By on Aug 19, 2013 in Essays

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Woman meditating with inset of arguing family

I was going to let my answering machine take the call. It was 10 at night, and I’d been just about to go to bed. The voice playing through the machine wasn’t familiar, but something about its tone — troubled and tense — made me pause and listen.

“This is Trish from Tom Siddon’s office.”

Trish? Oh, yeah. I kind of remembered Trish. She was a therapist, as Tom and I were. We’d met each other long ago at a family-therapy workshop. What could she possibly want from me this late at night?

“Tom collapsed in his office,” Trish’s voice said through the machine. “He’s been taken toColumbiaHospital. Yours was the only number I could find in his desk or his wallet.”

I reached for the phone, thinking I’d tell Trish she’d called the wrong person. Tom and I had been divorced for thirty years. Did she think I was his friend? I was not his friend. Did he even have friends? None whose numbers were available to Trish, evidently.

“Would you call his mother?” she asked me. And from that point on, I was trapped. There was no way I could say “no” to that. I loved Ella, Tom’s mother. If she weren’t such a sweetheart, I wouldn’t have called and offered to meet her at the ER. I didn’t want to, believe me, I didn’t want to. I went for her sake. Not for his. And I went for Amy, my daughter, who is Tom’s daughter too.

When I got to the ER, Ella, a petite and spry eighty-year-old, was already there. Tom had been taken for an MRI. Ella and I sat across from each other, the mussed white bed between us, theorizing about what might have brought Tom down. Tom was in his early sixties; he drank a lot of whiskey and smoked even more. A stroke, perhaps? A heart attack? It could have been either. The ER doctor came to the room before Tom did and told us Tom’s MRI had shown an enormous brain tumor.

“This is very serious,” he announced with a sad shake of his head. As if that was not already obvious.


And so it began, the days of hanging out in the stale air of the overheated intensive care lounge with an ex-family I hadn’t seen in three decades: Tom’s siblings and their adult children — older than I was when I was married to Tom. For over a week, we did shifts in Tom’s room, one at a time, for ten minutes each. Between our turns, we passed the time in the lounge sharing lunches, drinking coffee, telling stories about Tom.

Peter, Tom’s younger brother, told me Tom had shut him out of his life years before because of a childhood incident that had happened when they were in grade school. Something about Peter laughing when their father had hit Tom for some minor misbehavior. “Funny thing is,” Peter said, “it wasn’t even true. It was me who got hit and Tom who laughed. He remembered it wrong.”

“Tom got a lot of things wrong, I think,” I told Peter as I poured him a cup of bad coffee from the steel urn in the corner of the room. His face flushed red with feelings he didn’t name. He didn’t need to. We’d all had our run-ins with Tom. We all identified. Even his mother agreed that Tom was a hard man to get along with.

And yet we’d all shown up there to spend minutes with Tom and hours waiting in that fluorescent-lit, windowless lounge with its smell of burned coffee, its tables strewn with outdated magazines and half-empty paper cups, its hard chairs. It reminded me a little of a bus depot, that room: a similar lack of comfort, still air, and a feeling of being in between.

Why? Because, as Peter explained to me when I asked him, “Tom’s our family.” That is what you do, I guess, for family. And like it or not, because of Amy, our shared daughter, Tom was family to me, too. No escaping it. Forever.

Amy flew in fromBoston. Shaken. Ambivalent. Like me, knowing she had to come but not happy to be there. Her father had been impossible during her teens, picking fights that she’d responded to with equal belligerence and stubbornness. An ugly combination, this volatile, critical, and deeply vulnerable man and this fiery teenager who’d been bathed in her mother’s feminism. Amy had tried to stand strong; he’d always won, with a slap to her face or a barrage of verbal abuse, the kind he used to aim only at me. I’d offered to go to court to end the joint-placement order. I’d married a lawyer who was ready to go to bat for her, too. She’d told us “no,” she wasn’t willing to hurt her father’s feelings.

When she was sixteen, she’d finally stopped doing overnights at his house, by choice, not court order. From then on, she’d limited her contact with him to a dinner now and then. He’d protested very little and within a month had changed her bedroom into his office.


It was November, seventeen years later, when Tom slumped from his office chair to the floor, unable to move or speak.

Wisconsin Novembers are changeable, sometimes crisp and sparkling with sunlight, more often, sullen and grey, with skies as blank and cold as slate. Amy and I drove to the hospital every day of the last two weeks in November, even when the dark sky poured down freezing rain that clattered like needles and froze on the car’s windshield, complicating driving.

My life was complicated in so many ways those weeks, spread thin across a landscape of seemingly endless, unmeetable demands, all of them important, all of them urgent. Buying groceries, Christmas shopping, walking the dogs, refusing Trish’s request that I take on Tom’s therapy clients, but keeping up with my own. Doing my best to feed and comfort our 33-year-old daughter, pregnant with her first child. Trying to be present in my own marriage. Keep up with my yoga, my daily running practice. I hurried everywhere I went. The more frantic and drained I felt, the harder I tried to be stellar in all the roles of my life: therapist, wife, exerciser, mother, and writer. Trying also to identify and perform “right actions” toward Tom — in the Buddhist sense. Kindness. Compassion. But what are the “right actions” toward someone you dislike and long ago rejected, who is now in dire need?

What if your daughter tells you, during one of those icy drives from home to hospital, that this man — her father, your ex-husband — had asked her to show him her newly budding breasts when she was thirteen and that she had obliged, feeling as violated as if he had held her down and raped her.

I guess what you do is pull the car over and cry.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked her when I could speak.

“I couldn’t tell you because then you would have stopped him from seeing me, and I was afraid that without me, he’d kill himself. He’d said he would.”

That she had felt, at thirteen, responsible for this manipulative man’s survival made me wish he had died, that he would die now.

“I want to kill him myself, right this minute,” I said, meaning it, every word.

“Me, too, Mom,” she answered. “Me too.”

We drove on to the hospital. Got out of the car and stood awhile, arms around each other, not speaking, in the parking lot until we were both ready to go inside to talk with the discharge planner about Tom’s future.

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Judith Ford worked as a psychotherapist in private practice for 37 years before retiring and moving with her husband and two dogs to rural Wisconsin. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in many literary journals, including Quarter After Eight, Southern Humanities, Lullwater Review and Prism. She has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes, in fiction and in poetry. She won the 2005 Willow Review Prose Award and was named “most highly commended” in the 2008 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. She has taught creative writing to sixth graders in a private school, adults at the University of Wisconsin Extension, and teenagers staying in a runaway shelter. She currently enjoys identifying plant and animal life on her new acreage, volunteering at the Humane Society, and hanging out with her grandchildren. And, is very proud to announce her return to college, earning her MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


  1. A breathtaking escort through so many familiar and dramatic places. It is a wonder we can get up and water the house plants sometimes. Thank you for sharing this. I Love so many of these people.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Naomi. You lived so much of this with us.

  3. Beautifully written, riveting, so poignant. There is almost no better way for us to shore up our own ragged spots than to have another woman’s story to add to what we know is possible.