Warning: Profanity has its place to convey the emotion and gravity of a situation. I use it in this piece.
What is the lead of this story? I don’t want to bury the lead.
Is it JoAnn dropping into a coma? JoAnn slowly crawling out of a coma?
Deciding to miss my nephew’s wedding… the first in his generation to marry?
The Delta ticket agent who reversed my check in so I could decide not to fly from Ketchikan to Salt Lake City. That she left the gate to find me to give me additional info to help me decide?
The last moment conversation with my Dad who gave me the guidance I needed to make the right decision, or perhaps the lead is sitting by a pool with 21-year old Trevor while he tries to understand what a non-member, non-believer is doing coming to dinner and being such close friends with his fiancée.
Or the arrogant resident told us they pulled JoAnn off steroids too early causing her brain to swell plunging JoAnn into a coma, and dashing my hopes when he would not make eye contact with me while saying that people in JoAnn’s situation do come out of coma, inferring that they can, but it is unlikely.
The lead could be the young man with the yellow, stegosaurus Mohawk, no ears and a small, elegant piece of stainless steel protruding from his skull, but his story will probably tie all of this together and is best used to go out on.
Science-fiction writer Roger Zelasny wrote that one should never give background, no set up. Dive into the story. The background will fill in.
‘‘I’ve reversed your check-in. You can decide to fly until twenty-one minutes before departure.’’ The ticket agent followed, ‘‘I’m so sorry to hear about your friend.’’ When I returned to desk a many minutes and a few texts with Michelle later, her eyes welled up when she saw me.
‘‘Don’t you cry, too.’’ But she didn’t acknowledge the tears.
My dad had warned that by booking a flight this long after Jo Ann’s diagnosis, I might be too late.
The neuro doctor fiddle-fucked around proving the adage that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I knew the symptoms, numbness on one side of the body that climbed from toe to head over a period of time crossing vertebrae boundaries was brain, not nerves. JoAnn and I talked about that, but her doctor was sure, despite all the negative tests that it was a peripheral nerve issue, until as part of a peripheral nerve test, they ran an a nuclear-medicine scan.
The news arrived by text in eleven words on my cell phone: ‘‘When you get phone service call. I have a brain tumor.’’
I hear the words on the screen with JoAnn’s there-is-never-bad-news, everything-is-easily-conquered voice laughing, as I read them. But is that the tone in which she wrote it? JoAnn does not use emojis.
The earliest conversation I remember with JoAnn, can’t be the earliest. I have always known her (always being from when, 1990, when I released TMS EXPRESS, or maybe 1991, when I released Atan EXPRESS).
The earliest conversation I remember was in 2006. JoAnn was walking with John Barry at Nexpo in Orlando in the hotel restaurant. I had been gone from the industry for four years working on Sophia’s, my only consumer-based start up. I asked her a leading question, to which JoAnn replied that she was going to work with John Barry at Brainworks.
It was an odd place for JoAnn to work. The corporate culture is very different. Brainworks is a decidedly Long Island company owned and run by a decidedly Long Island John Barry. JoAnn had been COO of DTI a very decidedly Salt Late City, Latter Day Saints company, and North American President of Atex a large corporation, generally targeted at building its value while tottering on the perennial edge of bankruptcy.
JoAnn and I spoke. I asked what was she doing with Brainworks. She laughed as she always did and said something positive, ambiguous and full of promise.
Jennifer and I were sitting in a booth with David Bessen. Jennifer had just characterized a job candidate I was pitching to David as ‘‘bat-shit crazy.’’
JoAnn and I had a familiarity in our conversation that tells me we knew each other, but I can remember no conversation before this one. I have what I think of as trauma amnesia. I can never remember conversations surrounding emotionally traumatic events. JoAnn’s sudden descent into a coma is an emotionally traumatic event.
On a 2012 trip together in Baltimore, JoAnn would ask me why in the early nineties when I was working the JJCS booth, I never came over to say hi, or joined them for dinner at DTI. I had no real answer, but JoAnn knew who I was in the early nineties.
Perhaps she knew who I was because Don Oldham, one of the principals in DTI, had called me in 1992 to ask about our product line. I was thirty-eight at the time. Ed Hubbard remembers the call and Don’s comments about our products. Unbeknownst to us, we were on the industry’s radar… two guys working in a basement in unincorporated Dekalb County Georgia.
I think of our friendship as starting in Europe at an IFRA, in Vienna. It was a late trade show. The newspaper industry shrinkage was in full swing. The stand I worked at was just a platform: no conference rooms, no towering background. JoAnn came to the stand, standing in the aisle. She would not step into the stand. We walked the aisles.
She was North American President of Eidos Media, then. She ran everything: administration , budgeting, operations, and most of all sales.
A ‘‘career sale’’ is a sale like the Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. To have made one is to have had a successful carerr. In three years at Eidos, JoAnn made multi-million dollar sales to the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe.
Perhaps I landed on JoAnn’s radar at the Boston Globe. By then, in 2009, I had taken on North American sales at Tera, in addition to managing worldwide marketing and reseller relations. The owner, Michele, was sick of Tera and wanted to get it sold.
For me, it was a great time to be alive. The day started at 4.30 am and general ended at 9.30 or ten that evening. I could catch Asia before they went home and speak to them in the morning when they returned.
Eidos was going to win the editorial system at the Boston Globe for about three times the price of the system I was selling. We had features that the Eidos product did not. I sent Wade Sendall a FedEx letter explaining our value proposition and feature set.
We set up a remote demo while Laura, Michele and I were in Florida at yet another Nexpo.
We didn’t have very good demos, given the quality of the product, but we did our best.
We eventually lost to Eidos.
In Baltimore, in 2012, JoAnn would teach me about selling by telling me about her response to the havoc we wrecked in her sales effort: she put six people on site at the Boston Globe for two weeks. But I knew none of this then, just that we’d lost.
Somewhere in here, Tera was purchased by Miles 33, I lost the Digital First Media sale to Saxotech – a company I had helped bring to the states in the middle 90s – and Miles dropped me like a stone (only to contract with me again four years later).
I started to stop by JoAnn’s office in the financial district in Manhattan. I don’t know why, and I can’t really remember what we spoke about.
JoAnn’s daughter Sheri was working with her then. Did I meet Sheri in that office?
By 2011, I started the last of my ill-fated startups. I gathered some of the cream of the newspapers and magazine industry. All of use over fifty, all of us unhireable: Dan Boucher, former publisher of Long Island’s Buy-Lines among others. John Iobst, former head technologist of the Newspaper Association of America, Sue Schmitt, former managing editor of the Torrance Breeze, and David Bessen former CTO to Dean Singleton to start a consulting business. There was no business to be had for even a team of this caliber.
As we were moving the company, JJCS, from consulting to products, JoAnn called one day with an unbelievable request: Could she join us?
Well, hell, yeah. But JoAnn sold very large systems, while our product, JReporter, was a very small system.
JoAnn and I road tripped for a couple of weeks starting in New York at the Wall Street Journal and working her and my contacts.
This is the start of my friendship with JoAnn as I know her now.
We travelled by rail, pricelined hotel rooms and stayed with my family on Long Island where I grew up. I stayed at my Dad’s and JoAnn stayed with my brother Vin and his partner Sharon’s house in Miller Place.
JoAnn visited with my Dad, saw his model airplane collection and shop, and would have gone model airplane flying, if the weather had cooperated.
Dad took us all to a Mexican restaurant with terrible service that was only matched by the terrible food. He was his very loud, very voluble self, telling stories, laughing loudly and being who he is. JoAnn has the social skills of good salesperson and the evaluating eye of the multi-time CEO. I would only learn what she thought of my dad from her daughters as she lay in a quiet coma at Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City a few days ago.
On this trip, JoAnn and I started to talk and I would learn that part of her history she would share and stay continually confused about which daughter was which.
That history generally started about six hours before she met her husband, with hints here and there when she would tell me she was wild when she was young in Utah.
After the text that shook the earth on its axis, JoAnn and I spoke. We had been speaking regularly, there was a reminder on my calendar to call her every six weeks, as the numbness that started in her right leg spread upwards, invalidating any spinal nerve theory. ‘‘There’s no pain,’’ JoAnn would say. ‘‘No one can explain why there is no pain.’’
When JoAnn and I spoke after her text, she knew this was fatal. It was not operable. We discussed her plans for the future: DNR, finalizing her will, dropping her step children from her will – It was a decision that gave her no pleasure but had the earmarks of senior management making the proper decision.
After she had ended her relationship with Eidos, she had for the first time started becoming an actual part of the geographic community she lived in. She had previously, as I understood it, been a woman one waved to, who spent her time away.
It is a place, as JoAnn would explain, but not in the PC gentle words that I will explain, where genders have roles and responsibilities.
She found she loved her role as grandmother, but was cautious about building any organization or taking a management role – an effort she would ultimately fail at, or so it seems.
Building something was a difficult habit to restrain. JoAnn to my surprise is a couturier and had sewing machines and sergers littering the world in apartments she kept across Europe.
Teaching one granddaughter to sew expanded into lessons for neighborhood kids, which expanded into scheduled lessons and sessions… before a retreat from a burgeoning enterprise with an eleven-year old as a business partner.
On our road trip visit to the Washington Post, JoAnn called the publisher, Katharine Bouchage Weymouth, Katherine Graham’s granddaughter, who took JoAnn’s call and set up a meeting with the CIO – who spent our time together telling us how he singlehandedly oversaw the implementation of an online system that almost sunk the retail chain Sears. We wondered how he managed to get this job, and why he would tell anyone this.
[We eventually did meet with someone with her head screwed on right, who paid us a number of complements, some backhanded, but it was a start.]
We stayed in Baltimore at harbor and spent an afternoon and into the evening with JoAnn telling me about herself.
As a young woman she moved to LA and lived with her daughter at her sisters. She portrayed herself as a beach bunny working in the printing industry and taking on more and more responsibility, and then she met her husband.
I’ve never had a good handle on when her husband died. They’d had three children together, and he’d been the reason she’d moved back to Utah.
He was Catholic, but found he loved Utah: its outdoor life and skiing.
But it put JoAnn back with Mormons. She was clear to me that she would not have returned except that her husband wanted to live in Utah.
As we walked around the Baltimore Harbor, JoAnn painted a picture of her life and her view of herself and her life decisions.
After the text message, I would get an idea about the parts of her story that were left out: JoAnn never mentioned that her husband had been married before or that he had other children.
While her business life history was complete, her personal story always seemed to start about six hours before she met her husband.
During that first conversation after the text, I told JoAnn I would fly down to see her. She didn’t protest, which told me how bad this was. She said, Okay.
On May 18th, I texted JoAnn that I would fly to SLC on the 20th of June. It would mean missing my nephew’s wedding, but it is the only way the logistics would hang together. She replied, ‘‘Wonderful.’’
My Dad, who has been right and given the correct advice each time I’ve asked, suggested that this might be too far in the future. I figured one month would be okay.
Depending on your view, he might have been right.
On Sunday June 19th, we motored 60 miles to reach Ketchikan so I could fly out Monday.
JoAnn dropped into a coma while we were motoring.
Michele Smith, the third of the four daughters, started texting me, asking whether I should make the trip.
JoAnn was unresponsive in a coma. Michelle and I spoke on Sunday. It was difficult for the daughters to get medical people to respond.
After the procedure to gather a sample of JoAnn’s tumor, JoAnn’s medical team left the incision – hole in her skull open, while they waited for the biopsy report. When they learned that the cancer was brain cancer, rather than metastasized breast cancer, they burned some of the tumor with a laser. They then put her on very large doses of steroids to keep her brain from swelling.
Over a period of weeks, the amount of steroids was slowly dropped. Jo Ann was alert, engaged, and was discharged from the hospital a week or so before my flight.
It was several days before after the biopsy before her oncologist confirmed the fatal diagnosis. JoAnn was not herself for a few days, then, to use corporate nomenclature, had a ‘‘come to Jesus’’ meeting with herself. She returned to the JoAnn everyone knows: She had a made a decision to work hard on rehab in the time she had left.
When I spoke with Michele at the hospital in Salt Lake, she said JoAnn lifted her right, numbed arm over head when she announced her decision.
Flying to Salt Lake was still in the future.
When we arrived in Ketchikan on Sunday afternoon there was no open slip at the Ketchikan Yacht club. We took a slip one dock away that had faulty power.
Monday morning we moved Caro Babbo to an available slip at the yacht. I showered, shaved off my beard, put on a sincere-blue suit over a T-Shirt and a wool sweater, tied on leather dress shoes and walked with Jennifer and Hilary to the Green Line bus stop in front of Diaz’s Café.
I asked the bus driver if he would stop at the airport for me, it is a request-only stop. I was so preoccupied he needed to remind me to pay my fare.
By the time I reached the airport, Michele and I had been texting. JoAnn had been moved to Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City. But, she was still unresponsive. Michelle asked whether I still wanted to come.
I didn’t know. I felt certain there was no JoAnn left. What was the point?
I stopped at the Delta desk and asked the woman working the counter how late I could decide to take my trip, and if I did not, would I get any of my money back? It sounds as if the money came into the decision, and I suppose it did, but the airfare was less that half of the total trip cost.
The young woman said I would get my airfare as a credit minus the $200 change fee. Had I checked in? She reversed my check in and told me I could wait until 21 minutes before departure to make a decision.
There were a couple of chairs outside a secure window into the snack on the ‘‘sterile’’ side of security. I could wait there while I made my decision.
Two weeks earlier, my nephew Nick, the one who got married the day before I was at the airport, skyped with me about staying at the house in Phoenix.
His wedding came up, ‘‘you’re coming, right?’’ The disappointment was painful to watch when I said, ‘‘No.’’
I’ve never understood why my attendance at anything is important to people. I’m just me. I don’t ever see myself as important to anyone. I try to be the best friend or relative I can be, but I never comprehend that I am important to anyone.
I see my friends and relatives because I want to see them. I am always surprised that anyone ever wants to see me.
I did not give Nick an explanation why I wouldn’t be there.
As I was preparing to leave Monday, Jennifer implored me to tell him. Jennifer believes I am the uncle on my side of the family he is closest to, certainly the one with which he has conversations he has with no one else in the family… and the only one who sincerely believes that as a graduate of West Point, his profession is killing people – and has told him that.
Jennifer’s point is that there was reason I didn’t attend. That there are priorities in one’s life and loyalty and support to be given to people one cares for.
Nick should know why I wasn’t there and the decisions one makes in one’s life and why.
I don’t know whether he’ll read this before he and I speak. He and Anna should be on a honeymoon trip to India as this is published.
Michelle and I texted, and spoke, and I vacillated. If JoAnn was no longer there, what was the point?
Jennifer asked whether it was important to me to meet here family? Would they be upset if I did not show?
It wasn’t important to me to meet her family. JoAnn and I were close. I didn’t know her family and couldn’t conceive of the idea that they might care.
Michelle was wonderful but provided no guidance, or indication whether anyone cared whether I showed up. I wondered whether they might prefer I not show up. I’m not family, just an interloper, is what I said to Jennifer.
The Delta agent came up to where I was working the phone. I ended the call with Jennifer.
She asked if I had any baggage to check. I said no, and thanked her multiple times for taking care of me.
At forty minutes before departure, I was leaning towards not going and speaking with Jennifer on the phone.
I finally said, ‘‘Let me speak with my Dad.’’
I called his home number and he answered.
Nick’s wedding had gone well. There was no religion involved. If my dad was surprised, he didn’t show it. He had just gotten home a little while before I called. Long Island is four hours ahead.
I asked what he thought I should do.
When I wrote in the Caro Babbo blog that a friend had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, he had guessed it was JoAnn.
We chatted back and forth. I told him I thought I might have been the first person JoAnn contacted. His answer became unequivocal, ‘‘If you play that role in her life, then you must go. Her family will want you to be there.’’
I texted Michelle saying I would arrive at SLC at 9.05pm SLC time, then walked down the stairs to the agent, whose eyes welled up when I told her I was going. I tried to make light and said, ‘‘Now don’t you cry, too.’’
I don’t always take my Dad’s advice. When it has the ring of truth, I follow. I must also admit, there comes a time when a decision must just be made.
Air travel is the only time I completely relax. I put myself in the hands of the airline, which will get me to my destination. Any worry or displeasure is unwarranted. I reverted to my business traveller self.
At Ketchikan, there is no jetway. One walks along a ribboned walkway with a uniformed airline employee at each turn. Each was a twenty-something-appearing young woman.
The first woman wished me a wonderful journey. I replied, ‘‘Thank you, Ma’am.’’
She said with some alarm, ‘‘Ma’am?!’’
I said, ‘‘I’m from Atlanta. I can’t help it. You’re over twenty-one, right.’’
She said, ‘‘I’m thirty-five! <smile> I was just in Atlanta last week.’’ We spoke for a few moments and I continued on.
The next woman said something playful after watching me interact with colleague. I asked about the large dark tattoo on the inside of her right forearm. She laughed, embarrassed, and held it tight against her body and rolled down her sleave.
I walked the rest of the way, climbed the stairs, gave my jacket to the flight attendant and sat down. On business travel, once I go through security, all worries are gone. Whatever presentations or other tasks I have been working on are as done as they will be. No more work will be done.
Here the decision was made, I was on my way to see JoAnn, whatever state she was in. I would meet her daughters, and I had one other appointment in Salt Lake.
Brandy Taylor was marrying Tevor Gaeldner. That I was visiting a friend at the end of her life and seeing a young couple at the beginning of their life together was something I thought about.
Sister Taylor and Hermana McCollip used to give Jennifer and me a one-hour break from Hilary when we were in Phoenix. Jennifer and I had never been more the 30 feet from Hilary since she came to live us with many months earlier.
My life had begun to fill with Mormons.
Jennifer and I refused to call 19-year olds sister and elder and rebelled at the idea that boys were elders while girls were merely sisters. But the young women we met were sincere, wonderfully nice people who felt no need to proselytize, or were bothered that all three of us are non-believers.
In a conversation with Taylor, as I called her then, I said that Mormons marry so young because they have normal sex drives and in a society that forbids sex outside of marriage, they have to get married at that age.
She repeated my words to someone else in a conversation with me present, which I interpreted to mean she would at the least not get married anytime soon.
Brandy and I stayed in touch, speaking when we can, writing and saw each other once in some airport when were there at the same time.
I called her when she posted a facebook photo wearing an engagement ring. No long engagement, she and Trevor were marrying August 6th. They had met during their missions and were each living in Salt Lake City.
My Ketchikan flight dropped me in Seattle for the connection to SLC. The man working the desk at the Amex lounge greeted me by name. I called Jennifer, but did not call Michelle. Michelle and I had said all there was to be said until I saw her Tuesday morning.
I can’t remember exactly when I arrived at the hospital, sometime around 11 the next morning. Michelle and I had back and forth texts and calls about when I should show up. She had been warning me that I might not get much time with JoAnn. At some point, she finally said, ‘‘just come.’’
Walking into the lounge outside ICU a younger, taller JoAnn with the same haircut looked at me and said, ‘‘I don’t look a thing like her, do I?’’
Sheri greeted me with a hug. I realized we’d met before and said so. Sheri introduced me to Michelle who was standing near by talking on the phone. Michelle’s youngest child couldn’t understand that there was nothing she could do to heal JoAnn.
Michelle and Sheri led me to JoAnn’s room.
When I walked in JoAnn turned, looked at me, opened her eyes wide and made a long vocal sound. It was the largest sound she had made since dropping in the coma.
I held her hand and stood by her bed for a couple of hours. Eventually asking the daughters whether I could kiss their mother, which I did: left cheek, forehead, right cheek. Had I ever kissed JoAnn before? I don’t know. I suspect I must have.
Where everyone seems to speak with someone who has a severe illness as if they are a child, I speak with everyone the same as I always have no matter what changes have befallen them. I don’t know if it is the right way, but it is how I do it.
The four daughters had been sleeping in JoAnn’s hospital room like a sleep over. JoAnn’s facial imprint is all over each of them. JoAnn’s speech pattern shows up here and there, or is it just the local SLC accent?
The confusion of who’s who faded as we spoke.
End of part one.