245. The Girl Who Jumped Into the River

Bonnie 15
In the dream, I’m walking in the woods with a young girl. We come to a rapidly flowing river. The girl jumps in and immediately disappears beneath the surface. There’s nothing I can do. I stare at the water’s surface, but I know she’s been carried away by the swift current.

My cellphone rings. “Hello?”

“I shouldn’t have jumped into the river,” the girl says.

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“Am I dead?”

“Well, if you’re talking to me you are,” I say.

I’m jarred out of the dream by the ringing of the hotel phone. “Yeah?”

“Mom’s not doing well,” my sister says. “We’ve called an ambulance.”


We’ve gathered in Denver for my uncle’s funeral.  My trip from Sacramento was easy enough, a single hop between two airports, but my mother’s is another story. She’s living with progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a neurological disorder that technically isn’t fatal but that robs its victims of muscular control. This means essential functions, too, like her swallow reflex or her ability to cough. PSP doesn’t kill its victims, but choking on dinner will, or a little bit of water that goes down the wrong pipe, or a fall.

The life expectancy for this non-fatal disease is 10 years, and by my mother’s accounting she’s had PSP for a little over 12. She exhibited symptoms long before she received a diagnosis six years ago. When specialists finally figured out what was going on with her balance and her head movements, she called to tell me. I tried hard not to cry. “I’m sorry, Ma,” I managed.

“Oh, that’s just life,” she said.

While my trip was just a point to point airplane ride, getting from Alabama to Denver was the stuff of a Southern Gothic novel for my parents and my sister. She is a godsend to my folks: A devoted, compassionate daughter who also happens to be an ICU nurse. My mother wanted to make the long trek. She was born in Colorado, and it’s where the majority of her family remains. She wanted to see her people one more time before her nonfatal disease killed her.

And so they loaded up the Chrysler, the three of them, and headed west. In Mississippi they hit a deer, taking out a headlight. Further down the road, they ran the car into a ditch. Somewhere in Kansas, my mother face-planted onto a tiled bathroom floor, my father, who served as her legs, tumbling behind her. The fall blackened her eyes and cut her lip. When I see her the following day in Denver, she looks like she’s lost a prize fight.

“Hi, Ma,” I say. For years this has been my standard greeting, and her response is a chirpy “Hi, Jim” in an exaggerated Southern accent, but she can’t speak anymore. The best she can manage today is some recognition with her right eye and a hand squeeze. I sit beside her wheelchair in my aunt’s living room, holding her hand. She motions for water and I feed it to her as if she were a baby bird, gathering water in a drinking straw and dropping it into her mouth.

The house is filled with relatives: her sisters, children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and even a great grandchild. “I’ll be back in a little bit, Ma,” I tell her. I want to make room for other people to visit. Throughout the morning relatives sit beside her wheelchair and talk to her. That afternoon we attend my uncle’s funeral, and then it’s back to my grieving aunt’s house for more visitation.

When it’s time to leave my father gets her loaded into the car and I lean through the passenger door and kiss her goodbye. “I love you, Mama,” I say. “And Jesus loves you, too.” She lets out a guttural wail. It could mean “okay” or “thank you,” or maybe “I love you, too,” or “goodbye” or “I think I forgot my purse.”


It’s 6:40 a.m., and I’ve just hung up on my sister. I throw on some clothes and rush down to my folks’ room. The ambulance arrives at roughly the same time. My father cries and my ICU nurse sister is a flurry of activity. My mother lies on the bed, her limbs curled tightly like a dead spider’s. Her eyes are fixed on infinity and her mouth gapes. She doesn’t breathe so much as pant.

“Hi, Ma,” I nearly shout. “The ambulance is here. It’s going to be okay.” I have no idea whether she hears me. While we wait for the paramedics to do their thing, my father remembers that we’re supposed to check out of the hotel today. “I’ll take care of it,” I say, and I run to the front desk. Away from my family I’m not calm. I can’t form complete sentences or even remember our last names: “The ambulance…check out…we’re going to the hospital…can’t check out…Stafford…Jones.”

“Okay, we’ll hold your rooms,” the desk clerk says. “I hope everything is okay.”

“No,” I say.

We follow the ambulance to the hospital. “They don’t have their lights on,” my father says. “That’s either really good or really bad.” I remember that I’m supposed to be on a plane in four hours. For the next two hours I walk around the emergency room with a cellphone stuck to my ear while an airline’s recording occasionally reminds me that my call is very important to them.

An ER doctor confirms that my mother has pneumonia. “We’ll start her on three powerful antibiotics and see how she does after two or three days. We’re not there yet, but have you talked about end of life decisions? Does she have a do not resuscitate order?”

“Yes,” my father says. “She has a DNR.”

“Okay,” the ER doc says. “No heroic measures, but we aren’t there yet. Let’s get her checked in and see how she does on the antibiotics.”

We walk over to the progressive care unit, one step down from the ICU. We kick around in the waiting room for a bit, and then I see a pair of orderlies wheel my mother into her new room. I approach, but a nurse stops me. “We need just a few more minutes to get her ready,” she says. Inside the room I hear someone say, “She’s a DNR. Not looking good.”

Before they even have her settled they move her to a bigger room, one with a non-hospital bed next to the familiar bed surrounded by dripping tubes and flashing screens. My sister and I call the many family members who gathered the prior day at my aunt’s house, and then some. We repeat the ER doc’s message with variations on “It’s not looking good. You might want to get down here.”

The big room fills up with family. There’s laughter and conversation and a rotating group of people who come to Mom’s bedside to comfort her or say their goodbyes. Just like at my aunt’s house, I’m in and out repeatedly, trying to give everyone a chance to visit while ensuring that she knows I’m there. I get close to her face and stare into her open eye.

“Hi, Ma,” I say. “Can you see me? If you can see me, squeeze my hand.” She does. “Oh, good. Everything is going to be okay. We’re all going to be okay. Are you feeling a little better now that you’re medicated?” She squeezes my hand again. “Well that’s good news. If you want want to take a little nap just close your eyes. We’ll still be here. If you want to let go, that’s okay, too. Are you ready to let go?” She doesn’t squeeze my hand.

Throughout the day I rotate through, staring into her pretty blue eye and scrambling for something to talk about. “Remember the Noel and Andy show, Ma? Remember when I wanted  to make a picture for the coloring contest, and we made that picture of the little boy fishing and we used buttons for eyes and I won and you never let on that basically it was all you? You taught me everything I know about being a good parent. I’m sorry I’m crying, Mama. I just wish I could make it better somehow.”

What looks like a tear wells in the corner of her eye, but her gaze remains fixed and her mouth still gapes. “Are you crying?” I ask her. “Squeeze my hand if you’re crying.” She does. “Well, that’s okay. We can take care of that for you,” I say. I grab a tissue and blot the tears from her frozen face. “Are you ready, Mama?” She doesn’t squeeze my hand.

Her kidneys fail, and her face and arms begin to swell. The nurse gives her morphine to help with her pain and relax her breathing, but fluids at this point would just be cruel. She would balloon up even worse than she already is.  Around 9:00 p.m. the visitors start filing out of the big room. My sister asks me if I’m going back to the hotel. “I will if you and Dad want me to,” I say. “But I don’t want to.”

“It’s up to you,” she says.

“I’m staying.”

The three of us begin an all night vigil with her, interrupted by a very compassionate nurse who keeps the morphine flowing on schedule. For most of the night my mother takes several short breaths followed by a five second pause. Her good eye is fixed in place now, no tears flow. I can’t tell whether she’s still in there, so I stay in her line of vision just in case. I can’t imagine staring at a hospital ceiling while I die. I don’t know, maybe it would be comforting.

“I’m going to read you a story, Ma,” I tell her. “This was our favorite story for you to read us when we were kids. I won’t be able to read it as well as you, but I’ll do my best.” I read her “A Christmas Adventure in Disneyland” and then my sister’s favorite kid’s story, “Mr. Pine’s Purple House.” “We should read some Mark Twain,” I tell her. “He’s always fun.” I read her “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

The gap in her breathing expands from five to 12 seconds. Occasionally she stops altogether, and my sister and I stare at each other until our mother takes her next breath.

My sister lays down on the extra bed for a few minutes. My father and I sit on either side of Mother’s bed, holding her hands. I worry that the swelling caused by her failing kidneys will eventually make it impossible to remove her wedding rings, but to take them off now feels like a sacrilege. They took their vows seriously, and death has not yet parted them.

My father talks about airplanes and cars. He asks me several times whether I’ve ever seen a ’61 Chrysler 300. Finally he says, “I’m sorry I’m talking so much. I’m nervous, and I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep if I stop talking.”

“Why don’t you take a quick nap?” I offer. “I’ll wake you up if anything changes.”

“No, I want to stay awake,” he says. We keep talking while we stare at her and hold her hands.


The clock on the wall shows that 24 hours have passed since my sister’s call awakened me from my dream. I open the blinds, and the Rocky Mountains are bathed in orange light. “The sun is rising, Mama,” I tell her. “Another Son rose just for you, didn’t He? He loves you, Mama, and so do we. It’s okay to let go. Everything is okay.” My father and sister stand on opposite sides of her, saying similar things. I stand at the head of the bed, stroking her hair and her swollen face. “It’s okay, Mama. Everything is okay….”

The monitor next to her bed flashes two numbers. The first displays the amount of oxygen she’s absorbing, the other is her pulse. They both decline steadily as we say our goodbyes, and then suddenly they reverse direction. “They’re going up, she’s improving,” my father says.

“No, she just sees her people,” my sister says.

The numbers peak and then rapidly descend. My mother blinks her eyes twice, moves her lips as if she’s speaking to someone, and then she leaps into the rapid current and disappears beneath the water’s surface. She is gone.

bonnie 2

(Obituary, printed in The Dothan Eagle 1/30/2016)

Bonnie Stafford of Denver, Colorado and Ozark, Alabama died peacefully the morning of Tuesday, January 26, 2016. She was surrounded by her family, and as she passed the sun rose above the mountains that were her childhood home.

That childhood home was made joyous by Beverly, Barbara, and Bob, who did double duty as both siblings and playmates. They explored the woods around Conifer, Colorado together, and later they attended Evergreen High School, where Bonnie was a cheerleader. It was in those hallways that she asked a scrawny kid named Jim out on a date that lasted nearly 60 years. On September 16, 1961, the two exchanged rings and promised to stand together in sickness and in health, a vow that remained unbroken until the very end.

During that long romance, the couple was blessed by three children: Jennette, Dia, and Jim Jr., all of whom she doted on. Nothing was more important to Bonnie than her family, and nothing meant more to her children than seeing her proud smile. Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, PTA, Little League, talent shows, and dance recitals: She was there for every moment.

Those three children brought the next generation of loves into Bonnie’s life, a Mouseketeer roll call of children who called her BB: grandchildren Aleiha, Adam, AJ, Kati, Casey, Jackson, Lily, Zimzi and Ezra; great-grandchildren Lily, Kamryn, Paxton, and Ben. Perhaps her only regret in life was that most of her grandchildren were too far away for her to regularly shower with hugs and kisses.

Throughout her 71 years, Bonnie maintained a youthful love of dolls, butterflies, Christmas decorations, children’s books, and music. She possessed an exceptional singing voice, which she shared not only with her family but as a member of several choirs and barbershop quartets. She also played both the piano and the autoharp, but most importantly music served as the soundtrack to her favorite pastime: dancing. Along with her husband, Jim, Bonnie was a regular fixture on ballroom floors throughout the country, sometimes driving as far as 20 hours from their home in Ozark just to attend a dance. Together they were members of both the Dothan and Enterprise dance clubs, and also taught ballroom dancing.

The pair also traveled broadly, visiting all fifty states, most of Europe and Asia, and many of the Pacific and Caribbean islands. Her favorite mode of travel was cruise ship, which allowed her to visit new places by day and dance by night.

As her neurological disorder progressed, she maintained her positive outlook, neither complaining nor pitying herself. She continued laughing long after her disease robbed her of her infectious laugh. Bonnie was the rare individual who truly never had a harsh word for anyone, who found the good in everyone, and lived humbly by Christ’s example. Her profound humility led her to worry that she hadn’t done enough, even though she had devoted her entire life to loving and serving others without concern for herself.

The many people whose lives she touched – her family and friends – can never thank her enough for her love, support, and example, but we must try by simply doing those few things she did so effortlessly but with which we sometimes struggle: love each other, forgive each other, and be kind.

mom me

(Eulogy, delivered at Newcomer Funeral Home, 901 S. Sheridan, Denver, CO., 1/30/2016)

What a tough week for the Brokate family. As delighted as I am to see many of you twice this week, I’d like you to consider pacing yourselves a little. We have a lot of 2016 ahead of us still, folks, let’s slow down.

Before we get moving, we need to get a little bit of Bonnie in the room with us, and to do that I’m going to need your help. Whenever I saw her or talked to her, we always exchanged the same greeting, so here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to say hello to her the way I always did, and you’re all going to respond to me with, “Hi, Jim!” Note the pronunciation – not “hi,” but “ha,” as in “ha ha ha”; not Jim, but two full syllables like they say it down in Alabama – “Jeeyum.” Ready?

“Hi, Ma.”

Now, I know to you Bonnie was a wife, a friend, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother, and even a great grandmother, but to my two sisters and me she was Mom, so that’s how I’m going to refer to her for the next few minutes. If necessary, feel free to do your own mental math to get to “Aunt Bonnie” or “BB” or some such, as I don’t want you to mistakenly think that I am talking about your mother, who I’m sure is or was a very fine woman, but let’s face it –she wasn’t Bonnie, or Mom as she will be known until I stop blathering.

And frankly, I think she’d love the fact that today she is known to you as Mom because of the many name tags she wore that was the one she most valued. When completing the paperwork after she passed, we had to list the occupation in which she spent most of her life. As requested, we identified her job, but not her calling. Mom was just a kid when she started babysitting our eldest cousin, Lori, and although her body failed her in her last few years, her heart had room to mother her 13 grandkids and great grandkids until the moment she drifted peacefully away from us just a few days ago. All in, she spent 60 years mothering all us, which I think provides ample evidence that we put down the wrong occupation on those forms.

She was so skilled at the art of parenting that I mistakenly believed that the job was easy. Only when I had my own children did I realize what a gentle hand she kept on the stick, and by “stick” I mean “the thing you use to steer an airplane.” Mom had no familiarity with any other kind of stick in the context of child rearing, as it never would have occurred to her to lay a hand on one of her children, or anyone for that matter.

She guided, not dictated. She was the kind of mother who let us walk the several blocks to kindergarten alone, or at least we think she did. I’ve often wondered whether she followed at a safe distance, peeking from behind fence posts and hedges like Inspector Clouseau.

And when my sister, Dia, and I used to climb to the very top of the catalpa tree that towered above our little house and swing back and forth like sugared up monkeys, Mom would calmly watch from the porch and wave to us. Only years later did she admit to me that she was terrified the entire time. So why did she let us do it? Because we needed to make our own decisions and learn from them, though admittedly that particular lesson would have been a bit painful.

She supported all of us – not just her kids – in everything we did. She worried terribly when we made bad or risky decisions, but her intervention almost always took the form of the gentle nudge. You all know, for example, that Halloween in Colorado can wreak havoc on a costume. There’s nothing worse than knocking on doors as a scary vampire wearing mittens and a coat. One year Dia wanted to go as Jeanie from I Dream of Jeanie. Mom tried to gently dissuade her, given that Jeanie rarely wore a parka and snow boots, but when Dia insisted Mom made her a costume. It was a fantastic thing, as all of her costume creations were, right down to the felt booties that curled at the toes like Jeanie’s shoes. Of course, the snow quickly dissolved her felt booties, turning Dia’s Jeanie costume into more of a Barefoot Countessa look.

Many of our childhood decisions had much higher stakes than what to wear on Halloween, but the same gentle touch always applied, and by the time we set out on our own we’d traded in our proverbial genie shoes for something a bit sturdier. I suspect that’s what made her such an exceptional dance teacher,too, and I’m sure it’s one of the many things that made her such a wonderful wife, sister, aunt, and friend.

Mom was humble to a fault. She was a pianist capable of teaching herself difficult pieces like “The Entertainer,” yet who swore she couldn’t play as well as Jennette. She was a wonderful artist and brilliant storyteller who insisted that I was the creative one.

Mom was one of the brightest people I’ve ever known, but in her estimation Dad and Bev were the smart ones. She was a true beauty, too, with twinkling blue eyes and a smile that radiated pure joy, but if you tried to flatter her she’d quickly deflect it by reminding you that Barbie was much prettier. Mom possessed so many gifts, but her greatest one was convincing each of us that we possessed even more. She was like a mirror that reflected back to us only the good.

She had an amazing sense of humor, too, and though her body betrayed her, her quick mind never did. When my kids and I visited a few months ago, the five of us sat in their living room. My father and I chatted about cars, airplanes, politics, air conditioners, whatever came to mind, while my kids busied themselves picking lint from their clothing and Mom stared quietly at the ceiling in the manner we all became accustomed to as her disease progressed. Eventually Dad invited me down to his shop to show me something, leaving Mom and her two grandkids where they sat. The door to the basement closed behind us, and Mom deadpanned to my kids, “Well, there go our talkers.”

Mom was not childish, but she loved children’s things. A complete room of her house is dedicated to her doll collection; an entire closet filled with children’s books. Her collection of Christmas decorations took weeks to put up each year, and she knew where each one belonged. She loved Christmas so much that she kept a tree up in her dining room year round, decorated with ornaments shaped like songbirds. Not too long ago I asked her what her favorite memory was. “Sledding with my brother,” she said, and she smiled at the memory. I think that’s why kids loved her so much – at heart she always remained one of them.

She loved flowers, particularly carnations, but before you accuse me of removing from Mom’s memory any hint of tarnish, let’s be honest: She had a brown thumb. My mother never met a plant she couldn’t kill. If the US Army had known of her defoliating skills, Vietnam may have had a different outcome. Discouraged after she sent every plant in the house to meet its maker, Dad bought her a plastic houseplant. Mom set it in a sunlit window and came back the following day to find it melted. No kidding: She even killed the plastic houseplants. But she loved flowers, she really did.

Mom loved music, too, and she maintained a mental catalog of songs for any occasion. The smallest thing – a name, a phrase, a place – would trigger her memory and she’d launch into song. It was a gift that I greatly admired, so much so at the end of one recent visit that I feared might be the last, I stole her act. Rather than say a goodbye that my lips refused to form, I hugged her and sang the next song to her. You might be having a hard time saying goodbye, too, and if so I encourage you to jump in and help Miss Vera with the chorus.

In closing, I’d like to extend my family’s deepest thanks for joining us today, though given that you are all my family, essentially I’m telling you to thank yourselves for being such kind, thoughtful people, and that’s exactly what Mom would have wanted you to do. Now go away and do the other things that Mom wanted us all to do: love and forgive and be kind to each other.

And on that note, there goes your talker. Thank you, and bye, Ma.


Categories: Memoir

11 replies »

  1. Wow! As tears flow, I am so moved by your words. I knew your mom a short time and loved every minute of it. Thank you for sharing such a precious moment and wonderful memories.


  2. James, many times in the years that I’ve known you I’ve thought to myself, after reading one of your pieces, “I wish I could have written that.” This eulogy for your mother so truly and meaningfully expresses your admiration, love and loss that I cried at the passing of such a wonderful person I never met. With the difficult relationship I had with my father, I only recognized his love as I was saying goodbye. You had the great fortune to have known it all your life. You are blessed to have been born to such a marvelous mother, and she was blessed to have a son who reflects the best parts of her.


    • I know James will be uncomfortable with this but this reads like a Franzen novel. Take your pic of good literary authors and insert here, ‘this is like ____”. It’s unique to him but resonates with those shared experiences that make great storytelling. Plus, in this case, even if for a short moment, brings up a want/need to check in with those close. It doesn’t get any better than this.


  3. Had to pause a few times to wipe my tears. How beautifully written. I’m in awe of the life she lived and her personality is very similar to my moms especially the song The Entertainer which was one of the songs my mom played on the piano. Your mom’s travel experience made me smile and especially the all year around Christmas tree,childrens things. My condolences and my heart goes out to you James.


  4. As I read this so many memories of my mom came rushing into my mind. Many loved ones lost her to cancer September 17, 2011 at 8:40pm. It was a Saturday. It wasn’t planned, but all of her immediate family just happened to be there then. We didn’t know it would happen that night, but I think maybe she decided it was time.
    Sometime before the cancer started to take its toll, when she could still communicate, I told her how lucky I was to have a mom like her, that I was very proud to be her son. A lot of people never get that chance, to say things, to be there. You and your family are among the truly blessed. And your words mean more than you know. My heart, thoughts and prayers are with you.


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