Making 35 years’ worth of memories in days

A broken family reassembles as mother has just weeks to live

Photo by Katherine Tran
Christee Peoples-Votaw, James Votaw, Lee Votaw, and their mother, Marilyn Votaw are finally reunited as a family after more than 25 years.

■ By Kyle Selby / Reporter

About three weeks ago, Marilyn Votaw, 61, was told that she had one week to live. Two weeks later, she was still alive and her family – once broken – reunited for one final meal at Maze Stone Bar and Grill at the Country Club at Soboba Springs.
Last year, Marilyn was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer, and later with ovarian cancer. Spending her life in and out of prison, today she is finally spending her final moments with her children and grandchildren.
“Last week was the first time in 26 years that we’ve been together,” said Marilyn’s youngest son, James Votaw, 32.
Because of Marilyn’s brushes with the law, her three children spent their childhoods bouncing from foster home to foster home. Two of them currently live in Hemet, and the other lives in Orange County.
Marilyn met her husband in Illinois in 1981, and their first child, Christee, was born the following year. They moved to California, and a year later they had their second child, Lee, with whom Marilyn now lives.

Drug addiction and crime separates the family
Not long after the birth of her youngest son, James, Marilyn became heavily addicted to heroin and fell into a life of crime and drugs. Gone and in prison, Marilyn left her three children in the care of their father in Long Beach, who each can recall living in a station wagon at one point. More surprisingly, Christee and Lee were kidnapped when they were seven (Lee) and eight (Christee) years old.
“We were walking home from school,” explained Lee Votaw, 34. Their father owed a debt to a rival biker gang, who took the two of them for ransom. Lee described the scene as if it were yesterday; a van would follow them home from school every day – and Christee and Lee knew it.
“One day, a guy jumped out. I looked back and I saw [Christee] was grabbed, so I just walked back and said ‘OK, take me too.’” They were kept for six days – unharmed, just not allowed to leave – until they eventually snuck out of their captors’ house early one morning.

“Just a typical day for us,” laughed James.
Eventually, Child Protective Services seized the children from their father, and they were placed into foster care.
Their father was actively working to regain custody of his children in court, until he was murdered in 1993. He was allegedly injected with battery acid, which caused cardiac arrest. Marilyn was allowed to leave prison to attend funeral service, in handcuffs.

“After that, we all got separated into different homes,” explained Christee Votaw-Peoples, 35.
Lee cycled through nearly 14 different foster homes in Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties, and Christee more than that. They lived together in a foster home on only two separate occasions, but still tried to keep in touch with each other for as long as they could. It didn’t last, and they reestablished contact after they turned 18.
“We’ve always been close, because that’s all we had,” said Christee. “We took care of each other…it’s the same with Mom, too. We’ve always been in contact with her, but there’ll be gaps, like years we don’t talk to her, because we couldn’t find her.”

Homeless on the streets of Long Beach
In and out of prison, Marilyn wound up homeless on the streets of Long Beach. “They [social workers] told me ‘you can’t see them today,’ or ‘they’re not here;’ there was always an excuse,” stated Marilyn. “There were a lot of lies.” She continued to live the only life she ever knew – crime and hard drugs.
Christee eventually went off to nursing school, while Lee enlisted in the U.S. Army. James entered the U.S. Marine Corps. Lee came back six years later with vision and hearing impairment, and severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which Christee was also diagnosed with in 2015.
In time, Marilyn was found in the streets, passed out and near death; she was taken to Long Beach Memorial Hospital and put on life support. That’s when she received her diagnosis. Weeks later, Marilyn’s “boyfriend” finally informed her children that she was in the hospital. They all started visiting Marilyn daily.
“When I came to, I’m looking up, and my son’s giving me a kiss,” Marilyn described the time her children first came to visit her in the hospital; her eyes welled up with tears. “I got to see all of my family there. It’s the best thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”
The only photos Marilyn had with her three children were from when they visited her in prison. This past Mother’s Day was the first time they were able to all take a photo together as a family again.
“I’m so glad, now that I’m with them,” weeped Marilyn.

Hospice grants dying wish
On Saturday, May 20, Southern California Hospice Foundation (SCHF) granted Marilyn her dying wish, and brought her, her three children and nine grandchildren to have lunch at Maze Stone Bar and Grill at the Country Club at Soboba Springs in San Jacinto. The foundation also provided a brand new wig and clothing for Marilyn.
This is the first time we’ve ever seen her sober, clean, and happy – in our entire lives,” explained Christee. “And now we’re trying to make 30 years’ worth of memories in weeks.”
“It’s not about the past; it’s about the future,” Lee told his mother.
“I’m glad we got to spend this time with her, and toward the end, she’s with the right people she needs to be around,” reflected James. “We all love her, and we’re still family with that bond that’s never going to be broken.”
“We never stopped loving her,” added Christee. “She’s always been Mom.”

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