Shadowbear Trading Post
October 1994, by Tony Nitz

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        It's been five months since I left. We've been apart as long as we were together. Nevertheless, she's become the most important part of my life; my inspiration. I still remember, almost to the minute, our first meeting...

        I was working as a small business consultant for a national non-profit association for small businesses. On the first Monday in October, at about 9:30pm, I was finishing up making my calls to set that week's appointments with clients and prospects. The Shadowbear Trading Post had mailed in a request to the national office for information on our group health insurance plans. I called and spoke with the owner and operator, Heather Shadowbear. She seemed very flippant and sarcastic, in a friendly, almost flirtatious way. I rolled with her punches and matched her back, crack for crack. We hadn't even met, but were already talking like we had been best friends for years. I made the "business" appointment I had called for, and felt I had a good prospect at a sale. Although, I had a very unprofessional anticipation about this particular appointment.
        Our appointment was for that Thursday at 8:00pm. I usually worked out of town during the week, living in motels. This week I was working relatively near home in Sacramento. Heather was my most out of the way appointment, but it was a beautiful drive up into the Sierra Mountains just beyond Sonora. We had planned a rendezvous at a convenience store on the main road. A friend of hers met me, and guided me up a country road to Heather's cabin.
        Heather lived on Mewok Indian property, in basically traditional surroundings. She had a one room cabin with no running water or electricity, but there was a telephone line. I was led to the cabin by her friend and asked to wait inside. Heather would be along shortly. The first thing I noticed inside was the soft, comfortable light from the oil lamps. The walls were dark, so very little light was reflected. I could smell a stew simmering on the wood burning stove she used for both heat and cooking. The cabin was alive with her crafts; traditionally fashioned Native American garments and art. She had no sewing machine or powered tools of any kind. Everything was crafted by hand in a traditional manner. I had stepped a hundred years into the past. It was marvelous.
        I sat on her fur covered sofa to wait. She arrived after only a few minutes. The door was pushed open, and she stuck her head in to say "hi" with a sly grin. She sat her crutches just inside the door, then hopped inside. When I saw her lean in with the crutches, I had expected to see a cast on her leg. After she hopped in, it took me a moment to realize she was missing her left leg. We introduced ourselves, and she made herself comfortable on the sofa beside me. Although I was there to conduct business, I felt like I was on a first date.
        Her interest in my company was the health insurance. It only took about five minutes to determine she was not qualified for coverage. Heather was 29 years old at that time. In her early twenties she began a long and brutal battle with cancer. A series of combative surgeries had claimed all but eight inches of her left leg, her left kidney, and one fifth of her left lung. Because of irreparable damage to her syatic nerve, she could not wear a prosthetic leg. Also, many of her teeth had begun to crumble away; a common, but unpublicized side effect of chemotherapy. I remember once, later on, she lost part of a tooth at breakfast, biting into a pastry. Her long, black hair was braided into a pony tail that reached to the small of her back. I was genuinely surprised when she complained about how her hair had grown back, after the chemotherapy, so much thinner. Not only did she not impress me as the type to complain, but I found the length and fullness of her hair to be particularly attractive. Her huge brown eyes shinned with a life force greater than any I have known. I could see nothing but the beauty of her strength and perseverance.
        What should have been a five minute business meeting became two hours. She insisted I share the stew she was preparing, and we talked. Heather was born and raised in Alaska. She moved to California as a teenager. She was half Athabaskan, a Native Alaskan people, and half Sioux. She chose to live in a traditional style, and had formed a close relationship with the local Mewok tribe. Heather was even studying Shamanism with a local Medicine Woman.
        When she was younger, before all the surgery, Heather had been very athletic. Although now it was difficult for her to find friends who would join her in any physically rigorous activities. Most people were afraid of causing her further injury, even though she was as healthy and strong now as anyone she knew. She still enjoyed wilderness experiences, and was perfectly capable of taking care of herself in the woods. But, she longed for a friend who could simply share the experience rather than try to baby sit her. She spoke of a particular lake near Sonora she enjoyed visiting. I promised to take her on a hike around the lake and she enthusiastically welcomed the invitation. It had been seven years since anyone had wanted to go hiking with her. That was our beginning.

        The next week I called her back to set a date for our hike. When the day came, we spent it walking around the lake, talking, and falling in love. That evening, she insisted I stay for dinner. Later, while enjoying the fire from her stove, we fell asleep on the sofa in each other's arms.
        We began spending every weekend together. Since my work kept me traveling during the week, it didn't take long until Heather suggested I simply move in with her. She said it didn't make sense for me to maintain an apartment I only used two or three days a month. Living with Heather helped me recapture my boyhood appreciation for nature I had been gradually losing in adult life. Also, the Mewoks were accepting me as one of the tribe. I was even expected, not just invited, to attend the weekly sweat lodge. I am part Cherokee, but had never thought to investigate my Native American roots.
        To attempt to understand Heather, I spent a weekend "walking in her shoe," with my left leg bound up so I'd have to walk on crutches. I believe this is one of the things she loved in me the most. I didn't see her as handicapped, and didn't treat her as such. I did recognize, though, that she did face some challenges in life that may be hard for others to understand. I made every effort to understand and appreciate her challenges. For me, actions and experiences are more valuable than words or material possessions. For Heather's thirtieth birthday, I took her repelling in Moaning Caverns. Most of her friends would not have attempted a two hundred foot subterranean repel, even with two legs. It was the thrill of her life. There were things I missed in our relationship, though. We could never walk together, hand in hand. We could never run together.

        Eventually, I saw how unsatisfying my current occupation was. I longed for a more spiritually significant pursuit in life. Heather never criticized my work, but was happy I had decided on a change. I had a desire to explore opportunities awaiting me in Alaska, and Heather wanted to return to her childhood home. Together, we made the decision that I would leave first to establish a residence and obtain employment, then I would return for Heather. She had already begun crafting a traditional wedding gown of white deerskin.
        Heather had had many bad experiences with men since the onset of her cancer. She was married when it began. The first surgery had claimed her leg. Her husband stood by her at first, but when it was discovered that the cancer had spread, and more surgery was needed, he left. Since then, every man she has met has found a reason to leave after a short time. She had nearly given up on finding someone who could see past physical inconveniences, to love her spirit. We had been together only a short while, but I was convinced that I had found the one woman who could be my life's inspiration. I believed she felt the same about me. I was the first man she could trust to always stand by her.

        A week before I was to leave she became ill. At first I thought it was just the flu, but her condition continued to worsen. Heather insisted on herbal remedies. I insisted on continually monitoring her temperature and vital signs. Her blood pressure was dropping, her pulse was weak, and her temperature continued to rise. I finally decided to take her to the hospital, quite against her will.
        After she was admitted, the Emergency Room physician spoke to me privately. She had been near death. Her temperature reached 106 degrees before they could get control. Her blood oxygenation level was down to nearly 60%; normally, it should be 95% or better. The x-rays showed clouds on her lungs. They feared it may be a recurrence of the cancer, but she was so weak they didn't want to discuss this with her. She was placed in a private room, and I sat with her for the duration. Only once did a nurse attempt to inform me that visiting hours were over. I wasn't leaving until Heather did.
        The clouds on her lungs were finally diagnosed as pneumonia. I'm glad the physician didn't unnecessarily worry her with renewed fears of cancer. With the proper antibiotics she recovered quickly. After five days together in the hospital, we went home to our cabin. We spent a few days celebrating her recovery, and I making sure her recovery was complete. Finally, the time of my leaving could not be postponed any longer.

        My truck was packed and friends were waiting to meet me in Alaska. Driving the Alaska Highway, alone and in Winter, was an adventure I was looking forward to. I was not looking forward to parting with Heather. At the last minute, my heart screamed for me to stay and rearrange our plans so we could leave together. I should have listened to my heart.
        It was a very tearful goodbye. Heather dropped her crutches and embraced me as if she never intended to let go. She cried so violently she was unable to talk. I held her, perhaps as long as an hour, sometimes crying with her. There was no hurry for me. After a while, she let go. We had only been together for five months, but we felt like we had lived our entire lives together. I promised to call her from the road, and we both promised each other we'd be reunited soon.
        I guess I hadn't fully realized, though, the depth of Heather's pain. She had been dealt so many bad hands in life, that she found it difficult to rely on anything or anyone she could not see and touch. Her previous relationships must have played on her mind. The other men she had known had always become bored with her. They had all left her regardless of the promises they had made. I believe she may have lost faith in my intention to return for her.

        I've acquired a nice place a few miles outside of Fairbanks, and have been hired on at a gold mine. It's a good start. But, I haven't heard from Heather in nearly a month. I've left messages for her with our friends, but she won't return my calls, and she hasn't written. Has she given up on us?
        This trip down the Alaskan Highway will be much faster since it's now Summer, and I'm too worried to stop and sleep. I've been told that she has moved out of her cabin and is sharing a ranch house. She, also, has not been attending the weekly sweats and is no longer studying with the Medicine Woman. It hurts me to think that she may be abandoning what was once such an important part of her life. No one is directly admitting it, but I am getting indications that she is now seeing someone else. Has she given up on us, and our life together, the way so many others before have given up on her? Did she come to believe I'd never come back for her? Will it make a difference now when I do?

copyright October 1994 | Tony A. Nitz  | all rights reserved | Revised:  Friday, 18 February 2005 20:19 +0500