Selections from near the beginning and ending of “Can’t Stop Falling/A Caregiver’s Love Story” to be published this fall
Our cabin was situated in the Front Range’s so-called banana belt, but that didn’t mean it escaped serious storms like the famous blizzard of ’82 that blew in on Christmas eve. It must have fallen all night while we were lost in bed on this our first winter up top. When we opened the front door, our huge Newfoundland jumped out and disappeared. We followed, cavorting in the fluff that was already three feet deep and coming. Everywhere we looked the world was covered in white. We came back in to crank up the stove…not an airtight but just Emily the old-fashioned blue enamel cook stove. Because the cabin was so small and the thick logs held so much heat, all we had to do was load her after dinner and go to bed.
Christmas morning, alone in the quietly shining wonderland, miles from anywhere. I didn’t have to run off to work; didn’t have to start building on the big house. But one of these days, it slowly dawned on me, we’d have to think about going to town for supplies. I strapped on the snowshoes I’d never learned to use, and Marilyn said she’d have a pile of pancakes waiting when I got back. Time to check on the damage.
Cuzi tried to follow but got tired of jumping and disappearing. I got tired of trying to master the stupid snowshoes. But eventually I made it to the point I was worried about, the place where I’d tried to erect a snow fence that now had blown away or maybe blown under. For the length of a football field, snow had flown over the top of the treeless ridge to settle six to eight feet deep over the dirt path to our cabin. No way shovels could help here. I shook my head and trudged back for pancakes. We’d worry about what to do later.
Now it was time to open the few gifts under the tree with handmade aluminum ornaments. It didn’t have lights because our cabin didn’t have electricity…except for a handful of carefully placed tiny bulbs that were precursor to LEDs. They, plus the dangling kitchen bulb, ran on direct current electricity powered by the photovoltaic panel and batteries. The pv panel didn’t do much, but we ran the small Honda generator every third day to pump up water and charge the nicad batteries. We also had candles and an Aladdin lamp powered by kerosene. The sound of the generator running for forty minutes was about the only sound to break the quiet…except a very rare scream from our resident mountain lion or the chuck-a-chuck of the least weasel who lived under the porch.
Christmas pancakes were tasty, and we sat bundled up on the porch sipping coffee. It was about 9:00 and all was still. Suddenly we heard someone whistling. Singing? Off in the distance something or someone appeared to be busting through the snow toward our cabin. Our eyes must be deceiving us; we’d had too much caffeine. No, it was Santa Claus. He wasn’t wearing his red suit, just a ski jacket, but he certainly was lugging his big bag of presents over his shoulder. And his name turned out to be Paul, Marilyn’s son who’d left Denver in the wee hours to share Christmas cheer with us. How he made it up two miles from his car down below, I never knew. But here he was, whistling and laughing.
This was the best Christmas of our life. Paul stayed most of the day and I stopped worrying about the road. But two days later I had to do something. I’d dragged my feet getting the snowplow everyone told me I would need since the county refused to plow our roads. Now even if I had one, it wouldn’t be able to bust through all that snow. And the snow wouldn’t melt; there was too much shade. I skied rather than snowshoed down to the main York Gulch road, where friends helped me locate a man with a backhoe who eventually came to relieve me of a mountain of snow as well as $550 that I really didn’t have. And since it was still December, I still needed to get that snowplow. Which I did, and learned to use.
We’d been living up on the land for four years, even surviving the famous Colorado Blizzard of ‘82. The small cabin was done, but we were still working on the big house. All the time managing 2 horses, 80 lop-eared rabbits, 5 ducks and 12 chickens, a dog and cat, and one wild weasel. We never tried to manage the mountain lion, deer, or elk.
Today we decided to take a break from homesteading to visit the bristlecone pines on Mt. Evans. They grew half way up the 14,264 foot mountain that we looked toward each morning from our cabin twenty miles away.
The bristlecones turned out to be tall and majestic, not like the scrubby ones at timberline. But we never got to finish driving the highest paved road in America. Marilyn suddenly turned to me: “Turn around now! Something’s wrong! ”
This woman who danced six hours non-stop every Saturday night at Mike’s bar couldn’t be experiencing altitude sickness; we lived at 8,600 feet.
I did turn around, and immediately raced toward the Queen City of the Plains. I knew Denver better than anyone, having grown up there in the ‘60s. (Marilyn didn’t, having grown up in Mississippi.) Before we got to the hospital she turned sheepishly to me: “Maybe it’s a false alarm.”
False alarms I can handle. We drove to Sim’s Landing, the place for our first date six years ago. “Hell, we’re still only forty-something,” I told her. “Doctors are for sissies.” She smiled. Then I added, “But thanks for the heads up. You can never be too careful.” By the time we got back to the cabin, the problem had disappeared.
Twenty years later I realized Marilyn’s attack had nothing to do with what finally brought her down. It was probably caused by the gas-fired Servel refrigerator that I hadn’t vented.
Today another visit to Cochran’s Funeral Home. Hard but necessary. As usual, tons of paperwork. For the past year and a half, paperwork and more paperwork. These past two months have been so hard. Before, I could kid myself. As you, Marilyn the realist, have always known, I’ve a long history of hiding my head in the sand. Now I’m slowly facing the fact that you will soon be gone. I know you love me as desperately as I love you, but you can’t show it and that hurts both of us. You have to go, and I have to stay. Why, no one knows. No matter how hard I object or petition, nothing will change. You will go.
What’s so hard is seeing you helpless to protest. The day will come when you will start shutting down. No, it’s already come. The first sign I should have seen, when you stopped cooking. Cottie dated it exactly: she’d come to visit and was watching you stir the soup or stew with difficulty. The day after Cottie left you told me you couldn’t cook any more, offering no reasons or excuses. It flabbergasted me so much that I guess I didn’t stop to put two and two together.
When you got into the nursing home you refused to watch television in the activity room. You refused even in your own private room, with me lying right next to you, watching golf. You didn’t want to listen to music, and only obliged me when I insisted on wheeling you outside on a sunny day. You didn’t want to go out for a chocolate sundae–just obliged me. Were you already aware of your gradual shut-down? Did you know what pleasure you still gave us all when you offered a fleeting smile? When will the big shut-down come?
Already you don’t want visitors. But you do want me, I know that for sure. Inside you there’s room now for only two—or one, as we’ve always said we are. But will you push me away at night? Now are you unable to return my kisses, or have you let go of that also?
You sleep more, just as the books say a person does when leaving becomes real. Words have already lost most of their significance. Well, all words save the silly love song I sing to you six times every night: “You are my mouser, my wonderful mouser. I love you madly, I love you so. You love me too, I know you do. You are my mouser, my wonderful mouser, I love you so.”
You eat less and less. At first you tried to eat whatever I cooked, as long as it was cut into small pieces. Then I made softer stuff, then pureed it—which I knew you didn’t like. Both Mildred and I knew you stuffed food in the back of your mouth. I was mad at first. I didn’t know if it was because you didn’t want food, didn’t like it, or couldn’t eat it.
I should have seen you were choosing a new diet. I should have listened to Mildred telling me that whatever you wanted was ok, even if it was just cottage cheese, bits of peaches, or yogurt. I kept thinking you needed more to sustain yourself. I should have guessed you were starting to sustain yourself on some kind of spiritual energy.
You sometimes sleep with your eyes open. Why? Do you have one foot in each world? Is it hard letting go of us, so you have to keep an eye out, or will they just not close properly? Do you want to leave me too?
Strangely, your blood pressure and pulse remain strong. This surprises the nurse and your son David, who’s starting to come around more often. Your facial color remains basically the same, although your face is a lot thinner. Your high cheekbones, that Indian heritage, are really high now. You’re as beautiful as ever.
I see that you need more covers these days. Do you remember back in the nursing home how you’d always throw off the blankets, and sometimes shirts or sweaters? How you were always too hot, even when I shivered, lying right next to you in the narrow hospital bed?
Please, Mouser, help me survive this shut-down.