It was time to go. I had put it off until the New Year, hoping that the Mayan calendar would be correct and the world would end but it hadn’t. It was time to accept my fate. I packed my pink suitcase, my pillow, and my bear with a heavy heart but with acceptance for what had to happen. It was January and my mom and I were headed back to the Mayo Clinic. This time we would go for three days and consult with a neuro-opthalmologist, an endocrinologist, have an MRI, a CT, and finally meet with Dr. L my neurosurgeon, Dr. M my ENT surgeon, and Eli my surgical PA. Then after looking at everything my team and I would schedule an exploratory craniotomy to remove my tumor for what I could only hope was the final time.
I had been ignoring the fact that I still had a tumor for the past two months and life had been amazing. I had been given a brief moment of reprieve in which to pull my life back to a semblance of normal and I did not want to give it up. However as the plane pushed back from the gate to take us to Minneapolis the realization of what I was about to do hit me like a suitcase falling from an overhead bin. It was time to do this all again. More fear. More pain. Could I do it? I honestly wasn’t sure. Thinking about it made me feel so tired. I leaned my head back against the headrest and fell asleep with my mouth open. I woke up in Minneapolis feeling groggy and with my right leg painfully asleep. I had crossed my legs before passing out and my right knee had been pressed in to the seat in front of me. (Not on purpose for those of you who think that I may be a rude traveler, there is just simply nowhere else for my legs to go. There’s not room on the tiny planes that fly out of Lexington)
My mom touched my shoulder and looked concerned. “Sweetie we are going to have to run to catch our connecting flight, we are very behind.” I nodded and got ready to jump. I had missed a flight once and spent the night in an airport like Tom Hanks in that movie The Terminal. I am not above sprinting down a people mover yelling “on your left” in order to avoid washing my teeth in an airport sink. We waited until it was our turn to stand. My mom being 5 feet even and married to a 6 foot 4 husband with a 5 foot 9 daughter could quite possibly have gone to the olympics in speed walking (she has to take two strides for every one that we take. Sometimes they blur together like the Flash when she really gets moving).
After she had her rolly bag down she was off like a shot and I was about to rise and follow in hot pursuit when my leg gave out. It was still asleep. I started muttering under my breath like a five year old. Stupid body, with its stupid tumors and stupid legs that don’t work. I grabbed my pink suitcase and hobbled after my mom. By the time I caught up to her she was sitting in front of the wall of monitors, shoulders slumped, looking dejected. “our flight was canceled, the Rochester airport is closed because of snow”
I started muttering again. Stupid snow closing stupid tiny airports in the middle of nowhere Minnesota. I gave a big sigh and went into logistics mode. “if the flight is canceled let’s see if we can get on a shuttle out to Rochester.” but everyone else had thought of that already and speedwalked straight to the dispatch desk as we deplaned because the next shuttle with available seats was at 5 am the next morning.
We decided to stay the night and booked the cheapest hotel we could find which was by the Mall of America. To this day I have never set foot inside but mom and I wandered over to the edge of the hotel property to gaze across its acres of parking lot into the neon glow. It really is quite impressive if only for it’s size much less it’s retail space.
As we walked into our hotel I noticed the drywall dust and the caution tape. It was undergoing a renovation. Great. Stupid hotel with it’s stupid construction noise. I was sure I wouldn’t get any sleep. We checked in and headed to our room. As we walked off the elevator onto the second floor though my mood immediately changed.
I have mentioned that my sniffer doesn’t work quite as well anymore but I have regained my sense of smell to a certain degree. I can definitely pick up strong aromas like the chemical fumes of chlorine from an indoor pool. There must have been one close by because I could smell it and feel the humidity. I took a deep breath and exhaled feeling calmer now than I had all day. From the age of six I have been a competitive swimmer. I spent most of my formative years (as did my loving mother) in a humid natatorium surrounded by that smell.
It reminded me of home.
It made me feel safe.
I realized that I had been clenching my entire body since we pushed back from the terminal in Lexington. I took another deep breathe and tried to relax a little more. As we walked down the hallway you could see that we were in the un-renovated wing of the hotel and evidently it had not had a face lift in decades.
Oddly this also made me feel more at home. Not only did my mother and I spend most of the 90s and 2000s in natatoriums inhaling chemical fumes we also spent 3 out of every 4 weekends in a month traveling across the eastern and southern US to meets so I could compete. And we did it on a budget. We are connoisseurs of cheap hotels.
So as we walked down a hallway with wallpaper that can only be described as tribal I smiled. My mom informed me that it was a navajo design that was evidently somewhat popular in the 70s. We turned a corner and I could not keep from laughing. There was an open hallway lined with meeting rooms and a marquee announcing we had reached the “Hall of Tribes” I congratulated my mom on her adept skills at interpreting Native American tribal wallpaper markings and she giggled. We rolled our bags over the worn out carpet and used our (literal) keys to get in the room. As I put my bag on the chair to open it and find my prescriptions my mom threw back the curtains to look outside and burst into laughter. “Oh Steph come look at this you will just die!”
I walked up next to her and gazed out on the courtyard of our hotel which was covered in eight inches of snow. It covered the trees, bushes, and cute little gazebo but rising up from that white blanket was a 12 foot totem pole with intricate carvings of animals topped with an eagle, wings spread, ready to take off into the night. It was backlit from the glow of the mall and when I saw it I could not help but burst out laughing. Where were we? Of all the crazy things I had experienced since this adventure began I do believe the totem pole in the courtyard of our hotel was the most unexpected.
Something that is amazing about laughter is its morphological properties. It can be a hammer that cracks the silence of a tense situation, it can ease pain, warm the heart, release anger, heal deep emotional wounds, and most importantly it can strengthen the soul.
I took a deep breath and felt the knot in my stomach unravel just a little bit more. I turned to my mom smiling and tilted my head toward the door, “Come on Tigerlily, Pocahontas is starving. I saw a bar in the lobby I’ll buy you dinner.”
Tomorrow we would wake up before the sunrise, pile into a van with other patients and careen down the road to the Mayo Clinic where I would meet with my doctors and schedule another surgery. I was still unbelievably afraid of what the morning would bring. But that was tomorrow. I could not control it anymore than the thermostat which was locked behind plexiglass in our room and set on 78. Whatever was going to happen would happen. And I would find the strength to handle it as I had done three times before.
Tomorrow would take care of itself.
Tonight we would feast in the “Hall of Tribes”