But as much as there is to share about what I’ve learned this year, there’s thanks in order to you, dear readers, for hanging in with me throughout all the feelings and frustrations and for your own listening ears, your caring, and your advocacy. Whether you’re a new reader, or you’ve been around for awhile, thank you for sharing our family’s struggle. I certainly hope you’ll let me know which posts continue to resonate with you, what you like best and what you like least about the blog, what you’ve learned in 2017 and what you’re looking forward to in 2018.
Here is a look back in hopes that these lessons learned from the year prior will carry us forward in making this world more just, more healthy, more good, and more compassionate:
I can’t tell you how often these days my husband and I are brimming with joy as parents.
Every time our daughter smiles and giggles and babbles her sweet sounds, life–nearly four years of it together now–just doesn’t get any better. Indeed, when I look at photos like this, Lucia’s face pink and scarred from laying her cheeks in stomach acid night after night when she couldn’t tolerate her feed, I think just how far we’ve come.
But a lot of things have also stayed the same.
Lucia still needs a tube to feed during the day and overnight, she’s still prone to seizures, she’s having trouble breathing, and she’s scheduled for major surgery in 2018. Our family equilibrium isn’t typical, and it doesn’t come from a respite from medical complications, technological procedures, or nursing interventions. Rather, it is those very things and an incredibly spirited three-year old that often makes life so much fuller, grander, and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. Ever since we got private duty nursing through Medicaid when Lucia was about a year and half old, not only her cheeks, but her lungs, her digestion, her joints, her nutrition, and her mood have all shown such growth.
In this season of thanks, we have so much to be thankful for.
And I can’t help but think about how the spirit of this Senate tax bill seems so out of sorts with this week’s cherished American tradition. They call it Thanksgiving, because it was one of the Pilgrims’ first corporate acts of giving thanks for the good harvest. And while the stories we tell our children about the miraculous sharing of a feast between the white colonialists and the Indians may not be entirely accurate, they reflect an idealized notion that thanks must be freely given and cannot be readily given unless there is peace, justice, and provision.
You give to my family every time you make a phone call to your senator and tell them that people with disabilities shouldn’t suffer so that this country can save money. You give to my family when you pay your taxes and portions of those taxes go to programs like Medicaid that support nursing care, medical coverage, and medical equipment for kids like Lucia who are deemed too costly by private providers. And you give to families, especially those who find themselves in need this season, when you make clear that we cannot celebrate tax cuts when the poor get poorer and the hungry go hungrier.
If this truly is not just the season of giving thanks but also of giving, then let us gather together to make not just my cup, but every cup of every parent in this country overflow with gladness. None of our journeys are typical, but that’s what makes this country so great. Let’s not let a few hard-hearted people in Washington make it otherwise, especially on Thanksgiving.
And from the bottom of my heart, for all your phone calls, prayers, and support,
Simply put, the welfare of our nation is hardly improved by an assault on the most vulnerable. And if this is the American way, our country will soon be defined not by its dreams and its opportunities, but by its exclusion of those in need.
Yesterday, my daughter and I struggled to get around in a crowded place–I had to get out to push shopping carts out of the handicap parking space (good thing I could even do so) and I struggled to push her wheelchair through a sea of tight twists and turns. Few people moved their chairs, and as we endured looks of disgust, glances of pity, and the fundamental unwelcome of barriers to entry, movement, and accommodation, my eyes filled with tears. As I sat down next to Lucia, I took her face in my hands and kissed her. I whispered in her ear, “They don’t know how special you are, but I do, and I’m so glad.”
You, politicians, cannot take our joy, but you are playing hard and fast with our very lives. As you go to vote this week, may we as the people continue to remind you that your task is actually to protect the weak, guard the sick, provide for the poor, rather than trade them for your own political gain. You are not doing right by my daughter and my family and something much more basic than our joy–her human dignity–is what’s at stake.
What will you do to make this world more inclusive? To give my daughter more opportunities and grant our family more dreams? Or will you continue to deny her the basic healthcare she needs to live her life? Will you not even give her that human dignity?
Take your cue from families like ours. With everything we’ve been through, we never give up on one another. Don’t you dare give up on us.
It was an ordinary, sunny, Saturday morning when I crept downstairs into Lucia’s room to dismiss the night nurse. “It was a beautiful night,” one of Lucia’s nurses, Viktoriya, purred in her thick, Ukrainian accent, flashing a wide smile, gesturing toward Lucia, still sound asleep in her bed.
I smiled, too, and sighed in relief.
Lucia hadn’t been having “beautiful nights” as of late: for almost a year now, she’d been screaming and crying out in pain in the wee hours of the morning and as she was just waking up. The crying was so extreme that the nurses and even we, her parents, couldn’t comfort her. Finally, we’d figured out that she was experiencing muscle spasms and cramps because especially in her sleep, she can’t move purposefully, so a low dose of Valium had recently been providing some relief.
But with Viktoriya (who mind you was a doctor in Ukraine), Lucia often had “beautiful nights,” nights that Viktoriya never took credit for, but rather rejoiced in innocently, as one would a gift. And yet, we knew there was something special about Viktoriya, about the meticulousness of the care she gave, the extra knowledge she possessed about the medications Lucia was on and their interactions, even the way she played with Lucia, offering her therapy when she’d wake up early in the mornings.
As we neared the front door and we talked about the pulse oxygen machine–the pediatrician had asked to get the alarm rates to make sure Medicaid would approve its rental for the coming year–Viktoriya detailed with precision the attention she paid to Lucia’s heart rate. “You see, when her heart rate starts to climb, I can see she’s getting uncomfortable, so I do not wait for her to cry,” she said, “I turn her.” And she motioned. “I turn her from side to side all night and she never wake up,” she said cheerfully. “She sleep perfectly just like that.”
Even as I write these lines, I am in awe.
In awe of the devotion and care my daughter receives as not only she, but my husband and I all sleep through the night, all the while a nurse keeping watch, anticipating and aiding Lucia to find safety and comfort and rest. It’s just no small thing that in a world where life is so difficult for Lucia, where at night she faces seizures and breathing and pain, a nurse not only keeps watch for the big things, but guards her sleep, attentive to her every desire, a desire even to move.
As Viktoriya left that morning, I scribbled a post on Facebook, letting my little world know what she’d done and been doing for us, and why Medicaid has been such a boon, a comfort, a watchman for our Lucia and for our lives.
I did this before I knew Medicaid was about to come under threat yet again. I did this before I knew I’d begin losing sleep again not because of Lucia’s medical conditions but because of the care that may not be there in years, months, or weeks.
How I feel about Medicaid is how I feel about Viktoryia and so many of the nurses who have come into our lives–they are a gift. We can’t possibly pay for the healthcare that Lucia would need to live and that in itself is frightening and humbling. Yet the state and the federal government give us the support we need to live our lives as a thriving, joyful family, not just of 3, but of 9.
That’s about how many nurses, plus two parents, it currently takes to provide Lucia the round-the-clock care she needs to make it through the day. Or maybe it’s more like 16–that’s the addition of the five specialists that Lucia sees on a regular basis, her medical care that Medicaid, too, helps support. Or maybe it’s more like 20–that’s her therapists and her teacher at school, a special needs school where Medicaid helps supply equipment, her Medicaid-supplied nurse makes it possible to attend, and Lucia gets great education and therapy.
I could go on. I know the numbers are much higher still–it’s you, millions of people who pay taxes and the government, that help support families like ours, that make it possible for Viktoriya to play watchman at night so Lucia doesn’t seize uncontrollably, so she doesn’t wake up crying in pain, and so her parents don’t have to hold vigil night after night as they struggle to work and to care for her. It turns out, I’m not just in awe of Viktoriya, but the abundance we have received through Medicaid, which is in no small part thanks to all of you.
It’s the stunning yet simple basis of all anthropological knowledge, really–this truism that we’re not all the same, we’re different.
Take my daughter, for instance. Whereas most people get up out of bed every morning and walk, she giggles or cries until we come get her. Whereas most kids her age start to brush their own teeth, put their own backpack on, eat breakfast through their mouth and head to school, we do the brushing, Lucia’s backpack hangs on her wheelchair, and she eats her meals through a feeding tube that’s attached to her stomach (she eats a lot of her food through the same tube overnight, which is actually pretty efficient!).
But even anthropologists who believe in the wisdom of learning from others are only human. Because we, like everyone, only have one primary perspective, one pair of eyes and ears through which we experience the world, we still tend to succumb to ethnocentrism–the belief that not only are people who aren’t like us weird and different, they’re less than.
Lucia gets that a lot.
People presume that because she rides through life in a wheelchair or because she gets her feeds through a tube and perhaps most especially because her brain is different that all this comparatively limited functionality that she has amounts to a pretty pitiful and dull, if not brutal life. They ask me if she will ever do certain things like walk or talk or eat, if she will “be like that” forever, and when I tell them she likely won’t walk or talk or eat in typical ways, they frown and shake their head or grimace.
But what if I told you that some of the very things that make you skeptical about her quality of life, like that wheelchair or that feeding tube, are the things that bring her mobility, joy, and comfort? Lucia eats through a feeding tube because her body can’t process food orally without it heading into her lungs, which caused numerous scary and painful bouts of pneumonia until we got that tube. Lucia rides in a wheelchair because that enables her to feel the wind in her hair, to head outside and to school, when otherwise she might be in the house all day.
What if I told you that a lot of the limits placed on Lucia don’t come from her differences but from the way we perceive her differences and from the supports and benefits that we deny her especially because she’s different from us? When I invite my students to view the world anthropologically, through the lens of others, especially people with disabilities, it kind of blows their minds. The fact that we able-bodied people are part of the problem for people with disabilities never really occurred to them. It never occurred to them that subtly viewing someone else as less than and placing limits on their lives, compelling them to be someone they’re not, live in a society that’s only made for the able-bodied, and then wonder why they’re not thriving is discrimination, not liberation.
This ethnocentric way of viewing people with disabilities as less than is called ableism and it’s not just endemic in American society and everyday interactions across differences, it’s front and center in this debate on healthcare. Maybe you didn’t see it, because your ableism kept you from the truth, but denying life-giving services to people who are different on the basis of their differences–i.e. cutting Medicaid for people for who literally need it to live their daily lives–yeah, that’s discrimination. Or reserving healthcare only for those whose bodies are “normal,” who don’t have preexisting conditions, or denying hospital services to those who are inevitably going to have to use the hospital because they’re made different and they’re living in a world that’s downright inhospitable to their differences–that’s textbook ableism.
It’s not people with disabilities who need to make more concessions to the society that already demeans their existence, down to their very lives and whether they’re worth living–it’s you and me. We all need to change our way of seeing our fellow human beings, our fellow Americans, as pitiful and less than and deficient. What is deficient are our healthcare proposals that purport to deny people coverage based on innate differences. What is deficient is our rhetoric that excludes and codifies people who we don’t want to accept or don’t understand. What is deficient is a country that seeks to find its greatness at the expense of its very citizens.
After all, the root of anthropology is anthropos, human being. Providing good healthcare comes down to the recognition that we are all human beings but that we’ve constructed an able-bodied world that’s only fit for some.
So don’t cut my daughter’s Medicaid because she’s different. Affirm the value of her life by keeping it. Let’s keep the ACA and its supports for all kinds of people. Let’s keep healthcare that’s working for people like you and me and people like my daughter.
If we were sitting together this morning having coffee I would tell you that life has lent its typical roller coaster as of late (seizure for Lucia- she’s doing great now, though; running over a deer carcass with my car for me-it still smells; no bus for Lucia’s first day back to summer school on Monday- a friend came to the rescue; nurse pulled out Lucia’s tube on Thursday morning-ugh; and we lost power on Thursday night during the storm-got it back early Friday morning)… and yet, as you see, with God’s help, we’re finding adventure in adversity and somehow holding it together!
Summer has been so full of unexpected joys–luxurious and productive staycation for us in June, thrilling aquatherapy sessions for Lucia covered by insurance and rides to and fro covered by Medicaid–even as it’s packed with challenges, too–I sent my book manuscript off to the editor in early June, have been teaching summer school at Princeton since July, and start a new job at the seminary in the fall. All this while the healthcare wars rage on Capitol Hill and we worry as Lucia’s care seems to hang in the balance.
If I seem distracted, unable to focus even in the midst of a sentence, it’s because I am.
But I’m trying to trust that (with the exception of maybe the healthcare battle, deer carcass, and tube being pulled out) there’s a real abundance, blessing, and excess in the way my cup is brimming over, inviting me to embrace this season in its chaotic fullness and to testify to what God’s doing with a life and a heart fittingly overflowing with joy.
So that’s what I’m trying to do (more on how that later), not living a life in response to what others are doing but a life that responds to what God is clearly doing, in a big way in my life, my family’s life, and in this world.
Still, if we were talking this morning, I’d look you in the eye and thank you but urge you to keep making those phone calls on behalf of people who are on Medicaid, who need assurance that health care will be there, not just for the healthy but for the sick, the poor, and the needy. I’ve put some links below that I’ve found helpful and important in wading through the excess of information out there. I did a podcast on Medicaid that I hope you’ll share with family and friends who want to understand its benefits and even as I still feel that families with people with disabilities face such an uphill battle in terms of understanding and coverage, I am thankful for all the support and hopeful that concerned citizens are making their voices heard.
I was reading Margaret Mead for one of my seminary courses yesterday: I sat there for like two full hours just reading and devouring–it was incredible, and this quote of hers that has been on my mind for weeks sprung to my attention. I leave it with you in hopes that you may believe that we can change the world, that God is with us even when we forget it, and that joy is abundant and ample and just as human as fear and defeat!
I remember the box that the nurse from Medicaid checked when she came to evaluate Lucia–it read something like “qualifies for institutionalized level of nursing/medical care.” She’d been so empathic and caring, so visibly at ease seeing and talking about a child that was on a feeding tube and yet puked the contents of her stomach uncontrollably while we talked in my dining room. But when she left my heart skipped a beat–did she check that box because she thought Lucia belonged in an institution? I thought she’d been there to process Lucia’s Medicaid. Sure no one was going to take our child away?
Looking back I don’t remember being particularly fazed by the severity of Lucia’s medical needs. Growing up with my own health problems, a twin sister with asthma and respiratory problems, and a mother with multiple sclerosis (who is also a nurse!), I think I learned that while health challenges were part of life they didn’t prevent a person from being a person. We had good medical care and my parents were able to provide what we needed to thrive. Therefore, for my husband and I, when it came to Lucia, so much of that first year and a half was just wading through the newness of parenthood alongside the advent of seizures, abnormal MRIs, and feeding tubes without much distinction. We were coping and surviving with rare moments that glare through the blur with clarity and poignancy–the long nights of shrieking as we weaned our poor baby off of narcotics; the morning she woke up with her head and her eyes glued permanently to that the left and because she had special needs the ER doctors rather dismissively sent us home saying she probably had a cold; or the night a month later when I nursed her for the very last time in the glimmer of hospital monitors because that onset of brain damage (what had really sent us to the ER) had caused her to lose the ability to feed by mouth.
Yet those moments, as ingrained as they are in my memory, did not so much smack of worry and fear as heartache and pain. You see, by God’s grace my husband and I are not much of worriers. We’re eminently logical and practical people, people who sort of spring into action and competency when faced with crisis–as pained and bleary-eyed as any first-time parents may have been. We found this way to treasure those moments, laced with sorrow, with our precious child, precisely because the future was always so unknown and held in suspense. And when Lucia’s prognosis pointed to death in early childhood, it only made worry that much more the enemy of the present. We had the present. The luxury of worry was fleeting.
I’m sick that although my child is now even miraculously taking small spoonfuls of puree at school by mouth (go Lucia!), I’m wondering whether her special needs public school and feeding therapy will be on the chopping block next. I rejoice that Lucia’s God-given companion, her nurse Sylvia, has been with us for over a year and a half, but I worry how I will work when Lucia’s Medicaid gets cut, how Lucia will ride the bus to school or eat through her tube without Sylvia, or how my husband and I will ever sleep without a nurse in our house to monitor Lucia’s seizures, vitals, oxygen levels, feeds, and neurological pain. I’m worried because in the back of my mind I wonder if someday in the absence of Medicaid I may not longer be able to care for my own child, this precious, precious gift, because I actually can’t do it without in-home nurses and feeding pumps and pulse ox monitors and special education and therapy and seizure medication and durable medical equipment–all things that Medicaid provides.
Some friends along the way have insinuated that I’m being a bit dramatic here–that perhaps I should give Donald Trump, the Republicans, the AHCA, the budget negotiations more of a chance–perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much. Perhaps, according to them, I have nothing to worry about. But I can tell you this much: I didn’t worry for Lucia’s life or ours initially because those were so firmly and are so firmly in God’s hands. The rarity of her genetic disease, the onset of her brain damage and consequences, and the wisdom and beauty that God had in making her are so simply beyond me. But this politics and justice and being human stuff? God’s charged us with that. God’s charged us with preserving and caring for human life–all human lives–that’s ours to do. And as long as people like my daughter are cast aside in some human mishandling of God’s charge to God’s stewards, I reserve the right to be very angry. I reserve the right to be worried. And I reserve the right to fight like hell to preserve her life, like any of you would your own child’s, and my ability as a parent to care for her in my own home.
You can tell me not to worry, but it makes me feel as though you are not really listening as I tell my story. I learned how to live in the present a long, long time ago, and I’m telling you it’s become a downright inhospitable place for people with disabilities. It’s a present deeply in need of a change. Won’t you join me in being that change so none of us need worry about our children’s future?
However, as a scholar of disability and a parent of a child with disabilities, these headlines and their rhetoric sounded all the alarm bells. Surely a unified public that holds our erratic and impulsive president accountable to for his actions is to be welcomed–but not at the expense of the dignity of people with disabilities in America. Indeed, what is hardly subtle, but seemingly unnoticeable to readers of headlines like these and their content is the blatant criminalization and marginalization of people with disabilities in them. For instance, just try replacing “disability” in Will’s headline with any other identity, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation, and suddenly Trump’s main reason to be feared—his presumed disability—reveals a startling prejudice toward difference in America.
Even if Will is onto something here in observing Trump’s inabilities, I suggest that he has inadvertently used disability as a vehicle to make the dangerous even more insidious, corrupt, and devoid of rehabilitation by appealing to some seemingly innate, suspiciously subhuman defect. Such rhetoric imperceptibly recycles previous tropes in the media that cast people with mental illness as unusually aggressive and pin gun violence on their disproportionate crimes—stereotypes that do not hold up statistically and are vestiges of longstanding cultural prejudices toward people who are “mad” or “insane.” The headline that highlights Will’s own words, “George Will: Trump has a ‘disability,’ is ‘uniquely unfit’” goes beyond these associations to imply that people with disabilities are somehow unfit to serve in office by virtue of their mental, physical, or emotional differences. The problem with Will’s tactic here and with rampant allegations that Trump has a disability are that they do nothing to cross this divide between able-bodied and disabled citizens, decry inaccurate stereotypes or effect genuine understanding. Rather disability remains but a vehicle and a scapegoat for our fears about Donald Trump or more disturbingly, a scapegoat for our fears about humanity.
Yet, perhaps the greatest issue with Will’s column is that by criminalizing people with disabilities, he not only perpetuates their stigma, but also draws attention away from the very discrimination that Trump himself, his cabinet, and his commitment to repealing the Affordable Care Act have reinforced against people with disabilities in America today. Who can forget the moment Trump cruelly mocked a reporter with cerebral palsy during his campaign, only to claim that it never actually happened? In her hearing, Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos failed to acknowledge the national purview of the IDEA, a piece of legislation that protects and guarantees education for students with disabilities; his Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also made derisive and deriding comments about children with disabilities. Finally, the GOP American Health Care Act that President Trump and Republicans just cheered as it passed through the House levels $880 billion dollars in cuts to Medicaid over the next ten years that would deprive people of disabilities, namely my daughter, from important medical, educational, and accessibility services. While George Will decries Trump’s dangerous disability and readers clamor to dangerously speculate themselves, these are the real yet hidden dangers of a Trump presidency for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile a month ago before the original version of the AHCA Bill was set to come before the House, I received a call from my Republican Congressman, Leonard Lance (NJ-7). When we hit connection issues, our call dropping nearly four or five times, he called me back again and again. When he finally got me, he took over fifteen minutes to get to know me as a pastor, a professor and especially a mother, taking a keen interest in my daughter who is thriving through a Managed Long-Term Special Services program (MLTSS) afforded to her through Medicaid. He told me one of the main reasons he was voting against the bill was to protect that program, as well as protect people on the Medicaid expansion. He understands and made clear that poor people and people with disabilities are the very people that should not be denied healthcare, no matter the changes Republicans or Democrats want to make. Last week, he kept his word and voted against the House Bill that passed; he didn’t vote with his party—he voted with people like my daughter and me.
I certainly agree with Will and his readers that real life bipartisan unity, the likes of which is offered by Lance’s vote and his positions on people with disabilities, is even more critical in the face of the House passage of the abhorrent AHCA, Trump’s most recent egregious firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the lack concern he shows for rule of law or the cares of his constituents. But if the biggest divides in this country remain not partisan but based upon fear of disability and its inhumanity, then we are in much more dire straits that I thought. I know far too well that when people ridicule Medicaid, they don’t think about kids like my daughter. When they see her, they often look past her, and to many, she may be a strain on taxpayers dollars, a basket full of preexisting conditions. But as a Democratic Congressman, Joe Kennedy (MA-4) so eloquently put it, “among the most basic human truths” is this unifying vulnerability of the human condition.
If we are to move forward, we must have the conviction to confront Trump’s ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry on the basis of this shared humanity, not on the backs of people with disabilities. We must make it clear that Trump is uniquely dangerous–but more precisely because of the way he has continually undermined the very humanity of people with disabilities.
“No parent wants their child to be different,” she said passionately yet nonchalantly, looking innocently into the camera in this week’s premiere episode of a new season of the reality tv show, Little People, Big World. She was talking about the possibility that their baby would be born with dwarfism, while meanwhile her husband, a little person, shifted uncomfortably in his chair, trying to parse the divide, forgive her somehow for saying that his very difference, one she presumably accepted and loved, was so naturally undesired, bad–something to be feared.
I don’t mean to pick on her specifically.
I think many of us bristle at the presentation of disease and disability as unwanted variations and aberrations in nature’s otherwise rather painstaking track record for miracles, successes, and beauty. But what if I told you there were all sorts of dormant mutations in your own genetic material? What if I told you that nature “makes mistakes” all the time and it’s just that some of these variations are visible while others are less so? What if I told you that Lucia, my own daughter, was the result of one of those presumed “mistakes,” so rare, so different, yet so deeply loved and wanted? Might that change your mindset that difference is always something to be naturally avoided or eschewed at all costs?
Underneath the reality tv star’s seemingly innocent words ran a subtle, yet deep vein of privilege and conceit. Anyone who cared would prevent difference if they could, she presumed. But different to whom, I wondered. Black kids are born into a pretty inhospitable world, but it’s not their blackness that’s a problem but the normative white culture that devalues their lives. Gay and transgender kids aren’t really all that different than any other kids and yet their difference is targeted as an assault on heteronormative culture that reproduces itself through fear and exclusion. As long as difference remains the much feared, undesirable cultural alternative to healthy and white and straight and male, we desecrate the true variety and value of human life that God has made because we play God ourselves–even if it is ever so subtly with our wishing away of certain babies like mine.
And yet, this world, this country specifically, is becoming extremely inhospitable toward my daughter month by month. As a parent of a child with special needs, I want to live in a country that accepts and loves and cherishes children who are different– not with asterisks or snide comments or fearful glances or knowing pity or minimal health care or scant education–but full stop. Don’t tell me how expensive my child’s medical expenses are or how arduous her special education is, how different her needs are from a typical child, how wildly incompatible they are with this cutthroat ability-obssessed culture we live in, because I really do know. I know this isn’t easy because I’m living it alongside her.
But I made peace with Lucia’s challenges years ago; we’ve gone on living this incredibly full life and we’ve been buoyed by our church, friends, family, and the incredible array of services NJ Medicaid provides. Our family has found refuge in a state that truly values her life, but for how long? How long will you continue to live by the conceit or the privilege that your life is somehow any different from ours? How long will you fear rather than embrace difference, support legislation that carves us off from one another by our differences, asserts hierarchy in nature when you know not what mutation, future, or controversy may come–legislation that makes health the luxury and priority of the rich?
Control over the progression of my daughter’s disease is a true illusion, but the choice to value her life and give her every chance possible–that’s firmly in your hands and mine.