I awoke this morning to a phone call I didn't want to take. Tom, the man I have considered my stepdad for more than 20 years, had died some time during the night.
Mom and Tom had been together 17 years when she died quite suddenly and completely unexpectedly in 2004. They'd never married; I didn't care. They were more "together" than I had ever known my mom and biological dad to be, despite the fact that they were married for 27 years. In my heart, if not on paper, Tom was my stepdad.
Today he is gone. All those stupid things people say to try to comfort those in mourning mean nothing. I don't care if he is with God or if he is in a better place or if his suffering is over...he is not here. And yet, what was here to Tom?
In all the years Mom and Tom were together, she encouraged Tom to be dependent on her. She cooked all the meals, did all the shopping, the laundry...you see where this is going. Mom liked being needed; she liked playing the martyr. I'm not disrespecting her; Mom was a complicated woman. Her mental illness kept her from ever feeling she was good enough; in her own mind, she always fell short. Being needed gave her something to live for, something to make her feel worthy. And Tom seemed to enjoy being waited on, hand and foot.
But when Mom got a new job in her mid-60s, her responsibilities demanded she be away from the house, which meant Tom would be alone. Older than her by 5 years, he was not able--had not been trained or encouraged--to stay on his own for extended periods of time. And by this time, he had several health issues, though I can't tell you what they were because one manifestation of Mom's mental status was pathological lying. One week he had Parkinson's; the next it was Touretts syndrome. I couldn't keep up and I didn't know what to believe.
This new job of Mom's brought her a new circle of friends and gave her a renewed lease on life; she was happy and felt valued. But Tom's presence and neediness stood in her way. So she put him in a home. And she abandoned him. And of all the things my mom has ever done that hurt--and there have been more than I can tell you--this is the one I can't get past.
It hurts me to type that admission, that confession of one of her most mortifying acts. And yet as Tom's body is being prepared for cremation, I can't NOT say it. As these tears wash over my face and blur my vision, I see in my mind a picture of a healthier Tom. And while I'm grieving, I know it's not so much over his passing, but over his ending.
Because Tom worshiped the ground my mother walked on. She could do no wrong, even as she belittled him, chastised him, complained about him. In happier days, they would go dancing at the Fire Hall or the Legion. And people would back up to watch them, they were that spectacular. Mom loved to cook; Tom loved to eat. She was bossy; he didn't seem to mind being pushed around. It was a symbiotic relationship and one that brought both of them a form of happiness.
And so to know Mom just warehoused him because greener pastures were calling absolutely slays me. At the same time, I know she was not well herself. She never had been mentally stable, and her physical health was in rapid decline, though only she knew just how so at that point. Was this tossing away of Tom an act of love, done so that he would be taken care of when she suddenly dropped dead? I've wanted to--tried to--believe that, but I know better. She did this because she wanted something else. It causes me deep shame to admit that, and I know she would never have let me get away with doing something so morally corrupt.
But Mom didn't play by the same rules as those of us with all our faculties. And most of the time, I let her slide. But not this time. I told her I thought what she did was appalling. I reminded her of all the good times they'd had, how Tom loved her like no man ever had loved her. I beseeched her not to just lock him up and abandon him to a life she knew would be sheer torture for him. She did not listen.
And in fact, during the last phone conversation she and I had, she lied and told me she'd been to visit Tom at the nursing home. I, ridiculously enough, believed her. I thought maybe she'd had a change of heart. But no, I later found out that had been just one more in a very long list of lies. She wanted me to think better of her.
After Mom's death, I visited Tom whenever I went east, which was not often. And whenever I did visit him, he would be so drugged up he wasn't fully aware. He'd have lucid moments, but that was the most I could hope for. Still, I went because if there was even a remote chance my presence could bring him a moment of happiness, I wanted to give him that. He deserved much more than that, more than I was able to give.
The last time I saw him, this past October, he was bent over in his wheelchair so far that his nose almost touched his kneecaps. My aunt and I got him into his bed, propped him up, and made him as comfortable as possible. He remembered me and my kids; he didn't remember Mom. He had photos of my family on his bulletin board, and there were cards I had sent him on his nightstand. I tried to remain a part of his life, let him know he was still thought of and loved, even if I had to do it long distance.
As I sat on the bed with him holding his bony hand, I knew I probably would never see Tom again. In fact, I wished for him an end to the indignity, the emptiness, the nothing-life my mom committed him to. Yes, now he was sick enough to require professional care around the clock. When Mom sent him away, he was nowhere near the shattered man who lay before me. Did her getting rid of him cause this rapid decline? I can't say for sure.
But here's what I do know: Tom Bellante loved my mom despite a mental illness that caused her do to unspeakable things to those she loved most. He cared for her and made her laugh. He rescued her from a life of loneliness and gave her something--and someone--to live for. He told her she was beautiful and believed the sun rose and set with her. He took her dancing and made her feel important. He was all the things a partner should be, even when she didn't deserve it.
Rest in peace, Tom. And know how much you meant to me.