I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.
Clarapy: Clarity + therapy. During a phone conversation with my friend Darcy one day, one in which I was extremely stressed out, I tried to thank her for giving me clarity and free therapy. In a fortuitous slip of the tongue, I uttered “clarapy.” Since I have invented a new word, I guess I have to define it now that it is part of my daily lexicon. As Ray Charles, Humble Pie, and others have attested to in song, “I don’t need no doctor.” They insist they need their “baby,” but what I think they really needed was some clarapy.
Clarity: Lucidity. Understanding. Therapy: Treatment for some sort of disorder whether physical or mental. When I can’t figure out things for myself, I reach out to my friends. True friends. The kind of friends that put up with my crazy. In my case, they understand that there is a 100% chance I will swear, and they still answer my phone calls. I know, in turn, my friends will almost certainly need some clarapy from me during stressful events in their lives. I will listen for as long as they need to talk.
Since a falling out with one of my closest friends almost three years ago, I have been examining friendship relationships more than ever. I learned a lot from books about friendship and my own fractured friendship. True friendship involves a willingness to put up with each other’s junk. The crazy stuff. The “I-can’t-believe-you-did-that” moments. And, in turn, I must put up with their crazy. Clarapy is part of the deal.
In late January, my husband and I went to Florida. His mother was having some health issues, but under our care, she seemed to be improving. We went ahead with our previously made plans. I had agreed to power walk the Melbourne Music Half Marathon with my friend Pat. Despite the fact that I had zero training for a half-marathon, unless you count endless workouts on my elliptical trainer in Michigan, I agreed to give it a try. After all, I had run four half marathons in the past, so I figured I could pull off power walking one without any problem. After all, I had nine days in Florida to train before the race.
Around mile ten on race day, after Pat and I had maintained an under 14 minute-per-mile-pace for the entire race, I realized I had blisters the size of silver dollars on the bottoms of both feet. I also discovered that I had forgotten to put anti-chafing balm on my right arm. Where my arm had rubbed against my tank top, I had a blister/bruise the size of Lake Okeechobee. At mile twelve, Pat and I clocked a 13:29 mile. At the end of the race, I showed Pat my blisters and bruises while I gulped down pizza and beer. She asked why I had never complained during the race. I wondered about that for days and days afterwards while I nursed my sore body back to health. When my mother-in-law’s health suddenly took a dramatic turn and ended up in the hospital, I thought about this more and more.
After a particularly stressful day, I sat outside in the warm Florida sunshine as the sun began to set. A woman across the street rode her three-wheeled bicycle, circling a parking lot. Around and around she went as a small terrier rode in a white basket on the front of her bicycle. For some reason, I felt insanely jealous of this woman. I wanted her bicycle and her dog. What was wrong with me? Logically, I knew I wanted my mother-in-law to heal quickly. I wanted to ease my husband’s pain and stress. After watching me cope with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my father’s dementia and cancer, a period of about six very stressful years, my husband understood all too clearly the crazy that comes with caring for an elderly parent. It can be the loneliest feeling in the world. I needed to be strong for him. How could I provide clarapy for my husband when all I wanted was to steal a woman’s bicycle and her dog?
Typically, a good run or a power walk works sufficiently for waking up those feel-good endorphins and prevents me from committing a crime. Despite the fact that the hot weather in Florida was the extreme opposite of Michigan’s frozen-lakes-in-winter syndrome with temperatures and wind chills in the negative thirties, I was miserable, but I wasn’t sure what would untangle the threads of craziness circling through my amygdala. I gave a little spin on Pure Prairie League’s song “Amie,” and sang, “Amy G, what you wanna do?” The answer seemed obvious: clarapy. I sent out a few text messages, and that’s when my friends began to offer up their own special brands of medicine.
Phone calls. Emails. Cards. Friends driving across the state of Florida to hang out with us and search for manatees. Eventually, my mother-in-law was in a rehab facility, and we were invited up the coast to stay with friends for several days. We were still just a short car ride away from my mother-in-law. In addition, I had long phone conversations with several Michigan friends where I ranted and raved about all sorts of things, and my friends did not hang up. Instead, my friends provided insights from their own similar situations, words of wisdom, or simply found ways to make me laugh. My friends might not wear capes or have x-ray vision, but they certainly have the power to heal what’s ailing me when exercise isn’t enough.
How was I able to finish the half-marathon when my body hurt so much? I could have stopped, slowed down, or started whining (or swearing which would be much more likely), but I did not want to let Pat down, nor did I want to let myself down. I knew I could do it. “Mind over matter” as my mother used to say. I knew my body would heal later. Why is dealing with a sick parent or child much more difficult? Why do emotions overtake our heart strings and play us like an out-of-tune harpsichord? When my mother-in-law was in the hospital, a woman in the next room kept loudly moaning that she was sorry. She didn’t mean to be bad. She wanted help. I began reliving my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and had to spend time in the chapel just to get my game face on for my husband and mother-in-law. I began to rely more and more on my friends’ gifts of clarapy.
And it is true. Friends are gifts to us. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to spend more time with my friends and my cousins. I have learned so much from them every moment we have been together. Many of them have seen me at my absolute worst: the death of my daughter, my mother’s illness, my brain tumor, the death of my dog, and the last few horrible months of my father’s life. These are the things that define me and have made me temporarily crazy.
After each sadness and heartbreak, the fogginess in my brain would begin to lift as my friends and cousins gave the gift of clarapy in their own ways. Those moments are stored in my memory so that I can pull them up at a moment’s notice as if I am opening the pages of an old picture book: Running in the Flint Hills with my cousin Sybil as an eagle soared overhead. After the death of my daughter, receiving almost daily phone calls or visits from my friend Vicki who listened to me talk. Or not. Hugging my friend Darcy at the end of my first road race after Gamma Knife surgery for my brain tumor. Receiving feedback on my writing from my friend Chris as I struggled with language and writing after the effects of radiation and medication. Watching manatees floating in warm waters with my husband and friends Peggy and John in Florida as we worried about my mother-in-law. Intentionally crossing the finish line in step with Pat at the end of a half marathon. The list goes on and on.
I am back in Michigan now running on the roads I find such comfort in. My mother-in-law continues to heal in our home. I try to make my husband laugh as often as possible. I have been working on my clarapy game with him and my friends. I will do everything in my power to give them what they need. It might be as simple as listening or running a race together. Perhaps sitting on a beach somewhere and watching the world go by in silence might be the order of the day. Or perhaps it will be in a way I have not yet imagined. I am ready. My blisters and bruises have healed for now. My heart strings are in tune. I am still thinking about the dog and the bicycle.
Excuse me? As I ran north in the bike path on A1A, just north of Ft. Pierce, Florida, and south of Vero Beach, I spliced my way through a contingent of men wearing hard hats repairing power lines and placing new poles at varied logistical points on the east side of the highway. I kept a wary eye on the traffic zipping along at 45 miles per hour about five feet to my right. Although the sidewalk is much safer, it’s also the absolute worst substance to run on. However, since I am accustomed to defensive running, I continued on my steady pace, occasionally glancing across the road, admiring shoreline vegetation creating a natural buffer between the road and the Atlantic Ocean. The color of the water reminded me of Paul Newman’s eyes. As Butch Cassidy once said to the Sundance Kid, “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” When a person is biking, walking, or running on A1A, it’s best to have one’s eyes intently focused on the road. I’ve got vision.
And I was paying attention even though my mind was on the fact that I was not in Florida on vacation. My mother-in-law fell and fractured her pelvis two days after arriving in Florida in early October, so my husband and I are here to help in any way we can. So even though my emotional focus was on her, mentally I told myself to keep my focus on road. No bike riders were approaching me, I was in a cone zone, and the “Sidewalk Closed” sign gave me no other option than to run on that noodle of a bike path. Suddenly a man in a black SUV slowed down next to me and screamed: “Get on the sidewalk” while he angrily gestured towards the ugly strip of leg pain. I smiled and motioned downwards toward the clearly labeled “Bike Path.” What was his problem? Get on the sidewalk? Had he completely missed the “Sidewalk Closed” sign? I flashed the peace sign and went on my way.
This wasn’t my first time running on this particular stretch of road. I am respectful of bicyclists, and I always move out of their way by easing onto the grass or the sidewalk next to me so that they have a clear shot of the road. I am constantly amazed at their skills as they negotiate this busy highway. I am quite used to bicyclists, runners, walkers, animals, and automobiles sharing the road where I live around Higgins Lake, Michigan. There are no sidewalks, and far less traffic moves on the road. On a typical fall morning there, it’s not unusual to see more wildlife than cars or people. I’ve yet to have a turkey or deer try to run me off the road. In Florida, it seems the ornery wildlife drives an SUV. The man’s neck looked like a turkey’s neck as he screamed “get on the sidewalk.” The thing is, I don’t know if he was upset because I was on “his” bike path or if he just didn’t like runners sharing the road. I will never know. He didn’t exactly seem like someone I wanted to have a conversation with. Ever. I wondered if he would have screamed at a man running on the road. Perhaps I needed to puff out my chest or look mean or something. Luckily, he continued on his southward journey down A1A.
The next morning, I checked the paper and saw that low tide would occur about the same time as I normally run. I’ve tried running on the beach, but I always feel as if my hips are being displaced because of the angle of the land or my arches will never return to their normal state after being subjected to the squish-and-release sand traps. I decided I would power walk next to the ocean. I headed out with my walking sandals on and hit the beach. Paul Newman’s eyes beckoned.
As I journeyed north, I listened to the light crash, splash, breathing noises the ocean made as I made my way over thousands of sea shells. Osprey, seagulls, and pelicans flew above the water searching for a morning snack. Sanderlings, small and very entertaining shore birds, danced near me, constantly pecking at the sand with tiny black bills in their quest for buried edible delicacies in the sand. Fishing boats occasionally puttered past me or headed out to sea. Several jellyfish lay helplessly in the sand as if waiting for the tide to rise again and return them to the sea. A coconut in the distance momentarily made me think of my beloved dog with its dark brown texture. How odd, I thought, to compare my dog, dead for two years now, with a coconut. My vision segued into hallucinations but only for a moment.
After walking for almost two miles, I spotted another person walking towards me. With the exception of the “Get-on-the-sidewalk” screamer, most folks in Florida are all too eager to say hello and give a hearty greeting. I realized I wasn’t ready to speak to anyone yet. I imagined that I had lost the ability to verbalize. My solitary sojourn had somehow changed me: I was at peace with the world. My vision was clear. Despite all of the upheaval in the world and in my personal life, something about the push/pull of the water, the stick-legged birds daring me to run, and the absolutely reckless abandon I felt at not uttering a single word for at least thirty minutes had hypnotized me and washed away all negative thoughts. This was a hallucination I wanted to hold onto. I turned around to head back and avoid speaking to the man coming towards me, and much to my amusement, there were about twenty people at various distances behind me. I would have to speak. I cleared my throat just before I offered a cheery hello to the first passerby.
As I made my way back to the condo, I greeted everyone I passed. I stopped to take pictures of two very different looking and very dead jellyfish. I picked up several seashells for my collection. Shore birds continued zigzagging near me. The waves continued their hypnotic heartbeat. I felt lucky to be alive. There is always something about the ocean, a lake, or a river that gives me sustenance.
The next day, I headed out for a six-miler on A1A. Because of traffic, I stayed mostly on the sidewalk. I absolutely hated it, but no one screamed at me. In fact, an elderly gentleman walking with his wife, told me I was marathon ready. I always appreciate words of encouragement no matter how off the mark they are. I’m just working on getting back to my half-marathon running body. Another man apologized to me for not moving over as I came up behind him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said as he adjusted his headphones. “No problem,” I said and gave him a thumbs up. Although my legs were sore from the pounding of the sidewalk, I was happy as I returned to the condo and greeted my husband. It was time to shower, get dressed, and head to the assisted living place my mother-in-law is recuperating in.
There are people of various ages at the facility. They work on healing their bodies or their minds just so they can negotiate a room or a sidewalk. Getting dressed can sometimes take an hour. Memories of my mother and her losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease flood my brain as I greet every patient I walk by. I remember how lucky I am that my body still allows me to walk on the beach or run along a road. I know that can all change in an instant. Get on the sidewalk? Sure, when I have to. Until then, I will run and walk when and where I can. As Matthew Wilder once sang, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no.” Run on, my friends, run on, for as long as you can.
Imagine yourself sitting on the beach. You are enjoying the beauty of a skier zipping by you. You remember the days when you could jump the wake, fly into the air like some bikini-clad acrobat, and your slalom ski carved the waves like a surgeon’s scalpel. Now that you are older, you imagine bursting up through the water as the line pulls you forward, and releasing the rope almost immediately as you wonder if your arms are still connected to the rest of your body. Or perhaps you are out for your morning six-mile run, and the traffic has increased dramatically. Instead of ten cars passing you or trying to run you off the road, you now have fifty drivers frantically trying to get somewhere with no regard to your well-being. Instead of chirping hello to the usual suspects out on the road, you are now greeted by a bevy of skinny-pony-tailed blondes running past you or young men wearing the shortest of shorts and no shirts. At least they all wave at you—the tinsel-haired woman weaving down the road in her bright pink running shoes, trying to sing along to her running playlist and breathe at the same time. Then boom-boom-boom-boom—it is as if someone had twisted John Lee Hooker’s song into some sort of nightmarish blues ode. People are detonating what sounds like small bombs somewhere just because it is the 4th of July. Dogs bark. Babies cry. You swear. You miss the month of June.
There’s some sort of cosmic tilt in the universe when June transitions into July at Higgins Lake. In June, the mayflies may or may not come out, mosquitos roast marshmallows on your legs if you sit by the campfire at night, and the houses along the lake remain empty as if they are cottage-shaped morgues waiting for the night shift to arrive. It is quiet. You can think if you go outside at night. You swear you can hear the pulse of a distant blue star and slight variations in tempo as waves roll into shore.
When the 4th of July weekend arrives, you start to feel as if you are being forced to listen to the worst radio station ever as it alternates between AC/DC and Celine Dion. Not only are you thunderstruck, you wonder if your heart really will go on, because the constant boom, boom, boom, boom from bombastic fireworks have made you paranoid. You jump when your husband opens the refrigerator door. You cringe when you hear the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of someone’s stereo as they cruise by you during your morning run. You consider sleeping in your bedroom closet, because it might be the quietest place in your house. You pray for a downpour that is biblical.
In June, you were happy. You ran the Higgins Lake Sunrise Race with your husband and son. Even though you ran the race like a newbie, starting out too fast, imagining Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” pushing your pace, and finding yourself at mile 4 suddenly in Jabberwocky territory—you had become a slithy tove—you were happy as you chugged across the finish line after 6.2 miles. There were no booms to celebrate the accomplishments of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Instead, people clapped and shouted words of encouragement, and as you made your way to your family, smiles and words of congratulations rang through the air. You realized that you wished all celebrations could be like the end of a road race.
Although the people not far from you on the lake believe in the bigger-is-better school of fireworks, they must also realize that there is beauty in quiet fireworks. As the glowing reds, blues, greens, and yellows floated silently on the water, you could hear the oohs and aahs of people watching the show. But then a screamer or a boomer would spit through the sky as if no one could truly appreciate fireworks unless they were fracturing the night air.
It reminds you of running a race. Everyone is working hard with the same goal in mind: the big finish. But you know that it’s what comes after all of the hustle and bustle that allows you to appreciate what’s right in front of you. You will sit on your dock on a quiet evening. You might hear the murmurs from people’s conversations as they sit around campfires or voices carrying across the water as people cruise by in their pontoons. The sky will be an open book of possibilities. Chickadees, robins, and mourning doves will serenade you as you breathe in the scent of pine and wildflowers. You look forward to a good night’s sleep in your bed, the windows open, welcoming the night air.
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.
In 1973, I graduated from Dodge City Senior High, home of the Red Demons. My hometown, viewed through a skewed lens of Hollywood-based thematic structures, was much more than a town filled with Matt Dillon wannabes, girls named Dorothy, and tornadoes. If you haven’t heard, read, or said “get outta Dodge” in your life, well, you aren’t paying attention. Some of us did leave Dodge City when we were younger, but many of us returned for weddings, funerals, and reunions. Since I had never been to a reunion, I recently decided it was time I got outta Michigan, where I have lived since 1977, and join the party. Although I had mixed emotions about returning to Dodge City, I looked forward to spending time with friends and reconnecting. As it turned out, music would play a pivotal role in my reaction to the weekend’s events.
Our reunion, billed as “40 Years of Peace and Love,” promised to be a spectacular party with the main events held at the Dodge House. The reunion committee, Jon Jambor, Jeanne Beilke, Micki Holladay, Rachael Livingston, and Cindy Day, worked tirelessly for over a year to create our three-day event. Along with all of the seventies-style memorabilia as table decorations, the seventies were also artistically represented by classmate Tara Hufford Walker’s 48″ x 48″ acrylic on Masonite reproductions of album covers adorning the walls.
Each piece, part of a silent auction during the evening’s festivities, would find a new home before the night’s end. On Friday night, we had a meet-and-greet, and on Saturday, the day started off with a golf outing, followed by a wine-tasting event. Saturday night began with dinner and conversation before Birth, our band from junior high and high school days, hit the stage. What better way for the class of 1973, a product of the seventies and its strong musical influence, to celebrate.
As Birth took the stage and began playing the unmistakable chord progression from “Smoke on the Water,” it seemed as if we had travelled back in time to those angst-filled teenage years. By the end of the first verse, I could hear the crowd singing along: “Smoke on the water…fire in the sky.” People started dancing, but I stayed in my seat near the stage and listened. I had this overwhelming sense of nostalgia and sadness, but I couldn’t figure out why.
To quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.” But what was home for me? Was it the house I grew up in, the neighborhood now run-down and a place that would break my father’s heart if he were alive to see it? Or was my house in Michigan where I now lived, with its display of photographs and memorabilia of growing up in Dodge City, my real home? What exemplifies the concept of home? What role does the town itself play in one’s sense of belonging? Why was a song like “Smoke on the Water,” creating such angst in my rock-n-roll state of mind? My geographical markers seemed as if they had been hit with a flare gun. I felt as if I were returning to family, albeit a symbolic family, but nevertheless, a small part of a larger group of people I hadn’t seen in forty years.
As I began to make this connection, Birth walked off the stage after their first set, and classmate Linda Schnitzler Hungerford stepped up to the microphone. She read a poem dedicated to our deceased classmates. As she said their names, family members of friends stepped up to the microphone and said a few words to honor his or her loved one. Although the memorial, somber and funereal, created an awareness of our own immortality that perhaps had not been felt until that moment, it would be another classmate who would help us move from our sense of loss back towards our celebration.
Judy Neves David had heard Linda discussing the memorial on Friday. Judy, now a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, suggested a “New Orleans tradition,” using a bit of “poetic license” as a way to segue back into Birth’s music as they began their second set. After Judy’s brief introduction, the song “Second Line” erupted from the sound system. Judy, taking the lead with a purple umbrella that would become our talisman for the rest of the evening, led a group of us through the crowd, dancing and tossing Mardi-Gras style beads to classmates seated at their tables. Other classmates jumped up and joined in. By the time the music ended, our “Second Line” had shifted our sadness into joy as we remembered the friends we had lost. And with that, Birth climbed back upon the stage and broke into an old familiar tune: The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” We moved from funk to funky in a short amount of time.
The night went by far too quickly. As the band started its final set, Birth’s guitarist and vocalist, Lewis Mock, strummed his acoustic guitar as he led us into Don McLean’s “American Pie.” According to McLean’s biographer, Alan Howard, “’American Pie’ is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s.” Additionally, Howard says that “by 1971, America was deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control.” In 1955, when I and most of my classmates were born into this idealized version of America, we could not have foreseen the changes in America that would take place before our 18th birthday and our graduation from high school. We had to rely on our parents, the nightly news, and, most importantly, our local radio stations to give us a perspective of the world we could only imagine. And it was through these radio stations and local bands that we began to make sense of our lives as we either stayed in Dodge City or left town in search of something else.
And here we were, a group of us on the dance floor singing and dancing to the music of Birth and Don McLean as if 40 years had not gone by. Although it seemed as if no one could remember all of the words to “American Pie,” we filled in the blanks for each other. The song turned into a giant sing along with some dancing thrown in. Many people spread their arms wide at the refrain “this will be the day that I die” as if it just might happen. It was as if this symbolic family had come to pay its respects to the past, the present, and the future. Not only had classmates joined in during other songs as the band played, but we engaged in what Daniel J. Levitin refers to in his book The World in Six Songs as “individuals who could bond into groups for the purpose of collective action” (183). Levitin further suggests that “something special happens when a group starts to sing together—something extraordinary” (182). Birth may have been the vehicle for our “collective action,” but friendship and our love of music seemed to take on a life of its own.
Later, I told a friend that our reunion, billed as “40 years of peace and love,” was so much fun that it should have been illegal. I’m not sure what I really meant by that statement, but I know that when my roommates for the weekend, Gretchen Leonard Steffen and Susan T., and I drove by my old house on our way out of Dodge City, I remembered one warm and windy Kansas day when I was inside that house and used music as way to argue with my mother without actually speaking to each other.
Our war of the stereos consisted of Tom Jones “What’s New Pussycat?” on her stereo in the living room, and in my room, a mere thirty feet away, I dropped the needle down on Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” As Jones’s and Robert Plant’s voices clashed in midair somewhere in the kitchen, I smiled when my dog, Charlie Brown, barked as if in recognition of the collision of sounds. I turned off my stereo and went outside with Charlie, and as I glanced up at the kitchen window, my mother waved at me. We both knew it would not be long before I would head out of that door one last time and into my future. Indeed, several years later, my mother would watch me pack my most important possessions, some clothing and all of my albums, into a black army trunk as I prepared to move to California. The Kansas wind, relentless as always, blew through my bedroom window that afternoon, creating an almost elegiac symphony for the last day I would ever live in the house I grew up in.
As Gretchen, Susan, and I drove down the dirt road I grew up on and headed out of Dodge City, I realized I was not ready to leave. I felt as if there was something I had left behind or as if I had forgotten to do something essential while I was in Kansas. Perhaps that is why we stopped at my grade school. As I stood in the doorway that led into the gym, I felt as if ghosts were lining the hallways waiting to remind me of the stories that took place in this building where I spent my days from first grade until 8th grade. But I heard nothing, so I stepped back outside where my friends waited patiently for me. I felt the Kansas wind against my skin, and I swear there was music in it if only I would listen.
Birth, comprised of keyboardist Chris Cave, bass player and vocalist Jon Jambor, guitar player and vocalist Lewis Mock, and drummer Bill Warshaw, formed around 1966/1967. According to Lewis, Birth’s name grew out of artwork he had been working on, and “it was more about something being created than the actual birth of a baby. The bloody logo (which [their] mothers hated) symbolized the blood and sweat involved in the creation of something.” Their first posters, based on “artwork and lettering from the Fillmore concert posters,” included the logo along with a ‘drip’ of blood coming down from the bottom of the word ‘Birth.’” Their mothers were charged with the task of taking their posters to the printer and had the drip of blood removed. When Mock confronted his mother, she said, “‘you’ll never understand until you have given birth.” As it turns out, mothers would influence more decisions regarding the band.
In their original formation, Robin Spencer, now deceased, had played guitar with the band. According to Jon, Robin’s mother was responsible for the band getting together, and she even lined up gigs for them. Birth performed at talent shows, birthday parties, and the Elks club, and eventually the band started renting venues. For a birthday party held at the Spencers’ home, the band “borrowed all of the equipment from Friar Tuck and the Monks,” a well-known band in Dodge City.
The dynamics of the band shifted after an event at the VFW. According to Lewis, the “VFW was the end for Robin. Banned from Birth by his mom.” Robin, Jon, and Bill’s older brother Eric, decided to visit Goddard’s Billiards after the band played at the VFW. Jon said that Goddard’s was about to be “razed for ‘urban renewal,’” and it seemed as if “it would be a pretty good idea to empty out its cabinets of the chewing gum and tobacco…since it was unlocked and going to be torn down anyway.” Unfortunately, the police caught on to this, and were waiting outside to greet the young men. According to Bill, Eric’s punishment was to get a job. Eric found a job as a disc jockey at KEDD and eventually moved to KGNO. Eric passed away in 1994.
As Birth forged ahead with its new configuration in the late sixties and early seventies, they played gigs at teen dances held at Fort Dodge, various churches, the Elks Club, Kitty’s Kitchen, the Demon’s Den, the Warehouse, the Bandshell at Wright Park, and the VFW. As Birth’s popularity grew, they continued improving their musical skills although as Jon says, “[they] made three times as much at the concessions stand than they made at the door.” Since they also lacked transportation most of the time, classmate Micki Holladay became their “transportation captain.” The band had a lot of heavy equipment, and Cave remembers when they had to “cut his Hammond CV organ in half, leaving the bass pedals intact” so that it could be loaded into a truck with the use of “a refrigerator dolly.” Whatever it took to get to a gig, the members of Birth did it.
According to Chris, the band members were “the best of friends,” and he says that they were “fans of the Beatles and started a Beatles club.” Jon says that Bill was a “member of the CBS Record Club and got all of the good albums. So many great songs, and [they] wanted to play them all.” Bill remembers “being asked to bring [his] drums over to the Cave’s house to fill in for Rod Mitchell. ‘Midnight Confession’ was the first song” that he learned. Jon says they played “Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” because “they were the tunes that the big kids (e.g. Skip Cave) played and since they needed songs to fill their sets, they went with what they knew. According to Lewis, “Kick out the jams mutha@#%%^^^&&**(*!!!!!” became one of their songs, and Jon says “it was a song [he] sang with an obscene intro, and quite a bit of fun to yell out at dances [they] held at church facilities.” Not only was the band having fun, but Birth’s fans were also enamored of the guys in the band. Jon shares the following perspective from one of the band’s groupies who chooses to remain anonymous.
She states: “From the perspective of the small town girl…Birth was our local, home grown rock stars. All the other community dances had records to play, but there was nothing like having [the] guys up in front playing live. Just thinking about how everything was changing around us as a generation…all we are saying is give peace a chance…if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with…and then there was Woodstock and Viet Nam, and we all changed except for men like my father. They were the Archie Bunker models that were afraid of the changes. Birth was our glimpse of the world beyond 50 highway. We loved [them] because [they] represented something beyond Boot Hill and wheat fields. I really enjoyed the practice sessions and all the teenage angst. All the girls loved [the members of Birth] and I liked being one of those girls. It made me feel special.”
Anonymous has it right. We loved the music played by our local bands, and Eric Warshaw’s voice on the radio as he played requests from giggly girls calling in from the Kwik Shop. Yes, I was one of those giggly girls. Music fed our souls in a way that parents, teachers, and preachers could not come close to fulfilling. For our 40th high school reunion, it seemed as if we had taken a step back in time, and Birth played songs that mattered to us during our younger years but seemed to matter even more forty years later.
Q and A with the members of Birth:
What is your current job?
Lewis Mock (Colorado Springs, Colorado): I am a full-time musician. I am the bandleader at the Tavern at the Broadmoor. For twenty-two years I was also in private practice as a Doctor of Chiropractic, and for ten years was a professor at the Colorado Springs Conservatory where I taught musicianship to young people of all ages. Throughout all of these years of teaching and practicing Chiropractic, I always was playing music. (Please see the attached Mock Bio.)
Bill Warshaw (Dodge City, Kansas): Right now, I am newly retired. I still haven’t gotten used to it. I sold liquor, beer, and wine for a distributor for the last eleven years.
Chris Cave (Dallas, Texas): I work for myself. (Please see http://www.ccave.tv/ for a full description.)
Jon Jambor (Lawrence, Kansas): President, Kennedy Technology Group. (Contact info: email@example.com.)
Are you in a band now?
Mock: As I said above, I’m the leader of the “World Famous Tavern Orchestra” at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs and have been there for almost 22 years. I have also performed as a sideman to Grammy Award Winner, Suzy Bogguss, and recording and Broadway star, Maureen McGovern, as well as Emmy winner, singer/songwriter, Jim Salestrom, and recording artist Nelson Rangell.
Warshaw: No, just Birth.
Cave: Yes. http://www.jumpbilly.com/
What musical moment at the reunion meant the most to you?
Mock: My favorite memory of the reunion was playing again with Birth.
Warshaw: I think it was watching people get up and dance with big smiles on their faces. Also, “American Pie,” even though we had never played it before.
Cave: When it was over. Pressure!
Jambor: Bill’s drum solo on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Will you be playing at our next reunion?
Mock: I don’t know for sure about the next reunion.
Warshaw: Sure thing. Looks like we will be playing next summer at the class of 1974’s reunion. The whole thing was such a blast, and it is just easy for me to play the drums when surrounded by such great musicians.
Cave: I don’t think anyone has committed yet.
Jambor: “You better believe it, baby!”