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.
I developed a huge crush on Boz Scaggs when I first heard “Near You” from his 1971 album Moments. In 1994, the song “Lost It” from Scaggs’ album Some Change seemed particularly poignant to me. I listened to the song repeatedly as if I could not get enough of the sound of the guitar playing Spanish blues, Scaggs’ voice, and the lyrics. Recently, I got to see Scaggs perform with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald in Interlochen, Michigan, as the Dukes of September. As the sun set and the stagehands finished preparing for the main event, I felt at peace. This was my first concert since my seizure and the discovery of my brain tumor. I wondered if the strobe lights or the loud music would affect me.
Research has shown that people prone to seizures need to be aware that certain triggers can cause additional seizures. During the opening song, a song I cannot remember, I noticed the dimming sky on my right as the sun began to set, and the open theatre, like a giant tiki bar, seemed to set the stage for trouble. I began to feel sick, the same feeling I had before I had a grand-mal seizure, also known as tonic-clonic, during the Zombie race in October 2011. The sky changed from peaceful to menacing as the strobe lights began to affect my vision. I considered telling, Jim, my husband, we should leave immediately, but I convinced myself I could get through this; after all, I was on powerful anti-seizure medication. I began looking away from the strobe lights and towards Green Lake off to my right where several boats had parked to listen to the music. As the first song ended, I felt greatly relieved: Nothing had happened, and I had figured out a coping mechanism: Look away from the strobe lights. Relax.
The Dukes of September played a mix of songs that included Motown hits, country, and songs from the bands they had been in. Scaggs sang a variety of his hits, and Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing,” but he did not play the song I really wanted to hear: “Lost It.” I wanted to hear the acoustic guitar and Scaggs’ silky voice as he sang about “those ancient Spanish blues” and sang the words that had been stuck in my brain since 1994: “I saw myself awake, but still dreaming.” I was that person; always awake and always dreaming.
When my mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s years ago, I became aware of her stories that seemed as if they were dreams, but also seemed to have a place in reality. There are those dreams we have where we imagine our future, but what about those dreams we have when we start slipping towards the past, seemingly moving away from the present and into those places in the past, that brought happiness and the promise of the future?
My father is now in hospice care at the nursing home where he resides. He is “awake, but still dreaming.” Prostate cancer, congestive heart failure, and vascular dementia are shutting his body and mind down. He imagines that my mother is alive, although she died in 2008. He tells me stories about Dodge City, Kansas. He refers to my thirty-year old son as “little one” and seems surprised when Matt shows up for a visit, fully grown, the years of being little far behind him. He tells me stories about Pekin, Illinois, a step even farther back in time from Dodge City. When I ask my father about one of his buddies from the nursing home, he tells me a detailed story about Cal pushing barges near Pekin. Lately, the Illinois River has become a vein in my father’s heart, and the subject of his dreams as he continues his excavation of memories. I wonder about the mix between dreaming, memory, and wakefulness. Will this happen to me?
I am not dreaming now as I realize it has been over two hours since the concert began, I am dancing, a weird sort of happy dance, clapping my hands, singing along with Scaggs’ “Lido,” and looking down when the strobe lights are too much for me. I know the band will not play “Lost It.” It’s a slow-burn of a song, and now the crowd wants upbeat songs they can sing along with or dance to.
Later, as Matt drives Jim and me towards home, I stare out the window at the night sky filled with stars, and I realize I want to hold onto this moment for as long as I can. But if this memory should slip away from me at some point in my life, I will dream of it and tell you this story.
Couldn’t Stand The Weather
The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s album Couldn’t Stand The Weather shows him playing his guitar as a tornado approaches him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Vaughan seems unconcerned with the approaching storm, seemingly playing through the twister as if his guitar will protect him from danger and potential death. Sadly, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. I was 35 at the time, Matt was 8, and Jim and I had celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the day before Vaughan’s death. From the moment I first heard music by Vaughan, I was hooked. In 1988, his music became a talisman for my broken heart.
There were no signs of my brain tumor in 1988 when my daughter Nicole was born and died four days later. She died of anencephaly; her brain did not develop fully. A line in Vaughan’s song “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” seemed to speak directly to my sorrow: “Like the train that stops at every station, we all deal with trials and tribulations.” Was this my trial in life? In 1988, the answer was yes, and despite watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s in 2008, and finding out I had a brain tumor in 2011, the answer to that question is still yes.
Parents expect to outlive their children. That’s a basic fact. Peggy, a very dear friend of mine, learned this cruel twist of fate when her son Johnny died on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, when he was twenty-three years old. Not a day goes by that our families don’t think about our children. I know many other parents whose children have died, the reasons vary, and when I hear someone ask how one gets over the loss of a child, I say: “You don’t get over it; you just learn to deal with it better.”
As I began researching information on meningiomas, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between my mother, my daughter, and myself. Even though my mother is not my biological mother, I started asking myself: What the hell happened to our brains?
Since Nicole lived for only four days, I can only imagine what she might have been. For my mother, I watched her slow decline into something unimaginable as she changed from the loving mother she was into someone who would not recognize me towards the end of her life. My mother the prankster and storyteller slipped into the land where memories and words no longer existed.
My father is now slipping into the land of dementia. Even though he lives in a nursing home not far from me in Michigan, his mind seems to have erased the past years where he and my mother lived in Michigan after moving here in 1992. He is convinced that people he knew in Dodge City are running the kitchen and working the night shift at the nursing home. Most of these people he refers to are dead. I pretend they are alive.
One night I dreamed that my mother called me and needed help. She said: “Your dad and I are in danger. Help us.” When I woke up, I told my husband about my dream, because it was so upsetting. I also wrote about the dream in my journal. Later that day when I visited my father at the nursing home, he said: “What does your mother think about me in the nursing home?” My father had not brought up my mother’s name since mid-April when he was still in the land of memory and remembering she was dead. My response to my father: “She is concerned about you.” As I walked out of the nursing home, the dream seemed like a snake crawling inside my skull, warning me of danger, but for whom? Was the dream purely for my father? For me? For the family?
In “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” Vaughan sings “Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right; daddy’s hand helps to see me through.” What would I be like without my father when he could no longer help me as if I were a child? At Nicole’s funeral, I remember leaning into my father, sobbing, holding me as if I were the child, not the almost thirty-three year old daughter. When my father learned I had a brain tumor, he was supportive, caring, and came to the hospital to watch my Gamma Knife surgery on a closed-circuit television. The memories of that seemed to have disappeared now, and he no longer asks me how I am. He’s more concerned about his checkbook and escaping the prison he thinks I have placed him in.
I have heard from quite a few friends of mine that they admire my positive spirit through my losses in life and dealing now with my brain tumor. What choice do I have? We all deal with things in life, and I am no different than anyone else. When my beloved dog died recently, I had a moment where the pity party in my brain began its full dance again, but, as typical for my blessed life, my family, my cousins, and some very dear friends did the one thing that seems to get overlooked in times of grief, of sadness: They listened to me.
If I look at the big picture, I have to say I am damn lucky. I have lived a life full of adventure, have a wonderful husband and son, have grown up with some wonderful cousins who are like sisters to me, and met wonderful people who became my friends. So whatever ride I am on now with my father and his fading away, and the brain tumor that radiation has hopefully begun its magical shrinking act, I’m facing the storm like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I’m slinging my guitar like a talisman around my body, and playing my songs no matter what is headed my way.