I said something stupid, like how are you?
Eric said, Fine. He always says Fine. It makes me angry. Stop saying that. Stop being so goddamn brave when I am so scared. I want to fall weeping on his chest, but leave the hospital room in search of his doctor.
In teaching hospitals like Mass General in Boston, the medical teams change every four to seven days and I had not yet met Eric’s new attending physician. I approached the desk. The nurse was focusing on a computer. I waited. I cleared my throat. Finally she looked up. She had brown eyes. She said the doctor was on his way. She said she heard they almost lost Eric at Baystate Hospital. She said Eric was a sweetheart.
But I already knew all that. I wanted new information. Like would he live or die.
A doctor wearing his stethoscope as proudly as a woman in a diamond necklace, stepped off the elevator. He looked important and a little smug walking briskly, imperiously toward me.
He took my outstretched hand. “Mrs. Hughes? I’m Eric’s attending.”
I looked at the name on his badge. Jeffrey Goldstein. He’s Jewish! And from Mass General’s Harvard! A great sign. My Jewish forebears adored smart Jewish doctors. Everyone approved of smart Jewish doctors. But he didn’t look Jewish. Maybe he has a gentile mother. He had light-colored eyes and blondish hair. And he was young. Who wants a young half-Jewish doctor for her beloved sick son? I wanted a doctor who knew about suffering from anti-Semitism or whose parents were concentration camp survivors or who had a child as sick as mine. A sick child would really be great.
“I’m Eric’s mother,” I said. I hoped my glasses hid my black-smudged eyes. What kind of mother wears mascara to the hospital?
His cell phone played a little tune—one of those old timey songs like “Take me out to the ball game.”
He put the phone to his ear and moved away.
“Let’s go to my office,” he said when he returned.
He led me down the corridor to a small windowless room with a desk and a couple of chairs. He didn’t sit behind the desk which worried me. We sat in the chairs facing each other.
He leaned forward with his hands on his knees as if he was about to tell me a secret. “When your son was operated on for the tumor on his kidney, scar tissue had formed on his intestine. And when the doctor removed it his intestine was perforated.
Does he think I don’t know that?
“I know that,” I said.
“New scar tissue has formed again around his intestine.”
I stared at him.
He dropped his eyes. For a crazy moment I felt sorry for this young man forced to deliver bad news to somebody’s mother. This felt better than feeling sorry for my son. And for myself. But the moment passed. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that with his kidney failure the situation is complicated.”
Situation? My son is not a situation. My terror is not a situation.
“He’s getting dialysis,” he went on, “antibiotics for the infection and blood transfusions. And of course the feeding tube.”
Why is this man telling me things I already know? But I smiled and said properly, “Yes, he’s getting wonderful care here.” I had to keep this doctor on my side. He has to save my son. I must motivate him to save my son. I’ll buy him a good dinner with expensive wine. A beautiful silk tie. A cashmere sweater. Blue. Like his eyes. I’ll sleep with him.
“And then there’s the polycythemia—“
“The poly what?” I asked.
“Polycythemia ruba vera—it’s a blood condition that makes too many red blood cells.”
“But that’s what my mother had!”
He looked interested. “I didn’t know it was genetic.” He frowned at his watch. “I’m on rounds. We’ll talk again later,” he said, as he hurried from the room.
It was a cruel, monstrous mistake. I was next in line for my mother’s polycythemia. I should have been the one to get it. Nature got its generations screwed up. Nature gone nuts. It was enough that Eric’s kidneys failed. He didn’t need a rare blood disorder that rightfully belonged to me.
I sat down at Eric’s bedside with a book I was too afraid to read. I thought he needed my watchful vigilance—if I averted my eyes he would die. I cannot lose him. My life will turn to mush if I lose him. I have known him his entire life. From the moment—the second! of his life. A mother must save her child. A mother can figure it out because losing a child is unacceptable. Because losing a child is like losing your heart. A real mother does not let her son die. I raised him to be the very nice man he is. I divorced his father which gave him pain, but nothing like the pain I am now getting back.
I longed to change places, to take his illness from him for myself. But what chance does magical wishing have against failed kidneys, a doctor’s knife cutting into his intestine, peritonitis and an inherited blood disorder? Please. Give me a break.
If my son dies I will blow up the hospital and everything in it. No, if my son dies I will sell my house ad give the proceeds to this hospital to save the life of some other mother’s child. If my son dies I will loathe every mother on earth with healthy children. If my son dies I will become a nun and devote myself to the leper colony wherever that is.
Okay, okay, calm down. They’re doing everything they can. Think positive. He will recover. Deep breaths! One day at a time. Trust in God. Believe in the wisdom of fortune cookies. Remember to say thank you to the nurses and the friends and relatives who call on your cell phone. Be polite. Do not say that they have no idea what this is like. Do not think how much you hate their stupid clichés. But who knows? Maybe the clichés are true. Maybe that’s why they’re clichés.
J.D. is praying for Eric. So is the man behind the super market deli counter back home and the clerk at the dry cleaners because I explained to each of them that my son was very sick. So if you count all our praying friends, family members and acquaintances it could very well be twenty people. All praying! More, even, counting the mailman I had also confided in and the dishwasher repair guy. But God must be busy elsewhere—that is, if God is up there or somewhere because my son is getting weaker. Because if half—if one-fourth—of the prayers for Eric reached their destination he would not still be lying helplessly and jaundiced-faced, with an uneaten breakfast on his bedside table. I did not pray because I could not bear my rage at its apparent futility. I preferred to accept Sartre’s idea of random absurdity to my anger at the indifference of a God who may or may not even exist.
The blond doctor, followed by a flock of interns walked in. The interns looked like kids playing doctor in their white coats and unlived faces and stethoscopes. Coming into the room like fourth graders on a hospital field trip, they looked so young and tired I thought crazily that I ought to make them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder Bread. They were trying to learn how to be real doctors on my son’s body. The world was being taken over by kids! We need grownups! This was life and death! Go learn on somebody else’s body. Some old person who isn’t my son, who doesn’t have four children and a sister and a brother and a wife and a mother. My son has had enough mistakes inflicted on him by the medical profession.
“Please wait in the hall, I need to talk to you,” the Doctor said.
I did as I was told. The doctor was speaking to the interns but I didn’t get the words. My sorrow seemed to turn the sounds into some kind of a song. I thought I heard the doctor say, “How are you feeling, Eric. But that couldn’t be right. What kind of dumb question is that? Is that what he learned in medical school?
The doctor came out and took my arm. “Let’s go to my office.”
“No. Now. Talk to me now.”
I thought I saw his eyes moisten. No, I was sure of it. I was surprised. I started to like him.
“As I told you, new scar tissue has formed on Eric’s intestine,” he said. “He can’t survive another operation and he can’t live with scar tissue blocking his intestine. We stopped the dialysis and we’re keeping him comfortable with morphine. That’s all we can do.”
I stared at him. Somewhere in a fissure of my mind or in the pain in my gut or in my rising stomach or in the break of my heart or in my suddenly shaking hand, I understood. I got it. They were letting him go.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor mumbled, looking down at his shoes.
I swayed on my feet. The doctor grabbed my arm. “Someone!” he yelled to the flock of interns waiting down the hall. One of them raced over. They half carried me into the waiting room and eased me into a chair.
“I’ll call your husband,” the doctor said, leaving the room.
People were gathering in the waiting room. Jill came with Rosa, Eric’s wife—widow. Jill had offered Eric her kidney after knowing him only a few months. Which he did not live to receive.
“Eric has been one of the most important people in my life,” she had told me when I called to thank her for her extraordinary, astonishing offer. “It was actually selfish,” she said. “I wanted him to survive so I could have his friendship.”
At the funeral there were more surprises as I watched three or four women stand in line waiting to speak about what Eric had meant to them. And later, more surprises from women in letters to me. Unknown to each other, each wrote of an emotional connection to him.
What was going on here? He was no hunk or Don Juan; bald, overweight, restless, opinionated, wickedly funny. And it wasn’t sex—each woman in line and others in letters spoke of his being there with kindness, support and advice when they were in need. Maybe he was that rare straight man who saw women as people, not sex objects? A committed feminist, he deliberately choose a woman pediatrician for his little daughter.
I wanted to see Eric and started down the hall to his room. I heard footsteps behind me and felt someone grab my hand. “You’d better let me go in there with you,” my husband said.
I stopped and looked at him. Why shouldn’t I go alone to see my son? Did J.D. know something I didn’t know? Then I remembered. Someone said Eric died.
“I want to go by myself,” I said.
He released my hand and I continued down the hall to his room. I had walked that corridor so many times that it had become as routine as all the hotel rooms, rented cars and airplanes of the last six months traveling from Austin, Texas to Boston.
His door was closed. I opened it and went inside. The room was dim. They had always kept the florescent lights on in the evening until bedtime but now it was so dark I could hardly make out the motionless figure on the bed. I walked over to him. “Eric,” I said, “It’s me, Mom.”
He didn’t answer. Of course he didn’t answer. He was dead.
I pulled the chair over to his bed and sat down. The figure under the covers that used to be Eric was—I remembered the phrase from somewhere—as still as death. I touched his face. It was cold. I sat there in the chair watching him. He was dead. I knew that, Of course I knew that, but he was there, under the covers.
“Rosa wants to come in,” J.D. said, walking into the room.
“I have to be here,” I said. “Eric needs me here.”
“His wife wants in,” he said again.
* * *
I dreaded going to bed that night, but surprised myself by falling asleep. Around three, I woke, worried in my confusion that Eric was coming down with measles. Measles can be dangerous in an adult. I sat up. I must get him to a doctor.
On my way to the bathroom I remembered. Eric had measles when he was eight years old. It was now three o’clock in the morning and in some kind of cosmic mistake Eric and I have switched roles. The mother has outlived the son. That is not supposed to happen. It is against nature and order and logic. It leaves an abyss. It leaves a broken heart. It changes everything.