I was curled up in my sleeping bag in Red one night on my road-trip, cozy and warm and digesting both dinner, and what I had seen and heard over the day's miles. As I started to drift off to sleep, a phrase drifted across the screen of my mind, "bonus time." Then I heard or dreamed a voice saying, "This is your bonus time. Use it well."
The next morning, I woke before dawn to frost on the inside of the windows in my truck topper. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and thought about the message I had heard. What does "bonus time" mean? And what will I do to use it well?
I pondered the idea for another two days and 900 miles. (I am definitely not a fast thinker!) I think for me, bonus time means that after 16 years of intense caregiving of others, beginning when we moved my parents to Denver in 2002, I have reached a period in my life where I am free to do what I want to do, whatever that may be. (Assuming I can pay the bills, of course, and stay healthy.)
Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, has been gone six years and three months, and the years of scrambling to pay the debts left from his journey with brain cancer and find sound financial footing are behind me. No more working two jobs, no more evenings and weekends spent finishing the house and his shop with the help of patient friends (thank you, Grant Pound and crew, and Maggie and Tony!) so I could sell that property before I lost it. No more racing to finish the little house, my next home, so I would have a place to live while I figured out what was next.
Richard and Molly, January, 2010: He has survived his first brain surgery (that sinuous scar on the side of his head will be re-incised three more times), and is a few days from finishing his first course of radiation for brain cancer. She is about to head back to San Francisco after spending a week in Denver with him while I was on an island off La Paz, Mexico, leading a writing retreat.
No more driving hell-bent-for-leather over the mountains in all manner of weather to sort out a problem with Dad, living alone in Denver after Mom's death. Dad is now comfortably settled in the Assisted Living unit of the retirement community in Western Washington where he moved to be closer to the rest of the Tweit clan (my brother, sister-in-law, and their girls and families). Molly is settled in San Francisco in a challenging career in advertising. And I, who wasn't supposed to live beyond my twenties, am still chugging along, albeit more slowly than I once did.
So this is truly my bonus time, however long it lasts. "Bonus" because I didn't expect to be here, alone, with no one depending on me. "Bonus" because I am here at all. "Bonus" because with the help of friends and my family, I am debt-free and can pursue the work I love, writing, and restoring houses and land. Of course to get that bonus, I had to find a gracious and discerning way to help two of the people I love most in this world live through the end of their lives. And then I had to survive their loss, and learn how to live well without them.
My restored living-dining room on a sunny day recently when the spring weather wasn't spitting snow the way it is right now.
I realize that it could be argued that rescuing a house as badly dilapidated as this one was, or hand-digging invasive weeds in a landscape as enormous as Yellowstone and its 3,500 square miles of wildness could be considered forms of caregiving. Of a particularly insane sort.
To me though, caring for a house or the community of the land is less fraught than caring for most people. I can enjoy the creative effort, the fast-on-my-feet problem-solving, and the complexities of restoration without having to pick my way through a minefield of human emotions. So neither feels as emotionally taxing. Yet like human caregiving, both are ways to make positive change in this increasingly negative time.
So what am I going to do with my bonus time? I think I've answered my own question: write, and restore neglected or injured places, both buildings and land. Exactly what any of those projects look like and where the path ahead will take me, I don't know. I do know I am looking forward to the journey, and I will do my best to make good use of this bonus time.