Life Lesson from a Murderer

Everyone has at least one significant “what if” moment in their life. What if I had driven straight instead of turning right, and collided with that truck running the red light? What if I‘d been home when the burglar broke in? What if I hadn’t caught myself falling asleep on that long stretch of highway? What if I’d arrived at the airport in time to catch my plane – the morning it crashed?

My own “what if” moment haunts me to this day.

It was a Northwest summer night in 1978 and the muggy air had brought me into my parent’s kitchen for a cold glass of lemonade. My mother had just returned from a rueful trip to Hawaii where she’d attended a three-day vigil, awaiting her dear friend’s passing from terminal cancer. Surprisingly, not even my mom knew the severity of Erma McCumsey’s condition until a few weeks before her funeral. I remembered seeing Erma on a handful of occasions – at my parents’ dinner table and relaxing on a lounge chair at the nearby lake. She was a robust woman with a round, pink face and our exchanges were mostly limited to recipes and weather reports.

I did spend a brief period with her in the same real estate office four years earlier.  While rifling through bills at home one evening, trying to determine how my husband and I were going to make ends meet – with my college tuition and a baby on the way – I received a phone call from Erma. She explained that a receptionist position had opened and, likely from my dear mother’s prodding, offered a proposal. If I agreed to take the job, she’d cover the cost of my licensing exam along with my wages. All I had to do was answer the phone in between homework assignments and cramming for the test. Without hesitation, I took the job.

Five days a week, like clockwork, I drove straight from the college parking lot to the one-door office to put in my time from noon until seven in the evening. I would arrive just in time to witness two sales agents flying out the door. The only way I remembered their names was by the engraved metal plates on their desks. Exchanges with Erma were almost as rare. Being the only broker in the office, she was determined to garner as many listings as possible by driving around, following leads, and flip-flopping between phone lines in the office. She often won over clients by telling them she was the only agent in town that could do them justice. I found myself watching her and questioning if I had the fortitude to convince qualified buyers that upgrades were necessary investments, even if their bank accounts were emptied in the process. Prompted by my conscience, I soon closed the real estate exam book for good and focused instead on my college finals and expanding baby bump.

As if reminding me of my priorities, morning sickness became a reoccurring infliction that I managed to control long enough to get through classes, the nausea typically passing by the time I arrived at work. Soon after graduation, however, I woke up feeling more drained than usual. Erma graciously agreed to cover for me, suggesting I take an extra day off to recover. While in the confines of my home, I realized how much nesting I still had to do, getting the nursery in order for our new “arrival.” I returned to the office only long enough to fulfill my two-week obligation and to thank her for the opportunity she’d given me.

As often happens to acquaintances in our lives, I never spoke to Erma again. My mother would mention her name from time to time in passing, but never with the intensity she assigned it on that summer night in the kitchen.

“Erma had something to tell you, but she didn’t want to upset you while you were pregnant.” My mother’s words and the dark glint in her blue eyes pulled me forward. “Then she moved away and got sick. Your life was so full… I guess she just didn’t see the point in saying anything to anyone until she knew her time was running out.”

“While I was pregnant?” I glanced into the next room where my four-year-old daughter was planted on her grandfather’s lap, engrossed in the story he was reading. My husband was dozing on the brown, shag carpet below them. I turned back around. “What is this about? What could she possibly say that would be so upsetting to me?”

Both of my mothers’s weathered hands slid under her thighs. She leaned forward and the crease between her brows deepened. “The day you were sick and Erma was working at your desk, a car drove up.” Her rhythmic words flowed with rehearsed precession. “It was a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and a man with a cast on his arm got out. He started looking in the window. Then he moved away and came back again. She said from the look on his face, he was surprised to see her instead of you sitting behind that desk. Something about him made her real nervous.”

My mind raced, pondering who he could have been, where the story was leading.

“She used to work for the post office, you know,” my mother continued, “so she was licensed to carry a gun. With the uneasy feeling he was giving her, Erma pulled her weapon out of her purse and set it on her lap. She told me that if he walked through that door, she was prepared to use it.”

Anticipation added to the sweat beading on my scalp. “What happened next?”

“Well, as it turned out, he eventually got back into his car and sat there for a while. Erma locked the door, edged over to the window and called the police. She wrote down his license plate number and repeated it to them. Then the guy drove off and the police told her as long as he wasn’t threatening her, there wasn’t much they could do. She wadded up the paper she’d written on and threw it away. First thing the next morning, the FBI showed up and asked her to recount her story over and over again. She retrieved the license plate number she’d written down from the trash and after making a few calls, they said that she was real lucky.”

“Lucky? Why? Mom, who was he?”

 She swallowed before replying. “He was Ted Bundy.”

The name sank slowly into my brain – the name of the convicted serial killer known for bludgeoning, raping and strangling countless victims. Images of the long dark-haired girls that had been plastered on the front page of virtually every newspaper across the country started to surface. Any one of them could have easily passed as my sister. My heart pounded wildly in my chest. A murderer had been watching me – following me. He knew when I would be alone. The real estate office was a short distance from the college, from the places where girls had gone missing – and were later found dead.

What if I hadn’t been sick that day? What if I’d gone to work? Would my face be printed on those newspapers? 

Twenty-eight years have passed since my mom relayed Erma’s account. Yet, the story still leaves me contemplating the difference a single, seemingly trite choice can make. If fate hadn’t been in my favor, three talented, grown women would not exist today. I wouldn’t have the opportunity every week to look into the innocent, sparkling eyes of my grandchildren and realize how truly blessed I am.

Perhaps each one of us has a purpose in this world. Strangely enough, Ted Bundy served a purpose in mine. My near miss with this maniacal murderer opened my eyes to the fact that life is fragile and needs to be valued, not ignored or taken for granted. I find myself hoping that my existence has meaning and worth. I hope that I’ve contributed something significant, and that I’ve made a difference for just being alive.

To this day, I don’t know much about Erma McCumsey, except that we crossed paths for a reason. For me, she was an unknowing guardian angel. I will never have an opportunity to thank her personally, but the desire never diminishes. Perhaps living every day to the fullest is all she would have wished for me. Perhaps my telling others about the impact one person can make in our lives is the greatest payback of all.

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