“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.
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.
I have never run in the Boston Marathon or any other marathon for that matter. I have run in countless road races over the years: four half-marathons, several ten-mile races, and so many 10ks and 5ks I can’t remember them all. My biggest concern for these road races centered on one thing: Will I finish the race? Only once did I fail to finish when I suffered a grand mal seizure around Mile 2 and later found out I had a brain tumor. That’s enough to screw up anyone’s day.
For thousands of runners in Boston, their race came to a halt because evil exists in our world, not because their bodies let them down. For thousands of well-wishers and family members, the end of the race brought death, catastrophic injuries, and broken hearts. I wonder if I will ever understand.
Although I have run only one road race since October 29, 2011, I have gone for solo runs and tried to get myself back into running shape. Unfortunately, my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) does not always allow me to train the way I want to. Years ago, when Jim and I trained for our first half-marathon, we would head out on the country roads and run ten or twelve miles at a time to prepare. Now I feel gratitude if I can run five miles, and I am often trying to literally find my balance. Tunes on my iPod sometimes help, but on other days, listening to the contradiction of birds singing against the thwack-thwack of my running shoes on the pavement is all I need. When I lived in Midland, Michigan, people in my neighborhood waved at me or clapped as I ran by their yards. One man offered to let me run through his sprinklers on a particularly muggy day. I loved the camaraderie.
Something spiritual happens to me when I run whether or not I am alone or in the company of others. It is as if I become one with the earth as my feet carry my body along to whatever destiny or mileage goal I have in mind. For the runners in the Boston Marathon, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who had finished, those who were crossing the finish line at the moment of tragedy, and those who were told to stop because bombs were exploding.
I remember watching the television footage that day. Various channels repeatedly showed an elderly man near the finish line, stumbling, and then falling as the first blast erupted. Immediately, people rushed to help him up, and I thought of him as if he were my own father, knocked down by something unknown, even though my father never ran a road race during his life. I could not understand why someone would want to harm this elderly man, still out there at his age, still running, his memories carrying him forward through 26.2 miles, and well wishers standing nearby to encourage him before their cheers were suddenly drowned in the abyss of grief.
We are never the same after unspeakable tragedy. We can only try and prepare ourselves for the next time, and so we run, walk, or move through our days, watching, remembering, and praying to cross the finish line, imagining the sounds of gratitude for our smallest accomplishments.