Went in for eye surgery the other day, which reminded me of an old wheeze of a joke, which I told to people as they prepared the prisoner for execution: A man walked by the insane asylum and heard the inmates shouting, “Twenty-one! Twenty-one!” They sounded ecstatic and he stopped to have a look. He put his eye to a hole in the fence and they poked him in the eye with a sharp stick and yelled, “Twenty-two! Twenty-two!”
The sedation guy was busy and didn’t laugh but the nurse did. She was an angel and how often do you get to meet one? She grew up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, is the mother of two teenagers and a professional possessed of warmth and humor. She did the prep, slipped the IV in, ran through a battery of questions and patted me on the shoulder about 27 times in the course of an hour. A lifelong reader/writer like me blanches at the thought of his eye being sliced while he observes up close. This woman’s ease and kindness changed everything. Every thing.
Of course the outcome depends on the ophthalmic surgeon, who is also a kind and caring woman, but by then I was sedated, mesmerized by bright lights. The procedure lasted an hour, and when I was back on my feet, a patch over the eye, woozy but ambulatory, I walked out into bright sunlight and into the world of the handicapped. It was not easy to figure out when to cross the street to my hotel. In the hotel hallway, I had to read room numbers up close, hoping nobody would suddenly open a door and find a tall man with an eyepatch peering at their peephole and call the police.
Back in the room, I hung up my jacket, opened my laptop and I couldn’t see the keys that would increase font size to where I could read the text. I lay on the bed and contemplated the prospect of life as a man in a blur. I dozed. I turned on the TV. I couldn’t watch it, only listen. I clicked around, hoping for a friendly voice, and everyone sounded hyped-up and weird, canned laughter, big carnival barker voices, big woofers and screaming meemies, and then I found a ballgame. Two men, talking nice and slow in level tones, describing actions taking place before their eyes. Players I didn’t know playing games I didn’t care about, but those were the voices of my uncles discussing cars, gardens, future construction projects, the secret of pouring concrete, and that was reassuring, to know that the country has not come unhinged.
Kindness and blindness, all in one day. Back to basics. I think kindness does not come naturally to men. We bark, we harrumph, but tenderness is a stretch for us. The grief-stricken mother lies in bed, keening, and her women friends take turns stroking her back, while the men sit stiffly in the next room, trying to make conversation.
It’s a small thing, kindness, but when you’re in the hands of a large institution with a bar code for identification, kindness feels like the key to civilization itself and the fulfillment of the word of the Lord. And the combination of kindness and the high-powered intellectual acuity of modern medical science is a miracle of our time. America is the land of second chances and that’s what modern medicine has brought us.
I lay in the hotel room hearing my uncles discuss the price of feed corn and it occurred to me, not once but several times, that I am a fortunate man and thank you, Lord. Medicare A and B and a good group health policy and for savings to cover any shortfall. The 23 million people who may lose their health insurance in the next few years if Congress does as the man wishes will face some high barriers between them and any sort of eye surgery. This does not come under the heading of Kindness.
Eighty percent of evangelical Christians who cast ballots last fall voted for the man, who seems as far from Christian virtues (humility, kindness, patience, etc.) as Hulk Hogan is from the Dalai Lama. These are people who pray for guidance. So apparently Jesus got the story wrong. The rich man came to Lazarus who was covered with sores and asked for a tax break and the rich man was rewarded and Lazarus went to hell. Do unto others as you are glad they don’t have the means to do unto you.
Garrison Keillor is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.
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