With Intersection, her monthly column, celebrated poet Chelsea Dingman enters a place of questions left hanging—of lyric understanding, of addiction, and womanhood, and politics, and death.
Or Simply, Slaughter
Fraught is the word that sirens through me lately. The world. The hours we build inside hours.
All of the new crises are the same as old crises: fraught with danger: against personhood, against safety, against life as a basic human right or expectation for all.
What does it mean to want to live free? Is it free of debt? Or discrimination? Or fear?
I’ve lived all over the US, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.
A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet that stated: the real American dream is health insurance and to not get shot.
My oldest son was 6 weeks old when I moved to a suburb of Stockholm. While there, he turned over for the first time—from the change table onto the floor when I turned my back for a second. My husband was away. I called my mother in Canada and she told me that he would be fine as long as he was crying.
But he was so quiet.
I immediately threw him in the car and started driving. I pulled over and asked people on the street where the hospital was. They switched to English to help me because I couldn’t speak Swedish fluently. I arrived at the emergency room (which had only three or four people in it, unlike any ER I’d ever been to) and the admitting nurse asked me why I was in Sweden, to which I answered: for my husband’s job. She asked my name and address, the baby’s full name.
Two minutes later, she had printed off two health care cards for us and handed them to me through a window. I just looked at her. I wasn’t sure what I was holding. She replied: you live here. Your husband works here. You are entitled to health care.
It was that easy.
I had gone from: (a) being illegal in the US until my husband and I eloped after I was put on no-fly lists from all Canadian airports, ineligible for health care or employment in the US, to (b) paying more than my mortgage for health care each month in Florida, to (c) being suddenly entitled to health care in Sweden after three weeks of being there. It felt like a small miracle. The doctor in the ER patted my shoulder and told me to take care of myself. That my son was fine and I was more scared than he was.
In Canada where I live now, my American children are entitled to free health insurance because I was born here, but they would not be if I were not. We moved back partly because our health insurance in Florida would have bankrupt us at a certain point. In this year of COVID-19, I would likely not have been able to continue teaching or maintain a teaching contract and my husband could not have continued coaching youth hockey with the rinks closed. But we would have required our health insurance, due to the virus and my son’s asthma, and my husband’s several pre-existing conditions from being a former professional athlete. Every time I think of what we left behind, especially now, I am struck by terror. I know we are lucky. Most people don’t have the option to flee for a place with free health insurance. Many of my friends who are still there are fraught with this living.
I worked at the University of Alberta Hospital for seven years in my twenties. There are people who take advantage of the system in Canada, including people who work within it. But everyone is entitled to access. Do the people who are saved not outweigh this unfortunate downside?
My mother had cancer when I was in sixth grade. She had two lobes of one lung removed. She spent time in the hospital. We owed nothing afterward. She was a single mother, making slightly above the poverty line. I’m not sure if she would’ve lived without this access.
My mother in-law had cancer several times. She died in the hospital when the tumours on her spine grew until she couldn’t care for herself. My husband and his sister owed nothing after the months in the hospital. After all of the drugs and nursing care and treatments.
When I was teaching first-year writing classes at USF in Florida, we had someone visit the classroom to tell first-year college students that HIV was still killing people. Several students cited Magic Johnson’s case. How the disease is undetectable in his body now. How this was a problem that was supposedly solved.
COVID-19 is terrifying. It can mutate. There is no vaccine on the horizon. People refuse to wear masks and won’t have the state govern their bodies. My son is vulnerable to lung infections. He spent half of last winter with something akin to pneumonia, but they could never tell me what it was. Every time I see people flaunting their rights to be out in groups and not wear a mask, I want to never leave the house again. I wish freedom meant the same thing to everyone. Someone is free to spread disease, but others are not free to ask that they wear a mask. What is it called when one’s freedom infringes on another’s right to life? Murder? Manslaughter? Or simply, slaughter?
I don’t want to not take these hours seriously. I don’t want all of this work quarantining to be in vain. I don’t want to wake up to an empty world. I don’t want anyone to live in fear. I don’t think any system is perfect, or even close. But some are more humane.
Since I moved back to Canada, I had a daughter. I owed nothing for her birth, as opposed to the $36,000 bill I was sent after my son was born in Florida (more expensive because I requited two epidurals). I owe nothing to anyone but her. Don’t the people with power owe that to all of us?
Will we owe or own?—a life, not fraught with this living.