…[T]hey all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin (p. 282)
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
I am driving my deceased father’s truck, the bed loaded with toys and my grandson in the extended cab, to Goodwill before dropping off my grandson to be watched while I go to my mother’s former assisted living facility to remove all of her things, mostly clothes and her recliner.
My mother is lying in the hospital oncology wing with, as we are just informed, hours or days to live.
Since my one sudden hard cry the morning the doctor told me on the phone about my mother’s cancer, I have been mostly numb, or empty, functioning through, along with my nephews, the necessary burden of managing my mother’s affairs as her body gradually shuts down.
As I leave her things crammed into two large black trash bags beside the recliner separated into two parts, I have a near-moment of tears as I pause to look into the living area of her house, the home I lived in from the age of 10 into my early 20s. My nephews have cleaned the area to an eerie tidiness that never existed when the house was lived in.
The finality of that tidiness, that emptiness, that none of us would ever live there again — this rekindled the sadness that has been resting beneath the necessary resignation that allows the living to navigate the dying.
My mother actually left us when she suffered a stroke about six months ago — with this day just one week from my mother’s birthday, a woman born on Friday the 13th.
Over that half year, she has been nearly in constant poor health, in and out of hospitals. And if possible, our experiences with the current healthcare system and the inexcusably inadequate Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance charade have been nearly as low a level of hell as being told my mother has stage 4, incurable, cancer.
To add insult to injury, these experiences with my parents’ failing health and their dying has coincided with a Republican-led federal government working furiously to dismantle the anemic Affordable Care Act, demonized as Obamacare, mostly with claims that the free market would be better suited to care for the vulnerable in our country that shamelessly waves flags and calls itself a Christian nation.
Of course, those making these claims and creating laws and policy all are wealthy and have all the essentials that their laws and policies deny everyone else, especially the vulnerable:
[M[ore than 80% of the officially poor are either children, elderly, disabled, students, or the involuntarily unemployed (while the majority of the remaining officially poor are carers or working people who didn’t face an unemployment spell). I bring up these 80%+ because these are the classic categories of people that are considered vulnerable populations in capitalist economies. These are the categories of people that all welfare states target resources to in one form or another, the good ones very heavily.
I believe my parents represent a fair claim that in the free market, being sick and dying are extremely (and unnecessarily) expensive, and if you happen to not have the capital, being sick and dying are incredibly undignified experiences no person really deserves.
To survive her stroke, my mother was airlifted to a nearby larger hospital, a life-saving transfer costing tens of thousands of dollars. That life-and-death moment involved doctors and family having to discuss and calculate the insurance implications, ones that linger for months since the second hospital, unlike the first, no longer accepts my mother’s supplemental policy.
That hellish (and unnecessary) scenario has repeated itself multiple times since then: my father’s death beside my mother in a rehabilitation facility, my mother being forcibly discharged from that facility and denied the high-level rehab her doctors requested, my mother being placed in assisted living, and then the multiple hospital stays leading up to her now lying in Hospice.
My mother’s death will come similar to my father’s — with only a few thousand dollars to her name.
White and working class, my parents grew up and graduated in the idealized 1950s, married in 1960, and gave birth to their obligatory two children in 1961 and 1962. They were the embodiment of aspirational, reaching hard and often for the white-washed American Dream without a hint of skepticism, without any recognition that promise was never really being extended to people not like them.
Dad worked his ass off, and mom raised me and my sister until we were in elementary school, when she re-entered the work force herself. All of that good old American work ethic was aimed at buying the largest lot at a new golf course just north of my hometown where they eventually built their dream home; it cost less in 1971 than the first Honda Accord I bought new, but that house also has more square footage than the home I own now — although my annual salary among the professional class my parents only dreamed about (and lived vicariously through) is many times more than my father’s best annual income.
My parents were politically conservative like much of the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, and therefore, I lived through Watergate, for example, in a household where my parents routinely ranted against the liberal media and felt compassion for the Dan Rather-crucified Richard Nixon.
And for all of their adult and married lives, my parents worked, my father grinding himself into an early grave, I believe. Both also smoked, as people did then, and for my mother, those 3+-packs a day were certainly the root of her dying breaths being taken in the coming days.
And what have my parents reaped for being obedient soldiers for the free market and the American Way? Truly awful final days on this planet because healthcare is a nightmare and the insurance maze is worse than anything Dante could have imagined.
My parents voted solidly Republican their entire lives, and were very much like the white majority that elected Trump. Like those deplorables, that ideological commitment eroded virtually every aspect of their dignity as their grew old and unhealthy.
Yet, this government that they hated, voted against, is all that sustained them toward the end, through publicly funded programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
My nephews and I have been scrambling over these six months to protect and preserve their dignity, if not their lives, but it has been an exhausting fight — one that people in the medical field shake their heads about, powerless it seems, and one that people in the insurance game on the distant other ends of phone calls simply just don’t give a damn about.
For all my parents’ faults, and there were many, I can’t imagine they deserve this, being among the vulnerable in the U.S. who are expendable in the free market because they passed their time to be productive.
The vulnerable, you see, in a free market always become the faces of takers, and no market likes takers who no longer produce.
That market was free, in fact, to squeeze the lives out of my parents and then toss them aside when nothing was left.
It is here I must add — imagine how this is amplified, magnified for others among the vulnerable who do not enjoy the privileges my parents had, being white and achieving a pretty solid middle-class living during the golden years of their productive lives.
Yes, my parents suffered the Libertarian delusion that their material achievements were mostly their hard work and solid character, but despite that delusion, they did work hard, and they did deserve better at the end.
Because almost everyone deserves better than the Social Darwinism of the free market; children do, the infirm do, the elderly do, carers do, the working poor do, and even the lazy and the meek do simply by being human.
Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. we won’t be having any of that bullshit; you know, respecting the basic human dignity of every living being.
Nope, we are all about the middle finger to the vulnerable who don’t have the common decency to pull on their bootstraps and all that.