And then the pandemic hit. And I realized that if my husband gets the coronavirus when care is in critically short supply, he will not survive such a decision. The criteria are against him. He’s 75. He has a blood cancer that weakens his immune system. Regardless of the virus, doctors give him only about three more years to live. No ventilator for him; off he would go to palliative care, where he would die.
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Panicked, I find myself defaulting to the philosopher’s go-to response when the implications don’t serve her interests: Surely there are other ways to think about this. Other values—beyond life-years—are important too. Wisdom, for example. If the triage decision were to maximize wisdom, my husband would survive, and so would all he knows about birds and salamanders and scientific reasoning and making a grandkid laugh. Every day, I ask him to tell me about something he knows that I don’t. What is that bird calling in the hedge? How does a meadowlark learn to sing? How does soap kill a virus? Where does courage come from? The only question he hasn’t been able to answer is: How will I live without you?
When doctors let the wise ones die and when the virus takes older people at an accelerated rate, society loses the grace and experience that comes with advancing age. I am not saying that the young ones aren’t magnificent and worthy. They are. I’m just pointing out that it will be painful to learn all over again what their elders have come to know. I’m just saying that the choices are maybe more complicated than what I teach. I’m just saying that the choices are sad.
Another value beyond both life and wisdom is love. I love this man. Love is good. Maximize it. Do not let it die. But maybe love doesn’t die, the way sick old men tend to do. Which is why, along with bleach and peanut butter, I am stocking up on memories. What does it feel like to hug this man, straight and strong as a ponderosa pine? What does it feel like to wriggle closer to his warmth on the couch? What flashes exactly, when he flashes a smile and I light up? What sort of pleasure is it precisely to climb into bed beside his protective bulk?
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Maybe to save the life of the person who has the most years remaining makes moral sense—but surely only if each life-year counts as one. Do the ethicists know how much sweeter and deeper the years become the moment your husband is told “You probably have about three years left”? Never has morning light been more beautiful, washed green by the fir trees and huckleberries. Never has rain fallen so softly or a neighbor’s child bounced a basketball with such grace. Never does a touch feel so warm on the skin. The smell of a newly mown lawn is a miracle. Done with striving, done with competing, these are years of gratitude and giving back.