The Deathless Death

Last week I shared with you my health scare. Luckily, the ultrasound found normal blood flow. There is one thing that still needs to be checked, but it was not nearly as bad as I feared. You see, one of my aunts had dementia, and since experiencing that, it has become one of my worst case scenarios and greatest fears.

Dementia is a ninja. Whether you call it specifically Alzheimer’s or more generally dementia, it is a ninja. It can be early onset, starting as early as your 40s or 50s, or it can wait until your 60s, 70s, or later. It starts out with just the occasional mental lapse here or there and—as a woman—it’s difficult to tell if it’s dementia or just the memory loss that comes with menopause. But if you have dementia in your family, every time you “lose” a word, or go blank on your PIN at the grocery store checkout, you panic and ask, “Is this it? Is it starting?”

I was in the military, so I wasn’t around my family of origin on a regular basis. When I got out and moved back home, I noticed that my aunt would repeat things. I attributed it to the fact that she lived in a small town, didn’t get out much, and had to recycle stuff in order to sustain a conversation. Besides, with two children in elementary school, I kinda had my hands full.

I stayed at home for a little over two years, and then we moved to Germany. I rarely spoke with that aunt, but I spoke with her oldest sister, Kathryn, fairly regularly. Aunt Kay started saying that Mable (my aunt with dementia) was under “stress.”  I could accept that: Mable’s daughter had died a year or so before, so … yes, stress. Mable had led a pretty sheltered life and now there she was, suddenly all alone, and without the daughter around whom her life had revolved for almost fifty years. From time to time Aunt Kaye would relate stories of Mable’s odd behavior, but having no previous experience with dementia, I made no connection. And Aunt Kaye never uttered the “D” or “A” word.

Then, in April of 2005, I got the call we all dread: I needed to come home because my eldest aunt was failing. Even though I was two days out of the hospital after a two-week stay, I was Frankfurt Airport-bound in less than 48 hours. When I arrived at the ICU of our local hospital, twenty minutes ahead of schedule, I was absolutely horrified to find Aunt Kaye (the eldest aunt) a mere shadow of her former self. Once so tall, confident, and strong, I was greeted by a weak, skeletal figure who weakly reached her skeletal arms out to me when I entered the room. A significant emotional event after a 16-hour Transatlantic trip and a six-hour time shift, I went home and went to bed.

The first time I saw Mable was the next day. She seemed like her old self. Then she said something a little odd, but she came back pretty quickly. But, the more time I spent with her, the more I noticed that something just wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but…

That’s when my cousin Patty just laid it all out. Mable had been diagnosed with dementia. She told us (my two sisters were there, too) about the nightmare Mable’s life had become. The most disturbing, to me, was that Mable had become nocturnal, and on more than one occasion had been found by the police wandering around. When asked what she was doing, she said she was looking for her daughter. Sometimes they would take her back home, yet at other times to the ER.

After Aunt Kaye passed, I had to go about the business of tying up loose ends so I could get back to Germany. We made an appointment to discuss Mable’s situation with her doctor, who turned out to be a condescending, uncaring sack of excrement who was more focused on putting us “uppity negroes” in our place than intelligently discussing Mable’s situation. When we went to see the attorney about taking care of Aunt Kaye’s estate, we tried to get a Power of Attorney for Mable, but the attorney refused to do it, even though Mable was there, was lucid, and agreed to it.

Aunt Kaye had lived in the family homestead with her youngest sister, Bettye, who is deaf. The reasonable solution was to move Mable back to the homestead with Bettye. But neither of them were having any of that. Bettye said she was afraid of Mable’s volatility, and Mable decided we were evil and plotting against her.

I had come home prepared to say goodbye to one aunt. I ended up saying goodbye to two. Mable was no longer there.  I thought I would be attending one funeral; it ended up being a double.

I don’t recall now exactly when Mable finally went into care, but I think it was 2005. I came back to the States early in 2006, but to El Paso, Texas, so I didn’t go home.  My cousin who had been visiting her at the nursing home died in 2009, so I had no real word of Mable after that. Someone sent me a picture of her in the nursing home: she was lying limply in a bed, her hair disheveled, her t-shirt rolled up under her breasts, exposing her stomach. She could have been dead or alive. However, in my mind that was no longer Mable. Her periods of lucidity had long since become more the rare exception than the norm, and she had retreated to her childhood. Very rarely, a little of Mable would peep out, but it was so rare and so brief that it would have been better if it had not.  Those brief moments just reminded us of what we had lost. It was a knife to my heart because I still believe that the “May-May” I had so adored as a child was still in there, imprisoned by this evil disease, but trying desperately to let someone know, “Hey! I’m still in here!”

One day in 2011, I received a call from the nursing home while I was in baggage claim at the Huntsville, Alabama, airport. In 2009, I had called the nursing home and told them they needed to transfer Patty’s role to me when I found out she was dying of cancer. They told me that Patty would have to come in and relinquish her role. I told them she was a little busy dying at the moment and probably wouldn’t be able to fit that into her schedule. I gave them my contact information and decided to let them figure it out for themselves. So, in late 2011, they finally did.

I didn’t recognize the number, but I recognized the area code. In a very matter-of-fact way, the woman on the other end of the line informed me she was calling to get authorization to do a hospice consult for Mable. You see, one of the things they don’t tell you about dementia is that not only does it steal your essence and your life memories, it steals every learned behavior. Mable had long since lost her ability to hold up her head and feed herself; by the time I got that call, she had forgotten how to eat and swallow. She was dehydrated and emaciated. But a hospice consult? Over two years of nothing and suddenly we need a hospice consult? No, I did not handle it well.

I received that call in early November. After a number of conversations with my sisters, we decided against the hospice consult. I decided I was going to go home for Thanksgiving to see Mable and say my last good-bye, even though she had died to me back in 2005. Exactly one week before I was going to head to home, the nursing home called me and told me she had passed. They asked me what I wanted them to do. My sisters and I decided to have our cousin, who is a mortician, retrieve her body and cremate her. We talked about a memorial service, but that never happened.

My daughter and I went home at Thanksgiving anyway, and I went by the nursing home to retrieve Mable’s things. The nursing home staff was very kind. They had an orderly roll out less than a dozen boxes the size of copier paper boxes to my car and load them in. I drove them back to the house, took them in and opened them up. There were very few of her personal items left. Most of it was clothes they had provided her as she wasted away—things she never would have voluntarily worn. Eighty-six years of living reduced to less than a dozen boxes because dementia is a ruthless thief.

To this day, no one has retrieved her cremains. They are with a family member, so I know they are safe and will not be abused. But, the bottom line: I feel no connection to those cremains. “Mable” died the deathless death of dementia long before her body gave up the fight.

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The Ticking Time Bomb

Hi, friends. I know it’s been a while since you heard from me. But … life. . But I’m feeling stronger, and I hope this will be the beginning of a long relationship.

I had my periodic appointment with my Primary Care Provider (PCP) at the Veterans’ Administration, and it went wonderfully.   Even my prostate appears to be in good shape (do not ask me why they run PSAs on women…).  I’m feelin’ good!!!!

A couple of months ago I started having a new sensation in my right shoulder; like the joint was separating . True to form, I waited around a while, hoping it might just go away. When it did not, I went to see my civilian PCP, who is also an orthopedist.  He decided it might be a tear in my rotator cuff, and that I probably need an MRI, but insurance being what it is, we had to start with an x-ray. So he sent me down the hall for some x-rays.

I didn’t hear back from his office after a few days, so I assumed the x-rays showed nothing worthy of note, which is what I expected.  Then, last week – about 2 weeks after my appointment – I got a call from the doctor’s office.  They had been trying to reach me about my x-rays.  Ruh-roh…

First of all, the x-rays (for my shoulder, recall) showed a stiffening of my spine, “most likely caused by muscle spasms.” Do tell! I have 10% service-connected disability for that. As an afterthought, I was also told that the x-ray showed mild arthritis in my right shoulder.

The majority of the phone conversation, however, centered around the plaque build up in my carotid artery. The nurse recommended an ultrasound. At first I was tempted to blow it off:  my first “cardiac episode” about three years ago, had found plaque in my arteries, but the cardiologist had mentioned it in an off-hand manner.  When I saw him in February, he declared me healthy and graduated me from six-month visits to annual visits. I was just about to pass on the ultrasound, but decided a second opinion never hurts.

The internet is a both a wonderful and evil place. It can give you just enough information to scare the bejeezoobs out of you.  And that is what it did. I already knew, from high school science class, that the carotid artery is pretty significant.  I knew from my cardiologist that plaque in an artery weakens the wall of the artery and can cause it to “blow out.” But what I found on the internet was far more chilling.  Apparently, I have what is called Carotid Artery Disease. The build up of plaque there can significantly reduce the blood flow to the brain, causing dementia, or the plaque can break off, go to the brain and cause a stroke. Or, the wall of my carotid cause just cave under the pressure of the plaque and I could bleed out.

So now, not only am I at risk for heart attack based on my family history, me of the historically low blood pressure, am now at risk of a stroke or bleeding out via an erupted carotid.

I had my ultrasound on Tuesday, so now there is the wait for the results, and most likely a visit to a cardiologist. Meanwhile, I’m walking around carrying this possibly deadly secret. Do I continue to go about my life as if I do not know this?  Do I sit quietly on my sofa munching on carrots, drinking distilled water, and double-dosing my pravastatin and low-dose aspirin because I stopped taking them … how long ago?  Perhaps I should just start chugging olive oil: after all the Greeks swear by its ability to support longevity. Do I finally fill out all those beneficiary-type forms that are suddenly missing from my personnel file – you know, just in case? Do I finally fill out that living will form the VA has been giving  me for the past four years and have it notarized? Do I cruise on over to Legal Zoom and do that will I’ve been thinking I need to do for so long and never quite seem to remember when I’m at home doing nothing of value? Do I laugh because I am still alive, or cry that soon I may not be? Maybe I should start attending Mass again on a regular basis…

I’ve been well aware of my mortality since I reached my 40s, because both of my parents died at 49.  On the one hand, I see every year I live past that as a sort of “bonus round.” But then my sister died suddenly of a heart attack at age 56, so – at 53 – I now have an additional hurdle to cross before I consider myself “out of the woods.”  Never mind that my oldest sister will be 64 on Saturday and appears to be in perfectly good health. In my mind, she could well be the anomaly, like my father’s youngest sister, who  celebrated her 88th birthday on Monday (and by the way she ate when I was there earlier this year. shows no signs of imminent decline). None of her siblings or either of her parents lived to see 88.  I may very well be like her, as the “baby” of my family, but my mind won’t let me go there.  In my mind, there is this ticking time bomb inside of me, toying with me; knowing exactly the day and the hour when it will detonate. And no matter how nicely I talk to it, or how much I pray about it, it will never reveal its plan to me.

And so, I will continue to kiss my children every night, and tell them I love them, in case I slip away in the night like so many of my loved ones before me.

Tick … tock … tick … tock. …

Getting Real

First of all, I’d like to apologize to those of you who decided to follow me trusting I would provide you a relatively steady diet of food for thought. In this I have failed all of us.

It has been a while since I shared my thoughts with you, and even longer since I shared my life. But, well, sometimes things happen that push us to do that which we are loathe to do.

I know that some who know me will not agree with what I am about to do, because you will consider it a commission of one of the deadliest of sins: the airing of one’s dirty laundry. I don’t see it that way. Regardless of outward appearances, I long ago came to the conclusion that my most likely mission in life is to be a warning to others: the quintessential “Ms. Don’t Bee.”  I have accepted – and even embraced – this as my lot in life.

You see, I have a son. I have a troubled son. And the only thing that keeps me from being 100% angry at myself right now is that he is adopted, and I did not birth him into this screwed up world that has no use for him past making itself feel better at his expense.

I could give you a lot of reasons for his being “troubled.” I could – and most likely would, were it not for my therapist – tell you that my son is troubled because I failed to be SuperMom. But the fact of the matter is that my son – my adopted son – was probably doomed from the start. He is the biological offspring of a veteran of the first Gulf War. He is the product of a toxic gestational environment: a  toxic environment created by the United States government. However, because of his demographic profile, it’s just easier to “Blame it on the Boogie.”  Because we all know that adopted babies are throw-aways, and African American adopted babies are the worst throw-aways of all. By definition, they have to be drug babies. Imperfect people. A drag on society. Pariahs.

It became apparent fairly early on that all was not right with Quen. He simply would not settle in. He was fussy and needy and had a persistent case of thrush and endless ear infections. And then the seizures started. And after the seizures, the medication to control the seizures turned him into an entirely different child.

I could recount all of our troubles in painstaking detail, but that would do no good. Suffice it to say that his toxic gestational environment has significantly impacted his central nervous system: a fact that the Veterans’ Administration refuses to acknowledge, my pretty expensive healthcare insurance refuses to address (or authorize treatment for), and the penal and mental health systems refuse to pursue. I can only commend them on their freedom to choose.

I could tell you, like I tell myself several times each hour of every single day, that Quen’s problems are my fault. I failed to be an adequate mother and advocate. But, realistically, no matter how hard and often I try to convince him that he should go right, I cannot over-ride his lying, damaged central nervous system telling him every minute of every hour of every day that he really does want to go left. And that liar has finally won out.

As I write this, my baby is sitting in the El Paso, TX County Jail. It’s not the first time he’s been there, but I fully intend for it to be his last. On November 12, 2013 he was sentenced to 30 days for evading arrest/detention. That’s it. And the worse part of it: he was arrested a full three days after he had been released from the same jail for other offenses.

I won’t post the copy of the the complaint here, because it’s not my place to disclose his private information. But I can tell you that the arresting officer claimed  he chased my son through a number of yards and over a number of fences because, while he was in search of an armed robbery suspect, he saw my son jay walk. Yup. My son ran across a street, outside of a designated pedestrian crosswalk, and that prompted a law enforcement officer to abandon his search for an aggravated armed robbery suspect to draw both his fire arm and his taser on my 5’9″, 150lb. son. Nothing but the Grace of God prevented that asshole from killing my boy.  And you know what the kicker is??? The only charge my son faced was evading arrest. You would think RoboCop would have at least had the presence of mind to write him up for jaywalking. And you would think the judge would have had sufficient presence of mind to question the entire situation. But no. Because, you see, ever since the people of America had the unmitigated gall to elect a black man as president, the national war on Black Men that had been previously partially underground went  all the way live. And since that fateful night in 2008, every person with brown skin has been made to pay the price in one way or another. And I, for one, am sick to death of it. Because, you see, if all of these ill-read, ill-bred buttheads had any awareness of the true history of this country which they so adamantly claim as their exclusive dominion, they would realize that the primary reason these United State of America is anything other than a barren wasteland is due solely to the exploitation of peoples of color. Europeans, inarguably, stole the land from the initial inhabitants, and then used the stolen and uncompensated labor of other people of color to improve that land. In fact, our current tenuous economic status continues to rely heavily on the  exploited labor of less-than-fully-documented people of color.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not racist by nature. I am, in fact, probably one of the whitest black people you will ever meet … with the possible exception of my children. But when I read that my child had a police officer’s weapon and taser drawn on him because he jay walked  over 1,700 miles away from me, I – as a 40% disabled veteran – have no choice but to ask WTF???!!! Where is the thanks for my service, or  – for that matter – his sacrifice? Where is the dignity that is implicitly guaranteed him as a U.S. citizen  as a part of his inalienable rights of  “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness?” And, as long as I’m ranting, where is the logic in a Texas Hispanic law enforcement officer, whose ancestors have suffered centuries of indignities and discrimination, acting in the same, despicable manner … which I can only see as an excuse for those oppressors to further justify their past and continuing transgressions? I fail to comprehend how a country that vehemently declares itself to be a Christian nation consistently fails so miserable to adhere to one of the most basic and simplistic teachings of Jesus Christ, that being “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”  While I have never been a large champion of the whole “turn the other cheek” mentality, I do believe that those of us in this country who have been subject to generational oppression have an obligation to – when afforded the opportunity – prove that “we are better than that.”  In my mind, when we find ourselves in  positions of power and opt to act with vengeance vice integrity, we only reinforce the wrong-minded mindset of our former oppressors that we were deserving of the treatment to which our ancestors were subjected.

Hopefully, my son will be on his way out of El Paso soon. Hopefully, he will realize that no good will come to him there; that the people he calls “friends” are not, and that them being Hispanic in a majority Hispanic town give them an advantage over him that not even true friendship could counterbalance.  I want him far away from there, where he can find some measure of self-respect and self-worth. Where he can escape the vicious cycle of hopelessness and helplessness in which he now lives. I want him to be able to hold his head high, knowing that he is a responsible, productive member of society, who has been endowed by his Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I want him to understand that he, too, has a right to claim the American Dream, because his American-ness has been bought and paid for several times over with the blood, sweat, and tears of his ancestors and is not something that others can deny him or that he should thoughtlessly relinquish.

To Hell in a Handbasket

In less than 24 hours, our country could enter into a very serious situation. In addition to a partial federal government shutdown that is having far-reaching effects across the economy; by this time tomorrow our government may no longer have the authority to borrow money to meet its daily financial obligations. And all the while, Congressional Republicans are acting like a bunch of over-grown Frat Boys, drunk not on cheap beer, but on power. Very much like a recalcitrant child, they have stuck a macramé pin in the wings of our government and are content to sit back and watch it squirm. Oh, and sing “Amazing Grace.”  Really? Nero fiddled; the Republican Caucus sang. You’d think, seeing how well the Nero thing turned out, they’d think twice. But nooooo… true to form, the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

I would be an entirely different story if their arguments had any basis in truth. In true Lee Atwater style, they have framed a fiscal debate around the stereotype of blacks being fiscally irresponsible. And in true Republican style, the Base is eating it up. The fact of the matter is that most appropriations bills originate in the House of Representatives – in which Republicans have held the majority since the Great Shellacking of 2010. So, one could easily argue that the Republicans hold – at the very least – a large share of responsibility for this country’s current bills.  The raising of the Debt Ceiling does not authorize any additional spending. It allows the government the ability to take out short-term loans in order to meet daily obligations, as required by the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA). In this way, government spending actually does work very much like a household budget and checking account. Every household has certain monthly obligations. And a functional household ensures monthly expenditures do not exceed monthly income.  Sound financial theory. But how many of us have been faced with an unexpected expenditure – like a flat tire – and ended up having to replace two tires … like now? In our personal budgets, we have some flexibility. We can dip into our emergency fund, we can pay for the tires with a credit card, we can use our overdraft protection.  The only problem with that: because of the ADA, none of these options are available to the federal government. If you have two flat tires and there is not sufficient money on your Car Maintenance budget line on that day, you would not be able to buy the tires, period.  You couldn’t dip into your savings, or use your credit card, or dip into your discretionary fund. No calling up BankofMomandDad. So, while the government may forecast that they will have a certain amount of money on any given budget line on any given day, the money has to be on the correct budget line at just the right time or that obligation cannot be met.

 And then we have the other exacerbating factor:  a budget is based on forecasted receipts. Well, let’s just look at where the government stands right now. Income tax is a major source of funds for the government. But, because of the federal government shut-down, some 800,000 government employees are not receiving their regular pay, so are being taxed based not on their regular pay, but on their earned pay. Do you see where this is going?

But to me, what is most sad is how ill-conceived and short-sighted the Republican shut-down strategy is. They allege that this is all about saving the American people from the evils of the Affordable Care Act.  Okay, so let’s just say – for argument’s sake – that the ACA is Evil Incarnate and must be destroyed. Had the Republicans thought this thing through, they would have cleared the decks: passed a Continuing Resolution, raised the Debt Ceiling, and allowed all business to continue as usual. That would have left the headlines free to chronicle the daily debacles of the ACA roll-out. But, instead of being inundated with stories about software glitches, crashing websites,  under-trained and under-staffed Assistance Centers, and endless wait times on toll-free lines, we have … the House Republicans singing all three verses of Amazing Grace without the words written down!

“God bless America. And no one else.”

We Now Interrupt the Government Shutdown…

Since the blogosphere is filled with talk of the government shutdown, I don’t feel compelled to join the chorus. People who know me should not be surprised by this. Instead, I’d like to talk about something interesting I heard last night.

Okay, so I’m on my way home from my belly dance/flamenco night, listening – as usual – to NPR, when up came this very interesting story about our new Miss America,  Nina Davuluri (a little lengthy, but well worth a listen). No, I’m not a former or aspiring pageant girl. Sure, growing up in an all-female household, I watched all the pageants, but as a young child I never saw this as something that was possible for me, and as I got older, I failed to see the point. I still wish they would go back to the tank-style swimsuits, since it doesn’t appear that non-value-added segment of the competition will ever go away. But this year’s pageant has captured the attention of a lot of people – including me – because it wasn’t just a parade of vaselined-toothed, overly-coiffed “beauties” talking about world peace and the distribution of maps worldwide: it was about the very ugly reaction to the winner…and what that, in a larger context, means.

I did a little research on the pageant. The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921. Minus the 4 year hiatus from 1928 – 1932, we’ve had 88 years worth of Miss Americas. Of those, eight have been African American, with the first one, Vanessa Williams, being selected in 1984, fourteen years after the first African American contestant in 1970. Ms. Davuluri is only the second Asian American, along with Angela Perez Baraquio, in 2000. Rule Number Seven actually prohibited the participants of non-whites during the early years of the pageant. Into the 40s, contestants actually had to complete an ancestry questionnaire.  Clearly, this is no bellweather organization. As Nina pointed out in this interview, Miss America has always been about “the girl next door.” And, based on the reaction to her selection, it appears a fair number of people prefer to live next door to a caucasian, even a tattooed one.

I hesitate to say much more on the topic, as I feel I would become “preachy.” Instead, I invite you to listen to this piece and respond. What does the reaction to her selection really say about the state of our country in 2013? Is it simply “business as usual” in America that every minority has to have its turn in the discrimination barrel? Will this push us forward, or has it pulled us back? Is it an indicator or a manifestation?

Some say race is a social construct, and has no basis in reality. But for those have dealt and continue to deal with the kind of behavior displayed recently, it is very, very real. And – at least for me – it has become really, really tiresome.

The Scary Guy

It’s been over a week since Aaron Alexis committed mass murder at the Navy Yard in D.C. Writing on this last week may have been more timely, but it seemed too soon to me. I wanted to see how it played out: how I felt and how the media handled the situation. Because this time it was a young black man on the wrong side of a gun.

Okay. So, now that you’ve gotten over your righteous indignation regarding that last statement, allow me to share my insights.

Preliminary reports characterized Alexis as – basically – a gun-loving ne’er do well. With at least 3 known encounters with law enforcement and a military career ended by a “pattern of misconduct,” he was simply a bad apple from the word “go.” How did he ever get into the military? How did he ever get a security clearance? How did he ever gain access to a military installation? These were the urgent questions asked by many a stern-faced commentator endlessly over several news cycles. And the more they these questions, and the more information they obtained, the less newsworthy it all became. Because, you see: Aaron Alexis, in the final analysis, was no odd-colored, misshapened, warted, one-horned devil. Aaron Alexis was an untreated, mentally ill veteran.

What we found out was that, yes, he had some run-ins with law enforcement over the years, but (1) they never resulted in convictions; (2) they were geographically dispersed; and (3) in at least one case, the situation was minimized. He had some indebtedness, not unlike many Americans in this tough economic times.  He completed the majority of his enlistment and received an honorable discharge. The early rumor about a “pattern of misconduct” has been largely discounted, as he opted for a voluntary early separation; not uncommon during periods of force reduction. Might there have been a “pattern of misconduct?” Possibly. My guess (based on 14 years in the Navy), is that Alexis was a fairly consistent minor disciplinary problem. A bit of a pain in the butt, perhaps a bit odd, but sufficiently functional to get the job done without major interruption. The decision for him to separate early was most likely mutual: it prevented him from getting an adverse mark on his record and saved the command quite a bit of paperwork. Everybody wins, right? Wrong. Twelve people lost big time last Monday.

In the name of Monday morning quarterbacking, the Navy is reviewing its base security policies. The process of investigating, adjudicating, and granting security clearances is being scrutinized. The military is concentrating on these things because they are things easily fixed. They can make new rules, institute new policies and procedures, provide more training (like we don’t have more than enough already). Fingers of blame can be pointed and wagged and guilty heads can be hung. But all the directives, instructions, regulations, pamphlets, circulars, DVDs, training curricula, and sermons will not change the fact that on September 16, 2013, 13 people lost their lives because we – as a nation – refuse to address mental illness on a serious level.

I’m not sure I understand it. Obesity is now a disease. Alcoholism is a disease. Sure, these are serious conditions: conditions that kill people. But mental illness is just as much of a disease, and kills as many … or more. And yet, we – as a society – continue to ignore the elephant in the room. Because mental illness is messy. And mental illness is scary. Because, in most cases, mental illness doesn’t roar, rage, or ravage: it creeps in and almost imperceptibly consumes what was.

Someone once told me that one will not change until it hurts too much to remain the same. How many more people must die at the hands of the mentally ill before we stand up and say “Enough!” ? How long will we go on looking the other way because that “crazy” guy, that “scary” guy, looks so much like us…and just might be us?

Because that’s really the issue, isn’t it?

 

 

They’re People, Too

As fascinating as being in a “real war-torn country” was to a small-town girl like me, what was most memorable about my time in Kosovo was the people. During my time there, I got to spend a lot of time with the locals, as they provided a large number of services on the base. The people I spent the most time with were My Ladies; the women on the cleaning crew. These women ranged from probably late teens into maybe their 40s or 50s. They earned – let’s just leave it at – “far less than minimum wage,” worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, and had absolute no benefits, including sick days. To say it was bitterly cold there would be an understatement, and few of them had more than sweatshirts, sweaters, or fairly thin jackets. I noticed these things immediately but had been told they would be stand-offish, since KBR had them afraid of their own shadows. All an American had to do was accuse them of doing something wrong and they were immediately fired. Unfortunately, some Americans took advantage of this latitude.

I presented a particular problem for them as I was one of the very few female “chefs” (chiefs – I ran the Training Support Center), and the men were actually the heads of the cleaning crew. I remember the women coming in meekly to ask me if I could step out of the office so the men could mop, since they did not want to be in the office with me and risk offending me. I would step outside and pass the time with a smoke break, as they were extremely quick, again, not to risk annoying me.

It was finally one of the women who broke the ice. They would come in and mumble a few pleasantries, but nothing more. One particularly cold day, one of the ladies summoned the courage to ask if she could have the last bit of coffee left in the pot. I told her “Sure!” (and nodded vigorously so she would not think I was yelling at her). This happened a few more times; I soon noticed that the women would take turns asking for the coffee. They didn’t get to my office until after lunch, and since I only drank coffee in the morning, it was a little old. Eventually, I convinced them that it really was best if they just made a fresh pot. This eventually turned into what I came to refer to as My Ladies’ Afternoon Tea Time: I went to the Exchange and laid in a supply of tea bags, cream, sugar, cups, and the like. I had the guys who worked for me move in a “conference table” and some chairs. Gradually, it became a daily ritual that – after they finished cleaning up the hut our facility was housed in – they would come, sit around the table and sip tea. Sometimes they would include me in their conversation, sometimes I’d just sit back and enjoy watching them. They would sit there and talk and giggle like a bunch of school girls. Many of them had lost everything to the Serbs, including family members, but they were resilient. They would tell me who left treats for them and who did not: there was one office that would always leave ice cream sandwiches in their freezer and that was even a bigger treat than hot tea on a cold day. If one of them seemed to have a cold they just couldn’t shake, I would sneak them some cough medicine or cold tablets (they were ordered to take nothing from us; also grounds for firing). One woman had a cut that became terribly infected, so I brought her some antibiotic cream and band-aids. I managed to “find” some nondescript jackets lying around that I asked they “take away.” When I was packing up my office to leave, I seemed to run out of boxes, and was “forced” to leave several things: window curtains that had been admired, a vacuum that I had bought so they could clean the rug I had put in my office of which “Mama” had grown particularly fond.  The fact of the matter is, during those months, I became genuinely fond of these people. When I found that I was being rotated out, I laid in a supply of tea things and arranged for the one guy I could trust to continue the tradition. My husband ended up getting a job there a few months later, and for the time he was there, I would remind him to make sure my ladies had their things.

They were simple people. They were people who had been stomped on by life and had every reason to be bitter, dejected, mean, and vindictive. We had come in to be their saviors and instead, we had allowed KBR to come in and suck them into slavery with obscenely low wages and poor working conditions. I still think about them from time to time, and wonder how they have gotten on. I wonder if our being there was – in the end – a net gain or loss for them.

I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Syria. If we feel the need to take action, that action needs to be limited in both scope and duration. While we still view ourselves as Saviors of the World, the fact is that most others do not. We need to be mindful of that and govern ourselves accordingly.

Because, after all … they are people, too.

The Cleaning Crew at Camp Bondsteel

The Cleaning Crew at Camp Bondsteel