As You Command
When Dr. Susan Johnson walked into the hospital room with Elspeth Gardner's chart, she knew what to expect medically. Ms. Gardner was on the final leg of a very long journey toward death. She was not, however, prepared for the indomitable presence of the sixty-nine year old woman. It wasn't just that Susan was the youngest doctor at the hospital and still thought of herself as Susan instead of "Dr. Johnson". Unlike most patients, trapped in unfamiliar surroundings in thin ill-fitting gowns upon uncomfortable beds, Elspeth Gardner was dressed in an impossibly fluffy blue terry cloth robe over a paler blue silk gown. The bed had been adjusted to a reclined sitting position, and a large quantity of pillows arranged about her. But more than either clothing or position, there was such a palpable sense of authority emanating from the woman that Susan felt like a supplicant approaching a queen.
"Ms. Gardner, I'm Dr. Johnson."
"Call me Elspeth."
"As you command." Susan stopped suddenly. Why had she said that? Recovering quickly, Susan looked down at Elspeth's chart while she regained her train of thought.
"I believe you were about to tell me, in politically correct terms," Elspeth prompted gently, "that I am dying."
"You've known for some time," Susan replied. It wasn't a question.
Just then, a man walked into the room carrying another pillow. Like Elspeth, his hair was a mixture of red and gray, but he was younger than Elspeth, with more red than gray in his hair.
"Carl, wait in the hall," Elspeth said to the newcomer. Carl hesitated for a moment with a slightly confused look on his face, and Elspeth added, "You can finish bringing me that pillow when the doctor is done."
Carl's confusion vanished; he said "As you command" and quietly slipped back out the door. Susan tried not to wince visibly upon hearing the phrase
"How long have you two been together?" Susan asked, sensing intuitively that the pair was a couple.
"For, oh, almost thirty years now," Elspeth replied. "It's him I worry about most when I am gone. In all the time we have been together, Carl has devoted himself to making me happy. These last few years, he somehow juggled the finances so he could quit his job, and devotes himself to taking care of me full time."
"I wish I had a man like that," Susan replied then stopped, stunned at her own admission. She had been thinking it, but it was a very unprofessional thing to say to a dying woman.
Elspeth shot Susan an appraising look, then said, "I think I'd like to sleep now. You may go."
"As you command," Susan replied, and was out the door before she realized what she had said. With a shake of her head at the oddity of her own behavior, Susan promptly forgot about the incident and went on with her work.
The next day, as Susan walked into the hospital, Alice Compton, the head nurse, approached her.
"Would you please have a talk with Elspeth Gardner?" the normally competent nurse said. "She has half the nursing staff running errands for her instead of treating patients."
"That doesn't sound like you," Susan replied. "I've seen you put the mayor in his place when he wanted to be seen in front of more critical patients."
The confusion on Alice's face was obvious. "I ... I just can't seem to say 'No' to her."
As Susan walked toward Elspeth's room, she rehearsed what she would say. She knew in her gut that if Elspeth commanded her to turn around and leave her alone, she would. On the other hand, she was a doctor at a major metropolitan hospital, and the staff expected her to uphold the authority that went with that title. She also had to convey the seriousness of Elspeth's disruption. Respect for the dying or no, Susan would have to be blunt.
"I hear you are keeping the staff from saving lives," Susan said, as she stepped through the door.
"I am doing no such thing," Elspeth wheezed in reply. Seeing the elderly lady's haggard condition, Susan almost faltered in her resolve. Elspeth was dying soon.
"As you command," Susan replied, keeping the sarcasm evident in her voice at using the phrase by her own will for the first time since meeting Elspeth.
Elspeth scowled at Susan without malice and said, "Explain things to me, doctor."
"As you command," Susan replied involuntarily, but continued without pausing. "People you have running errands for you have other jobs here - jobs that involve saving people's lives. If somebody is running an errand for you, they are not saving lives..."
" ... and I'd love to know how you do that," Susan added, when her control over her voice was her own again.
Elspeth sighed, and the deep breath became a coughing fit. Finally she said, "I'm usually more careful about how I phrase things. If I said that I thought you would look better in a tailored lab coat; that would be a suggestion. If I asked how you thought you would look in a tailored lab coat; that would be a question. If I said 'wear a tailored lab coat', that would be a command. People are under no obligation to follow suggestions or answer questions."
"Thank you for explaining the rules to me."
"You're welcome," Elspeth replied, "and doctor? Remember the rules well enough to not worry about it again, but forget we had this conversation. I promise to be nicer to the staff."
Later that day the head nurse walked up to Susan and thanked her for talking to Elspeth.
"Don't thank me," Susan replied. "I haven't had an opportunity to talk to her yet."
When Susan arrived at work on the third day after Elspeth's arrival at the hospital, Carl rushed up to her. "Dr. Johnson, you have to help Elspeth!"
As Susan pulled on her lab coat, she asked the slightly older man, "Have any of the other doctors looked at her?"
"Yes. He said there was nothing they could do."
When Susan stepped into Elspeth's room, she knew the other doctor was right. A glance at Elspeth's chart only confirmed what Susan already felt in her gut. Elspeth was dying. Today.
Elspeth's breathing was ragged, even with the oxygen tube under her nose. She struggled toward consciousness as Susan and Carl looked on.
"Carl," Elspeth gasped, "I don't want you to see me like this. Go home."
Carl looked like he had been slapped, and fought visibly, but, after a moment, started to turn away, muttering around a sob something unintelligible that ended with "command".
Deep in her gut, Susan knew that, this time, Elspeth was wrong. Something snapped in her head, and she felt the colors in the room change. It was nothing she could describe, but suddenly the world looked different.
"Carl stay here." Susan said.
"Yes, doctor," Carl replied, with a look that contained both awe and relief.
"So, it appears I do have an heir after all," Elspeth said, as Carl returned to Elspeth's side where he had been for the last three days.
Susan ignored Elspeth's cryptic comment, instead saying, "I need to do my rounds. Try to get some rest."
"Yes, doctor," Elspeth replied and promptly fell to sleep. Carl was sat in a chair next to her bed with his head pillowed on his arm beside her.
"He hasn't slept since they got here," the head nurse said, as Susan stepped out of Elspeth's room. "If we hadn't have brought him water, I think he'd be dehydrated by now too."
"Make sure everyone leaves them alone," Susan said. "She doesn't have much longer."
"Yes, doctor," the head nurse replied.
When Susan returned to Elspeth and Carl at the end of her rounds, Elspeth's heart monitor was screaming, and Carl was sobbing with his head on her chest. She was dead. Wondering why nobody had walked in and checked on them, or at least turned off the screeching device, Susan did so then left the room. Carl needed to grieve.
A few hours later, Elspeth's lawyer arrived, a stocky man named Mark Hawkins. He immediately began making funeral arrangements. Elspeth knew she had been dying for some time, and had all but the smallest details worked out in advance. She had even, in a morbid moment, picked out her own tombstone.
Mr. Hawkins approached Susan with a form to fill out when it became apparent nobody had signed the death certificate.
"Elspeth had a daughter but they were estranged, and Carl tells me Elspeth has named you as her heir," the lawyer said. "I can't command you to do anything, but I'd advise you to let the daughter have the bulk of Elspeth's assets. She could claim in court you had 'undue influence' over her mother." Both the lawyer and Susan smiled at the idea.
"Won't Carl inherit?" Susan replied.
"They were never married. Elspeth left a sizable life insurance policy in Carl's name, but the house and all of her other assets will go elsewhere."
"Let the daughter have it then," Susan said.
"Yes, doctor," the lawyer replied, and left.
Although everyone acted a bit oddly on the day of Elspeth's death, jumping to fill Susan's orders with a simple "yes doctor", on the next day life returned to normal. The odd sense that all color had subtly shifted had faded as well. Susan missed the subtle sense of command she had tasted, but didn't regret its departure. She chalked up the entire episode with Elspeth Gardner as another weird facet of life in the city, and went about her business.