Category Archives: Susan Tweit

February 15 – 59: A Certain Age

by Susan Tweit

Susan and Richard

Photo credit Scott Calhoun

Since sometime last fall, I’ve been struggling to not succumb to a kind of low-level, background malaise that is uncharacteristic for me. I’m usually sunny, or at least resilient and optimistic.

But lately, I find myself close to tears at odd moments, or wrestling with a formless anxiety that seems to come from nowhere. I worry more. I feel insecure about the future. Where I have always been firmly decisive, now I second-guess decisions even after I’ve made them. Should I really have done that? Would it have been better to… 

Yet when people ask how I’m doing, I say “Fine.” I’m not. I just don’t know how to explain what’s wrong.

Life’s not always sunny. It’s natural to worry, to feel anxious and out-of-balance at times. But I’m sick of this. I want the old me back. And I can’t seem to will that to happen.

****

The other day, while out for a walk, I realized what’s wrong.

It’s not me. It’s my age: I’m 59, the same age my late husband Richard was when he saw legions of birds on a hot August morning in 2009. Those bird hallucinations were the only major symptom of the brain cancer that would eventually kill him.

His 59th year was the beginning of the end of us, though we didn’t understand (or allow ourselves to admit) that reality for a long while.

So it’s no wonder that beneath the surface of my conscious mind, my subconscious is watchful, looping in a whirl of unease and anxiety. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for some unimaginably horrible thing to carve another hole in my heart.

The winter when Richard was 59, we had our first hint of the parting to come when he stayed in Colorado for his “radiation residency” while I led a writing workshop on Isla Espíritu Santo off Baja in subtropical Mexico.

I had planned the workshop as a decades-belated honeymoon that would take is to one of our dream destinations, a wild desert island surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Gulf of California.

And then came Richard’s bird hallucinations, the tumor, and the radiation treatment that couldn’t be delayed. I wanted to cancel the workshop; Richard was adamant that I needed to go.

Finally, he convinced me. Going to Mexico without my love was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had always traveled hand in hand.

Until that week when he was undergoing radiation treatment in snowy Colorado and I was camped on a beach in balmy Mexico, kayaking with sea turtles, snorkeling with sea lions, seeing the place we had dreamed about—without him. It was a foretaste of a solo existence I never wished for.

The dread of what Richard’s 59th year brought has apparently been lurking in my subconscious ever since, awakened once I reached that same age.

Now that I recognize the cause of my malaise, will it dissipate and lose its power? I don’t know. I do know why I am feeling so out of balance, so alert for the disaster my subconscious is sure is about to happen.

It’s comforting to remember that magical time on Isla Espíritu Santo. And to remember how Richard’s smile beamed bright as the Baja sunshine when he and Molly spotted me in the crowd at the airport on my return.

Most of all, it is deeply reassuring to remember the strong and sweet love that flowed between us even as his life headed around that bend to whatever’s next. When I feel the warmth of that love and his smile, I know it is possible to live happily and well, despite the hole his leaving carved in my heart.

Susan J. Tweit is a plant biologist turned award-winning writer and speaker. Her twelve books include the memoir Walking Nature Home, A Life’s Journey, hailed as a “must read” by the Denver Post. She speaks and teaches at conferences across the country—including Story Circle’s “Stories from the Heart” Memoir Conference—and has won the Colorado Book Award, the ForeWord Book of the Year Award, and the EDDIE for magazine feature writing, among others. She is passionate about healing this earth and we humans. 

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September 18 – A Bittersweet Miracle

by Susan J. Tweit

On this day fifty-five years ago, just before dawn, my mom, Joan Cannon Tweit, brought me into this world. So today, I want to say “thank you,” and honor her life–and death.

Mom was a California girl, born in Berkeley during the Great Depression. She grew up hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevadas, honing her powerful crawl-stroke swimming in frigid mountain lakes; she had such perfect pitch that her high school choir director used her voice instead of a tuning fork to start concerts.

Mom loved school and went to college at University of California, Berkeley, a six-block walk from home, where she met my dad, a grad student in Chemistry. They married the June after she graduated, and drove to Mount Shasta to honeymoon, only the snowbanks were so deep, they picnicked in the middle of the one plowed road.

For almost 59 years, they were inseparable. Mom raised my brother and I, managed our household, earned a master’s degree in library science and worked as school librarian, all despite being legally blind.

She was a crusader against injustice in any form; she prized birdsong and wildflowers and mountains almost as much as chocolate; she loved good books, clear night skies, and classical music, and she passed her passions to my brother and me.

Determined to do everything for herself even after decades of rheumatoid arthritis reduced her 140-pound, five-foot, six-inch tall frame to 85 pounds and barely five-two, she refused help even when she knew her brain and body were failing.

Until she fell and broke her hip. “Your bones are so thin that we can’t fix the fracture; there’s nothing to attach to,” the orthopedic surgeon said gently. Coming home into hospice care, she found a kind of grace in being cared for.

I oversaw caregivers and medication, fed Mom, and spent hours holding her hand as she listened to the conversations around her, interjecting a word here and there.

The evening before she died, she was calm, lucid, tracking conversations, smiling at my husband Richard, lifting her eyebrows at a silly joke my dad told…

That night, Mom and Dad fell asleep hand-in-hand. When I checked on them an hour later, all was quiet. Same in the middle of the night.

At dawn, Dad called: “I think she’s gone.” I threw on jeans and a shirt and raced down the hall, Richard following.

Mom was still, smiling, and the skin on her face was warm and soft. I felt for a pulse. Nothing.

After I called her hospice nurse and sent Dad and Richard off to get breakfast, I sat with Mom, holding her hand as her skin gradually cooled. The sun rose, and then vanished behind a gray line of cloud. Snow began trickling from the sky.

I had just witnessed a bittersweet miracle, my mom’s final gift: a graceful death at home, helped along by love and caring.

Thanks, Mom.

Plant ecologist Susan J. Tweit likes to say she “evolved” into a writer. Her twelve books have won national and regional awards, and best of all, she says, the love of her readers.

July 16 – Bless the Birds

by Susan Tweit

Almost two years ago, on a sunny August morning, my sculptor husband, Richard, and I were headed for a two-week artist/writer residency in a remote cabin in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, a precious gift of time away from cell phones, computers, and the busy-ness of every day life to nurture our work. As we drove, Richard looked around at the dry grasslands and wooded mesas, and asked, “What’s with all the birds?”

I looked around and saw nary a bird.

“What birds?” I said, cautiously.

“There, and there, and there…” He pointed to the barbed wire fences, catttails in a nearby pond, utility wires, the wildflowers, everyplace where a bird could conceivably perch. He described hundreds and hundreds of birds: giant birds on distant mesa tops, tiny birds on each pebble in the road.

I saw not a one. “Show me a bird,” I said.

He pulled over on the side of the road and pointed to a chicory plant.

“Right here. See it?”

I shook my head.

He walked over cupped his fingers gently around the bird he saw. They passed through empty air. He turned to me, his face devastated.

“They’re not real.”

“No,” I said gently. I hugged him. We got back into the car and I drove us to Durango for breakfast. The birds followed us, perching on every building ledge, sign and planter. The residency was not to be.

The birds followed us on the five-hour-drive home. They were gone the next morning when I convinced him to see a doctor, gone when he landed in the hospital in Denver, his right brain so swollen that his doctors couldn’t believe he was alive. Without those birds, we would never have known his brain was growing a tumor that would require four brain surgeries, six weeks of radiation, and two kinds of chemo.

Throughout those months, the grueling procedures, the middle-of-the-night hospital ride over the mountains in an ambulance when we nearly lost him, the diagnosis with Stage IV brain cancer and twelve months to live, my formerly rudely healthy husband has kept his spirits up. Even when he who once taught graduate-level mathematical economics could no longer make sense of a computer screen; even when he whose abstract sculpture gives voice to native boulders as “ambassadors of the earth” had to rely on me to button his shirt every morning.

Today, on his 61st birthday, the tumor that had spread throughout his right hemisphere has receded a bit; his vision and brain function are slowly returning. He’s relearning to juggle, use a computer, see the rocks he works with, hear birdsong, and be present.

He says he is determined to approach each day with “an attitude of celebration and gratitude.” I am determined to walk this journey with him, a path we never expected to take, in a spirit of grace and love.

Happy Birthday, Richard! Onward we go, hand in hand…

Plant ecologist Susan J. Tweit likes to say she “evolved” into a writer. Her twelve books have won national and regional awards, and best of all, she says, the love of her readers.

February 18 – Walking Into Love

by Susan J. Tweit

When I married the love of my life, Richard, he came as a package with Molly, his bright and often willful four-year-old daughter. Almost from the first, Molly and I began taking walks. We walked to the nearby park with its swings and slides; we walked downtown to the library and the food co-op; we walked to the university campus to meet her dad after work. Sometimes we skipped hand in hand; sometimes we walked fast to stay warm; sometimes we dawdled and counted sidewalk slabs.

We were unwittingly following in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the delights of “sauntering,” exploring one’s home ground on foot. Although our walks were not, as Thoreau prescribed, completely without itinerary, the ambles Molly and I took honored the spirit of sauntering: our aim was simply to get outside together and see what we found.

We walked to experience the journey, not just to reach the destination. If arriving at a particular place had been our sole objective, we would have used the car.

Traveling on foot forced us to slow down, allowed us slip away from our too-harried daily routines, to listen to whatever came up and share what we encountered.

We traced ant trails, sniffed ground-hugging violet blossoms, picked up autumn leaves, craned our necks to decipher the shapes of passing clouds; we watched crows jockeying for position in nighttime roost trees and spotted fireflies signaling in blips of green light.

And we grew a relationship: joined by marriage rather than by birth, Molly and I had to negotiate disparate family cultures.

Walking gave us a territory of our own, a place we could start fresh away from the disputes that regularly rocked our blended household. Rambling with no agenda forced Molly and me to leave our baggage at home, allowing us to meet relatively unencumbered.

And a funny thing happened: When we strolled arm-in-arm, people commented on our “resemblance.”

Molly, with her father’s elegant height, high cheekbones, and dark hair would look down at me, half a head shorter with red-blond hair and freckles, and giggle uncontrollably. Clearly, they were seeing something we could not see.

Walking brought Molly and I together, stepmother to stepdaughter. Walking also re-connected us to the natural world, restoring a source of mental and spiritual renewal available to all who ramble.

What we didn’t expect, though, was that those thousands of steps would walk each one of us right into the other’s heart. The resemblance people see in the two of us is under the surface rather than an outward one: it’s the love we share.

Today is Molly’s 32nd birthday. Happy Birthday, honey!

(Excerpted from Walking Nature Home, A Life’s Journey, by Susan J. Tweit)

Susan J. Tweit is the award-winning author of twelve books (including her memoir, Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey, and Colorado Scenic Byways, winner of the Colorado Book Award), hundreds of magazine articles, radio commentaries and newspaper columns.