My mother calls every night around seven. She wants to hear about my students, even the most mundane details. This evening she is unusually subdued. Her responses to the backstabbing and administration incompetence at my school are muted. Finally, towards the end of the conversation, I take the hint and start probing, but it’s like digging for a deeply embedded splinter with a spatula to get anything out of her. Then the dam breaks. They wouldn’t fill her prescriptions at the pharmacy she’s been going to for twenty years. It was the most embarrassing moment of her life.
“Like I was one of those hip hop drug addicts, Rita.”
My mother turned sixty-five two months ago. I spent three weekends explaining the Bush fiasco of Medicare options A, B, and D as well as picking out a supplemental, Medigap plan. All the paperwork was completed and sent in. How could this be happening? I sense that my mother’s already specious trust in me, never her favorite child, is evaporating. I had two brothers who were the brains of the family. Both were killed in combat; one in the first Gulf War, the other in Afghanistan , before they reached thirty. Even though I have a Master’s in History, I’m still the unproven runt of the litter in my mother’s eyes. Perhaps if I had married and popped a few kids, it would raise her estimation of me.
When I get off the phone with her, I call Jim McNabb, who runs the local drug store my mother goes to. It is a dying business, as two chain pharmacies have moved into town. I used to babysit Jim’s daughter who now helps him in the store, which is reduced to selling newspapers, being a UPS drop-off point and discounting Russell Stover chocolates to offset the loss of prescriptions.
Jim apologizes. He says my mother became upset to the point of tears when he told her she wasn’t in the system. She takes a blood pressure pill and another one for cholesterol. He let her have a few of each, but the Medicare mix- up needs to be corrected.
This is not the time for me to try and bang heads with the government bureaucracy. The new Medicare plan is a nightmare, conceived by insurance lobbyists and senators in bed with them. Any time you have to have a “gap” plan to supplement anything you’re in trouble. It’s like buying a car that will only go twenty-five miles per hour. Anyone who wants to go faster needs to buy an extra motor. Also, I am so pissed off about the war in Iraq and government corruption that I’m thinking of moving to the Netherlands . The United States has gone to hell.
When I get to school the next morning, I start calling Social Security. There are the infamous menu options, none of which seem to apply. I finally get though to a person who tells me I’m in the wrong department but will transfer me to the correct one. After a few minutes of Bert Bacharach the line goes dead, and I begin my menu options routine once again. During my late morning prep period my right ear goes numb, and I’ve lost circulation in both arms from holding the cell phone. I’m about to give up when I finally hit the right department. The heavily accented voice of Marek Majoubian asks if he may be of service. I inquire where he is located. There is some hesitation, but he finally admits to Moradabad , west of Delhi . Christ, the United States of America has outsourced its Social Security Customer Service to India!
After I calm down, I explain the problem. Marek says this happens frequently. He will take care of it. In three days my mother should be in the system. I call Jim McNabb and ask him check his computers every so often and let me know when my mother can come back in. I call Mom, bring her up to speed on my recent phone experiences and try to allay her fears. By the time I hang up I’m starved, but it’s four in the afternoon, and the school vending machines have been shut off for the day.
Three days later I call Jim. Mom still doesn’t show up in the computer. Eleven more boys have been killed in Iraq ; fourteen in Afghanistan . A congressman from Ohio is indicted on bribery charges but goes on CNN to protest his innocence, a wife and two toddlers by his side. I call Marek. He’s not there today. Someone named John who is in Singapore pledges to set things right. I go online to check the guest worker program for teachers in the Netherlands . As a backup I log onto a Canadian government website.
I wait two more mornings before calling Jim again. My mother has now taken to coming into his store every few hours and sitting down in one of the tiny chairs by the pharmacy counter. Complete strangers take pity and help her out with the “take your own” blood pressure machine. Once they are trapped, she relates her tale of woe to them. To get rid of her, Jim’s made a few calls, and he thinks she’ll soon be in the system.
After supper that evening the phone rings. She got her medicines. Jim dropped by late in the afternoon to give them to her personally. If it weren’t for him she might be dead. There’s no accusation in her voice, but the message is loud and clear. She’s had years of practice delivering insinuations in a soothing, motherly tone. I am thanked for helping, but Jim is her hero, her new protector. By the way could I drop off the thirty dollars we owe him for the co-payment?
We hang up politely, wishing each other pleasant dreams. CNN is on, but I muted the set so I could talk to her. The crawl at the bottom of the screen says that eight died in a firefight just north of Baghdad and a helicopter went down in bad weather near Kabul . On screen is a photo op of Bush and Tony Blair embracing in the Rose Garden. As I turn up the sound, “W” calls for patience and resolve during the weeks and months ahead. The station cuts back to Wolf Blitzer, yellow pad at the ready, who is about to interview John McCain and some general. I click the set off and bask in the semi-darkness. I will hang on until the end of the school year. With the help of some Pimsleur tapes, I can get a head start on speaking Dutch. That will be my patience and resolve.