his smile positively incandescent. But his body was clearly beginning to fail.

That physical decline, she said, indicated it would be best to cancel his monthly chemo infusion. “Are you okay with that?” she asked. Richard looked at her, his gaze straight, understanding the implication.

“It’s not working, is it?” She shook her head, and after a moment, passed the box of tissues. We all sniffled and blew our noses. Richard and I held hands.

“I’ll call to check on you in a few days,” she said, after asking if we had any questions or needed anything else. “You can always reach me.”

We hugged her and left, Richard walking slowly but strongly, using the cane he needed then for balance.

I think back to that day as the wind howls up the valley and the temperature plummets because the nasty weather reminds me of the drive home after that visit with Dr. Klein. A frigid wind buffeted our Subaru, as if echoing the grief chilling my heart. Richard held my hand even when he slept.

Kayaking on the Columbia River off Portland, Oregon (Photo: Molly Cabe–thanks, Sweetie!)

He and I were partners in ways that are difficult to explain without sounding trite or sappy. We let each other in more deeply and trustingly than anyone before or since.

That kind of heart- and soul-connection is rare and precious, a gift I didn’t expect to receive and one I don’t imagine will come my way again. Which is okay. I say that only to explain why I haven’t, as some have asked lately, “moved on” yet.

We had almost 29 years to grow our love and partnership, and those years and that deep connection are not something to move on from. It takes time to sort out what my life means without Richard, just as it took time to grow what he called the “body of love” that sustained us, especially through the journey with his brain cancer.

Me in Alaska. Photo by Roberta Smith (Thanks, Roberta!)

It’s not that I’m not living fully. But learning how to be me without him involves a lot of trial and error, thinking–and practice. Decisions that once would have been simple are not. The path forward isn’t clear.

Over the past month, while part of my mind has been focused on moving Dad and then on catching up on writing deadlines and readying the garden, house and shop for winter (Which seems to be blowing up the valley today in roaring waves.), my subconscious has been sorting through decisions I need to make.

The first is whether or not to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance. I’ve decided not to–at least for now. Applying feels wrong, and I can’t really say why. It just does, and I’m honoring that strong, gut-level sense.

The second is adopting a Great Dane. The first dog I was interested in was a sweetheart, but had long-term health problems that felt overwhelming. The second had some pretty serious socialization issues. Considering the two forced me to admit my own limitations. Selfish as it may sound, after a decade of increasingly intense care-giving of various family members, including my love, it feels good to be responsible for just me right now.

As I was writing this post, I found a quote from the late Steve Jobs in my journal that’s just the reminder I need as I feel my way forward….

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

Happy Birthday, Richard….

Richard and his dad, Raymond Cabe, outside Salida, winter of 1951

Today, July 16th, 2012, would be Richard’s 62nd birthday. Molly and I decided last winter that we wanted to mark the occasion because while remembering is painful, forgetting his life and the joy he took from it would be worse.

Picking a weekend was easy: his favorite summer event in Salida, the Colorado Brewer’s Rendezvous, where microbreweries from around the state set up tasting casks under the shade trees in Riverside Park a few blocks from our house, was scheduled for Saturday, July 14th. Perfect.

The theme was easy too: it’s a long-standing Cabe-Tweit tradition to combine playing pétanque (a French game of bowling on gravel using steel balls, another of Richard’s summer delights) on our front-yard court with brunch on the morning of the Brewer’s Rendezvous. Once we had the date and the theme, we invited the combined Cabe-Tweit clan plus a few dozen friends, and left the planning and organizing until later.

The day before I left for the river trip, barely 10 days before the petanque brunch, I contemplated preparations. We had always served fritatta, muffins, and fruit salad with homemade yogurt, plus mimosas and an assortment of other beverages ranging from Trippel, Richard’s favorite beer, to coffee and natural sodas. Since it would be just me preparing food for 60 or so guests, I gave myself a break and ordered the fritattas from Ploughboy Local Market, and the muffins from the new bakery downtown. The point was to have a day he would have enjoyed, not to stress over it.

Molly, my brother Bill, great-nephew Connor, Matt, Fiona, Sienna and Porter Bryant (Sienna is Bill’s middle girl), and me in the front row. Thanks to Mark Allen for the photo.

Two days after I shook the sand out of my river shoes, the Tweit clan began arriving. First my middle niece, Sienna, her husband Matt, and their four-year-old, Fiona, and three-year-old, Porter, pulled in from Washington State via stops at Arches National Park and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, among other places. Then Molly and Mark, who flew in from San Francisco; and late that night, my brother and my eldest great-nephew, Connor, also from Washington State, but fresh from a backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains via the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge train.

The next day, Friday, we went into serious party preparation, beginning with weeding the petanque court, which for some reason my wildflowers love to colonize. (Clearly, they don’t understand the hazards of play!) Molly, Mark and Bill dug and pulled and raked until the court looked better than it has in years.

The freshly weeded and raked pétanque court, outlined by river rocks and native wildflowers and grasses.

Next we laid in beverages, hauled the 12-foot-long chop saw table from Richard’s studio over to the front porch to hold food, and bought recyclable plates and cups.

Saturday morning we moved the big umbrellas to each end of the court, distributed chairs on the porches and patios, filled the chop-saw table with food and the big galvanized bucket with ice and drinks, arranged mementos at one end of the food table, including a candle made from the remains of the luminarias from the celebration of Richard’s life (thanks to Ed & Paula Berg, and Arlene Shovald) plus an iPad slide show put together by Mark and Molly, and then hung out.

“Aunt Molly, you’re throwing the ball wrong!” Collin Cabe, age five, already knows his great-uncle’s game.

Soon, the porches and yard were full of people eating, drinking, chatting, and either pitching boule or cheering on the pitchers. I flitted about, greeting guests, opening champagne bottles, refilling the coffee carafe, making sure everyone had food and drink, and giving tours of the house and Richard’s studio.

It was a great party, the kind where you look around and realize that people who were strangers a few minutes ago are now talking animatedly, and kids of all ages have gotten into the spirit of play.

By the time a rain shower moved in and the party attendees sheltered under the umbrellas and porches, it was mid-afternoon and time for those who were headed for serious beer-tasting to be on their way, and for the rest of us to clean up.

Some talking, some pitching, all enjoying the kind of gathering Richard loved….

When the house was quiet again, I poured myself a mimosa (my first, if you’re counting) and raised my glass in the direction of the now-quiet pétanque court.

“Happy Birthday, my love,” I said. “You are much missed and well-loved.”

I swear I could feel him smiling.

River report: fear and trust

Our boats at Triplet Falls campsite, in the calm water above the cascade that is the falls.

Yesterday late afternoon when I returned from the river, after I had shaken the sand out of my gear, sorted through mail and email and phone messages, and dealt with an urgent problem, I said to myself, “I’ll haul up on the couch and write a blog post.”

My inner voice responded, “Remember the resolve you made on the river?”

Oh yeah. The one about not pushing when I’m exhausted. “I’ll write from the couch with my feet up,” I responded. “That’s restful.” (Not that I was arguing, mind you, just discussing.)

My inner voice didn’t bother pointing out that I had driven most of the way across the state that day and then unpacked and done a load of laundry, or that the float and the drive along roads I last traveled with Richard on our Big Trip had been emotional, or that a well-written blog post takes me at least three hours….

Oh no. My inner voice knows me well. It simply flipped from words to body language. In moments my right temple felt like an ice pick was piercing it, my finger joints throbbed, and my balance was shot.

Huh. I hauled up on the couch and actually rested.

And after a while, I felt better.

That little incident nicely corroborates what four days of floating the Green River reminded me about fear and trust.

The word ring attached to my waterproof notebook

It started with the word-ring exercise I gave the group the night before the trip. I handed out one- by three-inch manila cards with a hole punched in one end of them, plus metal rings to attach them to our waterproof journals, and placed packages of colored markers in the center of the circle.

The assignment: write a word (or words) on one card in watercolor marker that represents something you want to leave behind on the float, and write another word on a different card in waterproof markers to stand for something you want to take away from the trip. We would then dip the cards with watercolor ink in the river and let the water wash away what we wanted to leave behind.

As the group chose markers and wrote and embellished their cards, I thought for about a nano-second.

Then I picked out a yellow watercolor marker for one word, and an aqua-blue waterproof one for the other. I carefully wrote “fear” in the yellow marker on one card, underlining it with crashing black rapids, and “trust” in aqua-blue on the other, outlining the letters with blue and green swirls.

Gates of Lodore, where the Green River begins slicing its way through the Unitah Mountains in Dinosaur National Monument, a “foreboding” view, as .

That pretty much sums up the why of this float-trip for me: it was time to let go of my fear of whitewater, my grief about my friend Carol’s drowning death, and to remind myself of what I love about running rivers: riding the muscly flow of the water itself, absorbing the quiet; the chance to see majestic canyons only accessible by river, the time “away” to think and just be; the yee-haw, bow-slapping fun of it, the look at the desert from the inside; the sound of canyon wrens trilling from impossible cliff perches and the sight of bighorn sheep kids tip-toeing down to drink.

Over four days, the river and sun and water worked their magic on me, with the help of our excellent guides from Adrift Adventures and a truly sympatico group gathered by Colorado Art Ranch.

Braving Butt Dam Falls, named for the narrow channel above that can be dammed by a couple of well-placed butts, and then the flow released in a breath-taking “whoosh!”

Oh, there were some scary moments (I will never be a thrill-seeking River Girl, and that’s okay), and some lonely moments—Richard would have loved this trip, dammit! There were some wet times, not just from the river; it actually hailed and rained on us the first afternoon, and then there was that shower in Butt Dam Falls.

The ceremony in Carol’s memory at our campsite at Triplet Falls reduced both her husband Terry and me to tears. (Terry, a long-time boatman, was rowing the raft through Triplet three summers ago when it flipped, and everyone made it safely out except Carol.) But it was healing too.

On the final day of our float, I slipped from the raft and swam alongside for a few minutes, letting the river cradle me, truly going with its flow. When I hauled myself back on board, I looked back at our string of rafts and saw Terry rowing, his hands sure on the oars, a huge smile splitting his face.

Taking our fears to the river and letting the water wash them away seems to have been a powerful beginning.

The slide show below gives a sense of those four days on the Green River. It’s in no particular order, so just click through and let the river’s magic carry you.

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Finding middle gear

Coast redwood grove at dawn

After several decades of living with a chronic, potentially debilitating illness, you’d think I’d know my limits. (I have either mixed connective tissue disease or lupus, depending the doc and the interpretation. The name doesn’t particularly matter; it doesn’t change the symptoms I experience every day.)

Apparently I don’t. (Know my limits.) Since I returned home from a Mother’s Day weekend trip to California, I’ve been half-sick with various symptoms. Some days my bones ache deep inside like I’m getting the flu (there’s nothing like aching bones to make me feel old); some days I’m feverish all night long and sleep restlessly; some days I wake with a throat so sore it feels like someone’s abraded it with one of the big-toothed files in Richard’s shop, and the glands in my throat are swollen in hard, painful knots.

That’s my body speaking to me. When I fail to pay attention to its more subtle messages—tiredness, forgetting words, losing my balance, struggling to breathe, or dropping things, it speaks louder, raising its “voice” the way we do when we feel like our audience isn’t listening. If speaking louder doesn’t work, we resort to other, more drastic methods, like shouting or throwing things. I’m afraid my body is approaching the throw-things stage.

Banksia and Monterey cypress at the University of California-Santa Cruz arboretum

It’s my own fault. I’ve been in high gear since I got home, trying to catch up, to make progress on my various projects, all of which feel urgent, before I leave again in two weeks to take my dad to Washington state for a family gathering. I’ve been “pushing through” instead of listening within. I’ve been frantically ticking off things on my to-do list. A list which does not, now that I think about it, include resting and refilling the well I draw my energy from, whether physical, emotional, creative, or spiritual.

It occurs to me that part of the problem is that I seem to have only two gears: up and at ’em, and horizontal (as in lying flat-out on the couch). I’m either going full-tilt-boogie or I’m not going at all. That doesn’t sound particularly sustainable, does it?

That’s what I suspect my body is trying to communicate to me. Slow down or else…. I know that “or else,” though it’s been a very long time since I got myself into a bad enough patch that I’ve had to pay really drastic consequences for neglecting my own well-being.

Claret cup cactus blooming in my restored native grassland front yard

How drastic? Oh, just two bouts of mono, one after another, walking pneumonia, plus several serious injuries attributable to severe fatigue and a car crash that could have killed me. How long since my body had to shout that loud? Um, since Richard and I began living together almost thirty years ago.


Could there be a connection between my current inability to find a sustainable middle gear and the loss of the love of my life?

Well, duh.

There’s one of me know, and in my own stubbornly independent way, I’m trying to do what two people did before. Huh.

Rocky Mountain iris, the native iris, growing along our restored block of urban creek

Apparently I need to re-think how I’m approaching this Woman Alone thing. I could start with learning to say “no” more often, and asking for help before I get stuck. (I’m working on both of those.) I could also practice recognizing that grief and exhaustion are part of the process and that they require their own time and space. I could add “rest” and “reflect” to my to-do list.

What it comes down to is that I need find a new life-rhythm. I’m still living as if there are two of us, and the other one is a strong and healthy guy who can do everything I cannot. And more besides.

This coming Sunday will mark six months since Richard’s death. It’s time for me to get serious about finding that middle gear so I can live a healthy life without him.

I’m going to start by heading out to the kitchen garden and picking myself a bowl of fresh salad greens for lunch. Preparing meals from the food I’ve grown with my own hands in our soil takes time, but it’s a wonderful way to slow down and nourish myself, body, mind and spirit.

That word “disability” again

Richard after the brain-drain procedure, February 2011

A little over a year ago, Richard and I were discussing disability, specifically, whether we should file for Social Security Disability Insurance on his behalf.

He had by then weathered two brain surgeries, plus one procedure to drain a near-fatal accumulation of brain fluid. His recovery each time astonished his docs; his brightness—both in mind and spirit—seemed barely diminished.

So when his oncologist suggested applying for the disability pension, Richard said essentially, “No thanks.”

She looked directly at me and said, “Think about it. It could give you some breathing room and help you manage more easily.”

I didn’t like even hearing the word in the context of Richard. I looked up the definition:

Disability. n. A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.

It was hard to imagine my love as “disabled” when he sketched out an idea for a new sculpture, or commented incisively on a piece of my writing. But I had to admit that his ability to accomplish the more practical aspects of life was… impaired. Things once simple took him a long time; he was easily distracted.

In the end, after talking about the labels, he decided it wouldn’t hurt his sense of self. We applied for the pension, and his doc was right: that small monthly check freed me to do a better job of helping him live well with brain cancer, and die well too, when it came to that.

A silly moment, April 2011

I’ve had those discussions in my mind recently because living without him has forced me up against something I have successfully avoided until now: I’m disabled too.

Not in any way that might be obvious to others. But it’s become painfully clear to me now that I don’t have Richard to help out.

The most obvious symptom: my energy runs out long before the end of the day, and if I push myself, I pay with fevers, joints that feel like they’ve been pounded with a ball-peen hammer, balance wobbly enough that I need a cane, and brain fogs so intense that words become strangers and I cannot think my way out of a paper bag, much less a crisis.

I’ve been accommodating my own particular… disabilities for so long that they’re normal to me. It’s habit, for instance, to save energy: I sit down instead of stand when I can do it without drawing attention to myself; write from bed at first and then move to the couch, where I can sit sideways with my feet up; take baths rather than showers (it’s that horizontal versus vertical thing again, a crucial difference for my daily energy budget); I carefully schedule my outings and public appearances at the times when my energy is at its best, and as a result, so am I….

My limits come from having either Mixed Connective Tissue Disease or Lupus, depending on how the tests are interpreted. The label doesn’t matter to me—neither is understood well enough to know what causes it or might cure it.

The sunset from my couch…

I have managed quite well by adjusting my life to accommodate the symptoms, which means being very careful to live within the limits of my energy—once I overtax myself, my body’s systems go haywire and I am sick and miserable, wobbly and unable to think straight until I have time to recover.

I’d been considering my limits when a very knowledgeable and helpful representative of the Social Security Administration asked me point-blank if I was disabled, and then quickly said, “Let me explain why I’m asking.”

If I fit their definition, I am eligible for a monthly disability insurance payment (smaller than Richard’s because I’ve earned less) and, two years after qualifying, I’d also qualify for Medicare, compelling in itself, as anyone who is trying to afford health insurance will understand.

Both mixed connective tissue disease and Lupus are listed on the Social Security Administration’s list of qualifying conditions. My family doc is willing to write a letter in support of my application.

Pallid evening primroses out the bedroom door at dawn

Still, I haven’t decided to apply. Like Richard, I’m proud and I imagine myself self-sufficient. (None of us really are, but it’s a seductive fiction, especially for we westerners.)

Applying requires a huge investment of time and energy, and I have more than enough to handle right now. So much more than enough that I wake exhausted, having spent the night trying to figure out how I’ll keep all of those balls in the air. (I’m no juggler—that was Richard’s talent.)

Fortunately, it’s not a decision I have to make immediately, as his palliative care psychologist pointed out when I talked with her about it. I’ve got two years from the date of his death to apply, and in that time I can gather the information as I have energy, a bit here and a bit there.

First I have to decide if I can live with the label. Richard didn’t let it define him, and that gives me courage. I’ll give it time and see how I feel.