Here’s my first essay. It recently won the Carolyn B. Lorenz “Best of Beginners” Prize at the Dayton Woman’s Literary Club creative writing awards, an honor I feel conflicted about because 1. I’m not a beginner; 2. I’m the current president of the group, so ick. But The Dayton Woman’s Literary Club is a delightful and vibrant group of people–you should check them out. And the club is 125 years old! I like this essay but I like the group more.
THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST
Recently my husband’s father—Pa, age 90–was hospitalized twice for urinary tract bleeding. Shortly after this, at home in the Florida condo where he and his wife live, he became suddenly short of breath. The emergency room doctor discovered that Pa had blood clots in his lungs.
Because of Pa’s recent bleeding, he was not a candidate for clot dissolvers or blood thinners. The usual thing to do in a case like his is to insert a strainer–aka an “umbrella”—via the groin into the vein leading from the lower body into the heart. Clots caught on this umbrella can’t travel to the lungs. Clots in the pelvis or legs are nuisances, and the body will slowly break them down. Clots in the lungs can kill people.
The clots in Pa’s lungs were discovered around noon. He was admitted to the ICU and told that a special doctor would be coming in to insert the clot-blocking umbrella. My husband flew to Florida the next day, believing that his panicky mother had failed to report when the umbrella had been inserted, and not wanting to scare her more by asking about it. That evening, my husband phoned home. Pa had not had his umbrella placed, although he’d been in the ICU 30 hours. There was no doctor around, only a nurse practitioner who didn’t seem to know what was going on. For several hours my husband had been sitting outside the ICU trying to calm down his mother.
I went a little crazy. How could Pa be in the ICU without a doctor? Was the doctor’s name “Dr. Nobody”? Did the hospital plan to bill for ICU “care” when they had done literally nothing? How would my husband feel if his father threw more clots to his lungs that night and died? My husband—a physician himself–said, “I know, I know, but what can I do?” That’s when I went really crazy.
An hour later, while my husband was on the phone with a hospital administrator, the umbrella doctor waltzed in. He’d been too busy to get there earlier, he said. The hospital had no back-up plan in case he was not available.
Thank goodness, Pa survived. Because he remained short of breath—did other clots reach his lungs before the umbrella was placed?–he was sent to a rehab facility. My husband wrote a letter of complaint to the hospital. He sent it via e-mail. I would have sent it by flaming arrow. Or lawyer.
A few days after this episode I went with two friends to the first session of a course I’ll call “Tender Talk.” I do volunteer work with young people in a part of the world where there’s a lot of conflict, and learning to be a Tender Talker sounded useful. The course was held in a local church. When my friends and I arrived, the teacher, an older woman I’ll call Ms. Whisper, asked us to write our names and e-mail addresses on three separate papers. “Three?” I said. “You’re not going to send me e-mails selling vitamins, are you?” This was the first indication to both Ms. Whisper and myself that I might not be her best student.
We sat. Ms. Whisper led the introductions. I was impressed with my ten fellow participants (one had learned to walk after a head injury, another worked with ex-cons and prostitutes) and increasingly irritated by the softly coercive manner of Ms. Whisper. Our first task was to come up with a list of non-physical human needs.
“One need is wanting to feel like you fit in,” someone said.
“That would be inclusion, wouldn’t it?” Ms Whisper replied, writing INCLUSION in big block letters on her easel.
It became clear that Ms Whisper was looking for certain words. We were meant to fill in a crossword puzzle, not speak our minds.
After wresting out of us students ten one-word Human Needs, Ms. Whisper asked us to split into groups and identify more needs. My group came up with openness and acceptance to healing in whatever guise it appeared. We were pretty excited about this.
Ms. Whisper was not, although I admit that our idea was a wordy one (see above.) “So you mean ACCEPTANCE?” she said.
The group members flanking me shook their heads.
“Well, not really.” I foolishly attempted to re-describe our group’s appreciation of healing.
“So you mean RESPECT?”
“Sure,” I said, recognizing in my voice the dangerous tone my teenage sons had used when they wanted me to just shut up.
Ms. Whisper pointed to a word on her list. “Now you’re feeling RECOGNITION.”
“Yes,” I said. My teeth were clenched, as if I was saying: Yes, I am a member of the Communist Party. Or:Yes, I shot the sheriff.
Next Ms. Whisper read from her little (not red) book. The little not-red book was written by the Founder of Tender Talk, a man. The story Ms. Whisper read was right at the book’s beginning. The Founder wrote of speaking publicly about Tender Talk at a meeting in the part of the world where I volunteer. In this region there is pain and fear and violence, and during the Founder’s talk a man stood up and shouted that the Founder was an assassin and a murderer. Oh my! Happily the Founder, by dint of his empathetic listening and a few well-chosen words, was able to disarm the angry man and his complaints of injustice so completely that the Founder was invited to the man’s home for dinner—as a guest, not as a menu item.
When Ms. Whisper finished reading the story she dropped the book and stared around, clearly expecting us to share her amazement.
And I was amazed. I was amazed I was so angry! “Wait a minute,” I said. “That sounds like a nice story, but looking at it politically, what happened after that? The only thing the Founder did was placate this man. Did anything change for this man? The Founder got a good story to put in a book to make himself look impressive, but what happened to that man? I’d love to hear what that man said later on about that day.”
My outburst was a revelation. I had no idea that I was an activist.
Frankly, at the time I didn’t speak as well as I’ve quoted myself, but I did spit out those basic ideas. Someone else in the group talked about the movie Selma, and how in that movie an action—demonstrators crossing a bridge—was required for change, because just talking about change wasn’t enough. Then people said that maybe members of a powerless group, in order to be listened to, have to behave better than those in power, and…
We were really off-topic. Ms. Whisper pulled us back to Human Needs.
It’s a course, I thought. Ms. Whisper has a lesson plan. And for the rest of the class I (pretty much) shut up. Tender Talk itself, I told myself, was fine. I could use more Tender Talk. For many reasons, including living in a house of males and working for years in a male environment and being perhaps (don’t quote me) the only sane living member of my family of origin, I can seem pretty heartless. Absorbing other people’s dismay and anger—that was something I’d need training to do. But I doubted I could ever be solely an absorber. It wasn’t my nature. I came home from Tender Talk appreciating my anger.
“How was it?” my husband said. “Fine,” I said. The two of us are not big talkers, tender or otherwise.
That night, I couldn’t get to sleep. Tossing in bed I felt like I was boiling. Why was I so agitated? I got out of bed and paced the hall so I wouldn’t disturb my husband.
Wait a minute. I take a lot of pills, among them half of a half-dose of an anti-depressant. Every four weeks I replenish my pill organizers from my bottles. But filling the organizers two weeks earlier: hadn’t I given up looking for the bottle containing my anti-depressant? I went into the bathroom to check. Hmmm.
Was I right about Pa’s poor treatment? Was I correct to realize that I am at heart an activist? Yes, but partly I was off my medication.