A beautifully written, moving memoir about how the diagnosis of a terminal illness led to a perilous journey of self-awareness that not only restored the author's health but also taught her the healing power of love and of our connection to the natural world.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Twenty, Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series
Without a map, navigate by the stars. Susan Tweit began learning this lesson as a young woman diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that was predicted to take her life in two to five years. Offered no clear direction for getting well through conventional medicine, Tweit turned to the natural world that was both her solace and her field of study as a plant ecologist. Drawing intuitive connections between the natural processes and cycles she observed and the functions of her body, Tweit not only learned healthier ways of living but also discovered a great truth—love can heal. In this beautifully written, moving memoir, she describes how love of the natural world, of her husband and family, and of life itself literally transformed and saved her own life.
In tracing the arc of her life from young womanhood to middle age, Tweit tells stories about what silence and sagebrush, bird bones and sheep dogs, comets, death, and one crazy Englishman have to teach us about living. She celebrates making healthy choices, the inner voices she learned to hear on days alone in the wilderness, the joys of growing and eating an organic kitchen garden, and the surprising redemption in restoring a once-blighted neighborhood creek. Linking her life lessons to the stories she learned in childhood about the constellations, Tweit shows how qualities such as courage, compassion, and inspiration draw us together and bind us into the community of the land and of all living things.
- Chapter One. Orion
- Chapter Two. Aries
- Chapter Three. Virgo
- Chapter Four. Cancer
- Chapter Five. The Big Dipper
- Chapter Six. The Pleiades
- Chapter Seven. Leo
- Chapter Eight. The Milky Way
- Chapter Nine. Orion Again
- Notes, Inspiration, and Resources
- Other Sources
The hunter Orion, a tall constellation with an hourglass-shaped outline and brilliant stars, strides across the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere from October through March, followed by Canis Major and Canis Minor, his two dogs. Orion rises sideways: his left shoulder, marked by the yellow double star Bellatrix, appears over the eastern horizon first, followed by the brilliant blue-white star Rigel, the seventh-brightest star in the night sky. The three white stars of Orion's slanting belt come into view next. Between the stars marking Orion's dagger, suspended from the hunter's belt, lies the most distant space object visible with the naked eye, the hazy smudge of the Orion Nebula, fifty light-years away. This spangled cloud of gas and shimmering dust is a place of creation: here hot, new stars are born.
"You've got two years, or perhaps five," said the doctor, leaning over her metal desk. "I'm sorry."
She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, then replaced the lenses carefully before explaining that she had sent my test results to specialists. They concurred with her diagnosis: the way the disease was progressing, they thought, my life would not last long.
It was February of 1980. I was twenty-three years old, attending graduate school while working for the U.S. Forest Service, married to my college sweetheart, and at the beginning of what seemed like a promising career.
I shifted on the slippery vinyl seat of the chair, picked up my mechanical pencil, and recorded her words in tidy script in a ruled notebook. I wanted to remember the facts, so I took notes. I am a scientist. I observe and record from a careful distance. It's what we do, how we make sense of the world.
Just a few weeks before, I had stood breathless atop a narrow ridge hundreds of feet above the Shoshone River, my ski tips aimed precisely perpendicular to the edge. It had snowed all night, laying down a thick blanket of fresh powder. My husband, Kent, and I had risen before dawn, thrown our gear into the truck, and driven the slick and winding highway as fast as we dared. The air was still. The sun threw dazzling sparks from the untracked surface of the snow. My stomach clenched as I surveyed the dizzying drop.
"Go!" said Kent from behind me.
I took a deep breath, flashed a smile over my shoulder, leaned forward, and plunged into an explosion of powder. Hours later, snow-crusted and sweaty from repeating the climb to the top of the ridge and the exhilarating ride down, I hauled myself into the truck.
If you had asked me, I would have said I was perfectly happy.
But my body knew better. I lived in a chill: my bloodless skin was yellow and jaundiced-looking, my hands thin and pale, my toes, lips, and fingertips so numb they were often barely functional. Fevers woke me in the night, my skin drenched with sweat, my muscles wracked with pain. Mornings brought aching joints that creaked audibly, snapping and popping like Rice Crispies in a bowl of milk. Some days my brisk walk turned into a drunken stagger, or I dropped things I thought I had a firm hold on.
I had never examined or cataloged these various ailments, never even thought of them as ailments. They were simply part of life as me.
Until a month before that terrible prognosis, on a night so cold the snowflakes hissed as they hit the windowpane. I stood in the kitchen of our tiny house in Laramie, Wyoming, drying the dishes. I had just picked up my favorite cup, a thick pottery mug glazed deep midnight blue, the color of the night sky just before absolute darkness overtakes it. I was turning the cup round to dry the inside when suddenly it wasn't in my hands at all. Helpless, I watched it hit the floor and shatter.
I woke later in a fever, my flannel nightshirt soaked with sweat. I rolled carefully out from under the covers so as not to disturb Kent and padded barefoot across the chill wood floor to the living room. I parted the drapes and looked up at the sky. Amidst the dazzle of stars of a Wyoming winter night, I picked out Orion. I stood there, arms wrapped tightly across my thin chest, as the hunter wheeled across the sky.
In one of my clearest childhood memories, it is dark and I am lying on the ground in my plaid flannel sleeping bag, looking up at a black sky freckled with a dizzying number of stars. My mother is pointing out the constellations: the large, rectangular ladle-shape of the Big Dipper; then, drawing an imaginary line across the heavens from the two stars at the end of the ladle, the North Star, anchoring the fainter form of the Little Dipper; the sideways "W" of Cassiopeia's chair; the faint, tight cluster of the Pleiades; and the towering figure of Orion, marked by his bright, slanting belt.
I fell asleep that long-ago night hearing her voice telling the stories the stars drew in the sky. Orion, seeming to stride through the heavens with complete confidence, was the one that captured my dreams. Since that night, I've looked to the heavens to orient myself, both literally and metaphorically. Whenever I go outdoors after dark, I turn my gaze upward, checking the view of the stars to gauge the weather, and to remind myself of where I am in the year, since the apparent movements of the stars and planets chart the passing of the seasons, and where I am in physical space, since the view is different from different parts of the globe. Looking at the heavens places me in time and space—and beyond them. Gazing at the stars, I look through heaven's wrinkle: the light I see now represents their past, having traveled many years across space to reach my eyes here on Earth; the light they are emitting now will be visible only in some future, years away.
I and all the other lives on Earth are connected to the stars, held together by gravity, the invisible glue that defines our universe, and bound elementally by a common material: stardust. This atomic grit of interstellar space paints dark clouds on the Milky Way, condenses itself into the swirls of gravity-bound suns and planets, and provides the minerals bonded by the push and pull of electrical charges into the molecules that form our cells. Like stardust and the other materials of life itself, we are in constant motion, changing shape as we pass through our lives and, after the makings of our bodies break down and are recycled, rearranged into other forms of life.
The stars remind me of where I come from and who I am.
I made an appointment with a doctor. She quizzed me about my symptoms, looked me over, ordered blood tests, and told me to make an appointment to return several weeks later.
I remember the day of my return as the coldest that winter. The sky was a flat, unyielding gray and the wind bitter, straight out of the Arctic. Normally, I loved the energy of Laramie's unceasing wind; it poured through the streets and alleys fresh from the plains, sweeping the town clean. But that day, it bit into my skin.
I pulled open the doors of the clinic and walked into the warmth inside, wiping away the steam that fogged my glasses. The receptionist sent me directly down the hall to the doctor's office. I stared at a framed poster of Monet's garden in cool blues and greens as I waited, fidgety and uncomfortable.
She entered in a rush, carrying a stack of computer printouts, file folders, and books, and apologizing for being late.
"It's good that you came in to see me. Your test results point to a serious illness."
My mouth dropped open, and she hurried on. "First, your test results." She pulled a wide, green-striped computer printout from under the rest of the papers. "After that, I want to talk about your life—your diet, lifestyle, work, mental attitude, emotions, and their affect on your health. But before we meet again," she extracted a book from the stack and slid it across the desk to me, "I want you to read this."
Wait! I thought. She was moving too fast. I couldn't take in the words. What did she mean, a serious illness? I stared at the book. The title stood out in bold type: Anatomy of an Illness.
The doctor explained that it was written by a man who had contracted a connective tissue disease similar to what it appeared I had. His innovative approach to the illness might help me, she thought. Medical science, she continued, did not yet understand these deteriorating diseases, and they were often fatal.
My mind stuck on the words "deteriorating diseases . . . often fatal. . . ." There was a roaring in my ears, and my vision grayed.
I took a deep breath. My eyes cleared. I opened my notebook and began to write.
Connective tissue diseases, she was saying, were a group of diseases placed in the same category because their symptoms were similar, although it wasn't known if the illnesses were actually related. These diverse conditions were named for their most prominent symptoms: deterioration of the collagen or connective tissue, the stuff that cushions our joints and connects muscle to bone, nerve fiber to muscle, and cell to cell, allowing us to feel, think, eat, talk, walk, to make love. The deterioration was thought to be caused by a compromised immune system, which, instead of defending us from outside invaders, seemed to turn on our own cells so that our bodies came unglued from within. Sufferers eventually succumbed to either illness-causing pathogens from outside—pneumonia, for instance—or to the interior devastation as organs failed from the stress of the attack. The causes of the different connective tissue diseases were still unknown, so doctors could only treat the symptoms, not address the underlying issues, whatever they might be.
She pulled a text from the pile on her desk. She flipped the pages and then began reading technical descriptions of various connective tissue diseases.
I let the words flow over me. I listened and wrote, but didn't connect. I nodded, but couldn't comprehend.
I was as numb as I imagine a caterpillar would be when her body begins to melt inside the chrysalis, the self she has always known—skin, antennae, eyes, legs, muscle and nerve fibers, and even that ever-clamoring caterpillar gut—dissolving. Does her life flash across her eyes, the crawling weeks devoted to eating and digesting and eating some more, to avoiding being eaten and growing fat? The sudden urge to draw the fine silken threads from within to wind around her body until she is sealed inside a homespun cocoon? Does she dream of the brief winged existence to come when she will be impelled to mate and then to sniff out just the right plant on which to lay the eggs that will carry her genes into the future?
Like the caterpillar's tissues, the life I had known seemed to dissolve with the doctor's prognosis. Only I had no cocoon to shelter my journey into the future I could neither see nor dream.
Finally, the doctor came to the test results. These, the scientist in me could grasp: they were tangible, concrete. I listened and took careful notes as she explained the purpose of each test, and what the data meant. The five vials of blood that the phlebotomist had coaxed from my small, slippery veins had produced pages of numbers.
The doctor circled four results: my sedimentation rate and white blood cell count, the rheumatoid factor test, and the antinuclear antibody test. It was this last, the ANA, that was damning. This test measures whether the immune system is producing antibodies against the proteins that make up one's own cells. My ANA result was strongly positive, pointing to a connective tissue disease. Only which one was not clear: while the data eliminated some of the diseases in this category, they didn't point to one specific disease out of a group that is sometimes difficult to distinguish. (Diagnosing some connective tissue diseases can involve as much art as science. Unlike, say, breast cancer, where a mammogram reveals lumps and a biopsy the presence or absence of different types of cancer cells, for many connective tissue diseases no single test is conclusive. Doctors rely on checklists, ticking off objective test results and subjective symptoms.) It wasn't uncommon, she said, to be unable to specify these diseases in their early stages. There was even a category for that, and me: undifferentiated connective tissue disease.
She looked at her watch. My time was up.
Holding my gaze, she said, "You are a scientist. Do your research. Keep track of your symptoms; take notes. Notice what is happening when a symptom flares up, what makes you feel worse, when you hurt the most, what makes you feel better. Look for patterns in the data. And call me if you need to talk."
Outside, the wind had scoured away the layer of gray cloud, leaving a brilliant blue sky. Shivering, I pulled on hat and mittens and hunched inside my jacket as if it were a cocoon that could protect me from the bitter wind and the words I'd just heard.
I was in shock. Kent and I had moved to Laramie only weeks before to begin graduate school. I knew no one; friends and family were far away. For years, I had kept a journal, a private place to pour out my feelings. But after that visit to the doctor, I had nothing to say to those pages. I talked, yes, repeating the doctor's words over and over without inflection. I could relay the facts, but I could not feel, and I could not write.
I come from a culture that embraces the analytic approach to life: Step back to give yourself objective distance. Look at the problem logically. Gather information. Analyze what you learn. Consider possible solutions. So I treated my illness as a research project. Research follows an orderly, comfortably rational process; messy and potentially painful emotions are not allowed. The first step is to define the problem, the next, to survey the literature and read what others have discovered. Then, design the project and begin collecting data. I went to the library and looked up connective tissue diseases.
What I learned was as bewildering as it was illuminating. More than seventy illnesses are classified as connective tissue diseases (the group is now known as autoimmune diseases), ranging from obscure ones like Sjögren's syndrome to more familiar illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, certain types of diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Although the various connective tissue diseases affect millions of people—over two million in the United States for rheumatoid arthritis alone—these conditions are often unrecognized or misdiagnosed even by specialists. Many symptoms are qualitative and thus easily missed or dismissed, and symptom clusters change radically over time, some mysteriously vanishing altogether, others suddenly appearing. Different diseases also share symptoms. Sufferers often don't appear ill, making it tempting to label their complaints psychosomatic. No wonder that reaching a diagnosis may require years or decades.
Imagine that your skin gradually shrinks and hardens, as if spun too long on a dryer's high-heat setting. Everyday actions like getting dressed become a struggle. Your grip is feeble and your fingers stiff, making it difficult to grasp a doorknob or drawer pull. When you manage to open a drawer and take out a bra, you fight to pull the garment on and fasten it. This is life with scleroderma, where the connective tissue in your dermis—your skin—deteriorates, causing a loss of elasticity so great that your limbs eventually become immobilized as if confined in permanent casts.
Or suppose that you stand up to give a presentation and your mouth is so dry that you cannot speak. Even after you gulp water, your tongue makes flopping and clicking sounds, like a trout thrashing in a drying pool. The lining of your nose is perforated as if you've been snorting cocaine. Your eyes burn, your vagina is chronically dry. These are effects of Sjögren's syndrome, in which lymphocytes attack the moisture-producing glands of your mucous membranes, leaving the viscous surfaces that normally trap and eject harmful detritus and organisms as parched and useless as dry moats.
Or imagine that you wake in the night, drenched with sweat and shivering uncontrollably from a fever. Your muscles ache as if you've spent hours in physical labor; your joints swell and turn hot to the touch for no apparent reason; you are plagued by fatigue so profound you can barely function. The disease, like the nighttime fevers, comes and goes: some days you feel fine, other days you struggle just to get out of bed. This is systemic lupus erythematosus, known simply as lupus—"wolf" in Latin, for the characteristic pink facial rash thought to resemble a wolf's bite.
I had the joint inflammation, muscle pains, and flu-like fevers characteristic of lupus, the dry eyes of Sjögren's, and skin thinning that indicated scleroderma. But testing couldn't pinpoint which predominated; hence the label undifferentiated. In time, doctors theorized, my illness would "mature" into something more clearly classifiable.
What I had learned was sobering: I might live two years, or five, or as a long shot, ten. No one knew what caused my illness, how to cure it, or even what to call it. Potential courses of treatment involved alleviating the various symptoms with various drugs, although there was no known cure for the disease itself, which would continue to "progress"—surely an ironic use of the term when applied to a continuing downward slide.
I had entered the land that Susan Sontag calls "the kingdom of the sick," a frightening territory where life is measured in doctor visits and blood test results, not birthdays or promotions or the other mileposts of a normal life. Where terms like "progress" really mean "steadily get worse," and death is rarely mentioned, especially not to the patient.
It's not as if death was a stranger. I had seen it in the bodies of wild animals my family sometimes stopped to retrieve: the raccoon we had admired while it was still warm and flexible, the red-tailed hawk my father saved for a researcher friend, the yellow-billed cuckoo with its soft plumage and lolling neck that went into our freezer for a taxidermist. My brother still has that bird on his shelf, stuffed, its glass eyes perennially alert.
I saw death up close when my father brought home two "spare" white mice from the laboratory to assuage my continual pleading for a pet, and one promptly killed its cage mate. I buried the small white-furred and pink-tailed body, wrapped in tissues, in an elaborately decorated shoebox, with a full funeral. By the time the surviving mouse died, both casket and ceremony were considerably simpler.
Death brushed closer when a grade-school acquaintance drowned in the opaque, wave-churned water of Lake Michigan while my friends and I tried fruitlessly to convince a lifeguard that we had seen her go under and not surface again. It squeezed my heart when a high school boyfriend, after enlisting against his parents' wishes, didn't come home from Vietnam, and when my beloved grandfather Milner, my mother's father, died suddenly of an abdominal aneurysm during my junior year in college.
I knew death as a scientist. Biologists talk about life in terms of cycles—the hydrogen cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle. In this tale, death is the master recycler, and these elements, the basic building blocks of life, act as transformers, combining into complex alliances and breaking down into simpler ones over and over again, tumbled on their way by death and decay. I learned how death unravels the complex physical form we call a body, releasing muscle from bone, nerve fiber from muscle, connective tissue from nerve fiber, cells from connective tissue, complex proteins and carbohydrates from cells, simple molecules from these complex ones, and so on, until the organism has dissolved, its matter and energy incorporated into some other form.
I studied wildfires, those vortexes of energy that oxidize life, turning living trees into blackened spars, incinerating animal bodies, and transforming green vistas into moonscapes of ash. I learned that in arid climates where the decay necessary to revitalize soils and sprout new life takes agonizing centuries rather than mere months, the deadly power of fire gives forests and grasslands the gift of renewal, as new lives sprout phoenix-like from the fertilizing ashes of the dead.
But until my physician introduced the words "fatal illness" into the vocabulary describing my life, I didn't understand that death applied to me.
After my doctor delivered the specialists' prognosis, she paused and scanned my face.
"We don't know how to cure this illness, but we do know that your mental attitude and participation are critical. There are intriguing cases in the literature where patients made a major change in their life, changed careers, for instance, or ended a difficult relationship, and their health improved dramatically."
She cleared her throat.
"How is your husband taking this? He hasn't come in with you lately— Is he supportive? Are you happy in your marriage?"
Kent and I had met in college in a university outings club when I was eighteen and he was twenty. We paired up through mutual interests: we both loved the outdoors and adventure, and both wanted to settle the West. We moved in together and took many of the same classes; we married after I graduated. We worked for the same national forest. On our days off, we tossed dog and gear into our truck and went hiking, backpacking, climbing, cross-country skiing, or floating rivers. Life seemed carefree—until my diagnosis.
My focus turned increasingly inward. Waking up each day in my unpredictable body and adjusting to its shifting symptoms more than sated my thirst for adventure; researching my illness stretched my intellectual curiosity to its limits. At first, Kent listened avidly to my reports. But before long, he turned away. One evening when I returned from the library bursting with new information, he interrupted me in midflow.
"I don't want to hear about it!" He grabbed his coat and hat, called the dog, and stomped out of the house into the winter night.
"You aren't dying!" he yelled as he slammed the door. "You are not dying!"
I shut down. I quit discussing my symptoms. I scheduled my doctor appointments for times when he was in class or at work. I passed off my library research under the guise of graduate-school projects.
I've never been a successful liar. "Your face is like an open book," my mother once commented. To my surprise, Kent rarely challenged me. We spoke less. Our conversations were careful, avoiding the deceptions that grew between us.
I am, as Kurt Vonnegut's Mr. Rosewater describes himself, "a very slow realizer." It hadn't occurred to me that the shift in our relationship might be caused by my illness. I was pretending my illness was simply another research project. Kent was apparently also in the denial stage. Maybe, like the monkey that could hear no evil, he thought if he covered his ears, the dire news would go away.
Walking home alone one night after a stint in the stacks, I paused in the darkest part of a park near our house, away from the orange glare of the streetlights and craned my neck to scan the sky, searching for the bright shape of Orion.
No matter the chaos and uncertainty of my days, a look at the night sky and its familiar constellations is comforting. The same star patterns appear night after night and season after season. The shapes that we call constellations are not actually fixed, but the movements of the individual stars happen over millennia at a pace much too slow for us to perceive. Their seeming steadfastness reminds me that the universe is based on rhythms so grand and long lasting that my concerns diminish to become, if not trivial, certainly less urgent by comparison. Measured against the brief span of human lifetimes, the constellations appear eternal as they wheel across the sky with the changing seasons, a reminder that life as a whole continues even as our own existence will not.
Until the sky-glow of the industrial era blanked out much of our view of the night sky, our ancestors used the movements of the stars and planets to mark the passage of time and to steer their lives. The myths attached to the dot-to-dot stellar patterns recount our hopes and fears, our beliefs and dreams about what it is to be human.
For the ancient Egyptians, the hourglass-shaped group of bright stars that I know as Orion was the figure of Osiris, the first king of Egypt and the god of death. In Jewish lore, he was the Biblical hero Samson; for the Arabs, Al Jabbar, the giant; in China, the hunter and warrior Tsan; to the Navajo, First Slender One, who impregnated the spring earth with seeds.
The story I know of Orion comes from Greek myth. He was a son of the sea god Poseidon, a hunter of mythic prowess, and a giant of great beauty who loved and pursued many women—and made one so angry she caused his death. Infuriated by Orion's boast that he could kill any animal on Earth, the goddess Gaia called on Scorpius to teach the hunter a lesson. Just one sting from the little scorpion's tail silenced the boastful giant. Placed in the skies to stride across the heavens followed by his dogs, Orion is forever chased by his fate: Scorpius ascends in the east as Orion sets in the west.
The tales that science tells about the stars, the nebulae where they are born and the black holes where they die, are the stories of the origin of our universe, the celestial birthplace of all known life. Both science and myth carry clues to discerning the beliefs and dreams of the cultures we are born to, the perspectives that shape our species. What we see—or don't see—in the night sky is a reflection of how we view ourselves, a mirror of our culture and times.
In my mind, Orion stands for courage, the grit and strength necessary to move forward even when the way is not clear, and for the vulnerability that makes us human. Spotting Orion striding across the black heavens in the breathtaking cold that winter night, I saw the stellar figure as my talisman.
The doctor was elaborating on her theme. Rather than looking to medicines to treat my illness, she said, I might need to fix my life. "Remember the laughter therapy Cousins used in Anatomy of an Illness?"
"We don't know how to make you well," she said. "But we do know it's much more difficult to get well if you're not happy."
I was not ready to shoulder the responsibility for fixing either my young marriage or my life. I could handle an intellectual exercise; I couldn't bear emotional examination. I shook off her words the way a dog shakes off flies and headed back to the safe and tidy world of research.
It was a relief when the semester ended and I could pack up our household to return home to northwest Wyoming and another season of fieldwork. I walked the rugged landscape pursuing my research until I was exhausted, filling my brain with observations, data, speculations, and theories. At home, Kent spent hours slouched in an old orange easy chair in front of the television while I sat at the edge of a mesa that overlooked town, listening to the wind. Or I escaped into novels borrowed from the small town library, searching for happy endings.
When I needed company, I went dancing with Charlie, a sweet southern boy who worked with us in summers. I met Joan and Mary, my best friends from the office, for drinks and dinner.
Kent grew jealous. I belonged to my illness now, not him. Once I came home to find him sobbing on the couch. When I sat next to him, he pulled away.
"Where have you been?" he shouted. "Who are you sleeping with?"
His words bit my heart. I wasn't sleeping with anyone else—then.
Another time, I tiptoed into the dark house, and as I crossed the living room, the hair on my neck raised. I flinched just before a thick ecology text from my shelves struck me in the back of the head. I staggered and caught myself on a chair.
"Oh, my God—I didn't mean it! Suz, are you okay?"
I could just make out Kent's form, too near.
"I love you. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it!"
I pulled myself upright and backed carefully out the screen door. I could still hear his sobs as I started the truck and drove away.
That Labor Day weekend, we went backpacking with friends and an early fall snowstorm moved in. All I remember from those three days is a steady rain of wet, white flakes falling silently, muffling forest and lake and rock, pressing down on the roof of our small tent until I felt like I would suffocate. On the long drive out, even the cab of our pickup truck seemed to have shrunk.
I looked over at Kent and said, "I need space. I think we should separate."
His jaw clenched hard, but he didn't turn his eyes from the gravel road. "You'll be dead first."
I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor.
One afternoon, I sat in a wicker chair in her office with my chilled hands wrapped tightly around a mug of hot tea, and agonized about what to do: Kent needed me. My health was going downhill. How could I take care of myself and also take care of him?
She listened until my voice trailed off. "Suppose your illness is giving you permission to follow your heart. If you don't have much longer to live, what does your heart want you to do?"
I took a sip of tea and began to cry. My choices seemed at once so clear and so painful.
"Get a divorce," I said, tasting the bitterness of the tears running down my face. "I can't fix both of us. I've got to choose me."
On the day of our divorce hearing, I left work early to dress. (In preparing me for this court appearance, my very proper lawyer had looked disapprovingly over the top of his half glasses at my faded jeans and turtleneck and had suggested that I appear "more feminine, but not flashy." Thus, I had visited Cody's most exclusive dress shop and had spent my carefully hoarded savings on a dress with a demure lace collar and a hem very properly below my knees.) I showered quickly and twisted my long hair neatly atop my head in a Gibson girl bun. Shivering with cold and nervous tension, I pulled on hose, slip, and my dress-for-divorce frock and then checked my image in the tiny mirror in my closet-size apartment bathroom. Damn! My skin was tinged a deathly yellow shade. I rummaged in the rusted metal medicine cabinet for the makeup I rarely wore, brushed some pale pink powder across my freckles with shaking hands, and carefully painted my lips a brave shade of red.
Half an hour later, I stood before the judge in a nearly empty courtroom at the Park County Courthouse.
After questioning me about the settlement of our meager property, and our lack of "issue" (children), the judge looked down at me from his seat behind the high desk and asked, "You and your husband attempted reconciliation?"
"You swear that the differences cannot be mended?"
I saw Kent's jaw muscle clench tight and heard his flat voice: You'll be dead first.
The judge dismissed me to a bench outside the courtroom while he and the two lawyers conferred. I sat straight-backed for courage, goose-pimpled arms hugging my chest for warmth. After a few minutes, my lawyer summoned me back to hear the judge's proclamation: "Divorce granted without protest."
When the brief proceeding was over, my lawyer gently took my elbow to escort me outside. We walked down the wide courthouse steps and, at the bottom, shook hands.
A wave of loneliness washed over me. I clutched his hand like a life preserver.
He looked down at me, his eyes concerned. "Will you be okay?"
How embarrassing! "Of course," I said, carefully withdrawing my hand.
We exchanged good wishes; he walked away.
I looked up at the blue sky, searching for a glimpse of the stars to point my way on a journey that I had never imagined for myself. I was, in Huck Finn's words, lighting out for new territory. Unlike Huck, however, I had no hankering for adventure. I wished fervently for the sight of Orion, striding confidently across the sky.
I squinted, willing the pinpricks of light to appear overhead, but they remained invisible, obscured by the glare of day.
I wiped my eyes and walked home.
“Walking Nature Home by Susan J. Tweit offers the reader a constellation of healing stories. Replete with Tweit’s powerful articulations of the human heart and overlaid with the stories of the natural world in all its wonder, this book joins the ranks of the great testimonies of our time.”
Denise Chávez, author of A Taco Testimony: Meditations on Family, Food, and Culture