Terraphilia. The word cannot be found in a general dictionary or easily online. As defined by Richard Cabe and Susan Tweit, terraphilia embraces all of life’s many forms, from botanical to animal to human, recognizing the intrinsic affinity humans have with the earth itself. It is a recognition of the earth’s role in sustaining life as we know it, in all its wonders and foibles. It embraces the sense of healing, that the earth is self-sustaining only if we humans take care of it and each other.
Susan J Tweit’s memoir takes us on a personal, yet universal, journey no one signs up for: watching a once-robust spouse succumb to the deadliest form of brain tumor, glioblastoma. Had Richard not hallucinated birds that particular day—thousands of birds, minute and gigantic, everywhere, on every blade of grass, that seemed so real he reached out to touch one—his journey with glioblastoma would have been dramatically shortened. He would have succumbed quickly to the swelling in his brain without knowing what hit him. And there would have been no time to prepare to say goodbye.
Early on Tweit confesses, “Our days were about to get harder and more dear than we could imagine: The birds presaged a tumor growing in his right brain. A tumor that would kill him, though we didn’t know that then and didn’t believe it for far longer than the data warranted.”
The birds bought time. For Tweit, it bought more than two additional years to spend with and love the man she’d fallen in love with 29 years prior. Seeing the birds demanded an explanation; but going through the long, weary road traveled from denial to acceptance of the terminal cancer diagnosis proved to be a lesson for Tweit in accepting death just as much and as mindfully as she accepted life and love. Tweit’s memoir has many lessons to impart, some told in rather scientific terms, others told in poignant, touching language. The personal becomes the political, and vice versa. At one point, she says, “The human capacity for optimistic denial is astonishing and persistent—as demonstrated by America’s slow response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the mess Earth is in now.”
But the reality of her personal life had changed, and there was no denying it as she observed the dramatic and shocking changes her husband endured. Tweit and her husband made a conscious effort to live with love as their guiding light, even through the darker days. Hers is a story of adapting to the moment at hand: What is really happening, why is it happening, how can I help?
Tweit intertwines her story of facing her husband’s death with the last road trip the two made, 4,000-mile, three-week drive through Wyoming, Idaho, Washington state, Oregon, San Francisco, and Big Sur. Final destination: hospice.
Along the journey, Tweit treats us to some exquisitely described scenery of natural wonder, gracing the end of many chapters with an original haiku summing up the moment at hand, usually one of wonderment, but at times of grief.
Although one knows going into this book that the love of her life would succumb to his insidious brain cancer, Tweit’s approach—and her husband’s, as well—of being as mindful and loving as humanly possible through it all resonates the most. Tweit’s story is masterfully told, while breaking and mending the heart simultaneously.