I have already taken the wrong exit, turned the wrong way, and turned the wrong way again. Now this: A large truck, pregnant with painted words on its large round belly, backs up slowly into the path of my car. The Purple Poop Pumpers don’t care if I am dead or alive.
I try to think—logically—how can I get myself out of this mess? I call Vicki to tell her I will be late, because I seem to be lost. Vicki tries to help me, but I have no way of describing where I am, completing ignoring the compass tucked into the dashboard like a sleeping baby. So I keep driving and turning.
Eventually I realize I should call someone else, and my cell phone makes the dreaded noise: no service. I drive a few more miles, searching for cell-phone service and sanity. I begin to wonder what I used to do when I was young; the pre-hysterical teenager, lost, no phone, and only cigarettes to smoke while I tried to figure out where in the hell I was.
I try and reach my son, Matt, but he is at work and does not answer. I call my husband, Jim, and when he answers, I shout: “Don’t ask any questions.” “Where are you?” he asks. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be lost,” I answer and hang up.
Matt returns my call, and I eloquently describe my own personal hell. I recognize the golf course I am in front of as a place he golfed at a number of years ago. I tell him the name of the golf course. Matt tells me to turn around, drive several miles, turn left, and I will be about ten miles from my destination. I learn I have basically gone around Otsego Lake, dipping westward, then southward, after I took the exit ramp near Gaylord, as if it were an intended scenic tour I decided to make while Vicki waited in a parking lot.
By the time I return to Gaylord and meet my friend, I have circled the lake in its entirety. I begin to cry after thanking Matt and hanging up. I call Vicki and promise I will actually be in Gaylord in the very near future. Her laughter is contagious, and I catch it, deftly, as if nothing in the world was as funny as this moment.
I thought that after the radiation, the tumor would not be in limbo in my head. I assumed I would be better, and never miss a right-hand turn again. I would always know where I was going, but today reminds me the tumor isn’t done with me yet.
Three weeks later: I am visiting my father at the nursing home he now resides in. It is a similar Michigan day with gray skies and rain. I imagine my father feeling the same way I did when I got lost near Gaylord. Even though he is in a building with sixty other residents and a multitude of nurses, staff members, and visitors, my father is lost. He is in some place that is familiar, but it is also unfamiliar. The lines have blurred.
My father asks me how things are in Alma, Michigan, as if he still lives in the house with my mother, although he doesn’t ask about her. Two days after that conversation, he asks me how things are in Dodge City. He informs me, my husband, and friends Peggy and John, that the food contract at the nursing home has been taken over by the folks who ran the Lamplighter in Dodge City. I wonder how far back in time he has travelled, but I do not ask, and instead vouch for the merits of their fried chicken and French fries.
This past Sunday: Matt and I visit my father. He tells us he wants out, and to bring his damn checkbook. I ask him where he wants to go. He says: “I’ve got two apartments in Dodge, so I ought to be living in one of them.” Matt and I exchange looks and say nothing. My parents raised me in a small farmhouse outside of Dodge City, but somewhere in my father’s mind, two apartments still remain, most likely filled with cowboy boots and his favorite hat, pictures of his brothers, big fat cigars, and furniture he has refinished in his spare time.
I think about the power of memory and the consequences of forgetting. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. I watched her slow death coming for several years, and listened to her stories become harder and harder to believe.
There is something inherently built into the loneliness of being lost, even in a room full of people. For me, I knew that when I was lost in Northern Michigan, I would always find my way back home. For my mother, I imagine that she got to the point where just having someone in the room with her was enough to offer comfort. But for my father? I watch him as he slips between apartments and houses he once lived in, and I hope that I bring comfort to him even though I am merely his daughter, breathing in what he is breathing out.
Garbage Shoot? Garbage Chute?
As an only child, I spent a lot of time in my room reading books. Nancy Drew stories were a favorite, and at some point, I decided I could write my own stories. My parents supplied me with books, most likely to try and keep me out of trouble. When I became a teenager, I discovered poetry about love, and I decided to write my own. My friend Gretchen and I would write poems together. I continued writing really bad poetry as I grew up, and it wasn’t until I went to college and graduate school that I finally learned the art of writing and my love of language really blossomed.
When I read that Sheryl Crow figured out she had a problem because she had forgotten the words to a song, I understood. How strange it must have felt for her to suddenly lose her words in the middle of a performance; after all, she had been writing songs—and singing them—for a very long time. Crow, though, was smart. She went to her doctor as soon as she had a problem. Crow’s meningioma seems to be small and not causing any major problems for her now. Unlike Crow, I ignored my symptoms for far too long.
In mid-October of 2011, I sent Darcy a message, and I explained that I might not be able to run the Zombie Race as we had planned because of the violent headaches I continually had. On race day, though, I felt good, so I ignored symptoms I had been having in the six or seven months prior:
Headaches: Taking a nap in the middle of the day because of the intense pain in my head. Sometimes the pain would be at the top of my head or the back of my head. If the barometric pressure suddenly went up or down, I could count on getting a bad headache. I joked about getting a job for the Weather Channel.
Memory issues: Forgetting what I was doing in the middle of doing it. Not being able to name things. Not remembering information my husband or son had told me the day before.
Emotions: Roller coaster feelings. Happiness followed by long bouts of sadness.
Vision issues: Did a blackbird just fly in past me? Was that a bolt of lightning coming from the clear blue sky?
Hearing issues: We blamed my hearing issues on too many rock concerts from the past and my iPod use!
Weakness in my left arm: We had no idea, but blamed weakness in my left arm on moving, guitar playing, sleeping on it wrong, anything.
Driving and missing turns: Sometimes I missed turns in Midland. During the Pretzel Tour with Micki, Jeanne, Rachael, and Denise, I missed several turns in Traverse City. Somehow roads that were once very familiar to me suddenly became confusing.
After having a seizure and finding out I had a brain tumor, I read as much information as possible. I also asked myself a lot of questions: What if I had suffered the seizure while driving to Traverse City that morning? What if I had been running the back roads by myself? What if I had been at home alone and fallen into the water? What if I had fallen off of a ladder? The outcome could have been very different.
I eagerly awaited my surgery. I felt very lucky that I was a candidate for Gamma Knife and radiation treatment that would start the process of shrinking the tumor. Some meningiomas require a different type of surgery to completely remove the tumor. You know, sharp instruments digging into your head, finding the stupid tumor, removing it completely, and a long recovery period. I wanted no part of that procedure. There are risk factors with radiation treatments, but I decided to take my chances.
For my Gamma Knife surgery in Midland, Michigan, I had prepared a mix of songs I wanted to listen to during treatment at the suggestion of Victor, a medical physicist. Looking back at my play list, I clearly had love and drinking on my mind. Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Harrison, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, and Pat Benatar—to name a few—seemed like the perfect music to listen to while my head was locked in a cage and radiation was being shot at my tumor.
After my surgery, I thought I would be the old me. Like a Nancy Drew novel, the case would be solved and life would go on. Words would fly out of mouth like bullets. I would be the storyteller spinning a tale without dropping a word. But I am not that person.
Every day is a challenge. I wonder what word to use in the simplest conversations. Is the hoist the dock or is the dock the hoist? Am I redundant or irreverent? Or as I texted Darcy one day while cleaning out my father’s apartment in May of 2012: “I need more bags for the garbage shoot.” A second later I sent this: “Garbage chute?” This is my brain attempting to autocorrect.
I am hopeful that with time, the tumor will shrink, and I will return to the storyteller I once was. That, however, may be a while. My next MRI is in November, and I am on powerful anti-seizure medication for two years at best. I find that I tend to call objects a “thingy” now when I can’t think of the word. This is my new default word.
Lots of people struggle with memory issues and if you see me in person, you cannot tell I have a tumor. But it is there, hiding out like one strange thingy. Shoot the damn thing down a chute. Right?
We went to visit my father at the nursing home yesterday. He is 92, but he seems to be slipping back in time. He thinks he lives in Dodge City, Kansas. My mom and dad moved to Michigan in 1992. People who worked with him in the restaurant at McKinley-Winter Livestock are alive and running the kitchen at the nursing home. People we camped with at Cedar Bluff or the sandpit are chasing him down the hall to beat him up. These stories remind me of the stories my mother used to tell me, before Alzheimer’s disease erased every memory she had. Dementia and confusion seem to be taking over my father’s brain. He no longer remembers my brain tumor or my surgery. He no longer asks me how I am doing. It is difficult to walk out of the nursing home without feeling incredibly sad. The following is a true story based on the years 1968-1976. Many of my Dodge City girlfriends will remember my dad and his sense of humor.
Who’d a thunk it? My mother said this to me frequently all through her life. The question began popping up when I was younger, typically when someone we knew achieved some minor goal she seemed surprised by. Minor goals were getting a driver’s license or getting a job. My mother’s comments would range from “Some people shouldn’t drive” (something my mother knew too well) or “She’ll last a week on that job.” She immediately followed these statements with “Who’d a thunk it?” Indeed.
The achievement of major goals received equal consideration, but expectations were higher and usually reserved for relatives or neighbors. My mother was finely tuned into the small-town grapevine. Stories meandered around Dodge City, Kansas, a town of seventeen thousand people, circled the metaphorical wagons, and often propelled the unfortunate main character of the story out of town. Since my parents ran a very popular restaurant at a livestock auction place, they were always aware of the dirt on anyone. We certainly did not need reality television.
To fit into the “who’d-a-thunk-it” range, required either very little (depending upon where someone started from) or a lot if one were considered to have at least a little bit on the ball. To be considered a dimwit was a very bad thing. The term “dimwit” was often used to refer to the guys I dated. My mother would say things such as: Well, Mr. X is a real dimwit. Did you see what he was wearing? Or what’s Mr. Y’s problem? He can’t come to the door anymore? What a dimwit. Isn’t Mr. Z a little too old for you? He should date girls his own age, the dimwit. He’s robbing the cradle. She seemed to be bothered by the fact that Mr. Z was nineteen, and I was fourteen.
“Mom, we met in church camp.”
“Last year it was the blonde in the hearse at church camp. How old was he? Sixteen? You were thirteen?”
I did not fill my mother in on the rest of the stories of my complicated love life with older men although she had a way of looking at me that sometimes made me think she knew. Had she somehow found out Mr. Z had an older girlfriend whose friends threatened me with physical harm because of our clandestine romance during church camp? The blonde’s downfall came when he showed up at my house in a hearse (non-functional), and my father somehow connected his arrival to the popping of the snap above my zipper on belly-button exposing blue jeans. “What the hell?” my father asked before he even started up the sidewalk. I’m sure my mother heard about it, and she probably found the long, love letters he had written to me. Perhaps I was the dimwit.
My mother’s method of dissecting boyfriends contrasted sharply with my father’s method of controlling my dating behavior. If he didn’t like the poor unfortunate teenage boy I was infatuated with, he had a particular outfit he would wear as he sat in his recliner in the living room, conveniently located near the front door. My father could also look out the window and see the car as it passed in front of our house and turned into the driveway. We lived on a dead end road. My father liked to wear his white jockey underwear and smoke a cigar in the evening. Upon the arrival of the boyfriend’s car in the driveway, he would yell, “Hey, throw me the afghan.” I’d throw the damn yellow and brown afghan his way, and beg him to get dressed. Please. Pretty please.
This routine was typically a very good way to get rid of potential suitors. Parents of today may want to try this. Imagine your young daughter is thrilled to be going out with the cool guy in high school (after she has been beaten down in her attempts to date older church-camp-going boys). He shows up. She is wearing an extremely cute mini-skirt, an embroidered shirt, and platform shoes. Her hair is perfect. She has talked about this date for two weeks, until you feel as if the next step in the relationship is marriage. You are the father (or mother, although this could bring up other, larger issues if the mother is waiting in bra and underpants), and you express extreme disinterest as the object of your daughter’s affection stands before your recliner throne, while you puff away on a brown stogie, with an afghan covering your underwear, and you say: “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming.”
If my father liked the young man, wait, I have no idea. It never happened. The only young man I remember my father being fully dressed for, without afghan and cigar, was my future husband, Jim. Of course, my father had to know my fiancée was coming, because we were driving in from Michigan during a Kansas blizzard. If my future husband had been driving in alone, I am sure the conversation would have gone differently, and my mother would have said dimwit, and my father would have stripped down to his underwear.
One last thing: My mother never let me leave the house on a date without washing the dishes. Guilt, guilt, guilt, and we weren’t even Catholic. My dates had to help me finish the dishes if we were running late, and we were always running late. If the poor unfortunate boy showed up early, he would also be forced to sit at the table with us and make small talk. This would happen once per suitor.
My mother stood firm in her conviction. Dishes aren’t done? No date. Dad’s in the living room in his undies smoking a cigar? No problem. I’m surprised teenage boys ever dated me more than once, or that I ever married. Who’d a thunk it?
The nurses, Jennifer and Dennis, attached the cage to my head with four metal screws. I am relaxed and unconcerned with the fact that I now have screws in my head. Dennis takes me to another floor for one last MRI.
“This one will be short,” Dennis says. “We know what we are looking for.”
Since I have to be alert for the Gamma Knife surgery, I have been given a mild sedative. Frankenstein’s heart beats in my ears for ten minutes.
On the return trip in the elevator, Dennis stood in front of me in my hospital bed. A family slipped into the elevator next to us. Their children looked at me, horrified. I imagined myself as Hannibal Lecter, smiled at the children, raised my hand, stupidly the one with the IV, and waved.
The father said: “Uh, how are you?” His children seemed surprised by this question.
“I’ve been better,” I said.
Several hours later, the doctors attached a bar to the back of the cage before they slid me into the chamber for radiation. For fifty-four minutes, it was crucial that my head did not move in any way, shape, or form. The radiation precisely aimed at my brain tumor must not deviate, must not kill the good parts of my brain.
Larry, one of the radiation physicists asks me if I am comfortable. I am quite lucid now. The team attaches a heavy bar to the back of my cage. They slide me into the chamber. I am a Glamour magazine “Don’t” wearing hospital pants & my “Run like a Dog” t-shirt.
“I’m fine,” I smile at Larry.
“I’m going to start your music,” he says.
Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” fills the space where Larry’s voice was.
“Can you hear it okay?” he asks.
“Yes, thank you.” Let the brain surgery begin.
Since October 29, 2011, and days prior to my surgery, I began to tell my friends and family the same old thing: I didn’t see that coming. I thought this would make my friends laugh. I had always been the funny friend, cracking jokes, laughing, and pleased when I could make my friends smile.
I had not been feeling well the morning of the Zombie Race. I left my house at Higgins Lake and drove for about an hour as I made my way to Traverse City. I met my good friends Darcy and Jack at the small hotel they had stayed in the night before.
In the hotel room, Darcy and Jack turned into Zombies before my eyes with makeup and costumes. I had decided to run the race with just a little makeup and my Dodge City Red Demon t-shirt. I wore running pants, a long underwear shirt, and a black headband to keep my ears warm. A light rain had fallen earlier, so the temperature was in the high thirties and a bit humid. My stomach ached, and I blamed it on nerves and being twenty pounds overweight. Still, I knew a 5k would be an easy run for me, even at the age of 56. In my skinnier days, I had run half-marathons, 10ks, and lots of 5ks. I knew the routine. I was confident.
I drove Darcy and Jack to a parking lot near the Right-Brain Brewery where the race would begin and end. Hundreds of costumed people, mostly Zombies, were everywhere. I was a little disgusted with myself for not dressing up more, but I was happy and ready to run.
Two miles in, I was well ahead of my friends and feeling good about the race. Suddenly sick to my stomach, the skyline became fuzzy. The gray sky appeared metallic. I decided to slow down as I approached a boardwalk that still held the dampness from the earlier rain. I thought: Be careful.
I woke up in an ambulance, surrounded by men and women. One man looked like Santa Claus. I remembered seeing Zombies, but later I couldn’t remember if they were in the ambulance. Was Santa real? Had I ended up at the North Pole or in hell? I wondered if I had died, but Santa spoke to me and asked if I knew what happened. I had no idea as I listened to him explain that they must cut my clothes off. I had fallen into a puddle and was soaking wet. Santa told me that I had suffered a grand mal seizure during the race. I watched as the scissors cut into my Dodge City Red Demons shirt. Payback, I was sure.
“My head hurts,” I said and everyone smiled at me. I didn’t realize I had a huge bump on my head from the fall. I wondered how they knew my name. Santa had called me Melissa. Had I met Santa before? Did he remember me as a child? Flash: my race bib. That’s how Santa knew my name. I had on my Road ID on my left wrist under my long-sleeve shirts, but no one had noticed it yet.
Santa asked if I had been running the race with friends.
“Darcy and Jack.” I had no idea where they were or how long I had been out. I also had no memory of having the key to the car. Someone had taken my gloves off and the key had been stuck into the left glove.
Eventually, the wonderful people in the ambulance delivered me to Munson Hospital. Darcy and Jack showed up in their Zombie outfits. They were very upset that they had obviously passed me during the race after I had fallen. They had not realized it was me, since I had been surrounded by other racers. I would find out later that a doctor had been running next to me, and he was the first person to hear me fall.
“Have you called Jim?” Darcy asked.
“No,” I realized I had either been out of it again or completely incompetent as to what I should do. I had no idea what Jim’s phone number was, so I pointed at his number on my Road ID. I also asked Darcy to call my son, Matt, and pointed at his number. Somehow we determined I had the key to the car, and Jack went to get my car and my phone. Jack brought my phone into my room in the ER. My friend Jeri happened to call. I had asked her to come cheer me on near the finish line, and she wondered why she never saw me finish.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in the ER.” Jeri promised to arrive shortly.
I don’t remember the CAT scan, and I vaguely remember the MRI and the lovely sedation to help combat my claustrophobia. To this day, I can barely remember conversations with my friends or the doctors and nurses. Jeri arrived. Somewhere along the timeline, Darcy called Jim and told him I had a mass on my brain. At some point, Jim arrived. Matt had a much longer drive to make, and he would not hear the diagnosis until later.
The neurologist came in while Jim, Darcy, and Jack were in the ER with me.
“You have a brain tumor: a meningioma.”
Somewhere I started breathing again. Mass. Brain tumor. That’s a hell of a way to start the day. I asked the neurologist if I was going to die. I told her about my running friend Laura G. from Higgins Lake. Several years ago, Laura found out in April that she had a stage four Glioblastoma. She died in December the same year. The neurologist assured me that I did not have a tumor like Laura’s. She assured me that meningiomas are treatable and usually benign. She told me I would live, but I would have to be on medication for an extended period of time, so that I did not have another seizure. If someone has a seizure, there’s typically a reason why. We’ve found my reason: brain tumor. I can’t drive for six months. I can’t be around water or ladders or fires or power tools or anything that I might harm myself with.
I tried to convince my family and friends I would be fine. Jeri’s husband John arrived. I told everyone I could beat this thing. I spent the night at the hospital, and sent my husband and son back to Higgins Lake to take care of the dog. Darcy and Jack headed back to Midland. Jeri and John returned to their Traverse City home. I slept like the dead, or as I imagine the dead sleeping: deeply, no nightmares, no nothing, waiting to walk like Zombies through the night. This was my brain on drugs.
In the morning, the nurse came in and told me I should get up and come with her to the end of the hallway. I shuffled along in my hospital pants and shirt. My left arm was covered with bruises from the fall and from various nurses trying to insert an IV into my crappy veins. I realized a long time ago that I could never have been a junkie.
“Look at the sunrise this morning,” she said. She’s young, cute, and has her future ahead of her. I wonder what she thinks of me, a fifty-six-year old woman with a brain tumor.
“The sunrise is beautiful.” I realized how exquisitely happy I was to be watching the sun rise from the seventh floor of the hospital in Traverse City. We walked back to my room, and I ordered a huge breakfast, because I was starving. My husband and son walked in, and I cried stupid tears at the sight of them. The doctor and nurse came in and explained that I should check out surgery in Ann Arbor or perhaps Gamma Knife surgery in my Midland, my former hometown. They tell me that it is imperative that I do something. I can’t let the tumor continue to grow even though it is possible I have had it since I was a child. Meningiomas are slow-growing. I imagined yeast slowly rising in my left temporal lobe.
My husband and son brought some clothes to me since mine had been cut into pieces. They drove me back to Higgins Lake, but I have no memory of the trip, just snippets of sitting in the front seat. The storyteller had been knocked into silence.
Home. My dog did his crazy dance at the sight of me. I walked down the dock and stared at the water I was no longer allowed to be near. One hundred feet of prime lake frontage, and I was supposed to stay away. Waves rolled into the shore as if they were a heart beating.
Yes, I didn’t see this coming, but do doctors check seemingly healthy people for a brain tumor? Mammograms, gynecological exams, and physicals don’t reveal that one thing no one expects. I reminded myself that I was lucky. I could have had a seizure driving or out running the back roads by myself. I could have died. I have a meningioma and not a stage four glioblastoma. I had a seizure with a whole lot of Zombies watching.
I looked at the water I am not supposed to be near and imagined myself swimming, and fish, the color of pearls, guiding my way.