CAMPING AS SOLACE
by Josie Hughes
Pregnant with my youngest son, between semesters working on a PhD in playwriting, I planned a trip with my husband and 3-year-old son to visit my family, mostly living in Maryland. My midwife needed more information on my medical history, since I could not answer her questions about anomalies in my self-reporting a history of seizures, allergies, and a compromised immune system.
We camped along rivers, planning our road trip to include a stop with my brother Paul’s family. Since his untimely death from a sudden brain aneurysm two years prior, we spent most of our vacationing time with Paul’s widow and three young children. I found out I was pregnant during spring break at their home in rural Ohio, a five-hour drive from Columbia, Missouri, where we moved to continue our education. Both my common-law husband and I enrolled in the U. of Missouri to gain a foothold in the middle class, to get ourselves out of the voluntary poverty life we chose in Austin, working at low-wage jobs while enjoying the music and art of our adopted hometown. Camping provided a low-cost way of travel, using the car Mother drove to Texas to give me after my oldest son was born.
We drove into campgrounds along the planned routes, for many years, enacting a routine which provided us the opportunity to travel while broke and on food stamps. Both of us finished college degrees in our thirties while starting our family, and while going on family vacations. The campgrounds shared peaceful shaded surroundings, tall trees in forests or on the banks of rivers and lakes, along with showers and playgrounds, ideal settings for traversing the country. We developed a division of labor, able to set up a tent to house or feed our child, shower and sleep, then continue the road to our many destinations.
Camping provided solace during the deathbed visit to Paul’s side, after he passed out at lunch on a Friday afternoon, leading to many confusing phone calls from my oldest sister Teri as we travelled along the road on the camping trip to and from Ohio.
Mother called me Friday morning, excited about her plans. She was going camping, a first for her. Mother spoke about her tent, and the size of it, and how my sister Cecelia’s husband joked with her about sleeping arrangements. It sounded like Mother had a little pup tent, something she was eager to share with me but did not know a lot about. Calling during the day was unusual. Mother wanted me to know I would not be able to reach her the upcoming weekend, because of her camping plans.
We planned to camp ourselves that summer. We were going to drive to east Texas to visit an old roommate, borrow her tent, and go to a state park in east Texas, the piney woods, a place dear to my heart since my first job in Texas had been a camp for kids in East Texas. My partner did not crave the out-of-doors like me. “When I want to commune with nature, I go to the mall and look at the tree”, he said when asked to go camping. The few times I convinced him, he liked it, took to it like a duck to water, annoying our friends by setting up detailed living areas in the woods. Now we had a year-old son, who loved the outdoors, who had gotten his dad to wander around any wilderness area on walks–over waterfalls, through drainage ditches, onto undeveloped private property. I treated the outings like I did the children in my early babysitting days–out of sight, out of mind—mimicking my parents early childrearing.
Friday evening, I got another call from back east. This time it was Teri. She had bad news. Our little brother had taken ill. They were attempting to find Mother, Paul hospitalized, transported by an ambulance that afternoon. “He came home from work early with one of his migraines,” Teri said. I thought about our recent conversation, Sunday evening, my congratulatory call. He had his third child, a girl, coming home with Kate, his wife, the next day. Paul could not talk long, his 3-year-old son creating mischief with remodeling debris, while his 6-year-old daughter asked him questions. He sounded ecstatic. I thought about this as I listened to Teri speculate on whether the stress of caring for two kids while working full-time at his law practice caused exhaustion. Wishful thinking.
I spent the next few days on the phone, attempting to discover what caused Paul to become unconscious. By Saturday, the rural hospital transported him to the nearest city, Cincinnati, to the university hospital there, the one which had experience in serious disorders. He had a ruptured brain aneurysm. That’s what my aunt died from 13 years prior. By Sunday, the situation became obvious and dire. I got basic info only from my phone calls. Teri had been assigned as the communicator she said. “Not much can be discerned,” she said. “It’s all-in god’s hands,” she said. The phone calls got less informative as time passed.
We had a camping trip scheduled. “Why not camp in Ohio?” I asked Lee. He reluctantly agreed. I called my friend with the camping gear. We headed out with that much planning, Sunday, something about the phone calls creating a compulsion to head north and east. At some point, I got ahold of my brother’s wife. She asked me when we were coming. When! That was enough for me to know I needed to take less time to travel than I imagined. We got to Ohio by Tuesday evening.
We got the camping gear, taking a day to drive to east Texas in the Chevy Citation Mother drove to me a few months earlier. Mother did not approve of using bikes and cabs after I had a baby, bringing me her old car after she bought a new one. My youngest sister Sheila’s banker husband advised Mother to quit trading in her cars, that selling them made more economic sense. Instead, she gave her old cars to her children, first one, then another. I got the Citation once it had 40,000 miles on it. I drove my first car through the East Texas piney woods the first day, getting to Hope, Arkansas, right over the state line, where we set up the tent. It was over 100 degrees. The baby did not like the heat. The giant moths with the dramatically contrasting colors of black and white sitting on the side of trees mesmerized him. We made it to Tennessee, then on to Ohio by the next day, calling the hospital periodically to check on Paul’s condition. Teri continued to be vague, discouraging me from calling or coming. I could not decipher her meaning or intentions. We arrived in Ohio and set up camp. We developed a routine by then, nature cooperating as we made our way north. The campground 6 miles outside of Cincinnati worked out great, being outside and in peaceful surroundings. We visited the hospital from there each day, and returned each evening, for the week we spent at Paul’s deathbed.
Teri met us at the hospital Wednesday morning, telling us her version of what had been going on and what would happen next. At that time, she said Paul had taken a turn for the worse, right before we got there. I visited Paul in his room in neuro ICU, trying to glean info without bothering his wife. It took me a bit to decipher what was going on because Teri had taken it upon herself to censor and parcel out info, with whispers about who needs to know what and when. She said the house was too busy for me to come to, that I needed to stay at the campground so as not to bother those at Paul’s house, which would have been Mother, Teri and Cecelia. Sheila went to a hotel to stay. I don’t remember where my older brother Peter was. I don’t remember him being there.
They declared Paul dead on Monday, Aug 27, 1990.
We ate lunch, not knowing what was going on, because of the bits and pieces of non-info I kept getting. When we got back, everyone left, Paul declared dead. The next phase started. I went to Sheila’s hotel room and found her there. She filled me in. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter had just been found, the TV said, burning Paul’s death memory into eternity with SRV, a guitar prodigy from my adopted hometown of Austin, Texas.
It was Christine’s first day of first grade.
I returned to the campsite. They held the wake in the nearby town where Paul had his law office. Teri got us together and suggested we offer support for Kate as she spent three straight hours shaking the hands of people lined up around the block to pay their respects. Many stopped and told their Paul story, how he traded and bartered for legal advice; how he answered his own phone; how he helped this one and that one with their legal needs. Kate smiled and nodded, showing grace and dignity under duress. She soothed the visitors, many in shock that someone so alive had his life cut short, with the added horror of knowing Kate had three babies to raise.
The funeral mass was conducted in the largest local church, six miles away. The procession of cars took forever, the cars extending for what seemed like the entire six miles. The church was full. Afterward, we went to a family event. We left from there, returning to Texas through another route, camping in the forests of Tennessee. The beauty of the outdoors kept my emotions in check, me now occupying the middle child slot by myself. I had not seen Paul since Sheila graduated from college. I missed her wedding scheduled weeks after my son’s birth. As I drove back to Texas, I had plenty of time while driving to contemplate the death of my little brother, the saddest thing to occur in my 35-year life. The camping provided a modicum of serenity. I directed the energy from my grief into creative projects, building a complete set of marionettes and a stage, writing a script, and performing the original show for years to come, following Paul’s death.
While in despair in the crowded waiting room in Cincinnati, wondering how Kate would manage, I heard Paul’s voice from back in Canton, this time telling me that Kate could do it, me seeing him following her at her heels, like he did with Sheila back when they came out of the woods, after a cross country race meant for college athletes, saying ‘You can do it. Keep going’. I remembered the words coming from the small clock radio on the stand by Paul’s bed, the song playing under the sounds of the many machines keeping Paul’s organs sound. “There will be an answer. Let it Be!” Why did the hospital staff bother, I thought, as I looked around at what seemed like hundreds of wires and tubes. Those words pop into my consciousness from time to time, always when needed, in times of duress, when solutions seem out of reach. Time is often the solution.
I think about Paul all the time on my drives across the country. My husband shared Daddy’s view of machines, refusing to learn to drive, leaving me the designated driver on all our trips. Grief processing for me comes with lots of thought, internal narratives designed to explain and normalize strong forces within. We drove the familiar route through Illinois and Indiana, crossing the Mississippi River, along Highway 50, a scenic route complete with gorgeous scenery and campgrounds along the way. This road goes to Paul’s country home, the civil war home they were renovating when Paul died, the home Kate finished renovating while driving hours, back and forth, to and from Ohio State, to get a teaching certificate, to be the bread winner. Paul’s wife resiliently and persistently raised their children, I thought as I drove to their house, where we were welcomed for our visit which lasted a few days before returning to the road, Highway 50, which took us to Maryland along the river in the southern part of Ohio.
We used our food stamps along the way, filling up our cooler and the car with foods that fit the bill of easy, cheap and nutritious. It was fun to plan menus which included fresh fruit, whole grains, protein, and calcium for our then 3-year-old.
Mother welcomed us graciously, provided us with towels and a bedroom, in the nice house she had purchased with money inherited from her family. Mother still worked at the job she got when she left Ohio back in 1975, battling daily for respect as a humanist and liberal in a conservative community, once again on the outside looking in. That edge of conflict cast a shadow over Mother, putting her in a defensive position throughout the career she finally had. Yet she persisted, working until age 70, using lawyers when necessary to protect the job and her clients from the conservative views against her and the poor and disabled population she championed.
I did not consider this as I asked Mother to elaborate on my medical record.
“I got my medical information from the library,” Mother said when asked.
“Each week I went to the library to read medical books. Your dad would say, ‘What dread diseases do our children have this week, Mary?'” Mother laughed and blushed as she remembered their interactions from 35 years prior.
“I got my anxiety from my mother,” Mother continued. Grandma Corbett shared the anxiety trait, something I never heard. We ended the conversation, both musing at how doctors back in the day were misinformed, Mother telling me about being put on diet pills for gaining over 15 pounds with me. I reported that to my midwife, when I returned to Missouri, after Mother became increasingly hostile to me for the next two days, culminating in telling me to leave her house. The only other time Mother reacted that strongly to my visits was a decade earlier when I cleaned out her collection of dozens of empty boxes and bags, over 10 garbage bags full, which she made me bring back into the house to prove I had not thrown away her valuables and ‘papers’. Both times Mother accused me of being “like your father”, followed by insisting I knew. Both times Mother insisted I needed professional help with a mental condition, and both times she dropped all discussion of the events that led up to her reactions, refusing to accept generic apologies without me admitting a transgression, which she refused to describe. I recognized the feeling of knowing right from wrong, from being able to see reality vs. delusions. My diagnoses were delusions; and medical delusions have continued to divide my family throughout our later years. I finally understand Mother’s few issues, centering on somatic anxiety. I wonder about Mother’s early years, her own anxious mother bedridden for years from an unnamed malady; followed by the death of her sister and brother. Those tragedies might hold the answer to the issues which popped up later. Hovering on the edge of hoarding is another repeated theme in my family, with two sisters following in Mother’s footsteps acquiring more possessions than fit or necessary. Challenging delusions leads to rejection, a sad but consistent response in my family in the years since we grew up and away. We left Cumberland after several confusing conversations resulted in more confusion. We never resolved any of it, remaining true to our traditions.
I visited Mother one more time during her life, taking my youngest son Larry to visit her when he was 11 years old. I scheduled two job interviews in and around Cumberland, leaving my son with Cecelia and Mother, who lived one block apart. Larry ran around with Cecelia’s sons, while I visited with Mother and went on job interviews. I noticed Mother’s house had neatly stacked boxes, all attributed to visits from Teri driving over the mountains to help Cecelia. Cecelia’s home had piles and messes, spread out throughout her large house, the one at the end of the road, way up high on a hill, with acres on the side of a small mountain surrounding it. By spreading out clothes and boxes and furniture and toys, the accumulation of 15 years looked manageable. Five nonworking cars completed the landscaping which otherwise comprised of hundred-year-old rock walls and dilapidated stairs leading up to a massive rock porch overlooking the rest of Cumberland, down in a valley. That’s where we watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Sheila drove over the mountains from DC with her young daughter. Sheila spent most of her time huddled with her child, then age 8, trying to get her child to interact with others and not keep insisting they leave. Then they left. Larry expressed his astute observations on our way back to Texas.
“Why did your sister let her daughter manipulate her like that? If I did that to you, you would make fun of me.”
Larry shared his opinions on all my family members, ending it saying he liked my sister’s dog the best of them all. Leo later became our dog when Cecelia moved into an apartment. She drove Leo all the way to Texas because of how Larry and Leo got along. Larry and I share the animal whisperer gene.
Larry loves movies. He wanted to discuss movies with us, his Grandma and me. He loves Michael Moore, leading to us discussing the latest Michael Moore movie. Mother continued her role of declaring what topics were suitable for children, leading to me being exasperated.
Mother stated, “That movie is not a good topic for an 11-year-old. Let’s change the subject.”
“Larry watches all those movies and has mature opinions about them.” I stated with the authority of being the mother to my son for the past 11 years.
To no avail. We discussed what Mother agreed was proper.
“Your mom was all, like, little, and quiet, and old; you were all, like, loud and agro.” Described Larry on our way back to Texas. Larry kept track of license plates on our drive up and back. He saw every state but two, and relayed which two, along with how many from each state, none recorded. He kept track in his head, as we listened to books on tape, on the trip up and back.
We saw the Mother through different eyes, our contexts not the same.
About the Author:
Josie Hughes : My writing experience includes 15 years as a playwright and performer. I finished a M.A. in children’s theatre; placed in three national playwrighting competitions; and produced or directed multiple touring shows during that time. I evolved from puppeteer to children’s librarian, retiring 5 years ago after working for 24 years as a public and school librarian. I have completed 30 graduate credit hours in writing on top of my degree classes. This essay/chapter comes toward the end of my memoir chronicling growing up in a large family dominated by mental illness.