The Business of Death
The greatest mystery isn’t why my dad left. It’s what happened to him between 1985, when he vanished into the night, and 2000, when he sued me for control of my mother’s estate.
We know that mom tracked him down in Atlanta sometime around 1997. We believe that she always knew where he was. It’s even been suggested by some that she was somehow involved in my father’s wholesale robbery of the family business.
Whatever happened in 97 led to the sale of the family home in a wealthy suburb of DC. A mansion on a hill that had been languishing in the courts since dad left. It sold for close to a million, which my parents split between them.
I hadn’t spoken to mom since 1992, and only ended up with her estate because I was the next of kin. Following her suicide in August of 1999, I entered into probate hell. As always, with my parents, it took a battery of lawyers to try and piece together their complicated, distressed lives.
It took 15 months to settle mom’s accounts, and I spent most of that time crippled by nerve pain, writing notes to my lawyers who would come to my bedside like I was a dying man.
At first, everything appeared simple. Mom had sanitized her apartment. Sheets off the bed, everything cleaned. She had paid off all of her bills, and left her purse and vital documents on the kitchen table. She had converted her entire apartment into one, neat suicide note.
It seemed open and shut for the lawyers. Mom had no will, but dad’s status as a fugitive and the fact that he hadn’t been seen or heard from in 15 years meant there was no real question of me being the sole heir. The rest of my family, largely useless in the face of any serious trauma, stood idly by as I set to putting my mom’s life in order, and went about the business of her death. It’s times like that where I feel the most alone. Where I’m the most aware that I have to force a hug out of my family members. That we don’t ever touch each other, or treat each other well. How, for me, family has always been roughly akin to sharing a locked compartment with strangers. After a while you get to know them but, ultimately, it’s every one for themselves, all bent on escape.
It didn’t take long for the lawyers to scratch the surface and find the snakes writhing beneath. Everyone’s death reveals little surprises, but mom blew us away. The deeper the lawyers cut, the more horrors they found. The question came up of my mom’s complicity in my dad’s actions thanks to a box of heated letters between them in late 1985. A tape recording of my father’s lawyer and my father emerged, where the two carried on a casual phone conversation about how much they could steal from the company, and how they would shelter the money. My dad commits the crimes, and his lawyer will hide them, a man who had represented my family since 1949.
Mom had been recording dad’s phone calls, it appears, for some time.
Finally, there’s the house sale in 1997, and the mysteriously large sum of half a million landing, briefly, in mom’s bank account at the time.
What she did then was maybe what she had planned all along. For a brief time, she vanished. In an eerie parallel to my dad’s departure, she cleaned out all of her bank accounts and went to ground.
The last time anyone in the family saw her was when she arrived, announced, at my uncle’s house in New Mexico, winter of 97. She had bought a brand new car and was touring the country, she said. She stayed the night, but was tight-lipped about anything but the most basic information. She left early the next morning with a muttered good-bye and a half hearted wave as she took off down Route 66.
As far as the lawyers can figure, mom had gone across the country with half a million in cash and cashier’s checks. She greatly admired W.C. Fields, who infamously set up a bank account at every stop on his tours and deposited money under a false name. One of her pet hobbies was researching the lost accounts of Fields – estimated to be in the millions.
Of course, in the 90’s, setting up accounts under fake names wasn’t possible. The lawyers found most of her accounts — $1000 there, $3200 there, maybe ten or twelve spread across the country. They even managed to track down joint accounts that mom had set up with friends. They theorized that some accounts were set up directly under the friend’s names, with the purpose of hiding the money from my father and the government. A friend in San Francisco, the lawyers estimate, was sitting on over $100,000 of mom’s money. She sent a note to me after the funeral saying that she had donated ten books to the local library in my mother’s name.
By the time she died, she had about $116,000 left in her name.
The lawyers wanted to go after my mother’s girlfriend, but I intervened. The scent of the missing $400,000 had them in high form. If I wanted to take everyone to the mat, there was a chance I’d see more.
But the battle soon turned inward. As 1999 turned into 2000 and I lived and breathed my mom’s life through probate, surrounded by the boxes that contained her apartment, the papers that detailed her excesses, the dusty records of the demise of our family and our family’s company, I was getting tired. Defeated by my own physical pain and the overall emotional horror, I wanted to scramble out as quick as possible. Cut my losses and, like my dad and my mom, take everything I could and vanish.
But then the IRS descended on the estate. Mom owed taxes on the house sale. She had been dodging her income taxes for five years. She owed, with penalties included, roughly $80,000 to the IRS. The battle raged in the courts, where my lawyers attempted to absolve me and the estate of the debt. The IRS had no problems ignoring me, but they wouldn’t let the estate go.
And, then, my father reappeared. Or, at least, his lawyers. A suit was entered demanding that, after the IRS was through, everything go to him as the next of kin. Despite my mom’s claims to friends, she had never divorced my dad.
His reappearance was shocking. The man who stole millions, and who had vanished completely from my life for 15 years, was suing me for $36,000.
In the end, the courts threw out his lawsuit – a panel of three judges actually laughed at my dad’s lawyers after I took the stand and told my story through teeth clenched in pain. To overcome the nerve damage to the point where I could speak at length involved a series of drugs that my lawyer slipped me ten minutes before my testimony. Mainly oxycontin and muscle relaxants. Still, I delivered my story in a slurring agony, twitching whenever my lips moved and white-hot pain jabbed through my skull.
The IRS, though, could not be avoided. We tried to negotiate the payment, we played every pity card in the book, but they took their due.
I walked away with $36,000, a quarter of which went to 15 month’s worth of lawyer’s fees.
Then, in late 2001, when we had all been sobered by the events that September, my dad sent me an email. He apologized. He said he was in Atlanta. He wanted to talk. My greed drove me to reply. Visions of the millions he had stolen danced in my head. I felt entitled to that fortune. So I agreed to see him, going down to Atlanta in early 2002…