Once upon a time (okay the ‘80s), in a land far away (actually Oklahoma, far at least from me, now, in Houston, Texas), there lived a high school cheerleader named Crystal. Her parents had both been cheerleaders. Her older sister had been a cheerleader. Her older brother would go on to Oklahoma State University and become the school mascot Pistol Pete, a cheerleader of sorts.
The thing is—Crystal was a quiet girl. She liked reading books. She liked boys too much. And although she liked dancing and gymnastics and performing, she didn’t like yelling, and she lacked an interest in contact sports. But there was a family tradition to uphold, and Crystal tended to be good at things she didn’t like, like math and cheerleading. Crystal also tended to be a people pleaser, and so she was a cheerleader.
More than thirty years later, Crystal’s dad would be cleaning out his own house, the one where she grew up, and getting rid of things he didn’t need and things that didn’t belong to him. He gave Crystal her high school letter jacket, the one that identified her as the cheerleader she never cared to be. The vinyl sleeves had begun to sweat a waxy residue over the years of hanging in a dark closet. The jacket was a hot sticky mess, and besides where does a fifty-year-old woman wear the too-small letter jacket of a high-school girl? And why would anyone need an oozing, never-to-be-worn-again jacket to hang in a closet for thirty more years? The jacket was not worth saving, but it was worth a story. And so Crystal snapped a few photos and wrote one, and she lived happily ever after.
Not too many years ago in an old shoebox of memorabilia, I found a Mother’s Day card I made for my mother. I’m betting I was in Mrs. Goff’s second grade class when I created a butterfly with tissue paper wings and glued it to the front cover of the folded construction paper. On the inside I scrawled a poem with a No. 2 pencil:
fly home to my mother.
Please tell her
how much I love her.
Although it’s entirely possible that I copied this poem for an elementary school assignment, I want to say that I wrote it myself. I’ve Googled the lines, and I’m not finding them on the World Wide Web.
In the spring of 2015 or 2016, I re-gifted the handmade card to my mother, and she was thrilled with what I had made as a child and saved as an adult. This was before the Alzheimer’s advanced.
Today as my mother turns 80, I’m thankful for the opportunity to spend her birthday with her. And when we can’t be together, I’ll forever send her butterflies with all my love.
To the left of the Winmau dart board hung a stenciled wooden sign that read, “Póg mo thóin.”
“I wonder what that means,” I said with a tilt of my head and my hitch-hiking thumb pointing toward the sign.
“Right?” Kody said as he aimed his dart. “It sounds nasty.”
We had dropped into a new Irish bar, new for us, where the green twinkle lights on the covered patio drew us in, green velvet bar stools invited us to sit, and a darling bartender with long red hair poured us drinks—a Wild Basin Black Raspberry seltzer in a chilled glass and a Jameson Caskmates IPA neat for me. To our delight, there were nice dart boards in a room on the other side of a partitioned half wall and darts with pointed tips. I emphasize nice and pointed because we have a tendency to play in a place with a terrible board and darts with blunt tips that don’t stick. Like the twinkle lights and green velvet, these were wonderful surprises.
I had been practicing my aim, and our game was tied. It was a matter of shooting two more bullseyes. I already had one, and so did Kody. With my eyes on the board, my ears overheard a conversation between two guys at the bar, “What’s the longest road trip you’ve ever taken? I mean, not with your parents as a kid, but that you drove yourself.”
I couldn’t hear what the other guy said, but the bartender said, “Probably Austin. I never drive anywhere.” She seemed very young, but now that I’m fifty, so many people do.
I wanted to pipe into this conversation, but I was busy concentrating on my target. Ready. Aim. 5. Ready. Aim. 16. Ready. Aim. 2. Kody said, “I’m telling you, you’re on the spot.” My darts were close, but not close enough.
Kody couldn’t hit his either. His darts fell on the 9, the 14, and the 8. He breathed out with a huff.
“Thanks for giving me another chance,” I said with a smile. My wins against Kody are few and far between.
The first road trip that came to mind was the one I took with my friend Misti back in 2009. She had moved to Sitka, Alaska for a couple of years, and she was moving back to Texas and driving her car, the first stretch for her via ferry. And so I flew to Sacramento and met her to keep her company for the rest of the way home. We stayed in Sonoma Valley that first night, toured Napa, and dined at Bottega, Chef Michael Chiarello’s restaurant, where I had my favorite meal of the trip—Tortino Rustico Southern Italian ratatouille in a mascarpone pastry shell, fresh goats’ cheese, heirloom tomato sauce and arugula salad. I hate to be one of those people snapping photos in fancy restaurants, but I don’t regret keeping the memory.
I threw my darts again—6, triple 12, 10. By the way, if you don’t play darts, I hit the twelve on the small red strip on the inner circle, which means absolutely nothing. Triples on 15-20 is exactly what you want, but I had closed those numbers.
From wine country we spent a couple of days in San Francisco, drove down Lombard Street, toured in a double decker bus, walked on the Golden Gate Bridge, ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, caught a performance of Wicked, and ate pizza in a parlor alongside the famous San Francisco twins. From San Francisco, Misti and I traded off driving first down Pacific Coast Highway One and then east toward Las Vegas. And you know what they say about Vegas—what happens there, stays there.
Kody had another opportunity to beat me, and as he threw 20, 17, and 16, I heard the guy who proposed the road trip question mention his travels between Houston and Odessa. “It’s a good ten hour drive, but I just take my pee bottle.”
“Did he just say pee bottle?” I said to Kody in a voice quiet enough that no one else could hear. “Who needs a pee bottle? Just stop the damn car.”
Kody said, “I don’t need that much time. I’m already driving 110.”
There was a note of truth behind his joke, and suddenly his driving seemed better than traveling with a bottle of pee. No offense if you happen to use a pee bottle, just not my style, and I laughed and shook my head.
From Vegas, Misti and I drove southeast a bit before hitting the Historic Route 66, stopping for restrooms and gas along the way, and after an overnight respite somewhere in Arizona, we sped on toward Santa Fe where we spent another night at a nice resort and celebrated with massages in teepees. Misti planned every last detail, and I’m the friend who says, “Okay!” I’m not sure who was Thelma and who was Louise. Brad Pitt may or may not have shown up along the way. But instead of running away and driving off a cliff, we drove right into Dallas back to our jobs and the reality of our lives. No one was hurt in the making of our escapade. Well, Misti might have been, but that’s her story to tell. Anyway, that is how you road trip with one of your besties.
I held the dart with three fingers, my index and my thumb with my middle finger to steady it. I stared straight in the center of the bull. I threw. I missed. I refocused. I threw my second dart. “Kody?” I said, pointing.
“Is that it?” he said, and he walked forward for a closer look at my dart in the red center of the board, worth a double bullseye.
“Didn’t you have an opportunity to take some points on me?” I said, rubbing it in just a little bit.
“You really gonna say that? I’ll be taking my points next time. Another game? I’m bringing the pain.” He was totally jesting.
“Well, game on.” I said with feigned bravado. “Game. On.”
“My Name Is Human” played in the background. This was Kody’s playlist. To think that jukeboxes can be controlled through the touch of a phone. Anyway, I had a friend tell me that he always liked my playlists. So Tim, this is for you—a random sampling of our Wednesday evening songs, old and new, from the jukebox to the car radio to videos on our TV in the living room. And for those of you who don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day—try, “Póg mo thóin.” St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner.
It was two days before Christmas, and I had a sore throat. It seemed to be like my usual once-a-year sore throat that ran the course of a cold, coughing and nose blowing and a plethora of Kleenex consumption, and by the end of the week, I felt somewhat better. “But suddenly … This ‘but suddenly’ occurs often in stories. The authors are right: life is so full of the unexpected!” 1 But suddenly, the sore throat returned fiercer than before, and the infection—possibly via osmosis, I’m no doctor—attacked my gums, abnormally swollen and the deepest of reds, behind my lower molars.
But it was the holidays. First my birthday on the 30th. Then New Year’s Eve. Then New Year’s Day. So I suffered through the pain and opted for celebratory spirits. I can’t remember the last time I had gone to a general practitioner. I’m normally the picture of health, but I had plans to be out of town for a week beginning January 5th, and I didn’t have time to be ill. So on January 2nd, I set out to find a doctor. Mistakenly I went to a strip-mall Emergency Care center affiliated with a well-known hospital here in Houston. I thought this facility was like the Urgent Care near my house back in Plano. But no, I might as well have gone to the emergency room. They gave me a steroid shot, tested me for flu and strep, which by the way came back negative, and sent me home with an antibiotic and some Tylenol 3, and $5100 hundred later, I was on the mend, or so I thought. (Thankfully I have insurance and didn’t have to pay in full, but what the hell is wrong with our medical system?)
Over the course of the next week, my sore throat felt better, but my gums. Good Lord, my gums! I returned home on January 11th, the spring semester began on January 13th, so I just sort of curled up in my pajamas on the couch for the next few days and did my homework and submitted on line without leaving the house, and finally on January 16th I decided I must return to the doctor. Except this time, I knew I couldn’t go to the ER, so I set about finding a doctor on my insurance and finally had an appointment late that Thursday afternoon.
The doctor was young, like just out of med school, and with one look in my mouth, she said, “Are your gums normally like that?”
I sat on the examination table, my legs dangling, and shook my head “Um, no, that’s why I’m here,” I said. I had already gone through my recent history of sore throat and antibiotics. Yada. Yada.
“It’s like you have two pillars at the back of your mouth. That’s so weird. Does it hurt?”
“Well, it’s not comfortable.” I paused, keeping my snide comments in check. “They swell when I eat, and I’m popping quite a few Advil.”
“I think it might be gingivitis,” she said. “You need to go see your dentist.”
Now, I’m no dentist, but I knew without a doubt, the issue inside my mouth was NOT gingivitis. Gingivitis does not transform healthy gums into swollen mouth pillars. But with the office visit concluded and no co-pay since having already met my deductible for the year, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my dentist. Come to find out, my dentist takes off at two o’clock on Thursdays, the current time was past four, and he takes off Fridays. So I left a message with his answering service to return my call on Monday.
On Monday, January 20th, I made an appointment for Tuesday, the 21st. Approximately, one month from when the whole ordeal began, I would be getting some help, and I had great faith in my dentist. I just thought since it all started with a sore throat that I should see a medical doctor.
At my Tuesday appointment, the dental hygienist took X-rays and with one look inside my mouth she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I will be really interested to hear what Dr. H. has to say.”
Flash forward a few moments—Dr. H. examined my X-rays and my gums. “Crystal,” he said, looking me square in the eyes. “You have cysts in the back of your mouth. I don’t think it’s any cause for concern, but I want you to be pro-active. I’m referring you to an oral surgeon, and we’ll send these X-rays over so that he can see what’s going on.” He handed me the card of the oral surgeon. “Thanks for coming to see me,” he said.
Once more, I had no co-pay. Once more, I walked out the door and to my car in the lot, where I sat and dialed my phone, this time the office of the surgeon. Monday, January 27th was the date of my next appointment.
Again there were X-rays, and then I saw the doctor. “Wow!” he said.
I couldn’t help shaking my head. Doctors say the craziest things. I looked in his eyes searching for the answer to the question—What does wow mean? I didn’t say it. I just looked at him with expectation for more information.
“I’m going to send you back for a CT scan,” he said. “The fee is $150, and your insurance won’t cover, but it’s necessary. Once I see the results, we’ll talk again and go from there.”
I nodded my okay, and the dental assistant ushered me into another room with a CT machine, where I stood stone still with my face in a contraption while technology circled my head, shooting more 3-D images. Afterwards, I returned to the examination room to wait with my feet propped up in the dental chair.
The results were there instantly, and once the doctor took a look, he returned to see me within moments. “The results are consistent with what you told me about your sore throat,” he said.
“Do you mind if I take notes on my phone?” I had the feeling I would be hearing some technical news.
“No problem.” He paused. “The infection from your throat has made its way into your gums and jaw bone.” He kept his eyes on mine, me looking up occasionally from my phone keyboard. “The bone doesn’t look normal. I want you to see the X-ray.” He pointed to the image on the wall and the areas of bone loss. “The infection is causing this bone erosion on both sides. See, this image should be smooth all the way around like this.” His finger circled back to the areas of healthy bone. “Your gums on both sides are really red, and the infection could be fungal, bacterial, viral, or all three. We won’t know exactly until we get in there, but we need to go in and clean out the dead bone and the infection and take cultures to see if we are dealing with anything else.”
The doctor gave me an official diagnosis that I asked him to spell, and he wrote it down and handed it to me instead: Actinomycosis.
And if you want to be grossed out, Google it. And if you care to pray for me, I’m headed into oral surgery at 7:30 on January 28. Oh, and thank you for bearing with me here to the end. Oh, and thank you for those prayers if you are that person.
1 I borrowed the “But suddenly” line from last week’s studies: “The Death of a Clerk,” Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
“I’m working on my memoir,” I typed on my laptop and scoffed, an audible huff through my nose. I feel like a fraud to say it—still I plan to persist. During the summer of 2011, I attended a two week summer writing institute through Plano Independent School District, where I taught sophomore English at the time. I wrote a piece about my son Drew’s paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis and how that came about during his first psychiatric hospitalization. This episode begins the story I must write.
I attended this same professional development opportunity nine years earlier in 2002. At the time I was a novice seventh grade English teacher and hardly a writer, but the course required a final written piece to be shared with our class on the last day. In all truthfulness I lacked the vulnerability to share anything real and the creativity to write believable fiction, so I wrote about writer’s block. Isn’t that ridiculous? Looking back, I would give anything to have written a slice of life involving Drew and Lauren. They were twelve and ten at the time, a cellist and a soccer player. But no, I wrote about writer’s block. In my defense, my piece was connected to my teaching and learning empathy for my students who struggled with their words on the page. And this course transformed my approach to classroom writing assignments—more mentor texts as models, more creative opportunities, more choices, and portfolios to track progress.
By 2013 I landed an opportunity to launch a Creative Writing elective class at my high school. While developing lesson plans, I adopted the philosophy that writers must be readers (and we took time for that) and that writers must write—every day. I remember feeling like a hypocrite, not unlike now, and forcing myself to write—(almost) every day, journaling bits of dialogue and scenes, keeping notes in my phone for later, and writing each assignment alongside my student authors. I’ve taught some truly gifted kids over the years, and my efforts often paled in comparison. Still I persisted. I started my memoir in secrecy during class and in my spare time and as inspiration struck. At some point, I knew I had a story to tell although the words written in 2013 remain really rough. Tell it I did, much more than showing. At the moment I have 53,834 words, single spaced in an 11 point font, on 101 pages, but as Anne Lamott would say, “It’s a shitty first draft.”
In the summer 2016, a job transfer for my husband brought us south from Dallas to Houston, I lost my beloved Creative Writing class and the convenience of good friends nearby, and I discovered a void. I didn’t write much for a while, instead drinking copious amounts of alcohol to fill the growing hole. Fast forward to August of 2017, Harvey, the hurricane, flooded my family out of our house and into a pet-friendly La Quinta for the next ten months. Not only had I saved my laptop, but my laptop saved me. I typed the story of our evacuation and sent my words for the first time into the blogosphere. I typed other stories, too, and again and again, I tapped the blue button in the upper right corner, the one that says Publish. Seventy-nine posts later, I see growth, and this growth encourages me to return to those shitty first drafts.
And in 2020, at age 50, I went back to school for a graduate program in Creative Writing, and my professor wanted to know what I plan to work on this semester and why. So this is it. “I’m working on my memoir.” And still, I shake my head and laugh.
One day this past summer I found myself alone with my thoughts in Galveston. From my beach chair near the shore, I soaked in the sun to the crashing cadence of the surf until I couldn’t take the heat. I stood up and walked into the waist-deep waves and said, “Take me down, Motherfuckers! You can’t fucking do it.” And I laughed out loud in the face of wave upon wave and walked in a little deeper.
Galveston saved me, and this week I return. This week’s writing retreat begins my new MFA program at a beach house nearby. Each morning through the sliding glass door of my condo bedroom—the golden orb rests for a moment on a blanket of orange and yellow and then rises into the blue. The waves advance on a new day and a new life. Each new dawn reaffirms my decision to be here. Each new chance to begin again—a gift.
I have a story to tell, and I have to tell it. For so many years, I thought the story was about my son Drew and his severe mental illness. I realize now it’s a story about me. It’s about my reactions and my coming to terms and what I’ve learned and how. It’s about my reality and my hope. It’s about sharing to help others and letting people know they are not alone.
So now I face the waves that crash into me. I stand my ground and let them hit, and I laugh out loud because I’m still standing tall with a smile on my face and a “fuck you” for anything that tries to take me down.