Life O'Mike: Playing The Cancer Card
One Mother Turns Tragedy Into A National Movement
I met Leslie Boyd when the death of her son was still fresh. He had been homeless, and without healthcare. He died when he didn't need to, and if he'd been able to get early treatment, to afford early treatment, he would still be alive. I told her story, and the story of her son in the play "Always Expect Miracles" in Asheville, North Carolina, where the two of them are from. The play, which dealt a lot with homeless issues because of the large homeless population there, did more than talk about their plight, but became a universal story of suffering by so many people who are denied healthcare because they can't afford it. During the process of creating this play, Leslie founded "Life O'Mike" to honor her late son, and to go to work so not other mothers would have to experience what she did. She now heads a national movement to help find healthcare for all people in the United States. This is her story, from the play.
Playing The Cancer Card
"Will advise financial counseling." That was written on my son, Mike's chart. Not "Will advise physician's counseling". When you're told you have stage three cancer, the last person you want to talk to is a banker.
Mike started having symptoms, but didn't do anything about it. He barely had enough money to buy food. It was eat, or get treated. Then he couldn't keep food down, so he took his money to the doctor. After a few tests a doctor came in and said "you are going to die." And no one else came to speak with him. But they did send a financial advisor. For what, I don't know, Mike didn't have any money. He didn't even have a home anymore. Everything he owned fit into a brown paper bag. I got the call. "Mom, I need help." That's when I found out what Mike was going through. Homelessness. Joblessness. Broken marriage because of insurance laws, but never a broken spirit. He was always full of spirit.
If he wanted something he'd play the cancer card. With the nurses, with me, with his friends. On a good day, we went to the store. There was candy at the counter. He asked,
"Momma, momma, will you get me a candy bar?"
I told him, "No, not today."
He says, "But I have cancer. I could die any day now."
I see the look on the cashier's face, and I couldn't resist. I mean, when you look at the kid, he does look like he could die any day, and it was the truth, but we'd come to accept that, and Mike's way of dealing with it was being a smart a---aleck. So he's asking for a candy bar, I say no, and now the cashier and people in line are really invested in our conversation about his last request. Mike gives me the look to play along. So I say "Cancer Shmancer. He always says this when he wants something." I pay and we leave. The woman behind the counter is wide mouthed. We get out the door and Mike busts out laughing.
"That was fun, Let's do it again! But Momma, I really do want a chocolate bar. Special dark. OK?"
"But I have cancer. I could die."
And of course I buy him some dark chocolate. A bag full. There was still some left in the bag when he died.
He left the hospital, which wasn't doing much for him anyway. At home, I did what I could to help him stay as strong as he could, for as long as he could.
I'd do things for him, but it was also important for him not to end up just laying in bed.
"Momma, can I have a glass of water?"
I told him, "But honey, you need to get up and move."
So he struggles out of his recliner. It's a whole production, it takes all of his strength to pull himself to his feet. He's on his way to the kitchen and I say, "Honey, while you're up, will you get me a glass of water?" Which made him fall down laughing. Laughter was his only medicine. I prayed every night for a miracle. I don't know that laughter is much of a miracle, but it's all we had, so we took it in big doses.
The weekend he was really bad,16 of his friends stayed at our house. They parked all over the road, and a neighbor came to the door to complain. They could have asked what was wrong, they could have asked anything, but instead, complained. I don't know where it came from, maybe it was all the anger about all this coming out. I said to her, "They've come to say goodbye. They'll be gone in a few days when my son dies." I shut the door. Then I remember, he's right there in the room. And I looked at Mike.Who busts out laughing.
"Good one mom. When I'm gone, you've got to play the dead kid card."
The night before he died we sat together, he had boo bankie, the blue blanket I'd made him when he was little. I pulled it out of the attic for him. I was saving it for the children he'd never have. He's wrapped up in it, eating dark chocolate. The last thing he could stomach. He's 85 pounds and dying when he shouldn't be, because he wasn't receiving the treatment he needed, when he needed it. He didn't have insurance. He wasn't worth it to the hospital. Not worth it. To me, he was the most precious thing on the planet. To me he was worth everything. How do you put a price on a life, anyway? Every single person is somebody's child. What parent looks out to the future and prepares for their child to be poor and uninsured, and then die from it? Mike was worthwhile people. I really, really hoped my heart would stop when his did. That was the stopwatch in my life, there's before, and there's now. With Mike and without Mike.
This is the dead kid card and I'm playing it to the hilt. I'm playing that card and telling that story, and if I tell it enough times, maybe someone, somewhere will start to listen, and someone else, and someone else, and someone else, and then, worthwhile precious people, will not have to die anymore. There is something more than money and position and jobs to define a life. I like to hope there is.
Mike is still here. He comes to me, when I'm having a hard day. I can feel him. We shared a birthday, November 3rd. It would often snow on our birthday.
On our birthday after he died, I was singing happy birthday to him outside, to the stars, and snow started to fall and blanket me, and instead of feeling cold, I felt warm, because I imagined him up there tossing it down on me. I knew it had to be him. I hoped so.
Learn More About Life O'Mike
- Life O'Mike Healthcare For All
Click here, and read all about Leslie's work-- and inspiring stories of other people who are working toward healthcare for all people.