I went to see a dentist yesterday to start the process of getting fitted for a night time bite orthotic. My neck, jaw, teeth, tongue and ear hurt, in varying intensities, every day. For a while, I thought this meant I had some kind of terrible disease. I suppose it still could but for now I’m going with the opinion of the second ENT I saw who attributed all of my head and neck symptoms to TMJ.
As I sat in the waiting room, I struck up a conversation with a woman close to my own mother’s age. We were only there together for fifteen minutes at the most but in that span of time, we covered a lot of subjects and my eyes flooded with tears at least twice. This was no average small talk session, people. It was intense. Because I was simultaneously trying to fill out my intake paperwork, I wasn’t focused enough in the beginning to remember how we got from niceties to real talk but she told me a story I can’t forget.
Her son fell in with a troubled crowd in high school after being bullied for years for being a Jewish kid in a very southern, very protestant town. He was eventually busted for underage drinking and possession of a small amount of drugs. His family sent him to a rehab program, and engaged in other tough love measures, and he’s been clean for two years, so far passing every random drug test and attending AA regularly.
He started going to a local technical college and then transferred to a local university. He was doing awesome and she was so proud of how he’d turned his life around. Then, last weekend, he was being the sober driver for a group of friends when he was pulled over. The officer was the same one who had busted him years prior. He sneered, “Remember me?” He then pulled everybody out of the car and searched it. Some marijuana seeds were found in a bag in the back of the car. None of his friends would claim the bag so her son was arrested for possession and violation of probation even though the bag wasn’t his.
He’s a wreck. She described him several times as a “bowl of jello.” She’s not faring much better. She teared up when she talked about how this new arrest could destroy everything he’s worked so hard for. His court date is in January and she is scrambling to prepare a defense. Meanwhile, she was also let go from her job this year because she has lupus and receives chemo five times a month and her employer couldn’t “accommodate her chemo schedule.” A free legal advice service said she could sue but she can’t afford a legal battle against her very well-endowed former employer. Her heartache made my heart ache.
She went on to talk about how our elected officials’ posh lifetime healthcare plans keep them from ever being able to sympathize with folks who can’t get insurance or who need assistance in other ways. “All they care about are things like gay marriage and . . .” Uh oh, I thought. Here it comes–that which shall divide us. I had empathized with this woman, and felt some kind of kindred connection as mothers of kids easily marginalized but I winced at what might come next.
But what came was this: “You know, when I was a nurse, I worked in California during the start of the AIDS crisis, and that more than anything taught me that all that matters is that people love each other. That’s why I was out campaigning against that stupid amendment any chance I got!” I teared up. I tried to get a word in to thank her but she kept talking, and I kept feeling more and more kindred. I did eventually tell her that it meant a lot to me, as someone who has a female partner, to hear her say those things. She seemed totally unfazed by my revelation. It was the first time in my life that I came out to a stranger who didn’t then respond with at least some kind of surprise or disbelief.
It felt amazing. Who knew normalization could be such a rush!
I was called back before I imagined any way that I could help her besides just listening to her tell her story. But afterwards I realized that I could offer my writing services to either start an online legal fund campaign or at least attract local media attention to her son’s plight. I know the dentist staff can’t give me her contact info but I’m going to ask them to give her mine. Does anyone know if this will work? Can they do that with my permission and still satisfy HIPAA?
When I set out for the dentist’s office yesterday, I did not expect an older straight woman to preach to me in favor of marriage equality in the waiting room. I’m so thankful for her and the thousands of others like her who are doing the hard work of advocating for others in waiting rooms, around dinner tables, in their churches, on Facebook and in other public spaces.
Thanksgiving is many things—a painful reminder of genocide for some, an ugly consumerism-fest to others, and a difficult family ritual for many. It’s true that we should all be thankful every day for all that we have but it’s easy to forget about that when times are hard and problems only seem to be mounting.
This year, I’m just grateful to be alive, aches and all, to love and be loved by my family, and to be making unexpected, life-enriching connections in the real world and on the Interwebs. (That includes you, dear reader.)
I wish you all as lovely a day as possible tomorrow, full of real stories, meaningful connections, and good listening by all.