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When last year’s winter storm left much of Texas without power during days of freezing temperatures, Cynthia Pierce had nowhere to go. But Pierce’s family figured the 72-year-old, who lived in an Austin assisted living facility, was in good hands.
“We were contacting each other as a family making sure everybody was OK,” said Beth Pierce, the youngest of the four Pierce sisters. “We never thought about Cindy — she was in a protected place.”
“We did think about her,” said Holly Ferguson, 46, Cynthia’s only child. “But we never thought she was in danger.”
One year after one of Texas’ deadliest natural disasters, Pierce’s family still has questions. About why the life of a curious former hippie from Lubbock, the “brilliant, magical mind” of their family — who spent her time consuming Greek mythology, listening to live music, and working as a systems analyst for Exxon and other big companies — was lost because of a power outage. About why the assisted living facility had no backup power, why the window in her room was left open and why the family was not immediately told about any of this.
Following a catastrophe, lives lost are usually quickly reduced to numbers. It would be months after the winter storm struck on Valentine’s Day 2021 until the state released an official death toll: at least 246 people, from causes ranging from hypothermia to carbon monoxide poisoning; a BuzzFeed News analysis says the number is actually around 700.
Around 10 a.m. Feb. 17, the family got a call from the emergency room. Cynthia had been admitted with hypothermia and wasn’t responding to efforts to revive her. The staff member asked the family if she had a legal do-not-resuscitate order in place.
“She never regained consciousness,” Holly said. “So we never got to speak with her. We didn’t know that she was freezing, and we didn’t know that her body was failing. We never got to say goodbye to her.”
Jo Carol Pierce, the eldest sister, had one last day with Cynthia.
Just days before, as the cold front moved into Texas, Jo Carol had checked Cynthia out of the assisted living facility, and they went out for a meal at Jack Allen’s Kitchen. The sisters were close — they talked on the phone every day.
That day, they talked about all the things they wanted to do once the COVID-19 pandemic ended. Blues music played in the background — one of Cynthia’s favorites — and the sisters discussed going to see live music again as they ate.
“We had such a great time,” Jo Carol, 77, said. “She was a real in-the-moment kind of person.”
The day Cynthia died, Jo Carol said Cynthia started calling early in the morning.
Jo Carol said she didn’t answer. “I was half-asleep and thought, I’ll just pick up later, because I didn’t have a sense of the emergency,” Jo Carol said. “I have a lot of sad feelings about that.”
Hippies in Lubbock
Of the four Pierce sisters, Cynthia was the most eccentric.
The sisters spent the majority of their childhood in Lubbock with their mother after their father died in the Korean War. Their mother gave the girls space as they grew, and she had a sense of humor that the sisters still laugh about in the high-pitched laughter they were all known for as kids.
“We were all kind of embarrassed that we had such a big family,” Jo Carol said. “People used to ask my mom if we were Catholic, and she would say, ‘No, just a sexy Baptist.’”
Cynthia devoured Greek mythology, loved to garden and play cards with her family. The first hint of her adventurous streak came in the early 1960s, when at 15 she snuck away in the family’s green Ford Fairlane to visit relatives who lived hours away.
“There was nothing to do in Lubbock other than to buckle under or to bust out,” Jo Carol said. “It just seemed so hopeless. You’d get in trouble for just thinking the wrong thing.
My friend’s boyfriend broke up with her because she wanted to taste what beer tasted like.”
Like so many nonconformists living in conservative Texas towns, the sisters heard stories about Austin and felt pulled toward the liberal capital.
“We had a friend of ours, he went down to Austin and came back with a literal match box full of marijuana,” Jo Carol said. “And he said, ‘There’s all these people like us in Austin, and they call themselves hippies.”
Beth and Cynthia later moved there to attend college at the University of Texas at Austin. After Jo Carol took off for Berkeley, California, from Lubbock during the Summer of Love in a Volkswagen van with her young daughter, Cynthia later followed and spent some time out West herself.
The sisters and Jo Carol’s new boyfriend, a guitar player from Lubbock, decided to ride the rails, hopping on freight trains and journeying south across the state.
They took in the sights as they rode down the coast before stopping in Los Angeles for a night. They slept overnight on the beach. They crossed the border into Mexico, then turned around and headed home.
“She loved to learn”
By the early 1970s, Cynthia was back in Austin. She met her first husband, who was divorced with four children from a previous relationship.
Holly was born in 1975, but the marriage ended soon after and Cynthia found a cheap apartment and began pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at UT-Austin.
“She loved to learn,” Holly said. “That kind of socratic interaction with people, she loved it.”
After Cynthia graduated, they moved to Houston, where Cynthia had been hired by Exxon, the first in a string of jobs working as a systems analyst for major companies at a time when they didn’t typically hire women for such roles.
“She would work for 18 months to three years, quit and then take another job,” Holly said. “We would move every time.”
During a two-year stint in New Orleans, Holly’s second grade teacher took issue with Holly’s “lack of respect” and sent a letter home to Cynthia. Instead of talking to the teacher, Holly said, her mother started packing.
“Mom got offended and she pulled me out [of school],” Holly said. “I never went back and we moved back to Austin.”
Holly said she was just a kid going with the flow at the time, but now she sees the reason behind her mom’s many moves more clearly.
“There was never any doubt that she loved me, and more than love me, she adored me — I gave her joy,” Holly said. “She and I were a team. But at the same time, she was really solitary and introspective.”
And rather than work through conflicts, her mother would just start over somewhere new.
“In her mind, it was a lot easier to start over than to work things out,” Holly said.
Illness and loss lead to hard times
By the late 1990s, Cynthia had remarried and divorced again. She was living in Austin again, taking classes in classical Greek and Latin literature just to keep learning. But she didn’t have a job — she’d quit her last job for a financial services company — and couldn’t pay her bills.
When her sister Beth Pierce stopped by once, she noticed Cynthia’s mailbox was stuffed with unopened bills. Beth offered to bring the mail inside, but Cynthia wouldn’t allow it.
“In her magical-thinking mind, as long as she didn’t see the bills, they didn’t exist,” Beth said.
Holly was studying abroad in Europe at the time and said she didn’t know how her mom was faring.
“Except that the money quit coming in,” Jo Carol said, laughing.
“That was an issue,” Holly said.
Eventually Cynthia got her finances in order, thanks to the fourth Pierce sister, Terry Pierce, who was an accountant. Soon after, Cynthia got a job with the Texas comptroller’s office, which helped her save money for retirement.
But in 2008 Cynthia fell sick with a rare illness that first seemed like the flu and then progressed into memory loss. The family feared she was dying. Their mother worried Cynthia — her favorite child — would die before her.
It turned out to be a disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, a rare illness characterized by a brief but widespread attack of inflammation in the brain and spinal cord that damages the protective covering of nerve fibers. Cynthia recovered, but her family says she was never the same. At times she was more irritable, badgering Jo Carol when they would drive around Austin.
“She went from driving like a bat out of hell with a cigarette in one hand and a Dr. Pepper in the other, to being really slow and careful,” Jo Carol said.
Cynthia stopped working after that, and for the next decade she lived in Austin with family and friends. She began visiting a nearby Starbucks almost every day as a way to kill time now that she wasn’t going to work.
Her last big trip in life was to Washington, D.C., in 2017 with her grandson and Holly. They visited museums and the historic Arlington National Cemetery — where Cynthia visited her father’s grave for the first time. Her mother died later that year.
“I think she was just heartbroken after her mom died,” Holly said. “It just got harder and harder for her to figure out how to live.”
Not long after that trip, Cynthia moved into an independent living facility in Fort Worth, close to where Holly was living with her husband and two kids.
Holly began handling Cynthia’s finances and learned that her mother was mostly spending her money on Starbucks.
“I realized she was surviving by going to Starbucks three or four times a day,” Holly said.
“We didn’t realize what a hard time she was having.”
The hospital calls
Cynthia moved to an assisted living facility in Austin in 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic began. The facility had tight restrictions over who could visit, so most of Cynthia’s family communicated with her over the phone.
“Once she was isolated in her room without any kind of contact at all, I think she deteriorated pretty severely,” Beth said. Cynthia became more delusional over time and made up intricate stories about imaginary people.
Still, her family was optimistic that after the pandemic settled down, Cynthia would bounce back.
“I thought we were going to have the vaccines, that the pandemic would end soon and that she would move back up here [to Fort Worth],” Holly said.
But on the morning of Feb. 17, 2021, Holly received that call from the hospital to tell her that her mother was there. The nurse told Holly that Cynthia was almost gone. There wasn’t time for her to drive to Austin to be with her.
That still disturbs Holly.
“She deserved to have her family with her,” Holly said. “She deserved to be held, and she deserved to be loved.”
The nurse said she would put the phone to Cynthia’s ear so Holly could speak to her one more time.
Holly started speaking to her mother, and “then I recited her favorite section from the Odyssey to her,” Holly said. “And then she was gone.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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