Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of life.
– Jane Austen
I fell ill late at night on the day of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
There had been no admonitory signs. No preludial symptoms. Just a mammoth stomach disorder shortly after midnight. Two, three, four recurrences during the predawn hours. Incommodious and humiliating but not alarming. Montezuma’s revenge, I thought. Or the newly-inaugurated Donald Trump’s.
I tiptoed to the bathroom each time. No need to wake my wife or our incredibly kind hosts, my wife’s cousin and her husband.
Could Be Dangerous
We were scheduled to fly home to Vancouver at midday, but during breakfast I felt severely unwell.
Sheet-pale. Faint. Feverish. Monumental evacuations, multiple sessions, horrid in content, horrific in color, foul of fetor. Food poisoning, we thought. Maybe a flu?
Providentially my wife texted her brother, a physician in Toronto. Normally he is cosmically non-alarmist, laissez-faire, easeful, soothing.
“Sounds like a bleed,” he replied at once. “Could be dangerous. Get to an Emergency Room as fast as you can.”
We were bunking with our relatives in a comely town in Maryland, forty minutes outside the District of Columbia. Rural, tranquil, bucolic. Farms, orchards, woodlands, parks, ponds. A rapidly developing area superbly served, we discovered, by a moderately-sized hospital not far from our cousins’ lovely home.
A ten-minute drive. I wished it not a moment longer. The tarmac seemed to molt, melt into the fields, meander skyward. Trees unmoored themselves from their roots, ascended, hovered, coalesced with the clouds. Houses slipped from their footings, left their lawns, slithered across the swirling sod.
Down & Out
With all the commotion afflicting so-called Obamacare we feared the transactional proceedings. They turned out to be simple and swift because, although a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., I am one of the fortunate persons protected by America’s for the moment intact Medicare program.
“Just sign here,” kindly Mrs. Morita murmured with a soothing smile.
As we sat in the waiting room my discomfort became acute. Virulent. I tottered to a restroom, whispered heartfelt thanksgivings, did what needed to be done, performed copious ablutions, dried my hands.
Then, abruptly, had to leave my feet. Propped on hands and knees. Lowered my whirling head to the linoleum floor, for some reason pressed my muzzy brow against the tile as if in prayer. An unchurched orison.
Time passed. Don’t know how much.
Stood. Quavered. Teetered through the washroom’s hefty door, crept like an infant into the corridor, braced my reeling self against the glaucous concrete wall.
An alert guard sees me. I ask if he please will tell my wife I’m in trouble. She rushes to my side, hails a passing nurse who fetches a wheelchair and bustles me off for triaged care.
A Bleed Indeed
My brother-in-law was right. It was a bleed, sited somewhere in the twisted confines of the serpentine G.I. tract.
After many hours of close monitoring, the attending surgeon determines a potent painkiller prescribed some time ago to provide relief from a bout of sciatica has triggered a dime-sized rupture in my unpoetically named duodenum.
He cauterizes the perforation, vacuums the labyrinthine intestine, tells my wife I’m worryingly anemic, and orders hospitalization until my hemoglobin count reaches a safe and stable status.
“He’s at Level Seven now. We’d like to see him at Twenty-two, maybe higher.”
One puny puncture. A minute crater the size of a ten-cent coin. What, two millimeters across?
Tosses his mask and gloves into a bin. Good shot. All net. Pivots toward me with a chipper grin.
“Good thing y’all didn’t board your flight,” he says with a chipper grin. Gorgeous languid Tidewater drawl.
“Pilot would’ve had to make an emergency landing. You could have died. Likely would, left your poor wife with a proper mess on her hands.”
Our Nation’s Caregivers
My illness was not interesting, and it is not our subject. Our subject is the people who looked after me during my confinement in an excellent medical center in a small town in America.
Nurses, nurses’ aides, technicians, custodians. Security officers. IT engineers. Four physicians, an anesthesiologist, a surgeon. All manner of specialists and support staff. My dear wife’s infinitely gentle, infinitely generous cousins.
Who are these people?
American citizens now, but with the exceptions of the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, one physician, one custodian, and the waiting room entryway’s security guard, all are first-generation immigrants from other nations.
Some came to the United States from Africa. Others from Asia. Several from Eastern Europe. Many from South and Central America. Instances of the vast global transmigration phenomenon that approximately one-half of the contemporary adult American population mindlessly dreads, detests, and defames despite the pleasing mythos of our nation’s universally welcoming Melting Pot.
Are my healers instances, merely? Exemplars? Statistics inert, inanimate, arithmetical?
Of course not.
Each of these persons is a distinguished, impassioned, wholly idiosyncratic living soul. As are you and your loved ones. As am I and mine.
My saviors are exceptionally earnest, compassionate, gentle, generous, indescribably hard-working women and men who every night and every day perform heroic work under grueling conditions.
Most of them receive miniscule appreciation, marginal social stature, and middling monetary recompense. Our civilization celebrates and abundantly rewards doctors. We grant their equally human, similarly indispensable colleagues exceedingly little recognition and scant remuneration.
Kindness and Caring
I ended up residing in that hospital’s gastrointestinal ward for five nights and six days.
Slept some. Erratically. Not much.
I needed so much help. Dozens of saline drips, medications, urine jugs, bathing, bandaging, changes of bedding.
I was a stranger to my benefactors, a burden, in considerable trouble, and considerably troublesome. I had no claim on them, other than that of our shared humanity.
Yet everyone I imposed upon was invariably solicitous, reassuring, warmhearted, affectionate, and committed to my own and every other patient’s freedom from pain, recovery, and fastest possible return to family and home.
Open Minds, Open Hearts
All that week we talked with one another in a spirit of unmediated seriousness, candor, and intimacy. One of the improbable benefactions of hospitalization is that it exempts us from our normally controlling societal requirements for insensate chitchat and unfelt civility.
As I lay in my bed hour after dismal, dissociative hour wondering if this would become the endpoint of the life I love so much, I focused not on my disease or possible demise but my healers. Their histories, their dignity, their comity, their grace.
Every day and every night my caregivers carried out their demanding responsibilities expertly, never complaining, not in my hearing, not once, inveterately cheerful, helping people, healing people.
I observed them closely, listened to them intently, and spoke with them whenever they could spare their time. Spoke straight from my heart, directly to theirs.
As our colloquy extended day by day, broadened, deepened, I learned ever more about their lives. They spoke openly about their work. Their families. Their biographies. Their challenges and comforts, frustrations and fulfillments, disappointments and dreams.
These women and these men preserved my life. Not the magnificent surgeon alone, although certainly he, but all of them, individually, collectively, collaboratively.
I found myself flooded with feelings of gratitude for them, esteem, affection, and a burgeoning resolve one day to tell their stories.
We Are One, But We Are Not The Same
Each of the people who took care of me that week in Maryland has a name, gender, and ethnicity. A country, culture, and language of origin. A religion, or not.
Their physiques differ. Their physiognomies are dissimilar. Some are young. Some are not. Some are gay. Some are not. Some choose not to say.
Their circumstances and conditions are specific, singular to themselves. These contexts matter immensely. They also matter scarcely at all, because in many respects their distinctive stories express a single arc of purpose and passion.
They all have dedicated their lives to nurturing their families. Procuring health, housing, food, and clothing for their loved ones. Ensuring their children’s education and continuing their own, if they can. Venerating and protecting their elders. Feeling hope. Striving for freedom. Creating opportunity. Giving and receiving love. For some, many, worshipping and thanking the god of their heritage.
They are wonderful women and wonderful men. However, I do not believe they are remarkable. I believe they are as we all are. Anonymous and unassuming people doing the best we can, most of us, most of the time, trying to live in goodness, trying to create safety, decency, happiness, and community.
Did they emigrate legally, or illegally?
I did not ask, just as they did not ask me.
Me whose forebears, like your forebears, once upon a time also emigrated to the United States, legally or illegally, from a civilization they found too oppressive of their rightful liberty and too limiting of their inherently illimitable potential.
I spent the first day and much of that night in an Emergency Room bed.
All afternoon and throughout the evening new patients were admitted. Some were injured, some were ill. Several overdoses, one psychotic in crisis, two gunshot wounds, a knifing, a child in trauma, his parents ashen with fear.
Incessant activity. Bright lights. Waves of odor, septic and antiseptic.
Scores of announcements, pages, summonses. Phones, bells, klaxons. Doors opening, closing. Hushed voices. Moans, cries, screams. Laughter, weeping.
Indeterminate periods of fitful sleep. Numerous forced arousals to check vital signs, administer medicines, replace drip bags.
I awake at 5 AM to find a young man disassembling a computer system stationed by my bedside. It was malfunctioning. Sending flatlines, blaring alarms, worrying the nurses.
A tall man, young, reedy, fit, bright eyes, affable.
I introduce myself.
He stands, bows, sits, smiles. “I am Ephraim. I am sorry I disturbed you.”
Pleasant voice. Rich timbre. An African inflection.
He studies the machine, tests its wires, probes its innards. Reconfigures its software from a well-worn laptop. As he works he explains what has gone wrong, how he will fix it.
Laughs merrily. “Your computer unit is tremendously expensive, but it is unwell. Not unlike your own good self, you see.”
Ephraim is twenty-three years old. He emigrated from Ghana with his mother and younger brother when he was sixteen. Their father had not survived his continent’s tragic conflicts.
Last year he earned an MA in computer science. Now he leads the hospital’s IT nightshift team. He is studying for his Ph.D. Something to do with cloud computing, chain programming, and revisioning medical technology. I but vaguely grasp the gist, with the help of his patient prompting. I’m a techno-moron, alas.
“This is a most desirable job. There are many needs here. I can help solve my medical colleagues’ computer problems, and my schedule is perfect. I begin work after my classes end. I return home at 6 AM, sleep in the morning, attend my classes in the afternoon, study during the evening, and return to my duties when my shift begins at 9 PM.”
You work hard, I tell him.
“Not nearly so hard as my mother. Nor my brother. He is studying at the University of Maryland to become an attorney, and he works for UPS at night and during the weekends.”
Their mother is a nurse. A single mom. Ephraim supplements her earnings and pays the tuition for his brother. Keeps almost nothing for himself.
I ask if he likes his field.
“Like it? I love it. Information Technology is the most fascinating field in the world. Humanity has just now begun what one day we will accomplish with computing.”
I ask about his hopes, his plans, his dreams.
“If all goes well I will receive my Ph.D. in two more years. Then I want to perform Artificial Intelligence research. Design and programming. I am someone who cannot be satisfied with stopping. I want to learn more and more, all my life.”
The family lives with his mother’s sister in space she has contrived for them in her cramped home. She too is a nurse and a single mom, with two children of her own.
“Our auntie is so sweet. She tells my brother and me that she sees our mother’s light in our eyes.”
Lowers his head. Struggles for composure. Recovers.
“One day my brother and I will look after our auntie as well as our mother, and he and I will take care of all our auntie’s children. They will have professional careers. We will see to that.”
He asks about the Women’s March. We speak about the battle for women’s liberty and equality in the United States, and the much more dangerous struggle in Africa. Then segue to the turmoil surrounding America’s immigration policy.
“We immigrants understand why many Americans worry about us. Truly we do. This is natural, because we look different. We sound different. But we are not criminals. We do not want to hurt anyone. We just want to better ourselves. We will take any job. We work hard. We pay our taxes. Our lives will contribute to this society.”
He clutches the lustrous ebony crucifix that dangles from his neck.
“In Africa everyone considers America our cradle of hope. No other country has so much concern for human beings’ lives in faraway places. It will be a heartbreak for the whole world if America becomes lost. The real America. The best America.”
The Emergency Room’s head nurse stops by. Eliza.
She tells me she and Ephraim are old friends. Eliza is a tough cookie, but she is so visibly fond and proud of him that she could be his doting Grandma.
She feigns a scowl, ruffles his unkempt hair.
“Thank you for fixing our software, Ephraim.”
Gestures gruffly toward the door. “Off you go, you blabbermouth. I need to fix this gentleman’s hardware now.”
We laugh. He packs his tools, closes his laptop.
We can’t shake hands because my arms are embedded with needles and lashed to the bedframe. So we nod in a male manner, wish each other happiness, and say goodbye.
With mock severity and a brusque shove Eliza shoos him away.
Mariano & Carlita
Eliza pokes and prods, injects several medications into the saline bag dangling above the bed, switches off the neon light, tells me to go to sleep, departs with a cheery wave.
I slumber awhile, tumble into and out of fugue states.
Half-see, half-hear. Then feel movement.
We are traveling. Sounds are changing. Colors are shifting. We pass through a door, along a corridor. Turn left, hard right, another door, another corridor.
Try to sit up. Can’t. See a short, nimble man pushing my bed.
“Good evening. I am Mariano. You will have your own bedroom soon. We are nearly there.”
Warm eyes. Muscled. Wiry. Not young. Maybe thirty-eight? Forty-two?
We enter a spacious lift. Much wider than normal elevators. Packed at this early hour with women and men clothed in medical garb. Green scrubs. White coats. Nametags. They stand aside, make room. Many smile, say hello, ask how I’m feeling.
We stop. Mariano navigates the gurney out the elevator, down a long hallway, into a broad two-person ward. No one in the other bed. Lovely double window.
I thank him, tell him how much I look forward to seeing daylight, sky, clouds, billows. Trees. Birds.
Through the door strides a stout, robust, jocular woman.
“Good evening. I am Tilda. Hello, Mariano.”
Mariano edges the gurney against the wall, locks the wheels.
He takes my shoulders, Tilda my feet. They look at one another intently. Chant backward from three as if launching a starship. At blastoff lift me high and hoist me onto the bed.
Tilda fluffs my pillow, elevates the headrest, ties down my left wrist, painlessly inserts a needle into the back of my hand, and hooks me to a drip.
“There, my patient. You are plugged in. Now Tilda will feed you a delicious treat.” Which turns out to be another bag of saline, which she infuses with three vials of medicine.
I ask what the medicines are, what they do.
She mimes a slap. “Never you mind what they are. Their crazy Latin names will make you dizzy. What do they do? They make you well, of course.”
I use my right arm to shake hands with Mariano before she binds it. Thank him for his help, thank him for his kindness, ask about his family.
He and his wife Carlita have two children. Maria is seven. Manolo is five. Carlita’s widowed mother lives with them, helps with the children, manages the household during the workweek.
“We are lucky. Our Mom does so much for us. And we have the chance to make her feel she is our queen.”
Carlita works fulltime as a classroom aide. She’s studying to become a kindergarten teacher. Twenty-five credits to go. Classes four nights a week, one weekend intensive each month, three capstone weeks in July.
“Her courses are costly. We must take out loans. However, when she completes her degree and earns the Maryland certificate her school will promote her at once. Our city badly needs teachers who can speak English and Spanish.”
He pauses. Furrows his brow.
“Not just speak. Teachers who can understand more than one country’s history. More than one country’s style. Because most every classroom in our State enrolls children who come from many different backgrounds. The children need much help to build their lives here.”
He radiates pride in his wife.
“Next year Carlita will begin a new degree to become a principal. All her supervisors and professors tell her she is born to do this. She will hurry so our Mom can live to see her daughter lead a school of her own in America”
Tilda makes a tsk-tsk sound.
“Mariano is a modest person. He does not tell you that he too will receive a degree. He attends our community college every day, after he sleeps only a few hours in the morning.”
Gives him an incandescent smile.
“Already he is a splendid automobile repairman. We all ask him to fix our cars. Even the doctors. Now he is studying to receive his credential. Every dealership will want to hire him. Every garage too. He can speak to cars. They speak to him.”
He blushes, shushes her.
“My Dad taught me. You see, in our birth country all the cars are extremely old. Antiques practically. There are no spare parts for them because of the stupid embargo, so all the fathers teach their sons how to make repairs as best we can.”
His family left Cuba when he was fourteen. They banded with their neighbors and friends, purchased passage in a barely seaworthy wooden boat.
“Many Cubans try to drift to Florida on rafts, or sail in old boats. Most of the rafts sink. Most of the boats, too. The distance to Florida is only ninety miles, but the sea is treacherous. The weather can turn in an instant. Bad currents. Big waves.”
His family landed during the early days in the diaspora. Back then refugees were granted asylum if they could place even one foot on American soil.
“The soldiers were good to us. They helped us pull our boat to shore. They carried the children to a sanctuary area. They gave us ice cream and toys. They gave our families tents and beds and sheets and towels. For many weeks they brought us food and water and clothing. We all cooked in a communal kitchen. Later our parents were awarded papers that let us stay here.”
Like Ephraim he wears a crucifix. He cradles it, kisses it. “We are so thankful to God. He protected us. He brought us to this land. He gave us sanctuary.”
Falls silent. Scuffles his feet. Sighs.
“It is different now for the refugees who come here from Cuba, and from everywhere else. No one is welcome any longer. Certainly not those who have black skin or brown skin, or who worship in churches that are not Christian.”
His pager vibrates. Time to transport another patient. He leans over the bed, touches my sore belly with his crucifix.
“Goodbye. Don’t you worry. Our Tilda will make you better soon.”
Tilda & Bernard
“Not I,” she cries. “Your doctors will heal you. You have the best ones in our hospital.”
I ask their names.
“I do not know. I just said that to help you feel cheerful.”
I chuckle. She chortles.
It’s quiet on the ward, so I ask if she’ll share with me the story of her family. She tells me her parents emigrated to Maryland from Barbados when she was twelve.
“I gave my Ma and my Pa terrible worries when I was a wild teenager in America. These days our God is giving them their revenge. My daughters pile worry after worry on me now.”
She laughs again. Peals. Trills like a flock of larks warbling in a lea.
She lavishes praise on her husband.
“My Bernard dashes home to us from his work every afternoon at 5 o’clock. He looks after our daughters so I can come to the hospital for my job. He janitors for a giant insurance company. They make a terrific mess in their building, plus they break things all the time. It is good luck for them he is handy. It is not his job to make repairs, but he always does.”
She crosses herself, gazes out the window dreamily even though it’s pitch dark.
“As soon as we save enough money we will buy us a house. We can afford one if it is a shamble nobody else wants. Bernard will fix it, and I will decorate it. This is our dream.”
They could fulfill their dream much more quickly if they didn’t have to wire most of Bernard’s paycheck to his parents.
“My parents are safe, thank you God. Ma was a nurse like me. Pa was a mailman. They have good pensions. They live comfortably, quite near our apartment. But Bernard’s folk need our help. There was little work for them in Barbados, and now they are elderly. We send them as much as we can spare after we pay our rent and our bills and our taxes.”
She laughs her lilting chirrup again.
“Even though I am so plump, Bernard says we could make far, far more money and buy our house sooner if I would become a model for naughty magazines.”
She rubs her ample belly.
“O yes, perhaps I can become a supermodel bad girl goddess for people who are tragically blind.”
She reams me when I laugh too hard.
“Lie still, you foolish man. Your doctors will screech at me if your needles fall out and crush on the floor and spill your expensive medicines all over the place. You will get poor Tilda fired for sure.”
Isabel & Justine
Her pager throbs. She reads it, says she must go, turns off the light, tells me to sleep, slips silently away.
I think I can’t sleep, but I do.
Wake up with a start. Sunlight streams through the window. How good to see the outdoor world again. I’ve been ensconced for one day only. How can it seem so much longer?
A prodigious metal cart piled high with gear clobbers into the door, thrusts it open, rumbles like a miniature tank across the linoleum, smacks into the bed.
“I am sorry. We need to measure you now, give you a scrub, get you dressed in a clean gown, shoot you up with your morning medicines.”
A formidable person. Not frightening. Impressive. Impactful.
She is statuesque. Stately. Five feet ten, eleven. Neither thin nor heavy. Sturdy. Supernally confident. No nonsense. She has a sparkle, though. An insouciance, elemental in her yet managed. Invigilated.
Holds out her hand for a shake despite the fact my wrists are visibly strapped to the bedframe.
I pretend to yank my arms toward her, sham bewilderment when they won’t budge. We laugh.
“I am Isabel.”
Picks up my charts, reads them. Mysterious documents encased in a corpulent aluminum binder.
Frowns. Rasps a discontented multisyllabic catarrh. Grrr-rhh.
“You need to get better, young man.”
Young, indeed. I am seventy-two years old.
Replaces the binder in its metallic slot.
“I am this floor’s daytime Head Nurse. This is the gastrointestinal ward. We call it G.I. because everyone who is a patient here is very sick in their stomach and we have no time for foolish long words such as gastrointestinal.”
Another woman enters the room.
“This is Justine.”
Justine almost has Isabel’s height. Just under. Like Isabel, she is markedly intelligent. Younger. Twenty-five? Not yet thirty.
Exudes a puissant sense of spiritual certitude. Not a zealot. Far from it. An air of tranquil piety. Serene sanctity. Manifestly a person of devout faith.
I greet her. Attempt a bow in acknowledgement of her nunlike religiosity. She giggles, bends a real bow in return.
Isabel scoffs, pshaws. Her voice softens.
“Well now, let us get this ceremonial fellow stabilized. Then you two can have yourselves a grand old-country courtesy fest.”
Your Fine Kaduna Wife
Isabel chats as they tend to me. Abandons her facade of fierceness. Speaks more and more freely.
She is training Justine. Justine transferred to our hospital last month. She was another facility’s most promising practitioner. The medical director recruited her.
They both were born in Nigeria. By chance, perhaps not, who can know, my wife, although born in Hong Kong, lived during much of her childhood in the Nigerian city of Kaduna.
They delight in our shared Nigerian heritage. Shriek, squeal, clap their hands, jump up and down.
Isabel stops, sets her hands akimbo on her hips, puts on a baroque pout, and in a thick baritone register growls: “Now, how is it that your fine Kaduna wife has allowed your weak western belly to make all this ludicrous trouble?”
Why We Came Here
They unstrap me, unhook my needles, turn discreetly while I struggle into a new gown, an enchanting polka dot number dyed a dim grim monkey-vomit green.
They let me sit on a chair while they change the bedsheets. Tie me down again, attach a new drip, inject something into it with a long hypodermic, feed me a pile of pills.
“Many Nigerians emigrate to this region from Nigeria. Thousands, for sure. Our beautiful Nigeria has the most trouble you can imagine. This is the reason we all come here. We migrate to D.C. to make new lives where bad men do not think they need to chop people up and take all their happiness away.”
She tells me harrowing stories. Horrid, haphazard violence. The calamity of her country. We talk and talk. Lose track of time and place.
Her pager buzzes. She studies the screen.
“I must go now. A lady patient has some bad trouble.”
Opens the binder. Writes rapidly in my chart. Quick, firm hand. Fast decisive strokes.
Whispers to Justine. Instructions, directive but courteously phrased. Not orders. Suggestions. A tender friend’s learned counsel.
Hugs her. Assures me a doctor will come soon. Stalks purposefully away.
This Is My Job
I ask Justine if I please can visit the restroom.
Bathroom. Powder room. What word should we use in hospital situations? Anything but a bedpan, I pray thee dear Lord.
She unbuckles my wrists, shows me how to exit the bed and walk while dragging the drip fixture. Says she’ll stand in the corridor to give me my privacy, return as soon as I press the call button draped across the bedpost.
In the restroom I make a dreadful mess. Try to clean the soiled fixtures and floor, to no avail. Too dizzy. Stagger. Stumble. Almost fall.
Clamber into bed. Press the button. Shamefully apologize for what I’ve done, how I’ve imposed.
Justine won’t have it.
“Now, now. You cannot help this. This happens to every patient who comes to G.I. None of you would be here if you could help it.”
Surely anyone else would feel angry, embittered, convey contempt, ooze victimization. All of which would be altogether reasonable.
“Just you think for a moment, will you please? This is my job. I would not have my employment if you were not suffering from your illness. Therefore, you should not be grateful to me. It is I who am grateful to you.
You would need to be a stone not to care about this person.
After Justine fixes the problems I’ve caused, I ask about her family, their history, their life in D.C.
We yak for such a long while that Isabel comes to see what can be taking her apprentice so long. Sits. Listens. Rocks back and forth in her chair. Nods now and then. Looks wistful.
I ask about her loved ones, her story. She tells us wrenching tales, epics, of upheaval, torment, suffering, sorrow. Tribal battles. Regional wars. National apocalypse. Dislocations. Exiles. Multiple heroisms amid generational chaos and butchery.
The most hardened xenophobes in America would sob with sympathy, genuflect with respect.
Marisa & Carlos
An alarm sounds in the corridor. Isabel and Justine take their leave.
I think about their narratives. Toss and turn. Fall asleep.
Wake up. A nurse I have not yet met is shaking me.
“Hello. I am Marisa.”
She injects a medication into the drip device. Adjusts its flow. Discards the hypodermic into a strongbox. Grins. Asks with a twinkle if I am enjoying my liquid luncheon.
She is compact, stocky, unpretentious. She too wears a crucifix around her neck, which she frequently clasps and caresses with a hushed murmur and a reverent motion of her left hand.
She tells me she and her husband came to America from Venezuela nine years ago. They have two daughters. Jana is eleven. Francesca is eight.
Carlos is a police officer in Baltimore. Perilous duty. Although Baltimore is a handsome city fortunately sited, historically prosperous, many of its neighborhoods are riven with fearsome violence. Each morning when the family sets out for work she cannot be certain her husband will return to them at night.
Their employments are secure. They own their home. Their mortgage is manageable. Their health insurance coverage is pricy but adequate. They have two aged but functional cars. Mariano keeps them in good repair.
Their problem is education.
Their district’s public schools strive to succeed, but the infrastructure is decrepit. The curriculum and pedagogy are pitched to the lowest common denominator. The co-curriculum is drastically underfunded. Safety is an omnipresent hazard. Although they can ill-afford the cost, they feel they must enroll their children in their church’s parochial school.
The parish school is protected by steep iron gates topped with coils of barbed wire, patrolled by a private guard and a pair of highly trained Doberman pinchers.
“These are wimp dogs, but they look ferocious and they bray like maniacs at all males.”
The buildings, though hoary, are well-maintained. The course designs and teaching styles are dated. Yet Marisa believes the teachers, if overly doctrinal, are incomparably more conscientious and effective than the public schools’ faculty.
This Is Our Wish
Isabel and Justine return.
Isabel busses Marisa’s cheeks, first the left, then the right, then the left again.
Reads my charts again. Takes my pulse, redundantly, for the machines ceaselessly record, graph, and display all organic functions. Recalibrates my drip. Straightens my blanket, pats my shoulder, and tells me my doctors have ordered a second transfusion.
I hadn’t known I’d received a first. Must have slept through that.
Justine cradles a bag of blood in both hands. Examines its label assiduously. Ensures it accords with a printout pinioned to a clipboard.
Passes the crimson sack to Isabel, who rechecks the printout, nods, hooks the blood to the stand above my bed, and slides the feed into a plastic stent bandaged onto my increasingly discolored forearm.
Marisa adjusts the blinds, fluffs my perfectly functional pillow, fusses with my feet.
“Your toes are pale. Would you like warm booties?”
She opens the bedside nightstand nevertheless, extracts from the shelf a bunched pair of hideous mauve compressors, unfurls them, ignores my protests.
To distract her, I ask what she and Carlos will do when their daughters are ready for middle school and high school.
“They will study in our diocesan upper school. They must. Otherwise they will have no chances in their lives.”
She stares at the socks. Clutches them to her side. Trembles.
“We do not know how we can pay.”
She explains the Church subsidizes its senior programs’ tuition, books, and supplies. However, the total cost greatly exceeds the bishopric’s subvention.
“We can afford the elementary school. But what will we do when Jana needs the upper school? Then Francesca. How can we pay?”
She sighs forlornly.
“We will borrow the money if a bank will let us. We are frightened, because many banks do not trust their Hispanic customers.”
She snuffles. Daubs her eyes.
Isabel gently takes the socks from her hands, returns them to the nightstand, settles her into a visitors’ chair. Justine covers her knees with a blanket.
“Our priest is worried for all the parents in our congregation. Our bishop also feels concern, I am sure. What more can they do? I am sure they are doing everything they can for us. For all of us. After all, we are their flock”
Stupidly, I ask if she and her husband will permit my wife, our daughter, and I to help.
“O, no. No. Thank you, but no. Carlos and I must do this ourselves. This is our duty. This is our wish.”
We sit silently together for several moments.
Marisa recovers. Smooths her hair. Isabel says it’s time they move on to their other patients. I thank them. We say goodbye.
I don’t know what to do with all the stories I’ve been told. I fidget. Wriggle. Squirm.
Sensors sense. Recorders record. Drips drip.
I reach for the remote. Power on the television. CNN’s newscaster and her panel of garrulous, combative experts intone boggling figures. Gargantuan numbers. Billions. Trillions.
National productivity. Bond yields. Prime rates. Discount margins.
Corporations’ quarterly grosses. Earnings. Market caps. P/E ratios.
Chairpersons’ salaries, bonuses, options, warrants, emoluments. Males, most of them. Caucasians, overwhelmingly.
Films’ revenues. Networks’ ratings. Recordings’ downloads.
Mergers. Acquisitions. Next quarter’s projections. Treasury auctions. Puts. Calls.
No announcer, no analyst, speaks about working people’s sorrows, stresses, and strains.
Housing? Healthcare? Food? Transportation? Education?
Not a word.
Not one word.
We have shared several families’ stories. We could have shared lots more, because every waking hour I passed in that hospital in Maryland many of the women and men who were healing hundreds of patients spoke with me about the fulfilling but fraught lives they are leading outside their workplace.
Every family’s story is singular. The only one of its kind. In common, though, are the arcs of struggle. The sagas of unnecessary hardship. Greatly decent people incurring grinding, grievous, utterly gratuitous suffering.
Ethnic antipathy. Racial persecution. Gender bias. Impossible costs. Insufficient wages. Inadequate government support.
During my hospitalization I learned that we have an illness in America: we no longer care about those who lack societal power. Station. Status. Affluence. Glitter. Dash. Glamor. Illusory significance.
Every nation has ailments. Those of the United States are more consequential than all others because America is the sole nation on our shared earth that conceives of and attempts to enforce itself as a universal ideal. The one polity that proclaims its defining ideas exist not for Americans alone but for everyone, everywhere, who yearns for inclusion in our professed commitment to dignity, liberty, and unity for all.
Our professed “exceptionalism.”
Our professed belief that we all are sisters and brothers. Individual and independent, but not isolate. Autonomous and acculturated, but neither alien to nor alienated from one another.
Our professed belief that in our selfhood and in our commonalty every human being deserves and in America will discover approximately equal opportunity to dream, desire, dare, and do. Envision and enact. Build, become, and live in our own manner in egalitarian emancipation.
Our professed belief that nobody is entitled, but everybody is empowered. Nothing will be outright given, but no one will be disenfranchised. Certainly not on the bases of ethnic identity, faith, opinion, or country of origin.
Our professed belief that the majesty and authority of the American society derive directly from our diversity. Our ecstatic embrace of multiplicity in background, opinion, and behavior. Our euphoric welcome to all who find themselves disenfranchised, persecuted, or perhaps merely unfulfilled in their original homelands.
Our embrace, in sum, of love.
Our beautiful proclamation that the American civilization loves connection and caring. Helping. Freeing. Uniting.
Our beautiful declaration that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness inhere most fully in community. In lovingly accepting and joyfully assisting not only our blood relatives but all who cannot yet fend fully for themselves.
As once upon a time, recently or long ago, America opened her mind, her heart, and her frontiers to us, or to our forebears.
As all religions teach the Divine wishes and requires us to do.
America’s ideas never have been simple. Her ideals never have been easy to sustain. At this moment they are under siege. Severe, deliberate, cynical, callous, and devastating challenge.
Too often we demonize differences. Demagogue bigotry. Politicize prejudice. Purvey phobias. Pervert patriotism.
We tolerate cavernous socio-economic disparity. Tolerate? We encourage our calamitous inequality. We exalt it. We exult in it.
We institutionalize earned and unearned advantages. Increasingly we privilege puissance – and heartlessly impugn, malign, and handicap the dispossessed.
We grant money nearly omnipotent influence upon communication, political activity, and public policy.
We price health services, housing, and education beyond ever more people’s ability to afford.
Every day our government becomes more remote from its electors, indifferent to the state of their affairs, obtuse about their needs, and unresponsive to their tribulations.
These are malignancies. They are interrelated. They are causing immense damage. And they are metastasizing.
Our diseases need to be known. They need to be named. They need to be deplored. And they need to be cured.
Can They Be?
Can they be cured?
Of course they can. We just need to want to. Choose to.
For our illnesses are not laws of nature, ineluctable, ironclad, immutable. They are preferences. Individual determinations. Civic decisions. Political policies.
There exist no valid reasons for the fear, ire, and enmity that beset too many anxious, angry Americans. No reasons at all, other than those of ignorance, anxiety, and pathology.
There is plenty of room in America for new citizens. There is ample wealth for all who will work, if wealth were more fairly distributed. If opportunity were more equally conferred.
Of course we can love and help our sisters and brothers who are confronting unjust animosity and unfair burdens.
To believe otherwise is delusory, tragic, and un-American. In the deepest and most egregious sense hostile to our nation’s ideals and destructive of our society’s interests.
Your Turn Will Come
Sooner or later we all will be hospitalized.
The healers who saved my life someday may save yours. Or their colleagues may. Or their children, their nieces, their nephews, their grandchildren.
Should you fall ill, and one day you will, they will help you with the same consummate skill and radical generosity they freely bestowed upon me, a helpless stranger dropped into their midst one morning in Maryland.
When this happens to you, surely you will not recoil from a caregiver whose ethnicity is not your own.
Surely you will not reject your doctors and repel your nurses because of their gender, their political persuasions, their religious faith, their sexual orientation.
Surely you will not ask if the blood they transfuse into you was given by a donor who migrated to our community. Legally, or illegally.
I think you will not.
I think, like me, you will feel ever so thankful to them, and passionately resolved to commit at least part of the life your saviors preserve to plead for a more loving national life.