Life, death, families
In my 15 years experience as a newspaper reporter, Tyler Webster’s murder trial earlier this month in Jefferson County was the first of any type of trial I have covered for an assignment.
At my previous newspaper, the Daily Gate City in Keokuk, (1997-2010) another reporter covered the police beat and courthouse. I sat in with her one afternoon during a murder-by-arson trial and another time in a sex abuse trial at the south Lee County Courthouse in case I needed to cover a trial on my own someday. But that seems years ago now.
As a short-time Fairfield resident, I did not know anything about the respective men, Webster and the man he shot, Buddy Frisbee, or their families.
I remember coming to work on a Monday in August and hearing about the weekend fatal shooting out in the country, and the shooter had told 9-1-1 dispatch he shot a man in the face.
By February, when our new editor Andy Hallman asked me to look up a court case file under the name Tyler Webster, I didn’t recall its significance.
All of the witnesses and revelations in the first two days of the trial were unknown to me. I had no idea Webster and Frisbee had children, wives and a long-time friendship since childhood.
I didn’t know anyone sitting on the jury, except one.
Prior to the trial, I couldn’t fathom a motive for the shooting.
As a mother of two grown children, I empathized with both moms in court — Frisbee’s and Webster’s — shedding tears during lawyers’ comments and testimonies.
My son also served in the Army and was deployed to the Iraq war twice, while Webster deployed once each to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I identified with Webster’s wife’s pride in describing her husband as a good soldier, taking care of his junior soldiers. My ex also was active duty Army.
I was uncomfortable sitting in this public venue of our justice-system-in-action, hearing the personal and intimate details of others’ lives.
I felt the pain of witnesses having to expose embarrassing, degrading details.
At court’s lunch break, I hurried back to The Ledger to write a story about the morning’s testimony in 45 minutes — for that day’s deadline.
And in the middle of the first day of the trial, the afternoon of April 10, I missed a call from one of my sisters. I have three sisters, all residing on the West Coast.
Our 90-year-old mother had been in declining health since Christmas; she lived in an assisted living home, but was hospitalized a few times, then moved to a nursing home.
I texted my youngest sister that I was in court all day, covering a trial and asked if our mom had died; I had phone conversations with my oldest sister in the past weeks, in which she declared mom at death’s door. I believed her, but we couldn’t know when it would happen.
I last visited my mom at Christmas 2010; my son, then in the middle of his second deployment to Iraq, sent me on the visit to Tacoma, Wash., while I was in my first (and only) year of teaching English at Seymour High School in Wayne County.
I fit the adage that women divorced after many years (30, here) of marriage, live at a lower standard of living. I can’t afford flights and rental cars.
My son knew sending me to Tacoma for Christmas, the first Christmas since the divorce, would accomplish being able to spend the holiday with family. At the time, my daughter and her husband also lived in Tacoma because my son-in-law, also in the Army, was stationed at Fort Lewis.
In a phone conversation last summer, my mom expressed to me she didn’t want to live through another winter. It hurt to walk, it hurt to stand, it hurt to swallow. Of eight siblings, she was the second to the last alive. My father died in 2006 after more than a decade of dementia. I believe my mother didn’t have a purpose or desire to keep living.
She did get to meet her first great-grandchild in February when my niece brought her baby son to Tacoma to meet relatives. My sisters tell me my mother was pleased and smiled a lot at meeting Liam.
Back to the April 10 courtroom: I gave my sister the choice to text me back or wait until after 4:30 p.m. and I could call her back.
She texted, that yes, our mom had died that morning.
It was expected. I had — at the request of my mom through my sisters — written my mother’s obituary a few months earlier and sent it to them for input, and then an eulogy, because they wanted me to speak at her funeral. Yes, it was one of those sibling things, “Mom always liked you best!”
I sat watching the jury, hearing the 9-1-1 dispatcher who took the call Aug. 25, and the sheriff’s deputy who was first to arrive on the scene of the shooting — reviewing the violence and abrupt taking of a life in my thoughts.
I pictured my mom, lying in bed, tended by caring strangers (my sisters tell me) and slipping away in her sleep.
One of my sisters — the two tending to her each live a 5-hour drive away from Tacoma in different directions — had been with her over the weekend and another on Monday and Tuesday. She waited until she was alone on Wednesday. I believe it was her choice.
I waffled about attending the funeral; I still can’t afford flights and rental cars ... but friends suggested it is a life passage to witness and acknowledge.
I would miss the next week’s trial proceedings. My co-workers were supportive and empathetic.
And my son, whose dear wife is expecting their first child May 1 (and yes, I’ll be a first-time grandma!) offered to accompany me to Tacoma. That sealed it.
I had a good trip spending time with my son, seeing two of my sisters and their spouses and many first cousins I hadn’t seen in 45 years.
The forecast before leaving had told me it would rain each day I was in Tacoma. However, it only sprinkled the first day and was sunny and brisk the rest of the time.
Yards were so green and spring flowers very vibrant; we walked along Puget Sound’s water front, watched ferry boats going to islands, drove through the forests and ferns of Point Defiance and were glad to not have a daily drive on the 5-lane freeways around Tacoma and Seattle (my son lives in Burlington).
The trip was a closing — and another a reminder to live in the present.
Why do some of these lessons take a lifetime to learn?
Diane Vance is a staff writer at The Ledger.