Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama.

Trickster Grief

Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama. Cottonwoods showing bronzey-gold fire along the Rio Chama.

On my drive home today after teaching at the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference in Santa Fe, I stopped in the cottonwood bosque (“woods” in Spanish) along the Rio Chama and was surprised by grief. As I stepped out of Red, my ears filled with the “Chur-ee!” calls of red-winged blackbirds, my noise filled with the tannic smell of decaying cottonwood leaves, and my eyes filled with tears.

The sharp pain in my heart and the wrenching sense of loss shouldn’t have hit me unawares. The drive between Santa Fe and Salida on US 285 was one of Richard’s and my favorite “threads,” or shared road-trips. We first took it together in the fall of 1984, thirty years ago, and retraced the route many times over the decades.

Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau. Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau.

My memory is layered with snapshots of those trips: The first shocking flush of chartreuse leaves in the cottonwood bosque in spring, when the rivers are running full, their water hissing with red and ochre sediment. The sweetly resinous smell of big sagebrush after a warm summer thundershower.

The sound of a flock of piñon jays whinnying as they forage for nuts from the tree’s cones; the sight of sandhill cranes, wide wings spread and long necks outstretched, flying down the valley in long strings in late fall.

The dazzle of stars in the black night sky one winter night, starlight so bright that the snow along the roadsides glowed even with no moon.

Over the years, we got in the habit of stopping in particular places. The bosque by the bridge where the highway crosses the Rio Chama, the river draining Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved badland and mesa landscapes, was one of those stops, especially in autumn.

The last cottonwood trees still bright gold along the wash above the Rio Chama A few bright gold cottonwood trees along the wash above the Rio Chama.

So I should have known I’d miss Richard when I stopped out of my truck. But it’s been almost three years since he died. (Actually, it’s been two years, eleven months and 18 days, not that I’m counting obsessively or anything.)

In that time, I’ve deliberately built a good life for myself, one both radically different (new tiny house/studio complex, new truck, new writing projects) and very much the same (same block, same town, my life and work inspired by the same terraphilia we shared, a mindful love for the earth and its living communities).

I’m happy in this new life. Sometimes so much that I feel guilty about it.

Richard 'n Susan, twenty years ago.... Richard ‘n Susan, twenty years ago….

Richard and I were together—so together that we finished the other’s sentences and held hands wherever we went—for just shy of 29 years, much of our adult lives. Our bond shaped us—for good mostly, but not always, I must admit.

That kind of deep connection does not go away at death. Richard is still part of who I am, and the love we shared profoundly affects my understanding of myself and my approach to life.

I should have known that when I stepped out of Red and heard the blackbird voices over the rush of the river, and smelled the spice of the decaying cottonwood leaves, I would feel Richard and the sharp pain of our parting.

The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom

I didn’t know, because that acute grief is not something I feel every day. I feel his love; I often smile and think of something we shared. I live with his sculpture around me. I feel the loss, but it’s more like a chronic ache than a piercing shaft to the heart.

Grief is a bit of a trickster, surprising us when we least expect it. Today’s encounter was no doubt triggered by the sensory memories attached to the sound of the blackbirds’ calls, the quality of the light coming through the cottonwood trees, and the spicy resin of the cottonwood leaves.

I don’t flinch from the visits of Trickster Grief. I’d rather be reminded of the love I had, even when it hurts like… heck, than never have known that love at all.

Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive.... Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive

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