Friday, April 12, 2024

Overcommitted and Apologetic

Throughout my adult life, I have had the bad habit of overcommitting myself. I am a people-pleaser by nature, and I like to feel needed, so I have difficulty saying no. On occasion, I’ll commit to doing more in a day (or a week) than is physically, mentally, or emotionally possible, and end up either overwhelming myself or letting my friends and colleagues down (usually both). In the eight months since Sami’s passing, my tendency to overcommit has intensified; this week, I finally hit a wall.

Over the last month or two, as I’ve realized time moves me further away from the events of Sami’s illness and passing, I’ve found myself interacting with people who are not aware of my grief (which is entirely natural). I’ve also realized that while I’m still working through what happened last year, others have moved forward (as is natural). But the result of these realizations has been an urge to talk about what happened to us, to tell the uninformed, “hey, my wife died from a horrible disease just eight months ago - it was really awful.” This is not a great conversation starter, to say the least. The rational side of my brain reminds me that this was a personal experience, that perfect strangers have no way of knowing that I’m still grieving (and reliving the experience). The emotional side of my brain wonders, “how can they act so normally?!” I also know that my friends are concerned and willing to talk - I’m just not sure I’m ready to unload everything that happened quite yet (or that I ever will be).

Because of this, several weeks ago I decided to write a chronology of my experience, from late January 2023, when we first realized Sami’s symptoms, through August 13, when Sami passed. I decided to write it without consulting my notes, my journal entries, or my blog posts from that stretch of time - I wanted to see what I remembered now. I found the process helpful, for the most part. I felt like I was able to tell the story of what happened (even if no one else will ever read this account). I found that my memory is an interesting thing - I would often have to loop back chronologically when I remembered some detail from earlier in the narrative. I also found that there were things I didn’t entirely process as they were happening last year. And finally, I realized that while I was fortunate to be able to take time off from work to care for Sami, I jumped right back into work in late August. I didn’t really take time off for myself.

This week, I realized that since Sami’s first surgery 62 weeks ago, I have organized workshops or given prepared talks every ten days (on average) (41 times since late January 2023). Until very recently, I haven’t said no to any invitations to speak or help out with someone else’s workshop. I’ve also committed to helping with a number of events and other activities.

Today, this feels like I’ve been pushing a heavy load (of work and commitment) uphill since August.  If the load goes away, I feel like my “forward” momentum will cause me to fall. If it goes away, I’ll be forced to reflect on how difficult last year was. I’m realizing (slowly, for sure) that I need to just do that (writing the chronology was part of that reflection). I need to take a breath and grieve. I need to let the external load go, even if only for a short while.

As an aside, some of the reading I’ve done recently has caused me to think about what grief is. After his wife passed, C.S. Lewis wrote that he had come to think about bereavement as simply another natural (and very necessary) stage in his relationship with his wife (along with courtship and marriage). I want to spend some time with that thought. I also want to spend some time with the idea that my grief includes both sorrow for what I don’t have any more (Sami’s companionship and partnership, to name a few) and sorrow for what Sami went through. I’m grieving that my daughters won’t be able to talk to their mother again. Sometimes my grief feels very selfish. Sometimes I find that I can no longer see Sami’s face or hear her voice clearly in my imagination - I hope that those memories will return as I move forward with this reflection.

Going away, for work or for fun, is also more complicated than it used to be. Much of this complication has to do with my animals - Sami was always the one who arranged for the mules, dogs, and chickens to be fed when we left town; I was responsible for the sheep (and until last year, I always had a business partner who could take care of them while I was gone). I’ve been very fortunate to have help with all of this since August, but I still struggle with leaving the animals in someone else’s care (or to be more accurate, I struggle with asking for help).

And so I come (finally) to my reason for writing this. I know that my tendency to overcommit is stressful for me; I also realize my failure to live up to my commitments is stressful for my friends and colleagues. I hate being a flake; ironically, one way to avoid being a flake is to say “no” in the first place! Intellectually, I know that others are understanding when I need to say no (probably more so now than ever); emotionally, I also know that saying no feels like I’m letting them down. In reality, I’m learning that saying “no” now is better than saying yes and then being unable to fulfill my commitments. To those of you I’ve let down, I apologize - thank you for understanding.

Next week, I’ll turn 57. I’ve decided to take the week off from work and simply be at home (mostly). I want to do some woodworking and to chip away at the clean up I’ll need to do to sell our place. I want to hang out with my dogs (plural - I’m also going to pick up a puppy next week!). I want to read and cook and do yard work. I want to simply “be” for a week - with no schedule and no place to be. I know that some down time will be beneficial for my immediate well-being; I hope it will also help me to recalibrate my approach to work (and life in general). I’ve made commitments for workshops and research over the summer; I’ve also decided that I want to be camped near the ocean in early August to celebrate our 34th anniversary. I want to see Lara and Emma. And I’ll be moving to a new job and a new home next fall. Consequently, I will also be saying no more often (and I will probably need help remembering this). Thank you for understanding!

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Regrets. Or Lessons?

Over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to write down everything I remember about last year, without referring to notes or old blog posts. I’m finding the process of remembering to be helpful, to some degree - I don’t think anyone knows (or at least shares my same viewpoint) on what I experienced. Caregiving, ultimately, is a very personal experience, I think, as is terminal illness. Writing about what I remember seems cathartic.

In this process, I am realizing that I have had a number of regrets about some of the things we did during Sami’s illness - as well as some of the things we didn’t get to do. I wish we’d gone to the ocean one more time. I wish we’d have gone to a concert - we both loved live music. Basically, I wish we’d had more time together.

In the process of writing down my memories, I recalled a day last spring (late April or early May) when we had ordered a hay delivery. After I fell off a stack of straw in 2007 or 2008 (and broke both of my arms), Sami took over most of the hay-stacking responsibilities. I’ve always hated heights; breaking both arms made my acrophobia more intense. I think Sami liked stacking hay, just like I like splitting and stacking wood - the combination of physical activity and obvious accomplishment (who doesn’t like seeing a full barn or a full woodshed) made her happy. Stacking hay, for both of us, confirmed her physical strength, as well.

The night before the hay was supposed to arrive, we (Emma, Lara, and I) realized Sami wasn’t in the house. I noticed the barn door was open, and went out to investigate. Sami was rearranging the hay to make room for the delivery - as I recall, I found her standing atop of a stack four bales high.

I should back up. On the Saturday before Easter 2023 (and before I found Sami stacking hay), we drove to Sonora to celebrate with my family. Sami was about two weeks into her 6-week chemo/radiation treatment, and hadn’t had any serious side effects yet. When we arrived at my folks place, I noticed Sami’s hands were trembling. As we greeted family and walked towards the house, I realized Sami was having a seizure (the first she’d had since her surgeries). She recovered reasonably quickly, but I think we all (Sami included) were sobered by the experience. And worried.

So on the day I found her stacking hay, I was angry. I scolded her. I probably yelled something like “What the HELL are you doing?!” Which I regretted instantly. Which I still regret today.

But hindsight has started to turn my regret into enlightenment. Last May, I was hopeful that treatment would buy us more time together. Today, I’m realizing that none of us - sick or healthy - know with any certainty how much time we might have together.

My regret is that I didn’t simply pitch in and help Sami rearrange the hay. I wish (now) that I’d realized how happy Sami was doing something that she’d always been able to do. I wish (now) that I’d realized that falling off a 4-bale stack wasn’t the worst thing that could (or would) happen to Sami.

Which brings me to the lesson I’m trying to learn. My anger with Sami, I think, was more about my needs than hers. I wasn’t ready to let her go (I’m still not, I suppose). That said, she needed to feel in control, to feel useful. As one of her caregivers, I could have given her that gift. I can’t go back and give that to her tonight, but I can share what I think I’ve learned. Doing something that we love, something that gives our lives purpose or meaning (even as “simple” as stacking hay), is important. Supporting our loved ones, when they are doing something that gives their lives purpose or meaning, is equally (if not more) important.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Where I Am Today…

In early February, I started meeting with a grief counselor provided by Sutter Hospice. I’ve met with her twice (and will meet with her again tomorrow); I’m finding that meeting with someone face-to-face seems to be much more helpful than the virtual therapy I tried last fall. Being able to look someone in the eyes - and read their body language - is much more helpful than watching someone on a computer screen, especially when the WiFi is wonky! That said, the weeks since our last session have been difficult for me emotionally. Tonight - only two days into the work week - I feel entirely drained.

Over the last month, I’ve tried to strike a balance between giving myself a break for being tired and making sure that I keep up on household chores. I’ve never been a great housekeeper (and to be honest, Sami wasn’t either), but I’ve tried to do the things that I know would astonish Sami - I’ve made my bed every day, I’ve kept up with laundry and dishes, I’ve tried to maintain the yard. I’ve even vacuumed the house on a weekly basis! But I’ve also tried to cut myself some slack - the house is dusty, and the windows need washing! The garage is a disaster.

I am so fortunate to work for an organization (the University of California) that fully embraces the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) - what a blessing to be able to be with Sami through multiple surgeries, multiple hospital stays, and (ultimately) through the process of her death. But I’ve realized over these last several weeks that while I took advantage of my FMLA leave to care for her, I failed to use my leave to grieve. After Sami passed in August, I went right back to work.

To be fair, I know that I grieved throughout Sami’s illness - anticipatory loss is a term I learned last year. We knew that a brain tumor was serious, and we learned that glioblastoma was ultimately incurable. I experienced sadness, anxiety, and anger throughout the seven months between Sami’s first symptoms and her ultimate passing. But I’ve realized over these last several weeks that once she died, I never really paused to reflect on (and mourn over) what her death meant to me. I simply kept going.

I suppose all caregivers experience some regret. Recently, one of the things I’ve realized I regret is that Sami and I didn’t revisit some of the places that were so important to us as a couple (like the ocean - I was always a mountain person, while she loved the sea). We all hoped that the three weeks we spent in San Francisco in June were an investment in getting to spend more time doing the things we loved once Sami felt better. I wonder, now, if we should have just done those things in the moment. She never (really) felt better.

Last week, I learned of a book by C.S. Lewis called A Grief Observed, about the loss of his wife. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia, but I’ve never read his nonfiction work. I listened to the audio book enough to know that I’ll need to read the book (partly because I couldn’t totally follow the British accent of the narrator), but several ideas stood out to me.

First, Lewis talks about the utter physical exhaustion he experienced after his wife passed. I think I’ve denied my own exhaustion. I simply kept going (on adrenaline?) after Sami died - organizing extension workshops and settling her affairs. Perhaps this explains why I’m so drained tonight! Second, Lewis wrote that the bargain we make when we marry someone is that one of us will be left behind (I’m reminded of Jason Isbel’s song If we were Vampires). These are lessons we can only learn after the fact, I think.

The month of March 2024 has been difficult. I’ve realized that I need to mourn for Sami’s loss (still). I’ve realized that being in large crowds wears me out more than it used to - and that recovering from being in a crowd takes longer (maybe I really am an introvert?!). Maybe my social battery is more easily drained at the moment? I’ve begun to understand that when others don’t share my need to talk about my loss, they are not being insensitive - they simply have not experienced what I’ve experienced. I’m beginning to recognize that the act of writing - AND the act of sharing my writing - is therapeutic for me (thank you, readers). As the title of Lewis’s book suggests, everyone’s grief is different. And hopefully, I’ve begun to accept that I’m still in a place where I need to be sad - to sit with my grief.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Springtime Already?!

Last spring, as we were adjusting to the realities of Sami’s glioblastoma diagnosis - to treatment schedules, symptom management, the possibility of enrolling in a clinical trial at UCSF, and to preparing our home for Sami’s eventual incapacity - I wrote that time was not behaving normally. This week - nearly seven months after Sami’s passing, time continues to operate inconsistently. Last night, as I was walking back from the barn after feeding the mules and gathering eggs, I realized springtime was quickly approaching (indeed, it was already here). The days are again getting longer. The grass is growing. The ewes are finished lambing. How could all of this be, with Sami gone from the world?

As I look back at the seven months without Sami, I’m struck by the paradox of feeling like I’ve been incredibly busy while standing perfectly still. After Sami passed, I helped Emma move back to Idaho to start her junior year of college. I went to Sonora twice to see family. I drove to Siskiyou County to help a colleague with a workshop. I filled my deer tag in Colfax. I traveled back to Moscow for Emma’s logging sports competition, and later to Las Cruces to see Lara. We planned and held a Celebration of Life for Sami, and then went to Monterey for Christmas. In the new year, I traveled to Denver, Moscow (again), and Sparks, Nevada. I turned the rams in with the ewes in September, harvested my finished lambs in October, and lambed out the ewes in January and February. I bought a sawmill and started learning to use it. During that timeframe, I also worked on setting Sami’s financial and business affairs. Thankfully, the estate planning we’d done made this job easier, but I still needed to meet with attorneys, bankers, and accountants (not to mention DMV) during the fall months. This week, I reached out to our CPA about our 2023 taxes.

I’m normally very in tune with the changing seasons. I always look forward to the first day in August that feels as though fall is approaching. The day I turn the rams in with the ewes feels like the first day of the Sheep New Year - followed shortly thereafter by the appearance of Sandhill cranes flying south. As late September gives way to October, the cooler nights make me think of hunting. The shorter days and longer nights of November and December mean Christmas and the Solstice are approaching; my tradition of maintaining my wood-handled tools on New Year’s Eve makes me feel like I’m ready for a new year of working outdoors. And lambing usually coincides with the northward return of the cranes. 

Looking back now, I feel like the seasons changed without me this year - disconcerting and reassuring at the same time. I noticed all of these things, I think, as they were happening, but I feel a bit like I’m waking up again after sleepwalking my way through winter. Also, while the list above suggests that I’ve been busy, I feel like there are many chores I’ve been avoiding. Last weekend, I finally cleaned the far side of the dining table, where all of the leftover cups, plates, and supplies from Sami’s Celebration had been sitting since December. The desk in the kitchen, however, is still a disaster - piled high with unread books, notecards, and hats that I’ve worn off and on all winter. The garage is similarly disheveled.

Some of why I kept so busy over the last seven months, I suspect, was a way to avoid feeling sad. On the other hand, I realized this week (again) that I’d been grieving since late January 2023, when we learned that Sami had a mass on her brain. In my cleaning frenzy over the weekend, I found the pocket notebooks I’d kept during Sami’s treatment, along with a notebook that Sami kept early on in the process (while she was still able to take notes). Glancing through these, I realized how heavily the uncertainty and anxiety weighed on all of us. Perhaps what seemed like sleepwalking has really been my internal processing of everything that happened to us. Rather than observing the world around me (which has been a lifelong habit), I’ve been reflecting on my internal landscape.

Recently, this inward focus has resulted in some external brain fog, I think. I find myself missing meetings, or mixing up dates. I know I’ve been a frustrating colleague because of this - I’m frustrated with myself. But I seem to need to look inward at the moment, sometimes to the exclusion of anything else.

Indeed, much of my inward focus has been on reliving the 202 days between Sami’s first symptoms and her eventual passing. While we were living through that period of time, I was concentrating on one crisis after another - surgery, recovery, another surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, doctor’s visits. I’m realizing now that my introspection is part of my process of making sense of what just occurred.

As I was considering whether to accept a job transfer back to the counties where my family lives, my sister told me she thought I was courageous for even considering such a move. At about the same time, a bereavement counselor provided by Hospice suggested that making big decisions within a year of a loss like ours was inadvisable. Last week, I read that “courage is the ability to experience fear but not be overwhelmed by it.” As I’ve thought about these last few weeks, I’ve decided that I don’t feel particularly courageous. While Sami was sick, I simply tried to do what needed to be done. Now that she’s gone, I’ve simply tried to put one foot in front of the other. Some days I succeed; some days I don’t move at all (or at least I feel that way).

Late last week, I spoke with the counselor again. We talked about the concept of moving forward versus moving “on” from grief. I know there are people in my circle who think I need to move on - but (as I’ve written often since last August), moving on from 35 years of relationship doesn’t feel right to me. My relationship with Sami will always be part of who I am - in working to move forward, I feel like I need to be able to carry that part of who I am (and who we were) with me. But I also realized last week that I’m still searching for direction - in which direction does “forward” lie? I’m hoping that my move to be closer to family, to a job that allows me to refocus on my curiosity and teaching ability (rather than my administrative responsibilities), will provide some direction. In the meantime, I am trying to enjoy the signs of spring - the daffodils blooming and the lilac buds swelling, the sounds of nuthatches in the blue oaks when I take my morning walk, the gamboling lambs in my sheep pasture. Some days this is easy to do; some days I still fail to see these things entirely.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

From OUR to MY

During the Holidays, I jokingly told my coworkers that I couldn’t host a party because a bachelor had moved into my house. At the risk of perpetuating gender roles, what I really meant was that my house was in no condition to host guests because I hadn’t kept it as clean as Sami and I generally did together. To be fair (to myself), this reflected a loss of the division of labor we enjoyed during our marriage! And also to be fair (to both of us), neither Sami nor I were ever great housekeepers! But since Sami’s passing, I’ve also realized that I’ve become uncertain about when to use the words “we,” “our,” and “us” versus “I,” “my,” and “me.”

As a married couple, Sami and I both had possessions and activities that were our own, as well as possessions and activities that were ours together. I drove MY truck to check on MY sheep. Sami hauled HER mule in HER horse trailer. I took MY rifle to go hunting, hoping for venison to fill OUR freezer. Sami used HER power tools to make repairs in OUR barn. But the house was OURS - the place where we raised OUR daughters. I took care of OUR yard; Sami did OUR grocery shopping.

Since August, though, I’ve struggled with whether I should say, “I’m going to visit our (or my) daughter,” or “We’re (I’m) so proud of Emma and Lara.” Should I say “our” mules? Or “my” mules? After 33 years of “we,” I find that saying “I” is difficult.

Some things now, obviously, are purely mine - MY laundry, MY garbage, MY shopping list. Some of these had been mine even before Sami got sick - for example, when Emma left for college, I started doing my own laundry (I think Sami was happy not to mix my sheepy-smelling clothes with hers). Some became purely mine as the only person in the house - I generate half of the garbage that we generated before. Some I’m learning how to do - shopping for one is much different than shopping for two.

But most of what’s important to me remains OURS. Lara and Emma will always be OUR daughters. The people who have been so supportive throughout this process will always be OUR friends (even if they were originally Sami’s friends, or mine). The house I’m sitting in as I write this is OUR house, filled with OUR furniture. And with OUR memories.

This realization makes my decision to sell this house and move closer to MY family difficult in some ways. The house I move to will be MINE (our perhaps OURS - I find myself considering how Lara and Emma will like the homes I’ve looked at, but that’s a slightly different OURS). For my daughters, I’m sure, it will be difficult not to come home to the house in which they grew up. As much as we say home is not so much a physical structure as a place in our hearts, not returning to their own rooms will be hard.

Finally, even though OURS, US, and WE is still in my vocabulary, I stumble on these words. They remind me that I’m on my own now. They remind me that while I’ll always be Sami’s husband, and Lara and Emma’s dad, that I’m also someone different now. I’ve always been ME, but for 35 years, I was also US.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

More Changes Ahead

Cross-posted and adapted from my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills blog... 

As anyone who has read this blog at all in the last 12 months knows, 2023 was an incredibly difficult year for my family and me. My wife of 33 years, Samia, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer last February. After two surgeries, chemo- and radiation-therapy, and an extended stay in the hospital at UCSF, she passed away at home in mid-August.

Despite the enormity of my family's loss, we have been so fortunate to be part of the foothill agricultural community. Family, friends, colleagues, and even folks we barely knew, offered support throughout last year – my freezers were full of food, my woodshed was full of firewood, and my barn was full of hay.  I am humbled. Thank you.

All of which makes the decision I recently made even more difficult. One of the things I realized during Sami's illness was how important it was to do everything I could to allow her to be home as long as possible (in her case, ultimately until the very end). While I'm fortunate that my own parents are still living in the house in which I grew up (in Sonora, California), I have realized that being even just three hours away presented a challenge with respect to helping them.

In January, my livestock and natural resources colleague in the Central Sierra UC Cooperative Extension office (covering El Dorado County south to Tuolumne County), Dr. Flavie Audoin, left to become the Assistant Specialist in Plant-Herbivore Interactions and Targeted Grazing at the University of Arizona – her dream job! At my request, UCCE is facilitating my transfer to the Central Sierra region effective October 1, 2024. UCCE will also refill my position here (covering Placer, Nevada, Sutter, and Yuba Counties) – hopefully before I leave.

As you might imagine, this has not been an easy decision. I've lived in Placer County for 30 years; Samia and I raised our children in Auburn, and I've had the good fortune to work with and become part of an incredible farming and ranching community here. But I'm also grateful that UCCE is providing me with the opportunity to come back to the part of the foothills where I grew up – to continue doing work that I love while being closer to my family.

In my seven years as a livestock and natural resources advisor here in Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba, I have focused my research and extension programs on livestock-predator interactions, drought management and disaster resilience, targeted grazing systems, rangeland prescribed fire, and economic sustainability. While many of these issues are relevant to ranchers and land managers throughout the Sierra region, I look forward to working with the ranching community in Central Sierra to better understand their specific priorities and needs. And I will continue to share information on ranching topics through my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills blog and our Sheep Stuff Ewe Should Know podcast. So, while my home office (and my home base) will change, I look forward to remaining a part of the larger Sierra Nevada ranching and rangeland communities.

In the meantime, my extension and research work will go on – we have workshops on fire, agricultural technology, and sheep health management planned through the spring and early summer. Our Tahoe Cattlemen's Association Spring Ranch Tour is set for May 4 (stay tuned for details!). We have targeted grazing workshops and research projects on tap. If you'd like more information about any of this, please contact me at!

Saturday, February 17, 2024


February has probably always been my least favorite winter month - a colder, drearier July (my least favorite summer month). In January, I’m still basking in the glow of the holidays. In March, the onset of spring is evident. February’s only redeeming qualities are the Presidents Day holiday and new lambs. Thankfully, it’s a short month!

This February seems especially dreary. A year ago, Sami had her second craniotomy, and we finally learned that the “mass” on her brain was indeed glioblastoma. And six months ago, Sami passed. Last month, I got to see both of our daughters at the Society for Range Management conference in Reno. This month, I’m back to coming home each night to an empty house. defines doldrums as “a state of inactivity or stagnation” - pretty much how I feel at the moment. I feel old - widower is a term that feels old. I feel listless - I come home from work thinking I should work on cleaning the house or cook a hearty dinner. Some nights I do; mostly, I seem to collapse into my recliner after a simple meal. And wake up the next morning to do it all again.

But today, a seed catalog showed up in my mailbox. March - and springtime - is around the corner. And then April and garden-planting time. Not to mention baseball on the radio. And trout season. The sweet spot in the sheep year is approaching - after all the lambs are born but before I need to irrigate. Maybe next week, I’ll get caught up on dusting, mopping, and cleaning the bathrooms.

I’m grateful that there are only 12 more days this month. Grief and loss, at least for me, seems to intensify my emotions - especially my lows. February is always a low point - even more so this year.