Archive for March, 2012

This week the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on what has come to be known as “Obamacare,” a national health care program that U.S. Presidents have, for decades, tried to enact in one form or another.  The current form of health care, which was at least partly modeled on that now in effect in my home state of Massachusetts, has been the whipping child for vicious criticism from large corporations, lobbyists, and political conservatives and libertarians, since way before it was enacted.  It’s hard to imagine what might happen by the time some of the key points of health care legislation become law more than a year from now, given how much heat has already been drawn on the parts of this legislation that have already been enacted.

While I completely understand why corporations in the health care business don’t like the legislation, it’s hard for me to understand why individuals – even those who don’t like the President – have gone after it.  Yes, it requires people to have health care coverage.  But at its core it also seeks to provide much-needed health care to those who otherwise would have none and who, in many states, clog emergency rooms seeking treatment for basic matters of care.  It provides a much-needed safety net for the people who live, or have fallen, to the lower rungs of the economic ladder – and right now, that includes me and my family.  To cut to the point:  I’ve had the opportunity to see the Massachusetts model, and to benefit from it.  And it works.

When I was laid off from the job I’d held for more than twenty years, I went on COBRA, as most people in my circumstance would do.  I paid plenty for it, and received what I consider to be pretty mediocre health coverage under the plan my previous employer had negotiated.  I had to haggle and fight for far too much and shell out very large co-pays when I had very little money.  Then COBRA expired and I — still looking for work — realized that we would be financially ruined if I paid the full amount for health care coverage.  So I applied for MassHealth coverage, and fortunately, was approved.  We are receiving more efficient health care services than I had under my previous employer, and I feel like I’m being treated like a human being in the process — you know, all that stuff I believe about the inherent worth and dignity of people really does include talking with respectful people in customer service who actually know what your policy covers and who can help you figure out who to call with questions.

Now I’m recuperating from a much-needed total knee replacement that the insurance plan covered, and my level of care has been just fine.  My prescriptions are affordable, I’m getting the physical therapy I need, and I’m on the road to being able to make a good recovery and regain my mobility and my health.  Isn’t this part of the promise of reasonable, dignified health care coverage for all that Teddy Kennedy fought for, for so many years, and that has been, at least subliminally, something that one would expect the United States of America would offer its citizens?  And isn’t it possible that Mitt Romney — before he reversed himself on the campaign trail — recognized that, from a business standpoint, this kind of health care option actually served the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by allowing our health care providers to offer better service, while reducing the costs that the Commonwealth had to assume for those who were otherwise uninsured?

My friends, who share my political bent, sometimes look at me in amazement when I openly express my gratitude to Romney for having signed this health care program into law.  But I’m serious:  my family would be uninsured, and in even rockier financial shape than we are now, without it.  So as the Court hears the arguments this week on the pieces of legislation the President fought hard to enact — so that many of you out there might be covered under similar kinds of insurance if you found yourselves without private health care — think about me for a minute.  Remember that your position might not always provide you with health care coverage – or coverage that you can afford.  Even if you are young, healthy, and thinking, “I don’t need health insurance now,” there might come a moment — perhaps, arriving with no warning — that makes it an absolute necessity.  And having an option that offers you regular check-ups and needed access to specialists just might end up saving the state, and your family, from financial ruin.  And my friends, that might be what economic recovery is all about.

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We drove to New Hampshire this weekend, looking forward to our “fourth annual pajama party” with two couples who are among our very closest friends.  We have known them for more years than I can easily count up, having met on Star Island, and through the years we have grown closer, sharing ups and downs of children, careers, our mutual celebrations – the mundane and glorious stuff of life.

This weekend was different, though. One of my friends is about to undergo a bilateral radical mastectomy – a surgery designed to not only take away the primary and secondary lesion found in her right breast, but to hopefully erase the possibility of cancer being found, in time, in her other breast.  She faces a preliminary surgery this week and the mastectomy will come the week after.

She is gutsy, my friend.  She set the table for dinner with place cards that carried this statement (author anonymous):  “Courage is looking fear right in the eye and saying, ‘Get the hell out of my way.  I’ve got things to do.'”  She has researched her procedure, she has planned her after-care, she has done everything she can to make this lousy turn of fortune go as well as it might.  Still, it sucks.

My other friend and I got together and planned a gift bag to present during the visit, filled with things that we hoped would help, at least a little – a special shirt for mastectomy patients that holds drains and tubes and velcros on and off; trashy magazines, a book on CD, chocolate, a picture frame for the hospital, and much more.  And of course, we brought food for the freezer and fridge, so that no one would have to worry about whether there’s some good soup or a meatloaf or pasta casserole available – it will be there.  We love each other like we were born from the same mother, I keep thinking, wanting to be there, support each other, help to take away some of the pain — even though we know that isn’t possible.

And the spouses — the amazing, supportive spouse of this woman, who has loved her for more than forty years, since they were teens — and the other two husbands…they talk as well.  My friend’s husband loves her not for her breasts but for her loving and generous spirit, her warmth and unflinching devotion to home and family. Sitting together the men ask questions about the procedure; they worry, and inside, they think, I am sure, “there but for the Grace of God…”. What else can you do, but (as Bob Franke wrote) ‘work and hope’…and believe that all will be well?

Last night at dinner, we drank a toast to the riches we shared, to the blessings of friendship.  We are so fortunate, all of us, to be in such good company, to know that we will continue to be there for one another.  As we talked the night away, ate amazing food, went from reflecting on the upcoming surgery to thinking about spring flowers and then on to politics, faith, our kids, and our upcoming vacation together, I kept looking around the room.  “How did I get so lucky?”, I kept wondering.  I can not imagine my life without these people, can not remember what it was like before I knew them.  They are part of our chosen family, not the people who share our blood – but they share our passion, our love, our values, and our commitment to one another.

On Wednesday my heart and head and spirit, and my prayers too, will be up north, in the operating room as my sister of the heart is wheeled in.  And I will also be sitting, in my mind’s eye, with her husband in that waiting room, hoping for the best possible news as nodes are analyzed and initial procedures done, knowing that there is so much more to this life that needs to be explored, celebrated, relished – for them, for all of us.

Yes, we’ve got things to do and much to celebrate.  And these people are more precious than gold, worth caring for and treasuring beyond all else.

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Two weeks ago to the day, I entered New England Baptist Hospital in Boston for a total knee replacement.  My right knee had deteriorated (I have no memory of an injury, but something must have happened) to the point where there was, essentially, no cartilage left; there were plenty of bone spurs and the situation had become painful and pretty much unacceptable. Add to this the fact that Ben and I are planning a once-in-a-lifetime 20th anniversary trip in the fall to Paris and Rome with Ben’s brother and his wife, and you’ve got a knee that needs fixing.

I am an upbeat person, positive and in general, pain-tolerant.  I knew that that procedure might hurt; I knew that it was not going to be a good time.  But I was clear that it was the right thing to do.  And so it happened, at one of the best orthopedic hospitals in the US if not the world, and so far the outcome holds promise.

Over and over, as I moved closer to surgery day, people would ask me if I was nervous.  “Aren’t you concerned?”  “Don’t you worry?” my well-meaning friends would ask.  To all, the answer was the same:  “No.  No worries – just ready to go to the next chapter, to try to make myself whole.”  Send me your good thoughts, I said; your prayers if you pray; but know that I feel held by all of you.

That image, of being held, was the most powerful vision I had, both before the surgery and now.  I could see myself in the center of a clear space, and all around me were people.  Some of them I could identify, some of them were anonymous to me.  But as in the trust exercise that you hear about some youth groups doing, to bond and merge and come together as a group, I, the person in the center, was being held — ever so delicately — by the fingers and hands of all around me.

It was, and is, a beautiful and comforting image…and it is not only imagined.  So many have been there in so many ways that I can not begin to name or thank them all.  One friend, who has had a disability since birth, took me under her wing to tell me what I would need to know about how to successfully use a walker, then crutches, while she ministered to my psyche at the same time.  Another just showed up, repeatedly, with the Frappucinos that are almost the only thing that tastes good.  Still another called many times to check in and immediately produced the heating pad I desperately needed when my back and hamstring muscles went into spasm. And another, too far away to visit and wrestling with her own health challenges, undertook a ‘ministry of get well cards’ that arrived, day after day, to remind me that I was indeed being held by my friends.

And the food…all the people who, whether intimidated by the idea of feeding an experienced cook or not, have showed up, night after night with wonderful meals, made with love.  The “pot of spring” (daffodils) that arrived with another friend, the folks who brought scones and frozen meals for later, the DVD of “Downton Abbey” that arrived to amuse me, the buckwheat-stuffed heart that, when frozen, cools my hot surgical incision.

This, and so much more, has carried me through; reminded me of what community is about; illustrated – in case I needed a reminder — what we offer to one another through good times and certainly through bad.  A former minister of my congregation used to remind us, weekly, “No matter what you are going through in this life, my friends, you are not going through it alone.”  I could not have had a more clear example of what that means than over these last few weeks.

Several suggested to me, as they cared for me, that I had been generous to others and so it was my ‘turn.’  Maybe so.  But when we commit to live in true community with one another, it means that we will show up in whatever way we can.  That’s all I’ve ever tried to do, and it’s what these amazing people are doing for me, right now.

As I wrestle with the pain that will not leave me quite yet, I try to think calm and peaceful thoughts at night as I talk to my body, to tell it to relax into sleep.  And each night, lying next to Ben – who has done so much and continues to do so much to support me — I can almost feel the others around me, gently lifting me up, holding me.  It is a blessing.

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