This was the day I knew I’d never be joy-filled again, that every happiness I might manage to experience was to be marred with unfathomable loss.
This was the day 13 years ago that we learned the cancer was back and we knew there would be no cure.
This was the day we learned my son would die. And every year, I am forced to relive those last weeks of his life, and finally, his death.
I can still hear the echo of his voice. “Mom, the cancer’s back. If we’re lucky, I might have a year.”
We weren’t lucky. He would have just six weeks.
I don’t remember much of what was said after that, other than, “I’ll be there this afternoon.”
I was on my way into work and my husband was a few minutes behind me. I decided to go into the office and not say anything to anyone until he arrived, and then it would be OK if I fell apart.
All of this was because no doctor would see him because he didn’t have insurance. And he didn’t have insurance because a birth defect was a pre-existing condition. And doctors were allowed to turn him away, even though they knew to do so was a death sentence. And the only ones who suffered were Mike and all the people who loved him.
When my husband got to the office, I went to his desk and tried to tell him quietly, but I fell apart and sobbed uncontrollably.
How was I going to go on without my son?
That might have been the moment I decided my heart would stop when his did. Of course it would. There was no way I could outlive him.
“I have to go,” I said. “I’m heading out there now.”
My husband decided it would be better if both of us went, so he went in to the editor’s office to tell him. The editor never came out to face me. I remember how upset I was that this man I had worked with for several years couldn’t even bother to come out of his office to say he was sorry about my son.
I remember my colleagues hugging me and offering whatever words of condolence they could muster, and most of them only finding, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” Surprisingly, those words from people who cared about me were enough to help me pull myself together.
It’s a nearly four-hour drive from where I live to where Mike lived, just outside of Raleigh. I don’t remember a moment of that drive. I hadn’t seen him in several weeks and I was shocked to see how much weight he had lost and how close to death he looked.
This was really happening. My precious son was dying because no one had cared enough to help him before it was too late to save his life, because our system was — and is — so damn broken.
We spent a couple hours with him, his wife (they’d had to split up so he could get Medicaid and have any chance at all of surviving, but they never stopped loving each other) and his best friend, and then got a motel room.
I had wandered across the street to an electronics store because I couldn’t just sit in the room, and as I browsed, I saw a photo printer and thought to myself that Mike could help me set it up if I bought it.
Then I remembered that Mike would be gone soon, and I was overcome once again. I ran back to the motel room and fell apart again.
My phone rang a few minutes later and it was a colleague asking for numbers of people to call who could comment on the death of a homeless man named Tommy McMahan. I was the reporter covering social services issues, so I would have written Tommy’s obituary. I had the contacts for a story like this one.
Tommy had gone to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing, and it was frigid outside. They diagnosed him with pneumonia and discharged him with medication, but he begged not to be turned out into the sub-freezing night. So, someone called police so he could at least be in a warm jail cell.
That’s where he died in the early hours of the morning. Alone.
I knew my son would have people who loved him by his side when his time came. Tommy had died homeless and alone. It was unbearable to think about it.
This has stayed with me almost as vividly as the news that my son was dying. That we as a society can allow people to die from lack of access to even the most basic necessities is so deeply immoral that I have no words to express it. Even now, 13 years later, I cry over the loss of both of these precious human souls — and the hundreds of thousands — more accurately, millions, when you consider all the ways poverty causes premature deaths — of precious human souls who would follow because we love money more than life itself.
We still haven’t fixed any of this. And don’t tell me the Affordable Care Act fixed it. Insurance companies have subverted the law to their own advantage and more people were dying from lack of access to care before the pandemic hit than were dying in 2008 (45,000 a year then, 68,000 before the pandemic hit). The ACA helped some people. But the average deductible now — the amount people have to spend out-of-pocket before seeing any benefits — is more than $3,000 in a time when nearly half of Americans say they have to borrow money to pay a surprise bill of $400. The ACA did not fix this.
Every year on this day, I weep from the overwhelming grief of watching my son die from medical neglect, but also for Tommy, and for all the people who are still unhoused.
I fume as I see people praising someone for building coffin-sized boxes for fellow human beings to “live” in, but who then stand firmly against paying people a living wage in exchange for a week’s work. I live in a perpetual state of grief and outrage, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t, too.
I think of today as Tommy McMahan Day, a day to remember this man I never met, but who touched my heart so deeply.
I continue the anti-poverty work in memory of my precious son and in memory of Tommy. May they, and the millions who have died prematurely from poverty in the 13 years since their hearts stopped, rest in peace.
There’s no comment that could express the grief I feel for you, for Mike and Tommy, and for all of us who must continue to live with the realities of the immoral system that we call ‘health care’ in this country. I’m holding you close today. Leslie, and sending you a healing hug.