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"An Affordable Scare" - Nicholas P. J. Dephthereos

I

                From the onset of the American healthcare debate, my grandmother bought wholesale the idea that the president, a renegade, communist bushman from Kenya, would stop at nothing until the country’s elderly and infirmed were stretched out, languishing away on filthy, miserable gurneys as Stalinist death panels decided whether they should live or die.  She tried convincing me at every turn to make ready: …the end was near.  But for me, the world of medicine and healthcare was and still is, admittedly, uninteresting.  Once in junior high school, I thought I would become a psychiatrist.  I’d just seen Silence of the Lambs and thought psychiatry would be an easy sidestep into wealth and diabolical genius.  After failing chemistry, I lost interest in the sciences altogether.  My grandmother’s dogged attempts to warn me of the coming disaster fell on deaf ears.

                “If that Obamination passes, I’ll move to Canada,” she hollered, triumphantly mixing another whiskey and ginger ale.  Or, “The media just love him, don’t they?  Obama, Obama, Obama.  He’s such a wonderful public speaker.”  This she said in a whining, sycophantic little voice she reserved only for news anchors and Democrats.  “Well, you know who else was a good public speaker?”  She paused to swirl a swizzle stick around the edge of her glass before spitting out her answer.  “Hitler.”

                Steely-haired and stout, my grandmother’s face and hands are cragged and rough from years of gardening an unforgiving acreage of land that sits on the border between New York and Canada.  This wide stretch of frontier north of the Adirondack Mountains was the last addition to the state of New York.  Until the 1790s, it was the hunting grounds and war fields of the Onondaga Indians.  But even for them, the land was too cold to live on, embittered by hard winters and icy frosts that wrench the life from the ground.  By late December, temperatures often drop to twenty or thirty degrees below freezing.  Spruce trees and pines crack and shiver under the heavy weight of winter.  Here and there, only the winking light of a barn or farmhouse suggests where one white field ends and another begins.  My grandmother, at 65, has called this bleak North Country home her whole life.  She wraps her windows in plastic and sits contentedly, listening to nothing but the wind as it howls down from the artic tundra.  Screeching and biting, the gusts tear at the sides of her big, immovable house perched on a narrow ledge of land overlooking the St. Lawrence River.  There’s nowhere on earth, she says, she would rather live.

                From the balcony off her bedroom, my grandmother often watches great chunks of ice floating down the river on cold afternoons.  Anyone within earshot is treated to a much-rehearsed lecture on family history.  “A great-grandfather of mine was Mathurin de Villeneuve,” she’ll say.  “He sailed with the explorer Jacques Marquette all the way up this river.  He was one of the first white men to see anything of this part of the world.  Do you know when that was?”  She’ll lean back, giving her listeners a moment to prepare themselves.  “1666.”  Then she’ll stamp her foot on the ground and grin, showing off a mouthful of hard teeth, yellowed like whale bone or ivory, and laugh as though having told a clever joke.  From the river, the ice will snap and prickle, laughing with her into the hollow air.

                “You hear about all that socialized healthcare nonsense they’re talking about in Washington?” my grandmother asked me one afternoon, turning down the volume of the Weather Channel.

                “A bit.”  I looked at the silent TV.  Picture after picture of cars overturned like turtles in the snow flashed under a heading that read Winter Storm Watch.

                “It makes me real scared.”  She said this as though someone, a liberal or socialist spy perhaps, might be listening.

                “Scared of what?”

                “Real scared of what’s happening in this country.  What incentive are doctors gonna have to treat patients?  I bet they’ll start paying doctors a flat fee, like a minimum wage.  All they have to do is clock in, see four or five patients, clock out, ‘n leave.  Thanks a lot, Bo.”

                “Bo?”

                “B, H, O. Barrack.  Hussein.  Obama.  BHO!”

                I couldn’t help but smile.  She continued.

                “He’s got his hand in the cookie jar somewhere.  You’d be a fool if you didn’t believe that some Muslim terrorist organization over in God-knows-where isn’t pullin’ the strings.  Bho’s just a puppet.  Scares me half to death.  He wants to see the downfall of this country, and he’ll bring violence and bloodshed and terror to the streets if he has to.”

                “With the healthcare bill?”

                “Well, that’s just the start, the thin end of the wedge, see?”

                I sat puzzled for a moment, trying to see.

                “I’m only glad I’ll be dead before I live to see it.”  She got up and put the kettle on, lamentingly, as though it was the last time we might enjoy a cup of tea with the threat of complete and utter annihilation looming so near.

II

                Later that year, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act.  Obamacare was law.  My grandmother did not move to Canada.  However, in an effort to help me see the socialist perils lurking in healthcare reform, she was determined to expose me to aging, sickly Americans that were now soon to perish because of the president’s underhanded scheme.  We started with my grandmother’s mother, my great-grandmother, Rose.  At 95, she lives not far from my grandmother, alone, on the top floor of an apartment building aptly named Centennial Towers.  Inside her apartment are heaps of clothes so high you don’t know where one room ends and another begins.  One mountain of denim jackets suggests a couch might be hidden somewhere underneath; a pile of sweaters with printed cats or rodeo scenes belies an armchair.  In my great-grandmother Rose’s day, a popular Ziegfeld Follies girl, Fanny Brice, sang a song called “Second Hand Rose about a girl who wore second-hand clothes.  Even now, ninety years later, my great-grandmother looks over the mountainous landscape of collected, doubtlessly used, garments amassed in her tiny, one-bedroom apartment and mumbles bits of the song’s refrain.  She expects the rest of us to know the tune.

                “Ma, we wanna ask you a few questions,” my grandmother said to her mother, plopping down beside a small hill of sequined vests.  My great-grandmother sat wordless in a recliner, the only obvious piece of furniture in the room.  She paid no attention to her daughter.  Her chin trembled as though it might fall off her face, and she ran a hand through her white, permed hair that was collected in a small nest on top of her head.  The middle finger of her right hand was gone at the knuckle.  I’m told she lost it in a car wash, but she refuses to ever discuss the details.  She looked silently out a big picture window.  In the glass, heaps of clothes reflected faintly against the gray sky.  Outside, great mounds of snow banked around lampposts and rivaled telephone poles.  My grandmother tried again.  “Ma, tell us what you think of this healthcare bill, the one they’re gonna make everybody buy government-mandated insurance for.”

                “What?”

                “This healthcare thing, Ma.  What do you think of it?”

                “I’ll tell ya who needs healthcare.”  My great-grandmother snapped out of her temporary, thoughtful lull.  “My sister, Margaret.”

                My grandmother sighed.  “Here we go.”

                “I was about seven or eight,” my great-grandmother addressed me as though I’d never heard this story.  I had, in fact, heard it several times.  “This was back in ‘26 or ’27, my mother had gone out and left the three of us in the house.  There was me, Margaret, and Mary.  My mother had hotdogs on the stove, and she went out to the barn and told me to keep an eye on ‘em ‘cause we were going to have them for supper.  So I was up at the stove watching ‘em in the pan,” she mimed, with her fingerless hand, the action of lifting the lid off a pan on the stove, “and I hear this noise in the other room.  So I go out to see what it is.  Well, when I come back every single one of those hotdogs was gone!”  Her blue eyes sparkled with rage as though it had happened only moments ago.

                “Ma, the healthcare thing.”

                “Underneath the kitchen table was my sister Margaret, stuffing her fat face with every single one of those hotdogs!”  She grabbed at the sides of her hair.  “She’d sent Mary into the other room to distract me so she could stuff her gullet with half-a-dozen hotdogs when I was gone, the goddamn bitch!”

                “Ma.”

                “So then my mother comes in from the barn and I’m sitting there at the stove watching an empty pan and that slut, that streel, Margaret, is underneath the table with hotdog grease smeared all over her face and who do you think my mother punished?  Me, o‘course!”  Her voice rose high and shrill as she relived the agony of having been framed.  She jumped nimbly up from her recliner to act out the rest.  “My mother threw me right to the floor and jumped on top of me.  She took both her feet and just stomped again, and again, and again right on my chest.  Oooooooooh, it hurt!  No wonder why I’m so short.”

                “Ma, the bill.”

                “That Margaret oughta be put in a mental hospital.”

                Already knowing the answer, I provoked my great-grandmother even more, asking what ever became of Margaret.  She flew into a hysterical rage.

                “That goddamn, sonofabitchin’ whore moved to Texas, dirt poor, living in a trailer with her third husband and what do ya know, they find oil in their backyard.  Now that demon’s got a million dollars.”

                “She’s got more than that, Ma.”

                “What I wouldn’t like to do to her.  I got a Christmas card from her, know what I did?  Ripped it right up.  Didn’t even look at it.”

                “Ma, that’s not very nice.  Your sister Margaret has cancer.  She probably won’t live much longer.”

                “Good.”

                “Ma, you know with this whole healthcare thing they’re forcing us to do, you’ll probably have to come live with me.”

                “What the hell would I wanna come and do that for?”

                “Well, Ma, at least tell us what you think of Obama.”

                “O’Who?”

III

                Sometime after our meeting with my great-grandmother, my grandmother invited me up to stay with her for the weekend.  The night I arrived, a squalling blizzard swept up wild torrents of snow all around her house.  She came outside to greet me, and under the fog lights of her garage, the sparkling snow blew in circles, biting at our cheeks and noses.  Inside, the china in her cupboard rattled as the house shook and the kettle screamed on the stove.  In the morning, my grandmother looked out the window at the calm, white-gray world outside and told me to get ready to go.  We were to visit an old friend.

                In an attempt to expose the liberal plot once and for all, my grandmother took me to see her first-grade teacher, Jessie.  Jessie was two years older than my great-grandmother and happened to be the oldest living person in Rensselaer Falls, a tiny town of about three hundred people where my grandmother grew up.  Jessie came from a family of teachers and taught at Rensselaer Falls’ only school from the 1930s until she retired.  Her husband, Herb, had owned the general store, the post office, the feed mill, and half the property in town.  Herb had been the mayor of Rensselaer Falls his whole life.  That left Jessie, at 97, the grande dame of a town with fewer people alive than in its graveyard.

                Inside Jessie’s house, the centerpiece of Rensselaer Falls, a spotless white tablecloth was spread over the dining room table, and a fire crackled in the grate.  Jessie sat in a creaking, high-backed armchair and ran a plump and wrinkly finger over the lip of a glass of wine. A cluster of dogs wagged their tails beside her.

                “Jessie, I’ve been meaning to ask you a few questions.”  My grandmother softened her voice as though she were afraid of speaking out of turn.

                “Oh, yes?”  Jessie’s glasses were strung around her neck with a beaded chain and rattled gently as she spoke.  Her hair was white but bobbed as though she were still a girl.  Her face was fleshy and pink from a lifetime of tasty food and afternoon sherries.

                “Yes, Jessie, we want to know what you think of the healthcare bill.”

                Jessie sipped her wine without taking her eyes off my grandmother.  “Oh, yes?”

                “You being a teacher and all, we figured you’d have some insight.  How do you feel about the socialization of the country?”

                “Socialization?”

                “Yes, with the bill.”

                “Socialization?  Oh, dear.”  Jessie’s “Oh, dear” reminded me of the old Betty Boop cartoons.

                “I know.  It scares me to death.”

                “Oh, boy.  Are hospitals going to be government buildings now?”

                “No, not that I’m aware.”

                “Are doctors going to become government employees?”

                “Well, I don’t think so.”  My grandmother looked up at the ceiling, trying to recall what she might have heard on the news.

                “Oh, socialization is a word that gets thrown around now.  The year I was born, they killed the Tsar’s family in Russia and turned the whole country communist.  Now that was socialization.”  Jessie sipped her wine.

                “But what about the insurance they’re going to force us to buy?”

                “That is a tricky one, I’m afraid.  Are we buying it from the government?”

                My grandmother said nothing.

                “Private insurance, I think.  Capitalism trudges onwards.  I take it you don’t like the president, dear?”

                My grandmother chose not to cite any of the tragedies she came here to rail against.

                Jessie poured herself another glass and dabbed her lips with a napkin.  “I voted for him.  I’d always pegged you for such a bright girl.” As she took a healthy gulp from her newly filled glass, Jessie turned to me and winked.

IV

                Later, near Easter, I visited my grandmother again.  The snow had just begun to thaw, and icicles began falling in hard, glassy sheets from the rain gutters and eaves.  My grandmother and I didn’t talk about the issue of healthcare at all.

                One Sunday at my grandmother’s church, a woman, Dora, ran up to my grandmother after Mass.  Flustered, determined to speak with my grandmother, Dora marched down the aisle, her orange coral necklace smack, smack, smacking against her throat.  “How could you write that, that thing in the prayer book?” she huffed from across the aisle.  Her beige, slip-on, patent-leather pumps rapped against the marble floor, and in her arm she held tight to a Sunday Missal and a stack of organ sheet music.

                My grandmother, having been caught off-guard mid-conversation with a priest, was now just as flustered as Dora.  “What thing?” she asked.

                “You asked for us to pray for, to pray for,” Dora dropped her voice down to a whisper, “social justice issues.”

                “Well, of course.  Why wouldn’t I?”

                “It makes me sick,” Dora said.  “You make me cringe.  You can hold whatever politics you want in your own home, but don’t force them on the rest of us.  I can’t believe you’d ask us to pray for socialism right here in this church.”  Wide-eyed and on the verge of tears at her own speech, Dora stormed out of the church and into the Jaguar her husband had waiting for her at the curb.  In the cold air, steam poured from the Jaguar’s exhaust and open windows.  From the church, we could still see Dora shouting, now at her husband, no doubt carrying on the same argument.  The Jaguar drove off slowly, crunching over hard-packed snow and blanketed, like a train, in a curtain of steam.

                The following week, my grandmother wrote a new entry in the church prayer book.  She prayed that certain members of the parish pick up a dictionary and look up the difference between socialism and social justice.