By "leisurely," I mean we drove over via small highways and byways that took us through the small towns of western Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. By "small," I mean a population of a thousand here, of seven hundred there, of another twenty-three hundred ten miles down the road.
In Harpers Ferry, Iowa, a town clinging to the bluffs above the Mississippi, there was a soft-serve ice cream joint built against the bluff. Each end of its parking lot was guarded by a giant ice cream cone. When I see small towns with ice cream shacks, let alone shacks with giant cones, my spirits lift and I hold out hope for America.
Rochester is a company town and company is the Mayo Clinic. Mayo's name and buildings and presence dominate the downtown core. Dominate? Mayo is the core downtown. (To its credit, Mayo appears to take its civic role seriously.)
Mayo is unique in that it has its own carillon atop the Plummer Building, a 1926 structure with fantastic terra cotta ornamentation. For the unaware, a carillon is a musical instrument (percussion, of course) that has at least 23 tuned bronze bells. It is played by a clavier (keyboard) and clappers, not by swinging like the typical church bell.) While the building was being constructed, William Mayo (one of the two Mayo brothers) went to Belgium and become enraptured of carillons. When he returned to Rochester, he had the architect revise the building plans and add a carillon tower on top. Until 2001, the Plummer Building with its carillon tower was the tallest structure in Rochester. The carillon currently has 56 bells in it.
I have always, always wanted to be up inside a carillon tower. Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago has one, but I have never managed a tour. The Mayo allows tours of its carillon. Needless to say, I was thrilled.
To arrange one, you call the carillonneur (the bell master) directly on his cell phone. What a great small town touch! Jeff was delighted to arrange a tour; he will be playing Thursday morning at 8:30 for the downtown market, and we are meeting at 8:20 in the lobby of the Plummer to climb up into the tower with him. I can't wait.
I have a very limited view of Rochester, being that my focus is on the Mayo and not the bigger town. All the same, one sunny afternoon I walked around a neighborhood near the Mayo core. A woman of about my age was in her garden and I stopped to chat. She had been away from her house for a year, thinking she would sell it. Now she had returned and the vegetable garden had gone wild. The asparagus beds were tall and green, the delicate ferny stalks waving to and fro in the breeze. "And my rhubarb," she said. "I don't even recognize it." I didn't either, until I looked at one massive growth against a corner shed and realized I was looking at a rhubarb forest. She was cheerful and good-natured about the garden, telling me how much pleasure she took in being out in the sun, turning the dirt, caging the tomatoes she had just planted. Our exchange made Rochester a little more personal, a little closer to home.
The trip to Rochester is a serious one, coming from my oncologist's suggestion that I would benefit from a consult with a world-class expert institution. Ten and a half years out from my original diagnosis, I am part of a very, very small group of myeloma patients. "Rare" is the phrase my Mayo oncologist used when we met on Tuesday. Warren and I will meet with him again on Friday to discuss the findings of three days of testing, but we have already experienced a heightened awareness of just how far out on the limb I am and how very thin the branch is becoming.
It is a sharp realization.
All the way across western Wisconsin, red-winged blackbirds threaded the fields and perched on the fence posts. Mile after mile, I would see the flash of red on their shoulders. I thought of section V of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Section V reminds me of where I am on the cancer spectrum and where I am in my life. The beauty of inflection or the beauty of innuendo?
It will be a long, thoughtful trip back to Delaware.