Purchase Lives Less Valuable
Read more

Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

Pediatrics Ward (p. 59)

From chapter "Part Two"

Malia often asks herself whether she hates her life, and what she recently realized is that she feels wildly conflicted. On the one hand she loves who she is. She loves her parents and Robin. She isn’t seeing anyone at the moment, and right now she loves being single. She loves doing good work, work that makes a difference. But does she make a difference? It isn’t merely that she, one puny person in a big world, is unrealistic in her expectations of what she can accomplish, but more that she’s part of a much larger movement that is as ineffectual as she. More and more environmentalists work on more and more toxics issues, and the rates of toxic dumping—and cancer—continue to rise. She used to work on forest issues, and the pattern there was the same; deforestation not only didn’t cease, it accelerated. The same is true the world over: when she talks to friends, no matter their issue—biodiversity, ocean health, global warming, anti-genetic engineering, anti-animal cruelty, pro-family farming, economic justice, pro-democracy, anti-corporate, anti-military—conditions are getting worse, and the destruction is accelerating.

The bus slows, and she looks up, and around. The blind man gets off. Suddenly, and for no reason she can understand, she remembers that the root of the verb to accomplish is the same as the root of the word to complete. It means to fill up. Perhaps that is her problem. Perhaps there is a dissonance in her own life between what she accomplishes and what she completes. Perhaps she is not filled up. She doesn’t know if that is the case, nor does she even know precisely what it means: while in this moment she is sleepy enough to make this connection, she is neither unconscious enough to fully explore it nor awake enough to explain it.

She looks out the left side of the bus, and on a far hill sees the looming tower of St. Luke’s Hospital. She counts the lighted rows of windows from bottom to top. The pediatrics ward is five rows up. She visits there often. If she cannot stop the children’s deaths, she wants at least to help them through their suffering. She’s been in pediatrics wards before, but this one is different. It has the normal collection of broken arms and legs, ear infections, appendicitis, and the occasional accidental ingestion of household chemicals (Malia herself had gone when she was eight to an emergency room after finding a bottle of lemon-scented ammonia: she loved lemonade, and loved the smell of lemons, so she took a deep whiff; her parents took her in when her nose wouldn’t stop bleeding). But this ward contains other cases, too. Too many other cases. Bone cancer. Leukemia. Asthma. Systemic lead poisoning. Systemic cadmium poisoning. Systemic this and systemic that.

About a year ago Robin volunteered to start coming with Malia to the hospital every couple of weeks. Malia had been surprised—very pleasantly so—and had become deeply proud of her niece as the visits went on. Robin brought games and toys to help pass the hours—as only another child can—with these kids whose homes consisted now of the four white walls of a hospital room. She played with kids who should be batting balls, but who knew instead the intricacies of IV drip systems. Instead of knowing how to make hayforts, these kids knew how to survive days and nights that dragged endlessly through tests, needles—”just a little stick”— weakness, pain, boredom, and perhaps most of all and finally, the moment-by-moment draining away of their hope.
But a week ago, on the long drive down from the farm, Robin said, “I think this is the last time I want to do this.”

Malia’s first response, her internal response, had been a flash of anger and resentment. Why go today then? Why didn’t you tell me this before we left the house, before we drove in this car these last two hours? You were the one who suggested this in the first place. Where is your determination? Where is your compassion? She had stopped herself from saying, I’m so disappointed. Instead she had said, in her best there-is-no-judgment-implied-at-all-by-this-question-I-really-just-want-you-to-be-comfortable-and-explore-with-me tone of voice, “Why?”

Robin said, “Because it hurts too much to make friends and then have them die.”

Malia nearly drove off the road. She blinked hard to hold back the tears, then pulled slowly to the side.

Robin asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

“No, honey, not at all.”

They took a walk. Malia found a side road that led to another side road that led to yet another that dead-ended by a small stream. They walked along the bank, skipped stones at a pond, and several times threatened to push each other in. Finally, Robin had said, “They’re expecting us. We need to go at least one more time.”

Malia said, “Yes.”

And Robin said, “But I don’t know about next time.”

Malia had replied, “It’s okay.”

They’d driven on.

The bus stops again, and lets on a large black man with a cane. He greets the bus driver and shakes his hand, then proceeds to make his way back, shaking the hand of everyone along the way. A few on the bus look at him like he’s crazy, and a few more look away, but Malia notices that even the most standoffish cannot help but smile. The man seems happy.

Malia remembers sitting next to the pond with Robin, and she remembers wondering, as she often does, what it would be like to live in a world in balance, where she could sit beneath a locust tree—for Robin had searched one out for them to sit beneath—and look to the forests and meadows around her and not have to worry that the trees were dying—as they already were, she could see from the discoloration of the branch tips—from acid rain. She wondered what it would be like to live in a world that is not dying day by day. She corrected herself: being killed. Of all the losses—an intact planet, nontoxic surroundings, cordial relations between humans and the rest of the natural world—she believes that losing a sense of living in peace hurts nearly as much as any. She knows that many people—the vast majority—do not feel this loss, or at least aren’t aware of feeling it. She knows that most people are not conscious even of the slipping away of their own lives, passing time in jobs they do not love, in cities they have to shut themselves up against. And if they can’t feel even such intimate pains, how can they be expected to perceive these larger losses; if they don’t notice the diminution of their own selves, how could they feel the progressive amputation of the rest of the world? Put even more baldly, if they can’t raise themselves to outrage over the premature deaths of their own children, precisely when and over what will they ever feel at all?