I work as a freelance editor. I make sure that the answers on multiple choice tests for commercial drivers license exams are in the right order, things like that. This doesn’t pay a living wage. For the past several years, half my income has come from money the federal government allocated for dealing with the pandemic, including rental assistance, two half-year stints of unemployment, and a grant for low-income “business owners” (which I am, as self-employed). I still have some of the grant, but it wasn’t going to last the year, and it’ll be gone sooner now that an accident has caused me to lose work.
Three weeks ago, on a weekday afternoon, in the gentrified urban core and former gayborhood of Seattle, I tripped and fell in a crosswalk and hit my head. I sat up but didn’t get up, just sat there looking at my hat on the ground and trying to figure out what had happened. A woman helped me out of the street and then walked away without a word to me, just left me standing there with a robin’s egg rising on my forehead. (I am white in a majority-white city, but also fat and visibly trans and old and poor; those stigmatized identities probably played a part in my not being truly helped.)
People stared at me, but no one spoke to me or touched me or asked if I was all right. I saw my half-good Samaritan staring at me from way over on the other side of the street, and I looked back at her with my hands outspread in a gesture of “what the fucking fuck kind of help was that?”, but then I lost the courage of my convictions. I walked away; it seemed important to get away from the staring people. I walked half a mile to the urgent care center of the HMO where I pay insurance dues and I sat in the waiting room.
Already in the urgent care exam room, I was mixing up first-, second-, and third-person pronouns when I spoke. (Almost three weeks later, I still do it sometimes, and I get other words wrong when I’m tired.)
The doctor told me I would have a CAT scan and then most likely be released to convalesce at home. “You’ll need someone to keep a close eye on you for the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours,” she added.
I told her I had no one who would do that. What about a neighbor, she wanted to know. I thought of the people in my building who never say hello or make eye contact and whose names I don’t know. I said no, I did not have a neighbor who would do that for me. But she kept pressing—wasn’t there someone, surely there was someone—and as soon as I said “I guess,” the matter was dropped.
Four hours later, I was released without having been given any verbal instructions about how to take care of my injured brain. Instead, I was handed five pages of printed matter I couldn’t focus on and didn’t fully understand until several days later.
Among the things I’d missed, in part because they were buried on page three: I shouldn’t text or use a computer for the first forty-eight hours (I did both, and at night, hypnagogic images of indecipherable writing crawled across my walls). And—most important of the things I had been too addled to read—my “caregiver” should call 911 if they couldn’t wake me.
The printed instructions also said it “can take weeks or months” for the brain to heal (and that modal “can” hints that sometimes healing takes longer). But my money will only last only so long; I have no sick pay and no disability insurance. An elastic time for convalescence and a finite time to afford living without working.
Eight days after my fall, still having speech problems and still unable to sit in front of a computer without wanting to throw up, I asked the HMO for a letter so that I could get accommodations in a class I was taking (for an editing certificate, in a hopeless attempt to increase my freelance income). I got a form letter from a doctor who’d never spoken to me, stating I was cleared to “return to light duty.”
Out of self-interest, the HMO projects a society that doesn’t exist, one composed of neighbors who provide free nursing care and unstinting employers who give full pay for doing half the quota. But the world I live in is nothing like that; it’s one where the primary expressions of care are the bystander’s unspoken “sucks to be you” and the hospital pamphlet’s “call us if you feel yourself slipping into a coma.”
At least in theory, there’s mutual aid, and care networks and care circles, but I’m not sure how those can include the friendless or mostly friendless.
(That first night after my fall, I remembered the conversation about having someone check on me, and I called the 24-hour nurse line for advice. The nurse put me on hold; then they came back to say that I should call a friend before I went to bed, and then have that same friend call me in the morning. “And if they don’t answer?” I asked, meaning what if I didn’t answer, but I was getting my pronouns wrong again. Then my friend should call 911, the nurse said.)
Years ago, I realized I would never retire. But I didn’t understand what that meant until now. “I’ll work until I die,” I used to say with cheerful resignation, thinking it meant I would drop dead in harness. Now I know what it means: I will live only as long as I can pay to live.