Monday, June 17 to Tuesday, June 18, 2019 ~ TN-AL (212 miles)
Nashville, TN; Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament; Birmingham, AL
Today is mom’s 79th birthday.
At 450 miles, the drive yesterday from Peoria to Nashville is the longest stretch we attempt. It takes a lot of energy out of both of us, especially since I had come an additional 430 miles from Minneapolis and mom had chemo shots the previous week. This is going to be a short day and the mantra of our trip resonates: “Take it Easy”.
Nashville is nothing more than an overnight stop for us, though we could find plenty to explore. We end up at the local big-box store for some supplies. Mom forgot her cane at home, a camouflage adjustable aluminum cane that she thought was pretty. My nephews pointed out that the pattern was actually camo and immediately dubbed her “Grambo”, like Rambo… but more unsteady since the hip surgery. She chose cheerful rainbow polka dots this time.
We arrive at the Alabama Welcome Center to pick up a map and eat sandwiches. Mom has a habit of collecting maps as souvenirs. This used to be a necessity before the age of cell phones, GPS, and google maps. Now she just likes to look at them and follow along as we drive our route. It gives her something to do in the between times besides argue with her crossword puzzle book.
This welcome center is home to a Saturn IB rocket (one be), a launch vehicle used by NASA for the Apollo program . It is surrounded by barbed wire to discourage climbers and graffiti and sort of puts a damper on the welcome center’s welcome. But we are happy to sit in the shade under the trees and not in the car.
While at the welcome center, the parameters of our travel come into focus as the reality of my mom’s health appears. It was clear how the cancer and chemo are effecting her. The chemo, on top of normal aging, causes mom small episodes of confusion. She comes back to clarity and remembrance but there are moments when it just takes a little longer to figure things out.
This is normal for chemo patients. “Chemo Brain” is a real phenomenon, of which my friend Todd Park (who had leukemia) said, “I can say unequivocally that my brain’s short-term memory is working just fine. The only caveat to that is that it’s not getting same-day delivery as often!”
The blood cancer (MDS) causes anemia and combined with her treatment makes her physically weak. She simply does not have the energy she used to. That combined with aftereffects of a broken hip and bad knees make walking a challenge. But all of that is manageable. None of this deters me from taking mom on an epic road trip and enjoying the journey.
Here is mom, 79 and on the road to a new adventure.
I drove I-65 south out of Nashville, Hwy 31/91 to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, then I-65 south to Birmingham
Here are some highlights along the route:
The interstate is thick with forest and we turn off into rural Alabama, through small towns, through places time and opportunity forgot. It is afternoon and I stop at a gas station to buy coffee, just to wake up a little bit after all the driving.
I walk into the grungy cement block building and discover the coffee warming in an industrial glass decanter that has not been descaled since the 20th century. No fancy coffee maker with the bean grinder built in. No coffee urn or latte machine. Just straight up drip coffee like you expect to see in a diner.
I was more desperate then wary and purchased a small Styrofoam cup of what I was sure to be burnt leftovers. But the lady working there has to have been a former waitress or coffee fanatic or both. I am alive today to tell you that it was the best God damn cup of coffee I have ever purchased at a gas station.
We head to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, a palatial monastery about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham. Mom likes to watch EWTN  , the Eternal Word Television Network. It is the catholic cable channel founded by Mother Angelica in 1980 at the Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale AL.
She watches re-runs of “Mother Angelica Live”. The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament  in Hanceville, AL is where Mother Angelica cloistered at the end of her life and mom had seen the monastery on TV. It was on the way to Birmingham so naturally, we had to stop.
Very few people visit the monastery late on a Monday afternoon. We sat in the cool church away from the heat of the day. A woman walked up to me and asked when evening prayer was scheduled to start. Apparently, I look like I know what I am doing. I do not.
Unexpectedly from behind the gold alter rose the voices of the Poor Claires  singing Vespers. It filled the church with eerie beauty, as if the angels had descended. I turned to mom to ensure she was still with us.
We find a hotel in Birmingham and have the handicap accessible room. We identify a museum we want to stop at in the morning, the Arlington Antebellum Home & Gardens. We have a few too many beers and laugh the night away. I am too late waking to get hotel breakfast so mom sidles down to the buffet and procures last minute provisions before they pack it up. She returns with two coffees, a pastry, and says, “This is all I could carry for us to eat. I don’t know what it is.”
The Arlington Antebellum Home & Gardens  is a former plantation house turned museum operated by the city of Birmingham. Even by today’s standards, the splendor of their life was remarkable. The gift shop in the museum is filled with second hand and antique items, which is unusual but makes sense for the site. The house is empty as not many people visit first thing on a Tuesday. There is free ice water with lemons for guests as the day is very hot and getting hotter. The mansion with gardens is a stark contrast to the neighborhood that surrounds it.
After leaving the museum, we hit the road to Pensacola, FL. The only real rainstorm of the trip catches us and the new wipers on my car emit a loud noise on the downsweep…
Mom: “You need to take them back to the wiper store.”
Me: “Are you suggesting I blame the person who installed the windshield wipers?”
Mom: “Well, they might know why it’s making that noise.”
Me: “Mom it was me.”
Mom: “Well, there’s the problem.”
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2019
Reference materials for this blog post: