{Irruption}: an invasion of birds in unusual places

Category Archives: Brain Tumor

In the song, “Don’t Want Lies” by The Rides (Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Barry Goldberg),” Stills’ sings, “What’s the shape of my future / as my life goes whistling by?” The song, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from an earlier era, has a bluesy feel as it poses thought-provoking questions about someone examining his or her life. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with family and friends in the past few years, travelling places or simply sitting around a campfire on the beach, I have felt the slippage of time, especially after I learned I had a brain tumor. I embrace solitude, but to appreciate the silence, I need my family and friends to create an infusion of laughter, love, and mercy into my life. I have discovered that road trips are the key to my future.

Warm summer days and cool nights transform winter-weary wanderers into road-warrior travelers. My husband and I drove from Michigan to Florida in February to escape brittle winter winds and the stratified layers of snow and ice surrounding our home. Earlier this summer, my husband, son, and I hit the road again and spent a few days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my son asked if I wanted to take a road trip to Colorado so that he could attend the wedding of a friend in mid-July, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with him, visit friends in Colorado, and put a few more notches on my “have-driven-through-these-states” belt. At six a.m. on July 18th, we quietly slipped out of Matt’s neighborhood as we began our road trip.

Matt drove the bulk of the way, and I took a few turns behind the wheel. After a fairly easy day of driving despite the extreme heat and the steady hum and grind of the semis on the roads through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we sought a break from our travel and spent the night in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and prepared to check out. I pointed out an ironing board in the closet, and Matt said: “Do you even know how to iron?” As someone who eked out a “C” in Home Economics in ninth grade, and no memories of my mother forcing me to iron anything other than a wrinkled hem, I had refused to iron as a grown up woman, and I laughed as we headed out of the motel. Colorado awaited us.

With Matt at the wheel, he drove past the endless fields of corn, cattle, and hay along I-80 as we headed west. One of Matt’s favorite radio stations is Lithium on Sirius. At one point, I turned to him and said: “Is this the Alice in Chains station?” I quickly followed up my question by stating: “It’s not a criticism, a witticism, or dipshit-ism.” Matt looked at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. Instead of commenting on his music selections, I started mooing when we went past fields straddled with cattle. If we passed a field dotted with crescent-roll shaped bales of hay, I simply said: “Hay.” I am fairly certain I annoyed the hell out of Matt, but his tempered response of a quick eye roll and subsequent search for a different radio station seemed to be all he needed to put up with me.

We eventually cut south towards Windsor, Colorado. When Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” came on one of the stations, I said I would rather hurt myself than hear that song one more time. In my “mom-entary” moment of madness, and perhaps hearing that song one too many times over the years, I actually wanted to hear another Alice in Chains song or something by Nirvana. Perhaps I, the intrepid road warrior, had turned into the song police. Thankfully, Matt would be free of my endless babbling after he dropped me off at Susan and Dick’s house. As I watched Matt head off to Boulder, I wondered if he would remember to pick me up on his trip back to Michigan. As he waved goodbye, Susan and I began to talk. And talk. And talk.

I met Susan the summer before ninth grade, and we became friends. Although time and geography have kept us apart, we have managed to stay in touch. We had seen each other during a Pretzel Tour trip (my yearly adventures with Micki, Rachael, and Jeanne) four years earlier, and I met Susan and Micki for lunch in Denver two years ago when I was in town for a wedding. For this visit, I had invited myself to stay at Susan’s house, and she kindly agreed. Of course, this was before she rediscovered my endless enthusiasm for telling stories, particularly ones from our years as smoking-hot-high-school chicks. Well, that’s how I remember it, and I am the one telling this story.

The next day, we went to Micki’s house in Greeley, ate lunch with her husband, and then with Micki behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Susan in the backseat, we headed to Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. As Micki steered us up highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon, I marveled at the beautiful scenery. There is something singularly breathtaking about the beauty of the mountains where sheer rock walls and hardy pine trees merge with cool rushing streams of water as gravity shape-shifts the land. Micki turned onto Glen Haven road, and we worked our way to Estes Park; an elevation of 7,522 feet. My home at Higgins Lake, Michigan, has an elevation of 1,150 feet, so as my brain and body adjusted to the continuous upwards motion, I realized that I was certainly in “Freebird’s” terrain.

While in Estes Park, we visited the Stanley Hotel, an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger holding an axe while seated on the front porch. Although typically a photo-op poser, I refrained from forcing my friends to snap a picture. After a quick tour of the hotel, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain. We made a quick stop roadside and stared off into the distance towards Long’s Peak, standing tall at 14,259 feet. Perhaps on my next trip to Colorado, I can figure out a way to “get much higher” as Joe Walsh famously sang in “Rocky Mountain Way.”

Micki headed down the mountain via highway 7 south of Estes Park where serious cyclists going up and down the mountain seemed as if they were enjoying the rise and fall of elevation. We eventually joined up with highway 66 in Lyons where we drove past a hippie van parked in front of a bar/restaurant. I wondered if I had slipped back in time somehow. As if to add to my musical reverie of the past, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came on the radio. The three of us began to sing along, although I seemed to draw a blank on many of the lyrics, something I now blame on oxygen deprivation caused by the ever-changing altitude. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, with an elevation of 2,550 feet, I had probably listened to Denver’s classic song at least a thousand times, but I had never heard the song while sliding a few thousand feet down a mountain road made up of hairpin turns and the tops of trees indicating where the road ended and a Thelma and Louise moment might begin.

We returned to civilization, and we spent the evening at Susan’s house reminiscing. Micki and Susan’s husbands wandered off as we took yet another trip down memory lane and examined our high school yearbooks. When I started reading aloud what I had written in Susan’s yearbook when we were mere sophomores, the three of us laughed so hard I thought we might spontaneously combust. I had filled up a page and a half with my deep-introspective-full-of-myself musings. I had been full of dipshit-isms even then. I hesitated as to whether or not I should read Susan’s yearbook from her junior year. I noticed a half page of writing and a very long poem taking up a full page in her yearbook. Smartly, during our senior year, Susan did not allow anyone to sign her yearbook, most likely because she was afraid I would find it and write yet another lengthy soliloquy about life, love, and angst as a teenager in Dodge City, Kansas. Since our 40th high school reunion loomed ahead of us in a few weeks, I decided it was best if I stayed far away from yearbooks or reams of paper in case I felt compelled to pontificate, or worse, share some “mom-entary-isms” or “dipshit-isms” with anyone still speaking to me. With that thought in mind, I headed to bed early. Matt planned to pick me up at six a.m.

As I knew he would, Matt arrived a bit early, and I was ready. We drove through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and into Michigan without much of a problem. We had been constantly checking our various weather apps as we watched an ominous-looking line of thunderstorms crossing Lake Michigan aiming, as if guided by Google Maps, exactly towards us. By the time we rolled into Matt’s driveway around three in the morning, my body seemed to misunderstand what it felt like to be stationary. After a few hours of sleep, I headed home. I don’t really remember driving, but the car seemed to know the way.

There’s something to be said for spending time with family and friends, but for me, I think it boils down to feeling damn lucky. I feel blessed that I have a son who actually wants to spend time with me, especially side-by-side in a car driving through six states. I am also grateful for great friends who still put up with me even though they have known me since ninth grade and have heard some of my stories at least forty times. I am starting to think this brain tumor thing I have isn’t so bad, since I am finally catching on to what really matters in life. Our homes, wherever we end up living, exist in the physical world, but memories allow us the ability to time travel between the multiple relationships and elevations that shape us into who we are.


My father and me

Growing up in the country allowed me to wander freely as long as I followed these basic rules: Stay on our property and under no circumstances cross the Arkansas River that cut behind our house. The song “Walking After Midnight,” sung eloquently by the late Patsy Cline, reminds me of that freedom to explore without fear. Although the narrator of the song is looking for her lost love, the narrator could also be someone in search of the past in order to understand its significance. Grieving for someone seems to force us into a cycle of memories and what ifs. Since my father died last year, the month of June and Father’s Day seems so bittersweet now. Some days my emptiness is as big as the midnight sky.

Last year’s June brought many changes. My father’s health had taken a turn for the worse in May, and I knew he would not be with us much longer. After my mother died in 2008 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my father seemed to rebound, and he enjoyed his life to the fullest. He was stubborn, opinionated, and very loving. I inherited my father’s stubbornness, and I believe I inherited his kindness and friendliness. He would talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. When we camped at Cedar Bluff or the Sandpit, I could count on a lineup of people outside of our camper, formerly a small school bus, waiting for one of Bob’s famous breakfasts on Saturday mornings. He never turned anyone away.

The pink bus at the Sandpit.

The pink bus at the Sandpit.

People used to comment that I looked a lot like my father, and I always found this rather strange, since I was adopted when I was two months old. My father and I were so much alike that any slight similarity in temperament translated to a physical correlation in the mind of strangers or acquaintances not familiar with our story.

I am still figuring out my story as I discover information about my birth family, but I know that I could never imagine a life without the father and mother who adopted me. I have wondered if I look like my birthfather, but I cannot imagine a life with him even if I knew who he was. Would my birth father have allowed me the freedom to walk after midnight? To make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and still feel a father’s love even as I was being grounded for a month? Would he have allowed me to paint our camper a bright pink? Would my birth father have choked up before walking me down the aisle and told me how much he loved me? Would my birth father have held me at my daughter’s funeral as if I were a little girl again? No, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without the father I ended up with. Isn’t that the way life is? A lucky roll of the dice or an incredible sacrifice by someone that ends up being someone else’s blessing?

My birth mother gave me up for adoption: Sacrifice. That story is long and complicated, and I am working up the courage to write that story. I have seen pictures of her, and it is as if I am looking in a mirror. Lillian died in 1998, and I did not start searching for my birth parents until 2011, oddly enough, about nine months before I found out I had a brain tumor. When my original birth certificate arrived, my birth father’s name was listed as “unknown.” When I sent away for my adoption records, I had hoped to at least find out my birth father’s name, but all I learned was his date of birth and that he was of German ancestry. He was “not interviewed” for the adoption proceedings. When I asked the woman at the American Adoption Congress in Kansas why my birth father’s name was not listed, she replied that “unknown on the BC made it quicker to process the adoption at that time.” Even in 1955, expediency was the name of the game. Isn’t that what we do in life? We sometimes take a chance and do what feels right for us, but it may not be in the best interest of others. All I wanted was a name and perhaps a picture of him, but these are things I will never have.

In a way, it does not really matter. I grew up loved. My adoptive parents wanted me, and my mother reminded me of this frequently. In 1955, they had no genetic markers or family stories to obtain a sense of who I might become. I was a tabula rasa in human form. They drove from Wichita to Dodge City, Kansas, and Connie Jo, my given birth name, became Melissa Jean. Family and friends welcomed me as if they always knew I would end up as Wilmer “Bob” and Margaret Lynn’s daughter. As I grew older and began to carve out my identity, I was allowed to ride my bicycle or my horse near the river or along the roads that defined the Wilroads Gardens community.

The freedom I had to explore changed in 1965 when I was ten years old. I remember walking down the two-tracker that ran parallel to one of our fields to the river one day and sitting on a ledge above the dam. The Arkansas River flowed next to our land. I was allowed to be near it, but I was forbidden to cross it and head for Fort Dodge. Despite my parents’ adamant stance against crossing the river, my friends and I did this as often as we thought we could get away with it. But on this day, I had little time to waste because newscasters had warned of an impending flood. I wanted to see the river one last time. I looked at the small gates that were used to divert the water into an irrigation ditch, the concrete ledge that supported the gates and was the perfect spot to cross to the other side of the river, and the dirt-covered bank on the side of the river where I used to fish from. A wall of water heading our way from the mountains of Colorado would forever change the landscape.

Our friends and neighbors in Wilroads Gardens and all low-lying areas of Dodge City, Kansas, moved quickly in preparation for the flood swiftly moving towards us. My father and several men loaded our cattle and my horse into several livestock haulers. I would never see those cows or Willie again. My mother packed everything she could into our cars, and she placed what she could not take on top of the furniture we had to leave behind. After spending a few minutes staring at the river that day, I left my favorite spot and ran down the two-tracker towards home. My mother seemed relieved when I returned and put me to work.

Willie

My mother told me to pack my favorite things to take to my grandparents’ house where we would end up living for over a month. Content with my dog “Stinker” and purple Stingray bicycle, I said I was done. She suggested I pack some clothing. My mother and I drove into Dodge City and headed towards the north part of town and safety. My father stayed behind to place sandbags around our house, and then he and a large group of men worked feverishly near the dam, throwing sandbags down onto the hard ground in the hopes that they could save Wilroads Gardens from the brunt of the water’s destruction.

As we listened to the radio that night, the announcer’s anguished words described the wall of water as it rolled towards Dodge City. I imagined my father standing near my favorite spot above the river, ordering the water to bypass our house. Luckily, my father and all of the men working near the dam were warned to head to higher ground long before the churning waters roared into town. They headed to a campsite on some rolling hills overlooking Wilroads Gardens and waited.

Meanwhile in Dodge City, my mother and I waited—and worried—about my father’s safety and wondered if we would have a house to go home to. Later the next day, when my father finally called, we were relieved that he was alive as were the other men who had worked so hard to save our community. He said our house, east of the dam and south of the dike, had suffered some damage, and our fields and barns were destroyed. Everything left behind in our garage washed away, including a trunk filled with pictures of my father’s side of the family, and Willie’s saddle and bridle. If our animals had been left behind, they would have drowned as they were swept away.

According to my father, when the dike that formed a ridge on the south side of the river broke, the main current somehow turned away from our house. He said we would not be allowed to return home until it was safe, and he did not know if it would be days or weeks. After the water receded, quicksand filled our yard, and rattlesnakes crawled aimlessly through the destruction. My father sold Willie and all of our cattle. It would be a long time until our land recovered.

We, however, were luckier than some. Many people in our neighborhood had to start over with only the things they had taken with them. One of my best friends lost her house completely. It ended up in a dry river bed downstream from where it used to be. Although forbidden from entering the house, we went inside anyway. A child’s game sat in the corner, mangled and covered with mud. When we thought we heard someone coming—perhaps it was the house eerily moaning as the foundation shifted—we ran as fast as we could to escape. For the rest of that summer, we passed the time riding our bikes, playing with our toy cars in piles of dirt now covering our yards, and tried to ignore the smell that the floodwater left behind as it worked its way eastward. People in our community cleaned, salvaged, and rebuilt. My father warned me to stay far away from the dam and out of our fields. Life had become dangerous. As I climbed into bed every night and looked out my window, I could imagine the area next to our driveway where Willie used to roam and snort at me when I yelled his name out my window. West of Willie’s special pen, our field, once filled with grazing cattle, remained empty with only a border of cottonwood trees to remind us of the Arkansas River flowing nearby concealing the stories of its devastation as if a card player holding a pair of aces and eights.

When my father died last August, I held his hand as he had once held mine as a child, and I thought of that tiny farmhouse I grew up in. My parents sold the house years ago when they moved to Michigan. I wish I could see that house again and my father standing by the back door asking me where I had been. I would like to thank him for everything he ever did for me. Father’s Day is going to be tough this year, and I know I am not alone in my sadness. Perhaps I will take a walk after midnight if only to the water’s edge in front of the house I live in now. I will close my eyes and remember the house I grew up in, and a river that could not wash it or a father’s love away.


And isn’t that what literature requires, really, for the writer to feel like her life depends upon it?
–Helen Schulman*

I am not certain when I first realized I had a problem with language. Memories six months prior to my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) seem to come and go, and some memories are nonexistent. If not for stories from my friends and family, and the writings in my journal, some so strange they fail to make sense, it seems as if I ceased to exist in mind and spirit while my body lay in wait for embalming. I felt as I was a stranger in a new country, and the language barrier made me invisible.

Instead of displaying the gift of gab that my mother would accuse me off having when I was young, I began hesitating over each word, fearing some dreadful malapropism or simply using the wrong word (like dock) when I was actually describing the hoist. I had to walk on the dock to get to the hoist which held the boat, but for some reason, my brain now found ways to avoid the logical sequence of events or find the correct word. As the Beatles famously sang, “Say the word and you’ll be free.” Well, damn, I wanted to be free, and I felt as if my life depended on it. I began to retreat more and more into my home office, lie down on the couch, and watch television. I became hooked on NCIS and the character Ziva David.

Ziva David’s character, played by actress Cote de Pablo, is a former Israeli Mossad agent who becomes an NCIS Special Agent. Ziva’s malapropisms, called “Ziva-isms,” are well known to NCIS viewers. As Ziva adapts to American culture and its plethora of analogies, idioms, and slang, she also shows her fellow agents that she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As I became addicted to NCIS marathon days, watching five or six shows in a row, I felt as if someone was “jerking my brain” (chain) as Ziva said in one episode. The NCIS family became my family, and I gave up reading books and writing.

Time passed and my frustration grew with my inability to comprehend anything more complex than People magazine. One day, as I stood in my office, staring at hundreds of my books, I noticed Laura Kasischke’s book of poetry, Space, in Chains, sitting on a shelf, by itself, as if waiting. I began rereading her poetry, and when I finished each poem, I sat still and listened to the quiet. I decided I was in language rehab.

Eventually, I began reading novels again, slowly, as if I was learning to ride a bicycle. I wondered if I had finally adjusted to my anti-seizure medication or if the radiation from my Gamma-Knife surgery had opened up a sliver of thought in my clogged head. One day I opened my writing journal, and instead of recording my thoughts for the day, I attempted to write a poem. It was horrible, but I sent it to my friend Chris Giroux. Chris and I became friends when I taught at SVSU, and we had been exchanging our writing for many years, providing feedback, ripping what needed ripped, or praising each other’s work when we got something right. I began spending less time watching NCIS and more time writing. I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain as it tried to move past language rehab and into the real world.

As luck would have it, around the same time, a former student of mine, Alie Buckley, contacted me on Facebook. She had started a blog, http://ifcoffeecouldtalk.wordpress.com/. Alie asked me how I was, so I told her about SBT. She encouraged me to start a blog and share my story. Alie became my teacher, showed me how to start a blog, and offered to read my posts before publication and give feedback. Again, I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain, and started to write for a different purpose: I wanted to tell my story. Perhaps if I wrote it, I would understand it.

I published my first blog post on June 14, 2012, and the process has been cathartic, therapeutic, made me laugh as I write, and made me cry far more than I ever imagined it would. I realize I am writing now because my life depends on it.

I am still addicted to NCIS and spend the occasional afternoon on the couch watching reruns when my headaches or balance issues sideline me. I believe I am making progress in this battle against SBT, and I am hoping language rehab will soon be a thing of the past. But as I have learned, friends and family provide the constant source of strength I need in my life, whether or not I am in language rehab. So if you see me out somewhere, and we strike up a conversation, and I pause for a moment, wait. My words are forthcoming: They are on the slip of my tongue.

*Schulman, Helen. “First In Her Class.” The Friend Who Got Away. Eds. Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. New York: Broadway, 2005. Digital Print.


I have never run in the Boston Marathon or any other marathon for that matter. I have run in countless road races over the years: four half-marathons, several ten-mile races, and so many 10ks and 5ks I can’t remember them all. My biggest concern for these road races centered on one thing: Will I finish the race? Only once did I fail to finish when I suffered a grand mal seizure around Mile 2 and later found out I had a brain tumor. That’s enough to screw up anyone’s day.

For thousands of runners in Boston, their race came to a halt because evil exists in our world, not because their bodies let them down. For thousands of well-wishers and family members, the end of the race brought death, catastrophic injuries, and broken hearts. I wonder if I will ever understand.

Although I have run only one road race since October 29, 2011, I have gone for solo runs and tried to get myself back into running shape. Unfortunately, my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) does not always allow me to train the way I want to. Years ago, when Jim and I trained for our first half-marathon, we would head out on the country roads and run ten or twelve miles at a time to prepare. Now I feel gratitude if I can run five miles, and I am often trying to literally find my balance. Tunes on my iPod sometimes help, but on other days, listening to the contradiction of birds singing against the thwack-thwack of my running shoes on the pavement is all I need. When I lived in Midland, Michigan, people in my neighborhood waved at me or clapped as I ran by their yards. One man offered to let me run through his sprinklers on a particularly muggy day. I loved the camaraderie.

Something spiritual happens to me when I run whether or not I am alone or in the company of others. It is as if I become one with the earth as my feet carry my body along to whatever destiny or mileage goal I have in mind. For the runners in the Boston Marathon, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who had finished, those who were crossing the finish line at the moment of tragedy, and those who were told to stop because bombs were exploding.

I remember watching the television footage that day. Various channels repeatedly showed an elderly man near the finish line, stumbling, and then falling as the first blast erupted. Immediately, people rushed to help him up, and I thought of him as if he were my own father, knocked down by something unknown, even though my father never ran a road race during his life. I could not understand why someone would want to harm this elderly man, still out there at his age, still running, his memories carrying him forward through 26.2 miles, and well wishers standing nearby to encourage him before their cheers were suddenly drowned in the abyss of grief.

We are never the same after unspeakable tragedy. We can only try and prepare ourselves for the next time, and so we run, walk, or move through our days, watching, remembering, and praying to cross the finish line, imagining the sounds of gratitude for our smallest accomplishments.


On Soul To Soul Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice growls “You can’t change it / You can’t rearrange it” on a song aptly titled “Change It,” written by Doyle Bramhall. The song describes a relationship that has suffered through its share of mistakes, “painful memories,” and “back-door moves.” The song invokes the concept of forgiveness for past mistakes and the idea that if only one could rearrange history, or perhaps have an opportunity for redemption, there might be a chance for the relationship to survive. We all make choices every day of our lives, such as what we eat, where we go, what we do, but we also make choices that impact our friends and family. There are times I have made choices to protect myself, both physically and emotionally, and there are times I have made choices I thought would bring joy and happiness to someone and found the reverse to be true. If I could change or rearrange a moment in time when I made a friend of over thirty years so angry with me that we are no longer speaking, would I? No, and I will tell you why.

As a child and a teenager, I hurt people for my own selfish reasons. Equally, people hurt me along the way. We all seemed to survive, heartbreak withstanding, and we learned something valuable. At least I did. As I grew older, I tried to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic. However, there were times when I did none of these things well, and my inner-brat reared its ugly head; I was not kind to people who really needed my kindness. I could have been a better friend, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, neighbor, mother, and wife. I made mistakes, and I figure I will make lots of other mistakes before I die. When I screw up, typically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my joke is that I have made a mistake this year (yeah, it’s only March), so I should be done for another 365 days. Fat chance.

Friendships as relationships seem to have their own special place in our history, our psyche; they serve as a mirror of the kind of person we wish to be. I am not suggesting we seek out people exactly like us, but rather that we seek people who share some rudimentary notion of life that we do and who still like us after we have done something completely idiotic.

Some friendships fade as geography, jobs, family, and life move us into different spaces. Sometimes a person’s actions break the bonds of kinship. Years ago, someone I really liked gave me used deodorant as a Christmas gift. She said it made her “pits break out,” and she thought I could use the deodorant. Seriously. If we had been children on opposite ends of a seesaw, I would have jumped off my end to hear her butt smack the ground and laugh when she screamed with pain. I threw the deodorant in the trash.

Some friendships intensify as fate deals out its cards and you find yourself at your lowest point. There’s an old Jimmy Cox song that Eric Clapton covered on his Unplugged album, and the narrator explains “then I began to fall so low / lost all my good friends / had nowhere to go… / nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” So true. I remember discovering this when my daughter Nicole died. People avoided me in public or said completely asinine things to me. One day at a grocery store, a couple my husband and I knew quite well, spotted us, and basically sprinted out of the store to avoid us. We never heard from them again. It was as if we had been given a Scarlet letter, perhaps a “G” for grief, something that many people cannot quite negotiate. On the day of my daughter’s funeral, a woman from the church leaned toward me and said tersely: “You should have prayed harder. I prayed for all three of my children.” I really would have liked to bounce her ass off of a seesaw, but the heavy weight of the “G” on my black dress prevented me from making any sudden moves.

This phenomenon of avoidance while someone is clearly “down and out” happened again when I learned I had a brain tumor. Having an SBT (stupid brain tumor) is not a subject many people can easily talk about. In fact, it can be a real conversation stopper. At first I didn’t want anyone to know I had one, and then I shifted into telling complete strangers as if by declaration I could own it and defeat it. Now, once again, I don’t like to tell anyone: I just want people to think I’m weird. It’s easy to flip the letter: M for Melissa to W for weird. Problem solved.

I thought I was figuring things out and learning how I would spend the rest of my life with SBT forever and ever stuck in my head. Negotiating what the medication and SBT were doing to my head and body, I seemed to be coming into a fairly good space. I had finally learned what I could and could not do physically. I started writing and reading again. I could remember stories I read. I could remember that my husband told me what was for dinner ten times in a three-hour period. I believed I was funny again. I started playing my guitar and singing the raunchy songs I knew and loved, most of them written by me or my band mates.

Then the sequence of events that slipped me into the “down and out” phase began: I pissed off one of my best friends; my seventeen-year-old dog died; my father died. I started wearing the letter “G” again as I stumbled through my days. My family put up with me, but drew the line at my sudden outbursts of songs I made up on the spot, typically involving their names in the chorus. My friends, but not the one I had pissed off, called me, showed up, texted me, emailed me, brought me chocolate chip cookies and beer, and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. But let me backtrack for a moment.

I spent the months of April and May last year dealing with my father’s illness, his subsequent move to a nursing home, and the additional task of emptying out his apartment. My dog’s health also started to decline. Three of my dear friends decided to come to my house for a few days to cheer me up and go visit my father at his nursing home. We got the bright idea to visit another friend, the one I would deeply piss off. We had all known each other for years. Although my soon-to-be-ex-friend seemed out of sorts with me that day, I didn’t think too much about it. No one else seemed to notice anything. Several days later, I called her to invite her to dinner with some mutual friends. She gave me a verbal smack down I will never forget. If we had been on a seesaw, my ass would have hit the ground with a sonic boom. I started crying as she continued telling me everything that was wrong with me. I guess I prefer small doses of being berated and reminded of my faults. My husband, fully aware of whom I was speaking to, watched me carefully. The crickets in my head, a condition SBT is teaching me to live with, started chirping, and I could no longer hear what she was shouting at me. I said to her: “I can’t understand what you are saying, and I have to hang up.” I did. The next day, I received two emails from her itemizing everything I had done wrong within a three-day period. Several weeks after the initial emails, I received a very long email deconstructing my faults. I wondered why she hadn’t included the past thirty years, since I was fairly certain I had screwed up at least a gazillion times in the past.

She needed her “space,” and she felt as if I had her “under surveillance” even though she lived miles and miles away from me, and I had been dealing with my father’s issues in a different town over eighty miles from my home. Apparently she thought I had one hell of pair of binoculars in my possession, or perhaps she thought I had a drone hovering over her house. She also accused me of not saying the right things, which I agree I am darn good at. Even before I discovered SBT, I had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother would have called it “foot-in-mouth disease.” As my list of sins grew longer, I became more and more flummoxed. Flim-flammed. Flabbergasted.

In addition to my grief over the loss of my father even before he was dead, I knew it was only a matter of time before my dog would die. I admit I was a walking nightmare during these months with death knocking at my door. My SBT also decided to rear its ugly head and create balance issues for me. The only thing that kept me going forward and not climbing into the back of a hearse for my own ride to freedom was the mercy my family and friends showed me. Mercy. Oh, and a lesson I was about to learn.

In one of my ex-friend’s emails to me, she explained that she had certain friends she did certain things with. I did not find any categories in which I comfortably fit. The thought of category friends deeply interested me. I considered my running friends. We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, and helped each other out a moment’s notice. What about my teaching friends? We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, or helped each other out at a moment’s notice. What about high school friends? We travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, oh, you get the drift. It seemed tedious to me to think I had to categorize my friends, but what was more upsetting to me was to realize my ex-friend had excluded any categories in which I could fit unless I had some sort of extreme makeover. Why was I just now finding out I was no longer good enough for her or her friendship?

It’s awkward now. People who assume we are still friends ask about her. When I answer, I feel as if I am in high school, and I have to explain why my boyfriend broke up with me. “Well, you know, he liked someone better than me.” Typically, I just say my ex-friend is busy, and I haven’t seen her for a while. The lie slips easily off my tongue.

I wish I could ask my father for advice. He was more of the “to-hell-with-them” kind of guy if someone didn’t like what he had done. My mother’s response would have been more nuanced. She would have told me to “kill [my friend] with kindness.” Was she really suggesting mercy? How do I show my friend/ex-friend mercy? How do I show her kindness when all I can feel inside myself is a year filled with so much loss and grieving? I know now I could never be myself around her again, because I would always be afraid of screwing up the friendship. I would fall out of some imaginary category I fit into. I must have misunderstood the friendship all of these years.

On one beautiful spring day last year, I walked into her house with several other women intending to embrace friendship and accomplishment, when, instead, I ignited a slow-burning fire that must have been waiting to ignite with just the right amount of kindling. If there is regret on my part, I shall focus on not seeing the warning signs in the decline of our friendship. As for mercy, I do not ask for mercy from her; rather, I seek mercy to forgive myself. The poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Sometimes we are so busy in life seeking forgiveness from others, that we forget to forgive ourselves for being human. I continue to be a work-in-progress, understanding that my next mistake is just around the corner where I might just find myself on the wrong end of the seesaw.


Ducktivity

Crickets

The crickets in my head chirp loudly today as if I can hear them through the snow. Late November days can be harsh in Northern Michigan, and the crickets have not been around for months. Still, I can hear them. Bird sounds offer a respite from the unrelenting crickets desperate to be heard in my head.

During the daytime, ducks take charge of the lake. Common loons serenade from a distance as they search deep water for perch or bass. Mallards, mergansers, and buffleheads paddle nearby on the water, content as they dip their heads while searching for minnows. Mallards shuttle between the shoreline and the lawn beneath our bird feeders, their path clearly seen through the snow. By late afternoon, chickadees sing as they help themselves to seeds from the feeders, while a pair of mallards watches from below, the male craning his head upward as if willing a chickadee to drop a seed just for him. If I venture outside, the male quacks loudly at me, scolding me for intruding upon his territory, and waddles off towards the water’s edge. I don’t remember exactly when the crickets appeared. Was it during the summer of 2011 when I began suffering from excruciating headaches? Was it after I found out I had a brain tumor? Or did the crickets begin to chirp as edema began surrounding the tumor, its edges slightly altered after the radiation began to work its way in?

One morning I walked through the snow towards the lake, and shot pictures of ducks as they swam away from me. I wished that I could swim away from this constant noise in my head, and the balance issues that prevent me from running now or walking a straight line in the hallways of my house. I know this edema will pass eventually, and the crickets will disappear.

I imagine myself next summer swimming stealthily out towards deep water and diving down, searching for treasures only water can disguise. When I return to shore and step lightly onto the hot sand, I will feel a warm summer breeze stretching across my body as it silences the crickets. I will look upwards towards the brilliant sky, thankful and smiling.


I Wanna Be Sedated

Despite ear plugs and headphones blasting music the MRI folks provided, I wasn’t really prepared for the pounding and jack hammer noises for forty-five minutes. I don’t remember my first-ever MRI in October 2011, after I had a seizure while running in the Zombie road race. Yes, the drugs were that good. When I had a second MRI the morning of my Gamma Knife surgery several weeks afterwards, I did have a little happy medicine in me, but not too much since I had to be coherent for my surgery. The cage attached to my head by four screws was my biggest concern, and I figured nothing could beat that squeezing sensation. For my third MRI on November 14, 2012, I decided I would undergo the procedure without medication. As the MRI folks slipped me into the Open-MRI machine, I settled in, imagined floating on water, and soon heard Taylor Swift singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” through the headphones. Wait! The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated” screamed from somewhere in my brain.

Mr. MRI sings boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, and I pretend to hear “Ba-ba-bam-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bam-ba, I wanna be sedated.” But Taylor Swift keeps interrupting: “Ooh-eee-ooh, we are never ever getting back together.” I think: Wait…this is my time…my happy place…Ramones…“I can’t control my fingers; I can’t control my brain…I wanna be sedated.” I consider pushing the call button, but it feels like a fat minnow in my hand. The mad music machine continued playing songs I had never heard of while the MRI beat out its own form of torture. Was this hell?

Some forty minutes later, I heard the unmistakable sound of Toby Keith’s voice singing “Every Dog Has His Day.” “It’s about time,” I muttered to no one. Even though I had never ever heard the song before, I thought it was a sign from the music gods. After all, I had just written about a dog in a pre-MRI post on my blog. In my shaken, but not stirred brain, I believed Keith’s song meant my latest MRI would show a much smaller tumor.

After several days of waiting, I finally received an email with my results: “[The tumor] may be slightly smaller.”  Further into the report I read: “There is now note of fairly extensive…edema involving left temporal white matter.” I knew from previous conversations with the Gamma Knife folks that edema around a tumor after radiation surgery is fairly common and could be responsible for my balance issues and headaches. Well, funky cold edema!

Dennis from Gamma Knife phoned me the next day after he conferred with the neurosurgeon. My MRI report was “as expected.” As for the edema, it would eventually go away, perhaps in two months or two years. I had three choices as for taking care of the edema: deal with it, take steroids for three weeks, or have brain surgery and remove the tumor. They highly recommended I did not have brain surgery. That works for me: I never ever want someone to cut into my head if it isn’t absolutely necessary. Bring it on, funky cold edema! Dizziness? Barometric-pressure-fueled headaches? I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, SBT, and I’m not afraid of you.

Next November, I will have another MRI, and I hope my SBT, will have gotten a little smaller. I know I have some challenges in front of me, but that’s the way it goes in life. I am thankful for my family and friends putting up with me during this really crappy year. I could focus on the grief I have felt during the death of my father and dog this year. I could focus on the way having a meningioma has affected my life. Instead I have discovered that I need to focus on the joy music brings me. I realize that even if I could return to the life I had before I got smacked in the head, I would never ever wish for the old me. I have learned a lot about myself this year and what I should be focusing on. My family and friends are what get me through my days of uncertainty, and music, sweet, sweet music is all the sedative I need. Well, and maybe a nice cold beer at the end of the day.