The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

Lessons of Mother Love

Regina Mara Schwartz

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The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

Iwas 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.

In the end, our conversation was surprisingly short, and not nearly as philosophical as I had anticipated. He gave me a list of my mother’s disabilities—as if I didn’t know—and then concluded that they added up to the end of her life. Some kind of ethics. I didn’t need to save my mother in a protracted philosophical battle on ethics, only to punch him out. You see, I had heard the phrase “We can make her comfortable” intoned with gravitas one too many times. Now I was more disappointed than devastated when doctors wanted to kill my mother. She had recovered from her first stroke, compensating for the losses on one side of her brain with the other side. Through the tireless work of specialists at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute and her own determination, she had regained virtually all of her capacities. Then, a year later, the second stroke cruelly hit the functioning side of her brain. The damage was motor: She couldn’t walk, talk, or swallow any more. But she could still paint and she was an artist: Her right arm was spared, still mobile and very strong. She could reason clearly and had a rich emotional life. She could communicate effectively, writing when she needed, but what she mainly communicated, through her eyes, was love.

I periodically asked her if her immobility was too hard on her, and did she understand the question. No, she shook her head, it was not too hard on her, and yes, she nodded, she understood. I confess I was surprised by her determination, her fortitude, her courage. I sang love songs to her, thankfully, with the help of Plácido Domingo’s recordings. She used her good arm, first to hug me whenever I entered her room, and then to conduct while Plácido and I sang our hearts out.

At the high Cs, she would lift her arm toward the ceiling, as would I, and our hands would lock there: “Esperaaaanza!” When I wasn’t singing along with the Maestro, I read to her, assisted her painting, shared magazine ads with her (we had been critiquing advertising layouts since I was a child), and told her silly stories and laughed with her. We did not worry about the news, or errands, or who we liked and didn’t or why. We just loved. Days flew by.

When she became ill, we went together in the ambulance to whatever doctors or hospitals she needed. Nursing her was not draining because she was always giving so much. What she gave was what she always gave, a level of understanding that was beyond words. And not just to me. After her first stroke, in rehab class, Nurse Mary had arranged the wheelchairs of the patients in a circle and was batting a balloon to each in order. When the balloon fell to just the right level for that patient’s capacities, she would call out “now,” and the patient’s motionless arm would reach and try to hit it. Watching her level of acute observation, I felt as though I was finally learning how to teach. Only one patient, a paraplegic teenager who had been shot in gang warfare, didn’t try. My mother could talk then, and she rolled her chair up to him and quietly said, “If I am trying to do this, and I am in my late eighties, then you really ought to give it your best.” He did after that.

Now, a young nurse stopped me in the hospital just before Dark-suit appeared: “Aren’t you Regina? How is your mother? You know, I owe my new job to her: She encouraged me to learn to drive, so I would be not at the mercy of agencies with vans and I could get to the hospital to work. I love working here.” My mother had sprinkled her fairy dust on this woman, as on everyone else she knew.

So, I told Mr. Ethics: “Quality of life? My mother cannot run a mile or eat a meal at a table, but she is giving and receiving more love than anyone in this place who can. I’m not sure how you measure quality of life, but that is how we do.” His eyes instantly welled up with tears and he walked away, apparently unable to speak.

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Regina Mara Schwartz is a professor of English at Northwestern University and a former fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her books include Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism and The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. This essay is adapted from her most recent book, Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, by permission of Oxford University Press.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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