Thursday, September 30, 2010

Of Hurricanes and Holocaust Literature and Health Care

Today South Florida breathes a sigh of relief as Nicole swirls northward and leaves us relatively unscathed. We got rain, but it was a steady rain, for the most part, which is easier for our landscape to handle than the torrential bursts that these systems often deliver. We've had more flooding during some of our fiercer thunderstorms. We had no wind, which was a mercy. Sometimes, with a constant rain over a multi-hour period, it doesn't take much wind speed at all to topple the trees.

I fear our neighbors in North Carolina will not be so lucky. They've had days of rain preceding this system, and the system is picking up more rain to deliver, since it stayed mainly over water (good for us, bad for the Bahamas and points north).

Today is the birthday of Elie Wiesel, perhaps one of our most well-known Holocaust writers. I suspect that we've gotten to the critical mass point, where more students have read Wiesel's Night than Anne Frank's diary, which during my childhood was often the first piece of Holocaust literature that children read.

When I read Holocaust literature, I feel similar feelings as I do when I watch a really big hurricane miss my shores as it wipes out someone else's coast. I feel this sense of the relief, the near miss. I feel this guilt, since other people are suffering when I am not. I feel this sense of dread, with my knowledge of the capriciousness of luck and fate. Human history teaches us that humans will butcher each other if given half a chance to get away with it. The history of natural disasters teaches us that we're at the mercy of planetary laws of chemistry, physics, and biology, laws that most of us scarcely understand.

Last night, as the rain poured on, I finished Lionel Shriver's latest book So Much for That. It explores disease and health care and all the ways our physical bodies can fail us. At times, I almost felt sick reading it (there's a character who undergoes a botched penis enlargement surgery--blhhhhhh). And there's the fear that made it almost impossible to keep reading at times. I'm lucky enough to work in a job that has health insurance, and I assume it's good health insurance. Most of us who have health insurance assume we have a good policy--until we get sick and discover the limits of it.

I tell myself that I'm healthy and therefore have nothing to worry about. This book reminds us that even healthy people can have dreadful things happen to them--or to the ones who they love. And even if we live long, healthy lives, most of us will age, and aging in industrialized nations brings with it some challenges (how's that for understatement?). The book has an older character who suffers the indignities of a nursing home. One of the main characters deals with the intricacies of elder care while caring for his wife who has a rare form of cancer. Yikes!

Why do we read these books that remind us of all the ways that life can go wrong? Is it the same impulse that takes some of us to see scary movies or ride on roller coasters? Do we like to be scared while at the same time remaining safe?

I read these books to help me maintain my sense of gratitude. So far, my life has been fairly good, even during those years, like 2005, when my family has been dealt blow after blow (2005 was the year of spousal job stress and loss, mother-in-law sickness and death, and several shattering hurricanes). These books give me a point of comparison, a reminder that life could be worse. It's probably the same reason I'm drawn to apocalyptic plot lines. No matter how badly our government goes astray, at least I'm not living in a post-nuclear blast (or post-climate meltdown or . . . insert your favorite disaster here) world.

I used to think I read those books to prepare myself, but now I know that you really can't prepare yourself. We can store up food and water, but storms of all sorts will find weaknesses that we didn't realize we had. If we're lucky, we survive to become stronger. If we're not so lucky, we should hope that we have an Elie Wiesel there who will immortalize the struggle.

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