Yesterday, my Health and Human Rights professor (whom you would admire very much — maybe even more than you do most academics) reemphasized that, as far as the class and topic are concerned, everything starts and ends with the Right to Life with Dignity.
We have been in a recession, thought to be the country’s worst economic situation since the Depression. People are afraid, people are angry, people are grasping for someone to blame. Americans’ approval of Congress is at an all-time-low. Its members have behaved even more facetiously than usual. However, last year our black — black! — President did manage to pass significant health care reform legislation (although it, of course, leaves much to be desired).
Those who scream sturm and drang over health care reform, and what they generally dub socialism, probably would hate you. These neighbors say they think that Medicare, Medical, social security, welfare, etc., whatever, are theft from hardworking Americans to lazy, insufferable hangers-on, boors, wastes of oxygen. In their fear and ignorance, they demonize those who accept any government assistance and classify them as parasites. They would latch onto you as unAmerican, and fail to consider that you have any worth, any humanity, any personality, outside of your free-riding laziness.
First, of course, they refuse to consider the possibility that you might’ve given this country more than what you’ve taken, pecuniarily speaking. Why they think it’s good and right to stick you on the proverbial ice floe, I don’t know.
However, that isn’t so important. What if you never had invented machines, raised children, worked for decades, helped build community, perpetuated your spirit? What if you were unfailingly cruel, continually lazy, unselfconsciously crass, and unforgivably selfish? What if you’d been graced with a silver spoon and used it for evil? Would you not deserve a life with dignity?
Like any human of twenty-five, there are hundreds, thousands of moments I will never forget, even if I don’t think of them often. One is the afternoon you, helpless in your nursing home bed, begged me not to leave, because the orderly abused you. I was twelve, and did not know what to do, and was terrified, and did nothing, but kick walls as I left, and wonder why the security cameras were insufficient.
Eight years later, when you were in another “home,” I drove a thousand miles each week to see you in your waning days. Of course, you were on your way out, anyway, but I can’t help but wonder how they quickened your demise — or, at least, made it much worse — by leaving you in bed 23.5 hours a day, while your roommates died and were replaced by others. Although you far outlived your transient companions, each week you cared less and less. Of course, you were always so happy I was there, and wanted to talk. But you made less eye contact, and cut our visits shorter and shorter. Although you usually let me just sit on your bed, for hours, reading you the paper, or doing my homework, or just being with you, holding your hand, you wanted to talk less, and stared at the wall more.
I set a permanent, daily alarm on my phone, so that the three days a week I was in La Jolla, I could call you, stepping out of Geisel into the insistent oceanside sunshine, shielding my eyes from the spaceship while you grew more and more tired. Eventually, on some days, you wouldn’t pick up at all.
So, what is this motherfucking right to life with dignity? My father — my father — do you know who I am? I am Kari Fucking Parks, and this is my mother fucking dad, and it is your fucking job to care for him when I cannot — you fucking son of a bitch — THIS IS MY FATHER AND HE DESERVES BETTER. And among all the political and medical-ethical debate over the beginnings and ends of life — when breath is literally given or extinguished — these fuckers willfully ignore what they, themselves, are almost guaranteed to face someday: that they will be old, and weak, and lonely, and ignored, and denied, and their progeny will continue to talk talk talk of safety nets and socialism and individual responsibility and God and Right, and refuse to acknowledge their own role in making you even weaker than nature would have you be.
Today is your birthday. Well, in an hour it will be your birthday; but, it’s your birthday EST, and because you were born there, that’s what’s relevant, right? Today, you are ninety-five years old.
I can’t get over that, in a few short months, you will have been dead for twenty percent of my life. This can’t be true! You, whom I love, whom I consider every day. You, whose twinkling eyes I see when I close mine, whose crass, enthusiastic voice I hear in my ear; you, whom I see every time I consider my own profile in the mirror (or, more likely, on Facebook). You have been dead for one fifth of my life, and yet you feel so present that I almost always forget to miss you.
Coincidentally, today [well, yesterday — whatever, the day before your birthday (“the day after my birthday is not my birthday, Mum!” — that joke is after your time, sorry)] is Ash Wednesday. Its reminders are quite apropos: after all, what day goes by when I think of you and don’t consider that we shall return to dust, and that we must strive to turn away from sin and instead be faithful to truth? And of course, I fast for Lent not because that is what our pseudo-religion requires, but because of my own fondness for ritual, and desire to repent. I fast not to beat myself up, but instead to remind myself of the cruelty I have, continue to, and will someday impose upon those I love. I fast in cognizance of falling short of my goal to live with grace, and in faith that this forced consciousness helps me become a better contributor to our world.
We watched Katrina on the network news in our brightly-lit, late summer California abode. I had never seen you so sad as when we saw the tiny people on our tiny TV. That is, I had never seen you so sad, until a moment later, when you expressed your despair, and I, in my ignorance and vulgarity, proclaimed something along the lines of how big of a tragedy could it be, they knew it was going to rain.
You were silent, shocked. You were heartbroken. You said nothing, and never tried to correct me. But I hope you do not regret this silence — because from that instant, I knew how wrong I was. Maybe if you’d lost your temper, or corrected me, or tried to impose a teachable moment, I would’ve blown you off. Instead, I found I had the ability to kill a soul in an instant, and vowed never to do that to anyone again.
For the past twenty years, I have lived to be less hard. I like to think I’m getting much better at this, but who knows? But if you are out there, somewhere — after the UCSF students probably played catch with your eyeballs, and dumped your ashes down a toilet, after their institution ignored my calls in which begged to see your body — I want you to know that yes, I still am in law school, and yes, it still is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and yes, not a day goes by that I am not infinitely grateful, and growing, and feel so so so so so lucky to have this opportunity that I must never take for granted.
For example, I recently competed in an interscholastic moot court competition. As the judges were so kindly effusive, I could not help but feel at peace, knowing that the career I had wanted since I was 15 — appellate advocacy — was still for me, after all. At the same time, I experienced an odd dejá vu, seeing Jeremy Orr’s face immediately following my argument in the California Supreme Court, as he was so excited and positive and I barely remembered what I had said to the justices at all. Finally, I remembered you, after the DVY banquet senior year — “Kari! You have friends! They cheered for you! They gave you a standing ovation!” — and how happy I had been that you were happy, and how sad that I had been that you had never experienced such love as I’d found in my Y community.
So, Daddy-O, happy birthday. Nobody has shaped me like you, and all my faults, except for one, are your own, as well; but I have the benefit of seeing yours, and therefore my own, more clearly than you did until your last decades. You might be dead, but as long as I am here — you, reincarnate, though hopefully a little better — I try to live my life in comportment with what I think is right and just — what I assume you think to be right and just, as well.
But, assuming, as you and I do, you cannot hear me at all, I still will sing you your favorite song:
I love you I love you I love you
That’s all I want to say —
Until I find a way,
I will say the only words I know that