January 16, 2010
NormanBy Joe Herring
Norman hurried back to the bedroom, coffee in hand. A glimmer of faltering winter sun filtered through the window, reflected off the falling snow outside. The days were short now, though time meant little lately. Recently, not much of anything mattered to Norman.
A glance at the clock reminded him that today, however, was different: He had someplace to be. The house creaked and popped, showing its age as the cold outside pressed hard against it. Norman heard only the sounds of home.
In the late 1960s, Norman was a newlywed beginning a career that would provide well for his family over the coming decades. They lived within their means; his wife Mary, staying home with the kids. Together, they built their American life.
Norman put on his blue suit, the one his wife had picked out for the retirement dinner he refused to attend -- a party held for himself and 83 others -- all sent to pasture by a mass early retirement as the economy forced their employer to downsize. With credit tight and growth sluggish, new federal health care mandates had broken the camel's back.
Norman hadn't worn a tie since Mary's funeral. He remembered the weeks that led up to it with sadness and profound frustration. Finishing his coffee, Norman took a final look in the mirror, almost catching a glimpse of the man he used to be, though he knew that that man had died with Mary. Norman donned his coat and walked out the door.
Two months had passed since Mary's admission to the hospital. The doctor suspected a mini-stroke -- his best guess without the benefit of an MRI. New health care guidelines suggested drug therapy and monitoring before incurring the cost of an MRI scan. Norman was understandably angry, but the point was moot; the next available appointment was more than four months away. The following weeks saw Norman at his wife's side, watching helplessly as recurrent strokes took more and more from her.
Norman entered the park, near the playground. An angry wind whipped around the collar of his coat, slipping icy fingers past the worn fabric. Instinctively, Norman pulled the coat tighter around him, then after a moment, he let it relax, nearly falling open. The snow began to fill the folds of cloth, resting against Norman's shirt, occasionally falling noiselessly inside his coat as he walked.
The swing set loomed on Norman's right, rusted and bent, like the neighborhood it once served. The wind swept restlessly through the leafless trees before rushing past Norman's face, making it difficult to draw his breath. Just ahead, in the center of the park, sat a row of three benches. Norman sat stiffly on the closest one, resisting another urge to draw his coat tighter as he huddled against the storm's chill.
An earnest-looking young woman knocked softly on the door. She informed Norman that she was there to initiate paperwork for Mary's Palliative Care, meaning no further intervention medically or nutritionally. Resources were scarce, and decisions were made regarding the best use of limited funds. Mary, with diminished function and no real social usefulness, would not qualify for further expense, save for making her comfortable as her life drew to a close.
Of course, Norman argued the decision, spending hours on the phone with faceless bureaucrats in a desperate bid to make them save his wife. He was in the office of one such clerk when Mary slipped away. Norman returned, finding an empty room, the sight of it landing like a blow, his eyes welling as he imagined Mary looking for him, wondering why he was not there when she left this life. The nurse said something about personal belongings, but Norman was elsewhere, in that place where people go who have lost the most precious treasure of their heart -- a gray, formless place, defined not by what is there, but rather by what is missing.
The wind stung Norman's cheeks a little less now. The feeling receded from his face, displaced by the cold. The snow fell in large flakes, dancing in the air before him as the winter blast swirled wildly through the park, filtered sunlight occasionally glistening in the crystalline shapes. Norman looked down at his legs and watched as snow built long, little mounds on his thighs. He noticed how the wind had crafted delicate drifts around his feet, nearly ankle-high now...his heart sounded so loud, yet his breath was not as visible in the bitter air as it was even just a few minutes ago. It was still early, not yet seven o'clock on this Sunday morning. Norman knew that the neighborhood would remain quiet for at least another hour. He also knew that he wouldn't need nearly that long.
After Mary's death, Norman was adrift in a life he no longer recognized. They had planned to retire comfortably -- maybe even traveling now and then, should the mood strike them -- but making that move early had left a substantial hole in their budget. Money earmarked for retirement went into the monthly budget in an attempt to offset the loss of Norman's income. Congress, desperately seeking money to fund the new health care commitments, raided retirement accounts with a bevy of new taxes and fees.
City government thirsted for revenue as well. Having absorbed a multitude of unfunded mandates from the federal and state legislation, they were forced to raise property taxes enormously to bridge the gap. With Mary ill and Social Security as his only income, Norman reluctantly began to withdraw from the principal in his retirement account simply to keep the lights on and the wolves from the door.
Mary's illness left Norman in bad shape. He possessed assets that the government felt should be "re-purposed" to pay down Mary's bills. Although he was essentially unemployed, he was considered "retired" and therefore responsible for spending down the bulk of his net worth before the government insurance would take over -- another unintended consequence of Medicare restructuring. The sheriff delivered the "notice of sale for unpaid property taxes" on their home a mere two days after Norman discovered his retirement account forfeited in lieu of payment for Mary's care. Here was the entire sum of a life's work taken to feed a gorging government. Such a bitterly high price to pay for the false security offered by the state.
Norman felt the snowflakes sticking to his eyelashes, refusing to fall as he tried to blink them away. His heartbeat was fainter now, or perhaps he was just unable to hear it as well as before. He spent a few minutes thinking about which one it was before deciding it didn't matter anyway. His blood was slowing, as if no longer concerned with making its way back to his heart. Through the icy lace over his frozen eyes, Norman saw his neighborhood again as it once was, a place where a man could make his own way in the world and enjoy the fruits of his working years. He felt immeasurable pain over all he had lost...for what we all had lost...before he silently, mercifully rejoined his beloved Mary.
The author writes from Omaha, NE and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.