Multiple people kind enough to read my blog have asked, “How did this happen?” And usually, they are referring to my love of art, not breast cancer.
The breast cancer part is easy: I woke up one morning and decided it was time to end my two-year hiatus from MD Anderson’s high risk clinic. I called twice during the next month to make an appointment for what should’ve been my annual mammogram and sonogram. Never receiving a response, I drove down to the medical center, paid $9 to park and walked up to the Nelly B. Connally Breast Center on the fifth floor of the Mays Clinic and scheduled an appointment. A week later, my mammogram looked suspicious; a week after that, the five biopsies looked “highly suspicious.” That’s the breast cancer part.
The art part is more convoluted and started with the most disastrous family vacation one could imagine.
Family vacations are not part of our summers. CHILDREN vacations are, so don’t feel sorry for them. Mark and I stay home and work, but don’t feel sorry for us either because an empty, quiet house is a beautiful thing. So, in the summer of 2015 when Mark announced his plans to take us on a vacation, the kids and I looked up and cocked our heads to the side like confused labradors.
Mark explained that he’d always heard about Balmorhea State Park. Texas Monthly declared the park a watering hole everyone should experience and earlier that week, The Wall Street Journal printed an article espousing a trip to Marfa, one hour away from the pool. The family would head west in our white Ford Fusion, stop in San Antonio for the requisite Alamo tour and margarita, then blaze a trail to the Balcones Escarpment for a one-of-a-kind vacation. Our curiosity was piqued. We prepared by watching Giant, the four-hour Texas epic filmed in that area in 1956 and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.
Adding intrigue to the adventure, Eliza plotted out “World’s Largest (fill in the blank)” stops along the way. Luling boasted the World’s Largest Watermelon and great barbecue; in San Antonio we saw the World’s Largest Cowboy Boots and Hampton and I recreated the “There’s no basement in the Alamo” scene from Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. Stonehenge 2 did not disappoint and our picture flanking a Moai (which ended up being our Christmas card) fooled several people into thinking we vacationed on Easter Island, not a West Texas oasis.
We pulled into Balmorhea State Park after an eight-hour drive from San Antonio, ready for the much-anticipated 72-degree water. Mark bought the kids snorkeling gear to observe the fish and turtles populating the pool and a friend bought me a Yeti cup to keep my adult beverage as cool as the spring-fed pond. The park ranger handed over keys to the adobe motor park-type hotel and we opened the door to a cool blast of air conditioning and a swarm of house flies. Imagine if one of the biblical plagues of Pharaoh and Moses were house flies, not locusts or frogs, and that was the kids’ room. Feigning maternal optimism, I observed that if one didn’t touch the ratty curtains, the flies rested from flight. “Put on your suits, grab your snorkels and let’s hit the pool.”
Seventy-two degrees is colder than you think, so I waded in and waded out after setting up camp under an oak tree. The kids were more bold and the enjoyed their first dip. We walked back to the adobe hut, made as little movement as possible to keep the flies at bay, and climbed into the car to find dinner.
Within five minutes we found there are no restaurants in or around Balmorhea. Only gas stations. And the air conditioner was broken at the only gas station with a semblance of food service. The attendant pointed us to Pecos, 45 minutes away.
We drove east to Pecos, “Home of the World’s First Rodeo” or, according to this article, “The Crappiest Place to Be From.” I now resonate much more with the second title. The All-American Grill should be condemned, and not just because they didn’t sell adult beverages. When Eliza’s Caesar salad finally made it to the table, the “lettuce” dripped with ranch dressing. I excused myself and started walking and weeping down one of the two streets comprising the town’s central business district. The storefronts were relics of 1950 era establishments, the kind with recessed entrances surrounded on either side by floor-to-ceiling window displays. These abandoned stores sold mannequins with missing limbs, broken furniture, etc. Eliza found me wandering and pondering how to feed my family for the next five days. I encouraged her to go back to the “restaurant” so she didn’t see me like this. In another biblical reference, Eliza channeled Ruth to my Naomi and basically said, “Where you go, I will go.”
Mother and daughter returned to the “restaurant” for the car keys and made the three-minute drive to Walmart, which served as the local grocery store for oil rig workers. I quickly empathized with Soviet-era mothers scouring food stalls for anything fresh or even edible. We left with cereal, milk, Oscar Meyer sliced turkey, bread, PB&J, a fly trap and beer.
Driving silently back to Balmorhea, the skies darkened and turned a shade of purple-grey that I’ve only seen in apocalypse movies. Rain started sheeting and the car shook. This is not literary license I’m using, it’s the truth. I came to grips with the very distinct possibility that we were about to be sucked into the sky to our deaths. Mark wisely turned the car back around and in a fate we decided was slightly better than death, we headed back into Pecos. Mark watched the storm cell on his Weather Underground app and, sensing a break in the storm, turned back around and pushed the V4 engine for all it had. Destruction lining the two-lane highway included telephone poles snapped in two and a storage tank of oil ablaze from a lightening bolt. When we finally arrived at our adobe hut, we realized that the kids’ room had no lights, which kept the flies quiet and cloaked in darkness my mouthing the words to Mark “This is a #(%*ing disaster!” Thus concluded Day One of our five day tour in Balmorhea.
Day 2 started with my sending everyone to the pool after eating dry cereal from the box because I forgot to buy bowls at Walmart. Scavenging for a Wi-Fi signal, I called the most expensive restaurant I could find in Marfa, Cochineal, and made a reservation for that evening. Lunch by the pool consisted of a bread and turkey sandwich for Hampton because I also forgot to buy condiments, and a PB&J sandwich for Eliza, which I spread with a straw retrieved from an old Whataburger cup in the car because I also forgot to buy utensils. Needless to say, the cocktail, meal, wine and desert at Cochineal soothed a savage beast.
After dinner and buoyed by protein, we drove out to look for the famous Marfa lights. The air of expectation was pretty heady and the train rumbling past us into town (Marfa was established in 1883 as a reight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway) made a beautiful silohuette with the sun setting on the Chinati Mountains. The kids swore they saw the lights, but the only lights we FOR SURE saw were those of the Marfa Police Department in our rear view mirror as we drove back into town. We were pulled over for speeding right across from Marfa Public Radio. And that, after the hour drive in pitch dark on the two lane road cutting through Wild Rose Pass back to Balmorhea, ended Day 2 of the family vacation that started my interest in art.
By Day 3, we were all beaten into submission. We ate our fistfuls of cereal peacefully, set up camp under “our” oak tree and spent a lazy day reading, snorkeling and swimming. Before the trip, I picked up a book at Whole Foods called The Crossroads of Should and Must. I really bought it for Mark, but he wasn’t interested so I started thumbing through it. The illustrations were beautiful and the questions thought provoking, including, “What is something a friend does that you feel envious about?” I surprised myself when I wrote, “takes classes.” On the next page of my journal, under the prompt “Fantasies,” I scrawled, “Getting a masters degree in something liberty artsy.”
Late in the afternoon, we drove into Fort Davis for dinner before winding our way up Mount Locke to the McDonald Observatory for its Twilight Program and Star Party. This experience was transcendental. You must do it.
Perhaps still awed by the galaxies, light years and seeing Saturn’s rings through a huge telescope, we took a wrong turn out of McDonald Observatory. We zigged when we should have zagged and found ourselves lost on Mount Locke with zero light and cell coverage. Mark voiced the mad panic we all felt when he yelled, “This is a disaster! We could be driving to Mexico!” My maternal voice quavered, “We are not driving to Mexico and Mark, please calm down”; but we were 100 percent lost in pitch blackness with only the light of the stars to guide us, like the Magi – but those three were wise and had biblical prophecy and a star of wonder on their side.
We finally picked up a cell and discovered that we, too, had been divinely guided and were heading in the right direction. Then the rabbits hit.
Or rather, we hit the rabbits. Big ones, small ones, jackrabbits, cottontails. The thumps confused us at first, then Mark flipped on the brights to reveal hundreds of rabbits throwing themselves to a sure death under the wheels of our car. Mark white-knuckled the steering wheel, the kids started sobbing and I giggled uncontrollably. I didn’t know what else to do. It was all too much. I told the kids that for every rabbit Daddy hit, he missed four or five. I will never understand that plague of rabbits. But it stopped just as we found the main road leading to our adobe hut and that concluded Day 3 (or actually began Day 4, because it was now 1 am).
I declared Day 4 a total Marfa day. We slept in and skipped the cereal in favor of an early lunch at The Capri and oh my gosh it was good. Afterwards, we drove out of town about 15 minutes to Prada Marfa because, when in Marfa… On the way back into town, we stopped at Moonlight Gemstones and picked up a couple of rocks and an ammonite fossil, then we enjoyed ice cream at the Tumbleweed Laundry. The highlight of the day (other than recreating Beyonce’s leap in front of Prada Marfa) was our pilgrimage to the Marfa Book Company, where we loitered in love for more than an hour. The attached coffee shop was closed, but the art installation and eclectic books kept all four of us entertained. AND IT IS HERE, that I picked up a book on the life and art of Sister Mary Corita Kent, a nun/artist/activist who used her gifts/voice/talents to change the world. Sister Corita’s story catalyzed the confluence of my above-mentioned envy and fantasy. Using my phone on the ten hour drive home, I applied to the University of Saint Thomas’ graduate school, requested my transcript from SMU and bought a signed Sister Corita serigraph on eBay.
The last night of our odyssey, we ate dinner at Hotel Paisano, where the cast of Giant stayed during filming back in 1956. Our family had come through so much (including flies, rabbits and a tornado) that I felt compelled to look back and assess. I wrote and read the following to share with the family before our last night in the adobe hut and now, in light of my diagnosis, it seems prescient:
This has been a trip out into the wilderness for us. Many hard experiences, many fun.
God always sent his people into the wilderness before they were to experience big things for Him. Elijah, Moses, Jacob, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul experienced a time of detoxing, solitude, going without, returning to neutral.
Several times on this trip, I have thought, “How did I get here?” “Why is this happening?” “I hate that Hampton feels he has to lighten the mood” or “I’m sad that Eliza is so unhappy.”But none of our experiences are by mistake, human decision or fallibility. God is at work in all of our lives. And we all have big years ahead. We don’t necessarily have to see where or why He is working, but we do need to assent, submit and trust.
So, I invite us to not waste moments (good or bad) we’ve experienced here. Ask God for clarity and the Holy Spirit for revelation to speak what Christ wants you to appreciate or learn from this trip. If we don’t grow from it, He’ll place us in a similar position until we do. Why did God give you this wilderness experience? Really listen. It doesn’t have to be profound and can even seem silly. But ask for revelation.
And then Eliza got mad at Hampton and hit him in the crotch “by mistake.”
And THAT, dear Reader, is how I discovered my breast cancer and my love of art. You’ve read enough if you’ve made it this far, so I’ll skip the usual art bit and offer instead a picture of the Sister Corita piece I bought on eBay, my student ID and a picture of Sarah appreciating Hunt Slonum’s very popular rabbit paintings. Eliza and I hope to return to Marfa for her 16th birthday in May, when we’ll stay in tee pees at El Cosmico and experience Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation.
Enjoy NPR’s Second Stage piece on the band Balmorhea’s and the song San Solomon, weaving sounds of the swimming pool cooled by the San Solomon springs with beautiful music. (And thanks to Mark for finding this music and planning this life-changing vacation that ended up being disastrously beautiful.)