The Waiting Room

I imagine that the Good Samaritan Hospital decorating committee has collectively come up with a theme for the waiting room my family has found ourselves in on this afternoon of September 4th 2008.

“Let’s go for cold and sterile,” one of them probably said brightly.

“And uncomfortable!  No one does ‘uncomfortable’ anymore!  I know just the right annoyingly scratchy fabric for the chairs!  And with a little effort we can find a shade of blue that is actually unpleasant!”

“We could design couches that are too small to lie down on so if an anxious loved one tries to take a nap they’ll have to rest their head awkwardly on a wooden arm rest!”

I am pretty certain this last idea came from some young pimply-faced upstart trying to impress the more established members of this sadistic group of cruel interior designers.

Were they afraid people might enjoy themselves too much if they made anything in this unbearable room bearable?   Or that people would start hanging out and having fun as their loved ones suffered impossibly on the other side of the door?

(Okay, okay the rest of my family did manage to get way too drunk and have an overnight party in this very room only twelve hours earlier, but I would hardly consider them your typical hospital clientele.)

As I fantasize about decorating the room with big cushy couches draped with cashmere throws, plush rugs and some Stevie-Nicks-inspired fringed shawls tossed over the utilitarian lamps (possibly even some chimes in the window?), I am startled by my mother being pushed past me in her wheelchair by my oldest brother Dave.

Right…. I remind myself.  We are here on serious business.

The room is deadly quiet.  I can’t recall if any of the eight or so inhabitants have spoken in the last couple of hours.  They are either being quiet out of respect for the situation or still slightly hung over.

I walk over to my brother Greg, bend over and whisper in his ear.

“We have to sign it and we have to tell her.”

Greg is two years older than me and during our youth would have probably slugged me in the face for getting that close to him.

He loved to beat me up when we were kids and if I have to be honest, I kind of liked being beaten up.   In retrospect I’m pretty sure it was less about being a budding masochist than simply being fond of getting attention any way I could.    When you are the last of a large brood of kids, being young and cute just doesn’t elicit the same kind of excitement provoked by those who got there before you.   (Many years after those childhood days when my sister was helping our mother sort through boxes and boxes of old photos, I asked her to put a few aside of me as a little boy.    My sister hesitated for a moment.   “You have to remember you were the last of five…the novelty of taking pictures of kids had pretty much worn off by the time you were born.”

So in my mind it makes sense that when I was feeling needy I would often get in my big brother’s face and mutter repeatedly in an annoying voice, “do you wanna beat me up?  Do you wanna beat me up?  Do you wanna beat me up?” until he would finally indeed want to beat me up.  Then he would chase me around the house while I squealed at the top of my young lungs finally pinning me down on my back with his knees on my arms threatening to spit in my face while letting drool drip dangerously out of his mouth just inches from my horrified eyes before sucking it back in at the last minute.   Although my big brother had admirable timing, there was inevitably that one incident when he waited just a beat too long so that his disgusting saliva landed squarely into the target of my screaming mouth.  The shock actually shut me up for a moment until I started yelling even louder that I needed to be taken to the hospital immediately before the tuberculosis set in.

Sometimes I avoided these pin-downs by out-maneuvering my brother and deliberately slamming myself against our family room stucco wall and collapsing onto our shag carpeting from the impact.  This usually got him in trouble and got me the attention I craved from our often distracted and overwhelmed mother.  My proudest iteration of this technique occurred on a hot lazy summer day when I was balancing on our front porch’s thin metal railing pretending I was a tightrope walker carefully tiptoeing from one red brick porch post to the other.  My brother saw his irresistible opportunity as he sauntered out the front door and casually began shaking the railing under my feet.   I screamed for him to stop and pleaded desperately for help from our neighbors until I got the genius idea of dramatically hurtling myself off the railing and leaving a child-sized dent on top of  the prickly green shrubs below.  The red scratches covering my arms and legs were worth the victory of getting Greg in trouble.

As we got older and the differences in our temperaments became more pronounced our battles shifted from physical to philosophical.  Greg was convinced I liked Barbra Streisand just to make him angry and was almost apoplectic over the fact that Ringo Starr was my favorite Beatle.

“Ringo Starr is no one’s favorite Beatle!” he would hiss at me in disgust.

My stoic big brother who did all he could do keep his emotions in check just could not wrap his head around his hyperemotional, melodramatic kid brother prone to using sophisticated words I often didn’t understand.    For years I would dramatically proclaim loudly that I was famished thinking I was exclaiming my shock and surprise instead of erroneously announcing I was hungry.

“Uncle Maurice was in an accident this morning.”

“What?!  But we just saw him last night!  I am utterly famished!”

But now as we both hover near the half-century mark of our lives, residing in different cities and barely communicating with each other until this god-awful week, those things we fought over feel so vastly unimportant.

And the decision we are going to have to make feels so overwhelmingly important.

No one has discussed the DNR since the doctors talked to us this morning and I’m beginning to get even more anxious than I already have been.

I worry that our sister will have yet another medical crisis and the doctors will traumatize her even more than they already have because we didn’t take action in time and sign a form officially telling them do not resuscitate.

Julie had always been in charge of our family until she pulled a fast one and had this stupid aneurysm.  Since our mother’s decline she has become the de facto matriarch and the keeper and cataloguer of all our vast secrets and outright lies.  She is supposed to be the one sitting with us fashionably dressed making these challenging family decisions instead of lying in a coma next to a bunch of whirring and beeping machines in a thin cotton flowered hospital gown while her body slowly but determinedly shuts down.

Plus she is the main caretaker of our often-difficult mother.   (She would say this job was foisted upon her by the rest of us but I would often counter that she moved down the block from our increasingly needy mother while I moved across the country.  What was she thinking?)

How are the rest of us expected to make this decision and handle the fallout with our mother without her?

If Julie does wake up due to some last minute miracle after we’ve had to deal with all this I’m going to be plenty pissed.

My oldest brother Dave is up again and pushes our Mother’s chair into the bathroom.  Even in his 60’s he has the build of a football player and I still marvel how he and my next oldest brother Paul turned out so physically and temperamentally different from Julie, Greg and me.

But no matter these differences, we are all here for one purpose and need to come together and make a decision.  I’ve stood next to Julie’s hospital bed and quietly sang in her ear, rubbed her arm, held her hand and pleaded with her to wake up–and I often had to wait my turn for others who were trying to do or say anything to change the terrible direction this was heading—but my sister is being her stubborn self.

I repeat to Greg that I think we need to sign the DNR.

“I don’t want them hurting Julie.”

I’m still the youngest brother and still reluctant to take the lead in my family.  It doesn’t matter that I’m sometimes in charge of armies of people in my job in LA.     I’m back in Ohio now and the rules are different.

But Greg agrees without an argument and he also tiredly agrees we need to discuss this with our Mother right away.

“I’ll do it,” he announces.

I’m a bit surprised by this and almost have to refrain from gasping that I’m famished.

Greg’s relationship with Mother is strained to almost nonexistent.  Where Julie and I were easy prey to her guilt-inducing martyrdom, Greg kept her at arms-length and as a result our mother seemed to cherish his meagerly doled-out portions of love the most.  “Greg called me last night to give me his new address,” she would report to me beaming with maternal pride as if this once-every-six-month phone call had more value than me phoning here on my way to work every single morning.     Perhaps Greg is the best one to do this I think.  Since Mother is afraid of him withholding his love from her permanently, he is the only child she won’t argue with.

But as much as I want to keep Greg in the role as the non-participant in the family out of habit, I have to give him credit.  For someone who has barely interacted with his family even when he’s in the same room for the last few decades, he has dived headfirst into this medical quagmire and taken charge this week.  He surprised me with how aggressively he used his lawyerly brain with the often smug doctors to make sure they were doing the best things possible to pull our big sister out of this mess.

The minutes waiting for our mother to emerge from the bathroom begin to feel insufferable.

Mother was always a strong and proud woman.   Having survived a childhood where love seemed to be doled out stingily by her no-nonsense mom and where her father’s best accomplishment from what I could tell was dropping dead while gambling at a racetrack, she had become a fierce and loyal parent.  Even after my father died leaving her five children to raise on her own, she kept us together and kept us fed and made sure she looked good doing it.

But she also had a taste for emotional tantrums.    She once deeply alarmed a boyfriend I brought home to meet the family by lying prostrate on her back on the floor next to out dining room table weeping over a perceived slight she felt he had perpetrated.    My family and I had been playing a word game and had to name an “Object in the Room that Started with the Letter ‘G’”.   Thinking he was clever the boyfriend wrote down Grandma, which quickly sent my mother on her downward trajectory weepily and repeatedly proclaiming “I’m not an object. I’m not an object.”  I wasn’t sure if the poor guy was upset that he had been the source of this emotional outburst or by the fact that the rest of us kids only sighed and rolled our eyes while continuing the game.   “Don’t worry,” my sister whispered trying to reassure him. “She’s not upset you called her an object.  It’s that you called her a grandma.”   My sister was right.  My mother’s beauty was a source of tremendous pride and she couldn’t take the idea of some stranger seeing her as a grandmother.   Eventually she rejoined the game and he learned the first of many topics to avoid to keep family tensions beneath the surface.

Julie was my guide through our mother’s emotional landscape and this moment waiting for that bathroom door to open was when I needed my sister most.

Her house was always the first stop after she picked me up from the airport during my visits home and I counted on her to secure us some pot as reinforcement for dealing with family.  “It’s not easy for a 50-year-old woman to score weed in Cincinnati,” she would drolly remind me.  “Be grateful.”

Julie had recently separated from her husband after over twenty years together.  Although she was every single one of her nieces’ and nephews’ favorite aunt, she never had children of her own and now found her self somewhat unmoored and adrift in middle age.  The big dark fear she quite often texted and emailed me was that she was going to spend the rest of the New Years Eves of her life a lonely spinster watching Dick Clark with her ill  mother.

But I knew she was going to pull through this midlife crisis.  There was nothing “spinster “ about her and I had taken it upon myself to help my big sister through this difficult passage in her life.  As a result, we had become best friends and perfect travelling companions (our trip to New York was epic—strolling with her past the low buildings in the West Village on a cool autumn evening eating Pinkberry was as near to perfection as life.) We discovered much too late in our lives that we couldn’t get enough of each other’s company and had been doing our best to make up for lost time.

So the minute I was home in Cincinnati we would light up in her kitchen before I walked down to our mother’s home and Julie would catch me up on her latest dramas caretaking our frail but seeming indestructible 82-year-old mom making me less and less inclined to leave the comfort of our smoky cannabis haze.

“She called the other day to ask me if it was storming here at my place too,” she said exhaling.    “I reminded her I live five houses away.”

It wasn’t that our mother had lost her mind; she had just become more and more codependent on her children as her life became smaller and smaller.   This fact was evidenced that night by the several texts I had been getting from our mother asking when I was going to finish with Julie and come down to her place.

I loved her but just wanted a little brother/sister time before switching into the all-consuming dutiful son role.

“Let me just get a little more high before I go down,” I begged Julie.

“Honey,” she replied with a sad shake of her head.  “I don’t think it’s possible to get any more high.”

And now in this ugly hospital waiting room only a few weeks later but feeling more like a lifetime, the bathroom door begins to open and Dave jumps to pull our mom and her wheelchair out.

“Mother, we need to talk,” Greg announces forcefully.

Mother looks at the serious faces of her sons and immediately reacts like an animal that instinctively knows it is trapped.  Her vulnerability is only that much more pronounced by the wheelchair.

“Don’t push me up against the table so close.”  She snaps at poor Dave who immediately backs her away from the offending furniture.

Greg is standing next to me as Dave angles her wheelchair towards him.

“I don’t like this angle!” she practically spits at him.

Dave is becoming increasingly befuddled but gamely points Mother and her chair in another angle.

“Not here!” she says with sour impatience.

I see my big brother Paul who is always so strong standing off to the side looking down at his shoes.

I look up at Greg who is still standing and waiting to have this terrible conversation.

“It’s not starting out very well,” I jokingly whisper to him.

Finally our mother’s wheelchair is at the correct angle.

After a slight pause Greg says it.

“The doctors think it would hurt Julie if something went wrong and they tried to resuscitate her.  The want us to sign a DNR.”

The moment those words come out of his mouth I brace myself for the onslaught.

I wait for her to wail and scream at the gods above—to lash out at us and tell us we are cowards for giving up on our own sister. I expect her to rise from her wheelchair and lunge at Greg.

But none of that happens.

“Okay,” she says quietly.

And that’s it.

I sit in numb awe.

My mother just consented to signing a paper telling the doctors not to try to save her daughter’s life — the daughter who, in everyone’s opinion in this room, is the best human being in the entire world and the heart of the family my mother fought so hard to keep intact against what sometimes seemed insurmountable odds.

It would hurt Julie

That is all any of us need to hear.    There is not a cell in any of our bodies that wants to hurt Julie.

The DNR form is signed telling the doctors to let our sister die if need be.   I wonder over how life has changed so much in one week that signing this form gives me relief.

And how could this family that went through so much together from hidden marriages to secret sex changes to surprise siblings seem to be finally giving up the fight.


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Keith Hoffman lives with his artist husband, dog and two cats in the small town Lambertville, New Jersey 72 miles outside of New York City. He has completed a memoir entitled The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.

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