Sisters and Brothers Taking the Place of Fathers and Mothers

This is not your usual column. This has not been your usual day.

I am sitting in a chair in the hospital, watching my brother struggle to breathe. I meant to be writing a column about Israel and Hezbollah or Hillary’s lunge for the center, but I have been sitting here for five hours now, and I am having a hard time thinking of anything except what time the nurse will come in, what meds he will bring for infections and the latest readings of vital signs.

If you don’t have your health, my mother used to say, what do you have?

I want to call my mother to tell her not to worry, that I am here, sitting with my brother. I want her to tell me what a good girl I am for staying until nearly 2 in the morning — but my mother is gone, passed away last spring. She will never sit with any of us again. So I sit, where a mother would.

Sisters and brothers take the place of mothers and fathers.

This, too, is life. How did we get to be so old?

When did we get to be the grown-ups?

I do not believe in leaving people in hospitals alone. Hospitals are dangerous and scary places — even the best of them — and this is one of the very best. Three years ago, they saved my brother’s life here with emergency heart surgery; I was 6,000 miles away then. This is easy, by comparison. Just kidney stones. Intense pain, but not so dangerous.

Even so, I say. I do not want to take any chances. What if they forget you? What if you can’t reach your buzzer? Who will get the ice chips and the soda and call the nurse and wipe your forehead? I do.

I feel a little useful, at least. I will wait until your fever goes down, I tell my brother. That was four hours ago. I am still here. No one has asked me to leave. I take that as a bad sign. I have spent too much time in hospitals. Not being asked to leave after visiting hours have ended is always a bad sign.

There is a sense of urgency in a hospital that makes you feel, although surrounded by sickness, intensely, frighteningly, alive. And terrified at the same time. Mortality is everywhere. It is unavoidable.

My brother tells me he made many deals with God earlier today. Then he thought he was out of the woods. Then he got sick again. More deals. Who says we liberals are godless? Not when we’re sick.

I sit here and negotiate my own deals. I am in the hospital where all my grandparents died, where my uncles and aunts died; a hospital full of sadness, that’s how good a hospital it is.

Is God listening?

Can I remember to remember that this is what really matters?

Can I remember to remember that true pleasure is nothing more complicated than the absence of pain, that joy is nothing more complicated than not being here, than knowing no one who is here?

If I am extra polite to the nurses, will they take extra good care of my brother when I am gone?

What are we but flesh and blood, numbers and readings, fragile little people struggling to breathe?

I feel silly and useless with my giant briefcase full of important papers that will save no one’s life; my head full of meaningless facts that know nothing of blood pressure and infection.

I try my best to sound respectful to the girl half my age whom I call doctor and to the boy younger still who is the nurse, in whose hands I place my brother’s life; why didn’t I learn something useful when I had the chance?

These are the kids who went in to medicine because they cared, long after the days when it was the way to make money. I want to hug them, I want to embrace them, I want to thank them. Instead, I just smile wearily. This is what they do every day. The Lord’s work. More power to them.

Please God, let my brother get well. Yours, too.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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