In the eye of the storm I stand, the belly of the ICU cupped around me. It’s Saturday morning, the 26th of October. Outside, the leaves crunch, but within the walls of Kaiser, seasons are at a standstill. There are no pumpkins or fall-scented candles. No kids choosing Halloween costumes; there aren’t harvest parties. It’s blank and it’s sterile.
Room 206 engulfs her, sucking her in. Linens of white a stark contrast to her dark hair. I see beneath the curtain his feet: my dad. The hum of life-sustaining machines lacks in masking the sound of his sleep. Drip, drip, drip. IVs continue to pump would-be miracles through her veins, and he continues to slump further down. Into the chair he falls.
Her head turns away. Can she tell? Does she know?
I slide in through the curtain, my shoes squeak with each step. Resting my hand on her foot as connection, I decide to squeeze her toes before walking around toward her head. I do this every time. As usual, her frail toes feel cool beneath the sheet.
“Feeling good today, mom?” It’s a ridiculous question but it’s all I can think to ask.
She rubs her nose, as the cannula puffs air into her body. She hates the thing and tries to release it for a moment, but her oxygen machine alarms and she fumbles to replace the tubes, fingers shaking as she does.
My heart sinks; her levels don’t look good. I’ve memorized every number and code, the blinking of the screen. I know what is good and what is bad. I know what will bring a nurse rushing in. I know how to maneuver her body to allow more air in. I never know, though, what to expect when I arrive, and on this day, as I watch the blinking lights and numbers on the monitors, there is a feeling of unease.
“I haven’t… coughed yet, so that’s good.” her voice is raspy and dry. “I’m so afraid…” she takes a break to catch her breath, and continues, “afraid I’ll cough so much… I can’t catch my breath… and then…” I notice her voice trail off as she catches a glimpse of my dad. Her eyes are wet, tears likely to spill over.
His hand has fallen over the chair, in turn, pushing his body forward. The shell of what remains of him is slumped down, in an awkward position, breath heavy and hard. Loud. My eyes dart toward my sister who is across the room, questioning her. Abby rolls her eyes in response and I turn back to my mom. My face tries to hide what I know, not sure if I’m successful or not.
“He’s tired, he’s not… sleeping… well.” she says breathless, in response, head moving again toward the window, away from him.
I nod my head once. Within me, the anger begins to bloom like a jellyfish, pushing up from my toes, up, up, up towards my belly. It rises further to my arms, and shoots into my fingers. I feel it tingle in my neck.
My eyes catch something in the corner and I hear it before I see them hit the floor. Small pings as they bounce. Little white pills, ten of them or so, falling from his pocket to the floor. My mom can’t see them, from her place on the bed. Abby notices though, and reaches to scoop them up.
Dilaudid. Her Dilaudid. He's stolen her Dilaudid. And in the final days of her life, he's too high to hold her hand, to comfort her, to reassure her that we will all be okay when she's gone.
How dare he. How dare he do this to her. She lay next to him, struggling through each breath, through the searing pain in her lungs. All she wants to do is live, all she wants is to be saved. And there he sits, doing the very thing she hates. Right next to her.
The smell of the ICU begins to make me feel sick, it’s empty walls, the way the soap stays on your hands long after you’ve gone home for the night. It’s tangible, the scent, it lingers as it pours through my cells, and makes me think of him and of her and of the stupidity of the situation.
I make a mental note to hate him. To never forget, to always remember, what he’s done to her. To us.
Anger is fully within me now, and I’m sure I can’t save face for another moment longer.
“I’m going to grab some coffee, I’ll be back soon, mama.” she smiles. She knows, but chooses not to acknowledge it. It’s easier for her to die without speaking the words, without saying out loud that she knows he’s using.
And in that moment I decide to gift her with that. It’s the least I can do. Fists clenched, I walk around her bed. A quick squeeze of her toes, and I slide my way out. Suddenly, all the breath is released from my lungs as I step outside, a slow exhale, and all I can think is how much I’d love to be able to exchange my breath for hers. To give her a good, solid inhale. I know I can’t though, I know soon her breath will cease, and she will die.