When does “just getting by” become “can’t take it any longer”? In history, we’ve seen it countless times. Disaster pushes those living on the edge right over the cliff, and they either drown or they scramble back onto land, determined to fight.
In 1927, the waters of the Mississippi rose, flooding ten states. Blacks were forced at gunpoint to build levees. Those who resisted were shot. When the floods came anyway, sweeping workers to their death, the press reported jubilantly that no whites had died. During the flooding, Black sharecroppers were locked in barns and warehouses by their “masters”---the white folks who owned their farms. The bosses were afraid that their tenants might run away, and then who would work their land once the flood waters receded? Herbert Hoover persuaded prominent African-Americans to suppress the story. In exchange, he would give them expanded rights. He broke his promise, and American Blacks broke with the Republican Party, never to return, just as thousands of African-Americans left the south, never to return. They had seen too much violence, too much starvation, too much inhumanity. They were pushed over the edge, and those who survived said “Enough!”
In 2005, the levees broke again, and the world watched, aghast, as the poor inhabitants of New Orleans clung to rooftops. Those who tried to flee the flooded city were shot. The right wing mocked. Rescue efforts were delayed. Aid was withheld, just like in 1927, but with one important change. This time, it was all captured on film. Middle America cried. It was too much. Once again, we had been pushed over the edge. Bush’s approval rating plummeted, never to rise again.
In 1964, Gerri Santoro checked into a motel room. She was pregnant by her boyfriend. Her abusive husband was on the way to see her, and if he discovered that she was with child, he might kill her. Abortion was illegal, so she improvised---and died.
The utter tragedy of her needless death during these years of unsafe and illegal abortion in the United States is further compounded when we imagine her fear and desperation as her bleeding increased and she tried to stem the flow of the heavy, warm blood with towels. She must have been in abject agony, terrified, knowing that she was going to die, and that she would never see her beloved daughters again. These were Gerri's last hours: alone, suffering, writhing in pain in an impersonal motel room, and perhaps, in her delirium, realizing that the two men she had tried to love in her life had used her and completely failed her.
For a generation of women, Gerri’s death---and the grisly photograph of her corpse lying in a pool of blood--- was the moment they were pushed over the cliff. What kind of society offered a young mother two choices: death at the hands of her husband or death by wire coat hanger? Those who had survived their abortions published their names in Ms. magazine, turning a mark of shame to an act of defiance. The Supreme Court changed the law, but women changed society.
Now, in 2011, a middle aged woman grimaces. She is the sole caregiver for her mother, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and her sister, also crippled by the disease. The woman is the lucky one of the family. Her joints are only red, swollen and painful. She can still use them to lift her mother from bed to chair and to bathe and dress and feed her. The federal government says she is not (yet) disabled enough to qualify for Social Security. Once her relentless disease becomes bad enough that she is also confined to a wheelchair, then Washington will start the two year countdown so that she can get on Medicare. There are medications out there that would stop the progression of her arthritis and save her joints. But she is not “important” enough to get such treatment. All she does each day is take care of her mother and sister. That isn’t considered work by those in power. That is considered sloth. She should be at work picking fruit with her hands that can not grasp a pen without pain or mopping floors down on her swollen knees. A labor of love in this day and age is labor lost. Labor only counts if it makes someone (else) a profit.
Right now, the middle aged woman is angry, but she does not say much. She is getting by---just barely. Will she be the one to say “Enough!” and rally her brothers and sisters who suffer from disease and poverty? Or will she be the sacrifice? I hope that she’ll survive. I hope that she’ll climb back up the cliff. I’ll do everything in my power to help her get there. I don’t want to see another Mississippi Flood or another Katrina or another mother dead in a pool of her own blood. Maybe if we all reach out, it really will be enough, and we can skip the sacrifice and go straight from the problem to the solution.