“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
Growing up in the country allowed me to wander freely as long as I followed these basic rules: Stay on our property and under no circumstances cross the Arkansas River that cut behind our house. The song “Walking After Midnight,” sung eloquently by the late Patsy Cline, reminds me of that freedom to explore without fear. Although the narrator of the song is looking for her lost love, the narrator could also be someone in search of the past in order to understand its significance. Grieving for someone seems to force us into a cycle of memories and what ifs. Since my father died last year, the month of June and Father’s Day seems so bittersweet now. Some days my emptiness is as big as the midnight sky.
Last year’s June brought many changes. My father’s health had taken a turn for the worse in May, and I knew he would not be with us much longer. After my mother died in 2008 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my father seemed to rebound, and he enjoyed his life to the fullest. He was stubborn, opinionated, and very loving. I inherited my father’s stubbornness, and I believe I inherited his kindness and friendliness. He would talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. When we camped at Cedar Bluff or the Sandpit, I could count on a lineup of people outside of our camper, formerly a small school bus, waiting for one of Bob’s famous breakfasts on Saturday mornings. He never turned anyone away.
People used to comment that I looked a lot like my father, and I always found this rather strange, since I was adopted when I was two months old. My father and I were so much alike that any slight similarity in temperament translated to a physical correlation in the mind of strangers or acquaintances not familiar with our story.
I am still figuring out my story as I discover information about my birth family, but I know that I could never imagine a life without the father and mother who adopted me. I have wondered if I look like my birthfather, but I cannot imagine a life with him even if I knew who he was. Would my birth father have allowed me the freedom to walk after midnight? To make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and still feel a father’s love even as I was being grounded for a month? Would he have allowed me to paint our camper a bright pink? Would my birth father have choked up before walking me down the aisle and told me how much he loved me? Would my birth father have held me at my daughter’s funeral as if I were a little girl again? No, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without the father I ended up with. Isn’t that the way life is? A lucky roll of the dice or an incredible sacrifice by someone that ends up being someone else’s blessing?
My birth mother gave me up for adoption: Sacrifice. That story is long and complicated, and I am working up the courage to write that story. I have seen pictures of her, and it is as if I am looking in a mirror. Lillian died in 1998, and I did not start searching for my birth parents until 2011, oddly enough, about nine months before I found out I had a brain tumor. When my original birth certificate arrived, my birth father’s name was listed as “unknown.” When I sent away for my adoption records, I had hoped to at least find out my birth father’s name, but all I learned was his date of birth and that he was of German ancestry. He was “not interviewed” for the adoption proceedings. When I asked the woman at the American Adoption Congress in Kansas why my birth father’s name was not listed, she replied that “unknown on the BC made it quicker to process the adoption at that time.” Even in 1955, expediency was the name of the game. Isn’t that what we do in life? We sometimes take a chance and do what feels right for us, but it may not be in the best interest of others. All I wanted was a name and perhaps a picture of him, but these are things I will never have.
In a way, it does not really matter. I grew up loved. My adoptive parents wanted me, and my mother reminded me of this frequently. In 1955, they had no genetic markers or family stories to obtain a sense of who I might become. I was a tabula rasa in human form. They drove from Wichita to Dodge City, Kansas, and Connie Jo, my given birth name, became Melissa Jean. Family and friends welcomed me as if they always knew I would end up as Wilmer “Bob” and Margaret Lynn’s daughter. As I grew older and began to carve out my identity, I was allowed to ride my bicycle or my horse near the river or along the roads that defined the Wilroads Gardens community.
The freedom I had to explore changed in 1965 when I was ten years old. I remember walking down the two-tracker that ran parallel to one of our fields to the river one day and sitting on a ledge above the dam. The Arkansas River flowed next to our land. I was allowed to be near it, but I was forbidden to cross it and head for Fort Dodge. Despite my parents’ adamant stance against crossing the river, my friends and I did this as often as we thought we could get away with it. But on this day, I had little time to waste because newscasters had warned of an impending flood. I wanted to see the river one last time. I looked at the small gates that were used to divert the water into an irrigation ditch, the concrete ledge that supported the gates and was the perfect spot to cross to the other side of the river, and the dirt-covered bank on the side of the river where I used to fish from. A wall of water heading our way from the mountains of Colorado would forever change the landscape.
Our friends and neighbors in Wilroads Gardens and all low-lying areas of Dodge City, Kansas, moved quickly in preparation for the flood swiftly moving towards us. My father and several men loaded our cattle and my horse into several livestock haulers. I would never see those cows or Willie again. My mother packed everything she could into our cars, and she placed what she could not take on top of the furniture we had to leave behind. After spending a few minutes staring at the river that day, I left my favorite spot and ran down the two-tracker towards home. My mother seemed relieved when I returned and put me to work.
My mother told me to pack my favorite things to take to my grandparents’ house where we would end up living for over a month. Content with my dog “Stinker” and purple Stingray bicycle, I said I was done. She suggested I pack some clothing. My mother and I drove into Dodge City and headed towards the north part of town and safety. My father stayed behind to place sandbags around our house, and then he and a large group of men worked feverishly near the dam, throwing sandbags down onto the hard ground in the hopes that they could save Wilroads Gardens from the brunt of the water’s destruction.
As we listened to the radio that night, the announcer’s anguished words described the wall of water as it rolled towards Dodge City. I imagined my father standing near my favorite spot above the river, ordering the water to bypass our house. Luckily, my father and all of the men working near the dam were warned to head to higher ground long before the churning waters roared into town. They headed to a campsite on some rolling hills overlooking Wilroads Gardens and waited.
Meanwhile in Dodge City, my mother and I waited—and worried—about my father’s safety and wondered if we would have a house to go home to. Later the next day, when my father finally called, we were relieved that he was alive as were the other men who had worked so hard to save our community. He said our house, east of the dam and south of the dike, had suffered some damage, and our fields and barns were destroyed. Everything left behind in our garage washed away, including a trunk filled with pictures of my father’s side of the family, and Willie’s saddle and bridle. If our animals had been left behind, they would have drowned as they were swept away.
According to my father, when the dike that formed a ridge on the south side of the river broke, the main current somehow turned away from our house. He said we would not be allowed to return home until it was safe, and he did not know if it would be days or weeks. After the water receded, quicksand filled our yard, and rattlesnakes crawled aimlessly through the destruction. My father sold Willie and all of our cattle. It would be a long time until our land recovered.
We, however, were luckier than some. Many people in our neighborhood had to start over with only the things they had taken with them. One of my best friends lost her house completely. It ended up in a dry river bed downstream from where it used to be. Although forbidden from entering the house, we went inside anyway. A child’s game sat in the corner, mangled and covered with mud. When we thought we heard someone coming—perhaps it was the house eerily moaning as the foundation shifted—we ran as fast as we could to escape. For the rest of that summer, we passed the time riding our bikes, playing with our toy cars in piles of dirt now covering our yards, and tried to ignore the smell that the floodwater left behind as it worked its way eastward. People in our community cleaned, salvaged, and rebuilt. My father warned me to stay far away from the dam and out of our fields. Life had become dangerous. As I climbed into bed every night and looked out my window, I could imagine the area next to our driveway where Willie used to roam and snort at me when I yelled his name out my window. West of Willie’s special pen, our field, once filled with grazing cattle, remained empty with only a border of cottonwood trees to remind us of the Arkansas River flowing nearby concealing the stories of its devastation as if a card player holding a pair of aces and eights.
When my father died last August, I held his hand as he had once held mine as a child, and I thought of that tiny farmhouse I grew up in. My parents sold the house years ago when they moved to Michigan. I wish I could see that house again and my father standing by the back door asking me where I had been. I would like to thank him for everything he ever did for me. Father’s Day is going to be tough this year, and I know I am not alone in my sadness. Perhaps I will take a walk after midnight if only to the water’s edge in front of the house I live in now. I will close my eyes and remember the house I grew up in, and a river that could not wash it or a father’s love away.