As we opened my mother's night stand drawer, there was a group of sparkly playful rings with the KOHL's clearance stickers still attached. No doubt that my mother probably found them on clearance and bought them for little gifts to give her little grandchildren on our next visit. Sienna was drawn to them and as she cooed she lifted it up. The room filled with light,
synergizedfrom the light on the night stand, the joy of her eyes and the sparkle of the ninety-nine cent treasure in her small hand.
My step father was hovering over us propped on the bed. He snatched the ring from her hand like a vulture grubbing a baby from a pick up truck. He examined it closely, looking for what I don't know. But it made both my six year old daughter and I feel like it wasn't our place to be looking through my mother's things. I examined the setting with an out of body stare, how pathetic my daughter and I looked on the floor, on our knees looking up towards the opened drawer with my 80-something step father perched above us as if to say, "You deserve nothing. Beg all you will, but you are nothing but a thief to me."
I was reminded of the first night when I visited my mother in the hospital before she died. I had gotten the phone call from her nurse while at church on Sunday morning. She told me that my mother has been trying to fight an infection but with her diabetes and COPD condition, she may need additional medical assistance if she does not improve. In other words, she would be put on a ventilator. As with the previous numerous hospital visits did not know how the reality really was. My mother had a history of painting a grim picture for me as to get my sympathy, my attention. I think in her dreams, she really wanted me to leave my husband and children and move in with her and Tom so that I could take care of her every need. She wanted me to cook, clean and bathe her. Little did she know that she was supposed to do these things for me as a child. She skipped that phase of motherhood all together, and along with random baby sitters, I essentially raised myself. I can remember moving a stool over to the oven to cook myself eggs for breakfast one morning.
As I tried to talk with the nurse and reason out my doubts, my husband and I decided that once and for all I would go down to Cincinnati to see how bad this hospital visit really was. So, I packed a few things, kissed the kids good bye and got in the van. I cried a lot that drive. Under normal conditions, the drive from Chicago to Cincinnati should have taken me four or so hours. But, this time I was clearly in God's hands. There were issues I needed to sort out in my mind and heart and the ice storm allowed me an additional three hours to sob, to moan and cry out for God.
It was 8 p.m. when I finally pulled up to the hospital. The florescent lights in the entry way to the hospital made everyone look like zombies. My eyes puffed from the crying hard searched for ICU. I took the dingy elevator up to the fourth floor and Tom was waiting, somberly in the waiting room. I thought we would just walk in to her room right away but he sat me down to tell me, "About 30 minutes ago, Mother was in a lot of pain and so the doctors put her on a ventilator." At that time, I thought he just meant an oxygen mask. He then continued to tell me, with a lot of extra words that I had to decipher, "They had to put her in a coma for the procedure so she will be sleeping when you see her."
Shucks I thought. I rushed through an ice storm and now she will just be sleeping. He picked up the phone on the wall to call for a nurse to open the ICU doors. He was in his blue scrubs, color coordinated with every single thing in that ICU. The floors, the walls, the equipment, the mood - all blue like the ice storm I just had traveled through.
A young nurse, an Indian lady approached me. She had a clip board in one hand and a pen in the other. She handed me them both as she asked my permission to remove my mother's rings. "We would like to remove them now in case there is any swelling in the fingers. This way we won't have to cut her fingers off." I couldn't catch my breath. In the back ground, I could hear a lot of beeps from life preserving machines from other patients. We finally walked into my mother's room. There she was. Unrecognizable. Her body, large and strong yet limp, jumped with every thrust of air the ventilator pumped into her. Her eyes closed, from the coma. Up and down, her body went. The teenaged-looking doctor was telling my step father that it didn't look good. From the X-Rays of her lungs, there should be some transparency but on her X-Ray, her lungs were solid black. The nurse was giving me a sterile plastic bag, like a Ziploc bag but it had a hazardous icon on it. My mom's rings were in it. I must have signed the papers although, I don't recall. I noticed my step dad signing papers, I think it was giving permission for a feeding tube.
The night turned into morning. Then, the morning turned into night. My body and its thoughts were all numb and limp. We spent the next couple of days at the hospital. I put my Blackberry on mute. I kept carrying my laptop around because I knew I had some drop dead deadlines that I needed to tend to but that seemed like a world away at the moment. I started thinking that we needed to find my mom's living will. I knew full heartedly that she did not want to be kept alive with artificial machinery. I tried talking to Tom about this one night. I asked him if he knew where her living will was. He snapped at me. I explained that the living will was not about her assets, it was about how she would chose to live if she was not able to make decisions on her own. "Like right now, I do not think she would want to be laying in that hospital bed and she certainly won't want to come home, brain dead with a feeding tube." I actually didn't say that exactly, I tried to be as diplomatic and sensitive as possible. It was a long, drawn out discussion that included the church's visiting pastor, the nurses, doctors and social workers. My step dad didn't care as long as he could bring her home and they could sit and watch TV together.
"Tom, who will take care of you both? Even before Mom got sick, you weren't able to care for her needs. What makes you think you can care for her when she comes home with a dialysis and feeding tube?" I started to get more poignant.
His sad, feeble gentleness turned demonic as he asked me about Mom's rings. I wanted him to trust me so I said I would get them for him. But, I also knew he was not in any position to trust and care for such valuables. I couldn't trust him to make the right decision about my mom's life, and I couldn't trust him to hide and care for my mom's diamond rings at such a time like this either. Still, I opened my laptop bag, still sitting by my feet like a loyal dog and handed the hazardous waste Ziploc bag to him. He opened it up to count the rings to make sure they were all there. He then told me that these would go into a lock box. I agreed that would be a good place for them. I told him that in the morning, we should go to the bank, put the rings in the lock box and look for the living will.
More on the story of the Legacy of the Step Child, my mother's living - and dying will and how it impacts me today in future posts