Saturday, October 28, 2006

angels in the snow

“Your office has been trying to reach you all morning,” the court clerk said as she waved a note from her desk alongside the judge’s bench. I had just finished cross-examining a criminal defendant on trial for assault, and the judge had excused the jury for a one-hour recess before closing arguments would begin. I unfolded the piece of paper and considered its message for a moment. I had become friendly with the staff over several months during my assignment to that courtroom, and asked the clerk if I could use the judge’s phone to make a personal call as a favor.

Normally that area was strictly off-limits to attorneys, but the look on my face must have let her know that this wasn’t a casual request. She escorted me back to the judge’s chambers and then left me by myself in the empty room. I dialed the number and glanced down again at the words that had appeared in the note:

'Call your father ASAP'
I was grateful for the privacy as the phone began to ring on the other end of the line. I was pretty sure he was calling to tell me that my mother had finally succeeded in ending her life.
* * * * * * * *
Mom had been suffering for several years from a condition called gastroparesis, a nervous disorder that paralyzes a person’s stomach and causes them to feel nauseous and hungry at the same time. There is no known cause or cure for the disease. She had been in perfect health before being struck with a sudden onset of its symptoms at the age of 48.

At first, her mood had been positive and optimistic as she and Dad went around to a number of specialists to try one experimental treatment after another. Some of them gave her temporary relief, but she began to lose weight at a rapid pace. Her diet consisted of bland baby food and Ensure nutritional shakes. She had been tall and thin to begin with, and soon all of her clothes were hanging from her gaunt frame.

The constant feeling of nausea and hunger during every waking moment gradually took a mental toll on her as well. She had always been an upbeat person, but as she continued to struggle with her condition for months and years on end she became more and more despondent. I could hear the growing desperation in her voice when I would call during the week to check in with her and share a funny story about one of Brendan’s latest 5-year old antics.

Her spirit was finally broken in 1998 on New Year’s Eve, when she attempted an overdose by taking all of her medications at once. After my father had fallen asleep watching television in the living room, she went up to their bedroom and swallowed all of her pills. Dad woke up a short time later to find her lying in bed surrounded by empty prescription bottles and a note. She was rushed to the hospital, and was admitted to the psychiatric crisis unit for several days until her mental condition had stabilized.
* * * * * * * *
Three months after that first attempt, I received the message in the courtroom to call my father. Dad didn’t have many details, but apparently Mom had told him that she was heading out to the store for a quick errand at around 8 o’clock on the previous evening. When she didn’t return home after several hours, he contacted the police. They called him early that morning to report that her body had been found in a snow-covered field at the edge of town. Based on the single set of footprints leading from her car nearby, it appeared that she just stretched out and lay back in the snow, finally succumbing at some point during the night to hypothermia.

Dad had already called my brother Michael in Mexico City and was on his way to pick up my sister from college. He sounded completely drained and asked if I could be the one to tell my youngest brother Chris, who lived near me outside Philadelphia. I reached my brother at work and broke the news to him, and after he got over the initial shock we made plans to meet at my house to follow each other for the trip to our hometown.

I took a few moments to pull my thoughts together and then returned to the courtroom to give my closing argument. There was no doubt that the judge would have adjourned the case under the circumstances, but that would have meant declaring a mistrial and retrying everything all over again in several months. I didn’t want to put the victim through another 4-day trial when this one was so close to being finished. After the jury was sent out to deliberate, I contacted my office to have them send someone over to the courtroom to be present in my place when the verdict was eventually announced.

I was preoccupied with questions during the three-hour drive to Williamsport, as Brendan slept peacefully in the backseat. I would have to wait until the following morning to speak with the State Trooper in charge of the investigation to begin to get some answers. I kept imagining my mother laying down in that field all by herself and wondered what more I could have done to prevent her from reaching that point.

I became lost in my thoughts during the rest of my journey home. The world outside seemed frozen in quiet stillness. Within me, my emotions had become very much the same. My focus had been put towards other tasks, such as closing arguments and consoling others, so that I would not have to face my own grief. I had not shed a single tear yet, although that time would soon come. For now, my mind wandered aimlessly seeking numbness from the pain, as I traveled further into a landscape in which everything was covered with snow.