I’m no Elizabeth Gilbert, and when my life changed dramatically a few years ago I didn’t set off for Italy to eat, India to pray, or Indonesia to find love. I didn’t have the money or the resources. My husband died in September 2006 and it took me six months to put one foot in front of the other, to figure out finances, and to adjust to not being a full-time caregiver. It took another year for me to realize that I needed to leave town.
Twelve years before his death, my husband Ralph had a devastating bicycling accident that left him a C-4 quadriplegic, unable to move his arms or legs, incapable of eating or voiding on his own. One minute he was an amazingly fit athlete training for the California Land Rush, a 400-mile, two-day road bike sprint from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the next he was flying over the handlebars of his Italian racing bike, about to plunge into a reality neither of us was prepared for.
I knew that our lives would never be the same that first night in the Highland Hospital Intensive Care Unit when a sensible nurse told me that if my husband lived I would have to learn how to clean his ears and brush his teeth. Two months later Ralph was released from the Kaiser Vallejo rehab center where I had been taught the proper way to move his extremities, and how to give him a sponge bath. A kind nursing assistant helped me tie him with old bed sheets into the front seat of our Honda Civic. We weren’t going skiing, biking or rock climbing together again. We were headed home to a hospital bed in the middle of our North Oakland living room. Ralph was told to concentrate on his breathing. No one suggested out loud that his wife needed to get a new attitude, but it was clear to everyone that she did.
Ralph, a nuclear physicist by training, tackled the situation pragmatically, like the brilliant scientist he was. He looked only forward, concentrating on the things he could do, not on what he’d lost. While I floundered around feeling sorry for myself and our situation, Ralph learned to manipulate his electric wheelchair and to use a computer by tapping the keyboard with a mouth stick. He got very good at allowing others to do for him what he could not do for himself. He let go of the past. I had no choice but to follow his lead.
I gave up cycling, skiing, and climbing. Despite our limited finances and insurance coverage, I had to find full-time, live-in caregivers to assist with Ralph’s 24-hour needs. It was not a job I could do alone. The people we hired were not professional nursing assistants but folks we could afford: undocumented aliens, guys just out of prison, single mothers desperate for a place to live, former (and sometimes current) drug addicts. It was a world we knew nothing about, but that we embraced. We had no other options. We needed their help.
Every day was a new learning experience. We tried to stay positive, creative, and forward-thinking. It was an uphill climb, harder than anything we’d done before. Ralph in-volved himself in disability issues and became an ex-pert in several diverse, eclectic hobbies: antique lighting, film noir, voice-activated computer enhance-ments. I became relatively proficient at driving a large van with a lift in the rear, and searching for and finding those elusive blue disabled parking signs.
But as the years went by, Ralph’s drug regimen began to affect his once stunning mental capabilities. He became more and more isolated from everyone, including me. His last five years were spent confined to his hospital bed. There, surrounded by computers, antique lights, and television screens, he watched movies, and perused E-Bay. Days after he passed away, films arrived that he had ordered online. They were all about dancing. Ralph had become obsessed with salsa, ballet, and the tango.
After the funeral, I knew I would have to rejoin the workforce. Bills needed to be paid. We’d spent most of our savings on live-in help.
I got a position at a nearby school, commuted by bicycle everyday to and from work. I was up at 6 a.m. and in bed by 8 p.m. It was not an exciting lifestyle but it left me with little time to think about anything else.
And then one weekend I drove up to Tahoe to visit friends Ralph and I had often skied with. I’d forgotten what mountain air felt like, the smell of big pine trees, the sound of snow crunching under rubber boots. I returned to the city refreshed and wanting more of that cold weather therapy. I began to fantasize about spending the winter somewhere other than the East Bay. I had friends in Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte, Colorado, Sun Valley and Sandpoint, Idaho, Bend, Oregon, and, of course, Tahoe. Maybe I could go to one of these places for a long visit.
I scrutinized my bank account. I studied distances on maps. I read about the snowfall and seasonal temperatures of each town, the job opportunities, housing markets, airport accessibility, population demographics, and politics. I narrowed my list down to three locations: Tahoe (it was close to my home), Sandpoint (it was far away), and Bend (it
wasn’t too close or too far).
Tahoe got a lot of snow. The Nordic ski scene was big, diverse and competitive. But its proximity to Oakland was a minus. I thought I might be tempted to head west whenever I got lonely. And there was another negative. Coming from a city that was once famously criticized as having “no there there,” I wondered where the There was in Tahoe. Truckee? Squaw Valley? Incline? It was a necklace of small, unattractive towns surrounding a beautiful but mostly inaccessible lake.
I looked further north to Sandpoint. It sat beside another huge body of water circled by pristine mountains, and a rugged shoreline. I went to visit. It took two bumpy flights and a nerve racking drive along an ice-covered two-lane highway to get there. It was gorgeous, alright, but the skate ski scene? Nada. I would need to become a serious telemarker (and possibly a Republican) to fit in.
But a visit to Bend in the fall perked my curiosity. Here was a town with lots of resources. (Maybe even too many—I wasn’t desperate for Costco, Home Depot or Bed Bath and Beyond. But Trader Joe’s? I could compromise.) The weather was good, the distance from the Bay Area doable, the rental market affordable.
I sold the van with the lift in the back and acquired a two-door 1996 Ford Escort. Someone gave me their old skate skis, poles, and boots. I rented out rooms in my house and packed the Escort with winter clothes, a sleeping bag, and a tent (just in case). I arrived on Jan. 12, 2009, found a furnished room to rent on Jan. 13, bought a Nordic season pass at Mount Bachelor Ski Resort on Jan. 14, joined a yoga center on Jan. 15 and started some serious skiing, stretching, and sleeping. Sixty-five days of skiing, 70 yoga classes, and over 900 hours of sleep later, I felt that I’d had enough. I returned to Oakland on April 5 thinner, more flexible, well-rested.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, I didn’t learn a new language, or reach nirvana (though I came pretty close the day I did five yoga classes in a row). I didn’t find a husband either, but I wasn’t really looking. But what I did learn was that at age 56 I could make some major changes in my life. I could move to another city and state. I could relearn a sport I once loved. I could (almost) stand on my head in yoga class, and recognize the difference between a skate ski V1 and V2. Maybe Elizabeth Gilbert can write a bestselling book, find a great new husband, and even stand on her head, but I really doubt that she could skate ski up Screamer, the half mile, steepest hill at the Nordic center. Me? I can do it without stopping.
Susan Parker is currently dividing her time between Oakland, a Nordic ski town in the West, an artist retreat center in the Northeast, and lovely Las Vegas. She will send periodic dispatches to the Planet about what life is like for an East Bay Flatlander in these far-off locations.