A little more than a year ago today, as I sat vigilantly at my post at Reynolds carrying out my oath as a student guard (the few, the proud) to protect the Georgetown community, I answered a call from my mom. Her tone was hurried and hushed. She was calling to let me know that she had cancer.
I tried to speak but words refused to come out. I was breathless, suffocating under the weight of the news.
Eventually, following her lead, I regained my composure. There was a plan in place, she assured me, one of the country’s best teams of doctors at her disposal, and an endless stream of support from friends and family. She would be okay, we would be okay. She, the newest victim of a nasty disease, needed me to know that.
If there was anyone undeserving of this fate, it was my mom – a woman who had worked two full-time jobs for quite some time. The first, 40 hours a week as a marketing executive in Manhattan; the second, a round-the-clock gig as caretaker to her terminally ill husband, my dad, for the nine years between his Parkinson’s diagnosis and his death. Despite it all, she maintained her maternal commitment to my brothers and me, never missing a school play or a baseball game, and never shying away from a meeting at school with a grumpy, tenured, disengaged teacher who “failed to see our full potential.” My theory is that my grandparents dipped her in a pool of radioactive waste as a toddler, bestowing upon her superhuman levels of empathy and fortitude.
It was the same resilience that allowed her to balance the obligations, stresses, and uncertainties of a life she couldn’t have imagined that allowed her to view her cancer diagnosis as a “roadblock:” another obstacle to hurdle, another rung on a creaky ladder, another treacherous crossing to brave. Her illness was to be acknowledged, its gravity to be recognized, and its consequences to be anticipated – but it was never to be feared.
And so she beat on, taking her treatments in stride, trying all the while to strike a balance between confidence and humility. She resisted violent words like “battle” and “fight.” There was no room for antagonism in a body that needed to heal, no use for anger in a mind that yearned for peace. Eventually, she emerged a survivor – embattled but not broken, tired but not weary. Although I was an ocean away when I got the good news in January, in my mind’s eye I saw her lips parting to form a triumphant smile, a proud yet understated announcement that she was a woman not to be fucked with.
Simply attributing my mom’s survival to perseverance would be a gross oversimplification, and she’d be the first to tell you that. Despite our family’s string of misfortune, we were lucky. No one can be totally prepared for a cancer diagnosis, but some can be more prepared than others. While she still depends on her job to put the last of her three sons, me, through college, she has a stable health care plan and a generous and understanding employer. While she is a widow who certainly felt the absence of her husband when she needed support, she has devoted family and friends who are willing to drive long distances, stay up on call at all hours of the night, and stomach hospital food.
My awareness of that paradox of being simultaneously unlucky and lucky was reaffirmed when I accompanied my mom to one of her treatments. It felt selfish to dry my own tears at the sight of a patient changing out of a hospital gown into his city sanitation uniform for his afternoon shift, or a pair of non-English speaking parents begging for a translator to decipher their infant daughter’s condition, or a priest stepping beyond curtains that shielded distressed strangers loudly pleading for a miracle.
Cancer is a ubiquitous, life-altering truth that demands a reckoning for which few can prepare. It is the lightning that strikes twice, the monster under the bed, deviously preying on the less fortunate just as often as anyone else. It is random, it is ugly, and for certain Republican lawmakers, it is a pre-existing condition that could legally allow insurers to deny care to its victims.
It’s fitting then, that on the anniversary of my mom’s diagnosis, GOP lawmakers were seriously considering a repeal of Obamacare. While Obamacare’s an imperfect piece of legislation, it’s provided health insurance to millions of Americans with far less luck than that of my family. Repealing it without a viable replacement would have left millions of Americans without healthcare, a political move that amounts to murderous indifference.
Luckily a few Republican senators had the sense to spurn partisanship in the name of morality. Their votes are certainly appreciated and required some courage, but what does that say about our standards for bravery? Should they have even seriously considered the potential political backlash of their defections as reason to vote with their Republican colleagues? Losing support from donors or even a reelection bid is one thing; it’s quite another to lose healthcare.
With our commander-in-child challenging Republican senators to “demand another vote before voting on any other bill,” there’s still reason to fear that this issue will resurface. If it does resurface, a common refrain in that inevitable political battle will warn Republicans that there will be blood on their hands. My mom prefers a metaphor that involves tears, tears she has shed herself and seen slide down the cheeks of fellow patients, the tears of those who would stand to lose their health care, their livelihoods, and in some cases, their lives. Unlike blood, tears are not easily scrubbed away. They leave invisible streaks on the body. The majority of the GOP has already proven its intent to willfully ignore those tears; I say we must continue to shine a light.