I began the day like any other day, not knowing my mom would die in 48 hours.
I woke up, did yoga for a while, and made oatmeal. I looked up, into a cabinet, and pondered which strain of marijuana to add to my breakfast oatmeal.
I had been experimenting with combinations of THC and CBD that reduce inflamation and are not unhealthy; I had a science lab in my kitchen. It’s a fun hobby.
I chose a saptiva-heavy hybrid, grown outdoors in Northern California, organically, by a farmer named James. It had a whopping 27.4% of total THC, and their quality system even measured and reported 2.7% THC-Delta. James wasn’t real, but his company had a reputable quality assurance system, and I trusted their products.
I added fresh ginger, organic blueberries, and toasted flax seeds. I ate it on my balcony, with a cup of farm-to-table coffee, roasted nearby. The shop’s profits support a coffee farm in El Salvador, they said. I had no reason to doubt them.
I live in America’s Finest City, and I felt it. I felt the THC-Delta amplify my emotion. I put away my dishes, and put on my walking shoes.
I grabbed a small backpack with water and snacks, and walked across Balboa Park. An hour later, I was strolling along old streets with wide sidewalks and Victorian houses. I walked another six or seven more miles, through a small neighborhood with taco shops, craft beer, and a thrift store I know well. Their proceeds supported food delivery and homeless outreach to the many people in America’s Finest City who are not as lucky.
The store had lots of vintage clothes, furniture, and electronics. I was considering buying a 1970’s film camera for a project. I live next to celebrities, millionaires, and homeless people, and wanted create a photojournalism book of what it means to be a neighbor. I pulled out my phone to look for reviews of the camera. It had been on silent mode, and when I looked at the screen I saw a phone call coming from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
No one called from my home town any more. It must be about Wendy. It wasn’t her number. I felt worried.
I had been dreading hearing from Wendy. For a few weeks, ever since returning early from Cuba, I had been dreaming that she would commit suicide. I had received a voice mail in Havana, translated to text, that worried me. It said she was fine, going to a doctor for minor health concerns, and that she wanted to “run some things by me about her will.” But for 25 years, she had been saying she was fine, was always going to a doctor for minor health concerns.
For some reason I do not understand, this time I felt something different when she left that message. It’s something you can’t explain – nuances in words and phrasing that are only relevant to family.
I flew home early to have more frequent access to a phone and the internet. At the time, the communist island only had a few internet locations for tourists. Even if they had better phone access, it was difficult to reach her.
She lived in a rural part of Louisiana, and did not have reliable cell phone service. And I wouldn’t have understood her slurred words if she called after 2:00 pm Pacific time. I had to get lucky, and catch her in the morning as she walked her rescue dogs. She liked to walk by a hill overlooking Thompson Creek, and she received better reception there.
Even if I reached her in the morning, she usually hung up if I expressed concern. The last time she hung up on me, we didn’t speak for a year and a half.
I watched my phone blink two or three times. The THC-Delta in my body amplified my emotions. A knot formed in my stomach. I watched the screen blink with each ring, and someone on the other side waited for me to answer. I answered.
A woman I had not seen or heard from since I was a six month old baby said Wendy was in a coma, unresponsive. I instantly sobered. Marijuana isn’t like alcohol, which depresses you. For me, weed amplifies any emotion that arises for any reason.
Wendy’s liver had failed from alcohol abuse. She had been on a liver transplant waiting list for three years, and had been in and out of the hospital many times. She wasn’t expected to live this time. Doctors said she’d die by the end of the week. The woman who called me said she had power of attorney, and could authorize removing Wendy from life support.
I listened, processed, and saw many emotions I didn’t fully understand rise and fall in my body. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I walked back inside the thrift store, still holding the camera. I bought it for $30, and a copy Jimmy Hoffa’s 1964 autobiography for $10. I walked eight miles home, and was on an airplane within 36 hours.
I arrived in Baton Rouge at night because I traveled from west to east on a 6 hour flight with a 2 hour time zone change. I went directly to her hospital. Visiting hours were over, but the security guard let me go upstairs to her room. On the way, I stopped in the tiny chapel and meditation room to pray and meditate. My head hurt from the flight and lack of sleep before the flight. I needed to center myself, and wanted to do it in a quiet, private location.
The pulpit in the bedroom sized chapel had a copy of the New Testiment opened to the Book of Matthew. I reread parts of it, and was surprised to see the last two sentences for the first time. I must have read it before, but for some reason I was seeing the simple words of Matthew had written 2,000 years ago, in Israel: So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
I thought about that for a few minutes. I had brought a copy of the New Testament to the first Gulf War, and had only had that one book to read for many months. I had gone on to be a peacekeeper in the Middle East, supposedly an expert on communicating across diverse religions. How could I miss those simple sentences? I had even read something similar the year before, at a conference in India: Do not dwell in the past, or worry about the future. Concentrate your mind on the present moment.
I listened, as best I could, and walked out of the chapel. I pushed the elevator button, and focused on controlling my breath as I waited for the elevator to carry me to the intensive care ward. It took seven breaths to reach the fourth floor.
I stepped out of the elevator. The air conditioner kept the intensive care section cold, to restrict bacteria and infections from spreading. I still had on a t-shirt from San Diego’s warm weather earlier that morning. I took a breath, and smelled disinfectant and a contrasting sweet scent from muffins or pudding, or whichever dinner the patients had.
I walked to her room. She was alone, behind a glass door, with tubes coming out of her mouth, and needles in her arms connected to several bags above her head. Her eyes were closed. I grabbed the door handle, and took a breath. I exhaled slowly. I took another breath, and opened her door.
The first thing I heard was a ventilator keeping her alive; it was connected to a tube in her mouth, and pumped air in and out of her lungs at five breaths per minute. The control screen said air was being pumped in at 21% oxygen, and out at 16%.
The ventilator had been manufactured in San Diego by a team that was managed by a guy named Steve, who liked to fish with his wife of 25 years, Margarita. It was a recent model. Design changes had been approved in 2017. My left hand was in a photograph in manufacturing station #16, pointing to a critical wire that needed to be connected correctly. Steve approved the change after they documented tests that revalidated the entire process.
Another machine displayed an electrocardiograph of her heart; it beeped quietly as her heart beat. Nothing was unusual. I didn’t know where it had been manufactured.
Four tubes dripped liquids into her veins through needles in her arm. The tubes were connected to a machine above her head that monitored flow rates and set off an alarm if an air bubble may be in the line; that would kill her.
An alarm went off. It was a false positive, which is annoying but better than a false negative, which could kill her. The false positive would continue alarming us until a nurse reset the alarm, after verifying there was no air bubble in the IV line, and no occlusion in the needles connecting the tubes to veins in her arms and hands.
That pump model was known to give false positive alarms every twenty or thirty minutes. I don’t know where it was made – they had several manufacturing sites – but the company headquarters was in San Diego. That model had several FDA warning letters for errors in the United States, and similar versions had been recalled in Europe. The made almost a third of the equipment in Wendy’s room, and offered discounts to hospitals that purchased their products together.
The pump was connected to bags of IV medications that had been manufactured three months ago in Tijuana, Mexico, less than 20 miles from my balcony in San Diego. A guy named Miguel oversaw their quality assurance system. He had three children and a tattoo of a wolf on his arm. I trusted him. The drugs being pumped into my mother were relieving her pain as she died.
Her hair was braided. She looked nice, surprisingly. Her cheeks looked less pale than I expected, and were almost life like. I asked the late night nurse about it when she came in to reset the IV pump alarm. She said, “Miss Wendy’s so pretty. She would have wanted to look her best for you.”
I cried. The nurse let me, and had a box of tissue paper waiting. She was right: nice hair, and a little cheek blush, go a long way towards helping people feel calm. I thanked her between bursts of blowing my nose into tissues.
The nurse left us alone, and I said hello to Wendy. I hadn’t seen her in ten years. I showed her Uncle Bob’s watch, and told her how happy he would be to know it still worked after almost 50 years. Just like me, I said. Ha! It was 10:20 pm. I didn’t lecture to her about drinking too much, like I had a few days before. I stayed all night, and talked with her.
I said it was funny that my finger ended up pointing to a critical point in the ventilator manufacturing instructions. You could see the scar on my left finger, and my slightly angled finger from an old break. I asked if she remembered when I was 8 or 9, and I came back from Arkansas with a machete cut on my hand? I had been helping my dad grow marijuana in the woods near his cabin, and came back with new scars every summer.
I said I was high when Cindi called me two days ago. LIfe was different in California than Louisiana, I said. The guy who grew my weed was named James, according to the label, and the marijuana delivery service gave me a 25% veterans discount. That was especially funny, to us, because I joined the army after my dad went to prison. Deputies arrested him for two pounds of low quality, skunk weed leaves that had been left as trash.
I didn’t remind her that I was injured in the war – she always felt guilty about that. I focused on my 25% discount for James’s organic septiva hybrid marijuana, and how times have changed. It was almost 2:00am by the time we laughed together about that. I looked around the room, and found other things to talk about.
The nurse brought me coffee after she reset Wendy’s IV pump alarm again. And the next time, too. She said goodbye when her shift ended at 7am, and left another box of tissue to replace the one I had emptied. I sipped a hot cup of what she called “late-night-nursing coffee,” made with twice the amount of coffee as most people drink.
It wakes you up! she said with a smile. She had helped at least a dozen patients that night, and must have been tired, too. She went home to sleep until tomorrow night’s shift. I never learned the name of the person who roasted our coffee, or if it was farm-to-cup, like my coffee in San Diego the day before.
Wendy didn’t wake up. She was suffering. We were waiting for a doctor who could authorized ending life support to begin their shift. He arrived at 8am, and the woman who called me, Cindi, showed up at 8:30am with her power of attorney. We spoke for a few minutes, and were asked to wait in her room while they prepared paperwork for Cindi’s signature.
While we waited, one of Wendy ex boyfriend’s sisters visited. We told her what was about to happen. She cried with us, and joined us by Wendy’s bed.
I was holding Wendy’s hand when the doctor disconnected the ventilator that had been revalidated in 2017. Without it, she couldn’t breathe on her own. I listened to her breaths become less frequent. The heartbeat machine slowed. I squeezed her hand gently, and said, “I love you Wendy.”
The ex boyfriend’s sister, whose name I did not remember, held Wendy’s other hand and said, “You always liked calling her Wendy.” I felt a stab of emotional pain. I was surprised that the old wound remained. It was only a brief moment, not even a full second, but it was remarkable because of its intensity and timing. I believe thoughts are contagious, and I wanted Wendy to feel love, not regret.
“We all love you,” the sister said. I felt better after hearing those words. I believe truthful words help all who hear them.
I could hear Uncle Bob’s watch tick. Every breath could be her last. I held her hand a little more tightly, and said “I love you, Wendy” again. I mouthed the word “love” during the minutes after I heard what became her final breath. She passed away, surrounded by people who loved her.
We left the room so nurses could do their work.
In the way that death works, we quickly transitioned to sharing facts, and making plans. The woman who thought I liked calling my mother Wendy said Mike, Wendy’s ex boyfriend, had been there a few days before, but was too sad to be there today. He hand’t known I was in town, or that we’d authorize removing life support. Her daughter or niece showed me a photo of him and his new family; I hadn’t seen him in a decade, either. I said I’d call and meet with him about funeral arrangements.
Cindi and I went for lunch. I had asked Mike’s family for their favorite po’boy sandwhich shop near the hospital, to give them something to talk about while I tried to center myself again. After intense debate, they told me their consensus. I thanked them, and Cindi and I went to the closest one to the hospital.
I ordered a fried oyster po’boy, and a locally brewed pale ale, made with locally grown wheat and Louisiana water from an aquifer a mile underground. It was delicious, and I laughed out loud as Cindi and I spoke about life, the universe, and everything.
I hadn’t seen her in 47 years, since I was six months old. I dind’t remember her, obviously, but her sister had been like a mother to me. She and my mom had reconnected two years ago, after my mom started being hospitalized for her failing liver, and she wanted someone local to hold power of attorney.
I finished 2/3 to 3/4 of the beer, and half of the po’boy, and put it away, satisfied. It was delicious, and laughed and proclaimed that joy and sadness could coexist at the same moment.
“Wendy couldn’t do that,” I said, as my smile went away. I stared at my partially full glass of beer, and remembered when I couldn’t, either.
She asked why I called my mom Wendy. I told her. It’s a long story. She told me more about her family, which I remembered in flashes of emotion rather than as a linear story. We spoke about our families for almost two hours, and became friends. She asked what I did for a living. I usually avoid that question, or say it’s too long of a story, but I was tired, and she was asking to know Wendy’s son better.
I told her I wasn’t sure, then I explained. I never wanted a boss. It ran in the family. Everything followed that premise, as if my driving force were freedom.
I hadn’t had to work since I was 31 years old. I usually told people I was a magician, working at ‘Hollywood’s World Famous Magic Castle,’ I said melodramatically, while smiling, to emphasize that that’s what they called it. And I was a rock climbing guide, wrestling coach, surfer, etc. I listed off hobbies, which is what I usually do when someone asks what I do. I enjoy sharing what I love.
In my retirement, I taught at a couple of universities, and helped create science and entrepreneurship programs at public high schools and middle schools. I consulted for healthcare companies, leading teams of executives and managers through 3 to 5 days of training. I liked being retired, but I didn’t have any free time, I joked.
I never had a boss, I repeated, as if that explained everything. In my mind, it did. The desire to never have a boss ran in my family. She had gone to high school with my dad and Wendy, and of course she knew about my grandfather; when she met Wendy, everyone knew who he was.
I finished the second half of my po’boy, and I told her I’d let her know when we could hold a service for Wendy; it depended on when she could be cremated. It had been her wish, I learned. We said goodbye, and I drove Wendys new luxury car to her beautiful home in the hills of Saint Francisville.
I took care of business and funeral arrangements, and returned to San Diego a week later. I learned that someone emptied her bank account after she died. I was too sad to be angry.
I learned she had died wealthy, a millionaire, and able to do anything she wanted. I would have given away everything to hear her worry about the future again.
After a few days, I unpacked what I had brought back to remember my family. I had found my grandmother’s gold watch in Wendy’s jewlery box. Granny worked for 25 years, and had been proud when she retired. Her company gave her a gold watch. It was engraved:
“J.H. Rothrram, 25 yrs. Copolymer. Steel Back.”
Granny died a year and a half before being eligible to withdraw her retirement account. In her will, she left her retirement account and gold watch to Wendy, who worked 30 years before retiring. Exxon didn’t give her a watch, but she kept Granny’s. It was tiny, as small as Granny, and would barely fit on the wrist of a little girl.
Wendy died two years after being eligible to withdraw her retirement account. I inherited the watch, along with my entire family’s retirement accounts. I gave the gold watch to an eight year old girl. She put it on, and we set it to 2:20pm on whichever day it was that I gave it to her. I asked her what time it was, and she said, “Time to play!” She was right. We went outside and played.
It turns out that Granny’s watch stayed stuck on 2:20pm. The little girl is ok with that; it’s always time to play.
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