At the age of 19, Susan Marie LeFevre was sent to prison on drug charges, for a term of 10 to 20 years. Fearing she would spend the rest of her life there for a crime she says she did not commit, she broke out of prison after her first year. She changed her name, moved to California, got married and started a family — and never told them what happened to her. Thirty-four years later, the feds caught up with her and sent her back to prison. “A Tale of Two Lives” documents her remarkable trajectory. Here’s an excerpt.
Saginaw, Michigan, May 2004
The sun’s first dim rays light up the fluorescent pink walls — the eye-popping color I chose to have them painted when I was 16.
I am nearly 50 now. My husband, Alan, is sound asleep beside me, my children are safe back home in California, and my parents are in their bedroom downstairs. We are visiting my parents in what I know will be the last time I see my mother. I am certain she will die today.
The last 12 hours have been hectic and harried. My sister’s phone call, announcing that the priest has just given Mom last rites, set in motion a chain of events I seem to have walked through like a zombie. Somehow, Alan arranged the last-minute tickets. Somehow, I packed a bag and attended to the myriad details of dispatching the kids to friends’ houses, leaving instructions for the housecleaner, changing the message on the answering machine, and firing up the alarm system.
But all I could think of during the frantic drive to the San Diego airport was that if we missed the plane, I would never see my mother alive again. At the terminal, I handed my driver’s license to the TSA screener and held my breath. He checked the name — Marie Walsh — looked at the picture, looked back up at me, then handed me the license. I exhaled a sigh of relief. I wondered how many more years I would have to worry whenever I handed someone my ID. A moment later Alan and I were waved through the metal detector and we ran to our gate.
Later, in my mother’s room, time is frozen at 30 years ago, the last time I was here. The green shag carpet feels the same under my bare feet. I run my hand over the country wallpaper embossed with baskets of peonies, as I used to. The familiar bedside table is crowded now with pill bottles, but I recognize the scratch in the table-leg nearest the bed. Only the sickroom smell — of plastic bottles and multicolored medications, of illness and decay — betrays the passage of time.
On the dresser top, under the crucifix, is the wedding photo of my parents. With the arched entry of the church behind them, they look like a glamorous, updated version of American Gothic. My father is tall and dark and jaunty, my mother smiling and spirited, her shoulder-length blond hair seeming to bob animatedly in the still photo.
Today, my mother is prostrate with disease and groaning in pain, and I sit down carefully on the edge of her mattress. My father, standing on the opposite side of the bed from me, hovers over us. A veil of silence and duty hangs between my mother and me, but I reach through it and caress her shoulder gently. Her low groaning sounds like someone else’s voice.
My father reaches over and places a pill in my mother’s mouth. She begins to choke; he tries to give her water, but she coughs it back. She can’t swallow.
“It’s stuck!” she manages to say. “Use a knife, anything. Push it down!”
My heart rate soars and my fists clench. “Why are you giving her a pill?” I demand. “She needs morphine.”
My father is suddenly abashed, as crestfallen as a scolded little boy. His long, serious face looks weary and defeated. Resolute in his loyalty to my mother, he has taken care of her for decades, as rheumatoid arthritis limited her movements, deformed her limbs, and wracked her with pain — her own body at war with itself, the white cells attacking the red, the body tearing itself apart. Even now as cancer consumes her, he has rarely left her side, and perhaps he senses, as I do, that these are her last moments.
“She doesn’t like the idea of hard drugs,” he says, “so they give her Vicodine for the pain.”
Hard drugs, hard drugs. His emphasis is clear, and the words open wounds from the time when hard drugs tore my family apart. Even on her deathbed, even in this agony, my mother won’t allow hard drugs to soothe her pain. Her screams of agony are past bearing.
“She’s dying of cancer, not a toothache! She needs something stronger!” I tell my father. “You need to call the hospice nurse and get her some morphine right away.”
My father doesn’t argue with me. “I will,” he says, and heads for the kitchen to place the call. I realize that if the nurse comes to deliver morphine, I will have to hide in another room.
I stroke my mother’s back. I can feel her still fighting tenaciously against her failing body. I’ve seen this before. I’ve been trained to work in hospice care, and I recognize the phenomenon. It’s quite common: People hang on through great pain because of unresolved issues. I reach through the veil again.
“Listen to me, Mom. You’ve been a wonderful mother and grandmother. We all love you very much and we’ll all be all right. It’s okay for you to leave us now. You were a good mom, a good woman.”
She looks up at me. She can’t answer, but I see she understands. I think I see relief on her face, so I go on. “We all had so many good times together. You don’t need to suffer any longer. It’s okay to say good-bye.”
This is all I can do. I am helpless before this kind of suffering, helpless in the face of this terrible illness. Please God, I pray. Let her let go.
Her frightened look fades and her eyes glisten with tears. She struggles to speak. I can feel her mustering the last grains of her strength. Finally, in a whisper, my mother says, “I’m sorry. I should have been there for you … I shouldn’t have told them. I’m so sorry.”
A sharp pain shoots through my chest. And I realize that it isn’t just the illness my mother is dying from; it is also the guilt — still burning, perhaps even more fiercely these last weeks. “I don’t care what you did, Mom. There is nothing for you to feel sorry about. You’ve suffered enough. We all have. It was a long time ago and we all made mistakes back then. All that matters is that we pulled through. We’ve had so many happy years together!”
I have been fleeing my past for most of my life. But now again it seems that what happened when I was 19 will never let us go. My dying mother is still a victim of it. My husband and children, though they are not aware of it, are victims as well. How many innocent generations will be touched by this?
My mother opens her eyes and I stroke her forehead. Her skin is thin and papery. “Turn me to the window,” she says haltingly. “I want to see the light.”
It is not hard to shift her frail body. Her limbs flop lifelessly and she moans again.
I sit down again at her side and watch her face. Her skin seems to be growing darker. Then her features — nose, chin, ears — seem to change shape. My mind freezes and I stare when, just as suddenly as the transformation had begun, it stops. The strange distortions disappear and are replaced by her familiar features. As I am trying to collect my thoughts, I see a shadowy image rise from her body and float upward, as if on a draft of warm air.
I lean down close to my mother’s barely breathing body and hold her in my arms. I don’t believe in the supernatural, so I reason that the stress and emotion of the morning must be affecting my imagination. Her head lies cradled in my lap and her face is no longer distorted by pain; her groaning has ceased. She releases a long sigh and as I gently stroke her head, her exhalation ends, and she is still. Her pain is over.
I sit for a moment holding her, then call out to my father. “Dad … she’s gone.”
My father runs into the room and releases a primal cry, like that of a wounded animal. He has lost his life’s partner.
The two of us cradle her until her skin begins to cool under our hands.
Throughout the day, the family gathers. We congregate in the living room. Funeral arrangements must be made, questions answered. It is afternoon before Alan and I have a chance to sit down alone together. I bring him a cup of tea, let him take his first sip, then tell him that I want us to leave Michigan tomorrow and fly back home. “I don’t want to stay for the memorial,” I say. “I came here to see my mother alive, to be with her at the last. That’s what’s important. Her spirit has moved on.” I pause. “And this way, you can get back to work.”
Alan is shocked and bewildered. “It’s your mother, and all of your family will be here. They’ll need you. What kind of person doesn’t go to her own mother’s funeral?”
The kind of person who has never told you the secret of her past. The kind of person who still sometimes wakes screaming in the night and cannot explain to you why — not without revealing everything she has kept from you for the 18 years you’ve been married. Since I can’t voice this, I continue to speak of my dislike of funerals, my abhorrence of their morbid character, my eagerness to go home to our children. The rest of my family remains silent as well, and we prepare to leave Michigan.
As I put down my suitcase by the front door, Alan begins loading the car. My father reaches out to embrace me, his eyes filled with sympathy as well as sadness. He understands how much I would have wanted to attend my mother’s funeral with the rest of the family. He had no illusion about how difficult it was for me, once again, to come up with excuses to my husband in order to hide my “special circumstances.” “You’re a remarkable daughter,” he says, “You’ve accomplished so much — out of nothing.”
I hug his tall aging frame firmly and whisper, “We’ve both had a long, winding road to travel over the years, Dad, but we’ve survived it.” I take his hand and squeeze it in mine, adding, “I know how much you’re going to miss Mom, we all are, but you’re going to be all right. You’re remarkable too.”
Our flight back to California is fraught with tension and disquiet. Alan is stunned, distraught, wondering what kind of person he married — a woman who won’t attend her own mother’s funeral. I am mired in grief and am haunted by the extent of the guilt my mother carried all these years despite my assertions that she was not to blame.
But there is another feeling coursing through my body as well. Today, as I sit in silence beside my angry and confused husband in the plane, I feel the first glimmers of hope.
It was for my mother’s sake that I have kept my secret for 30 years. It was to honor her wish that I not “dredge up the past.” Mom had been confined to a motorized wheelchair for many years. “All I have left is my dignity; please don’t take that away,” she would say.
In the new identity I have created, in the new and “proper” life I have forged, I have built a set of unbreakable rules that prevent me from sharing my story even with my husband, certainly with my children. Like me, my mother had been branded forever by what happened when I was 19. While she lived, the least I could do was lessen her suffering. So I did.
But now she is dead. As I fly west toward California, toward our children waiting for our return, I see an opportunity. Under a new law, the crime of which I was convicted in Michigan 30 years ago is no longer grounds for imprisonment. The cast of characters has changed. The world has changed. I have changed. Maybe I really can clear my name. Maybe I can finally live a completely normal life. Maybe I can actually be free. Flying into the setting sun, I try to imagine a day when I can tell my children and my husband the truth about my past, and once again live as a free human being.
From “A Tale of Two Lives: The Susan LeFevre Fugitive Story" by Marie Walsh. Copyright © 2011 by Marie Walsh. Reprinted by permission of Orange Peel Publishing.