"D oes your husband have a living will, Mrs. Naim?” the nurse asked. My mother and I were backed against the wall of a corridor in the West Broward County Medical Center ICU in Coral Springs, Florida.* My father was in Room 1, two doors away, unconscious.

Mom looked at me and quickly looked away. “Um, I’m not sure. I think our lawyer in New York might have one.”

“But you’re his health care proxy, right? Even if he doesn’t have a living will, you can make decisions on his behalf. Is that correct?”

I looked at Mom. She’d always been a powerhouse, one of the first non-British women to be made vice president at Barclays Bank, assigned to different branches as a sort of one-woman SWAT team charged with whipping them into profitability. She had always appeared so much larger than her 5’4’’ frame. I looked at her now, surprised at how small she suddenly seemed. Mom looked down at the beige tile floor. “I think so,” she said. “But I’m not sure. I’ll have to check with the lawyer.” I stood by silently, also avoiding the gaze of the nurse.

Of course Dad had a living will, and of course Mom was his health care proxy. We knew that. The nurse knew it, too.

“Well, call your lawyer, then. But please do it as soon as possible.”

She left. We went back to our hushed conference.

Like one of the snowstorms Mom and Dad flew to Florida to avoid, Dad’s symptoms started as a light flurry, the sky darkening as the flakes become larger and heavier, until suddenly everything and everyone was buried in silence as snow overtook all.

Mom and Dad had arrived in Florida for the winter, and Dad wasn’t feeling well. He was nauseous and unusually tired. Mom called me in Baltimore, where I live with my family. We were concerned, but people get sick. No real cause for alarm. Dad was diabetic, but his blood sugar was fine. When it didn’t pass after a few days, he agreed to see his doctor.

It was a heart attack.

My parents were both born in Egypt; they made aliyah to Israel in the late ‘50s, then moved to the US ten years later. Although English was their fourth language, they were fluent. Mom and Dad thrived professionally in the US, but certain aspects of American life seemed more difficult to negotiate than others. Health care was one such area.

I’d noticed that they usually sought out foreign-born doctors; the American-born ones spoke too fast, and treated them, with their thick accents and my mother’s dark skin, as if they were stupid. They didn’t need someone Israeli or even someone Jewish; any immigrant was a landsman. In Florida, for some reason, they’d chosen an American-born doctor.

When I spoke to Mom on the phone, she seemed dazed. Perhaps it was the American doctor, or perhaps it was Mom’s age, or perhaps it was that even though Dad had been diabetic for over 30 years and had had a hypoactive thyroid for ten, those were both endocrine problems. She was used to the lingo, the procedures, the prognoses, grim as they were. But a heart attack? Dad’s blood pressure and cholesterol had always been good; no one ever expected him to draw the heart card.

The avalanche of new information overwhelmed Mom. Whenever I asked a question about some contradictory information she had just given me, she got upset. After a few days, I asked her for permission to speak to the doctor myself; she agreed immediately. Dr. Sullivan sounded exasperated when I asked her to explain to me exactly what was going on with my father. “I already explained it to your mother,” she said. “I can’t repeat this information over and over. I don’t have the time. If you want me to talk to you, I can talk only to you, and then you can talk to your mother.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 587)