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Dad Next Door: Worlds Apart

A little encouragement from across the fence


I first met Bobby when he was 9 years old. He used to come in with his mom for her prenatal visits. I remember him as a goofy, funny, slightly hyperactive kid who talked nonstop — usually about basketball. But as soon as I got the Doppler out to listen to his baby sister’s heartbeat, he would drag a chair over to the exam table so he could get closer. He’d lay his head on his mom’s belly with this huge, toothy grin, and for a few seconds he’d actually stop talking.

Bobby is 19 now. He’s enrolled at the local community college, which he pays for by living at home and flipping burgers at the local Burger King. He still loves basketball, but he’s much more focused on getting his business degree.

Last month, he got home from work and found the fridge empty, so he headed for Taco Bell. He was on his way home when he drove by a liquor store that’s a notorious gang hangout. Unfortunately, some rival gang members were driving by at the same time. Bobby got caught in the crossfire, and took a bullet to the head. He had just enough presence of mind to call his girlfriend before he passed out. She heard him stop talking while gunshots rang out over the phone.

He was rushed to Harborview Medical Center, where he hovered on the brink of death for days. Respiratory failure, liver failure, meningitis — he battled through one complication after another. Miraculously, he survived. After 29 days, the hospital discharged him, and a couple of days later his family brought him to me.

He was wearing a helmet to shield the spot where a saucer-sized piece of skull had been removed to accommodate his swollen brain. He walked with an odd, shambling gait, like a zombie in a horror movie. His speech was slow and halting, and his facial expression was completely flat. I couldn’t tell if that was the brain injury or just his state of mind, but it was hard to look at him either way.

My first reaction was that this was a horrible, random accident that could have happened to anyone. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a confluence of circumstances had put Bobby in a time and place where my own 19-year-old daughter, for example, would never have been.

My daughter isn’t living at home and attending the local community college. She’s in a dorm in a four-year liberal arts school in a little college town. She doesn’t have to stave off hunger with dollar meals at Taco Bell. She has a meal plan, and an all-you-can-eat salad bar. She doesn’t drive home every day past a liquor store where gang members hang out with semi-automatic weapons under their coats. She walks home across a pretty, wooded campus on well-lit, winding paths.

Bad luck put a bullet in Bobby’s head, but the basic circumstances of his life are what put him in harm’s way. If you read about his shooting in the newspaper over your morning espresso, you might never know that. That’s the thing about privilege — it’s invisible to the people who have it.

There’s one good thing that Bobby does have, though, and that’s health insurance. Because of the Affordable Care Act (also known, sometimes derisively, as “Obamacare”) he is fully covered, not only for his multiple surgeries and long hospital stay, but for the years of physical therapy, speech therapy and rehabilitation that are now his foreseeable future.

The point of all this is not to lay a guilt trip at your feet. It’s simply to remind us, and mostly myself, that while the abstract debates in Washington, D.C., may feel like political theater, they are about real problems with very real consequences. In the coming months, those debates are going to escalate into pitched battles — not just over health care, but over Social Security, tuition relief, the minimum wage, and a whole host of programs that currently constitute our tenuous safety net. As you turn your attention to those issues (and they’re far too important for any of us to ignore), don’t just come to them as a citizen or a taxpayer. Come to them as a parent.

Maybe Bobby isn’t your kid, but that isn’t the point. The question is whether or not Bobby is our kid, and if or how we will decide to take care of him. Our answer will determine what kind of country we become, and what kind of world our children will live in.


Jeff Lee lives, works and writes in the South End of Seattle.

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