Friday, December 1, 2000

Hospices Are For Goodbyes, Not Arrests

(This story was originally published December 17 2021. I've backdated it to appear at the beginning of my blog as I want my current blog to focus on life affirming topics rather than traumas. As this is still an ongoing topic in litigation, expect updates at which point I'll restore it to a current date.)

A semicircle of six bored Lakeland Florida cops are standing around discussing the merits of arresting me. The Black one, obviously the lowest ranking member of the group is fixated on me, his body language telegraphing a strong desire to see my face in the parking lot gravel. I hand my license to him but his eyes only look at me, not my license. As I extend my arm to hand him my identification he pulls his hand back making me reach even further in a subtle show of dominance. He then looks at it dubiously as if holding something unclean.

It's a warm December day and the sun is incongruously pleasant as I stand there in the parking lot of the Lakeland Hospice House where my mother lays dying, wondering how sideways this will go. I can't believe that forty eight hours previously I was hugging dear friends goodbye over pilsners in Germany, having no idea my brother Lewis was hiding my mother's impending death from me.  

The officers exude an air of detached levity, one of them lightheartedly mocking his superior for being so serious when he called for backup against the calm, grieving man. I guess two cruisers and four cops were not enough. My wife Jennifer stands a distance away observing and afraid. The third cruiser had just arrived and a young blonde female officer exited which dominated the attention of the cop who seemed to be the ranking member of this group of Polk County intellectuals. Noting his name tag I offer my explanation regarding what had transpired but he was so focused on the woman that he didn't respond. I try again, but louder: "Officer Pettit!" at which he snaps out of his trance and blurts "Yes ma'am? - uhh I mean sir?". Uncertain as to whether he was trying to insult me or just dumb, I press forward in an attempt to communicate.

"My mother is in that building dying" I explain, not sure they understand what happens in a hospice. "I'm here to tell her goodbye but apparently my brother has told the staff I'm not allowed." 

Just a few minutes prior I'd signed into the facility's guest register (noting that my mother's opportunistic and unsettlingly weird neighbor Miriam's name preceded mine). I asked to speak to a nurse for the latest status on her palliative care. Instead of a nurse I got a shockingly dour woman named Supervisor Sue and a big broad shouldered man she introduced as a "social worker". In case you wonder, this is all verbatim:

"There was a miscommunication, the family is requesting no visitors." says Supervisor Sue.

"I am the family".

"Sir the family is requesting no visitors".

"I'm literally the son".

"I need to ask you to leave".

"Since when is a son not allowed to see his mother?" 

"I'm asking you to leave the building"

"Under whose edict?"

"Sarah call the police!"

"Have you no empathy? Stop and consider this from my perspective ..." 

Her reply was to wait in the parking lot while they attempted to contact my brother - the first I was aware he claimed any jurisdiction over my dying mother. Seeing no path forward and in disbelief that my brother could legally make such a request, we exited and sat in our Fiat by the entrance.  I called my mother's friend Vicky who was also being kept in the dark and didn't know her friend was in hospice. She was thankful to hear from me said she'd come straight over.

I wouldn't have known my mother was dying had I not called my estranged cousin Lee that morning after our ten days in Germany and asked her how my mother was doing. Her guarded answer only raised more questions as it was apparent she was either similarly in the dark or was telling me the minimum her conscience allowed without the specifics. I surmised that between a cancer diagnosis at the age of 89 and a hospital stay from which she hadn't returned that she must be in a hospice. I called a number of hospices in the area using the gambit "I got a garbled voicemail from you and I'm worried about my mother ..." until Lakeland Hospice House answered in the affirmative. 

Now I'm standing in their parking lot trying to reason with six cops itching for a distraction. I explain to Officer Pettit that Supervisor Sue cleared us to remain in the parking lot to await our friend. Officer Pettit says that when they made the call they reported I had "made fists and stepped threateningly towards her" - an utter fabrication. He adds that Supervisor Sue wants me "trespassed" to which I pointed out the glaring contradiction "then why would she grant permission to remain on the property with my car?" This logical Catch-22 confuses Officer Pettit, but he presses on "the power of attorney is the one who said you can't be in there". I'm not a lawyer but find it hard to believe that a power of attorney would grant the right to keep my mother prisoner.

Ever the optimist, I offer "you guys gotta know what it's like to be a son ... all I'm asking is that you show some empathy" to which I swear to the gods above and the devils below that Officer Pettit looked me blankly and said "wut?" and I again said "empathy" at his blank expression of incomprehension. 

"It's one of them situations where you gotta make an arrest, where you think the person being arrested really shouldn't be arrested but you don't got a choice" to which I again said I'd been permitted to remain with my car. He said they'd been told that too then added "it don't make no sense" to which I agreed. They bantered for a bit, then the Black officer with the attitude hands my ID back to me in an odd slow motion and says "we come back here for another 'issue' there's gonna be problems". 

That all went down December 15th, a bit over a day ago. Vicky did show up, they let her sign in and she walked to my mother's room and noted weird Miriam sitting in the corner like a guard. Miriam who is not a family member told Vicky that my mother was unconscious and Vicky had to go as she wasn't a family member then called Lewis. Vicky ignored her and managed to get a couple uninterrupted last minutes in the room with her friend.  She offered the lighthearted quip that she needed some Tennessee Ernie Ford music (a favorite of my mother's) to put some life into her - and my mother who they claimed to be unconscious and unresponsive raised her hand, which Vicky perceived as an affirmative. Then the staff tossed Vicky out too.

The next day I contacted Gerald Hemness, a local attorney I knew to have a reputation as a fighter and who had been a cop in a former life before realizing how low he'd aimed at vocations. Our consultation revealed my gut instinct that a Power of Attorney didn't convey the right to imprison a person was true.  Gerald used the metaphor that while a person could be evicted from a place of business, a hospice was a different case altogether and was like an apartment complex: each room represents a different family "living" there and if the apartment complex owner doesn't like someone, they don't have the right to deny anyone entry who was behaving lawfully. Furthermore, a PoA similarly doesn't convey the right to deny visitation from immediate family, so on both counts I was correct. Attorney Hemness (who was at that point out of state and not able to make an in-person visit) called Lewis' attorney to request he stand down. Obviously while I am legally permitted to visit, without a lawyer physically present I risked cops unfamiliar with the law arresting me - and as we know, when a cop screws up absolutely nothing happens to them 99% of the time.

This was my text exchange with him that afternoon:

LEWIS: You and spouse are cleared to enter while strictly observing rules Supervisor Sue has explained to you. The visit will be 60 minutes maximum and should occur ASAP. You will notify me of your ETA

ME: To be concise: we were never NOT clear to visit. I'll coordinate with the staff as you're not part of the equation. -- Stay clear of me.

I called Supervisor Sue once I was sure she'd gotten word of her error so I could get a mea culpa. None was forthcoming. I then asked her who told the police I'd made fists and stepped towards her to which she became angry and refused to offer any explanations. I made it clear I was on my way and would prefer a visit without drama.

We drove back to Lakeland again, an hour's drive. We signed in and I noted Lewis had signed in just a few minutes earlier, obviously intent on not letting me visit my mother without him hovering outside her door, which he did. Weird Miriam was there and vacated upon our arrival in a manner reminiscent of Gollum. We stayed for two hours and I held my mother's hand and talked to her with no signs of consciousness at all. 

My window to speak final words to her had closed. 

Why am I sharing this private disaster with you? I can't say exactly. Perhaps as a cautionary tale for siblings you don't trust. Maybe also as a warning to raise your sons and daughters in a manner that lends to them solidarity with their siblings. Teach them love and inclusiveness. Be a good parent. Be the parents I didn't get. And when you write lengthy superlatives and odes to how fantastic your parents were and how they always bent over backwards for you and inspired you to achieve greatness, remember that there's other adults out there who view your words as emblematic of the pile of cinders they'd been handed. 

The full backstory will eventually appear on my blog. As for now I must await notification of her death, then funeral, then the obvious aftermath of that. This story is far from over.