Tuesday, January 21, 2020

On Kindness

*WARNING* This is not a post about books in any way, shape or form. But it's something I had to write and want to share publicly. Feel free to skip it. My sisters gave me permission to share it here, and I probably have the details wrong about the diabetic stuff one of them needs, but the point still remains. 

Several days after my mom died, my dad asked me to go into town and get a copy of the state and local papers so he could see her obituary. It was a cold and damp day in January. My car was in the driveway; my parents' car was in the garage, and multiple rain jackets hung in the coat closet, but for some reason, I set out in the drizzle on foot wearing only a light jacket without a hood. My decision making skills were at an all-time low. Between the two of us, we couldn't even figure out what a reasonable amount of money would be to buy two newspapers, although we did realize I'd need coins. I simply loaded up my pockets from the cigar box my dad had kept his change in my entire life and set out.

The drizzle quickly changed to rain, then to what even we Oregonians will admit is a downpour. By the time I reached the main street of their tiny town, I was drenched. I stood shivering in front of the newspaper boxes and jammed coins into them with fumbling fingers. As I tucked the newspapers inside my jacket to keep them from disintegrating before I got back, I peered into the window of the storefront I was standing by. It was a coffee shop. A warm drink sounded good, and a break from the rain sounded even better, so I went in.

I stood there, dripping on the counter, trying to count change and match my total against the menu board posted above. "What would you like?" asked the man behind the counter, politely ignoring the water cascading off every part of my face, hair and body onto his clean floor and counter.

"I think I have enough here for a medium cup of coffee," I replied, still trying to get the numbers to stay straight in my head long enough to differentiate between the amount needed for a small or a medium.

"That's not what I asked," he answered. At this, I looked up. "What would you like?"

I'd like to say I protested enough to be polite, but I suspect I simply answered directly. "A large latte."

"That's the perfect amount then," he told me, scooping my coins up and turning to make my drink.

I was too numb to burst into tears, but nine years later, I still mist up every time I think of that moment. This man had no idea my mom had just died. Despite my state of confusion and damp, I was still clearly a middle class, middle aged white lady, not someone down on their luck and unable to afford a latte. There was no reason for him to extend me any particular kindness. But he did. I sat in the café with my latte, and read the obituary I had written with so much love in my grieving heart. When I finished my drink, I folded up the papers and tucked them back into my jacket. It wasn't raining as hard on the way back to my parents' house, now just my dad's house. When I told him the story, he did cry, but then, he cried so easily the last few years of his life, all masculine reticence gone in the aftermath of mini strokes that rewired him emotionally. But for a few moment, they were tears of gratitude. That someone would extend such grace. That the world wasn't a completely shit show in every way. That even without my mom, we wouldn't always be left to fend for ourselves.

Nine years later, nearly to the day, I'm standing helplessly in the middle of Costco while my sister, hunched against a giant box of shampoo, sobs into her hands. She just found out that the diabetic pump that she needs costs over $800 even here. Someone had told her Costco had a much better price, and she'd gotten her hopes up enough to ask me to take her in to check. She is what's sometimes known as a Type III diabetic: someone who developed diabetes as an adult, but who is insulin dependent no matter what "lifestyle changes" she makes. Her blood sugar has always fluctuated wildly, seemingly unaffected by her food and exercise. She'd never been able to afford a pump--hell, her insurance wouldn't even cover the difference between needles and the more efficient pen for her twice daily shots--but when she developed macular degeneration and her doctor told her she had to get her blood sugar under control to save her eyesight, she had splurged on the machine.

At the time, she thought the thousand dollar charge was part of her deductible, and that when she needed her three month replacements, insurance would cover it. But it turns out that her insurance will never pay for the pump, since it's more expensive than taking insulin manually. Even though the time she was using the pump was the first time in over fifteen years she'd started to get a handle on her highs and lows, even though her optometrist told her her eye condition had stabilized during that period and could start to recover if she continued to control her diabetes better. The Costco pharmacist had tried to help her problem solve--"Can you call the company directly?" Tried that. "Can your doctor prescribe it?" Already did; insurance company doesn't care. "What if you called the company-?"

"NOBODY CARES. I know it's not your fault, but NOBODY WILL HELP ME."  She made it a few steps away from the pharmacy window before sagging against the shampoo display in agony.

What if some good Samaritan passing by had decided that instead of paying coffee for the person behind them in the Starbucks line, instead of buying the milk for the family in front of them at the grocery store whose wallet was forgotten at home, they were going to do The Most Outstanding Random Act of Kindness Ever and bought my sister's diabetic pump for her? Wouldn't that have been amazing?

Except it wouldn't have addressed the problem. Even for her, it would have only given her a three month solution, and it would have done nothing for every single other person in a similar situation. My other sister is in chemo right now, and without insurance, it would cost $57,000 PER SESSION. When she told me this, I looked at her anxiously for a moment, and she said, "Yes, that's three zeros," because everyone knows I sometimes say "seventy five hundred" instead of "seven hundred and fifty" or "seventy five thousand." She has insurance, good insurance, so her company told the hospital they capped that treatment at $37,000 per session, then the insurance paid $34,000 per session, so my sister only has to pay $3,000. Per session. For six sessions. $18,000 out of pocket. With good insurance, not the crappy kind our other sister has.

Do you have $18,000 stashed away that you could pay a hospital if you were diagnosed with breast cancer tomorrow? I sure as hell don't.

What do these two stories have to do with each other? I've been reading a lot lately about kindness, and what it means to be kind versus to be nice, and whether kindness is a privileged buzzword that lets people avoid real responsibility for each other. Is it more important to be kind on an individual level, or do we sometimes have to be unkind in order to push forward real change? If person X says something racist, and person Y calls them on it, do we really give a rat's ass that person Y was unkind about it? Or do we worry more about the society that let person X develop and say something harmful to others in the first place?

I'm with my friend and mentor Beth Woolsey on this. It's both/and, not either/or. The kindness of the man in the coffeeshop will always stay with me, and keeps me ever mindful that we don't know what others are going through. It wasn't a meaningless gesture. That very human and personal gesture helped me with a human and individual burden.

My sister's insurance nightmare is certainly personal as well, but it's also societal, and we can't rely on personal gestures to fix a societal problem. Healthcare can't rely on GoFundMe campaigns. One sister has the luck of being in a family that earns enough money to save quite a bit. Another made the painful decision to dig into her small retirement fund now in order to be sure she lives long enough to retire. Other people all around us don't even have that option, and they lose their homes to medical debt, or they simply die needless deaths. It's not remotely acceptable, and yet we accept it.  This is not a problem that can be fixed by kindness.

But kindness still matters.


  1. A beautifully articulated post....and lots of food for thought. I feel like so many systems are broken right now (and definitely health care is among them), and I know plenty of people who care and want to help create change, but it is an overwhelming prospect. Where to begin?

  2. This story brought tears to my eyes, Wendy. Yes, I agree that kindness matters---AND that we need to make societal changes for people who need them. My family is Christian, and we have always believed in tithing. We give to our church and we give to other organizations that we believe in. We also try to offer kindness and help where we can. But I will still always use my votes to bring health care and other help to those who need it. Because I've realized that there is only so much I can do as an individual, so I need to put my tax dollars to work effectively, even if it means I pay a bit more.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  3. well said. It's shameful that we think so highly of ourselves as a country, but allow our own citizens to suffer needlessly this way because we don't want to get in the way of capitalism. Thanks for saying it.


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