I grew up in a family of storytellers. On a typical Sunday, my grandmother would show up at our house after attending the Presbyterian Church in Dodge City, Kansas, and during Sunday’s meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn, my mother and grandmother would sharpen their wordsmithing skills as they told their favorite stories. One of my grandmother’s favorite stories involved a relative crashing through an outhouse as he sat for his morning constitutional. My mother enjoyed telling stories about her artwork. Drawings, decorated eggs, and handmade jewelry were so much more than the materials they were made from. Although my mother tried to teach me how to decorate eggs and draw pictures of people and places, I found my creative side through storytelling. From a very young age, I began writing poems and songs to play on my guitar. I learned from the best—and not just from my mother and grandmother. I recently attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. Wordsmithing and listening to each other’s stories were the featured attractions.
Once again, I was excited to be in a workshop run by The Living Great Lakes author Jerry Dennis. I first attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference when it was in its infancy at Camp Daggett in 2001. My friend Darcy Czarnik Laurin and I attended our writing workshops, had a memorable canoe ride along the swollen Bear River, and survived with the help of a preacher who guided us out of our very precarious situation. Paddling is difficult when your canoe is stuck on a log in a fast-moving river. Darcy also tried to kill me with a paddle, but she still claims she was trying to whack a spider crawling on my back. But that’s another story.
Workshops are interesting beasts. As a freshman comp, literature, and creative writing teacher at SVSU, now retired, I understood that writing was difficult for many students, and providing honest feedback on their work was essential in order for them to improve their skills. Just because a student’s mother liked his or her poem, did not mean it worked. I never quite knew what to say to a tearful student demanding I change my opinion.
As writers and readers, we have a responsibility to dive deep into what another person has written, explore its meaning, and give constructive feedback. Personally, I prefer feedback on my writing to be brutally honest, as does my long-time friend poet Chris Giroux, a professor at SVSU. We exchange our writing with each other in order to make it better. Honest criticism always works for me. Bring it on.
I have gone to the Bear River Writers’ Conference nine times since 2001, and I have attended Space, In Chains author Laura Kasischke’s workshops four times during a span of sixteen years. One year I opted for The Art of the Personal Essay author Phillip Lopate’s workshop, and it was truly memorable. My fourth time in one of Jerry Dennis’s workshops would allow me another chance to practice my skills as a writer. The feedback on my writing from each of these authors over the years has been instrumental to my growth as a writer.
I was very concerned about attending Bear River this year after the crazy leg surgery I had done on April 7th. Since I have a very long recovery, I wondered how I would get around the grounds of Camp Michigania, and how I would be able to sit for long periods of time both in workshops and listening to authors read. Not to worry! When I showed up on registration day, the Key Administrator, Jessica Greer, handed me a key to a golf cart so that I could get around easily. She had also placed me in the nearest cabin to the Education Center so that I wouldn’t have as far to go around campus. Life in the slow lane wasn’t so bad after all.
In workshop, I was offered plenty of opportunities to stand up and stretch, and people were very kind in making sure I was comfortable. Although it is always intimidating to be in the company of so many good writers, there was a feeling of kindness and empathy as we worked our way through revisions. Nature, grief, longing, memories, history, and the need to understand how the world works were some of the themes present in our stories. We listened carefully as each person read. We offered feedback to make the pieces stronger. Yes, it was a very good workshop.
Baseball batters often have a walk-up song played before they step up to the plate. As one man in our class was about to read, I wondered what his song might be. He did not share his song with us if he had one. My song has been “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan since 1983 when it came out. My son was a year old, and life was wonderful. I don’t play baseball, and my short-lived attempt at playing softball when I was barely pregnant with Matt was disastrous. I was that grown up out in right field messing with my hair as a fly ball headed my way and dropped dead in the grass a foot in front of me. I did, however, become a runner, and for the past thirty years, I have run road races all over the state of Michigan. Since I injured my leg in October 2015, and especially since my surgery for an acetabular labral tear, I am on the disabled list. My physical therapist said that I should not even attempt to run until next April. In everyday life there has to be a theme song or a song that seems to get your heart pumping and your blood moving. From the first moment I heard “Texas Flood,” the guitar licks and the words have somehow mattered to me. That song is always on my playlist.
I hope that if you are reading this, you have a walk-up song that pumps you up before you step up to the task of being an empathetic and kind person in this world today. Listen to people’s stories when they tell them to you. Read what thoughtful writers are concerned about. In an essay for Ploughshares titled “Poetry, Science, Politics, and Birds” by writer Bianca Lech, she says that “a world with more lovers of books is worth striving for.” In addition, she suggests that a world with more birders would indeed connect us to nature in ways that would bring us joy. As a birder myself, I agree wholeheartedly. Isn’t that what we should strive for at the start of each day? A little walk-up song as we head out the door, a willingness to listen to each other as we tell our stories, and, at the end of the day, a book to read to learn something new about the world and to connect us to others? As we watch the sun go down and eventually go to sleep, our dreams will prepare us for tomorrow and the chance to do something that matters.
With the drop of the needle on a brand new turntable my son bought me for Christmas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes blasted from the shoebox-sized speakers on my desk. Static, crackling noises, and the occasional skip over a story-there-somewhere scratch in the vinyl all contributed to a 33-rpm rewind into the past. I danced and sang as if no time had passed since my parents had given me my first two rock-n-roll albums in 1965. I soon followed the Supremes with the Beatles IV album. My husband and son seemed to fade into view as I reverted to my ten-year old self. Musical nostalgia worked its magic fingers into my heart and soul.
When I was young, my parents played music in our living room on a stereo that was as long as a bathtub, but not as wide. One of the first albums my parents bought specifically for me to play on the living room stereo was Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck. Am I fascinated today with ducks and all things feathery because of this? Is Burl Ives responsible for my obsession with listening to a song repeatedly until I am sick of it? I still have the album. I’m resisting the urge to play it right now on my new turntable.
Matt’s gift to me triggered memories that I had long forgotten. Daniel Levitin in The World in Six Songs, suggests that “music triggers memories long ago buried, and this seems especially true of popular love songs” (278). While growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, my mom, dad, and I listened to music on the stereo and in the car. Radio station KGNO catered to my parents’ crowd, but I loved listening to KEDD, “The Rock of Dodge City,” on the AM radio dial. On television, we watched The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hee Haw, Shindig, The Monkees, and any show we could find that focused on music. I learned the ways of love by listening to music in my home and car. Music created a different version of an idealized fairytale romance than books did, well, at least the books I was reading. Is there anything more romantic than listening to George Harrison sing “Something” as you sit in your bedroom and contemplate life? If the bedroom walls in the house I grew up in could talk, they would tell you about a dreamy-eyed teenager who spent an enormous amount of time imagining her life, framed in a song.
I could also dream on the dance floor when I ventured out to listen to Dodge City bands live. Friar Tuck and the Monks at the National Guard Armory! Birth live and on-stage at the Warehouse! Their covers of popular dance songs, and especially love songs I was sure were being sung to and for me, further sent me spiraling upwards to the land of all things musical, and downward into an avoidance of anything called homework. Whenever I hear a song from my past, a story always seems to mirror the lyric of the song.
If “memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller” (162), according to Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light, then some of my stories seem a bit confusing to me now. Why was I so obsessed with Grace Slick? As soon as I got home from school during the week, and long before my parents would arrive home from work, I would rush to the stereo, insert a spider (45-rpm adapter) into the record, slide the record down upon the spindle, let the music begin to play, and then sing and dance. Yes, I was that weirdo. I played “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” while I worked on my best Grace Slick impersonation. Was it just her voice that compelled my fascination with those songs, or the forbidden desire for an altered state of mind? Or did I just want a very cool boyfriend who could play a rocking guitar? The story I would tell today that would suit my older and wiser self is that I loved the freedom of belting out a song about love in my house, and singing “White Rabbit” made me feel very cool and dangerous at the time. When my parents were home, I played music in my room, and in our small 1940s farmhouse with paper-thin walls, I started to believe my name was “Turn it down.” When I sang with my mother in the kitchen, we were as loud as we wanted to be.
My mother and I both loved to sing, and she taught me the art of making up silly songs in the kitchen while doing dishes or eating fried carrots as fast as she could make them. My father would sit in the living room, a mere twenty feet away, smoke his cigar and drink a Coors beer after a hard day’s work. I think he enjoyed hearing us as we became giddy with laughter at our nonsensical verse. We could really cut a rug in that tiny kitchen.
When my son was growing up, I realized that music was another way in which we could spend time together. I liked playing with cars and Legos, but music had a way of working its way into our lives every day. We played music constantly in our house, and Sesame Street worked its way into our daily lives. I can sing “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” to this day, and my son is 35 years old. I also started making up songs just for my son. I still make up instant songs, and I wrote songs for the workplace band I used to be in.
Over the holidays, we were visiting the neighbors and their extended family, and my 88-years-young neighbor mentioned a song I wrote, “Radio.” I had performed the song with the band, The Cremains of the 10th Circle, when they visited my home a few summers ago. She and some of her family members, friends, and neighbors, had attended our basement rock-and-roll party. Perhaps this was my Grammy-award-winning moment. Someone remembered a song I wrote and performed. Hold the applause, and pass me a beer!
Rod Stewart sings that “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and I believe that every song I love has a unique story hiding behind the lyrics if I am willing to pay attention to it. My memories of the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood” are a bit muddled though. Even though I cannot remember what radio station I heard it on, or where I was at the time, I remember thinking that I had just fallen in love with a song, a guitarist, and singer. I could not get enough of that song. Is there a difference in our memory-making process when we are older as far as falling in love with a song? I wonder.
I still love the Beatles and the Supremes, and I easily time-travel to that space and time when I could dance and sing in my house and feel nothing but love and joy surrounding me. Yes, there were many, many nights I listened to songs of heartbreak in my room as I grew up and teenage boys messed with my heart, but I also played songs that forced me to get up and dance.
When I was with my cousins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last September, Sybil played “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars on her phone for us. I have the song on my running playlist, so I knew the song well. We all began to do some sort of version of dancing. We had it. We owned it. And now whenever I hear that song, I am safe in the arms of music nostalgia. How will I tell this story ten years from now?
For the moment I think about my mother, and how she would have joined us jitterbugging our way around my cousin Audrey’s house that day. I am fortunate that my parents, especially my mother, loved music so much that it was a necessity, like bread and water, in our daily lives. So even though the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the Beatles “Words of Love” may have opened my eyes to the ways of love, I believe that songs I have yet to hear will be teaching me many more things as I dance and sing my way into the unknown.
The morning’s gray sky dripped with humidity and the promise of rain. I could not wait for the rest of my day to get started. The members of the band I used to be in were coming to my house to play music. For several years, I had dreamed of the ReCremains reuniting and playing music on my lawn with Higgins Lake as the background. Mother Nature laughed at this plan. After 1.5 inches of rain fell, I stared at the large green sponge that used to be my lawn. This was no place for electrical equipment. We would have to rock in the basement instead.
One of my former students, Christi, arrived first. Bandmates Lori and Kirker arrived soon afterwards and began unloading equipment from their car. Their amps, guitars, cables, and percussion instruments were added into the mix of my guitars, amps, piano, and keyboard. After figuring out a plan for setting everything up, we warmed up our fingers and voices by playing a few songs. Our friends, Peggy and John, arrived to watch the band perform. We chatted in between songs and awaited the arrival of Mike, Bill, and their families. We needed our piano man and our bass player.
Even though I was among friends and at my own house, I had performance anxiety. I had not practiced with the band for over a year. When I retired from Saginaw Valley State University in 2010, and my husband and I moved to Higgins Lake in 2011, the commute to SVSU became problematic. When my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) tried to take over my life, I wasn’t even sure if I could play guitar again.
There is something to be said for both a runner’s high and the way one’s brain works on music. When I was recovering from brain surgery, I soon realized that I always felt better when I ran every day and listened to music. I finally attempted to play guitar. Again. I started writing songs. Again. I read and reread books such as This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I soon discovered that although I could not remember things that happened six months prior, I could remember the words to practically any song I had ever heard whether it was Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music was the fix I needed; it was stronger than any medicine could ever possibly be.
After everyone else arrived, plus our neighbors from next door and my mother-in-law, Mike sat down at the piano, Bill fired up his bass guitar, and we began to play. I wished for our former drummer Frank, but he now lives in Virginia. I don’t remember what song we played first, but between songs, I spoke into my microphone: “I am so happy.” I repeated this many times throughout the afternoon and evening.
We ran through a bunch of our original songs, and when we played “Radio,” a song I had written years ago for the band, my fingers flew across my guitar, and my voice felt strong. We continued playing original songs we had written over the years: “Monkey Groove,” “Cream City,” “Carnival Clown,” “Swamp in My Heart,” “A Happenin’ Place (If You Happen To Be Dead),” “Highway Michigan,” “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat,” and so on. Occasionally we sang a cover song by the Stones or the Beatles. Christi sang Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” At some point, Peggy picked up a cowbell and joined us as we made merry music. We played “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for Peggy since she had requested it. We also received requests for an Elvis song, and Bill broke out some major bass moves while singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill’s granddaughter Alara requested “The Alphabet Song” and “Wheels on the Bus.” We gladly obliged. She sang along and danced. Similar to a runner’s high, playing music had kicked my mind into happiness overdrive.
Eventually we knew it was time to stop. We were all exhausted. Although we had taken a break to eat dinner, we had been playing music for close to four hours. Or was it longer? My legs felt as if they might break. My voice was hoarse from singing and yakking into the microphone between songs. My neighbor, Jessica, suggested stand-up comedy might be in my future. I may seriously consider that. Not!
When I went to bed that night, even though I was exhausted, it took a long time for me to fall asleep as I relived the night’s musical madness. The next morning, I went down to the basement and looked around. The room that had been alive with music and mayhem seemed different now. Better. I had rocked in this basement with friends.
When I still taught at SVSU, author Ken Follett came to campus one year. My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to the meet-and-greet. Instead of talking about writing, we ended up having a short conversation about playing guitar. He said that playing in a band made him a much better player. I realized this was true. The more I played music with Mike, Frank, Bill, Kirker, and Lori, the better I wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter. When Brei and Danielle, two SVSU students at the time, sang with us for a short while, I wanted to be a better singer, although I knew my alto voice could never compete with their vibrant sopranos. Despite this, I began to feel more confident.
Although Mike still encourages me to play lead guitar licks during songs, I still freeze up the moment he motions towards me. I am happy playing rhythm guitar and singing. I know I am the worst musician in the band, but they put up with me. They also seem to like the crazy songs I write, and with guidance from members of the band, those songs have become better than when I penned them as I sat alone with my guitar.
I am already planning on next year’s event: August 2015, on the lawn, under the light of a bright full moon. I am thinking of songs we could cover: “Moondance,” “Werewolves of London,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” But it is the ReCremains original songs that really highlight the heart and soul of this group of musicians. Our poetry. Our brains on music.
On Soul To Soul Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice growls “You can’t change it / You can’t rearrange it” on a song aptly titled “Change It,” written by Doyle Bramhall. The song describes a relationship that has suffered through its share of mistakes, “painful memories,” and “back-door moves.” The song invokes the concept of forgiveness for past mistakes and the idea that if only one could rearrange history, or perhaps have an opportunity for redemption, there might be a chance for the relationship to survive. We all make choices every day of our lives, such as what we eat, where we go, what we do, but we also make choices that impact our friends and family. There are times I have made choices to protect myself, both physically and emotionally, and there are times I have made choices I thought would bring joy and happiness to someone and found the reverse to be true. If I could change or rearrange a moment in time when I made a friend of over thirty years so angry with me that we are no longer speaking, would I? No, and I will tell you why.
As a child and a teenager, I hurt people for my own selfish reasons. Equally, people hurt me along the way. We all seemed to survive, heartbreak withstanding, and we learned something valuable. At least I did. As I grew older, I tried to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic. However, there were times when I did none of these things well, and my inner-brat reared its ugly head; I was not kind to people who really needed my kindness. I could have been a better friend, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, neighbor, mother, and wife. I made mistakes, and I figure I will make lots of other mistakes before I die. When I screw up, typically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my joke is that I have made a mistake this year (yeah, it’s only March), so I should be done for another 365 days. Fat chance.
Friendships as relationships seem to have their own special place in our history, our psyche; they serve as a mirror of the kind of person we wish to be. I am not suggesting we seek out people exactly like us, but rather that we seek people who share some rudimentary notion of life that we do and who still like us after we have done something completely idiotic.
Some friendships fade as geography, jobs, family, and life move us into different spaces. Sometimes a person’s actions break the bonds of kinship. Years ago, someone I really liked gave me used deodorant as a Christmas gift. She said it made her “pits break out,” and she thought I could use the deodorant. Seriously. If we had been children on opposite ends of a seesaw, I would have jumped off my end to hear her butt smack the ground and laugh when she screamed with pain. I threw the deodorant in the trash.
Some friendships intensify as fate deals out its cards and you find yourself at your lowest point. There’s an old Jimmy Cox song that Eric Clapton covered on his Unplugged album, and the narrator explains “then I began to fall so low / lost all my good friends / had nowhere to go… / nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” So true. I remember discovering this when my daughter Nicole died. People avoided me in public or said completely asinine things to me. One day at a grocery store, a couple my husband and I knew quite well, spotted us, and basically sprinted out of the store to avoid us. We never heard from them again. It was as if we had been given a Scarlet letter, perhaps a “G” for grief, something that many people cannot quite negotiate. On the day of my daughter’s funeral, a woman from the church leaned toward me and said tersely: “You should have prayed harder. I prayed for all three of my children.” I really would have liked to bounce her ass off of a seesaw, but the heavy weight of the “G” on my black dress prevented me from making any sudden moves.
This phenomenon of avoidance while someone is clearly “down and out” happened again when I learned I had a brain tumor. Having an SBT (stupid brain tumor) is not a subject many people can easily talk about. In fact, it can be a real conversation stopper. At first I didn’t want anyone to know I had one, and then I shifted into telling complete strangers as if by declaration I could own it and defeat it. Now, once again, I don’t like to tell anyone: I just want people to think I’m weird. It’s easy to flip the letter: M for Melissa to W for weird. Problem solved.
I thought I was figuring things out and learning how I would spend the rest of my life with SBT forever and ever stuck in my head. Negotiating what the medication and SBT were doing to my head and body, I seemed to be coming into a fairly good space. I had finally learned what I could and could not do physically. I started writing and reading again. I could remember stories I read. I could remember that my husband told me what was for dinner ten times in a three-hour period. I believed I was funny again. I started playing my guitar and singing the raunchy songs I knew and loved, most of them written by me or my band mates.
Then the sequence of events that slipped me into the “down and out” phase began: I pissed off one of my best friends; my seventeen-year-old dog died; my father died. I started wearing the letter “G” again as I stumbled through my days. My family put up with me, but drew the line at my sudden outbursts of songs I made up on the spot, typically involving their names in the chorus. My friends, but not the one I had pissed off, called me, showed up, texted me, emailed me, brought me chocolate chip cookies and beer, and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. But let me backtrack for a moment.
I spent the months of April and May last year dealing with my father’s illness, his subsequent move to a nursing home, and the additional task of emptying out his apartment. My dog’s health also started to decline. Three of my dear friends decided to come to my house for a few days to cheer me up and go visit my father at his nursing home. We got the bright idea to visit another friend, the one I would deeply piss off. We had all known each other for years. Although my soon-to-be-ex-friend seemed out of sorts with me that day, I didn’t think too much about it. No one else seemed to notice anything. Several days later, I called her to invite her to dinner with some mutual friends. She gave me a verbal smack down I will never forget. If we had been on a seesaw, my ass would have hit the ground with a sonic boom. I started crying as she continued telling me everything that was wrong with me. I guess I prefer small doses of being berated and reminded of my faults. My husband, fully aware of whom I was speaking to, watched me carefully. The crickets in my head, a condition SBT is teaching me to live with, started chirping, and I could no longer hear what she was shouting at me. I said to her: “I can’t understand what you are saying, and I have to hang up.” I did. The next day, I received two emails from her itemizing everything I had done wrong within a three-day period. Several weeks after the initial emails, I received a very long email deconstructing my faults. I wondered why she hadn’t included the past thirty years, since I was fairly certain I had screwed up at least a gazillion times in the past.
She needed her “space,” and she felt as if I had her “under surveillance” even though she lived miles and miles away from me, and I had been dealing with my father’s issues in a different town over eighty miles from my home. Apparently she thought I had one hell of pair of binoculars in my possession, or perhaps she thought I had a drone hovering over her house. She also accused me of not saying the right things, which I agree I am darn good at. Even before I discovered SBT, I had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother would have called it “foot-in-mouth disease.” As my list of sins grew longer, I became more and more flummoxed. Flim-flammed. Flabbergasted.
In addition to my grief over the loss of my father even before he was dead, I knew it was only a matter of time before my dog would die. I admit I was a walking nightmare during these months with death knocking at my door. My SBT also decided to rear its ugly head and create balance issues for me. The only thing that kept me going forward and not climbing into the back of a hearse for my own ride to freedom was the mercy my family and friends showed me. Mercy. Oh, and a lesson I was about to learn.
In one of my ex-friend’s emails to me, she explained that she had certain friends she did certain things with. I did not find any categories in which I comfortably fit. The thought of category friends deeply interested me. I considered my running friends. We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, and helped each other out a moment’s notice. What about my teaching friends? We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, or helped each other out at a moment’s notice. What about high school friends? We travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, oh, you get the drift. It seemed tedious to me to think I had to categorize my friends, but what was more upsetting to me was to realize my ex-friend had excluded any categories in which I could fit unless I had some sort of extreme makeover. Why was I just now finding out I was no longer good enough for her or her friendship?
It’s awkward now. People who assume we are still friends ask about her. When I answer, I feel as if I am in high school, and I have to explain why my boyfriend broke up with me. “Well, you know, he liked someone better than me.” Typically, I just say my ex-friend is busy, and I haven’t seen her for a while. The lie slips easily off my tongue.
I wish I could ask my father for advice. He was more of the “to-hell-with-them” kind of guy if someone didn’t like what he had done. My mother’s response would have been more nuanced. She would have told me to “kill [my friend] with kindness.” Was she really suggesting mercy? How do I show my friend/ex-friend mercy? How do I show her kindness when all I can feel inside myself is a year filled with so much loss and grieving? I know now I could never be myself around her again, because I would always be afraid of screwing up the friendship. I would fall out of some imaginary category I fit into. I must have misunderstood the friendship all of these years.
On one beautiful spring day last year, I walked into her house with several other women intending to embrace friendship and accomplishment, when, instead, I ignited a slow-burning fire that must have been waiting to ignite with just the right amount of kindling. If there is regret on my part, I shall focus on not seeing the warning signs in the decline of our friendship. As for mercy, I do not ask for mercy from her; rather, I seek mercy to forgive myself. The poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Sometimes we are so busy in life seeking forgiveness from others, that we forget to forgive ourselves for being human. I continue to be a work-in-progress, understanding that my next mistake is just around the corner where I might just find myself on the wrong end of the seesaw.
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.