Fans who have read my latest book, Missing and Endangered, or a much earlier Ali novel, Fatal Error, have been made aware of the very real dangers lurking out there on the Internet. But there can be Internet blessings, too.
The daily group-grope emails that come from family members keep me in touch with far flung siblings, cousins and nieces, and they almost always put a smile on my face. Sometimes we share comics that tickle the funny bone, sometimes we fume over what’s going on in the outside world, sometimes we share memories of growing up in a large family, and more often than not we infect each other with one person’s current and very annoying ear worm. It’s like going to a mini family reunion each morning before breakfast but with the added benefit of no cameras and no mosquitoes.
This morning, though I’d like to share another Internet blessing, a very personal one, that—at this point, is only a few months old. It’s something a very small group of us call the Circle.
I’ve mentioned before that over years of doing personal appearances some of my fans have moved from the fan column to the friend column. Two such women—Janice and Valerie—are from Tucson. They’re the actual fans, but in the past their husbands, Frank and Ted, always came along to book signings as well. While I was busy signing books, Ted and Frank would chat with Bill. We’re all “of an age,” and I always appreciated having those two guys pay attention to Bill rather than leaving him sitting in splendid isolation in the corner of some room. As for the women? Janice is an inveterate collector of all things J.A. Jance—signed books, posters, bookmarks, newspaper clippings, etc. And there isn’t a single holiday that passes without Valerie sending me a lovely Jacquie Lawson greeting card.
Last fall, I’m not sure when, I received separate emails from both Janice and Valerie. It seems that both Ted and Frank were dealing with serious non-Covid related health issues. Both men had been hospitalized and were being treated in facilities their wives were unable to visit. Both women were stuck at home, tossing and turning; worrying and fretting. Although they may have been at the same event and in the same room together on occasion, most likely at the Tucson Festival of Books, Janice and Valerie had never met, but they were both living through very similar versions of hell.
Their emails to me came in, days apart, and of course I answered them at once, but somehow simply answering just didn’t do it for me. After a bit of time passed, I did what my mother, Evie, would have done and stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong. Longtime readers of my blog have heard a good deal about Evie Busk over the years. My mother wasn’t particularly good at minding her own business, and neither is her daughter. Whenever I start coloring outside the lines, Bill always shakes his head and says, “You’re Evieing it again.”
And Evieing It is exactly what I used as the subject line of the email I sat down and wrote to both Valerie and Janice, introducing them to one another and suggesting that, due to their strikingly similar situations and physical proximity, maybe they should consider being friends. In a world seemingly focused on all Covid all the time, they were both dealing with spouses with equally serious non-Covid issues. I thought that knowing there was someone else stuck in similar circumstances might be of help. In addition it didn’t hurt that they were both diehard fans of mine.
It turns out my little bit of Internet matchmaking worked, and thus the Circle was born. Since they replied to one another by hitting the reply-all button, I was able to see each of their messages and ended up up being included in their blossoming on-line friendship. We learned a lot about each other in the process. My perception of them was that both couples had been married forever. With Ted and Valerie, that’s pretty much true. They met doing computer dating in 1966! I’m trying to figure out exactly how that worked and wondering if they turned up on their first date carrying matching punch cards. Janice and I had both had unfortunate first marriages. Janice followed her first bad one with two good ones, and one of her weddings was on a reality TV program. I don’t know all the gory details about that either.
Over time we realized that we’re women of much the same age with husbands whose health situations are more precarious than our own. In the process of getting to know one another and sharing our concerns about that, our Circle correspondence turned out to be as much of a help to me as it was to them.
Then November came along, bringing with it a heartbreaking email from Michelle, a fan I had never met who lives somewhere in rural Texas. After a dental visit in October where oral cancer of some kind was discovered, her husband, also named Ted, was referred to an oncologist who scheduled him for immediate surgery. With the surgery over, he was sent to a rehab facility where he came down with … you guessed it … Covid. Michelle’s email was a desperate cry for help. Here she was, facing this awful crisis all alone while living on a small ranch, miles away from the facilities where Ted was being treated, and with no kids or relatives anywhere nearby to help. What to do?
Growing up, my folks had a round oak pedestal dining room table. The truly magic thing about round tables is this—there’s always room for one more. And so our Circle—that small email support group with Judy, Janice, and Valerie—expanded to include one more, Michelle. At first she kept referring to me as Ms. Jance. I finally convinced her that as far as the Circle was concerned, Judy would do just fine.
For months now, we’ve kept each other in our thoughts and prayers. Our notes back and forth haven’t just been about health issues. We’ve talked about things going on in our lives, and it turns out we have a lot in common. A discussion of hobbies means that Valerie now has one of Bill’s oil paintings—one featuring one of our bright prink roses—hanging in her Tucson home. We learned that before the pandemic,Ted and Valerie and Janice and Frank had often eaten at the same Tuscon-based casino without ever having actually met. It turns out Michelle, too, has a favorite nearby casino where she can find respite, camaraderie, and comfort.
In our emails, as we followed updates on Texas Ted’s condition, we also discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly of getting older. We’ve talked about pets. Janice and I are into dogs. Janice and Frank have a recently rescued canine named Benji. Michelle favors kitties. We’ve discussed plumbing issues—problems with broken pipes, non-working pumps, and inside water leaks. While attempting to replace a smoke-alarm battery in the middle of the night a week or so ago, Tucson Ted missed the last step on a ladder and landed on Valerie. Neither of them was seriously injured, but Janice and I both chimed in touting on the soothing magic of Arnica when it comes to painful bruising. And it turns out aging parents aren’t the only ones with health issues. During this time Ted and Valerie’s son in Colorado also had a scary non-Covid hospital encounter.
Eventually both Tucson Ted and Frank recuperated enough to come home, but all the while, Michelle—the hero of the piece—continued to wage her lonely battle. With Ted being moved from facility to facility far from home, she sometimes drove up to three hundred miles a day, just to catch a glimpse of her husband through the window of his room. She sometimes made those solo journeys on rural roads in terrible weather conditions. Does anyone remember what winter was like in Texas this past January and February? On one of those drives, she ended up spinning out. She wasn’t hurt, but her vehicle was totaled.
Two weeks ago, Ted’s doctors in Texas were talking about releasing him from his most recent rehab facility. Michelle was concerned about that because, the last time he had been sent home from a hospital he hadn’t been ready and had to be rushed back by ambulance a day or so later. Then a week ago, with his proposed release date only a day or so away, a late-night call came from the hospital telling Michelle that Ted was gone. It was days after learning of his death before she was finally able to speak to one of his nurses. She said that Ted had been doing well and chatting with his night nurse earlier in the evening. An hour or so later he was found to be unresponsive. The doctors say that it’s likely that he suffered a stroke while sleeping and simply passed away. At that point, all of Ted’s personal effects had gone missing. That same caring nurse went searching for them. Eventually she found them stacked on a wheelchair and tucked away in a closet. She was the one who made certain they were returned.
So now Michelle is dealing with all the aftermath of Ted’s final illness—starting with filling out all the necessary paperwork, sorting through files, and making arrangements to sell their home. Ted’s son is currently visiting from out of town to help her. Both Janice and I have some experience with the death of a spouse, but at this point the other members of the Circle are making sure our affairs are in order.
Of the four of us, I’m the only one who ever knew my mother. I’ve met both Janice and Valerie. Although they live only a matter of miles apart in Tucson, vaccine considerations mean that they have not yet met in person, and none of the three of us have ever laid eyes on Michelle. Nonetheless, we know her and care for her, and we’re all grieving for her. Wherever she ends up, she’ll have the Circle lingering in the background and cheering her on.
My mother never in her life sent a single email or signed up for Facebook, but with the Circle, Evie Busk definitely has an on-line presence, and I’m pretty sure she would have put her personal stamp of approval on our little Circle.
And it turns out there are times when my Evieing it can be a real blessing.