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.
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In the span of seven weeks during the summer of 2010, I had stood twice in the ICU and listened to a doctor tell me my mother would soon die. The first time, I believed him. (And then when she woke up from her coma, it was as if I believed she might never die.) The second time, I wasn’t sure — but hearing she might only have “a month or a week” to live certainly gave me pause. Within 24 hours I had made all the arrangements for hospice care and visited both my sisters – one of whom had finally been released from the hospital – to tell them Mom’s prognosis. I remember saying to them “Hospice means death. This is the end. You need to prepare yourself.” And, yet, I was in denial. I thought death might still be months away.
My mother was transported to hospice care on a Friday night. I had been by her side daily for nearly two months and I had managed, single-handedly, every detail of her illness. I had held her hand and cried with her a day earlier in the ICU when she realized (even though I hadn’t fully) that the end was near. I had finally, haltingly asked her about her funeral wishes and she told me clearly and succinctly what she desired. So late on that Friday night when she was settled into hospice care, I kissed her goodbye and told her I loved her and that I would see her soon, even though I knew I wouldn’t return until Sunday.
In a decision I can’t to this day explain, I had agreed several months prior to host a dinner party for clients on that Saturday evening. I felt guilty about missing so much work. I knew my clients were looking forward to my dinner and – in a misguided sense of obligation — I decided the show must go on. I spent all day Saturday cleaning and cooking and entertaining. I don’t know if I was on auto-pilot, or if deep-down I needed the diversion. Either way, I pasted on a smile, cooked one of the most fabulous meals I have ever prepared, and spent Saturday night trying to impress two clients who were unaware how gravely ill my mother was and how physically exhausted and mentally depleted I was.
On Sunday morning, I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping in for the first time in two months. Once I arose, I asked Kate to accompany me to see my mother. It seemed like a normal Sunday activity for a mother and daughter – let’s dress up and visit grandmother in hospice! As soon as we walked in Mom’s room, I finally, painfully, understood the gravity of my mother’s situation. From Friday night when I left her to Sunday morning when I returned, she had slipped into a coma-like state. I had missed my opportunity to have a final conversation with my mother because I was busy throwing a dinner party.
I was stunned. And frightened. And angry. I peppered the hospice nurse with questions about her condition and why this had happened. I remember saying to the nurse “I planned to go to work tomorrow. But my mother seems so close to death. Do you think I should stay here? What should I do?” The nurse took my hand and said “I think you should plan to be here. I wouldn’t go to work.”
Suddenly, I couldn’t stand to be there another second. I told the nurse we had to leave for a while. Once outside, I told Kate I needed a break and asked if she’d like to go to the mall with me. I suddenly became obsessed with selecting my mother’s funeral attire and writing her obituary. I have no explanation except I was crazy. And exhausted.
As we wandered a nearby department store trying to choose an outfit for my mother’s burial, I was mentally composing her obituary. I kept pulling outfits off the rack asking Kate “Would Grannie like this? Would Grannie look good in this?” then stopping for long periods of time to type obituary phrases on my iPhone as they occurred to me. Eventually a phone call interrupted my crazed cycle. It was a neighbor of my sister – the one who had recently been released from the hospital. She told me Phyllis had suddenly experienced great difficulty breathing and had sought her assistance. The neighbor was so worried she called an ambulance and wanted me to know my sister had been rushed to the emergency room. “You should go check on her,” she urged me. “I’m really worried about her.”
I hung up the phone and turned to Kate and said in a tone as flat as if I was announcing the weather: “That was Phyllis’ neighbor. She’s been rushed to the hospital. We need to pay for Grannie’s burial clothes and go check on Phyllis.”
A few weeks later I would finally realize what I had put Kate through on that terrible Sunday. I wondered if she would think for the rest of her days that her mother had gone temporarily crazy during the summer of 2010. Months later when a friend recommended Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” I realized I had been suffering from magical thinking during my mother’s entire illness. Mom spent eight weeks that summer trying to die and I spent seven weeks pretending she wasn’t.
After two hours in the emergency room with my sister during which I concluded she was no more ill than she had been all summer and was in good hands, I said my goodbye and drove Kate the 60 miles home. Then I changed clothes and packed a bag and retraced the 60 miles to my mother’s bedside, where I would stay the next five days.
During those long days and nights, I learned that death is an inexact science. Even hospice workers, who witness death every day, recognize the stages but have no idea how long each stage will last. By Thursday night, my mother seemed to be in the final stage. I stayed up all night listening to her death rattle and thinking every pause would be her last. Even though her respiration was tortured, by noon on Friday, she was still breathing and I hadn’t eaten or slept in 36 hours.
My father had been calling regularly, as had both my sisters from their hospital beds, and I was as worn out by their phone calls as I was by my death watch. Finally I got a phone call saying both my sisters were being released from the hospital and were on their way to hospice to see my mother.
I think I went crazy again because as soon as my sisters were wheeled into my mother’s room, I had a sudden urge to flee. I told them I had been by her side for five days and needed to go home and take a shower and eat and that I would return in a couple of hours. I headed home, only to get stuck in a miles-long traffic jam caused by a massive fire at a historic Tulsa landmark. By the time I finally got home and showered and ate a little something, it was nearly 4:00 pm. Mr. Mom and the kids were at tennis and the lure of a quiet house got the better of me. Rather than fight the rush hour traffic heading back to Tulsa, I decided to lie down on the sofa and rest. An hour later, I was awakened by Kate saying my sister Phyllis had tried to call me and I hadn’t answered. So she called Kate instead and asked her to track me down. I dialed Phyllis immediately and as soon as she answered her phone I said “I’m headed that way!”
“Joan-Marie,” she said, “Mom died a few a minutes ago. We think she was just waiting for us to get here.”
To be continued . . .