(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)
It had been 9 years since I had a true respite from Stephen’s caregiving. Months of preparation went in to my get-away. It has been tough for Stephen: operation after operation, stroke after stroke, leaving him only able to walk with a walker. To be clear, Stephen is no pathetic creature; his indomitable spirit continues to bless those lucky enough to interact with him. Likewise, I am no pathetic creature: I rise to the caregiving, and I continue to create my life.
It has been tempting just to continue this Siamese twin existence. Even given infirmities and confinements, we aren’t just existing, we’re thriving, with full participation in various communities. But I’ve gradually come to a significant conclusion. I must occasionally disconnect the flesh and sinew binding us together, and solitary Jym must fly on their own—for a day, for a weekend, for … whatever. Any primary caregiver for the severely disabled knows this fact. When you take up the slack in another person’s capabilities, you eventually loose capabilities of your own. Or at least, you’re just not sure any more what it is like to just be you.
Stephen is on board with this. Maybe I had to make a few loud noises about it; maybe I had to explain more than once what I just put into certain inadequate words. But he gets it. I need time away. So we moved to an independent living community, we set up a modest program of support for his daily living activities, and we employed a man to come stay overnight with him in my absence. Stephen jokingly named these amorphous absences “Jim’s Jolly Journeys,” and my 19th Century double immediately redubbed them, “Jim’s Jolly Junkets.” Thomas Hardy would approve. But what junket, indeed, would start fixing whatever was shaking my solitary bones?
Gradually a plan emerged. I would go once again to the International Scott Joplin Festival held annually in Sedalia, Missouri at the end of May. It had been exactly ten years since my last visit. I would take Amtrak to Sedalia. The last exciting adventure for me on a train happened when I was fifteen. My friend, Will Lutz, and I took the train from Marietta, Ohio to New York City, accompanied by Will’s eighteen year old brother, Richard. My parents wisely set me free for that escapade. That was in 1955. So I knew that under the right conditions there were romance and adventure on the rails.
I guess I’m not the only almost eighty year old who has a yen to recapture his younger, footloose and fancy free self. I thought, well, there’s this Amtrak station here in Kirkwood less than half a mile away. I walk that distance all the time. I’ll just go for a couple of days, and I’ll take everything I need in a backpack. I’ll go to Sedalia, and when I need to get around, I’ll just take the city buses. Or a taxi, if necessary. I’ll be fine.
Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories
So I made the preparations, the hotel reservations, the tickets to concerts and seminars, studing the maps, the history, the restaurants. It did not go as planned. Sedalia, you know, has a lot of charm if you know where to look for it. It’s the county seat of Pettis County, so it had a magnificent two-story Greek Revial style courthouse with towering dome built in 1884. Unfortunately, that architectural phenomenon was consumed by a fire in 1920 that was started by some roof repairman with a nervous blowtorch. A more modern version of a Greek Revival courthouse was put up in 1923. The picture I snapped of it will never make it into an art book, but it does show nicely the more modern courthouse, the small town festival atmosphere of the ragtime gathering and the revered Bothwell Hotel in the background, with its turn-of-the-century ambiance.
I didn’t make it into the Bothwell Hotel. Again. Even in January, the hotel was filled for the duration of the festival. Same thing happened in 2008. Instead, I was able to book two nights at the State Fair Best Western on the southern edge of town. That was ok, I thought, because festival participants often party out there until the wee hours, including excellent music in abundance. How was I to know the rules were changed this year?
The days and weeks and months went by, the preparations, completed, and I found myself standing at the Amtrak station in Kirkwood, Missouri, with only my $26 coach ticket in my hand and a back pack on my back, and a heart seething with anticipation for my adventure. This Amtrak station in Kirkwood is also a local treasure. Itself an example of Richardson Romanesque architecture, it is set on the south edge of Kirkwood’s downtown area near city hall, a popular plaza with many restaurants, a small park by the tracks, and several blocks of shops, restaurants and a local garden shop called the OK Hatchery.
Got my bag, got my reservation
Spent each dime I could afford
Like a child in wild anticipation
Long to hear that “All aboard”
The line I am taking is the Missouri River Runner, and it runs both west and east in the morning and the evening. One end of the line is in Kansas City, the other is in St. Louis. On any given day, maybe 20 people get on here in Kirkwood, young adults with their bicycles in tow, grandparents and their grandkids, middle aged couples, business people and the occasional bizarrely clad youth with piercings. On this particular day, I politely lined up behind the modest crowd and proceeded to begin Jim’s Jolly Junket #1.
Finally, after the exciting eternity of planning, I am on the train. Alone. It’s even better on the train than I anticipated. Even though I bought the cheapest fare, coach, the seats are roomy and comfortable on this River Runner, the car is neither empty nor full, the travellers are chatty but respectful, and when the train begins to move, the ride is smooth. I’m good to go. And then, I have a moment of hesitation/regret.
Seven, that’s the time we leave, at seven
I’ll be waitin’ up for heaven
Countin’ every mile of railroad track
That takes me back
Yep, I am actually leaving Stephen alone—well, without me. More to the point, I’m leaving myself alone, with only a backpack, a scannible ticket clutched in my hand, and fading memories of the last International Ragtime Festival. I consider at a new level of reality that someday, one of us two will be taking the last journey, and the other one will be watching the train leave the station for a final time, never to return.
Never thought my heart could be so ‘yearny’
Why did I decide to roam?
Gotta take that sentimental journey
Sentimental journey home.
I jerk myself out of the maudlin fantasy that had popped up unbidden. This is respite, not a funeral. A uniformed guy comes through with a scanner in his hand, registering the passengers. Being ever the planner, I had asked in the Kirkwood terminal what was the best side of the train to be on for the sake of good views, and was told that going west, the right side of the train had the best views of the Missouri River and generally followed it. This train stopped at Washington, Hermann, and Jefferson City before I got off at Sedalia. There were no spectacular views, but I did see the river about half the time, a path through the trees about half the time, and, of course, the three stops.
I had decided that I would not read on this trip, it being the first train ride for me in over 50 years. There was, indeed, the kid behind me and the occasional kick of the back seat, but it never reached the annoying level. The woman across the aisle from me was going to Kansas City to visit her grandchildren. An occasional younger passenger, both male and female, made it forward to the club car and returned with sandwiches, snacks or beverages. I survived a visit to the restroom. Only one odd thing happened. About three rows in front of me, a woman spent nearly the entire three hour train ride facing backwards, knees on her seat, arms over the back. Sometimes she talked with the woman behind her, but most of the time, she just looked. It felt like a mild invasion of privacy.
When I wasn’t people watching, I was looking out the window. The woods this time of year are full of honeysuckle and a shrub covered with a creamy white flower I had never had seen before. The brief stops at Washington and Hermann presented intriguing possibilities of a day visit. And then we were pulling into Sedalia. I hopped off the train, backpack affixed, and made it over one block to Ohio Street, which leads in a few blocks south to the town square and principle site of the festival. I took one last somewhat uncertain look back at the terminal. And then I began my adventure in earnest.