Author Archives: susanjtweit

Living Well–Heart Outstretched

Twelve days ago, the love of my life, my husband Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer at home in hospice care. He died as he had lived: he was present, gracious and loving until the end.

Richard toasting the evening fog at Lucia Lodge, Big Sur Coast, on our September "Big Trip"

After we sat in silent meditation/worship with his body, sending him on his way with mindful hearts; after we washed his body and consigned him to the care of the funeral home folks on the way to the CU Medical School to be used for research, our little group of family and friends walked over to a favorite local restaurant for brunch, as has been our Sunday habit for a long time.

We ate, toasted Richard, and laughed and cried. Then we walked home.

So it’s gone in my new life without the man I loved and lived with for almost 29 years: Though the seemingly endless rounds of official phone calls and filling out forms, the cleaning and organizing, answering cards and emails–through all the word generated by any death, gracious, graceful, or otherwise, I’ve made a conscious effort to live well, mindfully and with thankfulness for the life I have.

Each day I get up before dawn, measure out the whole grains and organic dried fruits for my hot breakfast cereal, clean the wood stove and make a fire, and do yoga to greet the day, centering myself in this landscape, at home.

Each day I think my love for helping design and build this house which enfolds me in the work of his hand and heart. Each day I look for some grace note.

Each day I also consciously do something to bring joy to my life, honoring Richard’s memory and our shared love of this numinous blue planet and the lives it supports.

And each day I put hands to keyboard and write, even if only for an hour.

Last Sunday, I went cross-country skiing with my friend Lisa. Neither of us had gotten our cross-country skis out in more than a year, so getting ready for our jaunt around the neighborhood golf course meant dusting off skis and poles, and searching for gaiters and other gear.

When Lisa walked over, skis on her shoulder, and confessed that she had completely forgotten how to operate her bindings, we spent a few hilarious minutes of random poking and prying until the bindings popped open.

Then we passed a glorious hour at the golf course schussing on fresh snow, our skis swishing and our legs moving in a rhythm that has always seemed to me close to what it must feel to be able to cup wings on air and take flight. We skied past a hundred or so Canada and cackling geese, roosting with bare feet on the snow, past fox tracks and pounce marks, past quiet houses and noisy dogs.

Does it seem wrong to look for joy a less than two weeks after my love’s death? Perhaps I should be doubled over, wracked with sobs, or curled up under the covers, eyes shut to the world.

Holding hands in the days before Richard died

That’s not for me. I think the best way to honor the love Richard and I worked hard to grow over nearly 29 years, to honor his love for all life, large and small, common or obscure, beautiful and grotesque; his attitude of lovingkindness toward the earth, and the smile that touched everyone who met him is to practice living well on my own.

By “living well,” I mean living in the spirit that we shared: living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand–an attitude of love, kindness, joy, generosity, and appreciation for the gift of each moment.

And I mean writing. Every day.

What does living well mean to you? Why? Write that down!

A Gift for the Future

More than a decade ago, when Richard and I began restoring our “dream place,” the formerly blighted industrial property bounded by the thread of channelized creek where we live, we had no plan, no budget, and no real concept of how much work lay ahead. We did have a vision of healing the land and its degraded creek, reestablishing the community of the land right in town, and a comfortable sense of time in which to do the work.

Wildflowers and native grasses thrive where oil tanker trucks once loaded on our formerly industrial property.

Today, 14 years after we bought the place (or it adopted us, depending on your point of view), that vision flourishes in richer ways than we imagined: our block of creek is a thriving thread of fall color, enlivened by the sound of running water; our restored native meadow yard is dotted with late wildflowers and resounds with the bell-like calls of feeding goldfinches; the organic kitchen garden that grows where oil tanks once stood feeds us—and friends and neighbors.

There’s still a good bit of work to be done: piles of red sandstone pavers wait where our bedroom patio will be, for instance, the creek-side dining area is still a barely revegetated dirt road on the upper bank, and the inner courtyard looks more like the parking lot for heavy equipment it was than a peaceful retreat with pond and falling water.

A sculptor's finials, made of river-worn rocks dug from our own soil.

Some day those things may be completed. But it’ll be by one of us, not two: my partner in this work, the sculptor responsible for the structures that enliven and interpret the stories of this reclaimed formerly industrial plot, and the native rocks that give a sense of contour and place, my husband Richard and the love of my life for the past 28 years, has terminal brain cancer.

These days he talks about his plans for the water feature in the courtyard or the stacks of flagstone, but struggles to muster sufficient energy to sit up in bed, much less to maneuver boulders and granite-carving tools.

I grieve for the work he will not do, for his vision of working with native rocks as “ambassadors of the earth” to connect our daily lives and routines to this planet and our place, whether river-rock finials on an arbor, bathroom lavatories carved from rough local rock, or the spectacular gas fire pit he created from a ton of native granite boulder for an architect’s courtyard.

A ton of native rock transformed into a fire pit that brings the presence of the earth home to our daily lives.

I grieve for his bright spirit, for all I’ve learned from him, for the work we’ve collaborated on, most especially this place we share.

As I sit beside him looking out at the bright autumn sunshine, I realize that even when Richard’s no longer beside me, he’ll live on in his work and in this place, the ugly industrial property no one wanted, now flourishing with a tapestry of native lives, from the lichen-covered boulders he placed just so to the riot of wildflowers, butterflies, native bees and hummingbirds, to the tiny trout swimming under the native shrubs in the revived creek.

A lesser goldfinch calls with chiming notes and we smile at each other. The slanting rays of the sun pick out the last few crimson Indian paintbrush and highlight the whimsical, eyebrow-like flower heads of the blue grama grass. Brain cancer or no, joy blooms here.

Whatever else we have done in our lives together, this place, restored to beautiful life again after decades of disrespect and degradation, carries on the love we share. As life cycles on in ways we could not have imagined, its revival is our final joint work, our gift to the future.

Seizing the Moment

By the time you read this, Richard and I will be on the road in our little Subaru Forester laden with anti-cancer food, camping gear, laptops and books, embarking on the honeymoon we didn’t take after our wedding 28 years ago. A year ago, generous friends collected a travel fund for us, and we planned a trip to the Pacific Coast for this March.

The wild Big Sur Coast, California

Then my mother died, after which the hematoma in Richard’s right brain caused several brain-swelling crises, necessitating two brain surgeries and three hospitalizations. As he was recovering, the glioblastoma in his right hemisphere grew aggressively. So his oncologist started him on an every-two-week chemo infusion routine in hopes of slowing the tumor’s growth.

I’d be lying (or seriously deluded) if I said we were traveling now because he has recovered. Nope, we’re off on The Big Trip because now is our moment, and we’re seizing it.

“Seize the moment” is a good lesson for life in general, one we often get too busy to remember. It’s the kind of lesson writers in particular often have to learn over and over, as I’ve realized in planning this trip. When we originally envisioned it, we planned to drive the Pacific Coast from Vancouver, BC, to Tijuana, Mexico.

But that was back when Richard was driving. Now that we’re down to one driver, and she does not possess tons of energy, we’ve shortened the trip. We’ll plan to cover less ground each day. That’s okay though, and for a writer, may actually be better.

That’s one “seize the moment” realization: Covering less ground means we have more time to stop and poke around, and for me to, well, write. Since that’s what keeps me sane in life, arranging this long-awaited trip to make sure we get to see our favorite coast AND I have time to write is paramount.

So imagine us on the road, headed across the inland West by slow stages, headed north and west across Colorado, southern Wyoming, and into southeastern Idaho, where we’ll spend a night at one of our favorite hot springs, Lava Hot Springs. And then traversing the sea of sagebrush of southern Idaho and eastern Oregon towards the Columbia River Gorge, where we’ll ogle waterfalls on our way to the coast.

We’ll spend a couple of days in Olympia, Washington, visiting my brother and family, and then we’ll meander south, sticking to that magnificent edge where ocean crashes against the continent, through Oregon and into northern California.

We’ll camp in Redwood National Park, where the groves of redwoods are more awe-inspiring than the most beautiful cathedrals, and then continue on south, planning to hit San Francisco on a Friday afternoon so we can spend the weekend with Molly.

Along the coast...

Then south again, following Highway One along the wild coast of Big Sur for a night in a favorite lodge tucked atop a cliff with a splendid view of miles of rugged coastline… From there, who knows what our route home will be. It’ll depend on how well my energy is holding out, and how well Richard is doing.

That’s the other “seize the moment” lesson here. Last week, Richard’s oncologist confirmed what we both suspect: he’s on a long, gradual decline. His brain function will continue to slowly deteriorate, his body will decline, and eventually he’ll be gone from this particular life. It might take six months, might be a year.

So now is our moment. As a writer, that’s a good reminder: None of us know what’s ahead.

Our moment could be gone in the kind of blink of an eye that send my formerly rudely healthy husband–the guy who never needed to see a doctor or take medication–to the hospital seeing birds two years ago, and brought the diagnosis of brain cancer.

Here’s the lesson: If you have something to say on the page, don’t hesitate. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t make excuses. Seize every moment you find to write. Honor your voice and your stories. Starting now. Because this moment is all we have–take it from me. Write. Now.

Gratitude

It rained one recent night, wetting the Adirondack chair I had perched on the first few flagstones that make up the patio my husband Richard and I have just started to lay in the courtyard off our bedroom.

Fat raindrops...

Fat drops plopped on the red sandstone flags, kicking up puffs of fragrant dust until the steady patter darkened the surface of the stone, until the stone glimmered with water and the air smelled wet and alive. It rained until the trellis around the kitchen garden was hung with diamond drops of water, until the tires of passing cars splashed in the sheet-flow on the streets, until the rush and gurgle of rain had the gutters singing again.

The next morning, our rain gauge registered about three-tenths of an inch of rain.  Not much, but enough to briefly revive this high-desert valley, where life survives remarkably well on very little water. (Our average annual precipitation–rain and snowmelt combined–is just ten inches. We haven’t reached that average in several years; we’ve been getting more like six or eight inches.)

Perhaps you live where rain is a regular visitor, and you can’t imagine the gratitude we feel for its occasional wetting. To go for weeks or months without life-giving water falling from the sky is to shrivel inside, weary of cloudless day after cloudless day, the ground dusty, the plants brittle, our spirits cranky and out-of-sorts, and the landscape around us silenced as life is silenced.

We wait for rain, for hope, for life’s return.

And when it comes, we are grateful, our faith in life–the capital L stuff, the whole grand cycle of birth and death and dissolution of molecules into atoms that agglomerate eventually into the building blocks of new life–is itself renewed.

My wildflower-filled "unlawn"

For a week after that rain, my wildflower-filled “unlawn” was greener, the scarlet splashes of indian paintbrush and gilia brighter; the blanketflower, Mexican hat and evening-primrose began to bloom again, and the hummingbirds zipped around energetically, their nectar-field renewed.

But no more rain fell, and the brown tinge crept back, the bunchgrasses crisping underfoot, the wildflowers producing fewer and fewer blooms, the soil turning dusty again.

Even still, on cool mornings before dawn, I can smell that rain in the moisture in the air, hear in memory the music of the plopping drops and the gurgling gutters, and feel its promise of abundance in my bones. And I am filled with gratitude. For rain, sporadic as it may be. For life.

Gratitude for the awareness that nudges me to stop and take joy from the rain, the greening of the bunchgrasses, the wildflowers and hummingbirds, and even that hint of moisture remaining on cool mornings before dawn. I treasure those grace notes; they buoy my spirits when this journey we call life is hard–and when it’s not.

Evening primrose, one of my daily grace notes

What causes you to stop and feel grateful for the gift of life? What are the moments of joy–the grace notes–that buoy your spirits and make the days easier? Write about one, using all of your senses: feel your joy and then describe how you feel, inside and out, how the air smells, what you taste, sense, and hear.

I bow with gratitude for the gift of awareness, and the writing voice to witness to this life. And to you all, for your words and stories.

Technology Fails, Opportunity Knocks…

Uh oh.

Last week, my laptop screen acting up intermittently to being practically unreadable. So I made an appointment at the Apple store for our next trip to the city.

When I got to the “Genius Bar” there, the screen behaved perfectly. (Of course!) But when I described the problem, the Genius Bar guy frowned.

Uh oh.

He asked me a few questions, did a few things with the computer, and then said the likely two problems were serious enough that my only computer was headed for an unplanned “vacation” at Apple Repair.

Oh.

He asked if I had backed up my drive–“Of course,” I said, “That’s not just my writing, it’s my life.” He laughed, assured me that my computer would most likely arrive on my doorstep, healed, in seven days. I watched in shock as he carried my computer away.

The rest of the afternoon, while Richard went through his every-two-week pre-chemotherapy infusion testing, I thought about my laptop. Even though my drive was backed up, I still wasn’t prepared to be without it.

How would I manage email, blogging, Facebook, and Twitter? How would I post my daily haiku and photo, not to mention working on the current book proposal?

I tried not to panic, but honestly, my laptop is more than just technology: its my electronic writing tablet, my connection to the wider information-world, my creativity tool and filing system, and the repository of all of my recent writing, photos, accounts, and correspondence, not to mention my contacts and calendar…

The next day, while Richard snoozed through the two-and-a-half hour chemo infusion process that we hope will slow his brain cancer, I got out the iPad I hadn’t yet learned to use and set to work.

By the time we got home that night, I was competent enough with its virtual keyboard to journal and communicate well enough. I hauled out the paper copies of my source material for the book proposal I was working on, and went to work with a pen and post-it notes.

By the end of the first laptop-less work day, I was used to my new (old) technology of pen and paper (plus the iPad when I needed to go online). I could also see the bad work habits I’d unwittingly acquired. With my laptop, it’s much too easy to get stuck on a thought or a tricky sentence or narrative flow issue, and instead of just sitting and thinking, I say to myself, “I’ll just check my email while I’m thinking.” Or look at the news, or visit Facebook or Twitter, or read a blog, or the weather forecast, or… anything but write.

I resolved to change those habits. If I get stuck with my writing, I no longer distract myself by chatting with friends and fans, or surfing the net. I go outside instead, into our garden with its view of the peaks over town. I listen to the birds, feel the sun on my face, and smell a flower or two. And then, refreshed, I go inside and sit back down to wrestle with the writing.

But after the storm...

Don’t get me wrong–I love the communication and community woven of the digital ether. I feel very fortunate to have the companionship, support, and wisdom of so many incredible people. But in order to keep my sanity in this difficult journey with Richard’s brain cancer–heck, in any life–I need to focus on my writing when I’m not focusing on taking care of the guy I love. By changing my habits, I’m doing a better job of taking care of me, too.

And after a week of applying those new habits, I finished that book proposal. It’s good too, one of the best I’ve ever written. Yes!

And now, I’m going back to writing–without distractions. What about you?

Collaboration

I’m a solitary sort. Even though several of my books have been joint efforts with a photographer or illustrator, I’ve always worked on my own projects in my own way. I can’t say I’ve ever really mastered the art of collaboration.

Until my husband Richard’s diagnosis with brain cancer. As my formerly rudely healthy spouse went from never needing to see a doctor to hospitalization for acute brain swelling to brain surgery, and from a single tumor to one that fingers through his entire right hemisphere and has required three brain surgeries in the past seven months, it’s become clear that his survival hinged on our learning to work closely together: for me to be his advocate when he could not speak for himself, and for him to learn to trust me to articulate this thoughts and needs.

Prosthesis, one of my favorite of Richard's small sculptures

On a day-to-day level, it takes two of use to manage the project of living with this devastating illness: he depends on my love and creative care-giving; I depend on his bright spirit, brilliant mind, and willingness to do what he can, to sustain my energy.

In other words, we’ve had to learn to collaborate. Collaboration means we do our best to work in a way that is not only gracious and graceful, but that honors our differences. And we are very different: I’m quick, impulsive, tidy (perhaps to a fault), and instinctively intuitive. He’s methodical, a visual thinker (by which I mean he thrives on, well… clutter), creative to his bones, and possesses an extraordinarily rich and deep intellect.

In order to collaborate effectively, we have to honor those differing qualities and respect our differing processes. And we’ve got to talk–and listen attentively.

Caulking a doorsill

“How does the day feel to you?” I ask over lunch. He tells me that while his energy is still frustratingly absent, caulking a leaking doorsill went smoothly and quickly. I nod, because I know that while that kind of repair is something he once did without a thought, now that his right brain is challenged, it’s a sequencing test: cleaning out under the sill, finding the right caulk and tools, applying just enough caulk to create a barrier but not so much it makes a mess…

“It felt like it would be a stretch,” he says, “but it was easier than I thought.”

“That’s excellent,” I say, “Seems to me you just did it, without a struggle. A week ago, that would have been impossible.”

Collaborating doesn’t erase his frustration at all he can’t do right now–like resume his practice of sculpture–but it does make it possible for him to live with that frustration without it eating away at his spirit. It doesn’t make the journey lighter, but it does make it easier to walk it well.

Interestingly, now that we’re collaborating on his health, we’ve collaborated on several art shows too, most recently a show called “Haiku: Finding the Essence,” which asked visual artists and writers to work together on illuminating a haiku (or series of haiku).

Richard and I decided we’d work with one of my favorite of his small sculptures, Prosthesis, which began as a chunk of basalt column he picked up on a nearby roadside. The rock had broken away from the outcrop, perhaps knocked down by the freeze-thaw action of snowmelt water trickling down the cracks between columns, and then freezing again and wedging the cracks wider until pieces of the basalt broke off.

Richard picked up the “orphan,” brought it home, and fashioned a steel prosthesis to reconnect the broken column of rock to the earth. I wrote a haiku series imagining the rock’s journey. It took quite a few iterations to get the whole span of time, geology, erosion, and art into the traditional 17 -syllable-form (I ended up with a string of three haiku):

Journey to Prosthesis

Ooze red-hot from Earth’s belly
creep blindly across land
filling, slowing

Cool, fracture into columns
wait while mountains rise, settle
eons pass

Break away
detached by frost and time
Stay while hands cradle, reconnect

Haiku and sculpture paired in the show

Writing is ultimately a solitary act. Opening ourselves up to collaboration can take our words to new places. It’s worth the effort–in the right circumstances. You’ll only know those by listening carefully to your inner voice, an internal kind of collaboration essential to the success of any creative work.

Holding open two very different doors

One recent morning as we snuggled in bed at dawn and watched the peaks above town turn pink, my husband Richard and I talked about one of the things that’s toughest about this journey with his brain cancer: the need to hold open two opposing possibilities for the future.

While we have to be prepared for the worst outcome, for the possibility that the growing tumor in his right brain will end his life in weeks and months, at the same time, we cannot abandon the hope that the course of chemotherapy he’s just begun will help his naturally strong immune system stop the tumor and his amazingly resilient brain will recover.

We’ve talked about the “what ifs,” as in what if things get worse. When you’ve been diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, a type of tumor known for insinuating its many branches throughout the brain, commandeering the vascular system to fuel what amounts to a hostile takeover, you have to face the worst.

So we’ve discussed end-of-life care. “Maybe I should go to the VA nursing home. I don’t want caring for me to wear you out,” he said.

I swiped the tears from my eyes and took a deep breath. “Thank you. But wouldn’t you rather be here with me? I’d much rather have you at home.” He allowed that he’d rather sleep with me as long as he can. “Well, that’s a relief,” I said tartly. We settled on hospice care at home.

We’ve talked about what he wants to do with his body: “I remember hearing a resident talking about dissecting a brain for the first time,” he said. Then, as tears leaked from his eyes, he continued, “I’ve been a teacher most of my life. I’d like to donate my body to the medical school. I like the idea my death of offering a learning learning experience for someone.”

And, holding each other close, we’ve talked about what it’ll be like to part physically. I reminded him that we’ll never really part: “We’ll live on in each others hearts. We’re part of each other. You’ve shaped who I am, and I think I’ve shaped you too.” I had to get up and get us tissues after that one.
 
At the same time, we have a lot of what I think is legitimate hope that he’ll survive this passage with brain cancer. In the two weeks that he’s been taking a steroid to control the swelling in his right brain caused by the tumor, his brain function has not only not gotten worse; it’s actually improved a good bit.

Not just the fine motor skills, either. Yes, he can button his shirts and tie his shoes again–and what a relief that is to a formidably bright and physically strong guy who is not used to being helpless!

He’s also regaining some subtler aspects of brain function eroded by the growing tumor: he’s quicker and more aware. He’s able to work on his laptop again, something he hasn’t been able to do in weeks. He helped me plant our tomato starts in the garden, using the watering wand to fill the channels of the walls-o-water, something that requires serious quickness and manual dexterity.

All of which may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with a significantly impaired right brain, it is big stuff.

Which is why we’re holding out hope that he will survive this terrible passage, and recover to return to his practice of sculpture, working with native rocks he calls “ambassadors of the earth,” creating art and functional objects like the beautiful sink in the photo above, work that offers promise to help heal our often tormented relationship with this unique blue planet.

It’s not easy to hold open these two very different doors as we go about our days–one opening to the end of his life, the other to his life continuing beyond the horizon we can see. That’s part of living with brain cancer, and a poignant reminder that none of us knows what’s ahead. We all want to have time to do the work of our hearts, to use our particular gifts to make the world a better place.

Isn’t that why we write?

Learn from our journey: Don’t waste time. Use your gift well. No excuses!