Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Bargain

by Miriam Schulman

Three years ago, while my son was studying for his bar mitzvah—the ritual that marks a Jewish 13-year-old's entry into the responsibilities of religious adulthood—my mother was preparing for her own life passage. She was dying.

At first, I didn't know it. Mom had suffered her initial heart attack more than 20 years previously. Two bypasses, an angioplasty, and several myocardial infarctions later, we were used to dealing with heart problems. Because she lived with us, I kept track of her physical state. When she began to exhibit shortness of breath, I thought we were simply in for another round with the cardiologist.

Indeed, her doctor did put her on a fancy new medication, one that made her weak and anxious but one that, he assured us, would eventually regulate the arrhythmia that was plaguing her. She was better, and then she wasn't.

The soundtrack for this period in my memory is my son practicing his Torah portion—chanting about the sacrifices the ancient Israelites brought for the new moon—and the sound of my mother's breathlessness. A monitor we installed in her room broadcast the whole sequence: low, quick exhalations, like a sleeper fighting off a bad dream, and then the terrible retching. Each time, I would run to her, without much to offer beyond my presence.

The crisis came in December with the inevitable introduction of cold germs into the house. My mother's sniffles escalated quickly into a heaving chest and wracking cough. Bronchitis, the doctor ruled, prescribing cough suppressant that, when combined with her other medications, made Mom loopy.

When I went to check on her one night, I found her in a heap at the side of her bed, so disoriented that she had apparently woken up, fallen, and then dropped back into sleep right there on the floor. We took her to the emergency room.

As I listened to my mother's labored breathing at the hospital, I prayed. I'm a reasonably observant Jew, and prayer is my habit. But generally my petitions are constructed so that they don't require a material answer. Having learned early that God does not necessarily give you the shiny red bicycle you asked for, I've come to request things that, with a little help, I can find within myself—strength, courage, wisdom.

But this time, I asked for something only God could give me. "Don't," I pleaded, "do this to me. It's one month before my son's bar mitzvah. Don't take her from me now."

Part of my mind, I have to confess, was fixating on the logistics. What would we do if Mom died so close to what should be a joyous occasion? Would we need to postpone it, and if so, what about the family coming from out of town, the caterer, the service my son had worked so hard on?

But focusing on the practicalities was mostly a way of avoiding the depth of my sadness. My father had died just three years earlier. I could not bear the idea that neither of my parents would be there to see the tradition they had nurtured in me pass to the next generation. "God," I said, "surely You want her to be there."

In the years since, I've realized two things about that prayer. First, it was a sort of bargain. It wasn't quite like the deal a child might try to strike with God: "Don't let the teacher collect the homework today, and I promise I'll do all next week's assignments early." There was, however, a price for what I'd asked.

My mother did recover from the bronchitis, and she made it to my son's bar mitzvah. But she did not have an easy death. Had she succumbed to the upper-respiratory infection, she would have passed away quickly. Instead, she struggled for another six months with episodes of gasping that came more and more frequently, with deteriorating mobility, with memory lapses, with the thousand indignities of invalid life.

But at my son's celebration, my mother was in the front row. When I imagine her face that day—so proud and fulfilled—I remember the second revelation I had about that prayer It was not my petition God answered that day; it was my mother's.