So I’ve had tonsillitis for five months.
It’s on and off, but I can’t quite get it to go away. Granted, I’ll try hard for a couple of days, maybe stay home a night or two, pop a half-ton of ibuprofen, and go about my merry way. I believe the technical term for this method is “toughing it out”. I spent this whole week pretending that I was not coughing up an entire lung or that swallowing had not become an exercise in futility.
Finally, this Wednesday, I had to come to terms with the fact that maybe I should see somebody about my condition.
I sat in my tiny twin Ikea top bunk and I thought long and hard about my options.
I’m a 22-year-old college graduate with a full-time job as a preschool teacher. This shouldn’t be too difficult, right?
I should be able to call up my friendly neighborhood physician and get this infernal throat thoroughly coated with all of the happy, unhealthy antibiotics my faltering lungs could desire. Unfortunately, somewhere between my parents being the lovely, radical, non-salaried type of people and preschool being the single most overlooked profession in the way of luxuries like health insurance, I am somehow below the poverty line in every category that counts.
I’m used to not having money. I grew up as a missionary kid in Mexico and my friends used to live in cardboard boxes a lot and I spent a good half of my childhood in the backseat of a tiny teal Toyota Corolla. But dealing with the actual grown-up implications of being impoverished is a look I haven’t – correction: hadn’t – tried on yet.
With five months of minimal but still almost un-payable medical bills sitting on my parents’ counter, I decided to pay a visit to a neighborhood clinic designed for the insurance-less and anybody just under the poverty line.
Which, it would seem, now includes me.
I drove there in a fluster of theological angst about some purity culture nonsense that had me all hot & bothered and barely noticed the change in scenery as I drove deeper into the ghetto and further away from the cream-colored suburban wasteland I pretend to despise. I parked right in front of some garishly rose-colored house and tumbled out, still angst-tweeting (yeah, that’s a thing) and not paying attention to my surroundings.
Flustered, I unceremoniously stumbled in the doorway of the clinic and just as quickly stumbled back out. I made a beeline across the street and back into my car and there I sat, like a spoiled, sullen child, waiting on God knows what. The proprietor of said garish rose-colored establishment thought it a good moment to bring out all of her questionable correspondence, ripping each piece into unnecessarily small strips and trying as hard to make eye contact with me as I was trying to avoid hers.
And see here’s the thing.
When I walked in, I didn’t expect to find that I was the only member of my ethnicity to darken that doorway. I didn’t expect to feel myself somehow – immediately – superior.
Immediately blushing and humiliated.
Immediately question my existence and wonder “how on earth it had gotten this bad”.
I didn’t expect to ever, EVER be haunted by the (until now) laughable phantom of white privilege I hear so much about and had never stayed up late enough to see.
I didn’t expect to hear an almost-audible voice crying BUT THESE ARE THE PEOPLE I’M SUPPOSED TO HELP.
I DIDN’T EXPECT TO BE THE PROBLEM.
Apparently all of my years overseas and living off of nothing and splitting Snickers bars four ways with all my family members and befriending the poor and the downtrodden didn’t actually prepare me for being downtrodden myself. Apparently all of my years studying race and injustice and always identifying with the “other”; the outcast; the marginalized didn’t mean that much after all.
Because, when it came down to a matter of last resorts, I couldn’t stop seeing myself as some sort of kindly benefactor: the doer, the lover, the giver of gifts, the crusader against injustice and inequality and the relentless do-gooder. In spite of all the self-important pride I’d formerly felt at being more “aware” (whatever that even freaking means) of systemic injustice and poverty and the plight of my fellow man,
I never expected to find myself in any of their shoes.
I didn’t expect to walk in and not be able to go up to the window for all the paralyzing shame.
I didn’t expect to grumble audibly as I filled out paperwork that was all in Spanish.
“They’re lucky I actually speak this,” I said to no one in particular.
I didn’t expect to cower in a corner with my head facing the stucco wall – partially out of extreme misery, and partially in an attempt to preserve a dignity I didn’t know I’d been quietly cultivating all along.
As a walk-in patient, I watched as each of my Hispanic counterparts were seen, tested, medicated, and sent home before me. I was the object of light scrutiny as patients would leave and come back and find me still sitting – immobile, miserable, and thoroughly anti-social. I was afraid that they could read the silent hissy fit I was throwing in my gaze and so I averted it,
pretending with all my might not to be there.
I didn’t expect to find myself at a furious loss for words when a sheepish desk-boy asked if I’d ‘uh, please put a mask on’ after a particularly awful-sounding bout of coughing. I mean, I realize that I sound like I’m dying of plague-worthy consumption, but please. Look at me. Do I look like I’m infecting anybody? BUT YES PLEASE, MR. DESK-BOY, WOULDN’T THAT DEHUMANIZING MASK JUST BE THE CHERRY ON MY ICE CREAM SUNDAE OF A WEDNESDAY. PLEASE CAN I HAVE A SIDE OF ENORMOUS RED-LETTER SIGN READING ‘QUARANTINE’ TO PAIR WITH THAT?
It would seem that “dehumanizing” isn’t an adjective I’ve had much real experience with.
On the table in front of my misery corner was a pile of donated bread loaves. Some of them were from the local Alpine Valley Bakery (the best stuff in town) and tempted as I was, I scoffed at myself as the hours ticked by for even considering taking any of that “charity bread”. I’d think of my empty pantry shelves at home, and then I’d think of DIGNITY. Empty pantry shelves. DIGNITY.
I ended up driving home with two loaves of Alpine bread sitting shotgun that my sweet roommate Emily has taken to calling “the charity bread” every time we want toast, just in case I could possibly forget where they came from.
My dear friend Lisa, ever the dedicated doctor and even more dedicated friend, finally saw me at the end of her breakless day closing in on 6 pm, when the last of her appointed patients had gone home. While she could work anywhere, my friend works long, thankless hours at the clinic because people’s stories and hurt and poverty actually matter to her. Unlike myself, she has found a skill that she can employ to serve them, and serve them she does, week in and week out. She welcomes them into her office and her heart with all of the enthusiasm and deeply kind-hearted commiseration I’ve ever seen a fellow human muster.
And in that same spirit she welcomed me, taking my hand and loaning me all of her attention while I was in her care.
I think this is what they call bedside manner; but to me, in that moment, weary and worn, hers struck me as the very face of Jesus – his voice and manner; his smile and active compassion.
Six hours after my dramatic entry, I walked out of that lobby with a few vials of healing magic and a heavy heart.
And I’m mortified to share these words with you. I’m mortified that somehow I let race and skin color and economic situation so define – and consequently, humiliate me. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how I let it creep in. Perhaps it was always there and it took my humbling Wednesday to reveal it.
I don’t know how to get better. I don’t have any answers. It frightens me though, that perhaps this is how we all are – that, maybe, as followers of Jesus in such a world and such a time as this, that we might be throwing all of our good-hearted, proud charity at the world and alienating them in the process. That maybe they can smell our quiet, well-meaning racism from a mile away and as a result, never darken our doorways. I know I’m no one to point fingers – that much is clear to me.
And I don’t know how to get better.
But maybe – just maybe – we could all use a long Wednesday in a crowded waiting room.