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Disposable People

When I was barely pregnant with Jacob, my friend Rachel had a baby, a little girl named Gabrielle. A lovely, tiny thing with a shock of black hair I was compelled to pet whenever I held her, she was Rachel’s first baby.

Six weeks later, SIDS, that terrible night thief of babies, stole Gabrielle away.

It was every bit as horrifying as you imagine, and worse. Even now, I am pushing away my memories of Rachel in the days and weeks that followed. She was shattered, blistered all over with grief.

Because Gabrielle mattered. She was here, and then she was gone, and she mattered.

Three years later, Rachel was dropping her sister Josephina off at home after an evening out when Josephina’s husband opened fire on the car. He killed Rachel, her sister, and a friend who was sitting in the backseat before he ended his own life.

I remember too well that morning in May, 1996. I stopped at a convenience store to buy a cup of coffee and a newspaper and there was my friend on the front page.

That weak-in-the-knees, dear-God-what-has-happened, the-whole-world-is-spinning feeling? Is way too familiar to me. Way too fucking familiar.

So now, with her mother gone and her family scattered to the winds, I visit Gabrielle’s grave twice a year. I trim the grass and scrub the stone until it sparkles.

If I don’t do it, who will?

Gabrielle was here, and she mattered.

In a world that insists constantly that some people don’t matter, I need a ritual that says every person is important.

Why this post at this time? Because of the tragic story of Saiqa Akhter, the Texas mother who murdered her children Zain and Faryaal last week. My reasons are not exactly what you might predict them to be; it is not her actions but the world’s response that has captured my thoughts.

I have no idea what illnesses of mind or body beset Saiqa Akhter and her family (though most reports indicate that at least one of her children had been diagnosed with autism). I can guess at what caused her pain because I have been to some dark and ugly places myself, but I don’t know what corner she turned. I’ve never been to that place.

And this tiny voice at the very furthest reaches of my skull asks, maybe I didn’t turn that corner because my family paid for Carter’s private preschool so I could catch my breath. Maybe, during that dark time when I was far from acceptance, knocked off-balance, lacking the support that I have today, maybe… I can’t imagine that, but I’ve learned too often that immunity is an illusion.

Another thing I can’t comprehend is this: that so many people believe having compassion is equal to making excuses. I have infinite compassion for this mother, and what she did was inexcusable.

But that’s a soapbox for another day.

I was reading the news coverage of this story and found myself (as I always do, glutton for punishment that I am) reading comments. Angry, bitter, hateful comments. Judgmental comments. Ignorant comments.

And then this: I don’t see what the big deal is. We overvalue human life. These kids were autistic. They never would have made a real contribution to society, so who cares if they’re dead?

I can see you, sitting there with your mouth open, your eyes wide with shock. I want to join you in your shock, to view this (anonymous, of course) commenter as an aberration.

But he’s not. In fact, his sentiments mirror a cultural reality of which most people are entirely unaware: some of us are disposable.

Some of us don’t matter.

Some of us are worthless.

Most of the comments I read about Saiqa Akhter’s murder of her children were furious, hateful things about how she should have asked for help. Why didn’t she call for help? Why didn’t she call someone?

Of course, we have no idea that she didn’t, but that’s the faulty assumption that underlies everything: there is help. There is always help. If one asks, help will come.

If you believe that assumption is correct, I think some Hurricane Katrina survivors might like to have a word with you.

Because the kind of help that those commenters mean? It doesn’t exist in most places. One person suggested that she should have called 911 and asked for an ambulance to come get her children.

That isn’t how it works. I’ve heard more stories than I can even remember. Parents of an acutely suicidal nine year old girl took her to the ER where they were told to take her home and give her Benadryl. Children in the grip of florid psychosis are sent home from the hospital after 2 or 3 days. The waiting list for a 30 minute appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist here in Albuquerque is 6 months long. Schools don’t have the resources they need to properly educate children with emotional and behavioral challenges. There are bed shortages, provider shortages, money shortages, every kind of shortages. Go look at the blogs in my blogroll; you’ll find the story of a family struggling to get the services they need at every single one.

We parents? All of those gaps are left for us to fill. There are huge gaps, enormous needs, long stretches of time, during which we are all alone, left to deal the best we can.

If you call an ambulance because you sprained your ankle, that ambulance will take you to the hospital (the paramedics will roll their eyes until they’re dizzy, but they’ll take you where you want to go). If you call an ambulance for a psychiatric emergency, no one is going anywhere unless someone is on the very brink of death.

I’m well read in the historical and political reasons for all of this. You can watch a wonderfully informative documentary about it here. It’s complex, multi-layered, an impossible knot.

Except that it’s not. It’s one simple thing: some of us are disposable. Some of us don’t matter.

Not “some people.” Not “those people who are ill” or “those people who have disabilities” but some of us.

My ritual at Gabrielle’s gravestone may seem silly, like a boy whistling in a hurricane, and that might be true. But if someone is remembering Gabrielle, then someone will remember Carter and every one of the other people who might never make a tangible contribution to society.

You who read here? I love you, and I’m counting on you to help me share this message, this most important idea that all people matter.

None of us is disposable. My penchant for moral relativism aside, I am right about this. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

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90 comments to Disposable People

  • Oh, wow. This gave me chills to read it. Burst my heart wide open. You are right. People matter. No matter who they are.

  • You are amazing. I love you back.

  • Wow. Your life has been filled with so many deaths. And it's beautiful the way you turn them into lessons. Good for you. That takes a very strong woman.

  • I am totally with ya – I posted this after the mom sent her adopted kid back to Russia one-way with a stranger: http://chrisahickey.blogspot.com/2010/04/adopt-an

    • Yes, I read that, and I don't know why I didn't reply. I think that the comments looked to be getting a little contentious and I didn't want to get trapped in a war. 🙂 That's a great post, and I so feel for that family. Terrible choices.

  • Emily

    thank you for this. i had a conversation with someone recently who said, in a nutshell, that those with mental illness were untreatable or incurable, and should be done away with. i had to keep my cool for a number of reasons, but i'm still really emotionally torn up by that person's thoughts. thank you, thank you, thank you. everyone who exists matters.

    • Wow. Just, wow. I mean, not only to feel that way, but to feel it was OK to say it out loud? It reminds me in the early days of the AIDS pandemic, when some people proposed an island.

      Thank you.

      • Emily

        it took every ounce of strength in my body to not pull him limb from limb– or burst into sobs. he's certainly lived through experiences that i have not (police officer in a very, very large and very, very conservative city), but … it was certainly the same close-mindedness that believe that AIDS patients should be sent away. and i'm sure, in his mind, feminists too.

        • Yes, it can't be easy to be faced with all the horrors a police officer must face and hold onto some compassion. Sadly, that's one of the things that scares those of us who love people with mental illnesses so much: abuse by law enforcement. Of course, Carter is very young still, but he won't be forever. I shudder to think he might someday be face-to-face with a police officer like the one you're talking about.

  • I read the news. And I am aware that the internet now allows everybody in the world to comment on everything else that is happening in the world. Instantly.

    And I think this new immediate ability to contribute every fleeting thought? Without giving those thoughts thought?

    Leads to a hardening. You can say anything you want about anyone you want, and there is no accountability.

    And so I never read the comments on stories like these.

    Because inside? I am all soft.

    And those hard words? They crush me.

    That baby with the shock of black hair? Gabrielle? I am happy you honor her memory.

    She counted.

    • Yes, that hardening, it's ugly. I see it in real life, too. People I know who let after dinner conversations go to that place. People are afraid, so they cover themselves over with anger. What a sad way that must be to live.

  • Every paragraph, I gasped and clutched my heart. And I want to say that every story I hear of sadness involving babies and children, the ones who survive and the ones who don't, I remember them often.

  • When a tree falls in a forest it does make a sound whether there are ears to hear it or not. And so do we.

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. Very well done.

  • I will remember this post. And I'll thank you for writing it every time I do.

  • What thought provoking piece. Everyone, every where has a story. Just because I don’t know what it is, doesn’t make it any less important. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Thank you! Yes, there is so much judgment in the world, but there is so little that is as simple as it appears at first glance (and especially in the media).

      Of course we have social problems that we must address. Some people are destructive and violent (for whatever reason) and we all need to be safe, but I don’t believe for one minute that hate is going to do us any good.

  • You gave me goose bumps and tears in my eyes. I think about this topic all the time when I see a young teen who is addicted to drugs and living on the streets or a veteran struggling to find peace after witnessing horrific things most cannot imagine. That person is SOMEONE's baby. Everyone in this world meant something to someone at one time. I agree that we ALL matter.

  • What a powerful, powerful post. Thank you for writing this. I think the world would be a changed place if we'd keep your thinking at the forefronts of our minds. This is a post we should all read and live by!
    Good for you for having a ritual to remember and to remind you and others. Thanks for what you've written today!

  • What a very sad story about your friend and her family. Clearly there's lessons in everything that happens to us. You've had the misfortune to not only lose those that were close to you but to face the reality that there is rampant ignorance among us. It is true some of us don't matter to others. There are many short-sighted, ignorant people out there.

    My Uncle was born with mental retardation due to an over tightening of forceps during the birthing process. My Uncle is functional in the sense he can do light work, dress himself, feed himself, etc. He cannot live fully on his own and shares a home with others like him with a Counselor.

    I suppose what people are trying to answer here is what are we worth? Of course, there's different meaning for everyone. There are people who want to rid the earth of those that are mentally or physically deficient in one manner or the other. Do they rationalize that healthy members of our society that don't contribute should banish as well? It's a very elitist approach in which human selection based on some individual's own unsubstantiated criteria determines who lives and who dies. Anyone heard of Hitler?

    Thanks for sharing your story….as gut wrenching as it must have been, it's certainly opened up some much needed dialogue.

    • Thank you. Yes, when I think about this topic (and I think about it a lot), I always come around to Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. What level of "productivity" do we require for worthiness? It's a silly question when it's put like that, but we're asking that question constantly in a million small ways. Most people aren't aware.

  • Wow, very powerful post. Thank you for writing it.

  • "all people matter."

    So much yes. Thank you for writing this.

  • Thank you for writing this.

  • Tasha

    This is a discussion with the parents of a troubled boy (Asperger's) who in an act of random violence killed a fellow high school student, and was recently convicted. The boy's parents have had to deal with the reactions you describe, but underlying this, have also found unexpected support for him and them. It is a long read, but you may find it interesting. They reach a very similar conclusion.
    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/ar

    • Oh. Yes, I read that recently. I remember one of the comments there asked, "How dare those parents put their child in a regular school? Why wasn't he in a special school?" And he had been in special schools, and none of them were right for him.

      Sigh.

  • Each and every one of us matters. My daughter, she matters. She has autism, and she matters. She may not end up making buckets of cash but let me tell you how she contributes to society: she made me a better person. Oh, she matters. She matters to ME.
    Thank you for this great post.

  • *Deep breath* Thank you for writing this. I work with homeless youth…and so often I speak with people-who don't work in my field- that believe the homeless, the mentally ill, disabled are all "disposable." No one is disposable. No matter whether you are religious or not…we are all here in this world for a reason, we are all loved and wanted by someone at some time, and our presence in this world deserves to be acknowledged—no matter how long or short.

    About the mother who killed her children… I am in no position to be her judge and jury. Her actions undoubtedly horrific. However, I agree that the resources and support for parents of children with special needs ranging from autism to severe allergies is unequal. There are cultural, social, and economic barriers that affect who will receive the best care—and WE MUST change that…

    • Sigh. Yes, because those barriers? They hurt every single one of us. For my family, the wound is direct, but the indirect wounds are huge.

      If we can't take care of each other, what's the point?

  • emjb

    Those kids mattered, and so did their mom. We failed all three of them. This story joins so many others about mothers killing their children in the grips of delusion and illness, and yet all we do is gawk and talk about them at the water cooler, but never, ever, suggest that we as a society could have done something to make it not happen.

    • Yes, it's like a hobby, to point and accuse and say "How terrible! How could she!" and assume that we aren't ALL complicit in that.

      But hate and anger are easy. So often, people use it to hide.

  • Carter will never be forgotten. You have made sure of that.

    Thank you for this powerful and heart wrenching post.

  • this is my first time ever reading your blog. as a parent of a child with special needs, who is struggling to find help, to keep my own head afloat, i say THANK YOU. thank you for remembering the sweet baby whose life was cut short way too soon, and for having compassion for the mother who had a mental breakdown, and for the kindness and compassion you have shown in this post. i will share it. and i hope your compassion will spread like wildfire. <3

  • Beautiful post. Beautiful. We all matter, no matter how large or small we are… It reminds me of that movie based on the Dr. Seuss book about Whoville. I can't think of it the name right now. Yes, I can! Horton Hears a Who! The point was we're all important no matter how small…or how this…or how that. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Your posts amaze me. They reach out and tug at my heart and make me question what I can do to help make this situation better for people who are living it. As far as disposable people. That's a tough one. I feel every person was born for a reason and their life has a purpose. But then I question what about criminals like murderers & rapists – what is their purpose? To teach us to be more compassionate? To teach us about pain & healing? I suppose I don't actually know but I do NOT believe people are disposable. Also? Much like your bi-annual visits to Gabrielle's grave I have a friend who was hit over the head with a hammer in what her assailant claimed to be "an acid flashback (bullshit)" I call her every year on the anniversary of the incident to make sure she knows I love her & I'm glad she's still here. Some people think it's morbid but I can't let her continue to live with those memories and not know that is loved and appreciated. Thank you for writing this. You are inspiring…

    • But there is no NEED for a purpose. We ARE, so we matter.

      And as for violent criminals, yes, society has to find a way to protect itself from some people. Really, though, while there will always be people who will do harm, lots of people who are in jail? Are there for complicated reasons related to lack of many things that they needed over the course of their lives.

      I’m glad you call your friend. There’s nothing morbid about that; guaranteed SHE’S remembering and how kind of you to acknowledge her pain and recovery. People always worried that they will “remind” someone of something like that. As if anyone could ever forget.

  • Fantastic post. You are bang on re. the inequalities in who we deem worthy of help. I asked for help with PPD & waited 2 months to see a psychiatrist (I’m in Canada & the thought that this may be considered short in other parts of the world horrifies me.) What would I have to have done to get help faster? Hurt myself? Hurt my child? I’m glad I have a good GP who did what he could to help me in the meantime. But what about those without a family doctor, or family & friends willing to lend a hand?

    • Thank you. Yes, I often think of that. One reason we are mostly OK is because of our many resources – our family who pay for Carter’s special school, our extensive educational backgrounds who make it possible for us to navigate a VERY complicated and confusing system, even the car I drive to appointments would be a luxury to many of the people in the waiting rooms where I sit while Carter has therapy.

      And yes, often that’s exactly what has to happen for help to come sooner: someone has to get hurt. How terrible.

  • It drives me CRAZY when people assume they have the answers that could have prevented tragedy. None of us has any idea the exact circumstances of anyone else's life, and it is impossible to judge when your feet weren't in those shoes. My dad always used to pose situations to me and ask what I would do. "What if you hit ice and your car starts swerving?" "Well, I know that I *should* steer into the swerve, but I have no idea what I would do if that actually happened!" We might think we know ourselves, but until you're in the moment, you just never know how you are going to react. I think that oftentimes, people with the most severe mental health problems can't see that they need help, so they can't be expected to ask for it. And, as you pointed out, even those who ask for it often can't get it.

    Thank you for this post. We all need to be more cognizant of the "disposable people" around us, and we all need to step up to make sure they are *not* disposed of.

    • Thank you. Yes, the world is full of know-it-alls, isn’t it? So so much bluster and nastiness when most of us want nothing but to be acknowledged.

      And yes, our mental health system is a medical, legal, and social nightmare. Truly, a horror show. Carter has a wonderful (really, really wonderful) pediatric psychiatrist, and she has returned my calls as late as 9:30 at night. Why does our society think it’s OK to ask her to prop things up that way? I’m so grateful that she works so hard and cares so much, but I fear she’ll get burnt out with so many expectations falling on her head.

  • Kaiser hospitals do that with the elderly. They assign "dementia" as a diagnosis at the drop of a hat. And once an elderly person has "dementia" that's license to stop any serious medical treatment. I've had them diagnose aphasia as dementia

  • I am so sorry about your friend and her Gabrielle. Having worked with mentally ill kids in our public middle school, I still cannot believe that those opinions are still out there. We are talking about someone's baby, one of God's children, who is loved beyond measure. No one is disposable. And? God don't make no mistakes…

    • Nope, no mistakes. Everyone matters. Almost all of us will eventually be forgotten, but that doesn’t mean anyone gets to treat others badly while we are hear on earth!

  • This is heartbreaking.

    "Many people believe having compassion is equal to making excuses." I never thought of this before, but I think this is true. Thank you for shedding some light, and bless you for continuing to care for Gabrielle's resting place.

    • Thank you. Yes, I really started thinking about that issue after the horrifying tragedy of Andrea Yates’s murder of her children. People wanted to stone that woman in the streets and I started to understand that many people are not able to think on both levels at once, that compassion and excuses are not the same.

      So, so sad. But easier to be angry.

  • This is the most beautiful post i have ever read. And i mean that. Your writing is so powerful, and i can feel the strength of your beliefs shouting out of my screen.
    You have summed up exactly my reaction when i hear of parents who have taken their children's lives. I feel enormous sadness that something drove them that far. It is too easy to judge.
    And of course i wholeheartedly agree with the core sentiment of the post. That everyone matters. And i am enormously moved by the vigil you keep at Gabrielle's grave. You must be a very special lady.
    http://marketingtomilk.wordpress.com

    • Thank you. Many, many thanks. So many want to live in an us vs. them world and there is no them. THEY don’t exist.

      But that’s a scary proposition and anger is easier. Safer. I’m happy to choose something different.

  • Rochelle

    Wow thank you for the post. It touched my heart. You are so right, people matter!

  • this? this right here? this is why I love you. my heart hurts daily for those that society says “don’t matter.” those (kids especially to me) are why i keep teaching even when I don’t think the system is working anymore (did it ever?). I need to feel like I am letting them know they matter. i wish they could all know.

    EVERYONE MATTERS. ALL OF US.

  • Sigh. Love you, too. For showing up every day and navigating a broken system, I love you. Teachers like you; doctors like Carter’s psychiatrist; therapists like the one who works with us; the system counts on you to shoulder enormous burdens. I hate that we ask that of you and I hope that someday it changes, and I love you for doing it anyway.

  • It’s interesting because I actually just worked on something for school (psych major) and it was about famous artists, authors, public figures, & even a physicist who all made huge advances/marks in their field – that had severe mental illness. jack kerouac and vincent van gogh were both schizophrenic (and there are many other public like them with different severe mental illnesses). Should they have been eradicated from the planet?

    I think people are very ignorant when it comes to mental illness.

    • Yes, there is MUCH ignorance. It’s amazing how much there is. Most people who have mental illness (or other issues like autism, cognitive issues, etc.) can lead happy, productive lives IF they get the right kind of support. I just want every person to have the support they need to have their best life.

      Just that. 😉

  • When my cousin died of SIDS in May, I remember thinking out loud to God and screaming that he mattered. He didn’t live his life fully yet and he mattered. It was so crushing and breath-taking to read you use the same words.

    People are cruel. That is one thing I unfortunately understand.

    • Oh, Tiffany. Yes, he mattered. He had barely even started and he mattered so very, very much. I’m so thankful, in a world where many are cruel, to have also found many who are kind.

      Much love.

  • Thankyou for this post. I came here via twitter. You have given me lots to think about.

  • SIDS is so scary. Beautiful post to bring light to this issue. Found you through Lucille in the Sky. New follower!

  • My Da used to always tell me that one never knew what lurked in another’s heart, so not ever to judge. I think that I was probably almost 30 before I really could wrap my head and heart around that because by then, I had been on both sides of pain.

  • Doris

    What a wonderfull but sad story. I have a niece who has a mental problem btu she is so dear to us all. Thank you for this hope it helps some one

  • One group of my students are the at-risk 9th graders. They have horrible home lives, parents who don’t care, and a growing sense of apathy regarding their own place in the world. I want them to know that they matter to me. They are the reason I put my son in daycare and go to work every day. Because my son? I will be there for him. But who will be there for them if I’m not? They matter.

    We all matter to someone.

    • Beyond me how the people who want to write off so many people don’t understand that the very disregard causes so many new problems. I’m so glad you are there for those kids.

  • Thirty-eight years ago, a man thought that my father was disposable and killed him. Shot him twice.

    Thirty-eight years later, I sit here, begging to differ with the idea that he was in any way disposable.

    You are so right, we each have value. None of us is disposable.

    Yet another beautiful, thought-provoking piece, Adrienne. Your words, even when painful, are perfect.

    • Sigh.

      No, no disposable people. Not your father. Not anyone. My heart aches for all the people who loved your dad, who had to say goodbye because some people disregarded him.

  • I am only reading this now, sorry, I just wanted to say I agree, we all matter. I believe it. I will send as many people as I can to read your post.
    Gabrielle mattered, and thinking of her tiny life swept away and nobody left to miss her (except you, and now a few more of us) is so, so very sad.

    Thank you for posting this. Thank you.

  • So sorry I am late to the comment party…but the kids are back in school now.

    When the news broke of the adoptive mother from Tennessee buying a one-way ticket back to Russia for her adopted 7 year old…I, like the rest of the world, was outraged. But not so much at the mother, although she could have made better choices, but at the system that let it happen. I have a daughter I adopted from Russia and she has reactive attachment disorder. I suspect the 7 year old boy did also. It has been extremely hard work to make her better, to overcome the challenges of RAD…almost to the point of breaking apart our family. It is not easy…but she mattered. He matters. They all matter. Even if they are not perfect, they are ours and I couldn’t imagine my life without her. Including the good and the bad. The lesson I have taken away from all this is people DO NOT have the right to judge others, because it is not possible to walk in their shoes. Maybe the same path, but not in the same pair of Converse high tops or Jimmy Choos.
    Lanita recently posted..A Perfect Last Sunday

    • Yes, exactly. There is almost always plenty of blame to go around. The mom in that case made some terrible choices, but so did a whole lot of other people. And who suffers? Always the kids.

      So glad you have some time to yourself again. Isn’t back to school time great?

  • mudslinger

    I also share in your passion that we all matter…we all make a contribution to the spiritual and physical realms. Thank you for sharing your compassion by taking the time in your life to let the world know that we all matter!

  • […] can do better than to toss some people aside like so much disposable waste. We can be better than we are […]

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