We are given these unexpected gifts in our lives. They arrive suddenly, with little or no warning, and warm us for a moment, or if we are lucky, for a lifetime.
There is no way I am ready to name, perhaps will ever be ready to name, cancer a gift. Some are more generous-hearted than I and will find their journeys with cancer as some sort of gift. I am not that person. This doesn’t feel like a gift, nor does it feel like a burden. It is simply what is next. Someone pointed out that this was proof indeed that life is not fair. “This what?” I asked. “That you ended up with cancer,” he replied, his eyes brimming with tears. “It’s just not fair.”
I so appreciate his care and concern, but me having cancer has nothing to do with life not being fair. Life isn’t fair, but that is proven every day in ways far more important than this diagnosis. I am reminded of life’s inequalities each time I walk into certain schools in New Haven, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Miami, Nashville, Dallas, Fairfax, Murfreesboro, Louisville, Detroit, Boston, or–well, the list goes on and on. I am reminded of life’s discriminations each time I drive through the neighborhoods of those schools. Too many of the schools I visit are filled with children and teens whose lives are dominated by hunger and bounded by fears. I recall a ten-year-old boy who walks up four flights of stairs to a three-room apartment that has no air-conditioning save an oscillating fan, and no heat except the toaster oven that his mom leaves on in the winter. He shares a mattress with two brothers and one sister and he knows that the night will be good if his mom is humming when she comes up the stairs because it means she will have earned enough tips at her job to bring home something she thinks will be special for dinner. Life is not fair. Why does this kid go hungry and that kid not? Why does this little boy attend a school where, no matter what the teachers want to do with the students, the daily reminder from the principal is to make sure they can pass THE TEST and so their days are spent drilling with test-prep materials while students on the other side of town (literally) focus on growing vegetables in their school garden, reading novels of their own choice, and spend afternoons Skyping with kids in Alaska to talk about how oil-drilling in that state could affect their environment? These are inequalities that matter.
There is no fairness that from the moment I thought something was wrong until the moment I was meeting with one of the best surgeons in town, less than a week had passed, while other women must wait weeks as they move from concern to test to diagnosis to plan. During my one week of waiting and wondering, I talked with a woman, a black woman, a dental aide, who, now divorced, has no insurance and has felt a lump in her breast but the Planned Parenthood clinic where she once could have gone to get a mammogram has closed and the closest one is several bus rides away and she can’t get there after her work before it closes. She’s hoping to get into a free clinic that is closer to her home on Saturday, but for now, she tells me, she just worries and then she hugs me and wishes me well. She hugs me and wishes me well.
And there it was: the unexpected gift. That gift of a wish from someone who knows firsthand, in a way far different from the way that I know it, that life is not fair. She asks if I know the health care bill passed the night before. I tell her I do. I tell her that my son, a freshman in college, called at midnight, asking me, “Mom, did you watch it? Did you see it? It passed!” She nodded and said, “It’s going to help me. I’ve been following it. It’s going to be helping me.” She smiled and concluded, “It won’t solve everything and I suppose it still has problems but it’s going to help me and that makes me breathe easier, for my kids, you know? They need their mom to be able to keep working. To pay the rent, you know?”
This past week, the House passed the health care bill. Some of you reading this will be disappointed that it passed. For some of you that will be because you have actually read the bill or at least made your way through detailed articles in news magazines or newspapers and can point to very specific provisions of the bill that you wish had not been included, or you will be able to point to gaps where you can say, with specificity, what else it is that the bill should have included. Others of you reading this will be happy that it passed simply because it means that Democrats won and Republicans lost; some will be dismayed because it means the opposite. But I wonder, just wonder, how many of us reading this and passing judgment on the passage of the bill do so in the context of being uninsured, being dependent on free clinics, and knowing that if we hear we have cancer we understand that lack of immediate care will make a difference in the length and the quality of our lives.
I’m carrying around her hug, a hug given without any commentary on the unfairness of life, without any strings attached. I see teachers hand out this type of gift to students each day—the words of encouragement on a paper hesitantly turned in, the star next to the one answer on a test that showed real understanding, the nod of support as that shy student finally decides to speak up, the note home to the parent that only mentions reasons why that student is a pleasure to have in class, the willingness to say to the student who pleads for another day to get in the report to remember that sometimes life is not fair and we have the ability to level the playing field a tiny bit by saying one more day is just fine. No new set of standards will be what makes a day feel just a bit more fair to these children; no new races to the top and certainly not one more mandate or test. Teachers will make the difference. And, of course, a hug won’t be enough. We’ve got to make sure we know enough about each student’s progress to understand how to help each move forward. We’ve got to make sure we understand enough about our own content to know how to teach and re-teach and, if necessary for that particular student re-teach yet again. But we can’t ever forget that alongside the teaching we do, the unconditional and at times unexpected support and encouragement we offer to children who know firsthand that life is not fair is a gift that can warm a heart for a moment, or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime.