Roy Exum: A Promise Is Kept

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I’ve known for at least 10 years that the day would come for me to fulfill a heart-felt promise and I’ve also known that for me to do it the right way I would have to reveal a personal secret because the two are each and one the same. For a lot of years, I have been blessed with the ability to make “God things” happen. I don’t want to tell too much about it because a big part of “a God thing” is never getting caught at it.

More importantly, this wasn’t just me. I am hardly the hero. Instead, I am simply the conduit. I just get cash only to really poor people whose situation is so bad the only reason their back ain’t against the wall is because it’s gone, too. I’m talking about so whipped by life they are so far down the only place they can look is up and black clouds is all they see.

Oh, I’ve helped as many charities as I could for the longest, but this deal is different. The sheriff is coming Friday to throw a woman and her things out into the street and today it’s Tuesday. The child’s seizures won’t stop. The lights have been cut off and it’s 42 degrees and raining. God can’t wait for the cavalry – we gotta’ have cash now. Today.

Again, I’m just the bag man but back in the day I had 40-50 people on a list who felt so much like I did I could get $2,000-$3,000 in any given hour or two that they wanted me to get to our helpless soul real quick. The promise I must keep is one of those angels I could call, thus the promise I must honor is so much more … it is a privilege, and part of my pledge to the angels is I will never identify a one, taking their names to my grave.

John McMahan is different. He was one of my loyalists from the very beginning and I don’t keep up with who gives what, but he loved what we did. We were great pals, either playing a late nine holes of golf, eating lunch … whatever. But there came the day when he, rather urgently, wanted to ask for “the biggest favor I have ever asked of anyone … and there is no one I trust more than you.

“I just got back from M.D. Anderson, where I had my pancreas removed. I don’t know how much longer I have to live,” he told me, as I stopped chewing my lunch, “but whenever I die, would you write a story so that my kids could read it, and see for themselves that I really was a good person?”

“Oh Lordy, John … that ain’t a favor. That’s a fact. In the years I have known you, I have found you to be one of my favorite people. I don’t know where this conversation is going but we can stop right now. You are flawless in my eyes and you can live for a real long time because I’ll never forget that. What I’m thinking is when you die as a very old man your children will be far better witnesses than me.”

By now the initial surprise had worn off, but I could sense this was a huge struggle and its weight was heavy. “You know, John, I’m not big on foxhole confessions … and as a struggler who sees a psychiatrist because sometimes my grip is so weak on the rope, I know this is none of my business. But I’m a friend and, if you are anything like me, I sometimes get twisted up over things that aren’t worth me fretting about. If you’d like to talk about what’s going on, I’d be honored to listen.”

John McMahan, who died at his Ponte Vedra Beach home in Florida on June 2, was a very successful attorney – brilliant according to some courtroom friends and foes alike. He had just spent a Sunday afternoon on the golf course and would later remember he was worn out but he didn’t feel sick at all when he stood up to get a sandwich. He took a couple of steps and promptly went sprawling, face down with no idea what was happening.

Rushed by ambulance to Erlanger, it was “a God thing” the ER chief immediately sensed something was really wrong and the deeper the doctor deviled with tests, scans and blood work, the more he learned he was right. It was after midnight he told John he was being admitted and the ER chief leaned a little closer.

“It’s going to be another 3 or 4 hours before I get off but I’d like to look over your chart before I leave … uh, I’m going to give your some medicine that will make you groggy and help you sleep so maybe you’d like to suggest to your wife that she go home to be with the kids … that way the two of us might be able to talk for a minute or two … ”

That’s how John found out he had pancreatic cancer and later, as he sat alone in the dark, he discovered something more. “I have litigated against a lot of doctors. That night I promised myself that never again would I ever take a case against a doctor again. Not ever.”

He further explained. “There are some people who dislike me because I am good at what I do. I practice law the right way. I honor the law and apply it according to the Constitution. This what my clients hire me to do. But I’ve had some cases where the law is right, where the evidence I present is honest, “he paused for a moment before saying carefully, “but I worry that there have been times when I feel I was morally wrong.

“In almost every case I have experienced a doctor was simply trying to help somebody. Things didn’t turn out the way he nor his patient liked, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing everything possible for that patient. Then I come along, point out what went wrong, and collect a big judgment. I worry is that fair? I worry that although the facts are clear, am I morally correct when I rip into a physician whose only ‘crime’ was doing the very best he knows how?

“That first night at Erlanger, I was unsure how it might turn out because I’ve got a reputation for beating up doctors in the courtroom and there are a few who deeply resent who I am. There was this Emergency Room doctor who I’d never seen before. He wanted to come by and check my chart? No, he sat beside my bed and carefully explained what I had, what it meant, and three or four things that were going to happen, depending on which course was best for me. His kindness was incredible and, after he had left, I decided I would never hurt anyone like that again.”

John practiced law in Chattanooga for 35 years. Because of a distinct minority in the profession, the America public hates lawyers. They picture lawyers as parasites, feeding off some hapless guy, or as vultures, feeding off some guy who is already dead, or as “ambulance chasers” who would check their ethics as well as their coats with the frock-room girl before stopping at nothing in order to win a contingency.  

John McMahan was never that way and of the many thousands who knew him the belief was universal; he was, indeed, a good guy who deserves to be revered by his children and his children’s children. But the day I was with him we went from “good guy” to “great guy.” His biggest fear, as I am told often accompanies death when it comes calling, was to make sure his children got a totally honest opinion of who he was.

But now you know I’m not the guy John hoped would carry the message. That slipped by years before when somebody was talking about a little ultra-secretive club of some sort that was a rescue mission for the hopeless and one of the ‘angels’ confided to McMahan how it worked. I never called him that I didn’t have his cash gift within the hour.

And then there is this. While we were at our lunch table, he plunged his hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out six-or-seven pills. “These (pills) are my new pancreas … without them I would not last for a week and eventually they will no longer work. Until then, we’ll fight for every new day.”

As we left the restaurant, I told him he could count on me when the end finally comes “but I’ll not concede your ‘good-guy status.’ John McMahan. No sir, you are a fabulous guy, but my message to your children will be that you are among the finest friends I have ever had … and he would give a total stranger the shirt off his back.”

One more: When you get to heaven, save me a chair. I want to sit beside you, John McMahan.

John McMahan
John McMahan

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