Thursday, June 28, 2012

And he spoke to them in parables, saying...

I have a new hero: John Roberts. That's right; our chief justice has shown that, despite some shaky performances elsewhere (see Citizens United), he actually understands what is meant by judicial restraint. I never, ever expected him to stand up for the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while Kennedy voted against it. Nevertheless, this is a great day for America. A truly great day. I know how to be grateful. Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.

I feel too good about what happened today to be really bothered by minor distractions, but I still wonder why so many of my fellow citizens seem to be living in an alternate moral universe. It's the universe of "I got mine, so you get yours." I think I can illustrate it with a story. Call it a parable. It goes something like this:

"A man was born under a lucky star. He was poor, but he worked hard. His family supported him, and he found a job working for a sympathetic boss who rewarded his efforts. He prospered. Soon he was wealthy, and bought himself a large house. He married a beautiful and healthy woman who gave him lots of bright, talented children. Every one of them excelled in school, and none of them ever got sick.

"In this man's old age, he was able to retire and live off of the money he had made during his long and successful life. Whenever he needed anything, his children showered him with gifts, and his wife loved him dearly. His life was truly blessed.

"One day, a poor beggar came to this man's door. 'I am poor,' he said. 'Get a job,' said the rich man. 'I am crippled,' the man said, 'and I cannot do manual labor.' 'Get a desk job,' said the rich man. 'I am dyslexic and cannot do paperwork,' the man said. 'Tell your boss, and he will find work for you,' the rich man said. 'I did tell my boss, and he fired me and gave my job to somebody else,' the man said. 'Now I am dying of an incurable disease, and I cannot afford treatment.' 'You have made poor decisions,' the rich man said. 'You deserve nothing from me.' So the beggar went forth, with only the rags on his back, and soon he died.

"Later that year, the rich man also died, old and full of years. God, who is loving and compassionate, asked him why he had turned the poor beggar away from his door. 'He was a freeloader,' the rich man said. 'He wanted handouts, and expected to get everything for free. He wouldn't work.'

"'Actually,' God said, 'that man worked 14-hour days for 20 years without complaining, until he finally crushed his legs doing a job nobody else would do. That's why he was crippled.'

"'But he could have gotten a desk job,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' God said, 'he did work a desk job for the next 20 years, and because he was dyslexic he worked twice as hard as all his co-workers. But it wasn't good enough, so he was fired and a young man with no experience was put in his place.'

"'But his boss could have found other work for him,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' God said, 'his boss then assigned him to be his personal driver. He had a special car that he could operate with his arms alone, and he worked harder than anybody had ever worked before to make his boss happy. But one day another driver ran a red light and crashed into the car, destroying it. His boss had fallen on bad times as well and wasn't able to replace the car, so he had to let him go.'

"'But he could have gotten another job as a driver,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' said God, 'he did get another job, but he was soon stricken by a progressive disease that destroyed his muscle coordination and made him nearly blind. He was so sick that he could no longer work. The treatment for his disease would have cost far more money than he had ever had in his lifetime. That was why he came to you for help.'

"'Then he obviously made poor choices,' said the rich man.

"'Actually,' said God, 'you are the one who made poor choices. I gave you parents who loved you, and you took them for granted, and never gave them anything in return. I gave you a sympathetic boss, and you took his money and never appreciated his generosity. I gave you a wonderful family, and you assumed it was your due. I gave you children who were willing to take care of you in your old age, and a wife who did the housework for you every day without complaining. You only worked about a third as hard as the old beggar you turned away from your door, nor do you have any idea what it is like to live with chronic illness and disability. If you had lived this man's life, you would have died in the gutter 30 years ago.'

"'But that's impossible,' said the rich man. 'I worked hard for everything I have, and never asked for handouts.'

"'You never had to,' said God, 'because you were given everything you needed.'

"'I bore illness without complaining,' said the rich man.

"'That's because you never had anything worse then a common cold,' said God.

"'I never asked anybody else for help,' said the rich man.

"'That's because your parents, your wife and your children made sure you never had to,' said God.

"'So what are you saying?,' said the rich man. 'That I should support some kind of European socialist health-care and welfare system so beggars don't have to work and a bunch of whiners who can't take life's hard knocks can come to my door and take the clothes off my back?'

"'No,' said God, 'but when you're ready to join me in heaven, let's talk.'"

There seem to be a lot of angry people out there today who are convinced that everything they have is the result of hard work and stubborn resolve, and that "Obamacare" is just opening the door to a bunch of pathetic freeloaders who want to milk the system. They don't seem to realize that success in life is about more than making the right choices and pulling their own weight. They seem to believe, in all good faith, that what they have is theirs by right, and that anybody who has not done as well as they have has simply made bad choices. Bad luck and poor health don't exist in their world.

Fortunately, I believe God is patient, and will wait a very long time until those people are willing to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the meantime, at least we now have a decent health care law. Deo Gratias!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


There have been a few times in my life when I have felt completely disconnected from the rest of America - a man without a country. It's not that I have changed (although I certainly have). At those times America has moved away from me. I myself am the steady gauge by which I measure its departure.

It happened first in the 1980s. As I've written on this blog before, I grew up believing in the ability of our country to rise against great evil and put it right. I saw that happen during the Civil Rights movement, which defines my moral core to this day. The 60s were a blessed time to come of age, but a cursed one as well: blessed because the potential seemed limitless; cursed because those of us who grew up on that rich food were bound to be disappointed.

And disappointed I was by the ongoing war in Vietnam, which defined my high school years and ended as I began college. Disappointed, too, by the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, and by his re-election four years later. Still, though, I believed in America, and when Watergate broke it seemed like vindication. America, I told myself, was good at heart, and right would eventually win out. The proof of this was that I knew somebody as extreme as Ronald Reagan could never be elected president. It was simply inconceivable in the America of my youth, which made mistakes but knew how to back off from them and reaffirm its true self. The California cowboy made the news from time to time, but he did so as an outside voice - one that was ludicrously beyond the mainstream, and would remain so forever. Such was my faith.

When Reagan was elected I thought my world had ended. For most of the 80s I seemed to be living in a parallel reality that mocked the country in which I had been born. I could barely stand to turn on the news, because I knew I was likely to be confronted by the "great communicator," who always seemed to me to be delivering bad throwaway movie lines that showed only a minimal understanding of reality. It is my firm belief that Reagan's reckless brinksmanship with the Soviet Union prolonged its life - that communism would have collapsed much sooner without the excuse that confronting Reagan and the US provided. Then there was Reagan's determination to destroy everything else I had come to regard as good about America. Several times in the 80s I simply broke down and wept at what I saw happening in the country I still loved, but that had so clearly rejected me.

As soon as Reagan was out of the White House, I immediately felt some degree of normalcy return. Bush I wasn't my favorite president, but he wasn't an idiot either, and I took considerable consolation in that. Clinton, too, had his faults, but I recognized the country under his leadership.

Then, of course, came Bush II, and things once again went off the tracks. It wasn't so much his "election" by the Supreme Court, in defiance of the popular vote, that convinced me that my country was once again gone. It was the leadup to the Iraq War, in which I could see clearly that we were embarking on a fool's mission that would cause incalculable human misery. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and I thought it should be clear as well to anybody who was paying attention. Late 2002 and early 2003 were probably the loneliest period in my life. There was virtually nobody who seemed to agree with me, and I watched the country skating into insanity with a different kind of detachment than I had known in the 80s. There were no more fits of weeping, but there was intense prayer and desperate isolation. The country had deserted me again.

Then Barack Obama was elected and, against all odds, he managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress. Yes, it was a desperate compromise, but I still believe it was the most important legislation passed by Congress since the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The fact that it had finally been approved made up for an awful lot, and even consoled me during the Tea Party rout of 2010. The Republicans might have won back Congress - and in a darker, more extremist incarnation than I had ever seen before - but universal health care was here to stay.

Anybody who has followed my writing here knows why this is so important to me. My late wife Barbara, who died last December, was a long-term cancer survivor. She was fortunate enough to be married to me and thus to have insurance that paid for the truly extraordinary medical expenses she ran up during the last decade of her life. If that life had gone a bit differently, she could have been denied coverage because of a "pre-existing condition," which is a brutal way of saying that she had survived a disease that was supposed to have killed her, and no insurance company would voluntarily take her on. The fact that people like her have been routinely denied access to the care they need is the kind of situation that simply should not exist in a civilized country. No other advanced country in the world would allow it. And the US had finally caught up.

If there was ever a silver lining for me to Barbara's sudden and premature death last year, it was my knowledge that under the new law, nobody like her would ever be turned down for insurance again. That thought has kept me going during some very difficult moments.

Thus, I am awaiting Thursday's announcement of the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act with genuine dread. I fully expect the same partisan judicial activism that put Bush II in office and defined money as speech to undo this vital, desperately needed legislation and return us to a state of savage indifference to our fellow citizens. I will be pleasantly surprised if that doesn't happen. If it does happen, though, I will feel personally injured, since the memory of my late wife will have been disrespected in clear, cold terms. I hope I don't find out on Thursday morning that the country has once again deserted me, but I'm bracing for the worst. It hurts.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I'll Cry If I Want To

It had been an exceptionally pleasant birthday. My grades were turned in, and I was done for the fall semester and almost ready to write some very belated Christmas cards. Jennifer, as a Baylor student, was also finished, but Jeremy had to catch the bus to school, so at 6:45 a knock sounded at the door and cards and gifts were presented. I then went back to sleep and woke up when I was truly ready. Barbara later claimed to have slept through the whole thing: an ominous sign, perhaps, because she always remembered these early morning intrusions.

When I finally got up for good, I found several dozen birthday greetings on Facebook. I resolved that this year I was feeling so good to have recovered from two abdominal surgeries in a row that I would respond to each one individually. I kept that resolve until after 5:00.

Later that morning I had to go up to Baylor to deliver a few things, and Barbara, Jennifer and I went to the Clay Pot (a Vietnamese restaurant near campus that I love) for lunch. Returning home, I responded to several dozen more birthday greetings and watched Barbara make peanut brittle - the latest installment in her annual marathon of Christmas baking. The plates were already being assembled to deliver to friends and neighbors, and the German chocolate cake that she had baked twice for me the day before (the oven was accidentally set too high the first time) was waiting for us to devour it after dinner.

At 5:00, Barbara had put on the cashmere sweater I bought for her a few years ago and a nice set of earrings that were much older than that. Her perfume and lipstick had been applied, and we were ready to go out for dinner together. The long-delayed Christmas tree that we had bought the day before was ready for the kids to decorate while we were gone. Then we would all eat cake and perhaps drink some eggnog while watching the lights around the familiar ornaments, the skirted angel blinking white on top.

Barbara had gone downstairs, and I lingered to finish dressing. When I walked down a few minutes later, she was sitting on the bottom step changing her shoes. She was suddenly feeling dizzy, she said, and had decided to opt for more stability.

Sudden attacks of dizziness were nothing unusual for Barbara, so I took that in stride and took her arm to help her out to the car. She was having so much difficulty, though, that I decided she needed to sit down on the couch for a while. I felt her forehead and it was clammy, even though she complained of being hot, so I asked Jennifer to bring a thermometer. It showed nothing unusual, but she was now complaining of feeling nauseous. Making a quick decision, I decided to play it safe by bringing her to the emergency room. This time I got her to the car, and with the kids along for moral support, we set out for Providence Hospital, a five-minute drive away.

Gentle reader, please understand that we had made this trip many times before. I had brought Barbara to the ER so many times, with such a variety of complaints, that it had become simply a ritual of life. Sometimes the results were benign, and we returned home. Sometimes they were catastrophic, as when she suddenly lost her hearing in her one remaining good ear (also accompanied by serious dizziness). Always we returned home and life went on.

As we drove to the hospital, Barbara (so typically for her) apologized to me for ruining my birthday. She was sensitive on this point, since her own birthdays had frequently been marked by disaster (her 23rd birthday present: a brain tumor diagnosis), and her first husband had been killed the day before her brother Scott's 25th. It was OK, I assured her. After we figured out what the problem was, we would go out later in the week.

As we pulled into the parking lot in the ER, Barbara asked Jennifer to find a wheelchair for her, as she wasn't sure she could walk steadily. Jennifer works at Providence as a transporter, so she knew just where to look. We arrived at the desk and filled out the requisite paperwork, and I dutifully presented my debit card for the $50 copay. Because of Barbara's medical history, I insisted that she be seen as soon as possible. "Oh, that breeze feels good," she said as Jennifer wheeled her into the waiting area. She was still feeling hot.

We did get taken back quickly, and Barbara described her symptoms and answered a few questions. It was only at this point that I began to get inklings that this ER visit would not be like the others. Her responses were becoming slurred and confused, and she complained of numbness in her tongue. Because of her nausea, the doctor in attendance decided she should be placed under anesthesia so she would not be at risk of choking on her own vomit. The children and I were ushered from the room and into a family waiting area.

As we sat there nervously, I told them that I was now reasonably sure their mother was having a stroke. Jennifer said she was certain that was what was happening. It had happened before, which was why she took a blood thinner every day. I was trying to imagine what kind of impairment would result from this one, and whether it would be permanent. Just some more data to crunch in the seemingly endless stream of disabilities and setbacks we had encountered over the previous dozen years.

The first sign that things would be truly different came when, nervous from our prolonged wait, I found my way back to the ER proper and encountered a neurosurgeon looking at the results of her CT scan. (She couldn't have an MRI because of the cochlear implants.) There was a lot of bleeding from her right cerebellum, he said (the exact spot of her tumor), and a large clot was accumulating around the base of her brain. She was, in fact, having a cerebral hemorrhage - and, irony of ironies, the blood thinner intended to save her life was preventing the blood from clotting until it puddled around her brain stem and gradually choked off all hope that she would ever regain consciousness. By the time I even realized what was happening, the woman I had loved and cherished for nearly 24 years was gone. She would linger for three days on life support, but her peaceful-looking form on the hospital bed was just a hollow shell, all essential brain activity having ceased that first night. I never had a chance to say goodbye.

In ten days it will be the half anniversary of that awful night, and I will be 56 and a half. I am writing this because I am going to have to start thinking about how I will handle my next birthday, and I need all the help I can get. Every time I log onto Facebook or open the calendar on my phone, I am reminded of whose birthday it is, and I constantly wade through the endless stream of birthday messages to friends and the pictures of happy couples enjoying blissful, special days together. And I am reminded that even 25 years after her first husband's death, Barbara could easily be consumed by depression as the fateful anniversary approached.

So I am wondering, wistfully, if I will ever have a happy birthday again. I hate to say this, lest it make me sound shallow, but the thought torments me. I lost my wife and my special day all at once, and the two losses will be inextricably bound together for the rest of my life. That makes it so much worse.