Chapter OneWhen it’s time for me to go, I just want to know that my life made a difference. Lord, help me take advantage of every opportunity to touch others in ways that demonstrate your love.
–from Emma’s journal, found on January 1st of every year
Emma Estes fought her way out of her stroke’s paralysis to verbalize her final words. Each word held profound possibility for those present, as well as for others she hadn’t even met. Her eyelids fluttered, and she labored to form the syllables on her lips. Unfortunately, not a soul was listening.
Just moments before her family arrived, nurses had brought her from the emergency room and were getting her settled in the intensive care unit. Dr. Lloyd Foster just happened to be at the hospital making rounds when she was admitted. He had cared for Emma for the last half of her seventy-seven years. He had her chart in hand, though there was nothing in it he didn’t already know.
“Look,” he told his senior nurse. “She’s so tiny, you barely notice her under the blanket.”
The nurse nodded and stroked Emma’s forehead. Tubes and tape obscured the patient’s worn face. “That white hair feathered around her head looks like a halo.”
“I’ve never met a soul who fit one better,” Dr. Foster claimed. “Most of us get more cranky with every birthday. Emma just got sweeter by the day.”
The old woman’s delicate hands were visible above the blankets. Attached to IV bags on stands, both were already bruising from the staff’s many attempts to find her fragile, faint veins. Monitors and other equipment recorded every nuance of her bodily functions and relayed them to the ICU nurses at their station just a few feet away.
“I hope her family gets here soon,” said the nurse. “I don’t feel good about this.”
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…”
“You’re right. I think it’s her time,” said Dr. Foster.
As the gold Audi A6 left Overland Park and hit Interstate 35 north, it briefly hit seventy miles per hour. Emma’s son was driving, his wife assisting. “Stuart, you need to watch your speed, dear. You can’t afford to get another ticket.”
Stuart Estes, known as Stu to everyone else, backed off the gas, bringing the car down to sixty-four. I haven’t had a ticket in eighteen years, he replied, but the words stayed in his head.
He glanced over at his wife, Marilyn, a Rubenesque woman, tall of stature and full of figure. Her substantial dimensions were supported by a surprisingly dainty pair of feet clad in fine Italian pumps. As she pecked the buttons on her cell phone with a professionally manicured nail, her gold-and-diamond-covered fingers and wrists flickered in the sunlight. Even though it was the middle of an abnormally hot summer, Marilyn’s designer suit betrayed not a bead of sweat on her.
As Marilyn waited for the call to go through, she pointed her left hand, which was holding a jumbo-size convenience-store mug of Diet Coke, at the dashboard and said, “Stuart, dear. Your thermostat says seventy-two. You know I like it on seventy. Take care of it, will you?”
Stu again answered only in his head, then brought the car’s temperature down two degrees as her call connected. “Tina? Hello, dear. Please connect me with Reverend Lamb. And, dear? This is an emergency.” Being able to add that last line brought her immense pleasure.
She glanced at Stu while waiting for her pastor to pick up. “Sweetheart, we really must replace that suit. It’s beginning to look dated. I’ll call Tom at Coleman’s and let him know you’ll be coming in for a fitting. I think something with a more Italian cut would be… Oh, Pastor! I’m so glad you’re in. Stuart and I are on our way to Liberty Hospital. We just received word that my dear mother-in-law was admitted. They think it’s a stroke.”
She took a sip of her drink while the pastor responded, her perfectly made-up face scowling at what she heard. “Later this evening? Why, I should think your grandson would excuse you from a silly birthday party for an emergency. Can we expect you to be at the hospital within the hour?” There was evidently some rationalizing on the other end. Marilyn pointed to the speedometer again.
“Why, thank you so much for your kindness, Pastor. We will look forward to your comforting presence. Blessings on you. Bye now.”
After considering the consequences of speaking up, Stu did so. “Why should Pastor Lamb give up his grandson’s birthday party to drive all the way across Kansas City for us? There’s nothing he can do. He doesn’t even know Mom.”
“Well, he knows me, and since I’m a board member and his most committed volunteer, he’d better be there when I need him. That’s why we pay him so well.” Marilyn pursed her lips around the mug’s built-in straw and decided whom to call next.
Stu just shook his head as they crossed first the state line, then the river into the Missouri side of Kansas City.
Skeeter Wilson had somehow managed to catch a ride in the ambulance with Emma, even though it was against policy. She had briefed first the ambulance crew, then the emergency-room doctor about what had happened.
“I was returning a videotape. Emma tapes that cooking show I like but don’t get because I’m too cheap to pay for cable. She didn’t answer the door, but I knew where the key was hidden and let myself in. There she lay, crumpled on the floor like a wad of tissue. That’s when I called 911.”
As the hospital staff went to work over Emma, someone with a clipboard began asking Skeeter questions. Fortunately, she had possessed the presence of mind to grab Emma’s purse off the counter before the ambulance left, and in it they found all the information they needed, including her son’s phone number.
“I hardly know the man,” Skeeter told the young woman filling out the admission forms. “Can you imagine that? I’ve lived across the street from Emma for more than twenty-five years, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen her children or their families. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
As Stu drove through Gladstone on their way to the hospital in the bedroom community of Liberty, Marilyn made call after call, thrilled at the opportunity to alert everyone she knew to their crisis.She called their two sons, both away at college, and left messages on their voice mails. “Your grandmother is dying. You need to come home immediately. And don’t forget to bring something decent to wear to the funeral.”
Stu was physically as slight as his mother and psychologically made smaller by his survival strategy of living as a satellite that orbited at the edge of his wife’s overwhelming gravity. He frowned at his wife’s certainty of the outcome of his mother’s hospitalization. But the fog of guilt he had been driving in came back immediately and almost smothered him as he considered the infrequent and insufficient time he had spent with his mother.
Marilyn often lamented–to anyone who would listen–the hardships she endured while caring for an elderly mother-in-law. She saw it as a testimony to her willingness to suffer for righteousness’ sake and evidence of her obedience to the biblical mandate to care for widows. “Pray for me to have the endurance to care for her,” she’d whisper at prayer meeting. “I know it’s a blessing to her; pray that I will be blessed as well.”
For years Marilyn had insisted she take over Emma’s financial affairs. Truth be known, the only reason Emma finally gave over these responsibilities and power of attorney was because it gave her daughter-in-law a reason to call her once in a while. “It makes her feel useful,” she had told Skeeter.
In reality Emma had remained quite self-sufficient.
“Mom,” Stu had often asked, “what can we do for you?”
“I get along fine, Son. If you’ll just make sure my grass gets mowed and find me a dependable repairman when something breaks down around the house, I’ll be fine.”
Both had tried on numerous occasions to get his mother to move to Johnson County, where they lived. Their weekly phone call usually ended with something like, “Mom, a nice retirement community would be so much better than your tiny old house. Beside, Claycomo isn’t safe anymore. There are too many people moving in these days that you can’t trust.”
Emma fired back with determination in her voice. “I like my house. Claycomo is where my friends and my church are.”
Claycomo was an aging community near the Ford motor plant where her husband had worked until his early death. Her house was like most on her street–sagging in the middle, with noisy plumbing and tiny closets, and a gravel driveway. But the little house on Longfellow Street was continually filled with the aroma of homecooked food and the laughter of friends. Her front porch served as the central meeting place for residents of her street to catch up on news, exchange garden vegetables, and hear an encouraging word.
Very few of her original neighbors remained, which was part of Stu’s discomfort. As the community had changed, Emma had welcomed her new neighbors warmly–regardless of their ethnicity or status. Marilyn was embarrassed at her mother-in-law’s simple life. It contrasted too much with her own.
Emma’s final salvo in the ongoing battle reflected her one and only prejudice. “Why would I move into Kansas when everything I love is right here?”
The old interstate rivalry between citizens of this city on the border was ingrained deeply in Emma. She had no real reason to dislike the Kansas side of the city, except that she was from Missouri, which she pronounced “Mi-zoo-ruh.” Everyone knew that the real Kansas City was in Mi-zoo-ruh. Kansas City, Mi-zooruh, was home of the American League Royals, Emma’s passion since they had debuted in Kansas City in 1969. Summer evenings weren’t complete without a broadcast of the game competing with the locusts for attention. Kansas City, Mi-zoo-ruh, was home of the Country Club Plaza, where she and her friends had spent many a
Thanksgiving evening watching the nation’s first suburban shopping district be magically transformed as three hundred thousand Christmas lights illuminated the plaza. Kansas City, Mi-zoo-ruh, had more fountains than any other American city. Why anyone would move to Kansas was beyond Emma’s comprehension.
As they neared the Liberty exit for the hospital, Stu’s guilt peaked. The last time he had visited Emma was on Mother’s Day. That was in May. This was August. He and Marilyn had picked up Emma after attending their church, delivered the obligatory flowers, taken her out for fried chicken at Strouds, then hustled her home so Marilyn could get back to church for evening services.
“I hope you had a good day, Mom,” he’d said as he walked her to the door.
“Any day’s a good day that I get to spend with one of my kids,” she’d replied. “Come see me again soon.”Why didn’t we give her more good days?
he lamented as he pulled into the parking lot.Uh-oh
, thought the nurse as she saw Marilyn heading for the desk.
Though Marilyn had her standard smile on, her voice was crisp. “I’m Emma Estes’s legal guardian. We want to see her physician immediately and get an update on her condition.”
“I’m sorry, you just missed Dr. Foster. He’s already left to go back to his–”
“I’m not here to listen to excuses, dear. Please pick up that phone and call him at once.”
While the nurse engaged every diplomatic skill in her repertoire, Stu tried to call his sister. He had received permission to use his wife’s phone, along with thorough instructions on how to use it properly without erasing her speed dial.
His sister’s name was Judy. But Marilyn, when necessity demanded they mention Judy, preferred derogatory titles in place of her name. Marilyn was not particularly creative; most of her labels were predictable once you knew that Judy had married and divorced quite young, then gone through a string of unhealthy relationships, one of which resulted in the birth of a daughter out of wedlock.
The phone rang twice before Judy answered. “It’s Mom,” said Stu. “Probably a stroke. You need to get to Liberty Hospital as quick as you can.”
While Marilyn continued her assault on the staff, Stu walked in and sat beside his mother’s bed. As he watched her, he cried and swallowed lump after lump of regret.
Judy showed up quicker than anyone expected. Her home in Gladstone was not far, and she had been at the orthodontist’s office with her daughter when she got the call. No one noticed her presence at first, a tribute to her fashion strategy of dressing to be invisible. Black knit pants and a long tunic top covered her thickening middle and broad hips. Her brown hair was short and in a style that neither required maintenance nor flattered her in any way.
Ashley floated in her mother’s shadow. Marilyn never referred to this pretty twelve-year-old girl by name either, preferring such hateful titles as those given to children whose parents weren’t married at the time of their conception. The four of them shuffled awkwardly around Emma’s bed, unsure where to position themselves without touching someone else.
Excerpted from Emma's Journal by Edward K. Rowell. Copyright © 2003 by Edward K. Rowell. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.