August 16 If you are a nurse and your patient calls you in first thing in the morning and says, “Something’s wrong. I feel really bad,” and then starts yelling at you and you start crying and run away, it probably would be a good idea to have another nurse check on the patient. My nurse didn’t. It was nearly half an hour before another nurse, with whom I have a good relationship, happened to stop by and ask how I was doing. I burst into tears.
The first nurse was white; the second one is black. I think that’s relevant. The first nurse was mewling, “That hurts my feelings.” The second nurse said, “Sweetie, what’s wrong?” The typical white-bread nurse is all wrapped up in herself and her feelings. The typical black woman has a much better grasp on reality and can, therefore, see that her patient is in trouble, not that her own sweetly vulnerable sensitivities have been offended. Black people grow up knowing that life is tough and you gotta deal with it. White people believe in the American dream and tend to fall apart when it turns out not to be happening. White people pretend a lot.
I remember the first black church service that I attended. It was awesome because these people—these descendants of slavery—started with the premise that life is hard and only with the help of God could they get through it. White people go to church to negotiate with God for an improved position; black people go to church to hang on.
My mom moved to a small town and in an early phone call she said that she missed her black friends. I didn’t understand that because I thought that all friends were the same, black or white. Obviously, I didn’t have any black friends. Later my pastor said a woman needed a ride to church on Sundays. I said, “No problem, I’ll pick her up.” Turned out she was a black woman, not to mention a woman of (a) considerable intelligence; (b) extraordinary patience, and (c) my age. In our rides every Sunday morning, she put up with my stupidity and gradually began to educate me. We were close friends for many years.
I guess the best thing a black person can hope for is a white person who is teachable, and open-minded enough to learn. What Eleanor spoke, literally, was the King’s English. She was born in the projects and grew up to attend the Royal Academy of Drama (or whatever) in London. She met Queen Elizabeth. I don’t know any white folks who have done that. So Eleanor taught me that black folks talk white when they’re with white people and talk black with black people. She’d do both with me, which honored me. She also taught me that when a white person goes into an upscale clothing store, he gets waited on. When a black person goes into an upscale clothing store, he gets followed.
Eleanor opened the door and showed me what’s on the other side. Black people are different from white people. They take care of their own better; they don’t abandon them to the system when they become difficult to care for. They are more apt to settle their own interpersonal differences with a little violence than to call the cops. Cop response-time in a white neighborhood is usually significantly faster than in a black neighborhood. Ain’t no point in calling the cops if the cops aren’t going to come.
August 14 And to all these doctors and nurses who harry and berate me, who arrogantly think they need to tell me what will happen to my eyes, feet and kidneys if I don’t take insulin—to all of you, listen:
I have no family. No one. No one to call when I feel bad. No one who comes to visit. I am alone every holiday. My family stopped celebrating my birth decades ago. My sister tried to turn off my life support eleven years ago. Do you know what it feels like to live with the knowledge that your own family wants you dead?
I have no health. I transfer from bed to recliner and back again. I have an electric wheelchair; I no longer use it. I lie in bed, look out at the sunshine, wish I was there, but am too tired to get dressed and get into the wheelchair. There is little spontaneous movement left in my legs; I have no reflexes. When I am talking to you on the telephone it is with my head resting on the back of the bed and my eyes closed. It’s hard for me to stand up. When I walk, I have to stop talking; there isn’t enough breath for both.
I have no money. I have been impoverished for the past twenty years. I am on Social Security Disability; that is below the poverty line. At its worst, I couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper or pay bus fare. Now, I have a Supplemental Needs Trust, courtesy of my parents’ estates. It’s too late for me to spend it on the good stuff—a hot air balloon ride—all I can do is use it to gentle my way out.
I have no home. I live alone in a tiny two-room apartment, surrounded by other old, sick people, virtually all of whom are nasty. That is federal policy. Federal policy could just as easily have put me in a project of families, but nobody makes big bucks on that. Corporate developers make the big bucks on building warehouses.
I have no partners in faith. Every major religion counts on the community of faith; corporate worship is the keystone of faith. My church dropped me when I got too sick to cross their threshold. Twenty years of faithfulness and they forgot my name weeks after I got too sick to travel.
Now, doctors and nurses, you give me one good reason why I should take your damn insulin to prolong my life. Do you want this life? Will you exchange yours for mine? Give me one reason why I should go on. For love of my husband? Because I am part of my children’s lives? To see my grandson get married?
Years ago Dr. Ghaly pointed out to me that the reason I have so much trouble getting the level of services I need is because I am intelligent and articulate and people react to what I say, not what they see. In other words, my spirit is strong and healthy; my body is wrecked.
My spirit will go on even as my body dies. Let it be, and amen.