August 23, 2006

The Hospital and the Family

As regular readers would know, I've been in Costa Rica for the last 2 months. The region I was in, Coto Brus, was settled mainly between 50-60 years ago and before that time hadn't had much in the way of inhabitants for at least 500 years. That aside, it's fairly typical in terms of social structure for rural agricultural communities.

Many of the people who live there have never lived more than a few miles away from where they do now, or were too young at the time to have remembered when they did. The average family size is large and through some torturous angle or another, everybody ends up being related to about half the rest of the town. The kids' frequent after school playmates are often also relatives. Because the community is poor, the families that stick together survive together, so mostly they stay close and help each other out. It's the rare day when someone who lives there doesn't run into a relative that doesn't live in the same household and the kids usually live at home until they marry, unless they go to a larger city to look for work. Where everything is different.

In fact, those kids who move away probably have a life a lot more like mine. I'm single and currently live alone, though I may mix things up and get a roommate this year. Today I spoke in person with one of the apartment managers at my building and a grocery clerk, then later was on the phone with a few friends. I don't have a relative for hundreds of miles, an absolute minimum of six hours away if the closest one dropped everything and bought the first plane ticket to Seattle at the nearest airport. When I go out of town, the few things I need to have taken care of are handled by someone to whom I am in no way related.

My emergency contact information lists a close friend first and a family member second. It should be obvious why. If I should get hurt and need to be hospitalized, there isn't much my family could do for me right off the bat besides worry.

My friends are far more likely to be there on the scene or to have seen me recently and have something helpful to tell an emergency care provider about allergies. They're more likely to visit during a short-term hospitalization and would be able to offer more companionship during a long-term hospitalization. If I needed outpatient care, I'd stay with friends, as happened when I was sick this past winter and couldn't drive because of the prescriptions I was given. Some of them might even have had that conversation with me; the one about what I'd want done if my EEGs were unrecoverably flat. (Pull the plug, man, pull the plug. Seriously. Schiavo me and on the day that I eventually go, my restless spirit will set about making those responsible think they're living in a Shayamalan flick.)

America used to be like Coto Brus, but for a lot of us, that sort of community experience is now unusual. I'm not necessarily complaining about that, either. I've moved states for work in the past, will probably do it in the future. When I'm done with my bachelor's I'll move for grad school (cross your fingers for me.) I'd move for a good academic internship. When I'm done with school I'm going to have a whole other set of criteria for where to live, but probably still nowhere near where I grew up. It's my choice all the way, but every year during which my life continues roughly as it seems likely to and is now, is a year in which I worry about whether I'm going to have a problem that will cross a societal norm developed before the WWII, 'how you gonna keep them down on the farm' era.

Because our society contains a few too many bigots in high places, I have to worry that if something very bad happens I'll have to face it without the company of the first people I'd be inclined to call. The people whose bedside manner, conversation and moral support I would most naturally want to rely on. Nothing to do with sex. Everything to do with the way my life is structured, and the lives of many of my friends, as well. We're each other's adopted, functional next-of-kin. Every one of our number, straight, gay, bi, transgendered and apathetic has reason to worry about laws that were designed to solely acknowledge either families that live in each other's pockets or marriages.

I haven't spoken to my cousins in years, but they have more rights towards me than friends who've held my hand through migraines that left me begging for euthanasia. I resent the hell out of that. There are a lot of people who are alive today because friends took care of them when family wouldn't, and those no longer with us whose only comfort at the end came from neither spouse nor blood. When you've experienced these situations first hand or know the participants, it's hard to believe that the law is adequate to the world of our experiences. And this is one reason why the radical right is going to lose on gay marriage, sooner or later.

This admittedly morbid line of thought got started off when I read a dKos diary about the gay marriage issue, What Rights Should Same-Sex Couples Not Have?, and what jumped out at me was that there are rights in there that it seems ludicrous to either restrict solely to married people and recognized kin or to make available only through costly legal arrangements. Hospital visitation is only the most obvious, a complete gimme.

There's a whole world of orphans (either of geography, estrangement or the usual kind), divorcees, singles, unmarried straight couples, subcultural exiles and others out there for whom the laws that govern relationships are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch. In combination with a demographic march that spells doom for institutionalized homophobia when GenXers take the reins of the country, the worst fears of the radical right are going to come to pass.

Marriage and family as institutions, as a several volume set of cautiously spelled-out privileges not available to the unblessed, will indeed be watered down. They will mean less, at least in terms of being legally distinct. But to mean something to the individual, they'll require developing the same bonds of love and mutual care that the law merely assumes, but doesn't always now recognize. Family will be the people who pick each other, related or not, sleeping together or not.

Which should scare people because ... ?

Posted by natasha at August 23, 2006 09:04 PM | GLBT | Technorati links |

Oh, you gotta read Doug Muder's Red Family, Blue Family which is a Lakoff and Ault-inflected look at two different kinds of familes, what he terms the Inherited Obligation family and the Negotiated Commitment family - basically Coto Brus and you - and the political implications here stateside.

Awesome posts, though, btw.

Posted by: Dan S. at August 27, 2006 02:03 PM