Day One—Odometer Reading: 182 Miles
Richard opened his eyes as I slowed the car for the turn to the gravel ranch road. I lowered the windows, letting in the rich smell of new-mown hay, along with a distinctive, throbbing call: Khrrr, khrrr, khrrr!
“Sandhill cranes!” A smile creased Richard’s tanned face. He reached for my hand. “I’m a lucky guy.”
The man sitting in the passenger seat next to me had “moon face,” the high cheekbones and chiseled profile gifted by a Cherokee-Chickasaw ancestor now rounded and puffy, a symptom of the steroids that controlled swelling from a growing brain tumor. His deep-set hazel eyes protruded; his muscly chest was soft. But when I looked at him, I saw only the mile-wide smile, joyous and tinged with mischief — the same smile that had captivated me when we met, almost twenty-nine years earlier; the smile that lit up everyone and everything around him. I felt a rush of love, a flood of oxytocin, that excited and terrified me as much as it did when I first became his lover. Now, I was his caregiver. He had terminal brain cancer. And we were setting off on a four-thousand-mile, belated honeymoon journey because our time together was short. Because we were determined to live every moment.
Scanning Richard’s face, I was searching for grace, which to me is the ability to embrace life with a combination of balance, harmony, and beauty. The ability to be present, heart open, even in — especially in — the moments when our hearts want to flinch, freeze, or turn away. When all seems lost: the wounded bird dies in our hands; the strayed child is not found safe and sound; the light of life on this animate planet flickers, as if to fade out.
I swiped at tears with the hand that should have been holding the steering wheel and drove on toward the ranch headquarters, a cluster of white-painted wooden buildings. I parked in our usual spot under the spruce tree by the bunkhouse. “I’m going to haul our stuff upstairs.”
“I can help.” Richard pulled his six-foot length slowly out of the car and then reached behind the seat for his briefcase. I grabbed our duffel, the box with his medications, my briefcase, and his pillow. We walked across the lawn and into the historic ranch house. As I turned to go up the narrow stairs to the bedrooms, Richard stopped. “You go first,” he said. Uh-oh.
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“Richard can manage the stairs, can’t he?” Betsy, the facilities manager at Carpenter Ranch, had asked when I called about our stay. I relayed the question to him.
“Of course.” His voice carried the confidence of sixty-one years of having inhabited a muscular and appealingly male form. The voice of a man who could free-climb a cliff, sculpt a one-ton boulder, or juggle three balls while balancing on one leg. A man who could bound up that steep flight of steps, carrying our mound of gear. His sense of self hadn’t changed, but his abilities had.
This Richard froze at the bottom step, his tumor-impaired right brain struggling to make sense of how to ascend. I stopped at the top, arms loaded, watching with a stomach-churning mix of horror and fascination, compelled to witness the effects of the disease I could not stop. Finally, he reached for the handrail and took the steps slowly, one at a time, like an old man.
When I was a child, I knew love when Mom reached for my hand to help me up a steep bit of trail, or when Dad carried my knapsack once I tired. When my brother Bill, two years older and more popular than I, let me tag along. Love showed in my granddad Milner’s quirked eyebrow and dry banter when I challenged him at chess, and when he never let me win. I understood love as a partnership based on deep respect and affection. Now, love meant fearlessly supporting my partner, the strong guy who still held my heart in his shaky hands.
We had begun visiting Carpenter Ranch, a working ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy, the previous summer, after being awarded a service residency inspired by our concept of terraphilia, humans’ innate affiliation with the earth and its web of life. As Richard’s website explained it, “‘Terraphilia’ is a word my wife and I started using to convey the notion that each of us is inextricably connected to the whole world, and that a happy, well-adjusted human being ought to have kind, loving feelings extending beyond the illusory boundaries of our skin, and we ought to recognize and acknowledge those feelings.”
Our assignment: transform a half acre of unwanted, water-hungry lawn behind the ranch house into a public interpretive space that would honor the ranch and surrounding wild country. We envisioned a part-wild, part-domestic garden with sculptural structures that would, in the words of ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, “re-story” the weedy ground. An artistic landscape that would reestablish the bond between land and community. The project was our first public collaboration, melding Richard’s heart work of abstract sculpture using local rocks and found industrial materials with my passion for plants as pioneers of natural restoration. We knew when we accepted the residency that Richard had brain tumors. He was healthy then, his prognosis good. We didn’t imagine his life would end before the work did.
“Why didn’t we do this sooner?” Richard asked, as we strolled hand in hand out the ranch driveway that evening, his stride sure again on level ground.
“The honeymoon road trip?” I asked. “Or the collaboration?”
“Both,” he said, and swung our joined hands high in a joyous arc.
“We were too focused on earning a living.” I kept my voice dry.
“Oh, that,” said the guy with the PhD in economics. “It’s only money.” He grinned. “Just money!”
He chuckled over his joke until we stopped to admire the sunset flaming the western sky. Then he drew me against him, my back fitting his chest, his chin resting atop my head. “The hardest thing for me now is that I can’t do much. I don’t have the energy.”
I chose my words carefully. “I don’t think it’s about the doing, sweetie. I think what matters in life is being. Your evident love for life, even now, inspires us all.”
He smiled, teeth white against cherrywood-colored skin, and repeated, “I’m a lucky guy.”
I gripped his hand, willing away tears. “I love you.”
This wasn’t our plan.
We hadn’t even reached retirement, which for us, an economist turned sculptor and a freelance writer, didn’t mean quitting work. It meant quitting worrying about earning money and focusing instead on work that fed our spirits. Richard had only begun to explore his art, his notebooks full of sketches and ideas about how to give native rocks their voices as “ambassadors of the earth.” I found myself increasingly drawn to the service of restoring our planet, nurturing Earth’s community of diverse life and lives.
When we met in graduate school at the University of Wyoming nearly three decades before, Richard was the brilliant PhD student with the soul of an artist, the one who could grasp a complex mathematical model as effortlessly as he could hike up a mountainside, move a refrigerator, or heft Molly, his cute-as-a-bug daughter, onto his shoulders. The tall and handsome guy with a dream of a college teaching post in some small town where he could buy land and build a passive solar house with his own hands, milling the lumber from trees he logged. And grow a self-sufficient, light-on-the-land existence with intellectual pursuits balanced by physical work. A mash-up of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond with Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life, informed by the ingenuity of the Whole Earth Catalog.
I was the shy, slender, and freckled field ecologist born to a family of nature-loving scientists and artists. A recent diagnosis with lupus, a potentially fatal, incurable illness, had imploded my first marriage and torched my field science career. I found refuge in a communal household practicing urban farming, with chickens and a huge garden, and graduate studies melding right-brain writing with left-brain science. I worked as the director of the campus women’s center.
“Bless the Birds”
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One of my volunteers, an econ grad student with Richard, decided that he and I would be the perfect pair. I fended off Sue’s matchmaking with some crankiness. I needed a man right then “like a fish needs a bicycle,” as the poster on my office wall said. Illness had unglued my old life, and I hadn’t put the pieces back together yet. I was still trying to figure out the damn pattern.
Undeterred, Sue connived a meeting at her birthday that December. True to form for someone intent on cramming more into every moment of each day, I arrived late. I dashed into the restaurant and paused to wipe glasses fogged by the sudden warmth. Sue, with her patrician face and straight brown hair, waved from a long table across the crowded room.
I saw with a sinking heart that the last seat remaining was between two guys, both single dads, whom I knew only from her descriptions. One was Richard, with Molly playing at his feet.
I swallowed nervousness, sat down, and introduced myself. I know I spoke to the other grad student, but I can’t recall his face. It was Richard who made my belly flutter, my breath catch, and the heartbeat rendered chronically erratic by my illness actually stumble. It wasn’t so much his looks, though I appreciated his muscled form, skin sun-warmed even in the darkness of a Laramie winter, and his El Greco oval face, deep eyes, and silky black beard and mustache. It was the way those eyes held mine, his slow and beautiful smile, his musical-tenor voice, and that he listened when I spoke. As if I already mattered to him.
And three-year-old Molly in her purple corduroy overalls, with that same hair and engaging smile, who climbed into my lap and sat trustingly, eating bites of my food.
At the end of the evening, I hugged Molly, set her down carefully, and shook Richard’s hand. I pulled mittens over fingers that still tingled, zipped up my jacket, and walked away. I reminded myself firmly that a man and a kid, no matter how appealing the package, were not what I needed. I had to figure out me first. It was winter break: I would head south to visit my parents in Arizona, and get over this flutter before I returned.
I never got over the flutter. I’m a scientist—I don’t believe in love at first sight. Show me the data, not the flutter. The data are that we moved in together five weeks after Sue’s birthday party and married eight months later, Molly in attendance, a crown of garden flowers in her hair.
Susan J. Tweit began her career in Wyoming, studying grizzly bear habitat — which involved collecting and dissecting bear poop — mapping historic wildfires, and researching big sagebrush. She’s written thirteen books ranging from memoir and nature writing to kids and travel, along with hundreds of magazine articles, columns, and essays. She lives in a small cottage shaded by tall cottonwood trees in the sagebrush country of western Colorado.