The time had come. Pushed beyond the limitations one sane person could endure in a life time, I again found myself stuck in a predicament that would only happen to me. The word’s ‘bad news’ were merely a cloak over what was hidden underneath.
I related to a caged circus animal. One who was viscously provoked for years. Obediently accustomed to entertain like the servant it was, while dreaming of the day it would end. The animal sensed that it’s time had come to an end, after a natural reaction that could no longer be held confined. Without a second thought the animal; perceived as weak minded and perpetually loyal, lashes out. Proceeding the backlash, arrangements were made for the beast to be put to rest.
I was ecstatic that I had lost my job. Alive, I escaped the living nightmare that engulfed my life and amplified my illness. I was freed from the toxicity that surrounded me. I manically took on every project within my environment once the news arrived. My to-do list was overwhelming, for life had revolved around a hateful existence the last three years.
Why was I ecstatic that I lost my job? Well, that is a long story which for once, I will tell the short version; I had plans. Plans that consisted of enjoyment; where I could temporarily remove myself from life, to exist in a location miles away from conflict. Where my only problem would be how my body treated me that given day. My symptoms do not seem to interfere as much when I am contently productive.
My escape plan came to fruition during my initial visit to Mayo Clinic, in late 2015. My rheumatologist at Mayo supplied me with informational brochures on their Pain Rehabilitation Center (PRC), ran in town. He mentioned it was a 4-6-week outpatient program for patients who live with chronic pain. Many participants attend the program in wheel chairs, or walk with assistance, and a majority leave without. He advised me to look up the statistics of how many participants finished the program and the success rates. He wasn’t quite sure what they were doing there, but by reviewing the numbers, it was working.
My first time researching PRC online, I came across a woman who had ankylosing spondylitis and attended the program six years prior. She raved that it was a beneficial experience. For me it sounded like a 6-week vacation that was awaiting my homecoming the second plans in NY failed me. I thought, if I ever got too sick where I felt I couldn’t work, or my boss finally found a way to sabotage me, it was my backup plan. As pathetic as it sounds, a lone venture to a rehabilitation center in the Midwest was the break I dreamt about. There was a possibility I would be surrounded, for the first time ever, by a group of individuals who conquer an internal battle against themselves daily. Maybe a like mind who would understand?
The day I received my four-day termination notice, I went home and enrolled myself on a cancelation list for PRC. The receptionist originally scheduled me mid-October of 2016. I explained that I was on my parent’s health insurance, but it ended July, 2016 when I turned 26. Since I was out of work, I had limited options for health insurance after July. I was advised that I was added to a cancelation list, and hopefully they would call me before my insurance was up. The receptionist asked how long of a notice I would need before attending. I told her at least one week. As I learned from my first trip to Mayo, there was no such thing as month-long waits.
Within weeks I received the phone call I had been waiting for. It was early June, my step-father retired around the time and offered to drive with me to Rochester, MN. He would fly back after we arrived. This way I had the car and he could help me get situated. Finding a place to stay for a month with only a week’s notice, within my budget was a challenge. I came across Maria’s Apartments, located on 2nd ST SW, I knew the exact location. St. Mary’s hospital would practically be my front yard. It was perfect because the program was in the Generose building, located directly behind St. Mary’s Hospital.
I rented a small, one bedroom apartment on the ground floor. After a couple days in town my step-father took a shuttle to the airport while I attended my first day of intake. Intake was a two-day process where I only had to attend the facility for a couple of hours to complete labs, interviews, and surveys. This granted me plenty of time to explore downtown and take long drives to wherever the road took me.
A couple blocks down from where I was staying, there was a man who could be spotted from the break of dawn until dusk. Each day he stood at the same spot on the sidewalk, waving large American and POW/MIA flags. Sometimes he would be dancing, other times jumping, while he pumped his flags in the air at passerby’s. He was always geared head to toe in eye-catching clothing, lays, and obnoxious hats, topped with a beaming grin. He could be spotted at each of the weekly downtown events, happily rocking out with his flags flying high.
My neighbor in the apartment building I was in remained a mystery for the first few days. Every ten minutes or so while I was home I would hear him exit the building to smoke cigarettes outside. One day I heard him exit and went outside to introduce myself. His name was Thomas. He was an older man, short, appeared in rough shape. Exchanging words, I told him I was in town to be seen at Mayo, he said he was there for the same reason. He lived outside of Rochester, but had no choice but to stay in town long-term for the care at Mayo. He told me he was an ex-heroin addict, during the time he contracted hepatitis C. He was also suffering from liver cancer. He asked me to feel his back where his collar bone should have been. It felt as if he had no bones beneath his skin, only flesh. I was amazed that he was still so mobile. He told me he fell off a 150ft cliff and had his entire back and chest reconstructed. Within minutes I had entirely new perception of Thomas. I gave him credit for overcoming addiction and fighting for life.
Within the last three years of my life I have lost two-lifelong childhood best friends to drug overdoses. Another admired friend passed from losing the fight to a rare form of aggressive brain cancer. I appreciate my disease, for people only choose to fight when they have no other choice. If I had lost my friends before my illness I would not have coped the same. My illness grounded me, within the first year of being ill my mental age exceeded 80 years old. Both of my friends had a choice to live, which made me furious. I would tell one often that I would kill for her perfectly functioning body, that she chooses to poison. For the reason, she chose to do drugs was the reason I distanced myself. I was fighting for normalcy, while they thought they were too. As much as I preached, they had bigger demons to face.
Thomas made one appreciate the little things. For you could be aware of items in your immediate surroundings simply being. Thomas was the type of person who would interrupt you form talking to admirer the significance of a small, beat up plastic cup- to most it would go unnoticed. I learned a lot about simplicity from spending time with Thomas. His religious rants interested me at times. We would debate and challenge each other’s ideas on philosophy, ethics, and religion. He was a character, who I felt for. Thomas’s father was the first Hells Angel nomad and was the last living survivor of Alcatraz. There was a 60-minute segment after the passing of Thomas’s father. Thomas was interviewed about his father legacy. Thomas grew up in NYC where he was surrounded by violence and bloodshed. He confessed sins that I swore not to speak, although I could not blame him for his actions. Thomas had no choice in who his family was, he simply existed. Prior to his father’s passing Thomas received a phone call from the prison they had just transferred his father to. Thomas and his father did not have a good relationship at the time. His father was phoning from his deathbed, requesting Thomas visited to read bible scripture to convert him to Catholic. He told Thomas that he was now a believer, and he was the only person he would want to perform this final request. Thomas granted his father’s wishes, which meant the world to him.
For the month, I served as Thomas’s counselor, he viewed our time together as a place to release his inner troubles, acknowledging I was not one to hold judgement over him. His childhood was filled with violence, murder, addiction, and gangs. After enduring circumstances in life that we don’t choose for ourselves, we’re allowed to truly appreciate the life we have left. The past often entraps me, reminiscing of oblivion – freedom from my own body and mind. At times, I ponder and appreciate the youth who has yet to comprehend the depths of their own reality. My youth was full of buoyancy and ignorance, where energy and charisma was endless. I lived in a dimension where death was never an experience to creep into my subconscious. Once one grows old, or has saw too much, the vivid image of a joyous life grows tired, eventually slipping asleep within the depths of our mind, along with our emotions to be sincerely happy, without the reminder of guilt and sorrow. Life then is a vicious mind game, where you work hard to enjoy yourself, but typically the mind wins… What if I wasn’t sick? What if my friends were here?
Thomas respected my lack of faith, but would bring me trinkets now and then that would come along with a subliminal lesson. The first item he gave me was a Saint Francis rosary. He could read the enthusiasm on my face when he gave it to me. He said, “I know you’re not buying it, but I want you to have this.” He gave me a lesson on Saint Francis of Assisi, who I pictured as Thomas, present day. Saint Francis was known to live in the fast lane, he was a heavy drinker, until he was captured as a prisoner of war. During his time of imprisonment, he received the calling of the lord. After his release, Saint Francis abandoned his life of pleasure and followed the lords calling. He was recognized for generosity, simple living, and practicing peace. He did not pay any mind to personal assets. He was known to give the little that he had. Saint Francis was living poor, which made him rich at heart. Another trinket Thomas had given me was a Saint Francis of Assisi Protector of Animals peace medal for my cats. Which I thought was sweet. Thomas prayed for me multiple times a day, and asked me to do the same for him. He said I didn’t have to believe, but it wouldn’t hurt to say a few words. Although he was sincere, he could take a joke implying to shut the hell up, when his preaching had gone overboard.
There were a few other men that lived in the apartment in the building I was staying in. Chance, was employed at Mayo. He was clever and entertaining, closest to my age. Rodger, was an easy going elderly gentleman who lived in the basement apartment. He has lived there the last 14 years due to the care at Mayo. Roger suffered from severe anxiety and paranoia. Another man, mid 30’s was staying there temporarily, he had just started his new job as a surgeon at Mayo. Most nights, Thomas, Chance, Rodger, and I would sit outside and talk about anything and everything. We were a great family of compassionate misfits.
The pain management group met Monday-Friday, 7:45am-4:45pm. PRC is based off cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). PRC’s CBT concepts focus on improving one’s reaction, actions, and thought processes in response to pain and symptoms. It was stressed during the program to meet up with group members at the end of each day and on weekends, to get into the habit of staying busy. My daily routine after the program consisted of so, then I would usually head to the local pool hall. My first night going to the pool hall I made many new friends and acquaintances, especially with the owner and bartender.
One night as usual Rodger, Chance, Thomas, and I were outside in our usual corner. We stumbled upon the topic of the flag waver down the street. Chance, bursting with excitement said he knows the man. Chance graduated from college in Minneapolis, then moved to Rochester to work for IT at Mayo. During his time around the area he drove by the man on his way to work every morning, and again eight hours later, on his way home. Chance said to himself, he needed to find out what was up with that guy. What was the method to his madness- standing there every single day, rain, or snow to wave flags around?
One morning, on his way to work Chance pulled over his car. He got out and approached the man. Chance introduced himself, the man said his name was Joe Johnson. Chance said, “listen Joe, I know you’re not crazy, why do you do this every day?” He replied, “To make people happy.” Chance was not satisfied; he wanted to know the deeper meaning. Chance insisted for more information. The man replied, Chance, if you want to know, come back here tonight after your shift. Chance told Joe the time he would return. He also mentioned not to have dinner, he was taking him out to eat.
Chance did as he promised and returned on his way home from work. Joe was there, dressed in his usual garb. Chance pulled over and Joe got in the car, flags and all. They went to a nearby restaurant, the man brought the near 6-foot-tall flags inside with him as they claimed their booth. Over dinner, Joe revealed a long series of devastating, personal life events. Including the death of his girlfriend, whose life was taken on impact in a car accident. His son was removed from his life at an early age, due to Joe’s illness. He had no body left, both his mother and father passed away. Joe’s family and significant other was his life, and there was nothing to fill the void. Joe found his solution to cope with trauma. He devotes his time to making other people happy. Think, while you are on your nine-to-five grind, Joe Johnson is standing in the med city capital of the United States, where people are enduring life changing events, just to donate a smile to strangers who could use it most.
Chance on his way home from work one day, phoned his mother to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. When he saw Joe standing on the street doing what he does best. Chance said to his mother he’ll have to call her back later, he had dinner plans with a man who also couldn’t be with his mother that day. Chance pulled over the car and told Joe to get in. This began their Mother’s Day tradition.
If you have visited the downtown Rochester area you have likely seen Joe Johnson. He is well-known in the downtown area. Joe has been in the career of providing humor to a community desperately in need for nearly a decade. Humor, smiling, and laughter is healing. Joe had fallen into a deep depression after the passing of his loved ones. He wanted to do something that made himself and others happy. Chance made a Facebook page dedicated to Joe, which he shows him every time he stops to visit. Joe loves the positivity and encouragement from the community. He has become a local celebrity who many have come to admirer.
Daily I passed Joe, giving him peace signs and a few beeps. He was also a friend of Thomas’s, enthused when we drove passed. Outside the Mayo buildings and lining the city streets are elegant flower beds, each design precisely matching the next stretch of flowers. Many mornings around 6am volunteers could be seen fixing up the flower beds and cleaning the streets. The city always being pristine and clean. Scattered throughout the city and within the Mayo buildings there are dozens of hidden peaceful gardens, and meditation areas. Ironically enough, my favorite location was the Saint Francis peace garden. It was located directly outside of the Generose building, where the pain management program was held.
One morning, friends I made in the program had told me about their sighting of an alleged crazy man, who was spotted in the peace garden that morning talking to the birds. I knew who they were referring to without having to hear another word. Thomas was known to go there in the morning to pray before a day full of appointments and treatments. He told me he would go to the peace garden and talk to the birds, and appreciate the serenity. There will always be circumstances that provoke one to judge. Some tendencies are within our control, some without, those who have found their inner happiness pay no mind as to how they are perceived.
I am a collector of oddities, antique’s, books, old magazines, and plants, when I have nothing planned or am feeling melancholy I will search Craigslist for garage and estate sales, far from home- to ensure I don’t see anyone I know. I’ll make a list in order of stops and spend my day rummaging for stuff I do not need. This though makes me happy, it’s like treasure hunting. On top of collecting I am also a seller, or else my collecting would be sickening.
I had my first Saturday in Rochester to myself. I looked on Craigslist, noticing there were a few estate and garage sales that day. I scrolled across a listing “Plant Sale Byron, MN”. My apartment didn’t feel like home without any plants, and it did have an odor to it, that candles were not enhancing. The plant sale made last on my list because it was roughly a twenty-minute drive outside of town. I struck out at a few places, then decided to head to Byron.
Eventually I was on a road in the middle of two winding corn fields, no houses in sight. My GPS instructed me to turn left onto a dirt road. I thought plant sale, this is a thing in Minnesota? -Just drive down some dirt roads till you come across some plants. This peaked my curiosity. I continued down the dirt road, over the hillside, the view in front of me was captivating. The sun was glistening between the trees and over the grassy fields in front of me. The road winded, bringing me around a small farm. Then, I reached my destination, the plant sale. On my left was a raised trailer full of assorted flowers. There was a house hardly visible, hidden within the trees. I apprehensively pulled over in front of the plants. I noticed a woman walking up to greet me.
Her name was Mary; she was middle aged. She gave me a tour of her collection of plants on the trailer. She was curious as to how I found her, having New York state license plates and all. I spent a long time with Mary. It turned out we had a lot in common. Mary had Rheumatoid Arthritis. Although her passion was gardening. The sun light drains her, but the process is therapeutic to the soul. She brought me deep into the fields of her property where there were huge plots of flower gardens which were immaculate. She had a wide variety of flowers, all beautifully laid out around sculptures and brick walkways. She had offered to give me just about any plant that I liked in her garden. She had built stone walkways throughout the tall flowers. It felt like I had entered a magical labyrinth of beauty. She also had a large vegetable plot overflowing with hearty greens, and it was only June. Mary had a lot more land and another barn she was more than willing to show me, but the sun was getting the best of us both. As much as I was loving the moment I was running on empty, my skin turning blotchy red from heat rash.
As we returned to the front of her property I purchased tiger lilies, bee balm, and a couple ground covers for my flowerbed at home. As we were conversing I noticed there was a bunch of garden art pieces, like the ones throughout her gardens, which I was very fond of. I picked up one which was a sickle, welded to a small metal mail box that was painted red and black. It was a bird feeder mounted on a wooden stake. I immediately fell in love with each piece. She explained her husband made them all. I bought the bird house and a bird bath, which was made from a large white glass bowl attached to the end of a long piece of driftwood. Mary told me that their friend found in Lake Superior. She said it was sentimental to her and she was going to remove it that day to keep for herself. She was enthused that I took a liking to the artwork. The lilies were huge. I planned on planting them in Rochester before I departed, or I would leave them for Thomas. Either way the plants brightened up our hang out corner.
One morning, Thomas and I were discussing the nearby churches. One he went to daily has a watch tower over the church, inside there is a lookout that allowed for a view over the entire city. Thomas was told by a priest at the church that 24 hours a day there is a priest standing in the lookout tower. I asked him why, he said he asked the same question. The priest responded “There are many ill people in this city.”
Days before my arrival to Rochester the landlord gifted a new television to Thomas for his apartment. He was also given a DVD player, but the input cord was missing. Thomas was bone broke, besides Social Security payments which barley covered his rent. He washed his clothes in his sink with dish soap and hung them on hangers in the windows to dry. I had no plans that morning. I told him, let’s go to salvation army and find one.
We were driving down side streets that cut downtown. What radio stations do you listen to out here, turn something on I said. Thomas was in rough shape that morning, limping around expressing how achy his bones were. His skin burning up under the hot summer sun. We had the windows rolled all the way down to refresh us by the cooling wind. Thomas came across a classic rock station where AC/DC ‘Highway to Hell’ came over the radio. He cranked up the volume, we could be heard from across town. I looked over at him laughing and fighting for the volume. This time, Thomas winning the loudest volume, he shouted, “This is ME! Do you know who I am? I am the devil!” I looked at him, sheer joy plastered his face. Thomas was on an adrenaline high of reminiscing of the easy days. We both started to laugh uncontrollably as he was excitedly shouting on the top of his lungs slapping the side of the car. As our moment of nostalgia winded down, we hit down town. I said “Ok, ok, you’re killing me”, as I turned the music to a normal pitch. He was rolling with laughter. Thomas was a riot. At the end of every prayer or religious rant, he would bless it with the words, “Amen, you’ve just been prayed to by a fuckin’ Hell’s Angel!”
After rummaging throughout the Salvation Army, we could not find an input cord. Thomas stumbled across a new framed picture of St. Mary’s church in Rochester. The picture was matted below was a scripture of Saint Francis and a mentioning of Mayo Clinic’s St. Mary’s hospital. At a closer look the church was made from thousands of tiny photographed portraits of people. Thomas like a kid in a candy shop asking his mother, can I get it, can I get it? I found it funny, but for him this two-dollar picture was destiny. I pointed out the frame even matched the lightly-colored wood floors in his apartment. He was ecstatic, the entire car ride home he spent debating which wall he would hang it on.
One day while Thomas and I were getting ready to go to the laundromat. I was telling him the story of Merilee, the lady I met on the plane last year on my way to MN. I mentioned she defeated cancer twice and her need for religion, etc. Thomas paused me to clarify, she survived cancer twice, and survived a car crash? I said yes, and she wrote a book. I told him I had it with me, and just started to read it. I added she is Jewish, but the book seemed up his ally. He stopped me and said, “I’ve already read half of it.” Thomas then grabbed a card that was on top of his mess of medical papers. He handed me it, as if he was expecting this moment. The card read, ‘Sister Ann Regig, OSF’. He instructed me to take it and find her. The card had her address, she was located downtown. “She’ll be waiting for you when you get there.” I looked at Thomas, puzzled. I asked, “She’ll be waiting, huh?” Thomas said he couldn’t explain now, but I would understand once I got there.
About three weeks into my stay, a Saturday after a long night of shooting pool, I returned to the apartment around 2am. I had just crawled into bed when there was a startling bang that shook the walls. It sounded as if someone had dropped an anvil from the ceiling. A minute later there was another crash equally as loud. Finally, I drifted asleep without another disturbance.
A day later I caught Roger outside as I was about to leave. He asked me if I had saw Thomas. I said not in the last couple days, why do you ask? Roger told me it was Thomas’s last day at the apartment, the landlord kicked him out. It started to make sense because when I got home that day from PRC there was a new TV in the living area. (which was turned on when I arrived) I had a feeling it was Thomas’s Television.
Roger asked if I heard the noise Saturday night. I described what I heard. He said after the second bang he got up from bed and walked into the hall way which was flooded with a trail of blood and water, leading up the stairs to Thomas’s apartment. Thomas’s door was shut. Rodger returned to his apartment to find his celling was leaking water. Thomas lived directly above him. Rodger thought Thomas was a nut and easily got on each other’s nerves. Rodger said he was not going into Thomas’s apartment and did not want any involvement once he saw the blood, so he called the landlord. The land lord asked what they wanted him to do about it. Roger said if they don’t want to come there, then send the police because there was a lot of blood. He also didn’t want Thomas mad at him if he called the cops. Supposedly a few minutes later the police showed up and got Thomas to answer the door. He had large gashes on his arm and foot. Later Thomas told me that he had fallen asleep and when he awoke to a flood slipped and knocked a glass bowl from the counter. No one can be sure as to what happened that night although this was the second time that Thomas had fallen asleep, forgetting he left the water running. He suffered from severe brain fog and memory impairment.
I felt bad for Thomas, knowing he was soon to be homeless. Apartments in town on short notice are pricey. Thomas had about three days to get everything out. His first day homeless he knocked on my door, I let him in. Thomas sat down on my couch and cried, for he didn’t know what to do. He had been out walking the streets trying to find someplace for rent. He whined that he needed a place to rest, his body was aching. Once his eyes cleared he realized he was sitting in front of the TV that was in his apartment. I could tell as he was starring in disappointment, I apologized and said it was there when I got home the other day. I never cared much for TV, Thomas on the other hand worshiped his time spent with it. He said it works? I said yeah, it’s fine didn’t they just buy this for you? He began to become upset again. He told me that the landlord had been trying to make him pay for the new TV, stating that he broke it. He had been fighting with them because it worked fine when he left. I turned the TV on and flicked through the channels. There were no flaws with the TV. I told him that it was on and working when I got home, so someone must be aware to the fact that it is not broken. I told him to let them know that he came to my apartment and saw they had moved it there.
I didn’t see Thomas again after that day. I never planted the lilies. I instead gifted them to the landlord, who I met my last week in town. The landlord didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture, she thought they were peppers. I wished that I planted them at the peace garden or the nearby park to leave a mark on the town. I also never sought out sister Ann. I still have her card, as it feels like this may be a novel awaiting destiny. Until next time, Rochester.