Two years ago, you wouldn’t have recognized me.
I arrived in Cheyenne exactly two years ago today: June 17, 2019.
An Atlanta native, I always joked that my soul lives in Wyoming.
Turns out it wasn’t a joke.
The previous years had been hard, as I cared for my dad and wrapped up his affairs after he died from the double whammy of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. Before that, I’d struggled through a hard marriage and a harder divorce. Before that, my mother’s final illness and death, and before that, the end of a long-distance engagement that was already strained and broke under the weight of my mother’s cancer diagnosis.
That’s about 20 hard years, if you really want to add them all up. A high-wire act of releasing one trapeze of hard, only to grab another.
But I made it through. I was ready for the trapeze that would take me into the next, not-hard act. But instead of the grand leap that would have been far too daunting ever to attempt, I made a series of small jumps. Here’s what I mean…
In December 2018, sitting in my 15th floor Atlanta apartment, I glanced out the window to see a hawk gliding by. I instantly thought of the birds coasting on the Wyoming wind and knew it was time for me to go.
I visited twice over the winter, then planned to spend June through October in Cheyenne and the rest of the year in Atlanta. I figured I could easily rent my Cheyenne home via Airbnb thanks to its location near the hospital and the state Capitol and government buildings. Too young to be a snowbird, I decided to think of the plan as an investment in building my own future, my return to life after all the years of hard.
Some of my friends thought I was crazy. But the ones who had stood by me through all the hard? They got it. And they urged me on.
I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d move forward with this return to life, given that my once-thriving business was a casualty of the caregiving years and I didn’t have the energy to restart it. I didn’t really know anyone in Cheyenne. And I was still exhausted.
But I had a house waiting for me in Cheyenne. I’d bought it so that my dad and I could spend summers there and had rented it out when I realized that his heart couldn’t handle the high altitude anymore. Coincidentally, after a string of excellent tenants, I’d just had to ask the latest ones to leave.
On June 17, 2019, I arrived in Cheyenne. I was at ease immediately. Friends told me that I seemed lighter when we chatted via FaceTime, and although I missed my friends in Atlanta, to my surprise I didn’t miss living there at all.
One Sunday morning about two weeks after I arrived in Cheyenne, I caught my reflection in the rear-view mirror as I was driving back from the grocery store.
I was smiling.
I was home.
My new life was beginning in earnest.
After my hard marriage and harder divorce, I had no interest in another relationship. I’d looked into online dating a couple of times, spotted a few men who seemed appealing, and found myself hoping they’d find a wonderful relationship with someone else. Not me. Not me, not that, not ever again.
I once dreamed that a faceless man brought me a cup of coffee while I was writing at my desk, but I had no expectation that the dream would come true. I didn’t want any man getting that close.
I found myself doing things differently in Cheyenne, though. Little things at first: changing the brand of yogurt I preferred, visiting a farmers’ market rather than the grocery store for produce, cooking for the first time since my dad stopped enjoying food. Early to bed, rising with the summer sunrise just after 5 AM.
I found myself saying yes to whatever caught my fancy, looking for what might bring me pleasure. Anything from having cherries for dinner to an afternoon reading in the park was fair game.
I was taking lots of little bets, to use the framework from a business book I’d enjoyed. Small, low-risk experiments, just to see if I wanted more of what I was trying.
And so when a promo from Match.com showed up in my in-box, I decided to take another look. I browsed, with low expectations.
To my surprise, I met a handful of men, all apparently good and kind and fun, and I ended up dating three. A social life!
Slowly, so slowly, I began to imagine that my new life might include companionship. Not a relationship, necessarily, but keeping company with one or more of these good, kind, fun men. Enjoying their company, not relying on them.
I wasn’t seeking the man who would bring coffee to my desk, just someone who’d be pleasant company over dinner or a drive. This was, after all, my new life. Having spent so many years placing someone else’s needs ahead of mine, I was in no mood to compromise. I was looking for men who would add to my life, not change it.
And, within that framework, dating was fun.
Over the summer, I had the chance to host friends in Cheyenne almost every weekend. Fluffing pillows, adding a tray with an electric kettle, cups, and a variety of coffees and teas, carefully placing tourist information about Cheyenne and Wyoming—it all brought a smile to my face and a tremor of nerves and excitement to my gut. Me, a hostess again!
My professional life began to revive as well in Cheyenne. In 2010, I’d been elected onto the officer track of the American Bar Association’s Science & Technology Law Section. I stepped away a couple of years later to care for my father after his dementia diagnosis, knowing that I would be unlikely to resume due to the large number of rising stars. To my great surprise, I was invited back to leadership several years later and became Chair in August 2019. I was delighted to have achieved my 20-plus-year goal. I threw myself into the role as if it were a full-time job, deciding to leave the consulting business that I’d shelved and largely shuttered when my dad entered home hospice care in 2014 quiet for another year.
Fulfilling my responsibilities as Chair and in service to my re-emerging social life, the fall and winter featured trips to San Francisco, Jackson Hole, Boston, DC, San Jose, and Austin, as well as a couple of trips back to Atlanta.
My calendar was full, and my new life was expanding.
On March 6, I closed on the sale of my parents’ home, putting an end to my duties as executrix of my dad’s estate. The caregiving years were finally, officially, legally over.
Ted, one of the men I’d met on Match and had been dating, accompanied me to Atlanta for the closing. I thought it might be a good opportunity to explore our compatibility, though I still wasn’t planning on anything more than light, casual dating.
During that trip, I got sick. I woke up one morning with a pounding headache, a sore throat, a slight cough, fever, and incredible fatigue. By the next evening, I was unable to catch my breath while lying still in bed. Ted took me to an urgent care clinic which prescribed meds for asthmatic bronchitis. COVID was in the news and on my mind, but I refused even to wonder whether I might have more than a cold. It was weeks before I acknowledged that my symptoms and experience were consistent with COVID, and I was never able to get a test.
Ted insisted that we should get back to Wyoming as we started hearing rumbles about lockdowns. I was too weak to object. During the drive back to Cheyenne, I dozed, coughed uncontrollably, and laughed at Ted’s antics that I later realized were designed to keep my mind off the COVID news that was just getting scarier and scarier. We were outside St. Louis when we heard that the WHO had declared COVID to be a pandemic.
I was sick for a full eight weeks, and Ted took care of me. I didn’t know until later that he’d lost his sense of taste and smell, the only COVID symptoms that I didn’t have. During those eight weeks, I’d wake up, walk from my upstairs bedroom to my downstairs sofa, pausing every few steps to gather my strength. Even walking down the stairs made me breathless. And then I’d wait for Ted to arrive. Like most everyone other than frontline workers, he was working virtually, and he’d bring lunch and work while I slept on the sofa.
I believe that my recovery was in part due to Ted’s keeping me upright, awake, and laughing so much, plus a heavy dose of incredibly good fortune.
As the world pivoted to lockdowns and Zoom, my professional life continued to get busier. I chaired the planning committee that turned a successful in-person conference into a virtual event for the Science & Technology Law Section, and my consulting business calendar filled with former clients wanting to figure out how to navigate the new circumstances we were all facing.
Even as the world was counting an exponential increase in the number of COVID cases and deaths (and engaging in arguments that favored politics over science), my new life was picking up speed.
Later in the spring, Ted and I officially became not just a pod but an actual couple. When he would mention words like engagement or marriage, even in jest, I would literally hyperventilate. Companionship made my heart swell with joy; commitment still prompted me to curl inward, to tighten my solar plexus and my throat, to protect myself. Ted watched it happen and didn’t push.
In the fall, I started thinking about selling my Atlanta apartment and moving fully to Wyoming. Ted bounced around housing ideas with me, and ever so slowly I found myself asking his opinion not in the abstract but asking whether he would want to live in this house or that one. Neither of us asked what the questions meant.
I began writing again, not sure what direction the writing would take but wanting to explore. My effort with The Purple Sherpa, the nonprofit I’d founded to support dementia family caregivers, expanded through weekly Facebook live broadcasts and increased outreach to caregivers whose loved one had already died. Meanwhile, my role with SciTech shifted to Past Chair, on call for advice and counsel but not on the hook for decision-making.
In January, Ted and I decided to buy a piece of land with glorious mountain views. Saying yes to the land meant also saying yes to him, to a future, to commitment. As I did, I felt the tightness in my throat release. My hands were warm, soft, and open, and committing to Ted felt as natural as committing to staying in Wyoming had felt.
We traveled to Atlanta twice in the late winter and early spring to sell the apartment, and I ultimately decided that although my soul lives in Wyoming, my social and business life still have a place in Atlanta. Tensing up, fearing the same lack of support that I had experienced in my hard marriage and harder divorce, I was able to breathe when Ted not only told me he was there to support whatever decision I made but also acted as if he really meant it.
We designed a plan for our dream house on our dream land, but COVID raised its head again. By early May, the cost of building materials had increased fivefold or more, and we decided to hit pause on the dream. Less than 36 hours after we made that decision, we were under contract to buy an interim home.
And on June 17, 2021, two years from the date when I first arrived in Atlanta, I supervised two movers as they placed the rest of my belongings in our new home. One of them remembered moving the few items I’d brought from Atlanta into the house.
That afternoon, Ted brought me a cup of coffee as I was at my desk, writing.
Stepping into new life after any kind of disruption, whether it’s illness or divorce or caregiving, can be a daunting prospect. A completed renovation often represents dramatic change. Breathing life into a life that’s been sucked dry by the hard is perhaps the greatest renovation any human can attempt.
But renovation doesn’t happen in one sweeping stroke. It happens in small, exploratory steps.
Looking at my life today, you wouldn’t have known me two years ago. But in those two years I never made a huge shift. Not once. Instead, I said yes to what seemed like it might be the next right thing. A few months in Wyoming. A leadership role. Signing onto Match.com. Writing, without knowing where it would take me.
There’s no secret to building a new life. There’s only asking questions and making decisions based on the answers. Does this bring me pleasure? Do I want more of that? Is this step moving toward something that I want to experience more of? What is my body telling me? Does this honor the part of my past that I want to honor? Does it make my past a context for my future, or does it make my past an anchor?
Today someone will occasionally tell me how glad they are that I was able to move on from caregiving, from the hard years. I gently correct them: I haven’t moved on. I’ve moved forward. Every piece of my past, possibly most especially the hard pieces, has led me to today.
You wouldn’t have recognized me two years ago. I wonder if you’ll recognize me two years from now. I don’t know.
All I can promise is that I’ll continue to ask questions about each potential step and trust that the decisions will lead me to where I want to be. That I’ll continue to move forward. That I’ll choose my future step by step.
And that you can do the same.