Meandering to Memphis, part 2
After taking a more direct route home from Rhode Island, I went back to work, back to the political games of who did what, back to biding my time. By this time I worked in the same office for ten years (God bless the folks that do it for 30 or 40, but it’s just not me) and in basically the same job for 14 years. I started counting down to retirement, but soon began to consider an exit. How much more backbiters could I deal with or how many more plans dashed by lack of support? But I made some new friends, truly enjoyed working with some of the smartest and most dedicated people I have ever met on projects, and got out of the house more on nights and weekends. But when some senior staffers who didn’t work kept finding fault with what I did and took long-term projects they refused to help with out of my hands, I knew it was time to go. I reached two of my three retirement goals – 20 years with the National Guard and a reasonable sum in retirement funds. Of course I still had a mortgage, so I put away cash and non-retirement investments away for two more years. I had one more decision to make – would I stay there and keep my house or leave the area?
I also began active worship again, with the Episcopal Church. I always had that spark of faith, but attending services and spending time with the small church community of St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene motivated me and helped me deal with loss in a way I didn’t think possible. It was also a warm welcome. My first service was an Easter Vigil, with one of the priests – she was an ex-Marine – preached about them dry bones from Ezekiel, singing the line from the old spiritual “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…” I was sure she was looking right at me! I had been away from church, after being raised a Catholic, with 12 years of Catholic school, for 25 years. Active worship and study with others – Bible and a book study with Deacon Bob Runkle – made me think about how I treated others and how I could do better. It made me think about what living as a Christian was about. Helping not judging; showing up to do something meaningful instead of writing a check (I wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore!) or donating clothes and household goods I no longer needed. It made me think about spending time doing something useful to someone in need. It was part of a decision to look for a job that didn’t leave me exhausted; some work that left me with energy to do other things. I had been missing involvement in my community and being part of a church community drove that point home.
As much as I loved the area, housing was getting expensive, and focusing less on a career would lead to lower pay. I also wanted to save some creativity to put something of myself on record – a blog or something. I wasn’t involved on any social media at the time. As much as I enjoyed my house, I didn’t think I could afford it on a lower wage and since I wasn’t a handyman, I would have to pay for eventual repairs. I had some money, I had some motivation, and I had some ideas. I bought a camera. I spent my 50th birthday in Southern Idaho to get away and think, enjoy the natural beauty of the Bruneau Sand Dunes, the Snake River Valley, and one of my favorite places on the planet – Thousand Springs. I walked about seven miles around the springs, discovering divisions of the state parks created around them. One was kind of boring, a flat walk along the top of a canyon with a river – I could look down and see it in spots – ending in an overlook at top of a box canyon. At the bottom is one of the largest natural springs in the country – 180,000 gallons per minute. It makes that river. At one point, I saw a path alongside, down in the canyon. I thought, well, I’m 290 pounds, I’m 50, I have high blood pressure, but if I can get down there – and the all-important get back up the 250 foot drop – I can do anything. So I did. I had to chat with a few friends and family, but coming back out of that canyon I think my body made up my mind to leave my job and house, leave the security of what I had, and go out searching for a new me! 500 feet of climbing down and up were all steps towards Memphis. Two weeks after that trip I turned in a resignation letter giving a 30-day notice.
Leaving the security blanket of an almost 17 year career baffled some folks. They thought for sure I had a plan, a job offer. I told them I was headed out to listen to the wind. I had one thing to do first – sell my house. I made a plan to get outside and play, spend time with friends, and work on the house and yard to make it look good. I got a lot of help from friends – and their adult children. I also hired a guy to finish a project I started about five years before. When I headed down that canyon in May, I was about two-thirds down when I heard a helicopter. I thought to myself good – someone called ahead for help. I didn’t need help that day, but it foreshadowed all the help I got every step of the way during that transition time. I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. But everyone knew a realtor and the one I picked had a buyer in mind. I got my wish to get out of the house quickly. I got my last paycheck in July and sold the house by the end of September. Three bedrooms turned into a 10x20 storage unit. I sold, donated, or gave away everything in that house of little significance. The last thing to go was the Panasonic TV I bought when I moved back to Idaho 17 years earlier. I also lost 25 pounds. I was ready to go.
I have friends and family in every part of the country. In addition to Rhode Island and my Mother I decided to base a meander around the “lower 48” on them. There were also places I wanted to visit and some I wanted to visit again. With all the things I got rid of there were a few I gained. I hadn’t camped since 1989. I really wanted to camp in Idaho on the way roughly south, but an unusually wet and cold October conspired against me. The federal government did the same. I dealt with a few threats of government shutdowns in my time as an employee, but after I left it got real. The Department of Defense furloughed people for four total days. Then all our so called representatives in the White House and Congress forgot what they were hired to do and shut down everything. Which for me at this point only meant adjusted plans – the parks and campgrounds were closed. Just as well – along highway 12 in Northern Idaho I found an ungated camping spot – and it started raining again, a 40-degree rain. I decided to push on to Salmon, Idaho, a town I had been to before and really liked, but it was going to be in a hotel room. I thought about Lewis and Clark coming through his part of the country. I started a Tumblr blog named in part for their expedition. My “Year of Discovery” was about this “Corps of Discovery” of one, and all the things I encountered in that year. Meriwether Lewis didn’t have warm, dry hotel rooms. I did. I had to drive by the gates of another favorite place (Craters of the Moon), but after a compromise I drove through Zion National Park – which was packed. I threw down a tent, cooked my steak and peppers, and woke up to the wonders of the Grand Staircase the next day, a dry but 27 degree morning, outside of Kanab, Utah. I sent three days hiking and eating and sleeping on the ground in various parts of that incredible land. After another three in Colorado (back to warm hotel rooms!) I celebrated a Red Sox World Series win with some special people and homemade firewater. As I left my sister Elizabeth and brother-in-law Mike in Missouri, I told them I knew where I was and wouldn’t gloat about the Sox (beating the Cardinals again). I was headed to the Birds’ AAA affiliate’s hometown. I was going back to Memphis.
“For the second time I was overcome on this trip, though I expected to be, unlike stumbling across the graveyard and memorial at Amache.” I contemplated as I wrote this, the stunning beauty of nearly a month in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. I also thought about the ruins of civilizations in Colorado and Utah – evidence of great human triumphs. Lurking in those ruins, however, were clues to humanity’s darker side. The people of Mesa Verde once lived on the canyon rims. Those famous cliff dwellings were built as defensible positions nearly 400 years before the Spanish arrived. There are folks who would have you skip the part where Native Americans fought and killed each other, sometimes their own people, and go right to the “European invaders.” I “discovered” the ruins of another human tragedy on the other side of Colorado, just 70 miles from where I worked as a young airman, a site I knew nothing about when I was there, and actually drove by many times. What became known as Camp Amache was our government’s Granada Relocation Center, where over 10, 000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were held inside barbed wire and guard towers during the early years of World War II. I listened to the biting wind there. There is a memorial to the courage of man there, the ones who fought for the country that took them away from their homes. One of them earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. After fun on Beale Street and learning more about Memphis business and music history I now I stood at the site of another human tragedy. While the National Civil Rights Museum was under renovation, I stood under the balcony outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. I also looked down at that spot from another viewpoint across the street. I didn’t know before I stood there that this was the point from which James Earl Ray murdered the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. But the museum also tells of the courage of Dr. King and so many others. I thought about which side of that window I would have been on. I like to walk in the footsteps of history but sometimes it makes my feet hurt.
I was on an information-gathering mission that weekend. I talked to a couple at a downtown bar who had moved here. I was fortunate to have been in Memphis at the end of the Indie Memphis Film Festival. I went to a wrap party at the Warehouse and talked to artists and lawyers. This privately owned performance space, open to the public only on special occasions, was unlike any venue or home I had ever visited. I walked around and someone recording the event looked at me and said smile. I was just taking it all in; sort of in a daze. I saw the Hodges Brothers (of Hi Records fame) perform, six months before Mabon "Teenie" Hodges passed away. He was the co-writer and guitar player of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” among others, a “Founding Father” of the sound that came from Royal Studios that for a third time in music history made Memphis the place to be. I made it a point to talk to as many Memphians as possible in just two days. And even after a late night Saturday, I got up and walked to Calvary Episcopal Church downtown and received a warm welcome there, of course, and met my first Episcopal Bishop. I had only been on the road for a month and had a long way to go, but those few days gave me a lot to contemplate. Part of this journey was about looking for a new place to call home. The atmosphere and people here on the river where my meander took me made me start on a list of things I wanted from that new home. Memphis had at least some of those things. That wind was shifting south.
It took me some time to appreciate where I grew up, to really enjoy visiting. But every time I came back to Rhode Island I was ready to “fly” back to Idaho after a matter of days or a couple of weeks. It was always an internal struggle. I loved my family and truly enjoyed spending time with them, just not here. But I also enjoyed my quiet time and privacy away from work so that was another battle. I was used to being on my own. Taking the train back and forth a few times helped me to decompress on both fronts. Still, I had a good relationship with my Mother and knew it would end someday. Her health issues were taking their toll. One of the primary reasons for taking this time was to spend some time with her, not just running to and fro holiday celebrations and shopping (that added to the stress of visiting around Christmas), but just hanging out. Going to lunch. Eating Chinese food. Just sitting drinking tea. I also had one assigned task while visiting. My sister Paulette took her to Doctors’ visits and ran errands. When I was back there for a week I could offer her some relief for an hour or two. From 2013-2014 I was there for four months with my own vehicle. I could spend time with my Mom and give my sister a break. An added bonus in the summer of 2014 was that my sister Elizabeth was also there, staying with my Mom and helping her with day-to-day chores. So I got some extra time with her as well. But in that cold winter of 2013, I was ready to escape and head south. My brother Michael lives in Williamsburg Virginia and I had it in my mind to really give that southeast corner of Virginia and North Carolina another look – I visited long before he lived there, for work in 1998/9. We also had a nephew in Florida, one I got to see once a year during Christmas holidays. I was looking forward to seeing his family, chasing some history in the southeast and exploring Florida. I spent two weeks in the now crowded Tidewater region of Virginia and a month total in Florida, from St Augustine to Key West to the white sand of the Gulf Coast. After that I spent a week in Alabama and Mississippi, then New Orleans.
Along the way I began to formulate the list I mentioned. This eventual move would be to the first place I ever lived completely voluntarily, possibly with no ties. I didn’t want to return to the same type of work. I decided to choose a location, and then look for a job. People always laughed when I said I was cursed with good experiences. I had lived or worked in every corner of the contiguous states. I liked the Northeast in the Fall, the Southeast in the Spring, the Southwest in the Winter, and the Northwest in the Summer. I was doomed to frustration and total bliss anywhere I lived. I had to choose. At the top of the list was being at least a little closer to family. I lived in Missouri for two years and that was out for a host of reasons. I enjoyed live music, which had been a rare commodity in a lot of places where I spent my adult life. I can only stand so many covers of the so-called classics, some of which were songs I really liked but was tired of hearing. I wanted some conveniences, primarily a short trip to work. For nearly 17 years I drove 40 miles one way to work. While I carpooled with a friend for most of those years, it was a time and money black hole, sucking resources and time and me into it as well. I needed to live cheaply. I rarely attended any sporting events and really like baseball. I wanted opportunity to get involved in the community and church. And between the Northeast and Northwest, I was kind of tired of snow. Again, I draw a chuckle when I say “I woke up one day and realized I didn’t snow ski/board/shoe/mobile…just shovel and drive to work in it.”
I continued that meander, had an absolutely draining but memorable and educational stay in New Orleans, spent weeks with my niece M’lis outside of Houston, quality time with my friends Bob and Tracey in San Antonio, and explored the wilds of West Texas – the mountains and areas near the border. I worked with Bob for a while, we stayed in touch, but I hadn’t seen them in 10 years. I took a staggering path through New Mexico, a state I love to visit, then had my plans for Arizona go awry when my brand new Ford Escape had transmission problems. I didn’t experience Tucson as I hoped, but it was nice and thy have a great Ford service department I shouldn’t have needed. I had some chats with border patrol. I stayed with my ex-sister-in-law (my Brother that passed) and considered Las Vegas – some great hiking just outside the city, including another battle with a boulder trail – but I have a little gambling problem that I now avoid easily, so even that warm, dry, exciting and convenient city with sports teams came off my list. The car problems cut short my time in California, but I camped in crowded Yosemite and cold Lassen Volcano National Parks. When I cut back into southern Idaho, it started raining again – in June. I still haven’t camped in Idaho since 1989. I spent a few days catching up with friends in Idaho and Washington, the end of the loop. Thankfully my friends Brad and Nichole put up with me, since it was Nichole’s birthday, an epic event on this planet, a weekend of fun and friendship. Then I was streaking east again. My Mother’s 90th birthday was coming up.
After a fun-filled week, a week of extended family and old friends, a week which celebrating our Mother turning 90 years old, I had work to do. I had revisited a good bit of the country, focusing on where I really enjoyed visiting – the Southeast, much of which had been undiscovered territory for me, and the southwest, filling some holes in experiences of a region I truly loved since running around the open country of southeastern Colorado so many years ago. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for work and I didn’t know where to do it. I felt I had to solve one part of that equation to solve the other. I needed to focus. Leaving what was essentially a vocation, working in defense and emergency management, I decided that what I did for a living would not consume me again. So my focus shifted to where I would do…whatever I was going to do for a living until retirement. I have two retirements waiting for me, neither one sizeable, but enough. My retirement from the National Guard comes with benefits. If I could add one more I would be set for retirement. I was also thinking of a relatively short-term deal, not working another 17 years, but just enough to make it to one of the two retirement ages at 60 or 62. I went back to that list of what I wanted in a new home and scoured it – an interesting place, with things to do; a place more diverse than where I had been; a place somewhat closer to family, most of which is in the Northeast; a place with little or no snow to deal with, where my street wouldn’t be snow-covered for weeks on end; a place with sports and music and convenient/close travel to work. After spending a few precious months with my Mother, walking the blocks from my niece Suzanne’s house where I stayed that summer to her apartment just about every day, I left in October for a job fair in Memphis.
I sometimes think I should have returned to my Mother’s apartment after that trip. Instead, I prevailed on my friends Brad and Nichole for a place to stay and they took care of me. I really didn’t want to spend that much time in Rhode Island; day-to-day there got to me. If I was to leave the area I called home for 17 years plus 3 just down the road while at college for good, I wanted to hold on a little longer. The job fair was a waste, except I learned how low wages would be in Memphis. As I blogged at the time, I woke up to a new routine. No more adventure or finding new places, just getting on the computer, applying for jobs, rewriting my resume. The money I had targeted to last a year of traveling was just about gone after about 15 months. After two months, I returned to Rhode Island, by train, to visit for Christmas. It was a difficult two weeks. Even my Mother wore on me, can you imagine? I let some of that frustration fly the last day I was there, but quickly apologized to her. It was an effortless act I’ll be happy for the rest of my life. In those few months, I decided it was going to be Memphis or bust. Maybe both. I began to think about moving to Memphis without a job, but I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. I returned to my friends’ house determined to find work in Memphis, but also gave some thought to another little adventure.
I have been to dozens of National Parks in my life. Some of them, in my later years of travel, have been slow enough that I got to talk to the employees, the rangers working desks and entrances and giving tours. I learned they were mostly seasonal employees. While I spent a pretty much snowless winter at my friends, getting outright rejected by employers in Memphis or hearing nothing at all, I began to think about a mixed travel/work adventure. I searched the seasonal – and some full-time – listings at National Park sites. I thought, what could be better than a paid adventure in some great destination in Arizona or Utah, or one of the Southern states? Most of the temporary opportunities started in April, so I could work while continuing to look for work in Memphis. With withering enthusiasm I received rejection after rejection for jobs presenting talks to groups of people for the government. Apparently I wasn’t qualified to do something I had been doing for 17 years. Then I got a break. When I worked on an Air National Guard project in Virginia Beach I took a ride to the North Carolina coast. I got as far as Bodie Island on the Outer Banks before I turned back, woefully short of seeing the big lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. As a matter of fact I couldn’t see anything, with fog so thick I didn’t even realize how close to the crashing Atlantic I was. During my “Year of Discovery” I stayed in Williamsburg with my brother Michael. I dragged him along for a ride down the Outer Banks and we made it to the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which had been relocated to higher ground. We drove back from Kitty Hawk in pouring rain. Great weather, that unprotected strip of land. I thought it might be better during the summer, and I had never lived that close to the ocean. I got a return call from the permit supervisor of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore! I decided to commit and packed my belongings, loading them in a small U-Haul with a lot of help from my friends, hitched a trailer with my Escape to the back, and unpacked them near my sister in Missouri. I had a six month job selling permits for beach driving for a national park. I walked into a three bedroom house (roommates would be following) on the beach just south of Nags Head, North Carolina on Easter weekend. It was 14 hours from Memphis.
My plan was simple. My "stuff” was in Missouri, I had a six-month temporary job – just in time, since I was finally out of my one year fund, and I’m sure my friends were tired of me hanging around – and was pretty sure if I stuck to my plan I would be in Memphis soon. Bonus – my brother Michael was two hours away in Williamsburg Virginia. I was looking forward to meeting room mates and co-workers, and enjoying living on the beach on the Outer Banks. My adventures left me in better shape, 30 pounds lighter, and rested, so I also had a more positive attitude. That first weekend I celebrated one year in the Episcopal Church with a big congregation – St Andrews-By-The-Sea – in Nags Head. I met the rector, Phil Glick, and a few parishioners. The following week was orientation and training, including a tour of the various points of interest within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The Wright Brothers Memorial, where they first took flight, I had visited twice before but remembered some parts of the story wrong; Ocracoke Island, and two historic lighthouses – Bodie Island, where I was supposed to work at the visitors center; and the mighty Cape Hatteras light – and got to climb them both, something that would have been just a wish a few years ago. Physically I was fine, but the 220 foot height of Hatteras, the tallest in the country, triggered my fear of heights. I got a few pictures, but stuck close to the structure – yes the rails are open. I couldn’t wait to tell my Mother about my latest adventure! One story stuck out more than the others. When I called here that Thursday night, though, while she was in rehab in a nursing home for a broken leg, she really didn’t talk much, telling me she was so tired – “why am I so tired”, she asked. The one story would have to wait. I would call her again a few days later, before starting my first day of work. As I got older, we talked every Sunday night. I would jokingly end with “Stay out of trouble” and she with “My love, God Bless” – but not that night.
My Mother lost her husband, her partner of 51 years, in 1996. Then she had a stroke – a bleeding stroke, in her brain. From then on it was problems speaking and comprehending language, hard to imagine what she went through as one of the world’s greatest conversationalists. I could see and hear the frustration as she struggled to find the words she knew so well. The stroke also caused her to have routine seizures, sometime “brain incidents” where she would black out, sometimes mentally, sometimes physically. Then they were the “hard” physical seizures, similar to epileptic fits. Hose would take a day or two to recover from. She lost her son, my brother Donald, to cancer. Through it all she was teaching us – get knocked down, rest a minute, get back up and get going. Throughout her 70’s and 80’s, she continued to travel, was always up for whatever was going on – whether it was one of her (Pheysey) family reunions, one of the grand/great/great-great grandkids dance recitals or just lunch or dinner – she didn’t want to sit at home.
The best story of that orientation day – for my very British Mother, loyal subject of the Queen (yes, my Mother was an alien!) was about how in the early days of World War II the British Navy sent a few commercial boats converted to armed escorts to guard convoys out of U.S. ports, the shipping that was vital to their survival, the American ships that were losing men and cargo to German submarines in the Atlantic. A British crew lost their lives in this effort off the coast of North Carolina, their bodies retrieved and buried in a small cemetery on Ocracoke Island. We visited that place of honor, which flew a British flag. Instead of sending the remains of that crew back to England, the U.S. gave the land to the British. There was one place in my country that was part of the British Empire – I had set foot in her country for the only time in my life. I told the story at her funeral a week later.
I wish I could better explain – or maybe a more accurate word is describe – faith. To me it points to something outside myself. When you hear stories of “finding faith in a foxhole” (whatever battle you’re waging) I suspect there was some spark or ember of faith in that person before the fight. That’s how it was with me. Returning to active worship gave air to that ember. Some deride faith as a simple crutch or a ridiculous explanation of an event (ie, physics kept that brick off your head, not God). For me it’s a foundation, or a tool so much more complex than a crutch. Faith allowed me to walk away from a job and home. Now faith helped me deal with loss. I have, in the past, and will again, share some of the words I spoke at my Mother’s funeral. I spoke of my faith, religious traditions of friends, and the power of nature. While I mourned the loss, I was comfortable in faith that my Mother, who had experienced economic hardship and war, heartbreaking loss, and physical and mental pain for years, was now free of all that. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” Little things, like a picture, have meaning when viewed from a certain perspective. I don’t know where it came from, but a small picture hangs over my table as it did hers, at least in later years in her apartment. I don’t remember it from our house but treasures appeared when she was getting ready to sell the place. The picture is the classic rendition of Jesus at the door, a door with no handle. Many times in those last years, especially in the months I spent with her while I was wandering about the country (those months, I think I said earlier, were planned, not incidental to the trip) she would point up at that picture and tell me – “you see, you have to let Him in.” Of course only recently did I read that passage from the Book of Revelation (3:20) – “…I will come in to you and eat with you…” Did she know that part? Strange, how it ended up over the table. She was an example of faith, an example of how to deal with pain and loss in faith. I didn’t know how valuable that lesson was, or how soon I would need that example, that faith.
We were finishing up cleaning and moving things out of her apartment – it had to be done while we were all together so not just a few were left with all the work. Those of us living outside the area were mostly leaving three days after the funeral. It was a kind of closure I didn’t have after my Father’s funeral 19 years earlier. We shared some stories and meals as we worked together, going through bits and pieces, keepsakes and souvenirs of a life. We were all hustling boxes and furniture out to the elevator and trucks. I felt pretty good, but like everyone else, was getting tired. Only a few more items, then the sleeper couch. It went to my niece Suzanne’s house for their basement living/spare room. Then it was off to my sister Paulette’s for fish ‘n chips from a local takeout place, one of our Mother’s favorites. Yes it was difficult to eat without her, but work makes hungry. Eating in a hurry before a gathering at one of my other niece’s apartment, I felt uncomfortably full. I didn’t think I ate too much, but I reasoned that I had. Later, I was sore, and as we all got together I felt really beat up and just sat in a corner. The week of stress had just caught up with me, I thought. But no, a few minutes after drinking just one beer, I felt this absolutely excruciating pain in my back. Damn that couch, I thought, I aggravated an old injury. But this was different – not the lower back injury, not the left side where I had occasionally jacked up a disc, not the right shoulder blade – hey, I lifted a lot of weight since high school, I had a lot of little nagging injuries. No, this was different. It hit me right in between the shoulder blades and it was like a pole being stuck through me – deep, not muscle or tendon. And worse, I thought I had discovered blinding pain. My vision was tunneling, with a buzzing or dizzying sensation in my head. I asked my niece Suzanne – I was staying with her and her husband – to take me home. I needed to lay down. I was sweating, riding with the window down on the way to her house. After using the bathroom and not feeling better. I thought, with hesitation because I had no health insurance, I should go get checked out. We drove to the closest ER. I walked in, tried to explain my symptoms and got wheeled back into the examining rooms. Later, family members came in, my brother Michael rubbing the spot on my back – I still thought I had an injury and it felt good. They figured I had a heart attack, so ran some tests and put me on blood thinners. The symptoms didn’t change. I lost track of time, but the pain kept me awake. I had never so much as broken skin, I told people later. No broken bones, one set of stitches in my hand when I was a kid. This was bad. A doctor came in some time later (turns out it was early the next morning and she was a cardiologist) checked me out, and ordered a CT scan. Well, now you now what an aortic dissection, a tearing of the layers of an aorta, looks and feels like. I may have had a heart attack, but it was not what caused my pain. They were pumping blood thinner into me, wondering why it didn’t help. Meanwhile I was bleeding out! I chatted with the ambulance crew on the way to Rhode Island Hospital’s operating room where a thoracic surgery team was arriving. I wanted to see my family, but they were focused on getting me to the surgeon. Somewhere along the way they had me sign a release that I understood I might not make it through the surgery. I didn’t really think it was much of a choice. I had faith.
Science says I should be dead. Many who suffer an acute aortic dissection like mine don’t make it to the hospital. About half don’t make it through surgery. One of my favorite things I hear in Memphis is this answer to “How are you today” – “He opened my eyes this morning.” I woke up the next day – April 19, 2015. He opened my eyes – and there was my sister Paulette and a priest from St James in North Providence, the church I had been attending while I visited my Mother. My sister looked rough, Marilyn Smith Mason, the priest, smiled, and I knew I was okay. Only later did I find out that “incidental” risks of the surgery and dissection include brain damage – the tunnel vision was not blinding pain, it was the loss of blood supply through my carotid arteries – paralysis, loss of or irreparable damage to kidneys, and a whole list of nasties. When we had time to talk, after two days in ICU, the doctor explained what happened. A combination of my high blood pressure with spikes caused by exertion and of course the loss of my Mother, combined with heavy lifting, had caused a catastrophic tear in my ascending aorta, which they repaired, a further tear nearly all the way to my kidneys (millimeters) which is not repaired, a “blowout” requiring a bypass of the right coronary artery, and damage to my aortic valve requiring replacement – a titanium valve. If the dissection had traveled the additional millimeters to the aorta’s root I would have bled out in minutes. Science was not in my corner that week. It still isn’t – five year survival rates are around 40%, 10 year survival is around 50% of those that make it off the table. That is my new reality. That is my urgency. That is faith telling me to get to work – doing what, I haven’t figured out yet. But as I recovered in Rhode Island, my boss at Cape Hatteras was fighting for me to keep my job. The folks I had just met at St. Andrews were praying for me. My friends and fellow worshippers and priest at St. Luke’s in Idaho, led by Father Pat Bell and Deacon Bob Runkle were praying for me. Deacon Bob sent me a prayer shawl they had knitted for me – I still use it today. And Rev. Smith Mason and (now the late) Rev. Dr. Judy Mitchell led my new friends at St James in prayer. Peter Bak from that church and his therapy dog visited me in the hospital. When I was released, the body that had hiked miles through desert and canyon, seashore and wetlands, mountain and prairie, couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. I stayed with my sister Paulette while she and my sister Elizabeth, who stayed after our Mother died to help me recuperate and to sit with a dying best friend, cooked and served my meals, cut my nails, and tied my shoes. I started walking, but mostly watched TV, and went to a lot of follow up appointments. I remained determined to get to Memphis, but this was a giant step backwards.
After two months of gradually recovering, learning new diets – I’m on blood thinners for the mechanical aortic valve – and finally walking a few blocks, I got the okay to go back to work in North Carolina. I enrolled in the VA to do follow ups, starting with a whole new slate of doctors, and walking on the beach. That turned out to be the best possible therapy, combined with a lot of pictures, from jellyfish to pelican aerobats. I love the ocean, even when it crept up close to the house on a few occasions, so as those walks got longer and longer, I healed, mentally, emotionally, and physically. My roommates and some of the folks at the park helped too. My “family” at St Andrew’s-By-the-Sea was great. I finally got to know a few of them, met the men’s group for breakfast on my days off, and enjoyed the early service in the old church. The later service was too big and held in a new, three times the size, church. But my two coworkers were not happy to see me. They had developed a system while I was gone and thought it should continue. My survival messed up their plans since they had to integrate me into our office operations, and of course I was new and slow. I was glad it was a temp and when I was invited back for winter season, I did not apply. I had to travel, usually on my days off, to the VA in Hampton Virginia just about every other week, but that also meant I got to spend time with my brother Michael in Williamsburg, about an hour on the other side of the Hampton/Norfolk area. Somewhere around all that, I continued to fill out online job applications, mostly in Memphis but hedging my bets with other temporary jobs and positions. I learned to appreciate Shelby County HR, who refused me quickly, as opposed to federal jobs, some of which I heard from months later. I kept at it. Meanwhile I enjoyed some short road trips on days off other than the days I had medical appointments, visiting Buxton, Hatteras, Plymouth, Washington, and New Bern, North Carolina. And I walked. I used to hate walking, but the dissection does not allow for strenuous exercise, so climbing lighthouses or lifting weights or swimming in that crazy current were out. If there’s one thing that truly bothers me, it’s living with those kinds of restrictions on physical activity. I once thought, to improve my health, I would take a physical job in Memphis, something that would help me turn a 60 pound weight loss into a reshaping adventure, but that was out now. When I left the federal job I committed myself to nothing too stressful or any job I would be “married to” – I had those jobs and now I wanted to leave enough energy after work to volunteer in my community, and work on some kind of online project, writing, photography, or whatever. In my career I wrote guides and presentations and lesson plans, so I wanted to use that creativity for some other purpose. So that pretty much left admin jobs, or trying to use my Human Resources degree in some entry level capacity. I continued to apply. Tennessee State called me back on a position but refused to allow for a phone interview – and then sent me a letter that made it look like I had failed to contact them. I considered volunteering for housing in Murfreesboro, Tennessee at a National Battlefield and moving to Memphis without a job. But that would lead to no income and having to prepay a lease. I was finding more roadblocks than roads on the way to Memphis.
Then, while I was out sightseeing, just four weeks away from the end of my temporary appointment, I got a call. The Tennessee Department of Veterans Service was looking for an admin assistant – was I interested – YES! I have always interviewed well and was confident that if I got an interview I had a good chance of getting hired. And this supervisor was okay with a phone interview! After some technical difficulties we connected and talked. He called back a few days later, but the news was they wanted me to interview in person. With my new limitations, Memphis was a two day drive. Meanwhile, we were facing a tropical storm that started to dump rain on the Outer Banks, then a hurricane advisory. Interesting thing about staying in park housing – yes, we paid rent – is that of the park closes, housing closes. As the area was already flooding from the tropical storm, when the hurricane approached they shut down the park. We had to pack up everything, clean up, and leave. So I picked up, packed up, and traveled out of the fastest way, with my Escape full of things that probably exceeded the limit I was supposed to be lifting, and went to Memphis to interview. It was really just an informal meeting, required by the regional commissioner (who turned out to be a real piece of work) who didn’t meet me for the interview. The next day I headed back to Nags Head, as the all clear had been given. I had two weeks left in the assignment.
A few days later I got another call – I was offered the job – I would be making about 40% of what I had in the Northwest, less even than what the National Park paid, but I accepted. I had gone to Memphis, interviewed, broke my diet to eat some BBQ – when I tell folks I moved to Memphis on a low salt diet, they look at me like I really am an alien – unpacked again in North Carolina (partially) and then packed, out-processed, and left North Carolina. I spent a few days with my brother while I had some medical appointments at the VA, then headed west. I checked into the Econo Lodge downtown and started looking for an apartment. I was keeping a blog at the time, titled after a Clash lyric – ‘Destination of the Override’ – a reset switch in their story – and mine. I found an apartment near Overton Square, started work, and of course was using a GPS to get around. I had it set for my new apartment after some shopping for apartment stuff on the other side of town. I turned it on to plan a route and got “You have reached your destination.” I have reached my destination. This isn’t really a destination, but a new jumping off point. A reset, a new adventure, much of which is documented somewhere on this site, a project I started to talk about my experiences and people I met along the way – and music. I continue to have health challenges, and I’m not really sure what’s next, but that’s how I got to Memphis!