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.
The morning’s gray sky dripped with humidity and the promise of rain. I could not wait for the rest of my day to get started. The members of the band I used to be in were coming to my house to play music. For several years, I had dreamed of the ReCremains reuniting and playing music on my lawn with Higgins Lake as the background. Mother Nature laughed at this plan. After 1.5 inches of rain fell, I stared at the large green sponge that used to be my lawn. This was no place for electrical equipment. We would have to rock in the basement instead.
One of my former students, Christi, arrived first. Bandmates Lori and Kirker arrived soon afterwards and began unloading equipment from their car. Their amps, guitars, cables, and percussion instruments were added into the mix of my guitars, amps, piano, and keyboard. After figuring out a plan for setting everything up, we warmed up our fingers and voices by playing a few songs. Our friends, Peggy and John, arrived to watch the band perform. We chatted in between songs and awaited the arrival of Mike, Bill, and their families. We needed our piano man and our bass player.
Even though I was among friends and at my own house, I had performance anxiety. I had not practiced with the band for over a year. When I retired from Saginaw Valley State University in 2010, and my husband and I moved to Higgins Lake in 2011, the commute to SVSU became problematic. When my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) tried to take over my life, I wasn’t even sure if I could play guitar again.
There is something to be said for both a runner’s high and the way one’s brain works on music. When I was recovering from brain surgery, I soon realized that I always felt better when I ran every day and listened to music. I finally attempted to play guitar. Again. I started writing songs. Again. I read and reread books such as This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I soon discovered that although I could not remember things that happened six months prior, I could remember the words to practically any song I had ever heard whether it was Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music was the fix I needed; it was stronger than any medicine could ever possibly be.
After everyone else arrived, plus our neighbors from next door and my mother-in-law, Mike sat down at the piano, Bill fired up his bass guitar, and we began to play. I wished for our former drummer Frank, but he now lives in Virginia. I don’t remember what song we played first, but between songs, I spoke into my microphone: “I am so happy.” I repeated this many times throughout the afternoon and evening.
We ran through a bunch of our original songs, and when we played “Radio,” a song I had written years ago for the band, my fingers flew across my guitar, and my voice felt strong. We continued playing original songs we had written over the years: “Monkey Groove,” “Cream City,” “Carnival Clown,” “Swamp in My Heart,” “A Happenin’ Place (If You Happen To Be Dead),” “Highway Michigan,” “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat,” and so on. Occasionally we sang a cover song by the Stones or the Beatles. Christi sang Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” At some point, Peggy picked up a cowbell and joined us as we made merry music. We played “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for Peggy since she had requested it. We also received requests for an Elvis song, and Bill broke out some major bass moves while singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill’s granddaughter Alara requested “The Alphabet Song” and “Wheels on the Bus.” We gladly obliged. She sang along and danced. Similar to a runner’s high, playing music had kicked my mind into happiness overdrive.
Eventually we knew it was time to stop. We were all exhausted. Although we had taken a break to eat dinner, we had been playing music for close to four hours. Or was it longer? My legs felt as if they might break. My voice was hoarse from singing and yakking into the microphone between songs. My neighbor, Jessica, suggested stand-up comedy might be in my future. I may seriously consider that. Not!
When I went to bed that night, even though I was exhausted, it took a long time for me to fall asleep as I relived the night’s musical madness. The next morning, I went down to the basement and looked around. The room that had been alive with music and mayhem seemed different now. Better. I had rocked in this basement with friends.
When I still taught at SVSU, author Ken Follett came to campus one year. My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to the meet-and-greet. Instead of talking about writing, we ended up having a short conversation about playing guitar. He said that playing in a band made him a much better player. I realized this was true. The more I played music with Mike, Frank, Bill, Kirker, and Lori, the better I wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter. When Brei and Danielle, two SVSU students at the time, sang with us for a short while, I wanted to be a better singer, although I knew my alto voice could never compete with their vibrant sopranos. Despite this, I began to feel more confident.
Although Mike still encourages me to play lead guitar licks during songs, I still freeze up the moment he motions towards me. I am happy playing rhythm guitar and singing. I know I am the worst musician in the band, but they put up with me. They also seem to like the crazy songs I write, and with guidance from members of the band, those songs have become better than when I penned them as I sat alone with my guitar.
I am already planning on next year’s event: August 2015, on the lawn, under the light of a bright full moon. I am thinking of songs we could cover: “Moondance,” “Werewolves of London,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” But it is the ReCremains original songs that really highlight the heart and soul of this group of musicians. Our poetry. Our brains on music.
Recently I attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Michigan. I had attended this conference seven times over the last thirteen years, so I wasn’t a newbie. As a retired creative writing and literature teacher, I knew the dynamics of a writing workshop, and I also understood what it was like to be both teacher and student in a writing class. Since I had not been to a writing conference, taught, or read my work in front of other people since 2010, that little anxiety bug that resides in my head and utters nonsense in times of stress started yakking at me much like the voice little Danny hears in The Shining. Instead of “redrum,” I kept hearing “go-home” as if it were a single word. What was I afraid of?
After turning off of US-31, I sped up and down the roller coaster hills of Camp Daggett Road, before turning onto Camp Sherwood Road. Camp Michigania was one mile ahead. I had time to turn around or to “consciously uncouple” as Gwynneth Paltrow recently said of her split with her husband. But as with any tough relationship, or the prospect of one, I forged ahead, parked my pickup truck in the parking lot, and wobbly-walked up the steps of the Education Center. I had promised myself that I would absolutely not mention my SBT (stupid brain tumor) to anyone at the conference. I knew the writer whose workshop I was in because I had been in his writing workshop at Bear River in 2006. He had also come to SVSU several times to read his work and had come to one of my creative writing classes. A friend of mine who knew him had told him about my SBT at one of his book signings. On Thursday evening, he came over to where my friend and former SVSU colleague Chris and I were sitting and said hello. I started feeling a bit better about things at this point.
During the first workshop Friday morning, we worked our way around the table introducing ourselves. Everyone sounded so fabulous. I was last to speak, and suddenly I felt as if Pepto-Bismol vomit was spewing out of mouth: “I have a brain tumor! I couldn’t write or read for the longest time! I still have problems with words!” As I realized what I was doing, I prayed that the floor of the Nature Center where our workshop was located would swallow me up, and my body would be devoured by the masses of mosquitoes lurking in the shadows outside. “Go-home, go-home, go-home” reverberated in my head like the heartbeat of a dying woman.
As my fellow workshop participants headed out of the workshop to their chosen happy places to write, I stayed behind for a few minutes to apologize to the author at least fifty times. He was very kind and gracious. As I headed towards the gazebo to write and wait for Chris, I thought about all of the reasons I should leave. Immediately. With the vibrant blue water of Walloon Lake in front of me, birds singing in vibrant staccato-like trills, and bumblebees buzzing the nibs of flowers in the tall grasses, I decided I might as well work on my writing assignment even though I had no intention of returning to workshop the next day. I wrote as if mosquitoes were biting my fingertips.
Before long, Chris arrived, and it was time to head in for lunch. After asking about his workshop, I launched into a babbling rant about my inadequacies as a writer, and that I thought it was best if I headed home. The worst part, I confessed, was that I had blabbed about my SBT, and I was convinced that everyone in my workshop hated me. I’m surprised Chris didn’t dump his salad on top of my head or stab me with his fork. The acoustically awful cafeteria seemed to be morphing into a madhouse for my whininess. Before I could find something else to complain about, a woman named Shanna from my workshop walked towards our table. I prepared myself for a verbal smackdown. Instead, she asked if she could join us for lunch. Chris gave me the snake-eye look that seemed to suggest that not everyone hated me.
Saturday morning, I woke up with a word hangover. As I drove from Charlevoix to Camp Michigania, I cranked up some blues music and sipped on some tea. My head hurt from thinking about writing. After breakfast, I headed for my workshop. I hadn’t felt this whiny since I used to get my period.
In writing workshops, each person reads his or her work. Everyone then offers feedback on how to improve the piece. I awaited my fate: Fix this. Fix that. What? My piece wasn’t perfect? I had work to do! My meadowlark was out of place! My unfinished triangle was confusing. The dreaded “R” word raised its head: Revision. I felt like a student from my one of my teaching days. I wanted to shout, “But I worked so hard on this piece.” Weren’t they impressed with my metaphors? My structure? As part of the assignment, we had only been allowed 250 words. I had followed the assignment. Although I received positive feedback, I completely blocked it out. Everyone else’s stories were so much better, and they had all been told to expand their pieces. I was told to pick out one thing from my piece and write a new piece, and I had to keep it at 250 words. What fresh hell was this? Waa—Waa—Waa…I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself. Instead, I went to lunch. I needed some fresh chocolate chip cookies.
As Chris, Shanna, and I ate lunch together, I tried to focus on the conversation about writers, readings, observations, etc. While they spoke of positives, I just whined. I was a pain in the ass. Chris and Shanna told me to stay at Bear River and just write. What? Just write? Crazy advice. Shanna went to her cabin to write, and Chris and I walked over to the Education Center. We picked a room with comfy chairs and sat down to write. A rattling ceiling fan sounded like a washing machine. I complained, and Chris moved with me to another room with uncomfortable chairs. We sat down at a round table and began to write. A man showed up, parked himself at a table next to us, and began typing on his computer. I thought of the shower scene in Psycho with its screeching music. I searched my surroundings for a knife, but luckily for the stranger sitting next to us, none were available. As I tried to focus and write in my journal—by pen—I noticed people outside smiling. I could not imagine what they had to be happy about. People breathing fifty yards away bothered me. I had to leave. I munched on chocolate chip cookies from my bag as I drove away from camp towards US-31.
I drove back to Peggy’s and found two wet dogs and no sign of my hosts. They had left me a note: “Gone sailing.” I stomped to the basement and began writing on my computer. Revision! Delete! Word choice! Imagery! Sentence variety! Coherence! Grammar! Structure! Will I put my readers to sleep! I killed it at 251 (rebel!) words, changed my clothes, and headed back to BR for dinner and the evening’s “famous-writers’” readings. As soon as beer became available, I sucked down two and listened to the first two of the three authors. After listening to two poets, I had to get out of there. I couldn’t even stay for the big name author who had flown in for the conference. Chris followed me out, and we sat on the front porch and talked about his writing for his workshop. Eventually I headed towards Charlevoix and watched the sun slip down over Lake Michigan. Hypnotized by the pinks, blues, and purples surrounding the orange orb, I pulled into a scenic area and snapped some photos. The world suddenly seemed beautiful again. I slept soundly that night.
When my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., I tossed all of my bags into my truck and headed to the last day of the conference. I met up with Chris, and we headed to the cafeteria. As I stood in line waiting for my omelet, one of the “famous writers” from the conference stood next to me waiting for her omelet. Once again, I had diarrhea of the mouth, as my mother used to refer to my incessant babbling. Even though I had never spoken to Ms. X in my life, had never actually read any of her work or knew much about her, I blabbed on and on about how fabulous she was. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Who was I? As we parted, she smiled and said it had been nice meeting me. I thought, “Really?” We hadn’t exchanged names, and the entire conversation had been about how wonderful she was. Is that really meeting? I wondered if I was having some sort of hormonal meltdown. Tampons, anyone?
When the final workshop began at 9:00 a.m., I was thankful I was up third in the rotation of readers. I felt like a bloody leg in the middle of a shark-filled ocean. Despite my intense desire to jump out of my chair and leave the room, I listened to my fellow workshop writers and realized they were giving me some sound advice. After my moment in the hot seat, I thanked my fellow workshop comrades for their comments and settled back into my chair for the remaining workshop stories. I gave feedback when I felt as if I had something worthwhile to say, and I marveled at some of the stories people in my workshop were sharing.
After lunch with several people from my workshop, I located some cookies for the ride home and stuffed them in my bag. Chris was busy with his own workshop group, so I slipped out of the cafeteria and headed for my truck. As I headed out of Camp Michigania for the last time, I sipped on some tea and reached for a cookie. In less than two hours I would be home. I thought about the pieces I had worked on for my workshop, and I realized they each had some good things going for them. I had written about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, subject matter I had written about often, but I had not explored in depth yet. I thought about the advice writer Natalie Goldberg gives in Old Friend from Far Away: “What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth” (13). I guess that could be sage advice for just about anything. It was time for me to go home and get to work.
“April is the cruellest month…”—T.S. Eliot
The ice smothering the inland lake where I live melts slowly some winters as if not merely a body of water, but a human body slowly dying, exhaling slowly as if mist rising or fog lifting, before gasping for one last breath. April’s cruelty reveals itself in other years by forcing violent winds to wreak havoc upon the shoreline. Broken ice floes creep steadfastly up the rocks, their push and pull give birth to small bergs of diamonds grinding and moaning towards the sandy beach. With the promise of spring, hidden in the bones of cold artic air, we speak of daffodils, tulips, and death.
Ten years ago in April, my father-in-law, Carl, died.
Eight years ago in April, my friend Laura told me she had a Stage IV glioblastoma.
As the ice begins to shed its skin each April, loons’ cries echo across the still water in the damp morning air. We search the lake for their small black heads, and then watch as they dive deep into the clear water seeking minnows or perch to feast upon. Mallards promenade up our neighbors’ boat ramp, before waddling towards our yard, seeking refuge under our bird feeders as they devour seeds dropped by chickadees and goldfinches. At the slightest intrusion, the ducks quack loudly and begin their awkward square-dance moves before strutting off in indignation or taking flight. Robins build nests under our upper deck. Deer and foxes stumble through snow-free lawns along the shoreline searching for sustenance. Raccoons and skunks sneak into our yard at night to scavenge what others have left behind.
I keep waiting for Carl to walk down the hill from his house to ours and tell us about the project he plans to work on that day.
I keep waiting for Laura to step out on her front porch and tell me a story as the two of us ease into our morning run.
On May 1st this year, I ran 7.4 miles, a distance I had not run in a very long time. After suffering a grand mal seizure during a road race in October of 2011 and finding out that a brain tumor—a meningioma—would completely change my life forever, I could not run, could not form clear sentences, and could not remember if I had done something the day before. My world went gray as if I, too, had been covered by a thick layer of ice. The first time I went for a run, my husband followed me. I ran ahead of him until I finally turned around and ran back to him. Before long, I knew I could run on my own and not be afraid.
One day I saw Laura’s parents as I ran past their house, and I told them about my brain tumor.
The lake, as smooth as glass, reflected their sorrow and my guilt for being alive.
April holds us taut in its grasp, and we run towards May with heavy arms.
Running on the icy/snowy/slushy roads near my house recently, dodging the snow plow truck guy who most likely thinks I am ridiculous, I realized how dealing with my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) for the past two-plus years has affected every aspect of my life. The drama of the grand mal seizure during the Zombie Run in Traverse City, Michigan, in 2011, learning I had SBT, undergoing Gamma Knife surgery (radiation to blast the tumor), and dealing with memory problems, emotions (“Cry Me a River,” indeed), and language issues (*^#^*) seemed to be a story I was ready to shed or at least shred into little pieces. As I listened to Hall & Oates’ words on my iPod, “Where do you dare me to draw the line? / You’ve got the body, now you want my soul,” I thought, hey, whoa, “I can’t go for that.” I needed to rethink my running strategies, face my fears, and set goals for running another 5K, 10K, or half marathon and not worry about waking up surrounded by Zombies at the side of the road. Time for a new game plan.
My one-year MRI in November 2012 showed that the tumor had shrunk a bit, but the edema was nasty and creating balance issues. My two-year MRI in November 2013 showed that SBT had shrunk a teeny bit more and the edema had “markedly decreased” since 2012. Since I had been feeling much better, I convinced my new neurosurgeon, Dr. Ma, to cut back on my anti-seizure medication since the dosage seemed to keep me in a perpetually stoned state and not in a good way. He scheduled me for an EEG, and on January 2nd, my son dropped me off at the hospital for my date with Angie and her electrodes. I sat in a very comfy lazy boy chair, feet up, blanket on, and waited while Angie dressed me up like some modern day Medusa, and she promised that the gel she used to stick the electrodes on my head would wash out easily. Two days later, I still felt like Cameron Diaz’s character in Something about Mary.
After a long series of tests to determine if I would have a seizure or perhaps slip into an alternate universe, Angie said she could see exactly where the radiation had zapped my head. Of course, I would have to wait for Dr. Ma to explain it all to me. I wondered if my brainwaves took a little detour around SBT as they guided me through my daily tasks. Was there still a possibility that I could have a seizure while running or watching NCIS? I anxiously awaited the results of my EEG.
My husband and I settled into the examination room and waited for Dr. Ma. Before long, he walked in wearing a very sharp suit. He informed me that I had passed all of my tests. The EEG did show electrical activities in the left frontal area of my brain that indicated the slight possibility of a seizure. Because of this, I would have to stay on my anti-seizure medication. He agreed to reduce the dosage even more than he had at our last meeting, so I felt this was a huge victory.
I asked Dr. Ma how those brainwaves work around the area where SBT is located and where the radiation burned a bit of a hole in my head, so to speak. Imagine a heart rate monitor where the blips of lines go up and down on a regular basis if your heart is in good shape. I had certainly seen enough of these as I dealt with my late father’s issues through the years of hanging out in the ER with him. Dr. Ma said that the EEG showed a distinctly different pattern when the brainwaves churned through the “damaged” zone. He then said something that made me want to stand up and cheer: “Live life. You can’t go back.” I can go for that.
I’m feeling lucky, and I am ready to get my running game on and get this body into a much sleeker shape. More miles and less beer ought to take care of that. SBT might be in charge of what my body can or cannot do, but I refuse to let it take my soul. As long as I can move this body forward, I am heading out the door into the unknown.
As a runner, I love the daily group of bicyclists who ride 26 miles around Higgins Lake, Michigan. The lead bicyclist yells “Runner Up” as they pass me, and the rest of the gang greets me with cheery hellos. After 25 years of running at paces varying between 8-minute miles and 12-minute miles, I find that I enjoy running more than ever. The fact that I have a stupid brain tumor, something I found out after I dropped during the Zombie race in Traverse City in 2011, I am more determined than ever to keep on running. As an added bonus, there is always the chance something unexpected might happen. Weird comments? Hands on my rear end? Dogs? Thunderstorms? Run, Melissa, Run!
I began running as a way of surviving my grief when my daughter Nicole died in 1988. Running became my high, and although I ran very slowly in the beginning, I kept chugging out miles, and people in my then Midland, Michigan, neighborhood cheered me on as I did my 1.4 mile loops, over and over again. Eventually, I courageously ventured out on roads a bit further from home, and that is when the fun began.
On my first encounter with random-stranger-weirdness, I was several miles from home when I sensed someone coming up behind me, close enough to feel the air from his spinning tires. As I turned, a young man on a bicycle looked at me and said: “Oh, you looked younger from behind.” What? My running shorts made my rearview look younger than I actually was? I did not know if I should slap this young man or give him a hug, but before I could respond, he sped off into the distance. This was just the beginning of running into weirdness.
During my first 10-mile Crim Road Race in Flint, Michigan, I decided to wear a water belt that held two small bottles of a water/Gatorade mix. I had no idea what to expect, and I wanted to be hydrated. About halfway through the race, I felt someone’s hands behind me, lightly touching my belt and my rearview, before I received a little swat. As I turned, a man about my age said “I like your belt,” smiled at me, and continued running. Once again, he must have liked my rearview better than my front view, but was it necessary for him to touch my ass? I ran the rest of the race snuggled into a pack of people who seemed uninterested in my rearview. I never wore that water belt again during a road race.
During another one of my training runs, a car full of men stopped me one day to ask directions. Seriously? Men asking for directions? I was running towards them, so they had not seen me from behind, so that could not have factored into the situation. I kept moving and pointed west and yelled out “two miles and turn right.” They thanked me as they drove off, so perhaps they really did need directions. Perhaps I was oversensitive.
On another training run several miles from home, I ran on a sidewalk next to M-20 in Midland, Michigan. M-20 is a nasty road with four lanes of traffic and a center lane in the middle. M-20 is also notorious in a weird Midland way. When I taught at Saginaw Valley State University, I once had a student from Midland inform the class that her parents would not let her drive out M-20 because “that is where all of the bad people live.” She continued her rant by informing the class that “all of the professional people live north of town,” and she was “so lucky to live there.” Since the Midland Princess had no idea where I lived, I let her dig herself into a deep hole, before I told her I lived out M-20, and I actually ran the roads out there. She seemed shocked that I would venture into this obviously dangerous part of her mall-induced-funky universe. But, as luck would have it, I did encounter a small gang of hoodlums one day.
As I ran on the north side of M-20, a group of teenage boys sauntered along the sidewalk on the south side of M-20. During a lull in traffic, one boy yelled: “Hey, old lady, can’t you run any faster?” His little friends laughed in solidarity. Damn whippersnappers. I ignored them as best as I could and continued running. Clearly the Midland Princess had been correct. There were some very bad people on M-20, and I hoped they all moved to the north part of town, up near the mall and the college girls who were afraid of them. Although I had never truly been afraid of people while running, I had an unfortunate run-in with a dog one day that actually did scare me out of my running nirvana.
Near the end of my run, I felt peaceful, happy, and tired. From the side of the road near a house I passed practically every day, a German shepherd charged out of the yard dragging a long chain connected to his dog collar. As I got closer to him, he started snarling at me and showing his teeth. Foam shot out of his mouth like some weird bubble machine. We began a careful dance. I heard someone screaming, and I realized it was me. “Come and get your dog,” I yelled in vain between screams. The dog continued circling me, and I turned into a statue in the middle of the road: A screaming statue.
I heard a vehicle come up behind me, and turned to see a man motioning for me to get into his truck. I am not sure if he saw my rearview, my face, or the dog, but my savior had arrived. He put his car into park, jumped out, and ran around the front of his truck. “Hop in. I will divert the dog,” he promised. The dog’s momentary confusion allowed me enough time to grab the door handle and slide my shaking body into his truck. The man ran back around the front of his truck with the dog following closely behind him, and hopped into the driver’s seat. After a few more minutes, the dog moseyed back into his yard as if nothing had happened. Although I only lived a half a mile away and had no idea who this man was, I gladly accepted his offer to take me home. It seemed like a very smart thing to do, and it was. If only I had used some common sense the day I tried to outrun a thunderstorm.
I somehow passed all of my math classes in high school, but I think teachers felt sorry for me. If only they had let me write poetry, I could have shown them I understood rhyme and meter, which is kind of like math. In college, my husband had to tutor an algebra-book-throwing-whiny-wife several times a week. If he had to be out of town, I somehow figured out the problems myself, but the way I figured them out always amazed my professor, and my husband began calling it “Melissa math.” On my sad attempt at outrunning a thunderstorm, I failed to figure out a simple story problem: You are three miles from the car repair shop. The storm is approaching at forty miles an hour. You currently run a ten-minute mile. The storm is approximately fifteen miles away. At what time will the storm reach you? Do you call someone to give you a ride, wait for your husband to get home and take you, or do you decide to run to the car repair shop to pick up your car?
Run, of course. About a mile from the auto shop, I heard thunder. I started running faster as the skies opened up. As I crossed the five lanes of M-20, ran up to the door of the shop and pushed open the door, a huge roar of thunder seemed to signal my arrival. Lightning seemed to strike the pavement where I had just been. The lady behind the counter took one look at my soaked hair, clothes, and shoes, and asked: “Did you walk here?” I said: “Nope, I ran.” She said: “Looks like you got here in time.” As I pulled out my charge card and attempted to squeegee it dry on a paper towel, I smiled and said: “Guess I should have run faster.” She handed me my car key and told me to have a safe trip home. I drove home with a new appreciation for the Weather Channel, but still doubted I would use a story problem the next time I wanted to outrun Mother Nature.
These days, I check the Weather Channel forecast and radar before I head out onto the road. I place my Road ID on my left wrist so that if I drop, someone will find me and call my husband. I am more afraid of someone touching my rearview or a thunderstorm than anything my body might want to do to me. I know that during a run, I will see a friendly face and receive a cheerful greeting from someone. I may never run a half-marathon again and say “I want beer” as I cross the finish line, but if I know I can go out on the road and hear “Runner Up,” well, that is more than enough for me.
In the song, “Don’t Want Lies” by The Rides (Stephen Stills, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Barry Goldberg),” Stills’ sings, “What’s the shape of my future / as my life goes whistling by?” The song, reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash from an earlier era, has a bluesy feel as it poses thought-provoking questions about someone examining his or her life. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time with family and friends in the past few years, travelling places or simply sitting around a campfire on the beach, I have felt the slippage of time, especially after I learned I had a brain tumor. I embrace solitude, but to appreciate the silence, I need my family and friends to create an infusion of laughter, love, and mercy into my life. I have discovered that road trips are the key to my future.
Warm summer days and cool nights transform winter-weary wanderers into road-warrior travelers. My husband and I drove from Michigan to Florida in February to escape brittle winter winds and the stratified layers of snow and ice surrounding our home. Earlier this summer, my husband, son, and I hit the road again and spent a few days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When my son asked if I wanted to take a road trip to Colorado so that he could attend the wedding of a friend in mid-July, I jumped at the opportunity to spend time with him, visit friends in Colorado, and put a few more notches on my “have-driven-through-these-states” belt. At six a.m. on July 18th, we quietly slipped out of Matt’s neighborhood as we began our road trip.
Matt drove the bulk of the way, and I took a few turns behind the wheel. After a fairly easy day of driving despite the extreme heat and the steady hum and grind of the semis on the roads through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, we sought a break from our travel and spent the night in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. The next morning, we ate our complimentary breakfast and prepared to check out. I pointed out an ironing board in the closet, and Matt said: “Do you even know how to iron?” As someone who eked out a “C” in Home Economics in ninth grade, and no memories of my mother forcing me to iron anything other than a wrinkled hem, I had refused to iron as a grown up woman, and I laughed as we headed out of the motel. Colorado awaited us.
With Matt at the wheel, he drove past the endless fields of corn, cattle, and hay along I-80 as we headed west. One of Matt’s favorite radio stations is Lithium on Sirius. At one point, I turned to him and said: “Is this the Alice in Chains station?” I quickly followed up my question by stating: “It’s not a criticism, a witticism, or dipshit-ism.” Matt looked at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. Instead of commenting on his music selections, I started mooing when we went past fields straddled with cattle. If we passed a field dotted with crescent-roll shaped bales of hay, I simply said: “Hay.” I am fairly certain I annoyed the hell out of Matt, but his tempered response of a quick eye roll and subsequent search for a different radio station seemed to be all he needed to put up with me.
We eventually cut south towards Windsor, Colorado. When Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” came on one of the stations, I said I would rather hurt myself than hear that song one more time. In my “mom-entary” moment of madness, and perhaps hearing that song one too many times over the years, I actually wanted to hear another Alice in Chains song or something by Nirvana. Perhaps I, the intrepid road warrior, had turned into the song police. Thankfully, Matt would be free of my endless babbling after he dropped me off at Susan and Dick’s house. As I watched Matt head off to Boulder, I wondered if he would remember to pick me up on his trip back to Michigan. As he waved goodbye, Susan and I began to talk. And talk. And talk.
I met Susan the summer before ninth grade, and we became friends. Although time and geography have kept us apart, we have managed to stay in touch. We had seen each other during a Pretzel Tour trip (my yearly adventures with Micki, Rachael, and Jeanne) four years earlier, and I met Susan and Micki for lunch in Denver two years ago when I was in town for a wedding. For this visit, I had invited myself to stay at Susan’s house, and she kindly agreed. Of course, this was before she rediscovered my endless enthusiasm for telling stories, particularly ones from our years as smoking-hot-high-school chicks. Well, that’s how I remember it, and I am the one telling this story.
The next day, we went to Micki’s house in Greeley, ate lunch with her husband, and then with Micki behind the wheel, me riding shotgun, and Susan in the backseat, we headed to Estes Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. As Micki steered us up highway 34 through the Big Thompson Canyon, I marveled at the beautiful scenery. There is something singularly breathtaking about the beauty of the mountains where sheer rock walls and hardy pine trees merge with cool rushing streams of water as gravity shape-shifts the land. Micki turned onto Glen Haven road, and we worked our way to Estes Park; an elevation of 7,522 feet. My home at Higgins Lake, Michigan, has an elevation of 1,150 feet, so as my brain and body adjusted to the continuous upwards motion, I realized that I was certainly in “Freebird’s” terrain.
While in Estes Park, we visited the Stanley Hotel, an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, complete with a Jack Nicholson doppelgänger holding an axe while seated on the front porch. Although typically a photo-op poser, I refrained from forcing my friends to snap a picture. After a quick tour of the hotel, we decided it was time to head back down the mountain. We made a quick stop roadside and stared off into the distance towards Long’s Peak, standing tall at 14,259 feet. Perhaps on my next trip to Colorado, I can figure out a way to “get much higher” as Joe Walsh famously sang in “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Micki headed down the mountain via highway 7 south of Estes Park where serious cyclists going up and down the mountain seemed as if they were enjoying the rise and fall of elevation. We eventually joined up with highway 66 in Lyons where we drove past a hippie van parked in front of a bar/restaurant. I wondered if I had slipped back in time somehow. As if to add to my musical reverie of the past, John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” came on the radio. The three of us began to sing along, although I seemed to draw a blank on many of the lyrics, something I now blame on oxygen deprivation caused by the ever-changing altitude. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, with an elevation of 2,550 feet, I had probably listened to Denver’s classic song at least a thousand times, but I had never heard the song while sliding a few thousand feet down a mountain road made up of hairpin turns and the tops of trees indicating where the road ended and a Thelma and Louise moment might begin.
We returned to civilization, and we spent the evening at Susan’s house reminiscing. Micki and Susan’s husbands wandered off as we took yet another trip down memory lane and examined our high school yearbooks. When I started reading aloud what I had written in Susan’s yearbook when we were mere sophomores, the three of us laughed so hard I thought we might spontaneously combust. I had filled up a page and a half with my deep-introspective-full-of-myself musings. I had been full of dipshit-isms even then. I hesitated as to whether or not I should read Susan’s yearbook from her junior year. I noticed a half page of writing and a very long poem taking up a full page in her yearbook. Smartly, during our senior year, Susan did not allow anyone to sign her yearbook, most likely because she was afraid I would find it and write yet another lengthy soliloquy about life, love, and angst as a teenager in Dodge City, Kansas. Since our 40th high school reunion loomed ahead of us in a few weeks, I decided it was best if I stayed far away from yearbooks or reams of paper in case I felt compelled to pontificate, or worse, share some “mom-entary-isms” or “dipshit-isms” with anyone still speaking to me. With that thought in mind, I headed to bed early. Matt planned to pick me up at six a.m.
As I knew he would, Matt arrived a bit early, and I was ready. We drove through Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and into Michigan without much of a problem. We had been constantly checking our various weather apps as we watched an ominous-looking line of thunderstorms crossing Lake Michigan aiming, as if guided by Google Maps, exactly towards us. By the time we rolled into Matt’s driveway around three in the morning, my body seemed to misunderstand what it felt like to be stationary. After a few hours of sleep, I headed home. I don’t really remember driving, but the car seemed to know the way.
There’s something to be said for spending time with family and friends, but for me, I think it boils down to feeling damn lucky. I feel blessed that I have a son who actually wants to spend time with me, especially side-by-side in a car driving through six states. I am also grateful for great friends who still put up with me even though they have known me since ninth grade and have heard some of my stories at least forty times. I am starting to think this brain tumor thing I have isn’t so bad, since I am finally catching on to what really matters in life. Our homes, wherever we end up living, exist in the physical world, but memories allow us the ability to time travel between the multiple relationships and elevations that shape us into who we are.