Day 5. Fri., June 5, 2015, 2015 … Reims … 55 miles/220 total miles … If they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

5 Champagne

Sleep update: A so-so night last night, helped by the champagne. Think two or three drinks and an Ambien are about the right dose. I know: You’re not supposed to take Ambien when you’ve been drinking. But, it seems to help me fall asleep. Then again, maybe it’s why I wake up three or four hours later and can’t fall back asleep. Should probably cut back on the drinking. Nah, there’s nothing else to do at night. And it helps my brain calm down.

BTW: Right at the start of Lonesome Dove, Augustus fetches the jug of whiskey and has a few belts. It makes him feel “nicely misty inside … foggy and cool as a morning in the Tennessee hills. He seldom got downright drunk, but he did enjoy feeling misty along about sundown…”

Wow, this pretty much sums up how a couple drinks make me feel at the end of the day. Maybe Gus got thrown from his horse and hit his head on a rock, and is battling a TBI he doen’t even know he has since nobody back then knew about TBIs. Or concussions. A couple of drinks sure does make you feel all misty inside and makes you forget your wife is murdered, your scalp is numb and your brain is scrambled. And makes you feel as cool as a morning in the Champagne hills.

BTW: That guy on the airplane was right; Lonesome Dove is pretty damn good. And, it’s 945 pages, which should last me most of the trip.

***

Today was a really hard but incredible day or riding through the champagne vineyards, about 55 miles and maybe six or seven >s and two >>s. Amazing scenery the whole ride.

 

OK, I admit it; I walked my bike up the last – and steepest – section of the second >> mountain. Technically, I don’t think it’s a mountain, but sure felt like one. The view from the top was fantastic. If I looked north, could see the cathedral in Reims. If I looked south, could see … what looked like three or four more big hills to climb on the way to Epernay.

Damn.

Think I may have overdone it a bit today, what with all the riding and all the hills. Can barely walk right now, especially up the stairs of my hotel. My thighs are screaming. My neck hurts and my left ankle, the broken one, is acting up again. Have a little bit of a headache. Need to sit quietly for a few minutes and regroup.

Anyway … went to the Moet & Chandon caves in Epernay and took the tour. What the hell, had to do it. According to the brochure, the one in English: “In this legendary subterranean labyrinth, the forces of nature have come together to create a uniquely ideal setting for the metamorphosis of choice fruit into the House’s luxurious wine.”

This has got to sound better in French.

Moet & Chandon has 18 miles of caves. They’re damp, musty and cold – and about 90 million bottles of champagne are aging in them at any given moment. Ninety million bottles!

The tour was in English and there were six other people: Two British couples and an American couple. And me.

At the end of the tour, we got a complimentary glass of champagne.

“Where is your wife?” one of the British women asked as everyone sipped their champagne.

Why does she think I’m married? How the heck does she … Aha, my wedding band. Still wearing my wedding band. Can’t take it off. No way.

“She’s not here.”

“Where is she?”

This woman was persistent.

“She’s not here.”

“Did she not come on this trip?”

OK, she asked for it…

“She’s dead. Maddie was murdered about a year ago,” I said and walked away. The woman finally shut up.

Sorry lady, but you wouldn’t stop pestering me. Actually, I’m not sorry. You pissed me off.

***

“Marc, why are you here?”

This is the question I asked myself earlier today, after I got back from Epernay. Was in the cathedral again, looking at the Chagall stained-glass windows. My favorite spot in Reims. Maybe my favorite indoor spot in all of France. So far.

Chagall’s windows tell “the history of Abraham and the last moments of the Earthly life of Christ,” according to the church’s website. It hurt my brain to look at the thousands of details and pieces of stained glass that tell all these Bible stories. Too much information to absorb. Brain gets tired. All foggy and fuzzy. This isn’t a very good description, but is the best I’ve been able to come up with. My brain gets the same way when I’m in the supermarche, looking at the seemingly endless rows of bottles of wine, or fruits/vegetables or boxes of crackers or cookies. It’s just too much information – too many bits of data – for my brain to take in all at once. Get frazzled and anxious and just pick something quick, anything, and keep moving. That’s why I like riding so much. The scenery – the clouds, the trees, the mountains and rivers and fields – are general, not specific and seem to relax my brain. All I hear is the wind, my tires against the road and my breathing.

The fog and fuzziness melt away.

It’s kind of strange – and maybe even ironic – that the best thing for my brain is riding my bike, the thing that got my brain messed up in the first place. No wait, it wasn’t cycling’s fault. It was that damn murdering bastard’s fault.

Anyway, instead of looking at the details of Chagall’s windows, focused on the bigger picture – literally – and this was much better. All the different shades of blue were relaxing and soothing and my brain calmed down and relaxed. Was like looking at the most beautiful ocean ever, and the colors changed whenever a cloud covered up the sun.

“So Marc, why the hell are you here?” I asked myself again (I’m writing this much later, it’s 4:46AM in the morning and, yep, can’t sleep, although I did get in about five hours before I woke up, which is pretty darn good for me).

And by here, I mean France, not specifically Reims.

The simple answer is that Maddie was murdered. I sold our condo and was halfheartedly looking for an apartment while waiting for the sale of our condo to close. And then, while waiting for closing day, got laid off at the Examiner. So, there I was: Alone, unemployed, about to be homeless, most of my stuff in storage, with no apartment to move into. The thought of trying to find a job at another newspaper somewhere in the Philadelphia area, or in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the United States, wasn’t appealing. Or easy, what with all the turmoil and downsizing in the newspaper business. Let’s just say the future of newspapers – and a career in them – isn’t promising.

 

The thought of finding an apartment wasn’t appealing. Neither was moving back in with Mom and Dad, who offered to let me stay at their place for as long as I needed or wanted to stay. All of the above stressed me out and made me very anxious.

As you’ve probably deduced, I’d slipped into some sort of mild depression that seemed to peak at about a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. OK, maybe a 7. Sometimes an 8. A 9 every now and then. Like on Maddie’s birthday. That was one hell of a miserable, rotten day, especially when Facebook reminded me it was Maddie’s birthday. Getting back to work helped. Sort of. It kept my mind off Maddie for a few hours at a time, and my head and brain and neck didn’t seem to hurt as much when I was working on a story. There was, however, a price to pay. At the end of the work day, was totally stressed out and exhausted, and spent the nights – and weekends – in my green reclining chair, sipping a beer or two, resting and watching TV with Penny (our cat). Was too spent, whipped and dog-tired to do anything else. Have now seen every damn episode of Castle like three times and still can’t decide if it’s any good. It doesn’t matter. It helped kill time.

Hey, if they show Castle over here, is it called Chateaux?

As the months dragged on, felt as though I was writing the same boring, boilerplate stories over and over again. Just wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic reporter I’d always been. Wasn’t the motivated, enthusiastic person I’d always been. All I did was work, go to physical therapy and rest/recover. Was anxious and tired, and the stress of being a reporter, especially the stress of cranking breaking-news stuff out on deadline, was getting to me. Wasn’t fun. Nothing was fun. And yes, this is pretty much the definition of depression.

***

“Do you have any suicidal thoughts?”

At least three different doctors asked me this question. I think it’s something they’re required to do for a patient who’s suffered the loss of a spouse, almost died, has a TBI, maybe PTSD and is in the midst of a never- ending recovery. Or maybe, just maybe, my depression was a lot worse and more transparent than I thought.

“No, I haven’t thought about suicide,” I always answered, which was the truth.

Really, I haven’t thought about committing suicide.

I have, on more than one occasion, and somewhat regularly, thought that it would have been a helluva lot easier if I had died on April 20, 2014 right next to Maddie. It would have been lights out, no pain, no depression, no living without Maddie. Wouldn’t have had to put my body through hour after hour of painful physical therapy and rehab. Wouldn’t have to put my brain through hour after hour of thinking about Maddie, wishing I was the one who had died and she was the one who had lived. Wouldn’t be so damn sore and exhausted and anxious all the damn time.

 

Have come to the conclusion that being dead is easy. Requires absolutely no effort. It’s the process of dying that sucks. Especially if it’s a long and painful process. Remember my grandmother, back when I was 10 or 11, saying she couldn’t wait for her “telegram” from God. She was 77 and in terrible health, had suffered two or three strokes, couldn’t walk, could barely get out of bed and was living in a nursing home. Didn’t understand what she was talking about, what with being 10 or 11, and having never heard of a telegram. Even after my parents explained the telegram thing, and that God doesn’t actually send you one when it’s your time to go, couldn’t understand why Grandmom was ready to die.

Now I do.

And sometimes, think that maybe I did die on April 20, 2014 and this – my day-to-day existence – is what the afterlife is like. You spend eternity trying to recover from whatever it is that killed you. I don’t believe this, but hey, you never know. Anything’s possible. Plus, think this was the plot of some TV show or movie I saw years ago. Twilight Zone?

***

Was kind of relieved when I got laid off from the Examiner and got away from a newsroom filled with people who felt sorry for me. Tough to be pitied day after day. And everyone I interviewed had heard about what happened to Maddie and me. The Examiner ran stories on it, a couple TV stations covered it, it was all over social media – and then it started up all over again when the murderer finally took a guilty plea and got sentenced. Everyone would give me the look. You know: The pity look. And then they’d say something along the lines of: “I’m so sorry about Maddie, she was such a wonderful person … how are you doing? Really Marc, how are you doing?”

“I’m OK, I’m getting there,” was what I always answered, and then tried to change the subject.

As time went by, had less and less patience for people. All people. My family, my friends, my coworkers, the people I interviewed. The people in front of me in the line at the supermarket. And, as time went by, the stress began to build and build. There were a couple of time when I just about lost it in the newsroom. Totally remember this one day. Was working on a Sunday A1 feature about the new CEO of Doylestown Hospital and her big, $200 million plans to expand the hospital and how it would help the community. It was a Thursday and I had to get it done by the end of the day. This also happened to be the day the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board released the monthly numbers for the state’s 12 casinos – at 1PM. Vanessa, our casino beat reporter, had left the Examiner a month earlier and, of course, we hadn’t replaced her. Why replace someone when you can get the other reporters to do even more work? I got stuck covering the casinos. And damn it, couldn’t figure out how to get the monthly revenue numbers from the state’s 12 casinos onto the Excel spreadsheet that Vanessa had created and that automatically calculated the monthly increase or decrease in revenue for each casino from the same month a year ago. Totally needed this info for my article, and to give to the graphics person so she could put together the monthly casino revenue chart. Couldn’t get the damn spread sheet to work. And my editor was pestering me to get something onto the web.

“Marc, the Inquirer already has the numbers up on their web,” he said. “Shut the fuck up,” I wanted to yell at him.

“I’m working on it,” is what I said.

The more I tried to get that damn spreadsheet to work, the more stressed out I became. Finally, using this online website that can calculate the percentage change between two numbers (because there’s no way I can do it myself), was able to calculate the increase/decrease for each of the 12 casinos. Pounded out something quick for the web, then made a call or two to get some quotes for the print article to run the next day, and finally, after all this was finished, got back to the article about the new Doylestown Hospital CEO. Then, at 4:45, get an email from a local company announcing their CEO had resigned. Great. Had to scramble to get something on the web, and then do the damn print article. And then finish the hospital story.

In other words: A very busy, but not an unusually busy day in the newsroom.

There were about three or four times that day when I really, really had to take a few breaths and control my emotions and try and relax – or I would have gone into full freak-out mode and started yelling and screaming at people. And, once I started yelling and screaming, I’m not sure if I would have been able to stop.

***

Let’s just say France is about as far away from that newsroom and our condo and neighborhood and family/friends as I could get. Well, Asia is further (or is it farther? I’m too tired to figure it out right now), but I’m not sure how good the biking is over there. And maybe, just maybe, a bike trip in France is what I need to start to turn my life around. Yeah, I’m going with that: This trip is therapeutic mentally and physically and is important for my recovery. That’s why I’m here.

 

Think Maddie would approve. After all, we were planning a trip to Paris and then the Loire for eight days of biking. Maddie was totally excited about the trip. She couldn’t wait to show me around the Loire. Do I owe it to Maddie to go to France and bike my way around the Loire, or am I just using her death and my layoff as an excuse to ditch everything and ride around France?

It’s probably a little of both, which I still think would be OK with Maddie. And in a horribly ironic way, Maddie’s death is basically funding my trip. She was an elementary school art teacher. The benefits from the school district where she worked included a payment of three times her annual salary to the surviving spouse in the event of the employee’s death. It’s called a death benefit. An ironic term since there’s absolutely no benefit to Maddie’s death.

Plus, we – I mean I – did great on our condo, buying it low, during the Great Recession, and selling it pretty high, after the recovery.

Money isn’t going to be a problem for a while, even with all the out-of- pocket expenses I had to pay for Maddie’s memorial service and my medical bills. Then again, who the hell cares about money. Just want my life to somehow and magically go back to the way it was before Maddie was murdered.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

A couple of weeks ago, was watching CBS Sunday Morning and there was a segment on Carl Reiner. He’s the guy who created the Dick Van Dyke Show, teamed up with Mel Brooks to create the 2,000 Year Old Man and directed a bunch of the early Steve Martin movies. Carl is 91 or 92 and still pretty sharp and funny. He talked about his life and his comedy, and then he talked about the death of his wife. She’d been sick a long time, was totally bedridden for about a year. The end was near and Carl asked her to sing a song. She did, very softly and in such a sweet and wonderful voice that the hospice worker leaned over and whispered in her ear that she had a lovely voice.

She died a few minutes later, surrounded by her husband and children.

“Isn’t that a wonderful way to go, surrounded by your family, singing a song and having someone tell you that you have a wonderful voice,” Carl said, his eyes tearing up.

Maddie deserved an ending like this. In 60 years. She didn’t deserve to die broken and battered, lying on the side of the street.

Nobody does

Keep reading … Marc has a bit of an incident in the woods … and no it doesn’t involve a bear

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