What America Means to Me
Kidz Bop 36 had exhausted its entertainment value an hour earlier. At roughly the same moment that the flurries intensified into near whiteout snow family-friendly renditions of David Allen Coe songs ceased to be funny. With furnace-hot air recycled from the engine blasting me in the face I tuned out the eight year old girls singing about making Linda Lovelace gag and started treating the hazardous US 30 like a flak-hammered bombing approach over a V2 launch site in occupied France. With luck, skill, and the right mixture of caffeine and panache I might just guide my B-25 Camry through the icy puffs of ack-ack and avoid drifting to sleep and plowing through something tragic like a puppy orphanage or an academy for dolphins to teach deaf ghetto kids how to love.
It was my third trip from Chicago to Ohio since November 20th. Each time I made the journey my father drifted steadily closer to death.
“What does America mean to you?”
It was the sort of question only asked when absolutely no one cared what the answer was. All the same, my eighth grade teacher expected a modest essay in reply. The essay judged best would receive a prize; the flag flown over the US Capitol building on the day of our visit to Washington D.C. I have never been particularly interested in what I judge to be the showy and misplaced patriotism most people indulge in. However, I was well aware that my teacher was not interested in introspection or a colorful analysis of America’s good and bad. She wanted a gawping kid filled with the sights and sounds of our glorious capital city (and it really is glorious) to put the awe in America’s pure awesomeness.
I don’t remember the exact content of my essay, but it was carefully constructed from bricks of raw cynicism to resemble a house of naïve patriotic fervor. With twelfth grade spelling and grammar I put together an essay on America at roughly the same intellectual level as a third grade book report on “Indian in the Cupboard”. America means freedom of speech, religion, and equality among men. America means opportunity unimpeded by government. America is the sum total of every individual citizen who is responsible for determining our great nation’s destiny. The sort of horseshit that is every bit as inane as the fascist America manifesto of some hemp-advocate college communist.
As my reward I received the immense US flag folded carefully into a box with a certificate signed by some first term nobody Ohio congressional representative. I removed the flag from the box exactly once. I unfolded it and spread it out on the floor, keenly aware of the conniptions this blasphemy would cause in my flag-crazy Boy Scout troop leaders. For people whose eyes bug out when any part of a flag dips within three inches of ground level having such a big flag lain carelessly on the carpet would have probably inspired them to spontaneously combust. Hanging it was not really practical. Maybe if I owned a factory or a Bob Evans somewhere with a giant flagpole. Nevertheless, it was impressive. It was huge, bright, soft, and quite flaggy.
Having seen it once I folded it back up, as best as I could, and returned to its box and placed it in my closet. There it remained, gradually moving to the back as though it were a part of my storage space’s geologic record. That was what America meant to me.
Two years of deteriorating health had left my once plump father almost skeletal. Food was making him sick, either from his mouth or in persistent disagreement with his bowel. During this time doctors had prescribed an array of tests and medications until he was floating on a turbulent sea of pharmacological side effects. The situation had gotten so bad that my parents sought the help of the best at the Cleveland Clinic. With Cleveland in the name you’re probably picturing Old Hambone Countrydoc’s Hollerin’ Fun Time Hospital with a doctor in bib overalls blowing away at the top of a clay moonshine jug and sticking leeches to goats. All the same it’s nearly the equal of the Mayo Clinic and each doctor there has more PHDs than I have parking tickets. I’ve had a lot of parking tickets in Chicago. They hand them out like the bureaucratic version of Mardi Gras beads. If you’re lucky they’ll bake a parking boot into a cake.
The specialist at the Cleveland Clinic sorted through my father’s Byzantine medical history of tests and treatments. Then he ordered some tests of his own and with impressive speed diagnosed my father’s illness. To put is simply his colon was useless and the doctor suggested a colectomy. That meant removing my father’s malfunctioning shit pipe and replacing it with a section of intestine. Finally, my family gasped with relief, someone who knew what the problem was and how to fix it. One problem; this doctor was not covered by my parent’s health insurance. He was not an “approved provider” and a request to consider him as one was immediately declined. He was off limits.
The buck was passed unhappily to a new doctor. My parents explored what they could of this “approved provider” and his past. What they discovered was admittedly little, but it was at least nothing bad. This new doctor was confident and assured my father that risk was absolutely minimal. He explained that even though it was fairly major surgery, the in-hospital recovery would be a swift five to seven days.
Hoping to finally rid himself of the health problems dogging him my father resolved to go under the knife.
“I have to go to bed,” Michelle sighed and rose wearily from the couch.
I sat transfixed in front of the television, knowing deep in my guts that Ohio was going to break for George W. Bush. Hours later, when even CNN was calling it and the sun was beginning to creep into the sky, I did something I had not done in years. I went looking for a drink out of despair. Drowning your sorrows is usually not a very good idea. Unfortunately, in the depths of those sorrows it tends to seem like the only good idea.
I looked forlornly past the celebratory bottle of champagne, consoling myself that it could be saved for New Years, and selected a bottle of Barbados dark rum from my disturbingly overstocked bar. I dropped ice into the largest glass I could find and poured out about eight fingers of the sweet liquid. I sat back down and grimaced as the cold liquid burned hot down my throat and into my belly. I stared through the TV. Past it.
With apocalyptic visions of a second Bush Whitehouse flickering through my mind I began to marinate. Picturing an America in tatters at the claws of Bush and his cronies came probably a little too easily. Like the Democratic Underground version of Nostradamus I could clearly scry America’s great cities ruined by environmental decay, poverty, terrorists, and the blue jean storm troops of Ashcroft’s FBI. I had way too much emotionally invested in the outcome of the election, but even then I knew that most of what I imagined was nothing but a dark fantasy or, at worst, a heavy exaggeration. Being aware of this and accepting the outcome of the election were two distinctly different things.
“The majority of voters agreed with the RNC line that it is not wise to change horses mid-stream,” flapped one of the commentary Muppets on CNN.
I wanted to hate the Muppet. I wanted to hate every American that agreed with that sort of thinking. Instead the molasses and distilled spirits must have hit me fully at just the right moment. By Odin, I was caring too much about America. I had forgotten my roots, forgotten my epiphany as I unfolded that flag and realized what America meant to me. Just another flag. Just another geographical location ruled by crooks. Maybe a bit luckier than most because the geography is so nice and the crooks have to follow a few better rules. Bush, the guy who I had grown to hate, would get four more years in which he could no longer dodge responsibility or look ahead to successes just beyond the horizon. He would hurt America but it was okay to let him stay on the horse, because hurting America just isn’t the same thing as hurting me and mine.
The same rider was in the saddle for the fifth surgical procedure my father had to endure. Through peritonitis, perforated bowel, multiple invasive drainage procedures, a low blood pressure incident that had nearly claimed his life my father had managed to put on a weak smile. This one was different. My father emerged from this latest surgery a complete wreck.
Reddened eyes lolled sightlessly from beneath perpetually half opened lids, his eyelids slicked down with sterile grease to protect him from permanent blindness. Five IV bottles drained their contents down a tangle of tubes and into a pipe works of PICC taps in his arm and hands. A thick tube disappeared into his nostril and periodically slow pulses of dark green fluid would emerge, snaking up the plastic hose to drain into a catch bag. His face was beneath an oxygen mask, transparent but stained badly with a frothy orange mixture of blood and medicine emerging from his other nostril. The fluid collected in the corner of the mask and drained out irregularly onto his gown to create a growing flesh-colored stain. His eyebrows lifted expressively from time to time as if in some better dream he was carrying on a conversation. My hand rested on his concealed beneath a starchy white Veteran’s Association sheet. I felt every ragged breath, tremor, or spasm of muscles translated through his entire emaciated body.
When I returned home from the hospital that day I embraced my mother and unexpectedly but briefly cried. Neither of us would say that he was dying, but it was written in his flesh and blood in the hospital bed.
“Never again.” My mother swore. “That doctor is not touching him again.”
I agreed. The rider could not remain in the saddle. The real hilarious irony for my mother was that virtually every bill to their health insurance provider was coming back with "payment declined" and no reason given.
A few days and a few visits later I entered the hospital room and my father started awake, his eyes swinging to mine and focusing on me with sudden recognition. He struggled against the restraints they kept him in and his bloodshot eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t try to talk.” I said and took his hand.
“I can’t.” He mouthed agonizingly around the hose in his throat.
He passed into unconsciousness a few seconds later. I sat by his side in the ICU as long as they would allow, speaking quietly to him about nothing in particular. Someone, possibly a nurse, had almost comically turned on his television with the volume off. Had he been lucid he still would not have been able to make anything out without his glasses on. I noticed for the first time that the TV was showing live coverage of George W. Bush’s inauguration. I chuckled and turned the TV off. As easy as that America was forgotten. I turned back to my father and longed suddenly for eight fingers of Barbados rum.
I'll be back to the regular old updates later in the week.