I confess I was surprised by my mother’s determination, her fortitude, her courage.
I was holding her hand and singing softly to her when the man in the white coat came in. I guessed from his coldness that he was not bearing good news. Sometimes, when I was surrounded by doctors who had given up on Mama’s life, I felt besieged by a death squad. When she was alert, her warm, brown, reassuring eyes could make me move mountains, certainly strengthen me to ward off the doctors’ negativity. But when she was in a medicated sleep, I was on my own and more vulnerable. Now here was the ominous pulmonologist. He beckoned me to the window, held up both sets of X-rays, and showed that the dark area was bigger on today’s films than yesterday’s: Her lungs were filling up with fluid. I suspected that this was a side effect of one of the drugs this hospital had introduced for her infection. So, looking at those dark shadows in the X-rays at the window, I went on “side-effect alert.” This meant that immediately I would need to search reliable computer sites like the Mayo Clinic or Harvard Med about drug reactions, consult with specialists, and stop whatever was encroaching in my mother’s lungs immediately. However, this doctor seemed to have another plan.
I discovered what that was two hours later, when another man appeared in her room, this one clad in a dark suit instead of a white jacket. Dark-suit had been sent by White-jacket to speak to me about “the question of life.” I asked what his specialty was, doubting that he was a philosopher. “Ethics” he said, and then, to my horror, he began telling me—in front of my mother—that there were questions about the quality of her life. Some ethicist. I put my finger over my lips to implore his silence, and whispered that any such conversation surely needed to take place elsewhere. In the hall, I explained that I too am very interested in ethics and that I’d been teaching courses in justice and ethics at Northwestern Law School. He replied that he was an expert in medical ethics. So now, it seemed, I needed to turn from side effects to ethics alert.