I met a tough, tough lady yesterday.
Let me back up a minute.
Wednesday, Michelle came back to ask me who she ought to send a call to from a lawyer in New Mexico who wanted to tell someone an outrageous story that ended with a $5M settlement for a woman in Sugar Grove.
Which is right next door.
I told Michelle she should send that call to Jon because I did not want to be the initial point of contact. It was getting on in the afternoon and everything about me starts to sag – like, significantly – after noon. It’s just an unfortunate truth. My makeup’s going toe up, my hair’s sinking faster than the Titanic, and my brain is right behind both.
About ten minutes later I got a call from Jon. “You want a really freaking cool story,” he asked me, so I knew that the $5M story was mine. I discussed my non-jumping jack/enthusiasm response here.
So he forwarded me the email, and I read the email, and I wrote immediately to the lawyer. Glenn Valdez. Because of course I did. This story you guys? It’s bananas foster.
That’s bananas that are on fire, in case you’re not aware.
Valdez filed a wrongful death suit against the Cibola County Detention Center in Grants, N.M. one year after 50-year-old Douglas Edmisten died on the floor of “Golf Pod,” a housing unit at the facility where he was being held on open warrants for DWI and fleeing the scene of a property-damage accident where no one was hurt, from a burst blood vessel in his stomach, with which he suffered for hours and did not recieve medical treatment.
His mother, Judy Loney, was the woman I interviewed yesterday.
This is her.
This is her reading an article from July of 2016, in which the details of her son’s death on that jailhouse floor are detailed.
Judy is 71 years old. Judy is on oxygen, and lives in a small trailer outside Sugar Grove, where she raised ten children, of which Doug was the third. Judy, in her own words “has never had a decent car.” Judy smokes Pall Mall reds and wanted to do her hair before having her picture taken for the paper. Judy didn’t start crying as she told me about her son, and his death, which was absolutely wrongful, and egregious, and altogether preventable, which made it abjectly reprehensible, until she started talking about what she and her husband planned to do with the $5M settlement.
Judy and her husband are going to use part of that money to build a new home in the field behind their small trailer in Sugar Grove. They are then going to burn down that trailer. That, said Judy, is what Doug would have wanted.
Doug, who lived in Kansas City for a while and who, when she visited, used to point to an old Victorian downtown shaped like a castle and tell her “there you go, mama. That’s where you’re going to live someday.” Doug, who when his mother visited, would not allow her to lift a finger. Doug, who rode his motorcycle across the country and turned up in his mother’s driveway ten minutes before his nephew’s wedding, as a surprise.
“I sat up here until ten minutes before Johnny got married,” said Judy, pointing to the site where the wedding was held, the site where her new home will soon be erected. “I knew he’d be coming home. Something in me, I just knew he’d be coming home. I swear, you could hear that bike from Youngsville,” Judy said.
Judy also apologized multiple times for crying, once, for under five minutes, while I was there – a period of nearly two hours – interviewing her and wondering how she wasn’t crying.
Judy said that there are days she still breaks down and cries. Judy said that there are nights when she cries herself to sleep, only to wake up in the middle of the night and cry her self back to sleep. Judy said she thinks that she will do those things until the day she dies.
And I do not doubt her.
Judy said to appreciate my children. Judy said to hug them, and kiss them, every morning and every single night. Judy said to always, always make sure I tell them I love them, because I can never know when the moment will come when I won’t be able to say those words again.
I cannot, in my head, imagine the depth of grief that Judy feels every single day. The medical expert that Valdez got on the record in this case, which prompted the facility to vote to close its doors two weeks after it was filed because everyone involved knew that they blatantly ignored a medical emergency which resulted in an entirely preventable death, testifies that had Doug made it to the hospital by even 4:30 that morning – when they claimed they believed he had already died and he hadn’t – he would have walked out of the hospital four days later, alive and well.
These are pictures of Doug dying on the floor of that housing unit, and the inmates who surrounded his body as he died, and as they begged for him, after he lost consciousness, to have an ambulance called and him transported to a capable medical faclity.
There is another photo, ciruclating online, of Doug dead on the floor after it all went down and I won’t post that photo. It’s tasteless.
But I will tell you, right now, that I do not give even one tiny little baby fuck who is in charge where I work. If someone is vomiting up blood and black coffee grounds and writhing in pain on the floor, that person is getting an ambulance and that is the end of that shit.
I don’t care what these men were in jail for. I don’t care if they were in jail for murder. Every single one of them has more humanity in his little finger than the people in charge of the Cibola County Detention Center on July 7 and 8, 2016.
End of story.
Judy is one of two people who I’ve left interviews with feeling alive in a place inside myself that I haven’t felt in a long time. When I first started writing for the WTO I was insatiable. Jon could have sent me to a City RDA meeting and I’d have been all jacked up to get back and write that shit.
That goes away. Over time, it does go away. But I maintained a passion for features and human interest stories well into my second year. Sometime around six or eight months ago, though, I started turning inward.
What I’m saying is that I could have had the precise conversation with Judy that I had yesterday six months ago and felt nothing. I could have read all about Doug’s death and had nothing more in my heart than a morbid curiosity. And part of that is also good. I had entirely too much empathy coming into this job. It was a hazard and a problem.
But I truly thought, there around last spring, that my empathy had died completely. It had a lot to do with getting serious about writing about Mike’s arrest and my marriage and all of the icky things that I have been ambivalent about writing on for a while. I think that, for me, dealing with those things required that part of me to die. Because the fact is that I did love him. And there is still pain invovled with knowing that he experienced pain in this as well. For me, it is beyond difficult to empathize with him and not lose myself in that empathy.
And I think that, in trying to balance myself in that way, I overcorrected too much and my ability to empathize in other domains of my life suffered. It’s like diving. If you’ve ever been scuba diving, you know what it’s like to be first learning how to regulate buoyancy.
It’s something that sounds entirely simple. Something that, in the classroom, you wonder why in the hell you’re spending so much time on it, because it’s so straightforward. It’s just breathing.
It’s just physics, man. Intellectually, it could not be simpler. Not even a little bit.
And then you jump in the water with a tank on your back and a regulator in your mouth and those first few moments, when you’re breathing goddamn air, under freaking water, and your brain is exploding in your skull as your whole understanding of reality disintegrates before your eyes, and you cannot regulate your buoyancy to save your ass. No matter how crystal clear the physics of it was back in the classroom.
And you can’t regulate your buoyancy properly for the first three weeks of the five week class. At least.
Because it’s not easy, no matter how easy it seems like it should be.
This has been the same thing for me.
There’s grief involved in my marriage and the story of my husband. A gnarly strain of it. A gnarly amount. Because when we love people, when we really, honestly love them, we love them. In spite of, and independently from, their behaviors.
And if you’ve never experiecned that kind of love, it is like a lead weight on your heart when that person fucks up beyond all repair. Because you don’t get to just take it off. Not real love. You don’t get to just stop feeling it, even though the experience of that love is now inextricably linked and simultaneously experienced alongside most horrible anger, hurt, and sadness.
Judy yesterday woke empathy up inside me that I wasn’t sure I’d gain back.
I started to suspect that something had been dormant and waiting for spring, deep down, when I interviewed Ted Carriongton a few weeks ago.
I’ve never been this deep into narrative nonfiction of trauma before. I have no roadmap here. I can tell you all about writing memoir and personal essay about random shit that has nothing to do with despair or trauma.
It’s straight-fucking-forward. It is easy as pie, comparatively speaking. And I don’t mean to talk down about it. Technically, in terms of craft, it’s every bit as valuable and artistic and challenging and worthy as non-trauma narrative. But the emotion that goes along with re-experiencing trauma is an added element that you need to sort of grow accustomed to. Just like you don’t just hop in the water wth a BCD and a regulator and just swim off happily into oblivion.
Although, if you were to just jump in the ocean for the first time with a scuba tank on, I suppose the only reasonable expectation is that you would end up in oblivion because you would be dead as shit.
You guys are smart.
You’re picking up what I’m laying down.
And I’ve written about this before, so I know that I can’t say outright that I don’t think I could live with the brand of grief with which Judy lives, with the death of her son as a part of her reality. But I could. And I would.
I just would never, ever want to.
Judy is one tough ass lady. And her ability to carry on is inspiring. And I hope that I can carry on with my life with as much grace as she has.
And I am grateful for her candor, and her generosity with both her time and her heart. Her story is one of the most worthy I’ve had the pleasure of bearing witness to, and I am thankful for it.