Recipe for a Strong Woman’s Demise: Pain and a Promise Kept : Dilemma: Agony, despair and fear of financial ruin were a lethal combination for a mother and her devoted son.
A promise is a promise.
Wanda Bauer was convinced that she was dying of cancer, but not fast enough to avert her family’s financial ruin, so she called for the loaded gun she kept at home. And Dickie brought it to her.
“The time had come,” remembered her only child, and he kept his promise to help his mother die.
It was a Tuesday, July 16, a golden summer afternoon. The wild roses and daisies were blooming. Bluebirds and hummingbirds made the clear alpine air sing. It was Wanda’s favorite time of year, a season, she always told her son, “when it’s a good time to go, when the world is green. I don’t want to die in the winter when everything is already dead.”
She was 69; her son, Richard, was 49. Neither had ever doubted the cancer diagnosis.
Dickie had moved a couch out to the front porch so his mother could see the mountains and smell the afternoon rain. That was where he placed her when he brought her home from St. Francis Hospital, in Colorado Springs, that last day.
Hours before, a doctor had told him that his mother “had the same thing as Michael Landon had, and if I’d brought her in three months earlier he still couldn’t have saved her,” Dickie said. (Actor Landon died of liver and pancreatic cancer on July 1.)
Dickie knew his mom was desperately ill. Her only relief from pain came from three half-gallon milk cartons filled with hot water and packed around her--one under her back, one on her abdomen, one between her legs. When they left St. Francis that afternoon, the nurse said she was sorry, the doctors hadn’t written a prescription for pain, only for calcium tablets. Halfway home, as he stopped to get some ice chips--the only thing she could swallow--she began to moan.
She lay on that sofa, wearing a clean diaper, too weak to eat, enraged at the pain in her belly and with no way to stop it, furious at a medical system she believed had forced her to chose between buying food or medicine, sure she was dying of cancer anyway, this independent woman who had always made up her own mind took the .22-caliber pistol she had owned for as long as anyone could remember, put it to her head and fired one shot.
“For weeks, I’d been trying to keep her alive another 20 minutes. ‘Just hold on, Mom,’ I’d say to her. ‘Just get through another 20 minutes.’ For all those days I’d pleaded with her: ‘Just hang on.’ But time ran out,” Dickie said.
“She was in so much pain. She said, ‘It’s time to check out.’ She knew what she was doing. A promise is a promise, so I went and got the gun and brought it to her. Did I know it was against the law? No. I could have lied about it--said she got the gun--but that wasn’t honest.
“No regrets. I have to live with all of this, with her being sick, with being there when she committed suicide, and now, dealing with maybe going to jail. But I’m not seeing her suffer anymore. I made a promise and the promise came down. You’ve got to honor a promise, right?
“A man’s only as good as his word.”
Five minutes after his mother died, Bauer got in his truck and drove four blocks to the Teller County Sheriff’s office. He told officers there what had happened, but they said that city police had jurisdiction. Cripple Creek officers telephoned the district attorney’s office, which sent investigators from Colorado Springs to Wanda Bauer’s home, 50 miles up in the mountains.
“I had a feeling I was in trouble because more and more people kept coming and there was more and more attention,” Dickie recalled.
Richard Bauer has been charged with manslaughter under a 1971 Colorado statute that states “a person commits the crime of manslaughter if . . . he intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide.”
He is scheduled to appear in court Thursday to enter a plea. If convicted, he could receive probation or be sent to prison for up to eight years.
“I have no future. I have nothing to look forward to. I might have to sell everything I’ve got (to pay) the lawyer--Mom’s house that she had all those years, Dad’s backhoe that Mom gave me to make a living. I can’t believe this is happening to me,” he said.
Dist. Atty. John W. Suthers believes that evidence and his investigators’ interview with Richard Bauer mandated that he bring charges.
“I don’t see it as the controversial case that apparently some people do,” Suthers said. “It has emotional factors, and those kinds of things make this a tough job, but, based on the evidence we have, we seem fairly sure a violation (of manslaughter law) occurred.
“I think it’s very difficult to get into the ‘Gosh, it’s a mercy killing, that’s OK’ attitude, but nobody in this office is making a moral judgment on what Mr. Bauer did. And it is refreshing for us prosecutors when someone tells us the truth,” the district attorney said.
Unfortunately, neither Wanda Bauer nor her son knew the truth about her illness. She did not have cancer. An autopsy determined that she had a liver infection--pockets of pus on her liver. It was a serious, potentially fatal condition, but not cancer.
Hospital spokesman Don LaMora said that if she had not refused a biopsy of her liver, an accurate diagnosis could have been made. She had already had a CAT scan, which cost $1,127, and had run up a laboratory bill of $1,949 in just 48 hours at St. Francis. She refused to have any more tests, and told the nurses to call her son to come and get her. She wanted out.
“She didn’t know how she was going to pay for all that,” Dickie Bauer said. “She said to me, ‘It’s draining the family down. It’s time to go.’ ”
LaMora said that the hospital “does about $11 million of pure charity a year. Whether or not she could pay would make no difference.” As to whether Wanda Bauer or her son was told they would not have to pay, LaMora added: “I doubt the subject of payment for tests would ever have arisen. In the normal course of events, that would never be discussed (at that time).”
Shortly after his mother’s funeral, Dickie received a $6,017 hospital bill for her two-day stay. The bill said Medicare would pay 90% and the patient was responsible for the balance. Bauer is nervously awaiting bills from his mother’s physician and her oncologist. Neither doctor would discuss the case with the Associated Press.
Dickie Bauer looks like the working man that he is. He wears overalls almost every day and worn, stained shirts that need mending. There are days of dirt under his fingernails and he seldom shaves. He has inquisitive hazel eyes, a gentle handshake and a ready smile that, these days, reflects melancholy more than pleasure.
Except for the five years he was away in the Air Force, Richard Bauer, known to everybody in Cripple Creek as Dickie, had lived in his mother’s house or just down the street in a run-down trailer with junk cars and angry dogs in the yard. His twin brother died a year after their birth. As he was growing up, Dickie was extremely close to his parents, especially his mother.
He had watched her nurse her own mother during the 1970s, until his grandmother succumbed to stomach cancer. He remembers when his Uncle Jack was crushed by a truck and his mom took in his three cousins. And when Wanda’s sister died shortly after the birth of her third child, three more cousins came to live in the small log cabin at the end of the road.
He also helped his mother care for his father, Merritt Willis (Jake) Bauer, who suffered 10 years from emphysema.
“My dad was tough,” Dickie said. “He worked long after he got sick, operating the backhoe with an oxygen bottle behind the seat. He didn’t want anybody to see it so he threw his coat over it, put the breathing tube in his nose and kept going. My parents were part of the lost generation, the people who believed that you worked until you dropped. Nobody lives like that anymore.”
Every day since Dickie’s divorce in 1986, his mother had cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for him and his three children. She had made little Juanita, Donny and Danny do their homework every night at her kitchen table.
She had been mother, grandmother, friend, and--when lean times came more and more often, when there were no sewer trenches for a backhoe to dig, after he was laid off from the mines--she had kept them all afloat with his father’s Social Security check.
In her heyday, Wanda Bauer was a clear-eyed beauty with thick hair and the cheekbones of a ‘40s glamour girl. In the end, she was bloated and full of bile, her eyes and skin jaundiced from the disease attacking her liver.
A granddaughter of homesteaders, she spent her life mending, patching, making do. She never took anything for granted, not a house, not a car, not food on the table. She shot her own deer and elk for winter meat, farmed potatoes with a team of horses, sewed her own clothes, planted and harvested a huge garden, was a barrel racer and a trick rider in amateur rodeos, herded cattle from dawn way past dark with her little boy in the saddle beside her, and kept 40 head of horses to parlay into badly needed cash.
“When I was growing up, we had a wonderful life,” said her son. “She was an Annie Oakley kind of person, could shoot as good as a man and ride horses better than most. My mom could do about anything.”
She could even build a tombstone. After Jake died, Wanda and Dickie went up to the place they had picked out long ago, the place where you could see the top of Pike’s Peak, where the aspens embrace a gentle slope that faces east, toward the morning sun.
Together, they poured concrete and set a sandstone slab Jake had scrounged up when somebody was tearing down an old building. It was a tough, backbreaking job, but when they were finished, Merritt Willis Bauer had one of the nicest gravestones in Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. Wanda saw to it that the job got done.
Everything was earned; nothing ever came easy. Not even death.
Out of the sadness and confusion surrounding his mother’s passing, Dickie Bauer came to one clear decision. He is going to get a grave marker to match his father’s and place it on that sandstone rock in Wanda’s memory. Engraved on it will be this epitaph:
“She was a strong-willed woman.”