I Ran over My iPad, My Mother Died, Then the Shit Got Real:
An illustrated autobiographical tragicomic novella in 10 chapters
by Steve Eilenberg
Part 10: The Cancer Victim
Weeks after David’s death, I heard that Karen had a pelvic ultrasound at her gynecologist’s office for chronic post menopausal bleeding. Her doctor, or more likely the doctor’s ultrasound technician, thought she had a “benign uterine polyp”. On our insistence, Karen sent us the ultrasound. Much to our shock, we have seen few endometrial cancers this locally advanced. This was no polyp.
Towards the end, David made Karen promise that after he died, she would seek medical care. There was, after all, blood on the toilet seat which I saw, so I presume he did too. Being medically indigent and chronically uninsured, Karen finally bought medical insurance and immediately made a doctor’s appointment. Her biopsy came back positive for endometrial cancer. In fairly short order, she had a CAT scan, then robotic surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chances of cure were about 50/50. Marie and I dutifully oversaw her care from 3000 miles, reading CAT scans, reviewing pathology reports and consulting with her medical team, as well as our most trusted doctors at Scripps Clinic, where we work. During drawn out and sometimes circular phone calls with me and Susan, Karen hinted that money was running out and bills were piling up.
Despite the attorney’s reassurance, it sounded like everything wasn’t fine, so I sent Karen a note offering her a bridge loan to keep things afloat. The note went something like this: “Hi Karen, Have you decided on a surgeon? How did it go with the robotics guy? Are you eligible? I re-read your CAT scan and gave him my thoughts. I agree with staying as far away from Hackensack as possible. You said you spoke to someone at Sloan Kettering. Do you have an appointment there?
On another topic, I hear from Susan that you are having money woes. Is the attorney paying the bills? Is Peter (the executor)? Can I send you some money or pay bills directly? The attorney said that “everything was taken care of,” but sounds like this isn’t true? Just let me know. We can help. Love, S.”
Reminiscent of my last letter to Camp David, weeks went by without a response. I asked Susan if she had spoken with Karen about her money issues. Did Karen get my message? Susan hadn’t heard anything. Not wanting to be a pest, I called the attorney directly.
The receptionist, probably a wife or another family member, said: “Oh…, Michael’s going to want to talk to you!”
Our phone reunion went something like this:
Attorney: (flat and disgusted) “Hello…”
Me: “Hi Michael! I’m wondering how things are progressing with David’s estate…”
Attorney: “Are you done? Are you done slandering me?!”
Me: “I’m sorry?…What? What on earth are you talking about?”
Attorney: “Oh, here, let me get your e-mail! Here it is… ‘the attorney said ” everything was taken care of, but it sounds like this isn’t true”. Does this sound familiar?”
Me: “I’m sorry…What?? What are you reading?!”
Attorney: “This is your e-mail you sent to Karen on August 12th”.
Me: “What? Why do you have it?”
Attorney: “You’re calling me a liar? You know… I don’t work for you! You’re not my client! I don’t answer to you!”.
Shocked and indignant, I told him he misunderstand the intention of the letter and apologized, but afterwards wished (how I wished) I called him an incompetent fat fuck and told him this wasn’t about him.
I phoned Karen right off.
Me: “Karen, I just had a really disturbing conversation with D’s lawyer”
Karen: “Um… Why?”
Me: “He was quoting from my recent e-mail to you. You know, where I offer to loan you money, and pay bills?… You obviously got the e-mail?…”
Karen: sheepish “Yeah…”
Karen: “And what…?”
Me: “Why does he have a copy of it?!”
Karen: “He wanted to see it.”
Me: “Why would he even know about it?”
Karen: “I don’t know, he said he wanted me to send him a copy”.
Me: “Karen, this was a confidential note to you. Me throwing you a lifeline…Do I need to put ‘confidential’ in the subject line?”
Karen: (no answer)
Me: “Do you need money? Are bills being paid? Is the electricity on?”
Karen: “Yeah, I’m paying them”.
Me: “Did the lawyer give you money? Has he given you any money?”
Me: “When’s the last time you spoke with him? Does he have control of household money? Does Peter? Where is the money coming from?”
Karen: (a long pause…)
This story is not really about Karen, so I will condense the next 8 months . She had uber-expensive robotic surgery, removing a large infiltrating endometrial cancer involving some lymph nodes. She had chemotherapy and got a becoming human hair wig. Her recently purchased, pre-Obamacare insurance denied all payments as they consider the bleeding an undisclosed pre-existing condition. She spent many days in bed, becoming heavier and more debilitated than ever. Bills piled up; most went unopened because she thought they would upset her. Oh, and we hear she is still telling anyone who will listen that we killed her mother. Her audience is not only unfortunate co-workers and local relatives, but also the other attendees in her ‘cancer survivor creative writing class’ at the hospital. She fit this class in between Tai Chi for cancer survivors and massage for the cancer survivor. These services are offered for free for a year following treatment. I assume the M Camp are also notorious on her main social media outlet, Weight Watchers. In the day, Karen was known to have multiple on line alias’, so it is safe to assume she waged a multi-pronged assault on our collective character.
There is very little good about cancer, but some people do use it as a blunt weapon. When called out for outrageous behavior, some have been known to retort “How dare you! I’ve got cancer!” How do you answer that? I have no doubt that she has wielded this stick many times.
Friday, March 28, 2014 was our travel day from Los Angles to Tokyo, en route to dive remote waters of Indonesia on the MV Pindito. Our driver, Howard, took us to LAX and before long, we were ascending over the Channel Islands, en route to Japan. There was a sudden hard bank to the south, followed by a message that we were returning to the airport. We were too heavy for a safe emergency landing, and were dumping fuel, which we could see from the windows. It seems our landing gear hadn’t gone up properly and may or may not have been successfully locked, now in a down position. We would fly low, past the control tower, for a visual inspection before attempting to land. My thoughts immediately went to the movie ‘Airplane’ from 1981. Emergency vehicles, including a runway foamer, were waiting nearby. We landed without any further drama.
Cathay Pacific put us up in a nearby hotel. Marie and I checked in with Urbanspoon and headed out to find a ride. There was a “black umbrella” around LAX, including our hotel, barring Uber-X from pickups. We settled for Wong Ping in a yellow cab. A man of few words, Wong made jackrabbit starts and stops on largely empty roads. At each stop, the shocks sent us see-sawing back and forth. When stopped at a long traffic light, the cab took on a new motion, rocking us violently side to side. I wondered how Wong was doing this. Yes, he was a shitty driver in a shitty cab, but his foot was on the brake. We learned the next morning of a sizable earthquake exactly at that time.
Back in our room, we downloaded the latest editions of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and checked e-mails. There was a note from Susan asking if we had received a letter from D’s attorney. It was now 1am in Buffalo, but the e-mail was recent. I sent a short note: “No. Why?”. She quickly answered with something like: “I’m up. Call me”.
Me: “Hi Susan. I’m calling from an airport hotel in LA. Our plane had mechanical problems, so we’re now heading out tomorrow morning.”
Susan: “The attorney sent us registered letters. You didn’t get yours?
Me: “Maybe, but we weren’t home to sign for it…”
Susan: “I can paraphrase it for you?”
Me: “This doesn’t sound good…”
Me: “Here. Wait. I’m stretching. OK, I’m going to put you on speaker, so Marie can hear too.”
Marie: “What are you guys talking about?”
Me: “Susan got a letter from D’s attorney and she’s going to tell us about it.”
Susan: “OK. The letter went out to all three of us. It basically says that we each receive $20,000 cash, which will be forfeited if there is any attempt to contest the will. Any inquiry, any questioning, will lead to a complete forfeit…and that the house and all D’s holdings are held in a trust for Karen. There is lots of legal mumbo jumbo, but it goes on to say that we are entitled to nothing in the house and in the event of Karen’s death, everything passes on to the Salvation Army.”
Me: “Holy shit! I know it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, but what an asshole! He must have enjoyed this. When was the will drafted?”
Susan: “Looks like….a year ago, some months after M died”.
Me: “And months before he died?”
Me: “Have you called Karen?”
Susan: “No, not yet. I wanted to wait until I calmed down.”
Me: “So, she knew this all along. For god’s sake, she even sat in on D’s psychiatrist appointments. Of course she was there with the attorney.”
Susan: “I would think so”.
Me: “This is sick. I mean, I’d asked him years ago to be exclude me from his estate plan, but this? Why are you excluded? I can see me and Sarah, but you? You stayed with him. You weren’t the enemy…”
Susan: “I was. He knew how I felt about his interactions with Mary’s doctors and her wishes.”
Me: “God! What a vindictive asshole! Can you tell…tell me what this document is? Is it a cover letter to an estate plan? Is it a trust?”
Susan: “What do you mean?”
Me: “What is it you’re reading from…Is it a simple will or a trust? Does it have a name like David Eilenberg, Trustee or anything like that?”
Susan: “I don’t think so..”
Me: “Crap! His lawyer didn’t even put an estate plan together, just a will? So that’s what the attorney was doing at the house that day with Karen.”
Me: “Karen knew about it all along! That’s why she sent my e-mail to him. She was probably panicked, not knowing what to say. That’s how he knew about it!”
Susan: “I’m sure you’re right.”
Me: “And D must have parked some serious bucks into Karen’s bank account to keep her afloat for this past year!”
Susan: “I would think so.”
Me: “Ha! Remember Mary’s $100,000 insurance policy? Karen asked us to “leave it alone” and not ask D about it. She pleaded with you, Susan. It makes sense now. This money was irrelevant, because she was getting everything. This isn’t good. She’s been lying to us the whole time. ‘Oh, I’ve got cancer…I don’t know…I’m too exhausted…I’m a cancer survivor…’. and it explains why she insisted you return that worthless plate you took from 928, back to Buffalo with some food on it. She must have promised D that nothing, even an ordinary plate, goes to any of us. At the time, I thought it was just her hoarding nature or maybe it had some sentimental value…”
Susan: “I guess.”
Me: “Did you ever give it back?”
Susan: “I did. When I went back for spring break to help her during chemotherapy.”
Me: “Well played, Karen! Did you ever take your empire writing desk back to Buffalo?”
Susan: “Karen told me I couldn’t have it yet. She said she can’t even stand to throw out D’s expired medication, much less let anything go out of the house.”
Me: “I’m sure she won’t throw out his stash of Xanax! But the desk is yours…you bought it…!”
Susan: “I know! She’s just really fragile now. She told me that I could eventually have it, just not now”.
Me: “You should show up with Aaron on your next trip out and take it along with your other stuff.”
Susan: “I know. I will, but not quite yet.”
Me: “You know she is going to lose everything…unpaid medical bills…probably unpaid property taxes and utility bills…I bet she will be evicted and the house will be sold on the courthouse steps in 5 years. First, the creditors, what’s left to Salvation Army. He had no love of Salvation Army, right? It was probably the first charity he could think of in the lawyer’s office! Well, at least they will have to deal with the birds. Probably $25 each or 5 for $100. Wow! What a shit-storm!”
I wrote a long, heartfelt letter to Karen, calling her out. I cc’ed Susan and Sarah. I didn’t expect a response, or an apology, and never got one. Karen and I haven’t spoken since.
This is the letter:
I’ve just heard about the will from Susan. Obviously, things could have been handled better by you and D’s attorney. It is now clear to us why the attorney was at 928 that day after D died and why you sent my e-mail to him. I feel more than a little silly being so concerned about keeping you and the house going and making sure Mary’s life insurance policy came to you. My intentions were mischaracterized as fortune hunting and even thievery (the camera incident). You know how wrong this was.
I counseled D many times to leave me no money and to set up a trust for you. There was never a discussion to cut out Susan and Sarah.
Our hard fought efforts to protect Mary from greater harm were successful, but at tremendous psychic/emotional cost for the three of us and now, for your sisters, a financial cost. This is a sad and pathetic act.
I am pleased that you are provided for, but have some opinions regarding what you might do. The secrecy over the past year, the malicious/hateful tone of the will and its result will have negative repercussions.
I assume you had to promise to fulfill his wishes and that this must be very difficult for you. I understand doing so at some level was comforting to him, during his waning months. He was filled with grief, helplessness and rage. This colored his behavior and decisions. At some level, he relished pushing people away and cutting them out of his life. This was his habit for as long as I can remember. I even had to advise him not to cut Helen (his sister) out of his life when she asked him for $35 for a desk lamp at her garage sale, when she moved to Florida. Karen, he has used you to get at us. This is not what you need as you recover from therapy.
Mary would be absolutely horrified by what he did to the family. Of this, I am sure and you know this is true. She feared he would make a mess of things if he survived her. As they are both at rest, she is not here to make things right and I think his rage has died with him.
I strongly urge you to open a dialogue with your sisters. While I understand you are still recovering, it is not in your best interest to maintain the status quo. Demanding that Susan return a bowl or plate back to 928 is not a generous or appropriate start.
Karen, this is not an attack on you. I am looking out for the best interest of our shrinking family.
With love and concern for you, Susan and Sarah.
It’s Sunday, November 15th, 2015. Two and a half years have passed since David’s death and almost three years since Mary’s. There will be no family Thanksgiving dinner this year. Karen, by report, remains disease free. I hear from Susan that all hospital bills and many others remain unpaid. The will is still not settled, but feel certain that the attorney is paying himself for his careful attention to this matter.
Susan heard two things of morbid interest from cousin Peter. First, that around the time D rewrote the will, he saw a ‘forensic psychiatrist’ to attest that he was of sound mind and that David’s one regret was that he would “not be around to see our faces when the will was read”. He didn’t anticipated eye rolling and deep disgust. Sorry, David, but that is all you get from us. If there is an ever after, what will his face look like when 928 is auctioned off and Karen spends her first night in a homeless shelter?
Sometime, probably in the next year or so, the shambles of David’s will should be settled. Eventually, after Karen’s death, David’s Leica, the one I didn’t steal, will make its way to some grimy Salvation Army display case. I imagine a curious shopper, handling the pristine body, with its German precision and heft, will wonder how it got there.
After the smoke of Mary’s death cleared, Sarah reminded us of her contribution as a hospice nurse to a 1999 book that eerily predicted Mary’s deadly complication:
In a chapter entitled “Essential Nursing Skills,” under a subtitle “Constipation and Gas,” is this quotation:
“Most people don’t know it, but constipation can kill you.” -Sarah Eilenberg