I had to speak up when face to face with openly expressed bigotry in the lobby of a Best Western waiting for the shuttle bus to take me to M. D Anderson. Who could have imagined my cancer treatment would put me in such a position but it did. On August 20th, 2008 I was diagnosed with rectal cancer, stage 2b. An adenoma polyp had grown at the distal end of the rectum and growing up against my vagina so the treatment plan was to shrink and hopefully kill the tumor and then have surgery. 2008, when the entire country was caught up in public battle: the presidential elections.
And with good reason, for the first time a man of color was in serious contention to be the next president. But the only country I could focus on was the landscape outside the car windows as I traveled between Austin and Houston for 28 days of radiation treatment. In my mind, that autumn is noisy with learning terms for treatment and care combined with the ugly side of presidential politics. Every waiting room in M. D. Anderson had a television, and each television was talking politics. Here were patients and medical professionals, care-givers and administrators moving through the world of cancer treatment and in the background political discussions on how to deal with health care. Each candidate, national or local opining and posturing. Some of us, after asking the group, changed the channel to house-fixing or a food channel. Some just turned off the televisions.
The last five days of my radiation treatment I spent alone at this hotel in the Medical Center. It seemed like a good choice: a shuttle to take me from the hotel to the hospital for free and each room had a refrigerator and microwave. Since I could only eat mac & cheese, apple sauce, mashed potatoes by this point, zapping food was easy. Only in retrospect I can say how I was very ill for at the time: chronically dehydrated due to crippling diarrhea; taking some sort of meds every two hours. At night, to help sleep, I was on good, old-fashioned tincture of opium. The night of the presidential elections I watched the results in a drugged state from my hotel bed. History was in the making while I was trying to make cancer history for my body.
Two days later, as the few days before, there is a clump of people in the lobby waiting for the shuttle. A hefty sized man rattles the daily paper, shuffles sections and tosses the paper in a huff on the coffee table beside me. He says to his wife gesturing with his chin: “Look at that.” I can’t help but hear this exchange for they were not talking quietly to each other. The woman picked up the paper, scanned the front pages then tossed it on the table disgusted. “Well,” she began, “I guess that’s what we’ve gotta expect now: blacks on the front page, blacks on the metro.”
I was stunned. I’d never heard people talk in such a way openly and in public. I have heard bigotry and racism but not like this. Something was different, I felt the wrongness. All during the campaign I thought of my parents how they didn’t teach us to feel we were better than anyone else because of religion, gender or color of skin. In second grade I came home gushing about my new friend Cort.
I thought Cort was cool. It was 1967; he wore oxford shirts with stripes. He was tall. He had the best tan I’d ever seen and I told all this to my mother. That Sunday I saw Cort with his family at mass in the small church we attended. Of course I pointed him out and my mother exclaimed: “Oh look, his mother looks just like Diane Carroll.” That’s it. It was around the same time I’d hear a new word on television or on the bus and then use it at the dinner table. One night I used the word ‘negro’ in reference to something on the news and my mother corrected me and said, “Black. They want be called black and you will do so.” She also had corrected me to say ‘Jewish’ and ‘Scot’.
I didn’t think much of these lessons as child. They were just part of my childhood memories along with go-go boots one Christmas and singing in choir. Many years later my son was accepted to an all-boy’s middle school. It was a new school run in part by the Jesuits and housed in picturesque Roxbury, a part of Boston, MA. It was an academically demanding school where the teachers, for the most part, were young college graduates doing a year of service. The parents chipped in to help keep the school clean and orderly, we had community suppers on Fridays. Of the fifty students, there were four white boys, one in each grade. I called it “polka-dot-school” for the variety faces was vast which created a stronger bond between us all.
One evening I was driving by the school after my son had finished there. I was (she admits openly) on the cell phone with my sister, Mary. She was talking about her neighbors in Jacksonville putting up a fence so her kids and the ‘other’ kids couldn’t play on their land.
Mary was incensed and we talked awhile about not caring about another’s skin color or religion or such. I called my mother soon after and told her how Mary and I had talked. I reminded her of meeting Cort. I remember a pause and my mother saying: “Your father and I figured there was enough hurt in the world and we didn’t want to add to it.”
My father had been Irish-Catholic in the times when signs in shop windows read: “No Irish Need Apply”. My mother’s father was a very successful business man and was the first Catholic to buy in the wealthy Protestant neighborhood in their small city. This was during the Great Depression, my parents came from different classes but surrounded by the same cultural bigotry. As a little girl, my mother’s playmates were the Jewish children for the Protestant mothers would let their children play with Catholics.
I feel these lessons standing there in that lobby. My body hurt inside, lungs burning from small exertions and cold all the time. I hear my mother. I see Cort’s brown face and wonder what it feels like to see a tall, thin black man win the election. I can hear my father tell stories of what it was like for him when JFK won, how it was hard and yet freeing. I look at the couple hard.
“What do you expect? Obama was elected two days ago. What do you think – African-Americans are only allowed in the newspaper when they’re killing each other?” The words came out of me so fast I stunned myself. The lobby went quiet for everyone heard. Some looked at me as if I’d just messed on the floor. The others pulled out cell phones or examined their shoes. The couple, well the man when red, the woman walked out the door. I smelled, sensed fear in all of them, the fear of change being forced on a society that wasn’t quite ready.
When I arrived at the Radiation Center on time I was shaking, almost crying. I spurted out my story to the receptionist, a kind and efficient woman who’d watch me shrink from treatment over the month. “Never mind Mizz Irwin.” She said patting my hand, looking me firmly in the eyes, “You are not like those kinds of people and all we can do is ask God to change their hearts. You have enough on your plate without adding this kind of worry. Go along now. You’re a good woman, God knows that and so do I.”