Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
It’s nearly fall again. That means if we make it through October and Halloween and early November, the holidays and all the expectations will be bearing down on us again. But, wait, those years are long gone. I failed to meet the expectations. I couldn’t keep a home for us. I went broke. We are now alone.
And for millions of Americans like me, the haunting relates less to goblins and ghosts than to chasing an American Dream on behalf of our families that was never to be for us and then being left in our later years with only nightmares about losing so much of what we fought for.
As a young mother, I started out “clean.” I cooked only healthy things – made my own bread and even my own yogurt, and I sewed little outfits, imperfect but soft and safe. I trusted my instincts, and I loved. Just loved. But I also listened and watched as the wealthy society in America showed disdain for the likes of me. I grew to disdain myself.
I was “WC” – a working class kid who married into a working class family and will ever be working class. But all of us were also taught to aspire to some other class thought to be above our own and wash ourselves of the cloak of mundane existence those of our ilk wallowed in like swine (or so the non-WC think). Even many of those who “lifted” themselves out of the WC looked down their noses at those who could not or did not. It’s part of the unspoken code. It’s part of the mind and body and life and political-social control.
That young, naïve mom I was gave way to the driven, ambitious person I became as I grew angrier and less open. Making enough money and proving I was strong enough and smart enough to do that became primary as a way to show those kids I still loved so much that I cared enough to provide the best for them. A good home near good schools and a chance to also flee the WC was what I could offer my kids – a chance to not be me. I went to college, got my degree and headed out to get out of the WC.
My husband’s working life collapsed only a few short years before his health did. He was a machinist, though he might have done so many other things but he too set aside his talents to earn a living for his family. Computerized machining replaced many of the “weak,” and Ronald Reagan’s union-busting and the years that followed culled more from the WC herd in his field, until he endured through months of unemployment interrupted by short bursts of work and income.
We were both angry. Our family felt that anger. We fought most nights. Our kids hid themselves away from the yelling. I yelled at him to get a job or get a better job, and he yelled at me to stop yelling. We had some good times full of laughter and love, but those were far less frequent than the stressful moments. And so it went, off and on for years on end.
The kids grew. The kids grew up. The kids went to college. One went to the military. The house grew silent. The expenses dropped. The anger and the fear remained. We never lifted ourselves out of the WC. But we didn’t stop trying even in the face of crushing medical problems and growing medical-financial stress. We lost everything – home, savings, credit rating and closeness with our kids.
Advance to 2011 when the WC faces so much job loss and so much stress that generations to come may never know there was a time when their grandmoms and granddads dreamed something very different. Those who remain above the WC now (whether formerly WC or not) intend to stay that way and will use any means necessary to do so.
I heard one of our nurse-leaders, Karen Higgins, National Nurses United co-president, tell the story of one nurse in Rhode Island who faced a similar family story to my own (though I suspect that nurse wasn’t as vile to her own children when under stress as I was). Karen said the Rhode Island nurse closed her story by saying she would never actually do harm to herself but that she went to bed many nights and thought it would be OK if she never woke up.
I almost had to leave the venue when Karen relayed that story. It could have been my own. And if it was that Rhode Island nurse’s story, and it is most certainly the story of many thousands of mothers and grandmothers every night in America. What a horrible loss for this nation in love and kindness and humanity.
So, what can WC people do who do not want to grow old and sick and lonely in an America that is now almost exclusively positioned to make the rich richer no matter what it takes or what must be done on the backs of the WC?
We can stop yelling at our children and our other loved ones and teach one another how to love enough to direct that anger where it needs to be directed – at the systems and those who run those systems that stopped valuing the WC long ago and continue to abuse us for their own pleasure and profit. We can break the cycle over time if we stop hoping to gain the same sort of power and control over others that has been forced upon us for so long. We will lift the WC when we lift the WC. We will elect WC leaders when we stop electing pretend-WC prophets.
I say it all the time when I speak to audiences about single-payer, Medicare for all healthcare reform. There is nothing about seeing my neighbor having access to the healthcare he or she needs that diminishes my hard work in the world or interrupts my quest for riches or glory, if that is what I seek. Having good healthcare is good for all. Listening to our nurses as they fight for real justice seems a good way to go too.
Or maybe it’s like seeing Michael Moore, Academy Award winning filmmaker and progressive activist, take the time to stand on a picket line as he did this week in Los Angeles when there was nothing to be gained for him and everything to be gained for the workers who often wonder if their fight or plight is noticed. (See photo with article, taken in LA on Sept 22, 2011)
We will lift our neighbors up when we stop fearing their ascent but allow them to stand on our shoulders. And I just don’t know if we have enough courage to do that for one another, but I hope I’ll have enough courage to try instead of raging in the darkness to force someone already hurting to cower in fear. Enough haunting.
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