When I read Susan J. Tweit’s memoir, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, I was engrossed. I spent the weekend reading, unable to put it down. It is a beautifully written story filled with wisdom, insight, honesty, and love. Susan describes it this way: “Bless the Birds is a love story, a tale of how we humans can rise to be our best selves when the world goes crazy on us, whether because of a pandemic like COVID-19, deadly racism, or the crisis of our planet burning. It’s about finding a way to act with love when the worst happens, and learning to appreciate our imperfect selves, along with the miracle of life on this numinous earth.” Bless the Birds will be released April 27, 2021, and can be ordered at your favorite bookstore.
Cheryl Fallstead: You are a scientist and have written numerous books related to the natural world. What made you decide to write a memoir of the painful and challenging time when you cared for both your mother and and your husband, Richard Cabe, through their final days?
Susan Tweit: I was motivated by the idea that our journey could be useful to others. What I find compelling about a memoir is that it is a way to make use of my life experiences, “composting” them, as it were, into stories that inspire, inform, or guide others, whether or not they will ever encounter similar situations. At its best, memoir proves the truth of the saying, “The personal is the political.” Meaning how we live offers wisdom to illuminate national and world events, whether the generational trauma of racism, the struggle to live through the COVID-19 pandemic, or the long-term planetary crisis of climate change.
After this year of COVID-shutdown, with elders isolated in care homes and the acutely ill isolated in ICUs, we desperately need to return personal contact and loving care to life’s ending. And we must learn to accept normal death as a part of life, a turn in the cycle that carries us to whatever is beyond this world and recycles the elements of what was “us” into other existences. Learning to embrace life’s ending in an open way frees us to live more fully in whatever time we have, to love more, and to be more compassionate citizens of this numinous blue planet.
CF: Death is a topic we tend to shy away from, but it is the natural and unavoidable conclusion to every life. Why do you think people have such difficulty discussing it?
ST: None of us want to die. Part of our reluctance to discuss it is simple human denial: We think that if we ignore death, it won’t happen to us. Sadly, none of us are exempt from this most mundane of facts: we all die. And the more we learn to accept it as, in the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke’s words, “life’s other half,” the less frightening natural death will be. It’s like the boogeyman in the closet: When we face what frightens us, it loses some of its power. I don’t mean to trivialize the momentousness of our passage from this life into whatever is next; I simply want to help us all walk into it with open eyes and hearts.
CF: Your book’s title refers to birds. Explain the bird-related phenomenon that first triggered warnings about your husband Richard’s brain tumor.
ST: The title of the memoir, Bless the Birds, comes from the day when the “good life” we had carefully constructed, that of a writer and an artist pursuing our vision of work that contributed positively to the world, suddenly veered onto a new and unwelcome path. It was a late-August Sunday morning, and we were heading for a two-week joint artist-writer residency we had been awarded at a remote cabin in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, a much-anticipated “time-out” to focus on our work with no deadlines or distractions. Richard was at the wheel, when he suddenly asked, “What’s with all the birds?”
I scanned the landscape of scattered piñon pines and grassland with eyes trained by growing up in a bird-watching family and saw nary a winged form. As Richard described the thousands of birds he could see, tiny ones perched on each blade of grass along the roadside, birds wing-to-wing crowding the barbwire fences and utility wires, giant birds on the rims of distant mesas, my skin crawled. There were no birds. What he thought were multitudes of birds were hallucinations produced by what we eventually learned was a deadly tumor growing in his right temporal lobe, one of the areas of visual processing in the brain.
Those bird hallucinations were messengers of something seriously wrong with my always-robustly healthy husband and were the only notable symptom of his terminal brain cancer. Without the birds and their warning, his doctors told us, the brain swelling would have killed him in a few days or weeks. Because we heeded the birds, we had two-and-a-quarter years to do our best to learn to live with his impending death. Which is why I bless those bird hallucinations: they bought us time, time that we used as well as we could.
CF: As it became clear Richard would not survive, you and your husband took a final road trip from Colorado to the Pacific. What was the greatest challenge of this adventure and what made it all worthwhile?
ST: That trip was our 29-years-late honeymoon. When we met in graduate school, we were cash-strapped students with Molly, Richard’s four-year-old daughter, to raise. Richard was finishing a Ph.D. and I was transitioning from a career in field ecology to a freelance writing career. We had no time or money for a honeymoon. We simply didn’t bother to make time — until the birds. And then time changed shape and filled with things we had never imagined — MRIs, craniotomies, chemotherapy, radiation, glioblastoma, brain fog — and “terminal” — the word none of us wants to hear applied to our lives.
It was that last, when we knew that the tumor had fingered throughout Richard’s right brain, that sent us on our belated honeymoon. We had always loved the wild reaches of the Pacific Coast, so we decided to drive the coast between my brother’s house on Puget Sound in Washington and Big Sur in California, a circuit of about 4,000 miles from our home in central Colorado. The trip would be a celebration of our nearly three decades together, and a metaphorical middle finger lifted at fate and Richard’s diagnosis.
Our three weeks and 4,100 miles on the road were suffused with the joy of exploring and visiting family and friends. There were moments of humor, as when Richard shot a photo of me in front of Oregon’s Multnomah Falls, and carefully composed the photo so that the huge waterfall appears to pour directly on my head. And moments of sheer terror, like when he nearly walked unheeding off a cliff into the ocean. And moments of grief and exhaustion, as I increasingly realized that my brilliant, strong, and creative husband — the man who could free-climb a cliff, sculpt a one-ton boulder into a stunning fire pit, or defeat an attorney in cross-examination; the man whose strength and stamina I had often depended on — was now dependent on me. That trip marked the boundary between the time when we hoped (unrealistically, but still hoped) he would survive to live with brain cancer, and the time of living with his dying.
CF: Everyone experiences and copes with grief differently. What helped you through the process? Was writing this book part of it?
ST: What helped me was accepting before it happened that Richard would die. We talked about our grief in his last weeks, and that gave me permission, as it were, to feel bereft and angry and lonely and miserable. Beyond that, as you said, grief is a process, and the truth is that time does indeed heal. I’m a happy person by nature, I have a full life with my writing, teaching, and speaking, plus my work restoring ecosystems. I’m very connected to the community of lives that animate this numinous planet — a community that includes humans. I take comfort in the fact that life as a whole continues, even as our own lives do not.
Writing the book was less about processing grief than using my experience in a positive way. Reliving the experiences through honest writing — and revising and revising and revising — was painful, like peeling my skin off with a dull knife.
CF: The last year with COVID-19 has taught us that life shouldn’t be taken for granted. How have you found ways to celebrate life since your husband died and through the pandemic?
ST: As I said above, I am very connected with the living community of this planet. In summers, I help restore ecosystems in my home country of northwest Wyoming. It’s not glamorous work — I spend hours at a time on my hands and knees digging up invasive weeds, the bullies of the playground world that can otherwise harm the network of relationships that keeps landscapes healthy. It’s hard, hot work, but as I see native wildflowers and grasses return to the places I’ve removed the invasives, bringing with them pollinators and birds and the other lives indigenous to those places, I find hope for our fractious and fractured world. Healing and restoration works. It just takes patience and persistence — and humility. I write for the same reason — I think of my stories as helping restore our humanity, our ability to live with love and kindness. Words can hurt or they can heal. I am determined to use mine to heal, and to spread light in the darkness that has at times seemed to consume us.
Interview by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2021This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead