I think of a childhood myth: if you’re jumping up and down and are in mid-air when the elevator lands, you won’t be killed. Now as I crouch in the back of the elevator, I don’t want to ponder the lurking questions that still remain. In this lawsuit, could the men and women in their pinstriped suits be the experts hired by the other side? To me, the hospital should not have a side since Jean and Nancy, my step-daughters, lost their Poppa Bear and I lost my husband. I search for a stronger word than lost, which seems like someone misplaced a pencil or pen. Death has become the burning sensation of the tequila shots I sipped with friends in college: an iron glove squeezed around my stomach.
The elevator glides to a stop. Jean and Nancy follow the receptionist through a greeting area that looks like a mausoleum. I lag behind to pray, not the prayer of the Pentecostals where you raise your hands to heaven and praise God multiple times for blessings, not the kind where you make the sign of the cross and rest your shins on the kneeler. It’s a silent prayer that you’ll repeat over and over during the next two days: Please, Lord, please let it not be about the money.
Like a 500-piece puzzle where I could never match the pieces, only a brief summary of that night flits into my mind. Frederick fell, hit his head against the wall. The medics took him to the hospital. I followed and sat crouched against the back of a hard chair for three hours in the waiting room of the ER. Finally, the nurses summoned me to Frederick’s cubicle. A doctor scratched his chin and said I could take him home. My eyes skitted across the cubicle. He mistook that fear as the sign of a woman abused, and he benignly pronounced, “We’ll keep him till seven. You can pick him up then.” As we sit in our assigned conference room, I don’t remember the doctor’s features, just the thick lips that curled into themselves. But we have our experts, one being the pharmacist who conducted the preliminary tests on Coumadin before it was placed on the market. He tells us, “Coumadin thins the blood. It’s a derivative of rat poison.” A fact I did not know.
Someone opens our door and announces, “He wants you to settle.” I nod yes, let’s settle. This will be hard. They’ll intone that Frederick was a hopeless alcoholic, that I did not love him, that I married an older man for his money, and that the girls and I have a broken-beyond-repair relationship. “Settle,” the voice says again. Like Don Quioxote striking his sword at countless enemies, Frederick would not have agreed to this binding arbitration. Fear of the abrupt innuendos of their attorneys led us to that: at lunch he downed thimble-sized shot glasses of vodka to get him through each day.
As the person behind the voice leaves, I want to say, yes, we will settle. Bernard tells us this judge writes on a notepad the name of the winner before arbitration begins. At the end, he takes out the paper. Very seldom is he wrong. Internally, I ask, How do we know he’s truly listening to the stories either side presents? Before Bernard tells us, I know our answer: No. Not just no, but hell no.
The receptionist leads us to a larger conference room. We sit on the side facing the windows, where I scan panoramic scenes of Austin. You can’t forever scan the skyline searching for security, like you’d search for radio stations. At some point, you have to look across the table, make glib nods. Dub Darley, the lead attorney for the other side, sits at the end of the table, scrubbing the inside of his left ear with a pencil eraser, then removing the eraser and examining with his right thumb the material from his ear.
The female attorney opens three notebooks with multiply colored tabs. What color of tab am I: blue, green, yellow? She needs a name. As in Don Juan when the narrator can’t decide on a name for his hero and randomly chooses Don Juan, I’ll choose Inez, the mother of Don Juan.
The arbitrator makes his entrance, not stately as on Law and Order. You can’t help thinking: the Marlborough man, more at home on the open range than sitting at a Lemon Pledged shiny conference table, looking as if he should be chawing on a piece of grass—if not that of Copenhagen.
On this day, we will present our case. I will be the first witness. They can not question me. Earlier in the conference room, Bernard instructed, “Tell the truth. Don’t wiggle. Sit up straight.” When Bernard asks questions, answer in complete sentences. Look straight at the arbitrator, but don’t forget to look at the other attorneys, and don’t, oh, please for the love of Jahweh, don’t look at Bernard.
Dub Darley takes no notes when Bernard questions me, but the female attorney copiously transcribes my words into beautifully textured letters. My answers are not easy. Always at the back of my mind, I should have done more. We should have gone to the other hospital. Still, I answer the questions: We had a good life. On our last New Year’s Eve, we clinked champagne glasses and kissed at midnight, a kind of lasting, eternal swoon where in our minds we alone stood in the middle of the ballroom and caught fireflies of light in our hands.
Dub Darley stretches, then yawns. He winks at the female attorney, a clandestine signal that says, You did get that in your notes, didn’t you? I don’t know what there was to get, but I know they think I’ve contradicted myself. Yet, I’m telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God. He winks again; she writes faster.
In my mind, I repeat disjointed phrases from the medical records: Frederick Hicks was returned to the ICU from surgery after it was determined . . . then other words. They could not get him stable enough to endure the evacuation of his subdural hematoma. The case was in turn sent to the pulmonary intensivist after it was determined when meticulous titration was applied, his chances for surviving the procedure were minimal—medical terms that flow like undercurrents in a lake.
I say all the words I know to say, answer all the questions I’m told to answer. After his planned hour and a half of questioning, Bernard looks at me and then at the arbitrator: She’s been through enough. Dub Darley clacks his thumbnails, the female attorney ceremoniously appends the gold inlaid top of her designer ink pen to the rest of the pen, and the arbitrator announces that we’ll break for lunch. We’ll return at one, no one thirty, if that’s agreeable. We nod and each return to our rooms to decide where we will have lunch. Bernard’s legal assistant heard them say they’re ordering in, so we’ll walk next door to the deli. Less chance of being heard as Bernard plans the afternoon. No matter what, we’ll stop before four. The arbitrator appreciates it when people finish early.
And what is your current position? Where did you train? For how long have you served in a supervisory capacity? Bernard’s questions to establish the qualifications of our Russian expert. And what is the name of the hospital where you’ve supervised interns in emergency care in North Carolina? The answer: some major medical facility in Raleigh-Durham. More questions about the size of the hospital, the number on staff, all much larger than the teaching hospital here in Texas.
When a patient presents at your hospital with Coumadin as one of the medications, what is the protocol? A hmph. A shrug. Maybe, more sweat around his armpits. Some kind of answer about taking a rainbow. That’s protocol for all patients. When they enter the ER, the nurses on staff take a blood sample.
For what purpose? There are always purposes. All purposes under heaven, words that flow round and round, words that would have meant nothing a few years back. A rainbow, that’s what they call the blood they take and parcel out to use in case there are tests that need to be run later, and Bernard has said, If they’d run the ProTime . . . Sounds like Cromagnum, close kin to Neanderthal man, to me, but it’s not . . . if they’d run that test as they should have, if . . . if . . . Frederick would be alive today, in all probability.
Our neurologist also swears to tell the truth. He’s from Chicago. He trained at a prestigious medical facility in the Midwest. A law degree, yes, yes. Kind of clipped and precise, almost trying to swallow, if he could, his Spanish accent. And oh, yes, he’s treated an estimated . . . oh, thousands of these cases through the years. He’s practiced twenty-seven, make that twenty-eight years. In too many instances to count subdural hematomas begin on, let’s say, a Saturday and then wait five days to manifest (no direct object), especially if the individual has a strong constitution, as in the case of Dr. Hicks.
We finish the day, early as Bernard promises.
The next morning, we rally and then return to the larger conference room. Across the table, they have extras, people not present yesterday. The women blur to an indistinct vision of hierarchies, the amassed fallen angels, glaring with hatred at me, who stole the jewels of heaven. One woman’s eye shadow is the color of mustang grape juice, her blonde hair ratted and pulled over to conceal the blank spots where her hair will not cover the fact that her hair is thinning rapidly. Bernard saw this woman’s silhouette when we came in this morning, and he whispered: “A nutritionist? Why the hell is she here?” We stopped just outside the door to our conference room, and I whispered she told Frederick not to eat spinach. The pharmacist nodded and said that’s a falsity that many people associate with Coumadin. Now as I scan the hatred like a copy machine scans pages upon pages of duplicated but not exact material, Bernard’d be happy if I could emulate their hatred. My mama taught me: You can mightily dislike, even detest, but you can’t hate someone.
The man across the table from Jean looks above her head to a knot in the paneling. Complacent, his hands calmly fold inside each other, like a Baptist deacon placing his finger tips together as he says the opening prayer. This doctor never quite visualizes Frederick, not even when he read the details on the chart and prepared for his deposition, not now either. He doesn’t remember me, two-thirty in the morning, heaving, almost vomiting.
As for the other doctor, an intern, Bernard’s legal assistant was present during the depositions. “Great eye candy,” she said when she called to say she was sending his deposition as an email attachment. His name: Lanny C. Moore III. The C stands for Claude, but his family’s always called him Candy, because his mama had a crush on the actor who played Candy in Bonanza.
Dub Darley straightens the strings of his bollo tie; the buttons on his dusty purple shirt stretch when he breathes in and out. Inez points at a page in her trial book. Like members of the Manson family, the other women glare at me. In the past, I would have cringed. Hell, I still cringe, but I persevere. Nodding at Bernard, then cursorily at me, Dub Darley begins his speech. He wants to thank the Marlboro man for this opportunity to come one more time before the scales of justice, gobbledy gook words that don’t quite merge with each other. He’s represented this hospital on numerous occasions in his forty years in practice. As always representing this wonderful hospital that brings so much to the citizens of Colt County and the surrounding communities with a long arm that reaches into the outskirts of Austin—he gets lost in his collage of words and starts over. He wants the judge to know how privileged he does, indeed, feel to bring forth the charge of justice.
He glances at the female attorney’s tab-laced notebook, then begins his assault: Mrs. Hicks here would have you believe the impossible. Her husband was taken to the ER on a Saturday night. He spent Sunday recuperating. He worked the following three weekdays, driving one of those days to his office in Austin. Other tart words: Who knows what went on in that house that he called an office. The secretary at the front. Him at the back. The last patient to see him that Wednesday evening gave him permission to stop her session early. He had a headache. Do you honestly believe there was nothing going on—not a little pitter patter. Dub Darley maligns a seventy-year-old woman who can’t control her bodily functions because of an operation. He nods in the direction of the Marlboro man.
Knowing there won’t be an answer, he adds, We don’t want to take responsibility for our actions. He pounds the table, looks away from me, then towards me, then at the Judge, where his gaze hovers. Especially when there are others to blame: doctors who do their best and then these frivolous lawsuits. Do you know how much time this case diverts from patients? He gestures first at the young intern, then points to the older doctor.
Dub Darley strategically places his tri-colored reading glasses on top of the papers in front of him. He calls the younger doctor to take the stand, please. Dub folds his fingers in and out, like he’s doing the childhood rhyme Here’s the church and there’s the steeple. This while we wait for the young doctor to get to the witness chair. The first question: What feelings do you harbor toward the Hickses? A pause, no one understands the question: Many people in these situations, well, it’s not unusual, to harbor ill will, even hatred. How do you feel toward Mrs. Hicks and these girls? Candy looks at us soulfully. He lost his grandmother and certainly understands the grieving process. But do you forgive them? We’re only human. We can’t help harboring hatred. Of course, he holds no ill will. It’s not Christian. The arbitration has become a church service—Pentecostal, fundamentalist, even Episcopalian—where those who are in love and charity with their neighbors share the flesh and the blood of the lamb who died for us.
Dub Darley scans Jean’s face, then Nancy’s, and his gaze lands on me—rather on the space at the top of my head. He calls forward the other doctor, the one who trains bright young minds to be ER doctors who’ll tell patients, He’s fine. You could take him home, but we’ll keep him. His haunches hang loosely over the sides of his pleated pants. The same question: does he forgive us, especially me. The answer: his parents are still living. He doesn’t know what he would do if he were to lose them, but he certainly comprehends Mrs. Hicks’ emotions. If he had it to do again, even though he can’t quite remember Frederick’s features (his watermelon red complexion caused by the Coumadin, the man who yanked the IV needle from his arm, wandered the hall, and then confusedly must have told them he wanted the urination machine), though he can’t visualize Frederick’s salt and peppered flecked Sir Lancelot pageboy haircut, this doctor would follow the same procedure. Indeed, he adhered to the standard of care accepted by hospitals in this area. The implication: standards in New York, Chicago, even North Carolina have no bearing on Texas medical practices.
The doctor walks back to his chair; his mild arrogance unrecognized. Now Dub Darley will show that my testimony yesterday is in direct contradiction to what I said earlier. Dub Darley shows clips of my video deposition. Blonde, curly ringlets frame my face. I am the infidel: my eyes in the tape skirting, not always looking directly at Dub Darley and Inez, too, when they questioned me. I looked sideways toward Bernard for affirmation, not focusing on the accusers. In their topsy-turvy world view: She lied. She cleaned up her act, but not enough to salvage her testimony. Dub Darley’s version of the truth: I haven’t worked a day since Frederick passed, and the girls—there is no relationship. Don’t let them fool you. We hired lawyers and fought over a knock-off Eames chair, their daddy’s roll-top desk, possessions that meant nothing and yet everything.
My truth is not your lie, I want to frame words for Dub and those cult followers across the table. Instead, I am required to anchor my feet to the floor. Dub Darley intones, All plaintiffs exaggerate their injuries. I look out the window and up, up, up, and away from the here and now. She never suffered. She got on with her life. In mid-sentence, mid-thought almost, it is lunch time. We would not want for his honor to miss his lunch. Now would we? Dub Darley makes a lame joke. One of our witnesses who arrived today shakes hands with Nancy, then Jean. They introduce themselves. He introduces himself to me. I start to give him my name, then I realize there is no need. Even though my hair is now straightened and reddish blonde, no one could fail to recognize me from the clips of my deposition. An eery recognition, and I whisper: “Can this case be saved?” Dub Darley pulls at Inez’s shoulder and says, “Lunch. Galvoni’s. Next door.” They leave while Bernard hushes me with his finger and a shake of his head and then says we’ll order sandwiches from Schlotzky’s since they won’t be here.
After lunch, Dub Darley tells us that this edited version of my deposition proves—and my Mama taught me not to say this word—it truly does prove, Your Honor, that she’s lied from the very beginning. He calls Dr. Terry J. Mayhew, a neurologist with some twenty-odd years of experience under his belt as the head of ER services at a hospital system in another Texas city. He has treated a number of these cases through the years. One hundred? No more. He recognizes the symptoms of functional alcoholism. There is a type of alcoholic who presents (again no direct object) as one who is able to function in the real world. What is the meaning of function? That person is able to perform job duties. Nonetheless, he is an alcoholic. What are the symptoms? Oh, that person will sometimes seclude himself during office hours to take a drink between patients. He will drink throughout the early evening, often extended into the later hours. How late? Midnight, one in the morning. The functioning alcoholic will fall asleep on the couch, often staying there throughout the night, not having changed into bedclothes.
Bedclothes, a neat euphemism for the pajamas Frederick never wore. This doctor continues to opine, an almost silly man with his greasy hair, his scrunched forehead, a nose the size of a huge pimple. I anchor myself, wanting to tell these people, Frederick never drank between patients, just at night, and he diluted his wine with water. Bernard moves his eyes in your direction. Even drunks deserve good medical care, and Frederick was no drunk. Bernard’s said that often enough.
Dub Darley clears his throat in a gruff monotone and thanks Dr. Mayhew for enlightening us on this pertinent issue. The doctor has rounds to make that he postponed for this deposition. Dub Darley nods like a puppeteer who’s controlling the strings of all those who testify for the hospital. He calls the nutritionist with poofed hair and mustang grape juice eye shadow. As is his pattern, Dub Darley asks two questions that make the same point: What is your position? What does it entail?
You anticipate how this testimony will fit into the jigsaw puzzle where Dub Darley forces disparate pieces into a pattern you can’t recognize: Coumadin is a blood thinner. For blood clots, it’s the only valid treatment. Green, leafy vegetables, a prime source of Vitamin K, has been known to deter the effects of the medication.
Dub Darley clears his throat, then he looks over the half-rims of his drugstore bought lenses, trying to appear inquisitive. He nods at Inez who produces a sheet of paper. He identifies the exhibit and says that this is a copy if you will of the card the Coumadin clinic sends out to patients to remind them of upcoming visits. The nutritionist answers that yes, this is the card, repeating phrases for some kind of emphasis that Dub Darley wishes to establish. What is the date? She examines the xerox copy and says that it’s dated January 8. Not the eighteenth? No, not the eighteenth. Dub Darley bites the bottom of his lip and waits, capturing square the eyes of the arbitrator. So Dr. Hicks was ten days overdue for his Coumadin draw. Is that not correct? She agrees. Patients who are responsible take care of these matters, don’t they? Again she agrees.
I want to fade away, like the motion picture camera that fades into a scene, then quietly slips away. It’s nearly two. Dub Darley thumps the window maybe three times, then he tells the woman she can go back to her seat. He nods, then says he’s finished. We can take a break now, Your Honor, if you please.
The boxing match headed into the final round, each side retreats to their conference rooms. “They didn’t have much of a case,” Bernard proclaims. Two years, and we’re winding down. We have two hours to counter, and we could go into tomorrow morning, but the judge doesn’t like for attorneys to linger longer than necessary. I don’t understand why it has to be like The Rape of the Lock where poor folks die so that judges may dine.
Bernard places his fingers in the shape of an upwards triangle, and then asks me to come forward. I walk behind the chairs of Inez who covers her legal pad before I pass and of Dub Darley who glares at the faux walnut conference table, and I take my seat. Bernard tries to proceed to his first question. Dub Darley reaches his right hand into his pants pocket, then pulls out a pair of enameled nail clippers. Click. Pause. Click. Pause. He catches his detached fingernails and the skin surrounding them in the palm of his hand, then places them inside his pocket. He clicks and clacks the clippers in the palm of his hand.
The judge stares intently at me, waiting for Bernard to finish first question: What would I do with the money? He wants the answers he’s trained me to give. I allow as how Jean and Nancy’s education is very important, but there’s also the fact . . . I pause, not for effect so much as to think what I need to add . . . but before I gather my thoughts to frame a further response, Dub Darley places his nail clippers back in his pocket. He comes to the table behind me where the receptionist placed sodas and ice for our use. He pinches the ice tongs, and he drops one, then two, and finally three large ice cubes into the glass. He picks up a Dr. Pepper. With it in one hand and the glass in the other, he lumbers back to his seat. He snaps the tab off the can, and he begins to pour the drink into the round glass. The foam almost sprays onto Inez’s clearly organized pink, baby blue, and yellow tabbed notebook, but he catches the foam with his tongue and slurps.
Frederick was learning disabled. He scrambled letters. J-o-h-n became J-h-o-n when he put pen to paper, but he studied and learned and succeeded: these the words I say aloud. I’d like to establish a foundation to help other disabled students.
Well, and good, Bernard replies. You said Frederick got lost in the system? What did you mean by that? He asks about the card. My mind stumbles. I try to frame the answer: I got confused about the dates, and I thought it was sent on January 18. There was a pencil line that confused me. I don’t explain well what’s at the base of my mind: Frederick was their patient for the Coumadin. When they took the rainbow, why didn’t they act professionally? He was overdue for blood work. I told them he was taking Coumadin. Why didn’t they check their computers and run the right test? Whys and wherefores that don’t get said, or they get said but seem like sound and fury signifying nothing.
Later, too much later, I’ll think, Because of the melanoma on his left eye, Frederick concentrated on the PT-scan of his liver. His parents both died young. His mother of cancer, so he displaced his focus, but he wasn’t negligent about his health care. They are the ones who lost him in the system, who when he came in for a checkup in November asked why he hadn’t come earlier. The Chinese heart specialist lost his name, never sent the notice that Frederick needed an appointment. All these words: points Bernard does not want to make, errors that count against us. So I say one more time: Let’s not forget Frederick. Let’s not forget this good, good man.
Those words don’t materialize enough, and I leave the witness chair. The financial expert testifies as to Frederick’s worth now and in the future. The Coumadin expert says he participated in the original trials, and the whole thing about leafy green vegetables and not eating them is a myth. Other words that keep us from knowing Frederick, from visualizing the proud man that he was.
Then at four thirty, Bernard’s summation: you can not bring back this man, this loving father, this champion of the poor, my friend, Frederick. You can not bring him back, but there is something you can do. You can administer justice: you can rule that the hospital failed, and it cost this man his life. You can award to this family the full extent of what the law calls for. Grant us this one plea.
Days pass, and we wait. The phone rings, and it’s the Direct TV people asking if we want to add a new package. Finally on Friday, it’s Bernard. Lura, I think we ought to settle. The hospital’s anxious to settle this one. He doesn’t understand. I’ve stood up to the pastel sticky notes. To Dub Darley’s cult and his crackling ice cubes that fell into his plastic glass. Bernard says, Our pharmacist. The one in on the drug trials. He said it was possible, really not very likely, Bernard contradicts himself. Possible Frederick did not have the hematoma on Saturday night.
I’m stunned. Bernard will call the hospital’s attorneys. That way we’ll salvage something. He’ll call the girls, see what they think. We’ve given up too much. We won’t divulge the doctors’ names. The name of the hospital must remain sacrosanct. What more? But Bernard says it’s a good idea. He hangs up to make his calls.
The phone rings again: The judge’s decision is in.
I wait, breath baited. A light-headed whimsicality but not so much whimsical as wishing somehow to hold this moment, that essence of time just before you find out news, whether it be good or bad. That moment when it could go either way: you are neither deflated nor exuberant, and that is fine. Lura, the decision’s not good. The arbitrator found that the hospital holds no responsibility for Frederick’s death.
Each damned time the arbitrary arbiter’s words repeat in my mind, I recreate this scene: we sit around the table. I cross my legs, anchor myself to the floor, as Dub Darley says words that go round and round, like a kid’s kite escaping the boundaries of time and space. Then in my mind I hear a Bob Dylan song: Call him drunken Ira Hayes; he won’t answer any more, not the whiskey drinking Indian, not the Marine that went to war. Gather round me people, and I will tell—I have told, not Ira Hayes’s story, not the story of the whiskey drinking Indian who carried the flag up Iwo Jima Hill and back again. No, I can’t tell that story.
Now Frederick’s a memory: deep-seated, rooted at the back of each day, each month. Frederick stumbles around the ER, stammering and confused. He yanks out the IV, maybe, with such force that his vein bleeds profusely, what a word, one that distances us and the man whose vein shoots blood. The nurse ushers the drunk back to his bed. Maybe, he cusses. God damn it, what the hell are you doing? God damn it. He could have cussed, and they would have ushered a drunken portly man to his bed. Portly, the word they used in the hospital records to describe Frederick. Maybe, just maybe they say, “How’d he get out? Why’d he get out?” The journalistic who, what, why, where: words that masked their disgust for the drunken portly man, for that whiskey drinking Indian, the marine who went to war.
Donna Walker-Nixon served as a full professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, where she founded Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997. She co-edited the Her Texas series with her friend and mentor James Ward Lee, and she co-founded The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas. In 2010, her novel Canaan's Oothoon was published. As lead editor Her Texas, she has discovered that the voices of women writers and artists truly mean something to both men and women.