Hey, Joe Jeep? Wasn’t my neon pink running shirt bright enough for you? Didn’t my bright pink shoes negotiating the treacherous roads stand out? Perhaps you dislike the color pink. The two lanes of the road where you had to drive were clear and dry, but the sides of the road and shaded areas where the snow melts and then refreezes onto the road were really tough to navigate. Trying to run-walk up my quarter-mile hilly driveway was tough enough as I began my run, but you, in your negligence or stupidity, almost forced me to hit the ditch on a sunny day when no opposing traffic was present on a long stretch of flat road. Fortunately, I did not have to drop and roll into an ice-crusted snowbank that was at least as high as a barstool. I was cranky to begin with since it was 15 degrees out, and the wind chill made it feel like zero. In my quest to cover as much of my body as possible, I wore two pairs of running pants, two layers of shirts, a hoodie, a hat, and two pairs of gloves. Joe Jeep—what is your goal? To own the road? To prove your Jeep is bigger and better than my pinkness? We will see about that.
I confess that I got used to running without tempting the grille or side mirrors of a pickup or SUV when my husband and I headed to Florida in mid-January to enjoy the sunshine and warm temperatures. Although sidewalks are the worst thing in the world to run on, I found a nice 4-mile loop along A1A to run as I tried to acclimate to heat and humidity that made me sweat before I even turned on my iPod or MapMyRun. I tried running in the bike lane when I could, but there are a lot of serious bicyclists in Florida, so it was a losing battle. Sometimes I ran laps around the parking lot at my mother-in-law’s condo. Since three times around equaled a mile, I could really get going on the flat asphalt as long as no one backed out of a parking spot or someone walking a small dog to the potty/poop area did not allow little Puffy Poodle or Snarly-Boy to bite me.
The owners of these dogs or other folks walking laps around the parking lot were quite friendly. These folks, most likely in their seventies and eighties, repeatedly told me how fast I was. Whenever someone complimented me on my blazing speed, I would turn and say, “It doesn’t matter how fast you are as long as you are out here moving.” After spouting this off a few times and sprinting past a van filled with men going bowling, I realized I had started to believe I was indeed the “Fastest Girl in Town” with apologies to Miranda Lambert. I’m fairly certain her song is not about running.
On one of my sidewalk runs along A1A, I ran past a dead possum, practically the size of a birdbath, and on my return trip towards my mother-in-law’s condo and air conditioning about thirty minutes later, three crows that looked like oddly parked Volkswagen Beetles were ripping into the ever dwindling possum’s body. I jumped across the grassy area towards the bike lane about the same time a woman in a Tennessee t-shirt coming towards me did the same thing. On my run the next morning, just a few bones and hair were all that was left of the possum. The cycle of life and death is always present when someone is running the roads it seems.
There will be consequences, Joe Jeep, if you hit something and leave it to die by the side of the road, so if you could just move over a little bit when you pass by me as I try to run cautiously over the ice and snow-covered roads, I would greatly appreciate it. When spring arrives, I am certain you will splash me as you drive through the small streams of melting snow, and I most likely will mouth naughty words or turn my arms into windmills of disgust. But as long as winter’s grasp holds the roads in turmoil, please remember that I do not want to suffer the same fate as Mr. Possum or end up frozen in a snowbank like Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance in The Shining. I wonder what it would be like to run in a labyrinth-like frozen wonderland with a crazed man chasing me, but then, the fastest girl in town wouldn’t have a problem, would she?
Twenty degrees, sunshine, blue sky, frozen lake, snow-covered roads with a hint of ice underneath: What should I do? Hibernate? Drink a hot toddy before noon? Join the snowmobilers or the cross-country skiers on the lake? I noticed that my new pink running shoes looked forlorn in the corner and seemed to be aware that I had once again considered heading to the basement to hit the treadmill. Since I had not run on the roads since my spectacularly nasty fall in November trying to leap over some road debris, I had nursed a sore hamstring with short walks outside and watching twerking videos on MTV while walking on the treadmill. I knew that when I found myself trying to analyze the difference in videos presented on MTV, VH1, and CMT that it was time to hit the road, my hamstring be damned. Since my beloved pink running shoes’ tread had begun to wear thin and had recently been attacked by a dog, I knew it was time to break in the new shoes.
I bought new shoes in November fully intending to break them in after Thanksgiving, but because I injured myself, I wore my old shoes when my husband and I decided to head to Florida to warm ourselves up for a few weeks before Christmas. While we were staying with friends in Naples, Kira, one of their Golden Retrievers, became quite affectionate with my left running shoe while we were out chasing alligators in our sandals at the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Although Kira left the shoe intact, the shoelace had been chewed apart in two places, and she had somehow managed to pull the lace so tight that I could barely fit my toes into the shoe.
After pulling and tying the lace together with several knots, I was able to wear my shoes when Jim and I began our drive back to Michigan. As we headed north from Naples, Florida, to Cleveland, Tennessee, the temperature dropped 40 degrees. We continued our streak of staying at Hampton Inns, and after I relocated nine ladybugs from our room to the hallway, a rather tricky move that involved catching them in a paper cup, we settled in for a good night’s sleep. Scraping the frost off of our car windows the next morning reminded us that we were indeed headed in the wrong direction.
After taking turns driving, I was behind the wheel as we passed by the “Welcome to Michigan” sign. Thus began the horrible drivers’ portion of our journey. By coincidence, if there is such a thing, I had just read an article that very morning in the USA Today newspaper which is provided for free at all Hampton Inns. Ladybugs are apparently optional. According to a recent poll by CarInsuranceComparison.com, Louisiana drivers are the worst drivers in the United States. Michigan drivers did not even make the top ten. The poll basis its outcomes on “DUIs, failure to obey traffic laws, [and] fatality rates.” Louisiana may have earned their number one designation, but it seemed that Michigan drivers had their taillights in a tizzy at not making the list, because we had just entered Michigan-driver-hell.
As I observed drivers passing by me on the snowy windswept roads, I wondered what the odds were of a driver crashing if he or she combined driving, smoking, and texting while cruising along at 80 miles per hour. Not using blinkers, cutting off drivers during a lane change, and releasing ice chunks from the tops and bottoms of their vehicles added to my distress. After a flying saucer-like pile of snow flew off of the truck in front of me, I reminded Jim of the time a semi-truck driver dropped an ice block off of the bottom of his truck in 2007, and I hit the ice block dead on which ripped open the bottom of my car. My insurance person actually asked me if I got the truck’s license plate number. Nope, I was preoccupied with the horrible grinding and dragging noise my car was making, and I was really bent out of shape about being late for work. Perhaps this memory, plus the fact that a rock from a truck had cracked our front windshield in Atlanta, Georgia, made me jittery. Or just pissed off.
My husband knew this was my kind of driving since I had an excuse to swear. Frequently. Loudly. After we passed Bay City, Michigan, the traffic thinned out, and we began watching the sides of the road for deer. They filled the open fields, and a few dared to stand near the edge of the roads as if tempting fate. We arrived home in time to watch the Lions on television, so we had something new to swear about. Jim doesn’t swear much, so I have to make up for both of us.
The next morning I surveyed my snow-covered surroundings. I wondered if I would ever see double digits on the outdoor thermometer again. Should we build a snow ark-mobile? Build a tunnel to the mailbox? When the snowplow and the snow-blower are getting more action than my running shoes, you know you are no longer in the land of alligators and ladybugs. Only the deer roam around happily as they make their nightly trek to our birdfeeders. I had a major case of cabin fever.
Finally, a break in the weather and the promise of 30 degrees and sunshine provided some relief. I hit the road. The main roads were plowed, but slush remained everywhere. It was a lovely day for a 3.8 mile run, although running up and down several hills I had to negotiate were best described as slip-n-slide. A little voice in my head kept shouting “Do not fall.” I figured if I did fall, the snowbanks lining the roads would at least provide some relief. As Allison Moorer sings, “I was looking for a soft place to fall.”
My new pink running shoes proved their resilience with their alligator-like treads, and I cruised down the roads expertly, dodging the local horrible Michigan drivers. Do drivers not understand the concept of splashing slush on someone running along the side of the road? The speed limit ranges from 35 to 40 mph, so it is not as if these drivers couldn’t slow down or move over, but they all seemed to be either texting, talking on the phone, or adjusting their egos. I finally decided to trot down the middle of the road and see if anyone would run over me. When I saw the snowplow driver heading towards me with his death plow, I quickly ran to the opposite side of the road. He smiled and waved at me.
As I approached the safety of my own driveway, I congratulated my new shoes on a job well done. I walked into the house and my husband looked relieved since the last time I came in from a run, I was bleeding and telling him how sore my ass was. I gave him my usual report about my road trip before yanking off two layers of running pants, my sweatshirt, base layer shirt, sports bra, socks, shoes, gloves, and hat. I longed for those days of shorts and a t-shirt. Perhaps in April?
I am looking forward to running in my new shoes in 2014. I haven’t retired my old shoes yet, because there are a lot of stories associated with those shoes. They sit in my closet, the left shoe with its strangely configured lacing system and Kira’s teeth marks, as if waiting for the next time we hit the road. In the meantime, if Kira shows up, I am hiding my shoes. All of them.
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.
On Soul To Soul Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice growls “You can’t change it / You can’t rearrange it” on a song aptly titled “Change It,” written by Doyle Bramhall. The song describes a relationship that has suffered through its share of mistakes, “painful memories,” and “back-door moves.” The song invokes the concept of forgiveness for past mistakes and the idea that if only one could rearrange history, or perhaps have an opportunity for redemption, there might be a chance for the relationship to survive. We all make choices every day of our lives, such as what we eat, where we go, what we do, but we also make choices that impact our friends and family. There are times I have made choices to protect myself, both physically and emotionally, and there are times I have made choices I thought would bring joy and happiness to someone and found the reverse to be true. If I could change or rearrange a moment in time when I made a friend of over thirty years so angry with me that we are no longer speaking, would I? No, and I will tell you why.
As a child and a teenager, I hurt people for my own selfish reasons. Equally, people hurt me along the way. We all seemed to survive, heartbreak withstanding, and we learned something valuable. At least I did. As I grew older, I tried to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic. However, there were times when I did none of these things well, and my inner-brat reared its ugly head; I was not kind to people who really needed my kindness. I could have been a better friend, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, neighbor, mother, and wife. I made mistakes, and I figure I will make lots of other mistakes before I die. When I screw up, typically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my joke is that I have made a mistake this year (yeah, it’s only March), so I should be done for another 365 days. Fat chance.
Friendships as relationships seem to have their own special place in our history, our psyche; they serve as a mirror of the kind of person we wish to be. I am not suggesting we seek out people exactly like us, but rather that we seek people who share some rudimentary notion of life that we do and who still like us after we have done something completely idiotic.
Some friendships fade as geography, jobs, family, and life move us into different spaces. Sometimes a person’s actions break the bonds of kinship. Years ago, someone I really liked gave me used deodorant as a Christmas gift. She said it made her “pits break out,” and she thought I could use the deodorant. Seriously. If we had been children on opposite ends of a seesaw, I would have jumped off my end to hear her butt smack the ground and laugh when she screamed with pain. I threw the deodorant in the trash.
Some friendships intensify as fate deals out its cards and you find yourself at your lowest point. There’s an old Jimmy Cox song that Eric Clapton covered on his Unplugged album, and the narrator explains “then I began to fall so low / lost all my good friends / had nowhere to go… / nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” So true. I remember discovering this when my daughter Nicole died. People avoided me in public or said completely asinine things to me. One day at a grocery store, a couple my husband and I knew quite well, spotted us, and basically sprinted out of the store to avoid us. We never heard from them again. It was as if we had been given a Scarlet letter, perhaps a “G” for grief, something that many people cannot quite negotiate. On the day of my daughter’s funeral, a woman from the church leaned toward me and said tersely: “You should have prayed harder. I prayed for all three of my children.” I really would have liked to bounce her ass off of a seesaw, but the heavy weight of the “G” on my black dress prevented me from making any sudden moves.
This phenomenon of avoidance while someone is clearly “down and out” happened again when I learned I had a brain tumor. Having an SBT (stupid brain tumor) is not a subject many people can easily talk about. In fact, it can be a real conversation stopper. At first I didn’t want anyone to know I had one, and then I shifted into telling complete strangers as if by declaration I could own it and defeat it. Now, once again, I don’t like to tell anyone: I just want people to think I’m weird. It’s easy to flip the letter: M for Melissa to W for weird. Problem solved.
I thought I was figuring things out and learning how I would spend the rest of my life with SBT forever and ever stuck in my head. Negotiating what the medication and SBT were doing to my head and body, I seemed to be coming into a fairly good space. I had finally learned what I could and could not do physically. I started writing and reading again. I could remember stories I read. I could remember that my husband told me what was for dinner ten times in a three-hour period. I believed I was funny again. I started playing my guitar and singing the raunchy songs I knew and loved, most of them written by me or my band mates.
Then the sequence of events that slipped me into the “down and out” phase began: I pissed off one of my best friends; my seventeen-year-old dog died; my father died. I started wearing the letter “G” again as I stumbled through my days. My family put up with me, but drew the line at my sudden outbursts of songs I made up on the spot, typically involving their names in the chorus. My friends, but not the one I had pissed off, called me, showed up, texted me, emailed me, brought me chocolate chip cookies and beer, and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. But let me backtrack for a moment.
I spent the months of April and May last year dealing with my father’s illness, his subsequent move to a nursing home, and the additional task of emptying out his apartment. My dog’s health also started to decline. Three of my dear friends decided to come to my house for a few days to cheer me up and go visit my father at his nursing home. We got the bright idea to visit another friend, the one I would deeply piss off. We had all known each other for years. Although my soon-to-be-ex-friend seemed out of sorts with me that day, I didn’t think too much about it. No one else seemed to notice anything. Several days later, I called her to invite her to dinner with some mutual friends. She gave me a verbal smack down I will never forget. If we had been on a seesaw, my ass would have hit the ground with a sonic boom. I started crying as she continued telling me everything that was wrong with me. I guess I prefer small doses of being berated and reminded of my faults. My husband, fully aware of whom I was speaking to, watched me carefully. The crickets in my head, a condition SBT is teaching me to live with, started chirping, and I could no longer hear what she was shouting at me. I said to her: “I can’t understand what you are saying, and I have to hang up.” I did. The next day, I received two emails from her itemizing everything I had done wrong within a three-day period. Several weeks after the initial emails, I received a very long email deconstructing my faults. I wondered why she hadn’t included the past thirty years, since I was fairly certain I had screwed up at least a gazillion times in the past.
She needed her “space,” and she felt as if I had her “under surveillance” even though she lived miles and miles away from me, and I had been dealing with my father’s issues in a different town over eighty miles from my home. Apparently she thought I had one hell of pair of binoculars in my possession, or perhaps she thought I had a drone hovering over her house. She also accused me of not saying the right things, which I agree I am darn good at. Even before I discovered SBT, I had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother would have called it “foot-in-mouth disease.” As my list of sins grew longer, I became more and more flummoxed. Flim-flammed. Flabbergasted.
In addition to my grief over the loss of my father even before he was dead, I knew it was only a matter of time before my dog would die. I admit I was a walking nightmare during these months with death knocking at my door. My SBT also decided to rear its ugly head and create balance issues for me. The only thing that kept me going forward and not climbing into the back of a hearse for my own ride to freedom was the mercy my family and friends showed me. Mercy. Oh, and a lesson I was about to learn.
In one of my ex-friend’s emails to me, she explained that she had certain friends she did certain things with. I did not find any categories in which I comfortably fit. The thought of category friends deeply interested me. I considered my running friends. We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, and helped each other out a moment’s notice. What about my teaching friends? We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, or helped each other out at a moment’s notice. What about high school friends? We travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, oh, you get the drift. It seemed tedious to me to think I had to categorize my friends, but what was more upsetting to me was to realize my ex-friend had excluded any categories in which I could fit unless I had some sort of extreme makeover. Why was I just now finding out I was no longer good enough for her or her friendship?
It’s awkward now. People who assume we are still friends ask about her. When I answer, I feel as if I am in high school, and I have to explain why my boyfriend broke up with me. “Well, you know, he liked someone better than me.” Typically, I just say my ex-friend is busy, and I haven’t seen her for a while. The lie slips easily off my tongue.
I wish I could ask my father for advice. He was more of the “to-hell-with-them” kind of guy if someone didn’t like what he had done. My mother’s response would have been more nuanced. She would have told me to “kill [my friend] with kindness.” Was she really suggesting mercy? How do I show my friend/ex-friend mercy? How do I show her kindness when all I can feel inside myself is a year filled with so much loss and grieving? I know now I could never be myself around her again, because I would always be afraid of screwing up the friendship. I would fall out of some imaginary category I fit into. I must have misunderstood the friendship all of these years.
On one beautiful spring day last year, I walked into her house with several other women intending to embrace friendship and accomplishment, when, instead, I ignited a slow-burning fire that must have been waiting to ignite with just the right amount of kindling. If there is regret on my part, I shall focus on not seeing the warning signs in the decline of our friendship. As for mercy, I do not ask for mercy from her; rather, I seek mercy to forgive myself. The poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Sometimes we are so busy in life seeking forgiveness from others, that we forget to forgive ourselves for being human. I continue to be a work-in-progress, understanding that my next mistake is just around the corner where I might just find myself on the wrong end of the seesaw.
Move it on Over
I will admit it: I’m obsessed with my brain. Here is a snapshot of my brain on November 16, 2011. Pretend you are facing me. There is a golf ball on the left side of my head. It does not belong there. I was not on a golf course when someone accidentally hooked a tee shot, watched it take a Happy Gilmore bounce, split my head open, and lodge in my left temporal area. The meningioma has been growing inside my head, rather taking up residency without my approval or a background check. I should charge it rent, but if I do, it requires a name and a checking account. Actually cold hard cash will do.
My SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor), though it resembles a golf ball, is more like a bad dog that follows me everywhere, pissing on my new shoes, biting my ankles, and growling at the neighbors. My SBT reminds me of several songs in which a dog is the antagonist in the “story”: Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog;” Johnny Cash singing about a “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog; or Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs singing “Salty Dog Blues.” Perhaps the most relevant song to my situation is by Hank Williams when he sings “Move It on Over”:
Yeah, listen to me, dog, before you start to whine.
That side’s yours and this side’s mine.
So move it on over, rock it on over.
Move over little dog, a big old dog is movin’ in.
On November 16, 2011, I had Gamma Knife surgery; 54-minutes of radiation was aimed at my head to slice and dice the SBT. In a few days, I will have an MRI to determine if little dog is moving out.
Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s MRI and the subsequent report, I will never be the way I was before. I see that as a good thing. For one thing, my dreams are better, more vivid, but it could be from the anti-seizure medication I am on. When I wake up in the morning, I think about my friends and family and how lucky I am. Then I move it (my body) on over to the edge of the bed, put my feet down on the floor, get up slowly, breathe in the day’s possibilities, and growl as I make my way towards the promise of a hot cup of tea. On Thursday, I will follow my morning routine as I take my moment in the MRI spotlight; and await the presence of big old dog as she rocks little dog right on out of the picture.
I saved Woody from a fire once, but I couldn’t save him from kidney failure and old age. As I watched Woody struggle as he walked and moan as he climbed into his bed each night, I realized that I had to do the right thing. When Woody stopped eating, I knew it was time.
On January 14, 1997, my friend Vicki called me and said she knew of a dog I might be interested in. SOS Animal Rescue in Midland had found Woody at a pound after someone had dropped him off. Woody was currently living in a house about five miles from me, and I made arrangements to meet him. The minute Woody came bounding up the stairs from the basement of the house in wild pursuit of a cat; I knew I had to adopt him. I left the house with Woody in my arms, and surprised Jim and Matt when I walked in the door. Woody didn’t bark for two days, and I wondered if he had ever learned how. I was wrong. If he had been a singer instead of a barking dog, he could have toured with Johnny Cash.
Woody’s original name was Buster. He was no Buster in my eyes; He was Woody. I saw nothing wrong with renaming him; after all, my mother and father renamed me after they adopted me at two months of age. My birthmother named me Connie. Jo. My mother renamed me Melissa Jean. The name Melissa was based on a relative my mother had known when she was young, and my middle name was my mother’s sister’s name. From the moment I picked Woody up and drove him home, we became kindred spirits.
Woody soon began to be in charge of the house and our lives. He slept when he wanted to, ate when he wanted to, and he spent an enormous amount of time wanting one of us to play with him and his stuffed animals. We soon learned that Woody hated water, and when we first brought him up to our old cottage at Higgins Lake, he barked at waves. Woody loved to sit on the dock with me, but I had to forget about the notion of spending quiet time on the dock if waves were rolling in, their smacking noise steadily beating against the dock and boat. Eventually, he would give me a look that let me know he was worn out, and it was time for him to go in for a nap.
Woody loved to dance when he was happy. When I arrived home from work, or even if I had been out running and only been gone for 45 minutes, Woody would dance with joy at the sight of me coming in the doorway. He squealed, he twirled in circles chasing his tail, and then he would twist the other way around, squealing, suddenly stopping and waiting for me to pick him up to give him a hug. He was always happy to see Jim and Matt, but he typically just gave them a little twist and shout and not the full-out dance routine. If you have never seen a twelve-pound dog do the twist, you are missing out.
Woody envisioned himself as a lover boy. Despite the fact that we had him neutered a few days after we got him, Woody thought he was a love machine. He tried to make love to any dog that happened to come near him. Gender didn’t matter, and he didn’t have a species requirement either. We were once at Peggy and John’s house with their menagerie of dogs and cats, and Woody chased Brutus, a twenty-one pound cat, around the house constantly. He eventually caught up with Brutus and tried to do what we referred to as the mumbo-jumbo. Brutus didn’t seem to mind, but we did break up the action much to Woody’s disappointment.
In December 2004, a fire broke out in our house. The men who were refinishing our wood floors happened to leave their sander next to a large container of polyurethane in our laundry room. They had been gone for about twenty minutes before I heard a pop, ran to the other end of the house and saw the fire. To make a long story short, I grabbed Woody as I called 911 and got us out of the house. We ended up watching the action from the across the street at a neighbor’s. Luckily the fire damage was small compared to the severe smoke damage. The stuff we lost? I really didn’t care. I had Woody and that is all that mattered.
In the summer of 2005, our vet told us Woody had cancer in one of his legs and sent us to a specialist in Rochester Hills. My friend Patti went with me to the clinic. It was a very sad place. The vet at the cancer center said they had also discovered a tumor in Woody’s lungs. The bottom line: for about ten grand, we could have Woody cut open, take out the tumor, and then he could start chemo for his leg. Woody looked at me as if to say “I don’t think so,” so I said, “I don’t think so.” He never complained about the cancer in his leg, and he still barked at waves, squirrels, chipmunks, and us if we were too slow in doing what he wanted to do.
Last year, Woody’s vet said Woody kidneys were failing. I figured Woody could beat this diagnosis. Woody was our wonder dog. He seemed fine, a little slower when running and jumping, but he seemed okay. At the vet’s recommendation, we began feeding him special dog food, and he adjusted quickly, although he occasionally let us know he preferred steak and chicken. He still followed me everywhere, always wanted to be the life of the party, and slept on the floor next to me in his little bed.
A few months ago, we began to see a change in Woody. He still greeted us at the door, but the rock-and-roll dance had become a slow waltz. He no longer barked at waves, he no longer wanted to make love to dogs or cats, and he ignored his beloved toys. My heart began to break slowly, because I knew I was going to have to make a decision. I did not want Woody to suffer.
I learned a lot from Woody in the sixteen years we had together. Years ago, my friend Helen pointed out that Woody didn’t take crap from any dog, large or small, waves, or anything else he considered trouble. Helen told me I was a lot like Woody. By coincidence, I happened to listen to a Sheryl Crow song on my way to work every morning to pump myself up to deal with administration bureaucracy and students filled with excuses: “I ain’t takin’ shit off no one, baby, that was yesterday.” For my office, I bought a painting of a dog with tattoos and lots of piercings. He wore a t-shirt that said “Bite Me” and was called “Mad Dog.” I imagined Woody in this outfit, and I realized I was the human version of Woody/Mad Dog.
Mornings are most difficult for me now. I hear Woody waddling down the hall towards my office looking for me, his eyes filled with cataracts, his nose guiding him as if he were the great hunter searching for truffles. He lies down next to my chair and waits while I write.
Later, we will go to the end of the dock, and wait for the waves to roll into shore. He will look at me as if to suggest his barking days are over and indicate, by the turn of his head, that it is time to return to the house. As I carry him, I can feel him slipping away from me. Inside, we both take a drink of water and head for the couch. I lift him up next to me, and he snuggles in and falls asleep while I wait. I imagine the cycle of life, spinning loved ones towards me, but also away from me, and wonder where I am in the continuum.