Adam Karni Cohen

Two Beds for Two Women
May 7, 2012

There are two women in two beds, side by side.
I am awake and so is the Arab woman. You, Sasra, my grandmother, are asleep. It must be close to one. Our family rotates every few hours. The nurses are more precise, swapping shifts at midnight. Hassan looked in with Svetlana an hour earlier.
Or so I think. These aren’t solid facts. We have little science. We survive on belief in this new cathedral, the hospital: a place of faith where we confess to doctors and pray. Who truly understands why some recover, some die?
The Arab woman moans, aiya, aiya. She rolls from side to side, clutching at her stomach. She isn’t pregnant but looks it, fat as the bed, hands just able to rest by her sides without falling off. Aiya, aiya: a soft drone, not wailing but insistent. She does not ask explicitly for help but it’s clear she wants it, and as her confidence in her summoning power grows, her volume rises. I feel guilty, sitting, reading. I also feel mad. Not for her pain, but her arrogance: always here in Israel, even in the intensive care unit, that obsession for the better deal.
Aiya, I want less pain, and a nicer bed, with a TV, and I want a new body, and a Coke, and I want it on special offer and now. The formula is: ask, don’t get, ask, ask, ask, get.
But of course. We do the same for you, Sasra.
Svetlana comes in, straight and flat as a thermometer. She hushes.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
The woman, in child-like Hebrew, says, “It hurts.”
Svetlana says, “No more painkillers for three hours.”
Quite. I look at my hands. They are tanned from spending most of this week outdoors: the weather is perfect for those without melanoma. I think, I wouldn’t make such noise, I would take it, I wouldn’t expect to get something for nothing. This is the public sector. And nothing squashes privilege like a terse Russian nurse on night shift.
Yet Svetlana smooths the hair on the heaving forehead. She takes the woman’s hand. She checks the pulse, pauses, checks again, moving first hurriedly, then anxiously. Suddenly I feel sorry. I’m editorializing on privilege when all I hear is pain. I want this woman’s condition to be better, not worse. I want Svetlana to look up. I want no urgency. I want no reminders that you, my grandmother, are very ill.
Svetlana looks up. She nods at me. She leaves at a normal pace.
Aiya, aiya.
My resentment redoubles: how dare this woman make me worry needlessly? My heart-rate has soared!
But the cathedral is good for that. It’s a workout. (And in case I want more, there is a gym just beside the hospital.) If we don’t understand why some recover, some die, how can we know whether this moment is critical, this moment not?
The double doors swing, as in a saloon bar where the music could change at any time. I wish someone would press the button.
Two women in two beds. In three days, both will be gone.
Post-surgical infection affects 2 to 5% of patients, according to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Beth Israel is not in Israel – it’s in Boston, where I was born. My mother took a Caesarean to hurry me out because, after three days, I was still kicking the walls of the womb and doing a pre-birth aiya. My mother had the luck of the 95-98%. In Ichilov – aka Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center – her mother did not.
Every fifteen minutes or so, the artificial respirator becomes clogged; the heart-beat gets confused; a gurgling sound comes from the machine – or is it you, Sasra? – and there is a momentary silence as it freezes. One second. Two seconds. My prayers cease to implore and start to threaten. Three seconds. Four. Five. Grind. Clunk. Puff. The clog clears.
You are asleep. Do the critically ill have nightmares? About what? What is worse than grind or clunk? But nightmares are not relative to life. A sick person might fear responsibility. Or the medical bill. Or discovering their home has been repainted green.
Do you dream of health? Do you see your seventy-nine year-old body walking streets, holding books, kissing daughters? Kissing Rhett Butler? No, at this stage of life there is less space for fantasy. Dreams become IVs of memory. The dreams of a sick old woman dive for when she was young and healthy…
Maybe, Sasra, you remember running down Dizengoff Street clutching the secret notes the Palmach commanders wrote each other, smiling flirtatiously at the British soldiers and not giving a damn because you were that young. Were you scared? Were you pretty? You went to the beach and stretched every inch of your short smooth I’ll-never-be-a-grandmother skin and scooped up chunks of sun. You were as brown as a raisin, as a sabra– a native Israeli – your own secret safe, that you had the intelligence and masked paleness of a Pole, smuggled into the country not because of History but because it was sexy to be Israeli. Our big family secret is that you weren’t born here. You just happen to live in Tel Aviv. I mean, look at this woman beside you.
Oh, how your hands would shake now. With earthquakes.
Happen to live here? you would say. I, who carried those notes of independence like a furtive female Paul Revere? This isn’t a place. This is a land. This is our home. I was born here more than anywhere else. As much as anyone else. I know that’s not logical. But (here you’d wag a finger, you’re the only person I’ve ever known to do this), it’s truth. That I smiled all my life in Israel, that I cried all my life here, that I am older than the state, that I am the state. And when it weakens, I weaken.
Yes, three years ago, you cried, “Where is my Israel?” You did it in an email, like an electronic Isaiah. You cried, “Where is the Israel of my youth?”
So you’ll die here, or you’ll die trying. You, and the woman beside you.
Aiya, aiya.
It is hard to read when she moans. She’s beating you on points. Whine, clunk, gurgle, grind just doesn’t have the same aesthetic. What is her condition? They came in eight hours ago, when I was on my last rotation. This forty-something was in a wheelchair, husband clutching her hand as if he was the invalid. Hassan and the two orderlies had to heave her into the bed. The husband stood back, watching his wife get hoisted like a full net or fat flag. I could feel his helplessness, smell his sorry sweat. He didn’t watch Hassan busy himself with the bed. He watched his wife. This moaning woman had given him children, food, companionship, sex, all the life except that which his mother had created. She had done these things for him. What would he do for her?
He took her hand and sat down. He looked as useless as I felt.
We can’t do anything in the cathedral but stay and pray.
And say shalom, which he and I now did.
This is how I imagined their story. Otherwise why the crescent eyes, the soft lower lip? Why sit so long, so sad, so still? And when he went, I assumed there were good reasons – children, his job. But is it too conventional? Could he be her cousin, her husband long dead from double pneumonia, and he’s leaving because he has a wife too? Or is he her husband’s employee? Yes, perhaps they are rich and he was sent to ensure value for money. The man cries as he holds his boss’s wife’s hand, then checks that the state is providing the bed, drugs, doctors, nurses that the social contract promises.
Aiya. It is her husband: Hassan confirmed this to us when my mother swapped in for me.
He looked more distressed than us. This woman sounds worse than you, Sasra.
Can we judge another’s pain?
The Intensive Care Unit has twelve beds. It treats various patients, “including victims of various types of trauma, motor vehicle accidents, gunshot wounds and stabbings, patients requiring artificial respiration, and patients after complex surgeries.” But there have been no accidents recently. Except this: a headphone has fallen from your ear.
I put down my book and check the music. Rachmaninov’s second – the concerto, romantic sadness, not the symphony, deathly sadness. Oh, dream of romance on that sepia beach.
I was in London when my mother called.
I said, “Please, let me do something.”
Yes, she thought, send a new body. Meanwhile, she’d bought an iPod for Sasra. “What music,” she asked, “will it play?”
Only mothers can make up one question to help three people. I ran to my computer. I knew everything Sasra loved. I would send music. My cousin Todd would upload it. I started sending operas, concertos, symphonies the size of hospital wards, Dean and Ella and Billie and Frank, thick wads of megabyte-snuffling shuffling music that waltzed and pirouetted as I kept sending until that email from Todd that said, “STOP SENDING MUSIC!” As if my sending music wasn’t saving my grandmother.
As if, now, my pressing the headphone towards your ear isn’t helping you. I do not watch my hand: I am half-turned away from your bloated features. Before you got here you were tiny, and before that you were young and healthily, Polishly plump. But this fattened avatar is no return. It’s a costume for the ICU. Only fat people get in here. The fat Arab woman was a fashion model yesterday. Perhaps she will be tomorrow. This is what I pray for: that you shed pounds and become frail again so that you can leave.
“You know she’s dying, don’t you?” said my cousin Taal, Todd’s wife, who sometimes speaks of you in the past tense.
I got it. I could have translated her words into Hebrew. But Taal spoke with the same sparkling eyes as when she jokes, so I misunderstood. I thought, helluva joke, Taal! She doesn’t mean, Sasra will be dead. It’s just a joke about death that we tell. “It was so hot, I nearly died.” “I had these tubes inside me, I nearly died.” So what did you do while I was on machine-assisted breathing? Oh, Sasra, so funny, we had such a ball, Taal had this joke about how you were going to die. Geddit? Hahaha.
Friends tell me our family’s humor doesn’t always work in the outside world. But then, neither does our grief. My mother made us promise to get all the sympathy and perks we could because “Sasra always says, use what you have.” (My mother only uses the present tense.) I was proud to report back on this. A friend and I had driven slowly into the rear end of a car. The owner, a large woman with bright orange hair, started ranting at us. I yelled back, “How dare you? When my grandmother is in hospital? When she’s dying in hospital!” That’s how I told the story to my mother, who faked a smile.
The real punchline was different. This woman burst into tears and screamed back, “You have death in your family? And what do you think I have?” She sat in her Range Rover and called an ambulance. “I’m traumatized!” she yelled.
Watchers from the adjacent café called out, “Stop exaggerating!” But it was true. Someone in her family, somewhere, at some time, had died, and I had called them out. Sympathy in Israel – like healthcare – is free and widely available. But come the argument, death is cheaper still.
Now the headphone is restored.
Aiya, more softly. Gurgle, pause, longer pause, paaaauuuuse. Puff.
Two women in two beds. And if I charged by the hour…
What if the cathedral had to choose?
Loudest or truest or richest or fullest or youngest or fattest or native?
And who here isn’t native?
If I had the choice, the choice would not be obvious. For here you lie: my grandmother; the state school English teacher who read Gone With The Wind eight times before you were sixteen; the bad patient who refused treatment unless compelled; the mother who gave my aunt the worst marks in class; the wife who surrendered your husband’s right arm to the wars and his body to cancer. If you had the choice, Sasra, you wouldn’t choose you.
Thank god – in here, only Asclepius will do – the cathedral does not balance one life against the other. Two women in two beds but ten remain unoccupied. Neither an aiya nor a breathing machine puts one ahead or behind.
So what will decide it? Accident, or choice?
What of all that sun and running, Sasra, years of anxious early widowhood and separation from trans-Atlantic daughters – were they choices that brought on melanoma and heart failure, non-routine surgery, the science of 2-5% chance infection, and this sputtering ventilator? Or are you here because you chose to live opposite Ichilov for fifty years? In retrospect, this doesn’t seem your smartest move. Not if you can get infected after only a week in hospital.
And what did the woman in the next bed choose? I imagine she doesn’t live here. I know she isn’t widowed. Beyond the endless symptom of her aiya, I don’t know what is wrong. I did try to listen to her doctors earlier: we check our privacy at the cathedral door, like a gun or a coat. But I understood nothing. I am back to supposition: trauma, accident, gunshot, stabbing, surgery. Something serious.
Aiya. Choice. Puff. Accident.
And what am I doing here?
Unless I too have a role to play…
Yes! Now, Sasra, look at your neighbor; hurt lady, look at my grandmother. We must extract these goblins. Yes, we. We have to break out. Together. This is a trap. We must escape. Let’s do it. Let’s go! Out the saloon doors, two beds, two women, wheeling down the elevator and round the corner as your husband and my family pull up in two stolen ambulances and flee this sanctuary-less cathedral, getting away before death arrives. When Svetlana returns in an hour, the double doors will swing, she’ll stop, she’ll stare, and yell in Russian – Where are the patients?
But aiya.
The moans are further apart now, fainter, bubbles of distress, as if directed inwards. It’s up to her body. Nothing else will do. Nothing, or no one. No one, elided, becomes ‘none’. Aiya means ‘none’ in Arabic.
But the woman beside Sasra is not saying ‘none’. She is making a Middle Eastern moan. I have made it too. We all have. In one of my first memories I fall through a rusty playground barrel, cutting my leg; Sasra is walking me home, stroking my hair, hushing me. Present tense.
Aiya is not this hurt woman’s word. It is no one’s. There is no monopoly. Anyone could say it. But only if they are in pain, only if they have no respirator. So of us three, only she can do it.
For herself – who will recover – for my grandmother – who will die – and for me, who will bury this memory for three years.
Aiya. A murmur. Almost, ama.
Two women in two beds, asleep.
I look down. No more science. No more prayer.


Born in Boston, he has spent most of his life in London and Tel Aviv. His professional life has focused on business but he once got paid by the Jerusalem Post to write about the best DJ in Israel. He has recently published stories in Sleet and translit magazines. He is currently working on a novel.