A memoir of my father succumbing to dementia
|Chapter 4: Moving Away
Montana, the open range, held a special place in my mind. Only books and second hand stories gave me an idea of the place I longed to be, but it was enough to capture my imagination. I used to say that there were only two things I had to do while I was alive; go to Montana and ride a horse on an Australian beach. When I was twenty I added one more task to this list; go to college. So the search was on.
Living without horses was not an option in my mind, and so I decided to look at equestrian programs. I looked at state universities and community colleges and didn’t find anything of particular interest above and beyond anything I’d found in Iowa. In a moment of desperation I searched every college in the state and found three that were the size I wanted. However, I was starting to become discouraged. They were all private schools and only two had equestrian programs. I didn’t think I could afford a private college anywhere, and my final options were staring back at me shouting, “Private college!”
I clicked on their websites anyway. I had to make sure that none of them had what I was looking for. The first two fell out of contention without a fight. The third jumped out at me right away. I like something about it that I couldn’t understand. So I dug a little deeper. As I went through the offered programs I almost screamed when I ran across an equestrian journalism degree. I’d found everything I didn’t know I was looking for, but it was still a private college. I shut off the computer and cooked lunch.
All I could think about was that college and how it just couldn’t be done. When Mom came home I told her everything I’d found. She shared my concern about money; both of us knew I would have to pay for it myself; but she convinced me that it couldn’t hurt to check out the school and financial aid. This cheered me up a little, but apprehension clouded my thoughts.
Three days later I sent in my application with no hope of receiving any reply. I talked to Dad about it. He was upset that I was thinking about a school in Montana and told me I’d be better off at Iowa State University. I could go to college and live at home to save money. He had a good point, but I wanted so badly to experience someplace new.
I tried to stop thinking about the school, but it followed me everywhere. Everyday I was reminded about Montana or writing or horses and they all made me think of Rocky Mountain College. A week after I had applied a letter came. I recognized the logo and figured it was a rejection letter. I didn’t want to open it so I put it on the kitchen table for someone else to find. I knew that someone would be curious and open it.
That night, while I was at work, Mom called. She’d opened the letter. They had conditionally accepted me as a student in the fall. Three coworkers gasped and stared as I dropped the phone on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. Could they really want me? I was afraid to pick the phone up, but too excited to walk away. When I put the phone to my ear, my confused mother was asking if I was there.
She read the letter to me and it said that I would have to submit an essay, letters of recommendation, and take the SAT. Then Mom told me that they wanted me to see the college at their visitation in April. They also said that I would be able to meet with a financial aid officer to work out my money situation. They provided me answers to all my questions or options for all my problems in one letter.
When I got home I read the letter over and over to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and I gave Dad the update. He couldn’t speak. His mouth openeed and closed as if her were having convulsions with the words he wanted to say, but nothing came out.
He thought it was absolutely ridiculous to travel a thousand miles for college and pay for a private education when a perfectly good state school was just down the street. However, he’d already made his objections known and didn’t want to push his head-storng, impulsive daughter further away.
I was moving. I was embarking on my own adventure. Montan may no be the wild, untamed west of history, but it was my new frontiers. For twenty years I had been know as Mark’s daughter everywhere I went, but nobody in Montana knew Mark Goodale and surely had not heard of his daughter. I was terrified.
I made a preliminary trip to visit the college and tie up loose ends early in the spring. My Honda and I set out west and I made the drive in a day and a half. I called home every six or eight hours, and told Mom about the scenery. I was mesmerized. I remember driving through South Dakota and seeing billboard after billboard for the Corn Palace. I was appalled that there was some huge building of corn not in Iowa, but, on the other hand, I was appalled that there was a building of corn at all. When I told Mom and Dad about it I couldn’t help but say, “The idea of a palace like that is really corny, and the signs were pretty cheesy too.” We all had a big booming laugh over that in true Goodale style that disturbed anyone within 100 feet of us.
Dad would ask about the drive and my car and the weather, and then he’d ask about the drive and my car and the weather. I sighed as I repeated, during every conversation, the particulars of my situation three or four or five times. Dad’s memory hadn’t been intact for as long as I could remember and, while irritating, it was not alarming. He didn’t have much to ask me, and I didn’t have much that I thought he’d enjoy hearing. Mom and I, however, could talk for an hour (if I’d had the time) about everything from what I ate for lunch and the price of gas to how bright the sun was.
I crossed the Wyoming border sometime around midnight and pulled off at the first exit to catch a nap before finishing the drive. I killed the engine and finished my bottle of water in a gas station parking lot, then retrieved my blanket and put my seat back for the most comfortable sleep I could hope to get in the driver’s seat of a car.
I woke up about 5 am and toyed with the idea of getting on the road. I needed to be in Billings by noon and it would be cutting it close if I waited too much longer. However, I did the calculations in my head and figured I could comfortably catch one more hour of sleep and still have two hours to spare. So, I lay down with a clear sky overhead.
When I woke up again at 6, there was already a quarter inch of snow on the ground and the winds were pushing for a blizzard. After some cussing and a trip to the gas station for hot coffee, I took off down the interstate. Winter driving wasn’t a new concept for me, but I knew alertness was the key to avoiding black ice and the ditch.
I drove for hours before I saw a snow plow, and after the first plow the blizzard just got worse. Visibility was down to about 30 feet at best and 7 feet at worst, so I turned the heat to defrost to keep my windows clear, sat up straight and cracked another bottle of water. It was going to be a long trip.
As I drove, I noticed that the visibility was becoming apparently better and I figured the storm was breaking, however, about three miles down the road the snow enveloped me again. I was driving in almost white-out conditions until I drove past a large town. Then the snow almost completely stopped coming down. I was intrigued. How often does one encounter such strange weather, where the snow has been coming down for hours worth of driving, then slows down, picks up, and then completely stops. It was certainly my first time.
My phone rang in the passenger seat enticing me to dance with the tune of my ring-tone. I considered letting it ring since I appeared to be in strange weather, but finally decided to answer since it was beginning to clear. It was Mom. She’d just finished a project and had the urge to call me. She has a mother’s perfect timing to be able to call when something is not going as well as planned because of a “feeling” she needed to call and she manages to interrupt your pursuit of something you’d rather she didn’t know you were doing. In this case: driving in a blizzard.
I told her about the weird snow in Wyoming, and how the air was currently devoid of falling snow. Not 15 seconds after this was said I was once again surrounded by close lying clouds of steel grey as they unloaded themselves on Wyoming and my car. Grudgingly, I hung up the phone so I could concentrate on the road, but I would have much rather related the play-by-play weather to my mother.
I met clear blue skies at the Montana border that felt like the vaulted ceilings of a cathedral with all of the space that unfolded before me. I almost drove the car off the side of the road as I tried to twist my head all the way around my head to grasp the vastness of the landscape. I’d never seen anything like it. The sky seemed a brighter blue and the clouds looked fluffier than I remembered them to be anywhere else I’d ever seen.
I pulled out my disposable camera and started clicking picture in the direction of anything I thought might look cool on film. I had perfected, somewhere along the road, the art of pointing and clicking without ever looking through the view finder. I just couldn’t wait to share this amazing space that I’d found. If I’d been on horseback, I could’ve believed myself the only person to ever have set foot in the state of Montana.
I strolled into Billings at 11:30 am, precisely one hour after I had planned on checking into my hotel, and I hadn’t even located my hotel yet. I had an hour to shower, dress, and find Rocky’s campus. I just hoped they weren’t expecting the Queen of England because they would be sorely disappointed by the corn-fed farm girl they were about to meet.
Once I’d made myself presentable, I took off in my car in the direction I gleaned from my expedia.com map was the location of the college. Pretty soon I was driving into the airport parking lot, and confused as a rat in a paper bag. I had obviously missed my turn, but I couldn’t think of where it had possibly been, so I retraced my steps. Halfway down the hill, I saw a sign that said Rimrock Road. I needed the very next road, Poly Drive. I took a deep breath and slowed down. When I saw the sign, I was so excited I almost drove right into it. The college was just a few miles down the road and I couldn’t wait to get there and be free of the car for a while.
I drove about a half-mile down the road and wasn’t sure I was where I had thought. All I saw were houses and a man-made river. I passed a country club and decided that I’d missed something. Maybe it was the college I’d already passed, but I was sure that was the University. I went back anyway. I pulled into the parking lot of the campus and headed for the first building and asked the women sitting at a welcome table where Prescott Hall was. The blank stares that met me made me want to laugh out loud. So much had happened in the course of one day already; I couldn’t help but be entertained if I screwed up something else. After talking to a few people I figured out that I was on the wrong campus and that I hadn’t driven far enough to find Rocky Mountain College.
Finally, I pulled into the actual parking lot for Rocky Mountain College and turned off the car. I was late. I was terrified. I was in a dream. I couldn’t actually be considering going to college. They wouldn’t want me. I came up with every possible reason not to get out of the car, but curiosity won me over and I stepped out onto the concrete. I spotted the sign for Prescott Hall tucked away from the main sidewalk among a few trees outlined by the façade of an old, carefully crafted building. It felt right.
From that moment I was addicted to RMC. I had never been so certain about anything in my life, but I knew that I could not rest until I had been accepted to this school. College was my destination and RMC was the only suitable path.