By Max R. Weller
In 1988, my mother — Mildred Nelson Weller — was diagnosed with diabetes. She was 65 years of age at the time, and still teaching elementary grades in a small school district in Missouri.
She had first gotten an emergency teaching certificate in Kansas in 1944, in the midst of World War II, and would continue with the profession she loved until 1992, when she was almost 70. She raised her two sons alone from the time my dad died in 1961, when my older brother was 11 and I was only 4. My mom was an accomplished gardener, and we always enjoyed a bounty of fresh produce grown in our backyard in Lexington, MO. For a few years we also raised chickens, but passage of a city ordinance prohibiting “farm animals” inside the city limits ended that practice sometime in the late ’60s (if memory serves). Mom was also a true green-thumbed wizard with houseplants. And a very good cook, too. Even though we struggled to make ends meet, I have fond memories of my childhood. I would always share the family home with her, being a confirmed bachelor, although I spent some time away at the Nelson family farm in Kansas (I owned an undivided 1/3 interest in it) until it was sold off in 1990 due to my uncle’s debilitating illness and subsequent move into a nursing home in Wichita.
After her diagnosis with diabetes in ’88, my mom’s health began to slowly decline. One complication after another of that insidious disease took their toll, although she never was one to complain about physical suffering. By the year 2000, Mom had congestive heart failure, partial kidney failure, and she was almost blind. She was hospitalized on three occasions during the first half of that year, and the last time underwent a period of recuperation afterwards in a local nursing home. This latter experience did not set well with her, and when she came back to our home she made me promise, no matter what, that I wouldn’t ever send or allow her to be sent to such a place again. She went on to insist that she didn’t wish to be hospitalized again, either. I protested that it would probably be necessary to save her life. Then, she gently but firmly reminded me of how she had cared for her own father, my grandfather R.C. Nelson, at home on the farm in Kansas for several years before his death in 1948. Mom said to me, “I know I’m going to pass on soon, and I don’t want it to be in any hospital!” Seeing the earnest expression on the face of one I loved so much, I agreed to respect her wishes and care for her in our home.
It was breaking my heart, even as I learned how to help her bathe, go to the toilet, and do all of the other little things that the able-bodied take for granted on a daily basis. And I’d been unable to work since about ’97 because of circulatory problems in both legs and recurring bouts of gout, which caused me to fall into a state of mind I would learn years later is termed clinical depression. Unfortunately, I self-medicated both my gout and my black mood with generous amounts of Jim Beam; of course, that only made things worse. I don’t remember very much that happened in either ’97 or ’98, but I can remember details of my childhood from as early as age 4. Anyway, I sobered up in a hurry when it became my job to care for my mom during this end stage of her life.
It’s important to note that we were isolated from people in Lexington, MO who had been friends for many years, and I guess that was simply a function of the stress we felt and the desire to be left alone above all else. We never spoke to the neighbors, especially not to the ill-tempered older couple living next door to the east. All that we had was each other, and no hopes for any brighter future.
During this period of a few months, right up until Mom died on February 5th of 2001, she remained lucid and took the opportunity to tell me many stories from her own childhood on the farm. Most I’d heard before, but I enjoyed them all over again. The morning that I awakened and went into her bedroom to begin our day, but found instead that she was gone from here forever, was like a door slamming shut in my soul.
I did nothing at all for several days, except for feeding our housecats and otherwise tending to them. There was no one I wanted to reach out to for help; what would have been the point? I hoped that Mom had gone to a Good Place, but at least her suffering was finally over if our fate is to be nothingness. I felt nothing at all, least of all did I have any concern for the body; that wasn’t Mom any longer, only an empty shell. I returned to drinking within days. At times in the next year-and-a-half I would go into her room and try to remember a particular event from happier times, but it seldom relieved my grief.
I knew that there would not be any money to keep paying utility bills, buy food and other necessities, pay property taxes, etc. indefinitely. I wasn’t working, her life savings had been spent, my farm sale savings had been spent, I’d sold my collection of firearms and my Ford Ranger pickup and likewise spent the proceeds, and the only income at that point was Mom’s monthly Social Security benefit of about $500 going into her checking account by direct deposit. As I’d been doing for the last few months of her life, I continued writing checks on her account and signing her name to them. This, of course, was the crime of Forgery in Missouri, a Class C felony carrying a maximum sentence of 7 years in the Department of Corrections. Failing to report her death was the crime of Abandonment of a Corpse, a Class D felony with a maximum sentence of 5 years.
I couldn’t pay the property taxes due for 2000 and I couldn’t pay them for 2001, either. Eventually, I knew, the property would wind up being sold at auction on the Lafayette County Courthouse steps for these tax arrears. I figured it wouldn’t matter, that I’d be dead before then. As the months went by, however, I wasn’t dying from Jim Beam as I’d wished to do. So, in August of 2002, I took the necessary $$$ from my mom’s account and purchased a Walther P22 — an inexpensive but serviceable handgun for the purpose of ending my life. I was very slowly working up the nerve to do so, when my plan was thwarted by my arrest on September 30th of 2002.
Because I’d let grass and weeds grow up in our yard, and nobody ever responded to knocks at our front door by city officials, Lexington Police Captain Mark Lamphier began to consider what this might mean. His conclusion was quite correct: my mom had died some time before, I hadn’t reported her death, and I was on the verge of joining her by my own hand.
While being held in Lafayette County Jail that Fall, I gave written authorization for my mom’s remains to be cremated and the urn containing her ashes was buried in the plot next to my dad, which she’d purchased back in 1961.
Cutting to the chase, I pleaded guilty to multiple counts of Forgery and the one count of Abandonment of a Corpse in December 0f 2002. On February 3rd of 2003, Circuit Judge Dennis Rolf sentenced me to 5 years in Missouri DOC on all counts, to be served concurrently. There was no psychiatric evaluation requested by either the Prosecutor or the Public Defender in my case, nor was one ordered by the Court on its own motion. In retrospect, it was a rush to judgment — but I didn’t care at the time. What did I have to live for? The lyric by Kris Kristofferson kept coming to my mind, “Freedom’s just another word/For nothin’ left to lose.” Judge Rolf could not order me to pay restitution as well as serve time in prison; under Missouri law it’s one or the other, but not both.
From prison during 2003, I started the process of selling the family home. Every penny I received from the auction of both real and personal property went directly to the Social Security Administration as restitution for my theft of mom’s benefits after her death. The feds never expressed any interest in their own prosecution in my case. To the contrary, during my interview by SSA inspectors general on September 30th of 2002, it was made clear that their only concern was financial restitution. I was grateful for this favor, and did what I could to set things right.
In the minds of many, of course, I can never set things right. One anonymous individual online at the Daily Camera has even likened me to Charles Manson.
Judge for yourself.