On a 37-degree August morning, steam fog lingered above the clear water of Higgins Lake. The waning days of summer, always layered with the memories of those I have loved and lost, seem to pass too quickly in Northern Michigan. Steam fog rising above the water fascinates me because while it is of this earth, the nature of it seems so ghostly, a place where secrets float on water, a scene that will unfold only when the above ground temperature and the temperature of the lake water meet for the first time that day. Steam fog is like a blush on the face upon meeting someone for the first time, someone you may or may not spend the rest of your life with. Or the rubbing of a match against a hard surface, and the sudden glow of a flame before it settles into a flicker of light. Or the feeling of grief when it surrounds your head and your heart making you feel as if you might never break free of its grip. You wait for the blush to fade from your cheeks. You blow out the match once it has served its purpose for you. You slip in and out of ephemeral memories until your body and the earth seemingly collide and force you into action. You must tell stories about those you have loved and miss so much. This is the burn, and this is the fade.
I met my future husband in August one year, and we married the following year on August 26th. Two days later, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday on the 28th of August, but he died in 2004. My father died in 2012 on August 27th, and it seemed as if he had chosen this date. Those three days in August became a twisted nursery rhyme for me, and instead of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field, one my mother used to read to me, these three days became “Anniversary, Death, Birth.” They say things come in threes, and depending on whom you believe, these can be three good things or three bad things. Stars, planets, and galaxies remind us of our smallness. Width, height, and depth are necessary measurements we use in order to understand the dimension of things. Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that can be blended to create other colors. The three days of August that hold so much meaning for me create their own mix, a steam fog settling in and disrupting the tangled vines of memory running through my brain.
As fall approaches at Higgins Lake, I will likely awaken to more steam fog as the nights grow colder and the temperature of the water continues to drop until it begins to freeze. I know the hummingbirds that frequent my feeders are fattening up before they head south. On the first morning I wake up and realize they are gone until the spring, I will settle in with my cup of tea, and skim through all of the photographs I have taken of them over the spring and summer months. Will they return in the spring? Will I be here? That’s it, you know. We have to live each day to its fullest, because we never know what the future brings.
I was sorting through a problem a few days ago as I walked three miles. I wondered what advice my mother or father would give to me to handle a particular situation. Quite clearly, almost as if I could hear their voices in unison, I understood that I should let the problem go. In other words, it would resolve itself. Like steam fog slowly evaporating, and sunlight warming up the air, I realized the solution to my problem was as simple as one, two, three: Let it go. I thought of those last few moments with my father as he was taking his last few breaths in August of 2012, and how his eyes opened one last time, and he looked at me as if he understood something that I, too, would someday understand. The burn, the fade, and the remembering.
“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” popped into my head the minute I figured out that I was no longer able to heal myself. In October of 2015, I made the mistake of stepping awkwardly off of a friend’s porch as I turned to wave goodbye. The minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I had injured my body. I didn’t fall. Perhaps I should have. Despite the obvious pain in my leg, hip, thigh, quad, hamstring, screaming muscles, and pride, I figured I would rest a few days, stretch more, and get over it. For the next few months, I alternated walking and running. I knew my gait was wrong. Occasionally on hills, my right leg collapsed. I was in running denial. After a fairly decent four-mile run on January 23rd, my body suddenly seized up like a broken corkscrew. After a series of x-rays showed that my spine was fine, my doctor informed me that I would have to have physical therapy. I headed home and sang to myself: “Poor, poor, pitiful me.”
This wouldn’t be my first dance with physical therapy. About twelve years ago, I hurt my back shoveling snow and had to go to PT for six weeks and attend back school. During the first week of intense pain caused by a bulging disc, I was in a Vicodin-induced euphoric stage. I liked it a little too much. After being stretched out on a rack-like bed, learning exercises that would help me get stronger, and finding out ways to rake leaves and shovel snow without hurting my back, I finally recovered. I no longer wanted to sleep on the floor. I could drive a stick shift again without wincing as I changed gears. Spring came. Birds sang. I could run again. And then one day I found out I could not float through the air. Hadn’t my mother always warned me to watch where I was going? Although I didn’t fall, the minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I was in trouble. Ouch.
In early February, my doctor listened to me recite my excuses for not coming in four months earlier. She didn’t even roll her eyes at me. After listening to me whine for a few minutes, she gave me a prescription for Cyclobenzaprine and Naproxen to help with the pain. I took the Naproxen for four days, before I decided to quit. All I could think about was drinking Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle. I didn’t even try the other drug. I wanted to embrace my pain. The following week I headed to my PT assessment, and I was told me that I would run again, but I had four weeks of PT to look forward to. My iliotibial band was a mess. Let the exercises begin.
As part of my daily routine, I work out twice-daily to strengthen my core, hips, hamstrings, quads, and thighs. I work out the elliptical trainer. I walk slowly. After almost four weeks of physical therapy at a facility in Houghton Lake, I have developed a love-hate relationship with my physical therapist. When I told her I was going to write about her for my blog, I asked her if I should use an alias for her name since she obviously was the Sweeney Todd of the PT world. She laughed and said I could call her Debbie.
Debbie, despite being a wonderful PT, introduced me to the world of the Graston Technique®. This particular use of stainless steel instruments used to break up scar tissue is guaranteed to locate your sore spots and make you sit up, see stars, and wish you had been smarter a long time ago. With apologies to Bryan Adams, “it cuts like a knife.” My Graston tool looks like a very large knife. The tool leaves bruises. Debbie promises me that she is breaking down the knots in my iliotibial band. These unwanted knots formed in my muscles while I was stupidly trying to heal myself. They are nasty. They hurt. They are the three stooges of my nightmares, and I can feel them when I try and massage them on a regular routine. I think of beer. I think of chocolate. I think of swimming in the ocean with sharks. Poor, poor pitiful me.
A few days after I started PT and was firmly entrenched in my pitiful mood, I went to the Winterläufe race in Frankenmuth with my son. I had signed up for the race, but since I had zero chance of running or walking the 8k race, I decided to go along and cheer on my son and take pictures. This was a new experience for me. I am not used to the sidelines during road races. Matt placed third in his age group and won a cowbell. I have never wanted a cowbell so much in my life. I now stare at people running on the roads with envy and despair.
On March 1st, the folks at PT will assess my body to see if I need more PT, or if I can work out on my own. Last week, I asked Debbie if I could at least walk the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race, and she, in turn, asked me if I could walk without being competitive. Umm, sure, I said. I can teach my body to stroll. I told her I had walked 2.5 miles on the road recently and had walked fifteen-minute miles, and it seemed really slow. I even made a playlist that has more mellow songs on it. Debbie didn’t seem convinced that I could participate in a race and take it easy.
I guess my stubbornness and my inability to be patient got the better of me this time. I miss swearing at inattentive drivers on the road. I miss the endorphin rush that kicks in when I run. Instead, I work out inside and dream about the day I can run again. I do my exercise routine while I listen to the blues. I think about what that first run is going to be like when I get the go ahead. I will pretend that Debbie is chasing me with the Graston tool.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.
Let’s face it: I don’t have the beat. Or the pace. Or any kind of running smoothness. Despite the new black compression running shorts, dubbed my “magic pants,” I can’t seem to find a consistent pace when I run a road race. There’s no groove in my moves. No consistency in my MapMyRun® (MMR) split times. I started to doubt MMR’s timing, and began checking my watch to see if perhaps MMR was toying with me. How could I run fast (for me!) training runs, and then chug-chug-chug during a 10K? Why am I so dazed and confused on race day?
I began running road races about twenty five years ago. I’ve been younger, skinnier, faster, and slower, but for some reason, this running season I have yet to find any sort of fluidity or consistency when I participate in road races. I think I will blame it on my son Matt. Now that he runs road races with me and that he is running fast and furious in the tough 30-34 age group, I have turned into a rambling, chatty runner. I usually end up about five to ten minutes slower per race than my hoped-for and achievable goal. Yes, I might have sprinted that last .2 miles, but what the hell was I doing the previous six miles?
During training runs on my routes along Higgins Lake, I seem to do fairly well with my time. I run without music on some days, and on other days, I listen to songs that are based on my hoped-for pace. I run sprints using telephone poles as markers. This seems to work well, and I feel confident, until I show up for a road race. Then my slow gear kicks in, and I feel as if I have turned into a sputtering motor on a fishing boat.
Despite deer running across the road in front of me, random pit bulls that can’t decide if I am a chew toy or something to ignore, or drivers that have road kill (me) on their minds, I can hoof it pretty well for six or seven miles during my training runs. Brimming with confidence, I enter my house and provide my husband with a play-by-play of every significant thing I have seen that morning. I am kind of like a golfer reliving every hole, or so I have been told. After a road race with Matt, I mentally, and verbally, replay every hill, water stop, and moments of chatty conversation with random strangers, and ask myself what I could have done to improve my time.
My first road race with Matt this year was a 5K in Houghton Lake, Michigan, and consisted mostly of trail running. Obstacles, such as tree roots, rocks, mud, planks to cover wet areas, and an extremely uneven path through a densely forested area, made me realize how much I had forgotten about trail running. Although I had experienced the Mud Creek Crawl in Sanford, Michigan, on two occasions in the past, and the much more difficult Great Turtle Half Marathon on Mackinac Island, let’s just say I was older now, and hopefully a bit wiser. I ran a careful race. I did not want to trip, fall, and face-plant in the mud or on top of a rock. Even though the tree roots and rocks were painted to alert the runners, I ran with extra caution. Despite this, I ended up second out of four in my age group. I felt pretty good about this.
For my next adventure with Matt, we tackled the Shanty Creek to Shorts Brewery 10K in Bellaire, Michigan. I was really excited about this race, and I figured I would do well. I exceeded my expectations by winning my age group! I won a prize! I got to go up near the stage. Random strangers clapped for me. I was a winner! So what if I was the only woman in my age group? Actually, I was the oldest woman who ran the 10K. Shouldn’t there be an extra prize for that? I think so. The Shorts Brewery beer after the race worked pretty well as an addendum to my prize package.
Matt and I looked forward to our next 10K: the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival Run. As we rode the ferry from Mackinaw City to the island, Matt reminded me that he hadn’t been to Mackinac Island since he was four. What? Where had the time gone? Although I had run the Mackinac Island Eight Mile with friend Julie Davis twice, and the the Great Turtle Trail Run Half-Marathon four times with my husband, the Lilac Run would be a new one for me. Running a road race on the island would be a first for Matt. I reminded Matt to watch out for horse poop on the roads. He ran a great race, but my right Achilles tendon felt like a Charlie Daniels’ fiddle being tuned while trying to navigate the insane elevation as we made our way up to the top of the island. The headwind for the last two or three miles seemed especially unfair, and I wondered why the island had turned into the Devil’s Triangle. I kept running though, and I finished 14th out of 22 in my age group. Matt and I went to Horn’s Bar for some beer and food before heading back to the mainland on the ferry.
Our most recent race was close to home: The Higgins Lake Sunrise Run. I was excited, and I tried not to be overconfident. During last year’s race, I had gone out too fast and tanked. I vowed I would not screw up again. I figured that between me and MMR, I could average somewhere around a ten-minute mile. Nope. Not even close. I also somehow screwed up starting MMR at the beginning of the race, so I will never know what those darn split times were. Although I ended up second out of six in my age group, I was pissed. Why hadn’t I kicked it up a notch for the last three miles? Why had I engaged in multiple conversations along the way? Why did I make beer jokes at the water stations?
I did sprint at the end and cross the finish line as if my pants were on fire. My husband and son greeted me. I picked up my water and Powerade, and we posed for pictures. I felt good. I didn’t even feel tired. Clearly, I had not lived up to my potential. I imagined my mother’s voice reading my sixth grade report card to me. I tried to block out the negative thoughts, and I realized what I really needed was some food. Jim returned home, and Matt and I went to the Pine Pantry for breakfast. As I sat across the table from him, I realized that even though I hadn’t been a perfect mother as he was growing up, not even close, I must have done something right: I had just completed another road race with my son.
We have another race coming up in July, and a few other ones we are planning on signing up for in August and September. My son has to run early in the morning in Midland, Michigan, before he goes to work. He seems to have the pace thing figured out. I may never figure out how to run a road race again with any sort of consistent pace. I may never win a prize in my age group again with or without competition! But I really don’t care. As long as Matt is at the finish line and waving at me as I cross it, no matter what the clock says, I know that life is damn good. MMR can’t factor that data into my workout log. Maybe I do have the beat after all.
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.