The Mountain. {Part 12}

Author’s note: This story, at its essence, is about a mountain and the people who loved it. It is inspired by our experiences with the legal system, which are a matter of public record. However, I have fictionalized the details of this story  and the characters (except for my family), both for narrative convenience and for privacy reasons.  Also, I am not an attorney. If you are, and if you read this story and note that I have used the words “district court” when I should have said “appellate court,” well — perhaps, you should read a John Grisham novel instead. My point in telling this fictionalized account is not to discuss the finer points of the law, but to relate some of the life lessons learned by two ordinary people who were trying to achieve a modest dream and found themselves at the mercy of our nation’s legal system.

To read the previous installments, click here.

A beautiful and secluded swimming hole deep in the woods near our mountain property.

The summer of 2010 was a dispiriting season for our family. We were bogged down in the stress of trial preparation and – without a vacation to Colorado to look forward to – summer didn’t seem much like summer.

By July, it was hot and miserable, which was reflective of our moods. I decided to take a week’s vacation to clean house and have a garage sale, figuring I might as well try to make something good out of a bleak summer season. Then a friend invited us to her house on the 4th for a cookout and fireworks. I was tempted to stay home and contain my misery to our house, but Mr. Mom and the kids talked me into going at the last moment.

The party was a dose of much-needed medicine for our family. It seemed as if half our town turned out for the celebration and we enjoyed the friendship and the fireworks show. We stayed far longer than I expected, returning home after well after midnight, pooped but feeling festive for the first time in months.

I slept in late the next morning and when I awoke, I noticed I had missed a call to my cell phone the previous evening from one of my sisters. I listened to her voice mail saying my mother had a heart attack in the grocery store and had been taken to a Tulsa hospital.  I threw on my clothes and sped through the hour-long drive to the hospital – all the while trying to reach either of my two sisters for information.

When I arrived at the hospital, my mother was alone – weak but alert. She told me as much as she could about what had happened and what she knew about her condition, but she had been failing for more than a year and her worsening dementia meant her information was mostly unreliable.

I spent much of that week’s vacation at the hospital tending to my mother – talking to her doctors and assessing her situation. She had a variety of health issues and we had endured several such “scares” over the previous few years. By the third day, this particular set-back didn’t seem too serious, though, and Mom’s doctor indicated she would be released soon. The doctor had inserted another stint in my mother’s heart and said she could likely resume her normal routine.

For the last several years, my mother had alternated living with my two older sisters, Phyllis and Linda. Both had serious health issues of their own and my mother took care of them more than they took care of her. A couple of years earlier when Mom underwent a serious surgery, I convinced her to stay with us for her recuperation. I tried to persuade her to live with us permanently, but she declined. My oldest sister, Linda, had been housebound for a while and my mother insisted she needed to get back to Tulsa to take care of her.

As my mother’s hospital stay drew to an end, I had a feeling we were coming to a crossroads. I couldn’t imagine she could live with either of my sisters anymore. Over the past year, both had been hospitalized numerous times. Linda had lost a leg to diabetes, and Phyllis had spent a week on life support after nearly dying of an infection. Both needed considerable care and neither were able to look after my mother. I tried, once again, to persuade my mother and my sisters that Mom should live with me and, once again, I was unsuccessful in winning the argument. My mother argued that she should stay with my sister Phyllis, who was the healthier of my two sisters, until she got her strength back.

The day my mother was released from the hospital was the day I had scheduled my garage sale. I told Mom I would cancel it, but my mother – who loved nothing more than a good garage sale — was insistent I proceed. She assured me that she and Phyllis could get her settled at Phyllis’ house without me. Thanks to Mr. Mom’s help, I had a room full of items tagged and ready to be sold even though I had spent most of the week at the hospital.  We started arranging our tables and racks at 6:00 am Saturday morning and my sale was a hit. By 3:00 pm, I had made more than $1,000 and all that remained were a handful of books and household items. We put all the remaining items by the curb with a sign advertising they were free to anyone who wanted them. By evening, my curb had been picked clean, my house was free of clutter, my purse was full of cash, and Mr. Mom and I were exhausted but gratified by our summer cleaning project. We went to bed early and I planned to check on my mother and sister the next morning.

While showering Sunday morning, I missed a call to my cell phone from my nephew. He lived out of state and had been visiting for a few days. He left a voice mail saying he had just stopped by Phyllis’ house before heading home and had found Mom seriously ill and struggling to breath. He said he was furious at my sister for not tending to Mom properly and he was so worried he called an ambulance. He urged me to go to the hospital since he had to return home.

Once again I sped to Tulsa. And once again, I found my mother alone, this time in ICU, this time on a ventilator. I had little information about what had happened, and all the nurses could tell me was that Mom had arrived via an ambulance in very serious condition.  I failed to understand how she could have been released from the hospital then deteriorate so badly in 24 hours.  (On Friday afternoon when I last visited her and spoke to her doctor, Mom was walking around and laughing. Now it was Sunday and she was unconscious and on a ventilator? What in the world had happened?)

When a doctor finally appeared late in the day – a different doctor than the cardiologist I had met with earlier in the week – he said my mother was in complete organ failure. He sat down with me and explained that given her age and heath issues, it was not surprising she had taken a turn for the worse. He said her condition was very grave. He said I should call anyone who would want to see her a final time and urge them to come to the hospital soon.

I had heard what the doctor said, but I couldn’t quite grasp his meaning. I immediately left the building and sat on a bench outside the hospital. I was alone, and very literally lost. I called Mr. Mom and relayed the doctor’s words. Then I broke down and he listened to me cry on the phone for a good while. Finally I composed myself and asked him “What do you think I should do?”

“Well, honey” he said quietly, “I think you should call your family like the doctor says.”

“Who should I call?” I asked sincerely. I know it’s such a strange question with such an obvious answer, but I think I was in a state of shock.

“Well, you should call your sisters and your niece and nephew,” Mr. Mom said. “And you should call your Mother’s cousin. And you should call your father,” he added.

“Oh, yeah, you’re right,” I said. “I should call my father.”  As I sat on the bench baking in the July sun outside the hospital, I felt like I had amnesia. I had forgotten what to do or who to call until Mr. Mom told me – then I realized “Oh yeah . . . that all makes perfect sense.” My mother and father had been divorced for 45 years.  But as they grew older, whatever animosity had existed  between them was long forgotten and they saw each other regularly. Of course I should call my father.

Mr. Mom said he and the kids would come to Tulsa immediately while I called my relatives. I called my oldest sister first. I knew that given her immobility she would be unable to come to the hospital, so I was basically telling her our mother was dying and to prepare herself. My other sister, the one with whom Mom had spent the last 24 hours, didn’t answer her phone. My father said very little except “I hate to hear this.” (I knew he wouldn’t be able to bear seeing my mother and it was unlikely he would show up for a final visit.) My mother’s only cousin – who had been like a sister to Mom – broke down and had to hang up the phone. My nephew, who was already halfway to his home in Kansas, and my niece, who lived in New York, both said they had feared the worst and asked that I keep them posted. Finally, I called a colleague and told her my mother had taken a turn for the worse and wasn’t expected to live. I said I wouldn’t be at work the next day and wasn’t sure when I would return.  I apologized for the inconvenience of having been on vacation and now not returning as scheduled. Then I burst into tears again and said a quick goodbye.

With all my phone calls made and everyone notified, there was only one thing to do. I walked back upstairs to the ICU and sat alone by my mother’s bed watching a machine breathe for her.

“So this is it,” I thought to myself. “Mom is dying and I’m the only one here to watch it happen.”

To be continued . . .


  1. Juanita Clark says:

    Joan Marie, this writing is so important for others to read so they have some experience when they are in similar situations. I am sure it was heart-wrenching to write. Love you.

  2. Can there be any more helpless feeling or any lonelier place than a hospital room as you watch a loved one struggle to survive? This is quite moving and I appreciate that you don’t let anybody off the hook here, but rather with your telling let us into that room with you where nothing would be solved with a Hallmark rhyming couplet. You honor us with your frankness.

  3. Don Hill says:

    Even though I love the story , I can’t hit the like button. D&H

  4. I remember when this was happening (I read your blog back then). I’m just as sad now reading about it all again. xoxo

  5. Maridel says:

    Thank you for sharing this story, Joan. Our mothers died around the same time and I remember talking with you briefly about it before we both began our migrations to Missouri.

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