Stealing Mama's Ring
by Stacy Taylor
Two weeks ago, I stole my dead Mother’s ring.
I didn’t actually steal it. I was the one who bought it, after all, but I had always wanted it. It was not expensive at all, and I even got it at sixty percent off. It was a gold band, wide on the front and narrow on the back. The front was a cluster of Black Hills gold with delicate leaves that sparkled in the light and tiny, perfect pink roses scattered amidst them.
I didn’t think of the ring when I got word that Mama was dying. Instead, I thought about getting to her, but at the same time, I truly did not want to go. When I told my husband this, he nodded, and I knew he could tell what I meant after having lost his own mother to cancer twelve years earlier.
Like a good daughter, I made all the arrangements and began the long trip from Alaska to Georgia with dread in my heart. As soon as my flight landed, my brother-in-law drove me to the hospital where my entire family waited. My sister, Elaine, and youngest brother, Sandy, warned me that she looked awful. They told me to steel myself because Mama was sicker than she’d ever been before. Drawing a deep breath, I donned the yellow cover gown, placed disposable elf-looking things over my shoes, and entered her room in the intensive care unit.
There she was, white and thin. Her eyes were closed and a thousand beeps and whooshes filled the room to solidify the inevitable presence of death. My eyes welled with tears, which couldn’t quite spill over as I looked down at her. She was so different. All my life Mama was a formidable woman, though kind-hearted. At five eleven, she towered above me and often put the fear of God into me with her strong, respect-demanding personality. It was so difficult to see her lying there and to realize that had I not known it was my mother, I would have passed her by believing her a stranger.
My brother talked to her and her eyes opened, but they did not see. Several blankets were pulled up around her and my eyes were drawn to the point where those blankets dropped sharply to nothing just below her right knee. That very morning they had taken her leg and all I could think was how angry she was going to be when she woke and realized it was gone. I was terribly uncomfortable and made an excuse so that I could get out of that stifling room as soon as possible.
In the waiting area, more people had gathered, including my other siblings, Eddie, and Kaye. These were relatives I had not seen in a long time. I felt guilty for being away so long and I wanted nothing more than to be out of the hot south and back to the cool of my home. I didn’t feel anything else other than discomfort. My clothes were dirty, my hair messy, and I was acutely aware of what others were surely thinking of me. Twice more, each time with a different sibling, I went back to the room where my mother lay struggling for life. The stench, the sounds, and the way it was open for the ICU staff to watch us made me feel ill. I imagined that the doctors and nurses could see that I was distanced, unaffected by Mama’s fate. I felt like a fraud and a terrible daughter. I could not stand that room.
Finally, we called it a night as my mother’s condition was critical, but unchanging. My sister had been there for three days without a break, but there was no way in all hell that I was about to stay there alone. Dinner was tasteless and the fatigue I had battled for two days settled into my body. Sleep could not be delayed any longer and I fell into it gratefully.
On the fifth day, the doctors removed Mama’s breathing tube, per her wishes. We were unprepared for the changes that would cause. As they began to work on her, the nurses with their thick southern drawls shooed us out of the way informing us that this would take a while. We went to the Waffle King for lunch and had a great time reminiscing, my two sisters, my two brothers, and me. We ate grits while Mama’s life was cancelled decisively.
When we returned, we put on our gowns and entered her room. I’ll never forget her face. Not if I live to be a thousand years old will I be able to erase from my mind the way her eyes looked. They were wide open, seeing nothing, yet full of so much. Her forehead was furrowed and she was clearly struggling for every breath. Where before she was quiet, her ragged and sporadic breathing now overpowered even the loudest equipment that surrounded her. And her eyes. The only way to describe them is distress. Whether it was pain or fear, I couldn’t tell, but she felt something. White muck oozed from her mouth and her eyes just stared ahead - in distress.
I backed away and felt the wall stop my flight. While the rest of my family stroked her forehead, I cowered in the corner unable to retreat any farther. Mama didn’t blink her eyes again for eighteen hours after that. And when they finally closed, much to my relief, they never opened again.
The next day, Thursday, they took her away from ICU and placed her in a private room. Elaine and I slept on a foldaway couch by her bed that night. We ate doughnuts and popcorn and watched the local news. We slept very little with the sound of the respirator in our ears.
Friday night my brothers came and visited, then left my two sisters and me alone with Mama. Elaine gave Kaye and me a French manicure then went to work on Mama’s nails. She took special care with them, making certain they were painted that shade of deep plum that Mama loved so much. We had a good time; it was the closest we three had been in many years.
She died Saturday afternoon, and I watched calmly as she took her final breath. I saw my sisters cry while I remained dry-eyed and I never even touched her. I should at least have touched her face.
The Sunday before her funeral, Elaine and I went through Mama’s meager possessions and I found the ring. I wanted only to take it from the box and slip it on my finger. I didn’t say anything at first but later that night I brought it up to Elaine as I sat there fondling it.
“Maybe I should keep this ring. It would give me something to remember her by.”
“Why don’t you? You can’t take much of anything else on the plane and this way you’d at least get something.”
“Well, what would people say? She did love this ring… maybe she should have it.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about what people say. You aren’t going to be here anyway. Just take it. You bought it, you should keep it.”
“Did she wear it a lot?”
“No, it was too small, but she kept it nearby. You could have sent her a rock and she would have loved it. She loved everything you sent and always made a big deal about showing it off to anyone who would take a minute to look.”
I hedged, needing her to convince me that it was all right. “I don’t know. Maybe I should just give it to the funeral home and have them put it on her."
My sister looked me in the eye. “Keep it.”
Her tone was firm, friendly, and final. I slipped the ring onto the third finger of my right hand and admired the way it sparkled. “All right then, I’ll keep it.”
The funeral was held on the following Tuesday. We sat at the long, white-covered tables that the ladies of the church had prepared for us and ate delicious home cooked food that we weren’t supposed to want. I was starving and devoured everything on my plate with only the thought of good manners preventing me from going back for more.
It was January but the temperature was seventy-five degrees and I sweltered in my winter dress and pantyhose. Again, I found myself closing my eyes and wishing for snow and icy air.
I had not been inside the church since I was fifteen years old, and that, more than my dead mother at the back of the room, caused intense feelings of nostalgia to rise inside me. I was grateful for the moisture those feelings brought to my eyes because I didn’t want my entire family to think that I wasn’t going to cry. I was supposed to cry. I barely pulled it off and only pretended for the most part with tissues pressed to my eyes constantly.
It was a lovely ceremony and a lady with a beautiful voice sang Amazing Grace. I was startled to recall that I had chosen that song the previous Monday when we sat before the funeral director planning the service.
Afterwards, we milled in the churchyard until everyone had left. The sun was bright, and while I managed to avoid looking at the ring on my finger, I could feel the weight of it. It seemed to pull at me and I had never felt so tired in my life. The thought that I had stolen Mama’s ring only because it was beautiful kept surfacing in my mind.
Eight days later, I kissed my family goodbye and boarded my 11:58 am flight. All the way home I felt strange: untouched, impatient, and slightly sick. I arrived back to my cold white world at 12:48 am and was never more grateful to see the lights of home than I was that night. I slept soundly and woke early to get my son ready for school. It was a Friday and I wasn’t due back to work until Monday. I had the day all to myself and I intended to enjoy every second of my time.
I started out by giving myself a manicure. I don’t know why, really. It was just something I felt compelled to do. I filed and buffed and polished until my nails were lovely and clean, and they reminded me of Mama and how Elaine had painted her nails the night before she died. I shoved the memory away.
When I was done, I dressed in warm clothes and went out to pick up a few groceries. On the way, I passed a gift shop where I very often bought things to send to my mother. In lieu of actually visiting her, I would buy her things. Pretty Alaska things that I knew would make her smile. A hand painted Eskimo doll in the window caught my eye and I turned the car into the parking lot.
The sun was high in the sky and shining off the white snow. I got out of the car and was halfway across the lot when a brilliant flash of light glittered off the ring on my right hand. Mama’s Ring. The flash seemed to explode into my eyes and the truth hit me at once. She was gone. I could not buy my mother this doll or anything else. There was no way left for me to show her that I loved her and missed her. Tears flooded my eyes and at last, they spilled over, finally releasing me.
Turning, I groped my way through the cars until I found my own. I opened the door and sat at the wheel. All of the emotion I had been unable to feel before crashed down on me like a brick wall. I sat in the car for a while and just cried. People looked at me as they passed by but they left me alone. I felt a terrible loss and a lot of guilt for spending so much of my life without my mother, even though I knew she understood.
Above all, I felt relief for finally feeling something since her passing. I felt normal for the first time since I had gotten word that she was dying. I was suddenly glad I had stolen Mama’s ring.
I bought the doll anyway. I placed it on a shelf in my living room and every time I look at it, I remember how beautiful Mama’s smile was. And the ring remains always on the third finger of my right hand.
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