In our series of letters from African-American journalists, novelist and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of his mother-in-law’s first visit to a doctor’s office

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It’s a cold day in October, my mother-in-law is going to go visit her mother.
I have been thinking of the time I stood in front of my first ever doctor’s
office. It was in early January, and my mother had just gotten sicker. I was
just a baby when it happened. I have no recollection of what was called back
then, something about having an appendix or gall bladder removed.

My sister-in-law, her sister, and a cousin were standing in front of the small
clinic. A small table with two chairs was arranged in the waiting room. On
the wall there were framed pictures of three generations of women, some of
them pregnant. The woman that stood on the end of the desk was the last person
in the room. She has the same small, thin frame as my mother-in-law. She was
holding a box of tissue that she removed from a Styrofoam container. She gave
it to the doctor. He looked at her face and handed her a tissue.

“What do you want?” the woman asked.

It was the first time since the operation the doctor knew her name. “Mrs.
Green, I am Doctor Smith, Mrs. Green.”

“Mrs. Smith,” she corrected.

“I am Doctor Smith.” He continued with some nonsense about explaining why he
wanted to see her. Eventually he handed her a small piece of paper and told
her to read it. He began to read the message, asking if she had any questions,
and if she had any questions about whatever was going on. A few times, he
stopped himself to let her ask him what he was doing. Finally, she handed him
a piece of paper. He looked at the message again, smiled, and handed her
another piece of paper with the same information. Finally he handed her a
third piece of paper, which she handed back to him. He thanked her
and exited the room.

“Is this an emergency?” I asked.

“No, son,” she smiled. “It’s just an old woman.”

I felt proud of her. She was acting like a mother-in-law should act. Then
I remembered my own mother, who when in her fifties went to visit her mother
in California. She stayed two days. I remember walking down the hall one
morning, and I found my mother on the table, under a sheet, and holding a few
tubes and some IV baggies. My mother-in-law told me she had been taking the
medicine for her diabetes.

I never really understood the old woman’s actions. There was no reason for me
to believe my mother had any idea she was dying. I didn’t know my mother
until much later. It was in a hospital. When I first heard my mother’s story,
my mind thought of what all the news said of a cancer victim. That’s what I
thought it was.

This is a story for fiction writers who want to know how a baby, when just a
baby, was told she would never walk again. This is a story for women who want
to know how they may have felt when their daughters, when only 8 years old, is
pregnant with triplets. I want to know if this could feel like the first time
a woman in her forties has to tell her family that they are terminally ill with
AIDS.

I want to know if the fear I felt might have grown stronger when she told her
mother that she had gotten an infection while in a clinic and was being treated
with chemotherapy the day after she told us.

I want to know if the tears that I felt could have gotten bigger if she told us
the truth.

In the end I want to know if she was afraid, if she was confused, if she was
guilty, if she was scared.

My mother-in-law and the woman that stood on the little table at the doctor’s
office were two different people. My mother-in-law was not afraid and did not
cower. The woman at the table was, for the most part, still a good woman. The
conversation that she had was very real. I understand that the experience is
different for everyone. For me the experience was, like the stories that can
be found in children’s books, a story waiting to happen.

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