The San Francisco GrandSLAM event at the Castro Theatre. The theme was “Uncharted Territory.” This is my story about joining a cult and finding myself in hostile territory with Madonna.
The theme was the holiday – Christmukkuh, if you will. This story is about my mom, her fear of change and a strange new neighbor who terrified her.
This is my most popular story. The theme was “Hot Mess.” Yes, I won this one too, but not without humiliating myself first.
After Romance, comes Divorce. My Moth StorySlam winning story.
Last month, I participated in the Moth StorySLAM in San Francisco. The way it works is each storyteller is given a theme for the night. The storyteller has 5 minutes to tell a story built around that topic. The theme this night was Romance. I did a bit of an anti-romantic story, but I hope you enjoy.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an entrepreneur in possession of a good idea must be in want of a publicist.
That notion is what led me to meet an acquaintance at the JP Morgan conference in San Francisco. The acquaintance was writing a book for entrepreneurs and asked me to contribute the chapter on public relations. I, of course, agreed to write the chapter, as I have much to say on this topic. Said acquaintance was hosting a reception at the conference and invited me to attend, network a bit and then we could talk about the book.
Winter is usually my hibernation period. Less travel, less meetings, so I’m home in my pajamas most of the time. The opportunity to get out of the house and actually put on decent clothes was a welcome change to my pathetic routine. Being holed up for the winter in your pjs does not allow for a lot of social interaction, and is certainly not good for business or acquiring new clients. I was anxious to emerge from my self-induced cocoon and spread my social butterfly wings once again and welcome an early Spring to my life.
Revitalized, I walked into the reception, which was being held at the Pillsbury office downtown. Without a hiccup, I slapped on my name tag and greeted the receptionist with my best PR smile.
“Fascinating! I’ve lived here for 20 years and I did not know Pillsbury had offices here,” I said.
She cocked her head at me, confused, and then she corrected me. “This Pillsbury is the Pillsbury law firm, not the Pillsbury dough boy.”
Ok, good to know. But I would not be tripped up by a snooty receptionist, so I laughed it off and set out to meet everyone in the room.
“Hi, I’m Jane. What’s your name? What do you do?”
A man from Denmark tentatively shook my hand, but was rather quiet, so I moved on to the next group. They were mostly from the Netherlands. Another conference attendee was already talking.
“Are you guys from Amsterdam?” he said.
“No. We are from Utrecht,” one of the Dutch delegates said. “We have 15 million people in the Netherlands and just over a million are in Amsterdam, so you can see it is a much larger country than just Amsterdam.”
Hmmm….a rather long answer to the simple question about location. But the Dutch can be very precise, so we’ll let it slide.
The other attendee continued, undeterred by their rather inappropriate answer. “I love Amsterdam. I have some great Amsterdam stories.”
I took that as my cue to jump in. “Don’t we all!” I said. “I’ve got an executive in a stripper wig story. What’s your Amsterdam tale?” Such a great story lead-in! The right combination of character and intrigue. I’m a social genius.
The delegate flashed me a look that seemed more annoyed than grateful for my witty charms. He continued, “As I was saying, I was in Amsterdam for a patent hearing and working with the scientists from the University of Amsterdam…”
As he droned on about patents and science (what a bore!), I took a moment to read everyone’s nametags, as any good PR person would do. Jan, from a biotech company. Peter from GlaxoSmithKline. Bart from a pharmaceutical research company. Oh my God. I looked up at the sign on the wall. “Welcome to the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.” It’s not a JP Morgan financial conference. Oh no. It can’t be! These are scientists!!! Real, live, actual scientists. NOOOOO!!!!!!!
You see, I know the scientist. I was married to one for many years. Bless their hearts, they are brilliant and they save lives with their amazing discoveries. But they do not have nor do they value social skills. In fact, my ex-husband loathed words. Yes, he married a writer and a publicist who speaks ALL. THE. TIME. (And yes, we’re divorced because being married to Bridget Jones was only amusing for probably the first year). My ex had this belief that one should be able to communicate an idea in as few words as possible. More than two sentences was a serious waste of energy and time and reflected a lack of organization and alignment in one’s thoughts.
Just as I was about to back away and quietly slip out, the acquaintance I was scheduled to meet saw me from across the room, waved and came over to say hello. “So glad you could make it, Jane. I’m just going to round everyone up for the presentations, and you and I can meet afterward.”
Presentations? What presentations?
He announced to the crowd that it was time to hear some of the latest innovation and discoveries in drug research. Everyone immediately took their seats. See, scientists don’t linger to mingle or network. They hate that nonsense. They just want to sit down and hear about nano robots and polypeptides.
When I was accepted to Vanderbilt University after attending high school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, I really believed I was hella smart (of course smart people don’t actually ever use the word ‘hella’). But in my mind, I was a Mensa-certifiable genius. So, I decided I should share my undeniable gifts with the world and become a doctor. I declared my major to be pre-med and signed up for advanced chemistry. I walked into my first advanced chemistry class, ready to further educate my already brilliant mind.
“Today’s class will just be a quick review,” the professor said.
I smiled at my classmates. They might come close to matching my intellect, but I doubted it. The professor began to write the first formula on the board. I figured it would make sense once he finished. And then he finished….and it still did not make sense. Each formula got progressively more complex and unfathomable. My face began to feel warm and flush, and I fidgeted in my chair. Finally, I feigned a stomach flu by vomiting on the floor next to me (which was actually a stress response to the fact that I was in WAY over my head), left the class and immediately went to the registrar’s office and dropped chemistry entirely. In the end, I squeaked by my science requirements at Vanderbilt with their version of ‘science for dummies,’ which was still really hard, just for the record.
As the first presentation slide went up at the Pillsbury (not the dough boy) offices, I felt much like I did in that advanced chemistry class. It said something like, “Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors.”
WHAT…THE….???? I understood the word ‘at’ in that headline. That’s all. It did not get better from there. Besides a few standard conjunctions (and, but, or) and articles (the, a, an), I was completely lost. And it wasn’t just one presentation. I realized there was a line-up of presentations and this ‘reception’ was scheduled for TWO FULL HOURS!
The only highlight of this otherwise brain-bursting marathon meeting was when one of the scientists was called up to give his talk. As the scientist got up from his seat, a man just a few seats down called out, “Give ‘em hell, Bart.” People, let me introduce you to the only other non-scientist in the room. Clearly, this guy was in pharmaceutical sales because scientists don’t yell out, ‘give ‘em hell’ before a slide deck presentation. Maybe for a patent submission or when going in to meet with FDA regulators, but not in this context, I assure you.
Bart got up and introduced himself like this: “My name is Bart, like Bart Simpson.”
The crowd erupted in glorious belts of laughter. Seriously? My Amsterdam stripper wig comment gets annoying glances, but this is a knee-slapper?
Trapped and miserable, I sent a text message to the only other person who would really grasp my predicament….my ex-husband, who was at work at the big biotech research company Genentech.
“At JP Morgan Healtchare conf. The word ‘cytokin’ is on the screen. Someone said Genentech. Cannot tell you what he actually said after. No other words decipherable.”
His response: “Is Hal speaking?”
“Hal Barron, chief medical officer for Genentech.”
This was a mistake. My ex is like all the other scientists. He probably gets the humor of the situation, but will chuckle to himself and leave it at that because the humor is self-evident and needs no commentary. He has already moved on to practical facts, like who’s speaking.
Me: “No, I don’t think that’s who is speaking.”
Ex: “What are you doing there?”
Me: “I DON’T KNOW! It’s some horrible mistake!”
He didn’t respond. His words were now fully spent on the matter.
I’ve heard that change happens when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of doing something different. I was at that point. The pain of hearing one more scientific word far outweighed the pain of skipping out early and ditching the book-writing acquaintance. If he was still interested in having me write for his book, further discussions would just have to be done over the phone.
I considered faking a seizure to see what scientists would actually do in a real emergency. If I could manage to foam at the mouth, which I was pretty sure I could at this point, that would certainly get me out of this entirely-too-long scientific presentation madness. But people who know what Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors are could probably spot a fake seizure pretty quickly.
Perhaps the easier option was the more obvious one. In between speakers, I pushed my way through a row of annoyed scientists, apologized for stepping on their toes, and made my escape.
My head hurt. The Bart Simpson joke and the ‘give ‘em hell’ lines were the only comments I could process. Everything else was a sea of 16-20 letter words. Words that I cannot imagine how someone even derived much less spoke quickly, one after another, in full sentences.
I heard the conference door open and a man with fuzzy grey hair and a German accent came out of the room. He could be Albert Einstein resurrected by using Beta-arrestin-biased ligands at seven-transmembrane receptors for all I know.
Al: “Intense session, right?
I wanted to warn him that I’m just the girl who fannies about with the press releases so he needn’t waste his precious word count on the likes of Bridget Jones. But then, a bright light shone at the end of this advanced bio-chemistry tunnel!
Al: “Some of us are grabbing a drink after. Want to come?”
Could he be normal? I actually understood that entire question! I not only understood, he spoke to my very soul! Hallelujah!
Me: “Oh, God yes! I could use a drink. That was so painful I wanted to bang my head against a wall!”
Al: “I know. I thought the Cytokin inhibitor preso was bearable compared to that c-met, homotrimers and fynomors nonsense. What did you think?”
Bridget Jones: ”Um…do you know where the loo is?”
I quickly ran to the toilets around the corner and hid there for about five minutes before sneaking out to the elevators, out the door and to the nearest MUNI train station and finally home, blissfully content to return to my pj’s and hibernation. Though I don’t know why I felt the need to sneak away. I’m quite sure none of the brilliant scientists in the room were wondering, “Now where did that Bridget Jones girl go? She was so witty and her conversational abilities added so much value! Pity.”
When I was a little girl and my brother was leaving for college, I gave him one of those “Love Is…” cartoon statues. It said, “Love is…never saying goodbye.” I was devastated that he was leaving home, and I cried myself to sleep for a week. That statue gave me a little comfort that my brother wouldn’t be gone forever.
My first memory of my brother is when I was three years old. I know I was three because we had just moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and we were unpacking. My brother was playing his music loudly. He was listening to Credence Clearwater Revival, and the song was “Looking out my Backdoor.” I stretched my arms up, an indication that I wanted Ken to pick me up. He did, and he carried me outside to our new back porch, and we danced around while I giggled and tried to sing the only part I knew – “do, do, do…my…door.”
When I was seven years old, my school teacher gave us an assignment to write about the person we admired most. Of course, I wrote about my big brother. What was not to admire? He was funny, cool, one of the greatest athletes of all time as far as I could see from my small room in Broken Arrow, and he let me sit on his motorcycle once, against my mother’s wishes.
I believe I’ve mentioned before that my brother was the good child, which meant he had more influence with my parents…especially my mom. He often used his status to intervene on my behalf. When I wanted to go to college at Vanderbilt in Nashville, my mother was up in arms. “Why would you go all the way to Tennessee when Tulsa Junior College is right down the street?” My brother was the one who talked my parents into letting me go. He told them it was a good opportunity, and they would understand one day.
When I moved to San Francisco, my mother was livid. “Not that Sodom and Gomorrah!” she said. Again, my brother stepped in and argued my case. Then he bought a Road Atlas for my trip and highlighted the route I should take from Broken Arrow to San Francisco so I was sure to be safe and not get lost.
Yes, I have always adored my brother. I am admittedly and decidedly blind to any of his faults. If someone told me Ken had done a bad thing, I would call them a liar. I cannot ever remember being angry with him or arguing. That was probably because with more than ten years between us, there really wasn’t much to fight about.
On January 17, 2010, I received a phone call from my brother. He began the conversation by telling me how much he liked my stories. How he had laughed until he cried at the story about mom and her next door neighbor because it was a much more potent story for all of us who knew my mother. He told me he was my biggest fan, and I think that’s definitely true. Big brother bragging eventually subsided, and he said he had some news.
He had been complaining about a persistent winter cough that wouldn’t seem to get better. The doctor ran tests.
“Lung cancer,” he said. I heard everything else in pieces. “Stage four.” “Spread to the adrenal glands.” “Deciding a course of treatment.” “Planning to fight it.”
The reason I did not mention this important development early on in this year’s blog is because he asked me not to. He wanted to keep this a private, family matter for now, and I understood why. People can have the best of intentions, but once a diagnosis like this is made, it tends to define you. He didn’t want to be labeled only as a cancer patient, and I didn’t want that for him either. Truth is, I would have honored absolutely any request he made of me, and this one seemed simple enough.
So when I wrote about my brother being sick on the day of my mom’s surgery, he wasn’t just battling a cold or flu. He was in the midst of a brutal round of chemotherapy that left him hairless, emaciated, and in excruciating pain because he was rarely able to keep pain medicines down.
One of my Phuket list goals this year was to get a map, point to a destination, and road-trip it there spontaneously to escape some monumental problem. I did that after I heard the news about my brother. I drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas. And then, I realized I wasn’t in the mood for Vegas, so I turned around and came back. The trip didn’t help, but we can cross that one off the Phuket list.
My brother has always been an optimistic person, and that’s how he approached his battle with cancer. After completing a round of radiation therapy at MD Anderson in Houston, Ken reported that the main tumor had shrunk and was considered inactive. Now all we had to do was go through chemotherapy to tackle the cancer that had spread to his adrenal glands.
In late March, he began some very aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. Whenever I called, no matter how sick he felt, he always reported that he was having a good day.
Living in California meant that I didn’t see Ken every day, and I only received progress reports over the phone. I visited him in Houston while he was getting radiation treatments, but that was back in February, very early in the process. On May 31, I came home for my mother’s surgery. When he walked in the door of my mother’s house, I didn’t recognize him. I would not have recognized my own brother walking down the street. The former defensive line backer, Oklahoma football player and state heavyweight wrestling champ now looked like a frail, old man. His cheeks and temples were hollowed out, and something was wrong with his eyes – like he was here, but not here.
After my mother’s funeral in early June, I committed to spending more time in Oklahoma. I came back for a week in July, and we had a great time together. My brother seemed to be feeling better and he was still getting around well.
Ken lived in the middle of nowhere, about 18 miles outside the small town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He had acres of land and had recently purchased ATV 4-wheelers to ride around the property. My brother was not a frivolous person, so I was glad to see him splurging a little bit on something fun. I couldn’t drive the ATV, so I sat behind him and held on to his weak body while he took us for a ride. His bones were so pronounced that they poked into my arms and chest. Yet, I held tightly to my brother, trusting he could still keep me safe. As we rode around his property that day, I rested my head on his back and breathed in deeply. I wanted to remember the smells, the lines on the back of his neck, the tiny white hairs starting to grow back on his otherwise bald head, his tired arms still controlling the machine that carried us. I remember every detail.
On my next trip, I asked to go with him to the doctor. I wanted to understand for myself exactly what was happening. The only information I could get from Ken was his standard mantra – everything was going well and he was having a good day today.
The doctor came in with Ken’s latest CT scans.
“As you can see, the tumor in your lung remains stable.”
Good news, I thought, and I smiled at my brother, a bit relieved.
“However, the tumor next to your kidney has grown by 5 centimeters, and the tumor on your liver has grown by 6 centimeters. This one over here has grown by 3 centimeters, and this one here also has grown by 3 centimeters.”
Dear God! How many tumors were there? I thought we were dealing with one or two! The fact is, my brother’s body was covered in tumors. He simply never told anyone.
The doctor continued. “At this point, I think we stop treating this as a lung cancer, and start treating it as an abdominal cancer. So, let’s discuss drugs that are primarily focused on the abdomen.”
I looked at my brother, and I could feel the tears coming, though I knew crying was the last thing he wanted from me. He saw me anyway. “Don’t worry, Janie. This is good news. Now we have some additional information and we can attack the problem from a different angle.”
I asked the doctor where I could find a restroom. My intention was to get in there and just cry. But once in the bathroom, I couldn’t cry. All I could think was, breathe…breathe…breathe. Just go back into that room and do one thing and one thing only. Keep breathing. And that’s what I did.
That evening, I tried to talk to my brother about his wishes.
“Ken, one great thing that mom did for us was have a well-documented plan for what to do in the worst case scenario. Now, I’m not saying the worst case scenario is happening here, but we should talk about it just so we know. I’ll tell you what I want in case I die, and you tell me what you want. That way we’re both prepared.”
“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I’m not giving up. Don’t you give up either.”
“I won’t. I’m not.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
One good thing that was happening during this summer of family trauma was my business had picked up and I had some fantastic new accounts. One gig in particular had me working with the Boston Red Sox, and that meant I was in Boston for much of the summer.
My plan was to go back to Boston for 2 weeks, pass off my work with the Red Sox to a colleague, pack a bag and come back to Oklahoma indefinitely.
On Tuesday, August 17, I called my brother from Boston to check in. He said he was going in for a blood transfusion later that day. This had become a standard part of his week. His blood counts were so low from the chemotherapy that he was getting blood transfusions once or twice a week. Otherwise, it was “a good day today.” He had mowed the lawn and done some things around the house. Not as much as he’d like, but he got tired easily these days.
That night, I had a dream. I was talking to my mom. She was bringing me up-to-speed on all the deceased family gossip, but then she changed the subject. “When are you going to Oklahoma this week?” she said.
“Saturday,” I said.
“Saturday is too late,” she said. “You need to go now. When you wake up, get the first flight out and go to Oklahoma. Your brother will wait for you, but you need to go now.”
This did not sound like something my mother would say, so I said to her, “This is just a dream. How do I know it’s true?”
“Get on the first flight out. When you cross through security, you will see a red piece of paper on the ground. Then you’ll know it’s me.”
Right then, I woke up. It was 3:00 in the morning, but the dream had startled me because it was one of those that seemed so real. So, I did the crazy, illogical thing. I booked the 6am flight back to San Francisco. I would only stay in San Francisco long enough to pack a bag and then take the 3:00 pm flight to Tulsa.
By the time I crossed through security at Boston Logan airport, I had almost forgotten about my dream. But then I saw it. There was a glossy red piece of paper on the ground. I leaned down and picked it up, and I knew. My heart began to pound.
When I landed in San Francisco, I turned on my phone and it immediately rang. It was my sister-in-law. “Janie, we’re still at the hospital. Ken had a hard time with the transfusion, so they gave him a port. Now he’s really struggling. They say they’re going to put him in hospice. They’re giving him 2 weeks.”
“I’m already on the 3:00 flight today. I’ll be there tonight.”
I ran home, packed my bag and went back to the airport to catch the 3:00 flight. There are no direct flights from San Francisco to Tulsa, so I had to connect somewhere. This particular flight connected in Minneapolis of all places.
When I arrived in Minneapolis, I had a text message from my niece.
“Janie, you need to get here. Doctor says he’s not going to make it through the night.”
What??? How could he have gone from a transfusion, to 2 weeks, to not going to make it through the night in just a few hours?
“I’ll be there in 3 hours,” I said. “Tell him I’m on my way.”
I boarded the connecting flight and we taxied towards the runway. Just as we were about to take off, the captain announced that an indicator light had come on and we would have to return to the gate.
As soon as they let us off the plane, I went to the gate agent.
“I need to get on any flight going towards Tulsa. I can’t wait for this flight.” I explained that my brother was literally dying and I had to get to Tulsa.
The agent said there was nothing else going into Tulsa that night.
“Check anything in the area. Fayetteville, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Little Rock…get me anywhere close and I will drive.”
Nothing was going out. The last flight out was the one I was on. “But don’t worry,” the agent said. “They’re still going to fly out tonight.”
After an hour, they couldn’t fix the plane, so they arranged for another aircraft. Again, we taxied down the runway, and the same thing happened. Another indicator light.
When we got back to the gate again, I was hysterical. “Get me out of here,” I begged the agent. “This is literally life and death. Get me to Detroit or Chicago or any hub where there are more flights.”
Absolutely nothing was going out that night. The best they could do was put me on the 6:00 am flight the next day.
I sat down on the floor, somewhere in the Minneapolis airport, and I called my niece to tell her the news. She said the doctor was in talking with Ken right then.
“Does he know what’s going on?” I said.
“Yes,” my niece said. “He knows. He’s fully conscious.”
How can a man who is fully conscious, able to speak to a doctor who is telling him his prognosis, and completely comprehend said prognosis be sick enough to not make it through the night? None of this made sense to me. My niece gave the phone to my brother.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I just can’t believe it. I thought I had more time. I just can’t believe it.”
“I can’t either,” I said. “Listen, Ken, I’m coming to you as fast as I can, but I’m stuck in Minneapolis. My flight was canceled and there are no other flights out tonight. Now, I know this is the most selfish thing I’ve ever asked of you, but I’m going to ask anyway…if you can, wait for me. If you can’t, I understand. You and I have had the best relationship. There are no regrets. No harsh words between us. Nothing that needs to be said or unsaid. I love you more deeply than you’ll ever fully realize and I know you love me too. So, if you need to go, then go and I’ll understand. But if you can wait for me…”
“Come on,” he said. “Just keep coming. I’ll be here when you get here. That’s a promise.”
My brother’s birthday is December 29th. As I mentioned in my last post, my mom wrote out all her birthday cards for the rest of the year and left them for me to send. I had been saving Ken’s card, hoping I wouldn’t have to give it to him early. But I’d had the presence of mind to grab it when I was packing in San Francisco. I told him I had a note for him from mom, and I read him his birthday card.
When I finished, I reminded him again, “I’m coming to you, I promise. Wait for me. I’m coming.”
I spent a long and sleepless night at the Holiday Inn near the Minneapolis airport. At 4:00 am, I went back to the airport to make my 6 am flight.
Boarding was scheduled to start at 5:30 am. Yet, no boarding announcement was made. 5:45 came and still no boarding call. At 5:50, I went to the desk to ask what was going on.
“We’re waiting for one more flight attendant,” the agent said.
I once again explained my situation to the agent. “Do something,” I told her. “Do anything. Call anyone. But I have to make this flight. Get this plane off the ground. Get me to my brother.”
To Delta’s credit, they made calls and moved mountains to get a back-up flight attendant. Within 20 minutes, we were taking off. I hope to never see Minneapolis again.
Unfortunately, there were no direct flights into Tulsa until later in the day, so I had to make another connection via Memphis. Our delay out of Minneapolis meant my connection was extremely tight. We had landed in Memphis and were headed towards the gate when there was another ominous announcement from the captain. We were being held on the tarmac for traffic control reasons.
The flight attendant already knew my situation, and I was in the first row, so she could see the panic on my face. She picked up the phone and spoke to the captain. “We’re calling the gate to tell them about your family emergency. We’re going to do everything we can to hold your connecting flight for you.”
When we finally got to the gate, they held everyone else on the plane while I made a run for it. I yelled at the gate agent as I ran past, “Call the other gate and tell them I’m running. I’ll be there in 2 minutes.” I did not wait for confirmation. I just kept running.
When I got to my departure gate, an agent was waiting for me. “You’re going to make it,” he said as I ran to the gate. “You’re ok. You’re going to make it.”
I called my niece to confirm that I had made my connection and was one 30 minute flight away.
“Hurry,” she said. “Please hurry.”
When we landed, I sprinted off the plane, skipped baggage claim, showed my Avis Preferred card and told them to give me the closest vehicle to the door and I was out of there in under 10 minutes.
Again, I called my niece. “I’m here! I’m driving!”
“Get here, Janie. Get here as quickly as you can.” Then she said to my brother. “Janie’s coming. She’s in the car right now on the freeway. She’ll be here really quickly. Just hold on!”
I hung up the phone and drove as fast as I could. When I got to the hospital, I didn’t bother with parking. I pulled up to the ER door and just left the car. My brother’s friend met me at the door so she could show me directly to his room.
Finally, I burst into my brother’s room. He had an oxygen mask on that was forcing air into his lungs. His mouth hung wide open under the mask as he sucked in air. He couldn’t speak, and he was too weak to move much, but he turned his head slightly when I came in. I ran to him. “I’m here. I’m here. I’m so sorry! It’s Delta’s fault. They’re aware.”
I took his hand, and he made an attempt to lightly squeeze it. A single tear dropped down his cheek.
“Thank you for waiting for me,” I said. “It’s the best gift you’ve ever given me.”
A few minutes later, I heard someone say, “This is it.” Then everyone leaned in and started saying goodbye. “We love you Ken! We love you! It’s ok. You can go.”
NO! It’s not ok for him to go! It’s not ok! What’s wrong with you people?
And before I could really grasp what was happening, my brother died.
Ken waited over 12 hours for me to get to him. I can’t imagine what kind of pain he went through to keep his promise to me. But he was still there when I got there, just as he said he would be. He was my big brother to the very end.
Everyone left the room, and I asked if I could have a moment with him. I don’t know why I wanted that. I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head what his body looked like, lifeless on the bed. But there was so much to reconcile. My entire nuclear family was gone now. There was no one to call who could help me remember what my family did on that trip to Dallas in 1976, for example. The only memories left were mine. No one else could fill in the blanks.
As sad as I was to be the last one standing, I was so grateful that my parents weren’t alive to see this. Unbearable is the only word.
A doctor came in to call the time of death.
“12:42,” I said. “That was the time of death. 12:42, August 19.”
“Um, I understand,” he said very gently. “I just have to go through some standard procedure to call it. I’m so sorry.”
The doctor quietly did his work. “Is this your father?” he said.
The disease had made him look so old. “No.” I began to sob, finally. “He was my brother.”
At the beginning of this year, I put on my bucket list that I wanted to find love. I meant something completely different, but as fate would have it, I found out what love is the day my brother died. Love is not “never saying goodbye.” Love is waiting for as long as it takes to say that one, last, precious goodbye.
(I wrote this post on December 29, 2010, on what would have been my brother’s 55th birthday. It’s my birthday present to him.)
The last words my mother said to me as she was being wheeled into surgery were:
1) Don’t run up my utility bill.
2) Take the plate back to the lady next door, but be sure to wash it first
3) Tell that nurse I take back my compliments on the IV
I ignored instruction number 3, and I’m sure it was the right thing to do. The evening she died, temperatures hovered above 90, even in the middle of the night. I decided I would ignore instruction number 1 as well, and I turned the air-conditioning down to 72. Then, I remembered that in life, my mother always had command of everything and everyone in the room, including the temperature settings. I wasn’t completely convinced that she would relinquish such powers in death, so I quickly turned the setting back to 80, lest I might discover it had mysteriously been turned back anyway when I woke the next morning.
The plate she spoke of was on the kitchen counter. I washed it as told and planned to return it to the lady next door the following morning.
I couldn’t sleep, so I switched on the TV, and the movie American Beauty happened to pop onto the screen. Of course, the scene playing at that moment was the ending, when the main character Lester (also my father’s name) was dying and thinking about his daughter. “And Janie…And Janie.”
Still unable to sleep, I wandered the house, searching for memories, I guess. Though I hesitated to enter at first, I eventually went into my mom’s room and sat on her bed. I picked up the Bible she kept on the nightstand and started to flip through it. Somewhere in the middle, I found a folded piece of paper. This is what it said:
“If I’m ever brain dead or not responding, just let me go. Don’t try to keep me alive. I want to be with Lester.” The note was dated February 28, 2006. Her 80th birthday.
I slipped under the covers, still holding the note, and fell asleep. That night, I dreamed of my mother shrugging her shoulders at me again, and saying, “Daddy’s cooking dinner for me. His famous filet mignon with the bacon wrapped around it. What do you expect me to do? I can’t stay.”
The next morning, I began the process of notifying people. My mom had already made a list of all the people who needed to be called after her surgery, complete with associated phone numbers. Most said they would be coming for the funeral. Soon, the house would be buzzing with relatives and friends, but for now, it was quiet and lonely.
As I mentioned, mom had already meticulously designed most of the details and arrangements for her death. The funeral was paid for, casket and tombstone selected and she left duplicate copies of all the documentation in the house, the safety deposit box and with the funeral director. For the most part, everything had already been planned. Ken and I just had to execute. The woman was nothing if not thorough and explicit about how she wanted things done.
My parents started attending the First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow when we moved to Oklahoma some 40 years ago. The pastor there had performed my father’s funeral, and my mother wanted him to officiate for her service as well. However, it turned out that the pastor was on a trip to Israel. We asked for the assistant pastor, and he was out sick. We went through the chain of command until we got to our only choice – Brother So-and-so who had visited mom at the hospital. This was the equivalent of asking for the President and getting passed down to the Congressional Committee Chair on Aging. Brother So-and-so had never preached at a funeral before and was way out of his depth. But that’s who we got, so we proceeded. We can also equate this to one final karmic smack-down for Janie before my mother officially takes her leave.
Brother So-and-so met us at my mother’s house to plan the service. “I haven’t done this before, but I think I’ll interview you and take some notes. Just know that if I write it down, I might say it in the service, so if you don’t want me to say it, make sure I don’t write it down.”
He asked us to talk about my mom, our memories of her and growing up in Broken Arrow. We told him the story of how my parents met back in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They married when mom was only 17, but she lied on the marriage certificate and said she was 18. No law ever got in her way, I assure you – which led us to the story of my parents adopting Ken after they couldn’t have children, and then me ten years later.
When my parents adopted me, mom was 40 years old and daddy was 42. I was an infant who had been born into an orphanage, placed with another family who abused me, and then taken back by the orphanage when they found out. The social worker at the Crittenden home in Houston, Texas called my mother and father and asked them to take in another foster child, as my parents had volunteered to do from time to time. When I was 21 years old, I got access to the adoption papers which included all the case worker notes about the day my mom came to the orphanage to pick me up.
“Mrs. Gideon went directly to Jane’s crib, like she already knew which one was hers. When we asked her to complete the paperwork for foster care, Mrs. Gideon indicated that she did not wish to take the infant girl as a foster child. She wanted to adopt her. Mrs. (head caretaker of the orphanage) explained to Mrs. Gideon that her age unfortunately exceeded what was an allowable range for adoptive parents so she could not adopt a child this late in life. Mrs. Gideon simply replied, ‘Watch me.’ She took the adoption forms along with the infant girl and marched out.”
“Marched.” That was the case worker’s words, not mine, but it sounded exactly like my mother. As I said, the woman always had full command of her environment. Given that I’m writing this story, you can all conclude that my mother overcame Texas law and was granted permission to adopt me later that year.
I told this story to Brother So-and-so. He did not take notes. He asked my brother what other memories we had. My brother talked about us joining First Baptist Church when we moved to Broken Arrow, how the family used to travel around to watch my brother play football. We talked about my brother’s numerous athletic scholarships and the one that was offered from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Brother So-and-so: “That was when they were called the Redmen, right?”
Ken: “Yes, that’s right.”
Brother So-and-so: “You know they had to change the name to the Riverhawks. Something about being politically correct.” (he held up his fingers to form virtual quotation marks around ‘politically correct.’) “If you ask me, everyone’s gone a little bit nuts with this politically correct business. I think a Redman is much scarier than a Riverhawk. Should have kept the original name.”
Brother So-and-so was writing on his notepad.
Me: “DON’T WRITE THAT DOWN!”
Brother So-and-so: “Why not?”
Me: “Do not say the Redmen comment during the funeral. That is so inappropriate and has nothing to do with my mother.”
Brother So-and-so: “So you’re the trouble-maker of the family.”
From then on, Brother So-and-so deferred to my brother and pretty much ignored my comments. Just as my mother would have wanted it.
Once Brother So-and-so left, I remembered I had to return the plate to the lady next door. The lady next door greeted me in Western clothing, no longer dressed in her burqa. She had acclimated to the Broken Arrow attire – polyester, cotton and no head scarves, I’m sad to say.
“You come for visit?” she said. She kissed me several times on my cheek as she hugged me. “So happy to see you.”
I told her that I was returning her plate.
“Where is Lucy?” she said.
My mother had never taught the lady next door any words related to death. I tried several versions – died, passed away, and a few ridiculous gestures that made it look like my mother was sleeping not dead, but I couldn’t quite communicate what had happened. The lady picked up her phone and called her son, who spoke English. I explained to him everything that had happened and handed the phone back to the lady next door.
As she listened to her son, she dropped to the couch, hand on her forehead. Then she began to cry, and she kept saying in English, “Lucy dead?” then she would listen for a bit and say it again, “Lucy dead?” And finally, one sobbing, pain-filled word, “NO!”
She hung up the phone and stood up to hug me again. Through her tears, the lady who first frightened my mother in her black burqa and with her strange middle-eastern accent said to me, “I loved your mama. She like my mama. She was my friend. I hurt so much.” In her final year, my mother had let go of her unwillingness to change or embrace anything unknown and in the process, found a real friend.
Having completed at least one of my mother’s final requests, I went back to the house to make further arrangements. My brother and I wanted to place framed pictures of mom at the church. People would be able to view her at various ages as they awaited the start of the funeral service. I went to the cabinet where we keep all the family pictures and found a note sitting on a stack of photos.
“Use these pictures for my funeral.” My mother had even selected her own funeral pictures. The woman left no death-related stone unturned. I would continue to find other notes around the house that day. There was an envelope with cash in it and a note explaining that this money was to pay the preacher. There was another envelope with cash and a note to buy food for the arriving guests. There were paper plates, napkins and cups already set out in the garage with a note to use them instead of the dishes. She had even written out birthday cards for the year and left them in a neat stack on her dresser. (I hid the cards and quietly sent them out as each person’s birthday came this year. Though, it did cause one of my cousins to think her mom was going senile when my Aunt told her, “I got a birthday card from Lucy today.” My cousin rushed to her mother’s house, worried that she was hallucinating. I guess it did sound kind of crazy.)
The more notes I found, the more I began to believe that either my mother was extremely morbid, or she knew she was not going to live through the surgery.
The note I didn’t expect to find was the one I discovered in an envelope marked, “Janie.”
“I know I never told you this, and I should have, but I’m very proud of you. You make me proud every day. I don’t know why I couldn’t say it all these years. I want you to know you were special to me from the start. I was always happy to call you my daughter. I guess I wasn’t prepared to have such a smart little girl and so beautiful too and I didn’t want you to get too uppity or think bad of me because I’m not as smart as you. I’m sorry. You are a wonderful daughter. Mom.”
That is just like her to give me a note like that and then DIE so I don’t have any way to respond!!! Well, I don’t care if she’s dead or not, I wasn’t going to let her have the last word.
I called my brother and told him that I wanted to give a short eulogy at the funeral. But I knew Brother So-and-so would not take me seriously. So, I asked my brother to, once again, intervene on my behalf and tell Brother So-and-so that I would be speaking. My brother made the call and Brother So-and-so agreed to the request.
Family started arriving later that day. My cousins, who I hadn’t seen in years, had stopped at the Wal-Mart before coming to the house. “There sure are a lot of brown people at the Wal-Mart today,” my cousin said when I greeted him at the door.
This statement suddenly sent a streak of horror through me. Not simply because of the horrific thing he had just said, but because I remembered that my good friend E was at that very moment on a plane from LA bound for Tulsa, Oklahoma…and she would be classified as a brown person.
I’ve mentioned E before on several posts. She is not only a former model, she is a triple threat – excruciatingly beautiful, wicked smart and physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough to knock you out as she sees fit – with words, a stare or a sneak physical attack. She also happens to have an eclectic blood-line. Her mother is Columbian, her father Croatian and her grandfather Nigerian. She looks strikingly similar to the actress Morena Baccarin, who plays the alien Anna on the TV series “V.” In fact, when we walk through the streets of LA, she is often stopped by people who ‘love her in V’ or ‘think she’s a great actress.’ She has gotten tired of trying to convince people that they have the wrong person, so she simply says, “Thank you” and keeps walking like any Hollywood star would. Still, there are definitely shades of brown associated with E’s skin. While I couldn’t have been more grateful for her willingness to come to a foreign land for the sole purpose of supporting me, I began to grasp the potential conflict with the locals…mainly, my relatives.
Sure enough, when E arrived later that day, many of my family members were in awe. Here are some of the comments she endured:
“Can I touch your hair?”
“You sure are purrty.”
“Are you that alien on V?”
“I just miss my mother so much! Can I give you a hug?” (This comment was not made by me or my brother. No, this request came from my cousin, who had started calling MY mother ‘mom’ after my dad died. His real mother was actually my dad’s sister who was alive during all these years that my cousin insisted on calling my mother ‘mom.’ Of course, his mother’s name was Lucille and my mother’s name was Lucy, and Lucille had passed away a couple of months ago while Lucy had passed away that week, so one could easily understand his confusion, right? Therefore, I offered to help clarify.)
“You mean you miss your mom, my Aunt Lucille?” I said.
“Right, Aunt Lucille?” I said with a little more anger.
“No, our mom, silly.”
There were so many levels of disturbing wrapped up in this whole exchange, that it’s hard to separate them all, but one very creepy part was that his quest for a hug from E came off as an attempted hit…at my mother’s funeral. Now, I’m not saying he was flirting with her for sure. I’m just saying he wasn’t seeking comfort from anyone else in the room. E has already demonstrated by showing up in Broken Arrow that she is a generous, loving and loyal friend, but one should never forget part 3 of her triple threat. She is not one to trifle with, and that includes messing with people she loves. I happened to be one of those people, thank God! She offered my cousin a courtesy light tap on the shoulder in place of a hug, and glanced my way. It was only a brief look, but it communicated so much: “Now, look what you’ve made me do. I’m going to have to kill your cousin. Say thank you and open a bottle of wine while you’re at it.” I went for the cork screw. Might be handy for both purposes.
Conveniently, my friend Debra’s mother also died the same week as my mom. Debra and I had grown up together in Broken Arrow and now both live in California. We decided that our very practical, frugal and controlling mothers had decided it made sense for them both to pass in the same week so Deb and I would only have to make one trip home. We also found ourselves shopping for wake food and supplies together, sharing funeral dresses and of course being a great support to each other. We had to agree that our mothers’ plan to die together made the whole funeral thing a much more convenient and tidy affaire.
The morning of the funeral, Debra showed up with trays of left-over food from her mother’s funeral the day before (because that’s what you do in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, people). She also took the pictures of my mom (the ones she had chosen herself for display at her own funeral) and went to the church to set them up for me. Despite her own grief, Deb was willing to apply her newly-acquired funeral knowledge to my mom’s set-up.
E, the brown one, came to the house early carrying my favorite drink, a grande soy chai tea latte. She did not obtain this drink from Starbucks. Instead, she found a local coffee shop on her way to the house. She apparently caused quite a stir.
Barrista: “Well, look at you! You’re not from around here.”
E: “Why, no, I’m not. I’m from Los Angeles.”
Barrista: “I could tell. You’re just so brown. “
E: “Well, thank you.” (what else was she going to say?)
Barrista: “You know Los Angeles means ‘dem angels.’ It was named by your people.”
E: “Actually, Los Angeles was named by Mexicans since California was once part of Mexico, and I’m not Mexican, but yes, it’s a Spanish name.”
Barrista: “You speak English real good. You ain’t even got no accent.”
E: “That’s because I’m American, born and raised in Los Angeles.”
Barrista: “Well, they sure did teach you to speak good English there.”
E told us of her encounter with the local barrista when she got to the house. My nephew was horrified.
Nephew: “Now, that’s just embarrassing. It’s not like Broken Arrow isn’t surrounded by the Creek and Cherokee nations. There are brown people everywhere.”
E: “Maybe they don’t venture off the reservation too much for some reason?”
Truly, Broken Arrow was once a very white, suburban town, but like most of America, the place was now populated by people of many races and nationalities. Why being brown was suddenly at issue, I have no idea. Probably because I invited my friend E, the brown alien, to visit. Alien invasions of any kind don’t tend to set well with Middle America.
Though I was enjoying E’s tales about close encounters of the Broken Arrow kind, the inevitable was upon us. It was time to go to the church and say our final goodbyes to Lucy Gideon. When I walked into the church foyer, I saw my friend Debra standing in front of a table which displayed the photos of my mother. She had done a beautiful job arranging the pictures, yet she had a nervous look on her face. She pulled me aside.
“I didn’t know if I should call you about this, but I’m not sure the sanctuary set up is exactly what you had in mind,” she said.
Upon entering the sanctuary, the first thing I noticed was a big, real-life covered wagon on the stage. The second thing I saw was a wooden frame around the podium. The top of the wooden gate said in Western-style letters, “Welcome to the Saddleback Ranch.” And the most horrifying item was a round, Starbucks-like sign on the podium that had “Saddleback Ranch” written around the outer circle and a picture of a cattle prod in the center, like a logo. Said sign with the cattle prod was positioned right above my mother’s casket, making it look like she was about to be branded and sent out to pasture.
I went to Brother So-and-so and mentioned that there was a problem. The Saddleback Ranch theme was clearly not going to work for my mother’s funeral.
“Oh, it’s vacation Bible school this week, so that’s all for the kids,” he said.
“Yes, but this is not vacation Bible school. This is my mother’s funeral and I can tell you with absolute certainty that she would not be pleased.”
“There’s just not enough time for our volunteers to take the set down and put it back up before school tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one will notice.”
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the lady next door arrived unescorted to my mom’s funeral. She had apparently never been to a Western funeral, and her English was still in progress. So when the funeral director instructed the family to go into the family waiting room, the lady next door went with them. When I returned from another unsuccessful conversation with Brother So-and-so, the family was sitting in the family room, staring at the brown lady from next door who didn’t understand English. No one knew what to do. So, I waved for E to come help. E knew exactly what to do. She took the lady next door’s arm and asked her to come and sit with her. I told the lady it was ok to follow E and I would see her after the funeral. E and the lady next door used E’s iPhone to translate Arabic to English and had a wonderful time getting to know one another, just two brown aliens at an old white lady’s funeral.
Brother So-and-so welcomed guests as he stood under the Saddleback Ranch wooden gate. He began the sermon with the story about how my mother and father met and married. He talked about them adopting Ken and how proud they’d always been. He mentioned our family trips to watch Ken play football and, yes, he made the very inappropriate and embarrassing attempt at the Redmen joke despite my objections. Then he said, “Lucy and Lester also found it in their hearts to adopt Janie. I don’t know why. After all, she is a girl and we all know girls are nothing but trouble.” That was about all he had to say about me until he came to the end of his sermon.
“Janie wanted to steal the spotlight for herself today, so she asked if she could say a few words about her mother to y’all.”
Right. That’s exactly what I wanted – to steal the spotlight at my mother’s funeral. Apparently, he was unaware that the ‘spotlight’ at a funeral is on the deceased, not the person behind the podium. Though the podium was hard to miss in this case. For this kindly treatment, I would have to hand him an envelope containing a tip of $100 after the service. I was beginning to understand why the cattle prod had been selected for the logo.
Truth was, as I walked up the steps to the stage, I couldn’t remember what I was going to say. All I could see was the stupid Saddleback Ranch sign and worse, I could hear my mother who had been so specific and particular with her funeral instructions, screaming in my head, “There’s a Saddleback Ranch sign above my head! ABOVE MY HEAD!!! I don’t even like the outdoors! Oh, for cryin’ out loud! CAT HAIR!! See what you made me say? I said Cat Hair in church! And there’s a covered wagon over there! Of all things…man alive!”
I opened with the only thing I could think of to say. “There’s a Saddleback Ranch sign above my mother’s head. All of you who know her also know that she is not happy about this.”
I don’t recall much more of what I said, thanks to my mother yelling in my head, but I did select a passage from her Bible to read at the end of my talk. This is how I wanted her to be remembered:
From the book of Proverbs, chapter 31: “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her, ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman of valor is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”
And with that, I have the final word. So there, mama.
My mother hates cats. She has hated them since I can remember. So when she’s really angry…I mean really angry…she pulls out the ugliest words she can imagine. The C-word: Cat Hair. Yes, that is my mother’s way of cursing. “Cat Hair.” She cannot imagine anything worse in this life. Not just a cat, but its hair shedding all over her.
As she prepared to go into surgery at 6am on a Tuesday, her request was, “Don’t let them drug me up. Last time I went in for a procedure, I kept yelling ‘cat hair’ at the nurses. I was so embarrassed!”
“Yes, I’m sure they’re still trying to recover from that trauma, mom.”
The day before her surgery had been unusually pleasant. While my mom and I have always had a contentious relationship, somehow, the subject of her week-long hospital stay and potential death had been a bonding experience. At 83, my mom had too much time on her hands and spent said time preparing to die. I found it comical, while my brother, Ken, thought it was morbid. Therefore, I was the one who listened to her elaborate instructions on what to do in case of her passing. My willingness to discuss her funeral awarded me temporary ‘good child’ status. My brother had rightfully won the good child title years ago. Over time, I had comfortably settled into my role as the bad child. However, I must admit that I savored my short excursion into Ken’s shoes that day.
Now, you may think I’m being overly sensitive about my brother being the favorite, and I assure you, I’m not. Recently, someone without any understanding of my childhood or my family said, “So, you feel your brother was the more favored child?”
“I don’t feel it,” I said. “I know it. It’s a well-documented, undisputed fact.”
My mother always said that she loved my brother and me the same, but – well – she liked him more. He had a clever way of charming her, and I did not.
In fact, the only time I can ever remember my brother getting in trouble was when he was in high school. My mom went to his car for whatever reason (probably to snoop around) and lo and behold, what did she find? A roach clip. Now, my mother had never seen a roach clip in her life, and had no idea what it was. So she did what my mom does best – she contemplated, twisted and came up with the most outrageous explanation the human mind could ever invent. My mother decided that this roach clip was a device for performing abortions. What??? I mean…. What the..???
The only possible way I can trace this conclusion to anything grounded in reality is that this was in 1973 when the Roe v Wade debate was all over the news (I assume. I was too young to remember what was on the news, but I’m trying to find some mental train of thought here, people).
My mother was frenzied over the discovery that her beloved boy was performing illegal abortions with a small, pronged, silver instrument. By the time my brother got home from wherever he was, she was practically rabid. She waved the roach clip in his face and through hysterical sobs said, “How could you??!!!!!” He gave the answer that every teenager gives. “I don’t know, mom. Everyone’s doing it.”
“EVERYONE??? EVERYONE???” (and I’m not sure what she meant by this next statement, but I do remember that this is what she said) “Don’t you ‘everyone’s doing it’ me…I’ll …high school life… ALL OVER YOUR BEHIND!” I think that was a threat, but I never quite worked out the details of it.
“How much do they pay you?” she was sobbing into my father’s handkerchief.
“What? Pay me for what?”
When we finally made it through the ‘who’s on first’ routine and he figured out what she was actually accusing him of, he laughed and said, “Mom, that’s a roach clip. You use it to smoke pot.”
Well, you might as well have told her Jesus had come back and the rapture was in progress. She actually fell to her knees. “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord! I knew you hadn’t gone bad!”
Summary: My brother managed to get my Southern Baptist mother to say ‘Praise the Lord’ to the news that he was imbibing in illegal substances. Moreover, the way I heard about this story was not because I remember all the details of this very adult subject matter. I was too young to know what was going on. I know the story because she proudly told it to people, like it was a triumphant parenting story.
People, this kind of Jedi mind trick was and is way beyond my capabilities.
However, that story merely demonstrates that my brother’s super power was that he could break all 10 commandments right in front of my mother and emerge completely unscathed. It does not necessarily prove he was the favored child. So, here’s a potent example of that point:
When my father died, my mother gave all of his belongings to my brother. I did not know this until I was home one Christmas and found my father’s apron in the linen closet. Daddy’s apron was obviously not an expensive item. None of my father’s possessions were worth a lot of money, but the apron was very sentimental to me. My father was an amazing chef, (probably the best in Oklahoma back in the day) and I always loved watching him as he masterfully navigated the kitchen, searing a filet mingon or sautéing shrimp in lemon butter. He always wore that white chef’s apron when he worked, so I wanted the apron as badly as if he were suddenly standing in it right then.
I showed the apron to my mother, and she immediately offered it to my cousin who happened to be in town as well. When I said that I wanted the apron, she said, “Oh, you’ll just lose it. You’re always moving (twice) and I just figured since you live in California, you’re not very interested in the family. Besides, who knows what could happen out there with all those earthquakes and democrats. God’s gonna make California get right with Him some day, you know, and I don’t want your daddy’s things there when it happens.”
Just for the record, when my brother learned that mom had given me nothing, he asked for the apron, and then turned around and gave it to me, along with daddy’s Bible, war medals, recipes, his lucky coin from England, and a charm bracelet he had purchased for my mother in Hawaii (yes, the very foreign country she abhors) while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor. I’ll say it again. My brother has rightfully won the good child title, and not even I will disagree.
The morning of mom’s surgery saw my return to the bad child position. Her reasons for being cranky with me started out fairly benign. I woke up too late (an hour before we needed to leave, but mom was committed to being 3 hours early to everything). My breakfast choice, (tea and yogurt), met with her disapproval as had every meal I had ever consumed since I was five. And of course my chosen outfit was inappropriate (unclear on her wardrobe objections). However, I can say that these are the standard ‘bad child’ grievances which must be recited every day, like morning prayers. “Thank you, Father, for our many blessings and please help Janie see that if she would have listened to my wisdom from the beginning, she would have been perfected years ago and certainly wouldn’t be divorced, broke, rotund, poorly dressed and tardy like she is today.”
However, a new land mine in the field of bad child deeds had been laid in the past few years, and I had not figured out how to maneuver around it. My mom was losing her hearing. So, when she asked me, “Did you remember to put my bag in the car?” I answered, “Yes.”
“What did you say?”
“YES, MOM, I HAVE THE BAG RIGHT HERE!!!”
“Don’t you yell at me! I’m about to go into surgery and here you are being mean and nasty! Well, I just hope this is the last time you have to take care of your old mother since I’m such a bother to you.”
Sigh. I began my happy mantra in my head. She’ll be drugged soon; she’ll be drugged soon; she’ll be drugged soon.
I drove us to the hospital, which was probably a horrific mistake, but my brother wasn’t feeling well, so I had to do it.
The drive went something like this:
“The driveway has a dip in it at the bottom so don’t pull out so fast or you’ll scrape my car.” (sound of scraping as she spoke)
Mother would randomly scream and slam her foot into the imaginary brake on the passenger-side floorboard. “Slow down, Janie!” (Speedometer reported I was at a heart-racing, NASCAR pace of 30 miles an hour. I slowed to 25 so as not to break land-speed records.)
When I failed to stop three car-lengths behind the auto in front of me, she offered this helpful tip, “We’re going to die! We’ll get hit from behind and you’ll crash right into that car in front of us.” Mother sucked in air through her gritted teeth as she braced for the inevitable impact.
It’s a mystery why I was still driving at that point, because the thought of throwing myself out of the car and being hit by a passing vehicle sounded infinitely more pleasing than staying in the car with her.
I could see my brother rolling his eyes in the backseat. The eye-roll was his way of showing his support, but he couldn’t intervene. As the good child, he was the buffer between my mother’s madness and anyone who was targeted by it. Before stepping into an argument, he had to strategically calculate if she was at a category 1, 2, 3 or 4 and the potential damage from the wind coming out of her mouth, lest he would lose his super powers. An hour before surgery was not the time to directly engage with my mother.
When we arrived at the hospital, I pulled to the surgical drop-off area and let my mom and Ken out.
“I’ll go park the car,” I said. My brother gave me a look that could only be understood from a lifetime of siblinghood. It said, “Don’t leave me alone with her!” Yet, as soon as he shut the door, I sped away.
I did not go to the parking lot as promised. Instead, I drove to the main road and left the hospital grounds entirely. Eventually, I stumbled upon a Starbucks. Desperate for a fix, I went inside and got my comfort drink – a grande soy chai latte. Hands still shaking with anger, I went back to the car and debated my next move. My intent right then was to leave for the airport and never come back. I had at least one of these “I’m leaving and never coming back” moments during every trip to Oklahoma. As I drove away from Starbucks, I was truly about to turn and head to the airport when my phone rang.
“You coming back?” my brother said.
Pause. “Yes. Just parking the car.”
“Well, I accidentally left mom’s bag in the car and she’s having a fit. So I’m begging you, come back and bring the bag with you.”
Out of sheer loyalty to my brother, I returned to the hospital.
The bag of which my brother spoke was a duffel bag containing all the medications my mother was taking plus a few extras just in case. The woman set new standards on frugality and was not above bringing a pharmacy to the hospital so she wouldn’t be charged for any medications. Why pay for anesthesia when you can buy off-brand Tylenol at Wal-Mart for $.99 and it works just as well, right?
I could hear my mother complaining about the missing bag as I walked down the hall. I pushed her door open just enough to dangle the bag as evidence of its safe arrival, and then quickly moved on to the nurse’s desk. I explained that my mother had brought her own drugstore to avoid extra charges, so any medications she needed should be taken from this bag. The nurse had obviously never received such a request before. “Uh, we can’t do that.”
“Yes you can.”
“We can’t administer drugs from outside the hospital. How do I know these are properly labeled or that they won’t interfere somehow with her surgery? She won’t even be able to swallow pills, so everything has to be given through an I.V. Can you just explain to your mother that…”
“No. I can’t explain anything to her. See, you seem to think that we can employ reason here, and I’m telling you we are in a logic-free zone right now. For Christ’s sake, do you hear the yelling coming from her room? She may look like a frail, 83 year old woman, but she can make Freddy Kruger look like he’s playing with butter knives! Just do what she says, or pretend to do it until they knock her out and then do whatever you like, but go in there and tell that woman that you have her cornucopia of drugs and you’re gonna give them to her!!! Please!”
I heard the dreaded words come from my mom’s room. “JANIE?! Janie, come in here!” I let my head drop back, face to the sky, and begged for mercy and patience.
“Ok,” the nurse said. “I’ll figure something out.” She picked up the bag and went into mom’s room. “Mrs. Gideon, I have your medications here.”
“Good. Now, let me show you what each of these are for and how much to give me because I don’t want y’all giving me someone’s Viagra or some-such-a-thing and then I’ve got man problems and a bill for medicines I didn’t want in the first place…”
The nurse shot me the stank eye. Her good deed had turned into so much more pain than she could have imagined.
Then, I committed a deadly breech of conduct. Somehow, I let the faint sound of a chuckle trickle out. I don’t know how I could have been so blithe.
“Well, I don’t know why that’s funny,” mom said. “These things happen all the time, you know. That’s your problem, Janie. You don’t take care of yourself. You believe in all that free love stuff, but someone could slip you a Viagra and you wouldn’t even know it because you’re always wearing low-cut tops and showing off your boobies. Men don’t like that. They don’t respect you. Yessiree, that’s your trouble right there.”
While I couldn’t keep track of how we went from Viagra to my breasts to some kind of bottom line on my failings, I believe the summary is thus: it’s all those free-love orgy nights with my Viagra-slipping pimp that are the source of all my troubles in life. Duly noted.
The nurse said she was ready to put in mom’s I.V. Of course, my mother knows how to put in an I.V. better than any nurse, so she began dictating how to do it right.
“You can’t stick my arm. Those veins don’t work…” Blah blah blah, yada, yada, yada. Nurse’s problem. Not mine.
Outside the room, I heard someone ask for Mrs. Gideon. Mom was otherwise engaged, so I decided I would use this as an excuse to avoid any more public life-lessons on boobs, Viagra and free-love. I stepped out and found a short, balding man holding a Bible.
“I’m Mrs. Gideon’s daughter,” I said. “Can I help you?”
The man looked puzzled. “Well, I didn’t know Miss Lucy had a daughter.”
Of course he didn’t. “I’m Brother so-and-so from First Baptist Church. I just came by to check on Miss Lucy and see if I could pray with y’all for a moment.”
That would be the good child’s department. So, I called on my brother.
“Ken, it’s so nice to meet you finally,” said Brother So-and-so. “Miss Lucy has told me so much about you. She sure is proud of you, son.”
I should have gone to the airport when I had a chance.
My mother lit up when she saw Brother So-and-so. Her whole disposition improved. She even complimented the nurse on doing such a great job with her I.V.
After Brother So-and-so prayed with my mother, the orderly came to take her for the final surgery preparations, where she would finally be administered a good amount of sedatives. I was flat out giddy.
Alas, I knew things had gone terribly awry in their attempts to sedate her when outside the prep room, I heard the obscenities begin. “Cat Hair! Cat hair! See what you made me say??? Oh, cat hair!”
As it turned out, they were having trouble with mom’s I.V., which meant instead of being sedated, mom was lucid and angry. The moment I had been waiting for all day would never come.
When Ken and I came into the room, mother was defining in great detail each staff member’s personal shortcomings. Their faces appeared exhausted, and the orderly looked like he might be contemplating a murder/suicide scenario.
“You can say a few words to her and then we’ll take her into the OR and just gas her…or get her prepped I mean,” the doctor said to us.
She gave my brother a hug and told him how much she loved him and she’d see him when she got out. Conversely, this is what my mother said to me as the orderly wheeled her down the hallway:
“Don’t forget to take the plate on the counter back to the lady next door, but make sure you wash it first. I don’t want her getting a dirty plate back. Tell that nurse that I take back what I said about the I.V. She did a lousy job. And don’t run up my utility bill while I’m gone. 80 is plenty cool, so don’t turn the air conditioning below that. And I love you.”
As the orderly pushed her through the doors to the OR, I could hear her berating him: “Now, don’t run into the door like that. You’re not steering right! We’re going to crash into the wall! Oh, cat hair!”
Ken and I collapsed on the couch outside the door when she was finally out of sight. She was gone. Sweet relief! We rested a minute in silence before heading to the family waiting room.
During this whole ordeal, my brother had been feeling quite ill. As soon as we got to the waiting room, we found a couch where he could rest. While my brother slept, I called friends and family to let them know mom was in surgery and we’d call with an update when she was out.
An hour went by. Then two hours. My brother continued to sleep soundly on the couch while I read a book. After about two and a half hours of sitting in the waiting room, I saw my mother walk around the corner, all dressed and ready to go. I couldn’t believe it. She shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, “Oh well.” I was furious! The woman must have pissed off the entire staff and they had finally kicked her out. Or worse, maybe she just walked out on her own. Stubborn, stubborn, pain in the ass, woman!
I was coming over to find out what was going on when she turned and walked around the corner. I followed her out of the waiting room, but when I got to the door, she wasn’t there. I went to the information desk and asked if they’d seen where she went. They said they hadn’t seen her. So, I made them call down to the surgery to find out what happened. The nurse in the OR said that mom was still in surgery and all was going well.
In that moment, I felt queasy…dizzy…like I was half in my head and half out. I fully expected that my mom was not going to make it through this surgery. So, when the doctor came out a few hours later and said that she was fine and recovering, I couldn’t have been more surprised. He told us that we could see her, but she would be sedated all night (Praise Jesus!). My brother and I briefly visited her in the recovery room, and then decided to go home so Ken could have a good night’s rest.
When I got back to mom’s house, I called my friend E (from the Korean Spa story) to give her an update.
“I was just sure that she had died, and to be honest, I was a little relieved,” I said to E. “The woman was driving me nuts…and that was before she was in any kind of real pain. I can’t imagine what she’ll be like now. I don’t think I can take it.”
About that time, the house phone rang.
“Calling about your mother….you should come back….she won’t make it through the night.”
E heard the whole conversation. “Be careful of your words,” I said to her. “I think I just wished my mother dead. That is SOOOO like her to pull that kind of guilt trip on me!”
I woke Ken up and told him we had to go back to the hospital. When we arrived, we went straight into ICU to see her. The doctor told us her blood pressure was falling and he couldn’t say for sure, but he thought she might be brain dead. Ken looked at me and said, “Can you handle this? Because I have to leave right now.” Poor guy was so ill.
One important note to this story is that my mother reviewed her will the day before the surgery and made sure all her documents were in order, including a living will and a power of attorney. My mother’s lawyer is also our long-time friend and neighbor. She advised my mother to give me power of attorney instead of Ken, because he was so sick at the time. Nonetheless, my mother insisted that she did not want me to have power of attorney. I didn’t even flinch at the news. As the bad child, this kind of answer was to be expected. Of course Ken would get power of attorney.
“It’s not that I love Ken any more than I love Janie,” mom said.
“No one’s saying that, Lucy,” said her lawyer.
“It’s just that Janie lives so far away. And Ken’s already on all the accounts. I just don’t think Janie’s in a position to take care of everything.”
The person with power of attorney to make decisions about my mother was my brother. That was my mother’s expressed wish. So, when the doctor told me we needed to decide what to do if my mother coded, I went to speak to my brother.
“What should we do?” I said.
“Do what you think is right,” Ken said. “I trust you.”
“Based on what mom told me, she doesn’t want to be kept alive if she’s brain dead, so if she’s brain dead, I think we have to let her go. If not, we let them take measures to revive her.”
“Whatever you think is right,” Ken said again. “I trust you.”
I sat there for a moment, contemplating the whole unbelievable situation, and then my brother took my hand. “I can’t do this, Janie,” he said. “I hate to put this on you, but can I ask you to handle this by yourself?”
My big brother, the long-time athlete and my constant rock, looked so pale and weak. It broke my heart. He had never asked me for a single thing in his life. He was the one always taking care of me. So without hesitation, I said “Don’t worry. I can do this.”
I got a warm blanket out of the utility room for him, and then went back to deal with mom.
I asked the doctor if he had determined if she was brain dead or not. He said he was not sure. That meant we were in vague territory.
When the moment came and the nurse turned to me with a sense of urgency and said, “She’s coding, what do you want me to do?” I said the first thing that came to mind. “Do CPR.”
CPR is not the docile process you see on TV shows. It is an aggressive act. My mother’s body was thrashing on the bed as they pushed hard on her chest. If she were awake at all, this would be excruciatingly painful. The rattling and shaking of the bed seemed to drown out all the monitors, beeping noises and words of the staff working on her. All I could hear was the sound of violence.
For ten long minutes, the staff continued CPR on my mother while I sat and processed an entire lifetime together. What would she want me to do right now? What would my brother want me to do? What would my dad want me to do? I said I was relieved when I thought she was going to die, but now I wanted her to live. I wanted her to wake up and yell at me for doing it wrong. All our arguments were really stupid when I thought about it. Our biggest problem was that I annoyed her and she annoyed me. Nothing serious. All the while, the sound of the pounding on her chest pulsated through my head like a count-down.
The doctor came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I was crying, but didn’t even realize it until that moment. “You can stop this any time you want,” he said.
My mom’s life was in my hands. The bad child. Her worst nightmare. But I took that obligation very seriously. She trusted my brother, but she never trusted me. I had a duty, in many ways, to do this better than he would – to be even more conscientious than she would have expected of me.
“Has she responded at all?” I said.
“No. Not so far,” he said.
The physical brutality required to keep her heart pumping was agonizing. “Give her three more minutes. If she doesn’t respond, come back to me.”
I cannot explain to you all that went through my head in those three minutes. I had to quickly review what I could remember about her instructions, face regrets and missed opportunities, and finally come to peace with letting her go. I had been fast-tracked on the stages of grief – denial to acceptance in under three minutes. So when the doctor returned to report that nothing had changed, I simply said, “Stop.”
The pounding and rattling ended. A nurse turned off all the machines, and I went to my mother and held her hand. In comparison to the minutes before, everything seemed so quiet.
“Is she still here?” I asked the nurse.
“I don’t think so, but watch her chest to see if it rises.” It never did. I personally think she had left when I saw her in the waiting room. All of this CPR drama was just some kind of movie being played out, but the ending had already been written.
I had grown up a bona fide ‘daddy’s girl.’ I loved my father, and there is no doubt that my dad loved me. He might have even favored me slightly just to make up for my mom’s obvious preference for my brother. I also adored my brother and can’t remember ever arguing with him. The bonds with my father and my brother had always been rock solid. But my mother and I spent the entirety of our relationship uncertain of each other. Yet, after all our struggles…after all the harsh words exchanged…after her expressed wish that I not be the one standing in this position, in the end, it was just me and her. As fate would have it, I’d been given thirteen precious minutes to put all our demons aside and fight for her. It was an honor and a merit.
I kissed her cold hand and said out loud, “I’m sorry, mama. I did the best I could for you.” And I meant it in every way.
My brother and I drove home in silence. Still sick, he went straight to bed. I could not sleep, so I went outside to sit on the back porch. The house felt empty and strange to me. I had grown up in this house. It was my parents’ house. Now, my parents were gone, and I couldn’t quite reconcile that piece of information.
There was an old storage shed in the corner of the back yard. My dad had built it years ago to store all the things my mom refused to throw away. The woman saved everything. But she hated that shed. She thought it was an eyesore and had intended to knock it down for the past 10 years. Yet, just as she couldn’t get rid of tax papers from 1960, she couldn’t tear down that shed.
I heard a faint whimper coming from across the yard, in the direction of the old shed. It was after midnight and hard to see, so I went inside and found a flashlight. The closer I got to the shed, the more it sounded like a baby was crying. But then I realized the noise was something worse. Something more savage. Something unthinkable.
In the small space between the shed and the wooden fence, I found the source of the whining. Cats. Lots of cats. And newborn kittens too. They had taken up residence in my mother’s back yard and she didn’t even know it.
I could hear her in my head. “Cat hair!”