Thirty-five years ago this week, my father passed away at the age of 43. Fifty years ago this week, my baby brother was born. He never saw his 43rd birthday, dying unexpectedly at 30.
These two events have always been connected in my mind by the proximity of time and the poignancy of loss: I miss you, Daddy, happy birthday, Jon.
Rarely do I think of one without the other, even in normal times. But these are not normal times. These are the days when we have started to examine the character of our society, forced into this moral contact sport by outside events (the election of a president some love and some hate) and an evolving sense of justice (Black Lives Matter, LGBT Lives Matter, Unborn Life Matters).
The thing that has really brought that into focus for me has been the healthcare debate. The GOP attempt to dismantle Obamacare has cleared the first hurdle, squeaking by in the House.
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I’m not trembling, because I have insurance. It’s not the best kind or the cheapest, and I have no love for the company that presumably protects me, but I have insurance.
Others, by choice or inability, do not.
I really don’t care about the people who deliberately choose not to insure themselves. If they want to play with fire, that’s on them.
But those who are sick, either in body or in mind, are my concern. They should concern all of us. Looking away when they reach out and say “please help,” is the sign of a society that doesn’t deserve to be “great again,” and which quite possibly never really was.
This brings me back to my father and my brother. Daddy was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 1981. He fought like a warrior, the same way he lived his singularly valiant life. Dirt poor as a boy, living in foster homes, working two jobs during the day and attending Temple law school at night while supporting a young family, my father was used to obstacles.
When anointing him a “Legend of the Philadelphia Bar,” 20 years after his death, his colleagues in the Bar Association described Teddy as “a feisty trial lawyer” who handled civil rights cases in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. He raged against the dying of the light.
He saw the best doctors. He criss-crossed the country to try experimental treatments at Sloane Kettering, at the Mayo Clinic and down in Texas. He was the incarnation of that poem, Invictus, recited as a talisman: “Out of the dark that covers me/Black as a pit, from pole to pole/I thank whatever god there be/For my unconquerable soul.”
And the soul was unconquerable, but the body succumbed. Daddy was able to fight because he had the means and opportunity. He had a good insurance plan, and he had the money. His struggle was hard, his fight valiant, but it was a little easier because he had health coverage. I cannot imagine what his journey would have been like had he been forced to fight first with insurance companies ratcheting up premiums in a capitalist frenzy and then with the looming cancer monster.
Unlike Daddy, my brother’s body was whole, but his mind was troubled. He suffered from the shadows and the sorrows that are undefined, but settle in so deeply and so insidiously that they eat us from inside, and the world is unaware. It is an interior disease more deadly for its silence and its shame than the most brutal cancer.
I do not know the details of his battle, but I know its ending, and the corpses strewn across the family battlefield.
Others have suffered like Jon, and are still suffering. How can a society that considers itself great, and how can I, as a pro-life Catholic, acquiesce in a health care system that makes it harder for the troubled minds to find safe harbor? It’s a rhetorical question with a self-evident answer: We can’t.
I miss you, Daddy. Happy birthday, Jon. This one’s for you.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.