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.
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.
Move it on Over
I will admit it: I’m obsessed with my brain. Here is a snapshot of my brain on November 16, 2011. Pretend you are facing me. There is a golf ball on the left side of my head. It does not belong there. I was not on a golf course when someone accidentally hooked a tee shot, watched it take a Happy Gilmore bounce, split my head open, and lodge in my left temporal area. The meningioma has been growing inside my head, rather taking up residency without my approval or a background check. I should charge it rent, but if I do, it requires a name and a checking account. Actually cold hard cash will do.
My SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor), though it resembles a golf ball, is more like a bad dog that follows me everywhere, pissing on my new shoes, biting my ankles, and growling at the neighbors. My SBT reminds me of several songs in which a dog is the antagonist in the “story”: Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog;” Johnny Cash singing about a “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog; or Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs singing “Salty Dog Blues.” Perhaps the most relevant song to my situation is by Hank Williams when he sings “Move It on Over”:
Yeah, listen to me, dog, before you start to whine.
That side’s yours and this side’s mine.
So move it on over, rock it on over.
Move over little dog, a big old dog is movin’ in.
On November 16, 2011, I had Gamma Knife surgery; 54-minutes of radiation was aimed at my head to slice and dice the SBT. In a few days, I will have an MRI to determine if little dog is moving out.
Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s MRI and the subsequent report, I will never be the way I was before. I see that as a good thing. For one thing, my dreams are better, more vivid, but it could be from the anti-seizure medication I am on. When I wake up in the morning, I think about my friends and family and how lucky I am. Then I move it (my body) on over to the edge of the bed, put my feet down on the floor, get up slowly, breathe in the day’s possibilities, and growl as I make my way towards the promise of a hot cup of tea. On Thursday, I will follow my morning routine as I take my moment in the MRI spotlight; and await the presence of big old dog as she rocks little dog right on out of the picture.
I 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.
In Sheryl Crow’s song, “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” she sings “I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.” I have been attempting to use this approach to my life as I negotiate the path having a brain tumor has put me on. This philosophy was recently in play as I waited for my flight at the airport in Manistee, Michigan, I noticed a small dog running alongside a man driving what looked like an oversized golf cart tugging a small plane. The flight to Chicago would take less than an hour, and this was my first flight without my husband since my brain tumor invaded my life. I figured the dog would bring me luck.
As the plane rose above Manistee and headed towards Chicago, I watched the incredible view of the coastline and Lake Michigan. Micki Holladay, Jeanne Beilke, and I had decided to rent a car in Chicago and travel Route 66 until we reached Lebanon, Missouri. Once there, we would cut to the west and travel to the Lake of the Ozarks and stay with Gretchen Leonard Steffen and her husband Robert. Rachael Livingston, the fourth member of the Pretzel Tour Gang, would be there waiting for us. Jon Jambor, another high school friend and dubbed an associate Pretzel, would also be joining us.
I had not seen Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael since August 2011 during Pretzel Tour 2. My seizure, followed by the subsequent discovery of my brain tumor, was in late October 2011. I had not seen Jon or Gretchen since Pretzel Tour 1 during the summer of 2010. I wondered if my language, memory, and emotional problems would be noticeable or if I would be able to hide them. I also have balance problems, and I wondered if I would fall down somewhere or wipe out in the middle of a tourist stop on Route 66.
Our adventure started well, and we stopped at a lot of tourist spots on Route 66. On the second day of our trip, Micki slipped her personal mix of music into the cd player. Nat King Cole’s version of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” set the stage for our journey:
“If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. A-get your kicks on Route 66.”
We were getting our kicks, no doubt about it. However, I was having trouble with the heat and humidity, so I tried to rest when I could and stay out of the sun. I think Micki and Jeanne were afraid to let me try my map skills after my most recent bout of getting lost, but during a torrential downpour, severe weather, a horrific bus accident that shut down 55 on both sides, and crazy detours, my mapping skills were put to the test.
We had been travelling along on Route 66, which parallels 55, when Mother Nature showed us who was boss. With Micki driving, Jeanne riding shotgun, and me trying to negotiate Google maps from my iPhone in the backseat, I thought I was guiding us to a little winery just north of Litchfield.
In what became known as the “Litchfield Incident,” I guided us to Litchfield, where water gushed out of downspouts and small lakes covered the streets. The sky stayed the same dark gray. As Mr. Blue Ball on my Google map happily bounced along as we made forward progress, we stopped in amazement as we reached our destination: Litchfield’s police department and fire station. No winery was in sight. From that point forward, I was relieved of my duty to guide us anywhere.
After a fantastic trip on Route 66, we set aside our quest for the history of the Mother Road, and headed towards Gretchen’s in the Lake of the Ozarks. As a child, my parents used to take me to the Lake of the Ozarks, and they had once taken Gretchen and me there for a weekend of water skiing and goofing off. I was overcome with happiness in this place that was somewhat familiar, but also so unfamiliar.
My friends were incredibly kind to me, reminding me to take my medication, helping me down the steep slope of Gretchen’s driveway, and encouraging me to traverse the floating dock. I tried to keep up, but I could no longer do so. I spent a fair amount of time sleeping or resting, enjoying the beauty of the lake, the joyous laughter of my friends, cuddling next to Gretchen’s dog Dakota, a Golden Retriever, and talking back to a very large parrot named Poncho.
After leaving Gretchen’s lake house, Jon led the way to Lawrence, Kansas, with Micki and I close behind. Rachael and Jeanne brought up the rear of our caravan. Jon parted ways with us, and the four of us had a beer and a bite to eat at the Dynamite Saloon. After walking around for awhile, it was time for Micki, Jeanne, and I to head east towards Chicago. Rachael had to head back to Tulsa.
We spent our last night together in downtown Chicago. I was too tired to go out for dinner with Micki and Jeanne, so I got comfortable in my bed and watched the Olympics. I was exhausted: I wanted to go home. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Had I let enough time go by to be out in the world? Could I last one more day to reach the comfort of my husband and my home?
The following morning seemed to go off without a hitch; no second edition Litchfield incident seemed to be in my forecast. Jeanne was scheduled to fly out of O’Hare airport later in the afternoon, and Micki and I headed to Midway. Although Jeanne and Micki had their boarding passes, I did not: Public Charters out of Manistee was small, and I had to wait to get my pass from their check-in booth. Micki and I arrived around 12:30. She was ready to head to security. Public Charters did not open until 4:00, so I had no way to go through security without a boarding pass, and the section of the airport I was stuck in had few chairs, lots of screaming children, an over-priced snack bar, and restrooms tucked in corners. I panicked. What if I had a problem? What if I couldn’t figure out how to get through security without becoming confused?
In “Modern Friendships,” an essay by author Phillip Lopate, he suggests that “Friendship is a school for character, allowing us the chance to study in great detail and over time temperaments very different from our own.” Learning to understand my frailties over the past year, and even longer as the brain tumor wedged its way into my psyche, I realized I needed to confess my concerns to Micki: I was scared.
Micki walked me over to the escalator and we rode downstairs to a large area filled with people on our right headed to the baggage claim area and people on the left joining the long line of folks waiting to go through security. Carefully, she explained to me just what I needed to do.
We returned to the upper area, where Micki spent time talking to me before it was time for her to go through security and head to her concourse. She reminded me of what I needed to do when I finally got my boarding pass. As she walked towards the escalator, I reminded myself that I used to be the confident one, and the friend anyone could count on to help through a difficult time. Wasn’t that part of me still there? Had the brain tumor eliminated what I considered my best attributes?
I finally secured a seat to wait for my airline to open its booth, and two small boys ran up and sat next to me. Their teenage sister sat down on the other side of them: Our foursome was complete. The children played games; I pretended to read my newspaper.
Once again, in my lucky life, things fell into place. Public Charters opened at three—an hour earlier than predicted. The man and woman behind the counter asked me if I would like to check my bag even though it was a carry-on. I sent it on its way. All I carried now was my small over-the-shoulder bag. I had three hours until my flight.
When I arrived at security, I noticed a sign for an “Express” lane. I asked the woman there if I was a candidate for “Express.” She smiled, said yes, and sent me down the hallway past all of the people standing in line. As I rounded the corner, another woman waved me through. I placed my bag and shoes in a bin, sent everything through the x-ray machine, was waved through the metal detector, and made my way to my concourse.
As I approached my boarding area, I heard a voice call my name: Micki was waiting in the concourse. We had a short conversation and another passenger joined in as we discussed the boarding process.
Later, after Micki boarded her plane and took off for Denver, it was finally time for me to board my flight to Manistee. The pilots flew near the magnificent downtown Chicago area as we headed north and eventually east. We entered a bank of clouds at one point, but soon the clouds disappeared, and I looked out my window and saw Lake Michigan below me. A freighter cut a smooth path across the water, and I realized that I, too, was part of something moving forwards, and what I left behind would be memories in the wake of kindness bestowed on me by friends and shared stories with people from my past.
Lopate, Phillip. Getting Personal. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Print.
“Everyday Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow, Brian MacLeod, and Jeff Trott
“Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Bob Troup, 1946.
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?