*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2015 issue.
My mother gazed at the six-foot tall Christmas tree. My father and I stood next to her and watched her focus on the decorations. I unwrapped an ornament from the small box I had carried into the nursing home. “Were you looking for this?” I placed an egg into the cup of her outstretched hands.
She examined the red and green velvet-covered egg as if she might find the key to her past. She traced the small gold angel on the front. She opened the tiny hinged door and peered inside. A small white angel holding a mandolin stood on a white cloud-like pedestal. My mother glanced up at me. Behind the mask of her illness, an unspoken question seemed to hide. I wondered if she recognized the egg as one she had decorated years ago. She was no longer verbal. She handed the egg back to me, her thin white fingers still smooth and beautiful at the age of eighty seven.
I unwrapped three more pieces of my mother’s artwork and placed them on a table next to her. As a child, I had watched her poke tiny holes into each end of the egg, blow out the yolks, and then carefully clean the eggs. She used goose, ostrich, and hen eggs for most of her work. She dyed some eggs with onion skins before scratch-carving intricate scenes on them: An owl in a tree. A farm in Kansas. A fish, Pisces, made for me when I was sixteen. On other eggs, she used scraps of material, jewels she picked up in antique stores, or fingernail-sized toys, angels, or skaters. She created miniature scenes inside each egg. It was her way of telling a story. One day, she no longer recognized her workroom as her own.
As I presented each egg to her, several of the staff members cooed and commented over each one. I said, “My mother decorated our Christmas tree with eggs every year. The local paper ran a story about her once with a picture of my son holding one of her eggs.” My mother looked at me as if I might be lying.
We continued examining the eggs, and I explained the history behind each one. My mother nodded her head as if she might be agreeing to my version of the events. My father leaned in to point at a miniature skater in one of the eggs and said, “You made that one for your grandson.” She frowned at him as if this statement could not possibly be true. My father’s eyes began to water, and he walked over to the one of the easy chairs in front of the television, sat down, and began talking to one of the other residents.
My mother’s eyes began looking past me towards something unseen, and I knew she was growing tired of my nonstop storytelling. I began wrapping up the eggs and returned each one to the small box. “When I get home, I will place these on my Christmas tree. You can see them again when you come to our house.” The hint of a smile crossed her face. A gift for me.
I approached my father and said it was time to go. He walked over to my mother and bent down to kiss her goodbye. She turned away from him. I reached for my father’s hands and reminded him to put his gloves on.
We passed through the double doors as the loud alarm went off signaling our departure. Snow had begun to cover the cars, sidewalk, and dead grass. My father said, “I’m sick and tired of this weather,” as he smacked his cane down on the sidewalk. I looked at his face filled with sadness mixed with anger, and I realized that the loss of my mother would forever be my father’s deepest sorrow. We made our way to the car as the wind swirled around us. As it increased in its volume, it was as if a thousand choir bells ringing.
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.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2014.
I stood at the end of the dirt road and tried to breathe. Posted signs on an old gate suggested potential problems, but their warnings, obscured by weathered vines, failed to clearly state their objectives: “No Dump” and “vate erty.” The house I grew up in glowed in the sunlight as if taking on the importance of a museum or a church. I felt the strange collision of time moving me forward, and memories spinning me backwards. A centrifugal force seemed to define me in this space. I grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it upwards into the steady Kansas wind. Dust and pebbles covered my body, glitter and gold, an elixir returning me to my childhood. I imagined my mother at the kitchen table, scratch-carving an elegant owl on an ostrich egg that had been dyed with onion skin. My father sat in his chair smoking a large cigar and drinking a beer after a hard day’s work at his café. I wanted to walk through the front door of the house and hear their voices welcoming me home. The taste of dirt in my mouth was bittersweet.
When my parents were dying, they returned to this house at the end of the dirt road in their memories. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. She would question me frequently to see if our stories meshed. Was the Chief, as she began to call my father, working in the field or at the livestock sale barn where our café was? She referred to my husband and son as “the boys.” She wondered what kind of pie my grandmother would be bringing for lunch after church on Sunday. Cherry? Apple? Rhubarb? Why hadn’t her sister come to visit her? How many dogs did we have now? And then one day, my mother could no longer speak. She would often wave at me upon my arrival at the memory care facility as if I might be someone she knew. Her wave reminded me of a homecoming queen in a parade. She had waved at me similarly from the platform at the train station when I left Dodge City at the age of 21.
My father’s body began to fail at the age of 92. Prostate cancer, or “prah-straight cancer” as he referred to it, became painful, unmanageable. His cocktail of cherry juice and water no longer seemed to help. Between the pain medication and dementia, the evil twins of illness and aging, he began to flicker in and out of reality. I imagined him walking in our fields, memories covering the buffalo grass and little bluestem in a silky glaze like morning dew. Although my mother had died four years earlier, she often came to see him at the nursing home he was in for the last three months of his life. He would tell me I had just missed her.
I began to tell my father stories like the one about the night we slept on the front porch: “We made beds out of sofa cushions and blankets. Mom slept inside. A small plane sliced through the stars overhead, and you told me you felt a breeze from that one.” My father smiled at me, remained silent for several minutes as if to let the story settle in the air, and then looked up at me. “I know the people in the kitchen. They used to work for me at the café.” He grinned as if this was the best day of his life. I had learned from my mother’s illness, so I did not correct him. The cooks to which he referred were once in Dodge City, and they had passed away many years ago. I wondered if he remembered selling the house at the end of the dirt road in 1992 and moving to Michigan. His world was spinning backwards, and he pulled me in, towards him, with each and every story we shared.
Before their illnesses, my parents shared stories of their hometowns as children. My mother lived in Council Grove, Kansas, and my father was raised in Bath, Illinois, before circumstances landed them both in Dodge City. They were in their thirties when they adopted me, and they moved to the small, circa-1940s farmhouse in Wilroads Gardens, five miles east of Dodge City. And yet as their memories began failing them, something brought them into a circular path of memories of which I seemed to be a part, yet from which I was always separate.
For a long time, I felt as if geography defined me, and, in some ways, I believe it does. When I tell people I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, the inference is that I am tough and could possibly outrun a tornado if necessary. For me, however, it is the place where a man and woman brought me into their home to raise. Born in the Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, I was adopted at two months of age through the Kansas Children’s Service League. I have no memories of this place to which I can return. Instead, when my mind and body begin to fade into the gloaming, I imagine I will see this clearly: a long dirt road, a house, and me walking through the front door, waiting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Couldn’t Stand The Weather
The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s album Couldn’t Stand The Weather shows him playing his guitar as a tornado approaches him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Vaughan seems unconcerned with the approaching storm, seemingly playing through the twister as if his guitar will protect him from danger and potential death. Sadly, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. I was 35 at the time, Matt was 8, and Jim and I had celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the day before Vaughan’s death. From the moment I first heard music by Vaughan, I was hooked. In 1988, his music became a talisman for my broken heart.
There were no signs of my brain tumor in 1988 when my daughter Nicole was born and died four days later. She died of anencephaly; her brain did not develop fully. A line in Vaughan’s song “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” seemed to speak directly to my sorrow: “Like the train that stops at every station, we all deal with trials and tribulations.” Was this my trial in life? In 1988, the answer was yes, and despite watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s in 2008, and finding out I had a brain tumor in 2011, the answer to that question is still yes.
Parents expect to outlive their children. That’s a basic fact. Peggy, a very dear friend of mine, learned this cruel twist of fate when her son Johnny died on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, when he was twenty-three years old. Not a day goes by that our families don’t think about our children. I know many other parents whose children have died, the reasons vary, and when I hear someone ask how one gets over the loss of a child, I say: “You don’t get over it; you just learn to deal with it better.”
As I began researching information on meningiomas, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between my mother, my daughter, and myself. Even though my mother is not my biological mother, I started asking myself: What the hell happened to our brains?
Since Nicole lived for only four days, I can only imagine what she might have been. For my mother, I watched her slow decline into something unimaginable as she changed from the loving mother she was into someone who would not recognize me towards the end of her life. My mother the prankster and storyteller slipped into the land where memories and words no longer existed.
My father is now slipping into the land of dementia. Even though he lives in a nursing home not far from me in Michigan, his mind seems to have erased the past years where he and my mother lived in Michigan after moving here in 1992. He is convinced that people he knew in Dodge City are running the kitchen and working the night shift at the nursing home. Most of these people he refers to are dead. I pretend they are alive.
One night I dreamed that my mother called me and needed help. She said: “Your dad and I are in danger. Help us.” When I woke up, I told my husband about my dream, because it was so upsetting. I also wrote about the dream in my journal. Later that day when I visited my father at the nursing home, he said: “What does your mother think about me in the nursing home?” My father had not brought up my mother’s name since mid-April when he was still in the land of memory and remembering she was dead. My response to my father: “She is concerned about you.” As I walked out of the nursing home, the dream seemed like a snake crawling inside my skull, warning me of danger, but for whom? Was the dream purely for my father? For me? For the family?
In “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” Vaughan sings “Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right; daddy’s hand helps to see me through.” What would I be like without my father when he could no longer help me as if I were a child? At Nicole’s funeral, I remember leaning into my father, sobbing, holding me as if I were the child, not the almost thirty-three year old daughter. When my father learned I had a brain tumor, he was supportive, caring, and came to the hospital to watch my Gamma Knife surgery on a closed-circuit television. The memories of that seemed to have disappeared now, and he no longer asks me how I am. He’s more concerned about his checkbook and escaping the prison he thinks I have placed him in.
I have heard from quite a few friends of mine that they admire my positive spirit through my losses in life and dealing now with my brain tumor. What choice do I have? We all deal with things in life, and I am no different than anyone else. When my beloved dog died recently, I had a moment where the pity party in my brain began its full dance again, but, as typical for my blessed life, my family, my cousins, and some very dear friends did the one thing that seems to get overlooked in times of grief, of sadness: They listened to me.
If I look at the big picture, I have to say I am damn lucky. I have lived a life full of adventure, have a wonderful husband and son, have grown up with some wonderful cousins who are like sisters to me, and met wonderful people who became my friends. So whatever ride I am on now with my father and his fading away, and the brain tumor that radiation has hopefully begun its magical shrinking act, I’m facing the storm like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I’m slinging my guitar like a talisman around my body, and playing my songs no matter what is headed my way.