Tribute to Florence Wendland
I called my client, Florence Wendland, who died in 2006 at the age of 83, “Mom.” My own mother knew that and did not object to my bestowing that term of endearment upon another woman. Perhaps it does not seem appropriate for a lawyer to bestow such an intimate nickname upon a client within the bounds of a professional relationship. But we spent six long years fighting side by side to prevent her cherished son, Robert, from being dehydrated. And she came to be like a surrogate mother to me.
She was an amazing woman, completely devoted to her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and friends. She modeled unconditional love, support, encouragement, and enthusiasm. She never once believed that she would lose her battle to save Robert. She never once let me get discouraged, even though it was my job to keep her spirits up.
A weaker person would have given up. After all, even though Robert was not in a coma, persistent vegetative state or suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, he suffered a evere brain injury. And it had to be devastating for her to see her once strong, healthy, 40-something-year-old, hard-drinking, hard-working son sitting in a wheelchair unable to speak, paralyzed on one side, blind in one eye, wearing a diaper . . . while everyone involved in the case attempted to figure out just how much of what was going on around him he actually understood. But if you had seen Florence interacting with Robert, you would never have known it. Because she was the epitome of the person who sees the glass half full rather than half empty.
That was her baby boy, her first-born, her beloved son in that wheelchair — and she never let anyone, especially Robert, forget it.
You couldn’t help but love a woman who would answer the phone and, at the sound of your voice inquire, “How are you, dearie?” You couldn’t help but hug her back when she greeted you in person, perched up on her tiptoes, with a big hug.
You couldn’t help but admire and be astonished by a woman in her 70’s who determinedly sat in a courtroom day after day through an exhaustively protracted trial, listening to people talk about how her beloved boy would be better off dead. She endured shockingly spiteful testimony from another son, Michael Hofer, and her granddaughter, Katie Wendland, both of whom shunned her. Remarkably, she turned the other cheek, talked about how much she loved both of them, and proclaimed that her door would be wide open to them should they decide to come visit and set things right in their relationship with her.
When I read Hofer’s name among the survivors listed in her obituary, I wondered if he or any of Robert’s three children ever did set things right with Florence before she left this earth. If they didn’t, they will have to live with their choice. And from my perspective, they are the unequivocal losers.
Florence had a deep, unwavering faith in God. She wasn’t overbearing about it and she did not make it a habit to preach to others. She just lived a quiet life that exemplified her beliefs.
She spent extensive time at the hospital with Robert, reading him devotionals, Bible stories, and singing familiar hymns to him. She related that she’d tell him, “It’s OK, Robert. Jesus will take care of you. I know things are rough right now, but they’re going to get better.” She swore that he understood every word and would sometimes weep when she visited, but stopped when she spoke those words of comfort to him.
She was cared for and watched over by the staff at Lodi Memorial Hospital, a dedicated group of professionals who had to outwardly display neutrality throughout the legal proceedings. Like me, they adopted her (and vice versa). I remember who she beamed one Christmas as she told me about the present she received from the staff: A large container of bus tokens they had purchased for her as a group.
You see, although Robert’s wife and children stopped visiting him altogether in 1996, Florence spent at least three days per week at the hospital with him, riding the public bus all the way from her Stockton home in the morning and back again each afternoon about 4:00 p.m.
Aside from when Robert died, there were only two times when I saw her become depressed and appear to momentarily lose hope.
One was the day that the real “Dr. Death,” Ronald Cranford, testified during the trial. I warned Florence it was going to be a rough afternoon because I needed to elicit excruciatingly unpleasant information from Cranford about the physiological process of dying when the delivery of life-sustaining food and fluids ceases. I suggested that she not remain in the courtroom. But she wouldn’t budge. She said that she wanted to hear everything. As Cranford droned on dispassionately, I could see that she was becoming distraught. She wasn’t alone . . . the judge had to clear the courtroom to let observers recover and regroup, and my own husband was physically ill for days afterward. But after that brief break, she was right back in her place next to me.
The other time was when Rose Wendland’s attorney threatened to have her barred from visiting Robert at the hospital because Florence displayed a painting Robert made in therapy at the hospital during her appearance on “Good Morning, America.” For a few minutes she was desperately afraid that she would not be able to visit with Robert. But when I assured her that, if Rose had the audacity to follow through on that threat, we would convene the press conference to end all press conferences — and she could bring the painting! — she quickly became her feisty, scrappy self again.
It was fitting that it was Florence who was at Robert’s bedside when he (allegedly) died of pneumonia in July 2001, even as the California Supreme Court was mulling his fate. She told me that just moments before Robert died, she asked him, “Can you see the angels, Robert?” and encouraged him to join them. So I wondered when I learned that she had died if she saw those angels as she crossed over into eternity — and if Robert was there to greet her. I hope so on both counts, and that she is reunited with the son she fought so valiantly and tirelessly to save.
Rest in peace, “Mom.” You’ve earned it. I am honored to say that I knew, loved, learned from, and fought alongside you.