Pretzel Tour Three
In the summer of 2009, Jeanne Beilke phoned me from a road trip she was on with Christopher Cave and Jon Jambor. All of us had gone to Dodge City Senior High together and graduated in 1973. Jeanne, Chris, and Jon had been touring the roads of Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma on their motorcycles. After hearing how much fun they were having, I wondered if Jeanne would agree to hit the road with me the following year. Since Jeanne and I had not seen each other since we had graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure if she would want to spend time on the road with me. When my mother died in 2008, I found myself wanting to see Dodge City, a place I had not been to since my parents moved to Michigan in 1992. Were Dorothy’s words true? Is there “no place like home”?
I contacted Jeanne, and she agreed to travel with me. To visit friends and family in various locales, we planned to fly into Denver, Colorado, head south to Route 66, head east to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and finally wind our way north and west to Dodge City, Kansas. After viewing the strange route we had planned, Jeanne came up with the name of our adventure: “The Pretzel Tour.”
We posted our ideas on Facebook, and our simple plans grew exponentially. Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston joined the tour. Destinations and parties were planned. I had not seen Micki or Rachael since the mid-seventies before I moved to California. Friends constantly asked me if we would all be able to get along. I had no idea.
Jeanne flew into Detroit from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I saw her for the first time in thirty-seven years. After we were together for about ten seconds, it seemed quite apparent that we were going to have a very good time on our trip. We flew out of Detroit and into Denver. We rented a car, and tried to find our way to Aurora, Colorado, to meet up with a high school friend, Richard Osborn. I managed to get us lost, pointed out the “swirly things” in the distance (tornadoes), and we eventually met up with Richard. Jeanne told me I had been out of Kansas too long if I referred to tornadoes as swirly things.
Jeanne and I headed to Denver. She drove us to her sister’s house, and my cousin Julie Bowline picked me up. The next day we met up with a group of high school friends who lived near Denver: Susan Maynard Wolfe, Marty Goff Hahn, Robin Troyer Friesen, Mickey Webster Winfrey, and the other half of the Pretzel Tour gang, Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston. Some of us had thirty-seven years of catching up to do. We laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I am surprised the Wynkoop Brewing Company did not kick us out.
Two days later, Jeanne, Micki, Rachael, and I headed to Boulder, Colorado, in Micki’s car to meet up with Ted Larson, yet another person originally from Dodge City. Part of our Pretzel Tour plan was to head south to Route 66, and Ted suggested we take the back roads. We hit CO 286 and the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. Every time we saw a spot that looked interesting, we stopped. We were in no hurry. As Micki drove, we settled into a routine of telling stories and listening to music. When Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” came on, we talked about how much we loved this song when we were in high school. Rachael and I declared it as our “favorite-favorite.” All of us sang along softly, each of us lost in some memory we decided not to share as Robert Plant’s voice seemed to take us back in time.
We worked our way to Alamosa for the night, and hit the road the next day. During the days ahead, with Micki always behind the wheel, Rachael riding shotgun, and Jeanne and me in the backseat, we eventually worked our way towards New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Rachael and I drove out to the house I had grown up in, and I felt strange as I stood in the driveway. I had been thinking about Miranda Lambert’s song, The House That Built Me, and realized the significance of wanting to go home again. There are a million stories to tell, but I will save those for another day or in a book.
At one point along the way, an old friend asked us who was in charge. We all started laughing. Was one of us supposed to be in charge? Unless you count my penchant for bossiness, we all got along splendidly, and Jeanne, Micki, and Rachael put up with me.
We discussed the possibility of Pretzel Tour 2 the following summer. A friend of mine from California, Denise Manson Torres, joined us. Because of our various schedules, it seemed as if Michigan would be the logical place to tour. We hit Northern Michigan with a vengeance. During the trip, I started missing turns when I was driving. Places I had been many times before seemed confusing to me. Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael gave me the ribbing I deserved, and they found a beer koozie for me with this saying: “I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.” Not only was I missing turns, I was becoming bossier by the minute.
As we parted in early August, we discussed our plans for Pretzel Tour 3, but we did not decide on when or where. Three months later, I found out I had a brain tumor. I figured that would be the end of just about everything in life I loved, including my trips with this fabulous group of women.
Pretzel Tour 3 begins August 1st. Jeanne, Micki, and I will meet up in Chicago and begin the trek on Route 66 as we head towards our destination at the Lake of the Ozarks. Rachael will join us as we spend our days at Gretchen Leonard Steffen’s house. We will tell stories, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company. All of us have been through many challenges in life, and somehow we have managed to work our way through the losses and disappointments to become the women of substance we were destined to be. We are all damn funny, and we like to tell stories. My friends are willing to put up with me as I make this journey, knowing I will mess up my words when I talk, and my memories will be suspect at times.
Ladies, I am ready for the adventure to begin, and I am still working on getting rid of my bossiness, but I will bring my beer koozie just in case.
I have already taken the wrong exit, turned the wrong way, and turned the wrong way again. Now this: A large truck, pregnant with painted words on its large round belly, backs up slowly into the path of my car. The Purple Poop Pumpers don’t care if I am dead or alive.
I try to think—logically—how can I get myself out of this mess? I call Vicki to tell her I will be late, because I seem to be lost. Vicki tries to help me, but I have no way of describing where I am, completing ignoring the compass tucked into the dashboard like a sleeping baby. So I keep driving and turning.
Eventually I realize I should call someone else, and my cell phone makes the dreaded noise: no service. I drive a few more miles, searching for cell-phone service and sanity. I begin to wonder what I used to do when I was young; the pre-hysterical teenager, lost, no phone, and only cigarettes to smoke while I tried to figure out where in the hell I was.
I try and reach my son, Matt, but he is at work and does not answer. I call my husband, Jim, and when he answers, I shout: “Don’t ask any questions.” “Where are you?” he asks. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be lost,” I answer and hang up.
Matt returns my call, and I eloquently describe my own personal hell. I recognize the golf course I am in front of as a place he golfed at a number of years ago. I tell him the name of the golf course. Matt tells me to turn around, drive several miles, turn left, and I will be about ten miles from my destination. I learn I have basically gone around Otsego Lake, dipping westward, then southward, after I took the exit ramp near Gaylord, as if it were an intended scenic tour I decided to make while Vicki waited in a parking lot.
By the time I return to Gaylord and meet my friend, I have circled the lake in its entirety. I begin to cry after thanking Matt and hanging up. I call Vicki and promise I will actually be in Gaylord in the very near future. Her laughter is contagious, and I catch it, deftly, as if nothing in the world was as funny as this moment.
I thought that after the radiation, the tumor would not be in limbo in my head. I assumed I would be better, and never miss a right-hand turn again. I would always know where I was going, but today reminds me the tumor isn’t done with me yet.
Three weeks later: I am visiting my father at the nursing home he now resides in. It is a similar Michigan day with gray skies and rain. I imagine my father feeling the same way I did when I got lost near Gaylord. Even though he is in a building with sixty other residents and a multitude of nurses, staff members, and visitors, my father is lost. He is in some place that is familiar, but it is also unfamiliar. The lines have blurred.
My father asks me how things are in Alma, Michigan, as if he still lives in the house with my mother, although he doesn’t ask about her. Two days after that conversation, he asks me how things are in Dodge City. He informs me, my husband, and friends Peggy and John, that the food contract at the nursing home has been taken over by the folks who ran the Lamplighter in Dodge City. I wonder how far back in time he has travelled, but I do not ask, and instead vouch for the merits of their fried chicken and French fries.
This past Sunday: Matt and I visit my father. He tells us he wants out, and to bring his damn checkbook. I ask him where he wants to go. He says: “I’ve got two apartments in Dodge, so I ought to be living in one of them.” Matt and I exchange looks and say nothing. My parents raised me in a small farmhouse outside of Dodge City, but somewhere in my father’s mind, two apartments still remain, most likely filled with cowboy boots and his favorite hat, pictures of his brothers, big fat cigars, and furniture he has refinished in his spare time.
I think about the power of memory and the consequences of forgetting. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. I watched her slow death coming for several years, and listened to her stories become harder and harder to believe.
There is something inherently built into the loneliness of being lost, even in a room full of people. For me, I knew that when I was lost in Northern Michigan, I would always find my way back home. For my mother, I imagine that she got to the point where just having someone in the room with her was enough to offer comfort. But for my father? I watch him as he slips between apartments and houses he once lived in, and I hope that I bring comfort to him even though I am merely his daughter, breathing in what he is breathing out.
Garbage Shoot? Garbage Chute?
As an only child, I spent a lot of time in my room reading books. Nancy Drew stories were a favorite, and at some point, I decided I could write my own stories. My parents supplied me with books, most likely to try and keep me out of trouble. When I became a teenager, I discovered poetry about love, and I decided to write my own. My friend Gretchen and I would write poems together. I continued writing really bad poetry as I grew up, and it wasn’t until I went to college and graduate school that I finally learned the art of writing and my love of language really blossomed.
When I read that Sheryl Crow figured out she had a problem because she had forgotten the words to a song, I understood. How strange it must have felt for her to suddenly lose her words in the middle of a performance; after all, she had been writing songs—and singing them—for a very long time. Crow, though, was smart. She went to her doctor as soon as she had a problem. Crow’s meningioma seems to be small and not causing any major problems for her now. Unlike Crow, I ignored my symptoms for far too long.
In mid-October of 2011, I sent Darcy a message, and I explained that I might not be able to run the Zombie Race as we had planned because of the violent headaches I continually had. On race day, though, I felt good, so I ignored symptoms I had been having in the six or seven months prior:
Headaches: Taking a nap in the middle of the day because of the intense pain in my head. Sometimes the pain would be at the top of my head or the back of my head. If the barometric pressure suddenly went up or down, I could count on getting a bad headache. I joked about getting a job for the Weather Channel.
Memory issues: Forgetting what I was doing in the middle of doing it. Not being able to name things. Not remembering information my husband or son had told me the day before.
Emotions: Roller coaster feelings. Happiness followed by long bouts of sadness.
Vision issues: Did a blackbird just fly in past me? Was that a bolt of lightning coming from the clear blue sky?
Hearing issues: We blamed my hearing issues on too many rock concerts from the past and my iPod use!
Weakness in my left arm: We had no idea, but blamed weakness in my left arm on moving, guitar playing, sleeping on it wrong, anything.
Driving and missing turns: Sometimes I missed turns in Midland. During the Pretzel Tour with Micki, Jeanne, Rachael, and Denise, I missed several turns in Traverse City. Somehow roads that were once very familiar to me suddenly became confusing.
After having a seizure and finding out I had a brain tumor, I read as much information as possible. I also asked myself a lot of questions: What if I had suffered the seizure while driving to Traverse City that morning? What if I had been running the back roads by myself? What if I had been at home alone and fallen into the water? What if I had fallen off of a ladder? The outcome could have been very different.
I eagerly awaited my surgery. I felt very lucky that I was a candidate for Gamma Knife and radiation treatment that would start the process of shrinking the tumor. Some meningiomas require a different type of surgery to completely remove the tumor. You know, sharp instruments digging into your head, finding the stupid tumor, removing it completely, and a long recovery period. I wanted no part of that procedure. There are risk factors with radiation treatments, but I decided to take my chances.
For my Gamma Knife surgery in Midland, Michigan, I had prepared a mix of songs I wanted to listen to during treatment at the suggestion of Victor, a medical physicist. Looking back at my play list, I clearly had love and drinking on my mind. Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Harrison, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, and Pat Benatar—to name a few—seemed like the perfect music to listen to while my head was locked in a cage and radiation was being shot at my tumor.
After my surgery, I thought I would be the old me. Like a Nancy Drew novel, the case would be solved and life would go on. Words would fly out of mouth like bullets. I would be the storyteller spinning a tale without dropping a word. But I am not that person.
Every day is a challenge. I wonder what word to use in the simplest conversations. Is the hoist the dock or is the dock the hoist? Am I redundant or irreverent? Or as I texted Darcy one day while cleaning out my father’s apartment in May of 2012: “I need more bags for the garbage shoot.” A second later I sent this: “Garbage chute?” This is my brain attempting to autocorrect.
I am hopeful that with time, the tumor will shrink, and I will return to the storyteller I once was. That, however, may be a while. My next MRI is in November, and I am on powerful anti-seizure medication for two years at best. I find that I tend to call objects a “thingy” now when I can’t think of the word. This is my new default word.
Lots of people struggle with memory issues and if you see me in person, you cannot tell I have a tumor. But it is there, hiding out like one strange thingy. Shoot the damn thing down a chute. Right?