Seattle to Chicago: Interstate 90 eastbound
My arrival at Sea-Tac International Airport was rather uneventful. Slightly early, head to baggage, shuttle to the rental car facility. Back up a few hours and it was a slightly different story. The highway leading to the Austin airport was completely shut down due to a fatal accident hours earlier. Never a positive sight, an auto accident of this nature, the kind of thing that always leaves me feeling a bit rattled. Spending a lot of time on the road, it’s a grim reminder to remain hyper vigilant behind the wheel. My lovely wife, Jeanne, was driving me to the airport. Thankfully, she kept calm as we came to a complete stop in a line of traffic one would be hard pressed to get stuck in at that early hour of the morning. We’d left with enough time to have a bit of play in the scheduling, but not quite enough to be unconcerned about missing the flight. So, the stress was ramping up. Luckily, Jeanne made some quick decisions on the road and we were able to get back on track, skirting the south end of the runways with hundreds of other airport bound cars. She hustled us past a long line of traffic waiting at the turn signal. We caught the next u-turn option and shaved 10 minutes off the route. Just enough to make the flight.
Once in the airport, by some miracle, there were no security lines. I don’t know how that happened, it never happens at our very busy airport. But, there I was, walking right up to TSA and right on through security. I reach the gate as my boarding group is called and, again, the remainder of the flight is rather boring… exactly how I prefer my flights to be.
I’m in to Seattle by 9:00 a.m. It’s nice and cool outside, I’m loving it. I pick up the rental car, a big Ford Expedition, which will be the tour bus for Mark, Kelley and myself for the next several days. It’s brand new, very nice, roomy. Mark needed space. It was the best option for the trip. Now, I’d been concerned about how the cargo I was expecting to haul was going to fit: bass guitars, two little dogs, wheel chair, walker, luggage, cooler and miscellaneous stuff. I mess around with the configuration of the seats and realize that I can let go of that concern; it’s all going to fit somehow. If Mark and Kelley are comfortable, we're good to go.
I stop for breakfast, make another stop for some basic supplies. Upon arriving at Mark and Kelley’s place a couple hours later, I am greeted by Mark’s uncle, Dan, who I haven’t seen in well over a decade. He welcomes me with his perpetually kind smile and tells me Kelley has run out to the store and Mark is in the basement. We enter through the garage. I am, admittedly, a bit anxious about seeing my dear friend again, as it has been a long time since we’ve been face to face. Much has changed for him since our last opportunity to hang together; there has been much turbulent water under that bridge.
As I open the door I am met with the same love and reception I have known for nearly my entire adult life. Mark’s smile, his wit and his intellect has only sharpened over the passing of time, despite the toll that the illness has taken on his body. He’s got a full beard, a bit more gray in his hair and he can’t stand to meet my embrace, but it is as if we’ve not missed a day. It’s always been that way, actually. We chat, we laugh, we slip right in to the heart of the matters at hand.
Now, in all honesty, I’m a bit taken aback by his surroundings. It’s a very cramped and somewhat dark space they’ve been living in for a couple of years. That noted, it was generously provided by Uncle Dan without a second thought, I’m certain. There are boxes packed in every corner and furniture that has simply been stored, not utilized. This space is a matter of function, if not comfort. Mark sits at the edge of his hospital bed. Kelley has slept in a chair at his side. The process of the move is clearly underway and I get to assessing the scenario; taking in to account the contents of the room and the space inside the two shipping pods just outside the garage door.
Kelley returns home and we hug, the tears begin to well up immediately in her eyes. She has been working tirelessly on packing for this move, let alone the incredible care she provides Mark. I can clearly sense the gratitude and, quite frankly, the exhaustion on her face.
Longtime mutual friend, Jim Burkman, has been a presence in helping Mark and Kelley in whatever way he could. He is there on this day, as well, to help move and pack. It was good to see him, as well, after many, many years. So, the process of packing the pods begins. I simply Tetris the whole process, having more than a bit of experience with packing and repacking for touring. With any luck, when they open the doors of the pod the whole thing won’t just pour out on top of them!
A good part of the day is spent packing. By late afternoon I head out to check in to my hotel room. The next morning, I return to help with the final preparation for loading the second pod and getting us on the road. Kelley, again, is tirelessly packing the remaining odds and ends and tending to Mark with great care. Eventually the Expedition is loaded, dogs are crated and ready to travel and the first major transition for Mark is underway.
He has to put forth considerable effort to stand and use his walker to move from his wheelchair out of the basement, in to the garage and back in the wheelchair that has been collapsed and then re-positioned behind him again. I am now realizing that we will repeat this process many times on the trip. I came to an abrupt understanding of how I take standing and walking for granted without a second thought. For Mark, it’s a major physical effort and one that he is committed to bettering for himself in due time.
Eventually, he pulls himself in to the driver’s side seat, leans back and draws some deep breaths. This is it. He and Kelley are about to pull away from all that was their life in Seattle. Mark is leaving the city he’s called home for over 30 years. A beautiful city, Seattle is; vibrant and diverse and different than it was the last time I roamed her streets. A proper city, I always have said.
The departure is not without some sad goodbye’s, as one would expect. I understand fully that I am charged with transporting my dear friends, this couple that has endured a great deal of personal difficulty and sacrifice, across the country and delivering them safely to a new home. The subtle weight of that task is not lost on me as I enter the address of their first night out on the road in to Google Maps. The quiet goodbye’s and the tears are given space to simply be.
Spirits lift with every passing hour. We laugh and we talk endlessly about a range of subjects. Mark is not one to dwell on the details of his illness, his battles. To him, it is a boring conversation too many times repeated. He and Kelley provide some details, some view of the prognosis, etc., but the conversation, as a whole, veers far from that obvious course; precisely what I’d expect to share with my dearest old friend. This trip will not find us wallowing in their past struggles but looking ahead to the possibilities encompassed in this big change now fully underway.
There is really no need to go in to great detail regarding the “in-between” moments, those long hours on the road. In truth, they were uneventful. Exactly as I’d prefer road time to be. My mom met us outside of Post Falls, ID at a rest stop with a cooler full of sandwiches, carrots and tomatoes from the garden and home-made cookies. Yeah, you guessed it; that kind of down home warmth that only a mother can deliver to a rest area. It was raining so our picnic was spent under the awning near the bathrooms, but it was a welcome stop. She hadn’t seen Mark for nearly two decades. Again, the perspective of time and how much has passed was an equal awakening on this journey.
Mark dealt with whatever discomfort he was having with great resolve to push through. He had not a single complaint. Kelley continued to work tirelessly managing Mark’s care and the pair of four-legged companions, one of whom had diarrhea and a hint of car sickness by day three. I don’t how she did it, but she kept the shit from hitting the fan, literally, as we moved down the highway. The poor pup, but poor Kelley! “Windows!”, she would interject in to our conversation: code for “fresh air needed!” One of the many bits of darker comedy that we’d come to laugh about later.
The first hotel was as comfortable as to be expected. The most poignant detail of that night being the first time Mark and Kelley were able to sleep in the same bed together in nearly six years. Imagine that. Kelley said when Mark reached over and touched her arm it was an incredible reminder of the sudden shift in the fabric of their time together, of how long it had been since they slept side by side.
Night two was a welcome stop at my father’s beautiful home in Wyoming. Dad very quickly built a wooden step for Mark to accompany us the rest of the way in order to ease his climbing up in to the Expedition repeatedly. My dad loves to build stuff, cut, saw, hammer, measure, etc., and is a master at doing so. Within the first ten minutes a very sturdy scrap wood step was part of our travelling system. Mark was getting stronger with each entry and exit from the vehicle, in to the house, the beds, you name it. Any time there was a step to be made, he gained just that much more steam to push on. The motivation was ever present by now. We took in the beautiful views, enjoyed much conversation, ate a wonderful meal, slept. Peace was upon the camp.
The following days and nights were met with many hours of storytelling, examinations of politics, music, spirituality, the wins and losses, and the many proposed finer luxuries of life including the “if I had” and the “if I could” dreams.
The travel, I must admit, was quite easy, for which I am most grateful. There were many factors that could have played against us. I spent too many nights tossing and turning in advance of the trip worrying about the unknown. Those unknowns were simply ghosts.
On the final day of travel we had a mere 3.5 hours to go. Floods and major highway closures tried to thwart our efforts. But, we prevailed. Detours and a bit of extra time found us arriving safely at the Mamelson homestead; Mark’s childhood home. A beautiful place sitting on an acre was where I backed the Expedition up to the garage. Mom and Dad Mamelson met us in the driveway with grand reception. Hugs and kisses and gratitude for a safe arrival were shared repeatedly. I felt as though I was greeted like I’d brought them home safely from Mars. I reiterated on many occasions that it was not a one man show; that many people had come together to make this move, this new beginning a reality. I merely put the wheels to the ground.
We ate. And then we ate some more. That is the nature of this Polish family. Food is love. Love is offered via your plate, a pillow and blanket, a “our home is yours” welcoming.
Mark and Kelley and the four-legged kids are safely transplanted to the greater Chicago area. They are surrounded by love and are awaiting their belongings to show up in those two pods. My only regret is not being there to help unpack. But, Mark’s brother and his son, along with Kelley, Mom and Dad, will get the job done, no doubt. What lies ahead is a scenario of recovery and healing that only Mark can put in to “full steam ahead” mode. Kelley will continue to help navigate his near every move and attend to him with the great love and sacrifice she has shown for years.
It is with your help, those of you who donated via GoFundMe, as well as in more personal exchanges with me and my wife, that I was able to help set this new beginning in motion. Mark and Kelley are deeply, sincerely grateful for your financial support and the kind, thoughtful words that accompanied many of your pledges and gave rise to your many prayers and heartfelt messages. I am genuinely grateful, yet again, for the examples of compassion and humanity that we can truly know by experiencing them one moment, one example, at a time.
I am blessed to be reminded of the fact that we are all capable of great kindness and concern for each other. As an artist, such is the stuff of song, the magic of a “higher vibe”. I stumbled in seeking the right words in conversation with Mark one evening, but the gist was that "humility is powerful medicine." Difficult, certainly. But, if you shut the door on it, you miss a great opportunity to grow, to learn and to heal.
On behalf of Mark and Kelley, their families and myself, we thank you, humbly, for your empathy and generosity.