This doesn’t really work as a short story. So I wrote something new, here.
My earliest memory is of my mother, an elegant Latina woman with long and flowing black hair. She and my father were sitting on bar stools at the high kitchen counter. It was night outside the large glass windows of the house. The two of them held elegant wine glasses filled with deep red liquid. My mother was beautiful, but she was crying. My father looked at her, genuine love in his eyes, and passed her a box. She opened it. Something sparkled inside. And, from deep within her, a smile overcame her tears. A satisfaction conquered her pain. Her face brightening. Her arm touched his. And she kissed him. The satisfaction of it filled me with joy.
It took me three more years before I realized the Latina woman wasn’t actually my mother.
They were made for each other and they knew it.
My parents met while in college. She was a stunning, well-spoken, and photogenic woman; with piercing and intelligent eyes. He was an aggressive and ambitious young man. She wanted to climb to the top and so did he. They were made for each other and they knew it. They got married their senior year.
And then, shortly after graduation, she’d gotten sick. She had terrible intestinal issues. They’d been worried about cancer. They’d visited hospitals and specialists. And eventually, they got a diagnosis. Their lives were forever changed.
My mom found herself facing the lifelong pain of Crohn’s Disease.
My father found the business that would define him.
The idea was simple: he could develop an artificial intelligence system that would identify the tests that would be paid for when patients came into hospitals. In public materials, the system was about enhancing patient health. But in sales to hospitals,
It was a license to print money.
the truth came out: it was actually about maximizing the revenue from fixed assets while minimizing the risk of not getting paid for tests insurance wouldn’t cover. To put it more brutally: it was about figuring out just how much you could stick to the taxpayers and insurance companies. It was a license to print money.
At first, the business was not a runaway success. The hospitals weren’t convinced the artificial intelligence would do a good job. There was no way to demonstrate it without actually fielding it. Perhaps even more critically, artificial intelligence systems need data to learn, and the hospitals weren’t eager to share. Finally, it was hard to get hospitals to quantify something as nebulous as ‘increased billings.’
The business blossomed.
My father cut through the problems. He maxed out his credit cards and offered free trials. Once the hospitals were hooked, he demonstrated a willingness to walk away from those unwilling to pay what he demanded. The business blossomed.
My parents moved from their tiny apartment to something bigger. And then they moved again. They moved to Florida, a healthcare nirvana, before I was born. And they moved again when I was three. I grew up in the house they bought then, it was an 8,000 square foot mansion on Hibiscus Island. It was right off the coast of Miami Beach, but far more exclusive.
The house was the kind of place that came with a live-in gardener and a housekeeper. A nanny was also expected. People with the money for houses like these didn’t do this kind of work themselves. My parents economized. They brought in a gardener and his wife, who was willing to both watch me and keep the house spotless. Her name was Isabella and she was a beautiful Latina woman.
…my father found other passions.
On the outside, my parents were glamorous. My father was a successful entrepreneur. My mother was strikingly beautiful and socially blessed. They held glamorous parties. They were genuinely happy, together, in public. Both had everything they wanted. But when the cameras and the crowds weren’t there, they had nothing to do with each other. My mother spent her days in the bathroom, sick. And my father found other passions. He found Isabella.
She was the woman I thought was my mother.
I had seen an idyllic scene between a man and his wife. But in all likelihood, her husband had been standing outside the glass walls of the house, staring with hatred and anger. And my mother had been in an upstairs bathroom, crying helplessly at the wreck her private life had become.
I don’t remember how I learned Isabella wasn’t my mother. But I remember what I did afterwards. I got into a fight, at school. I broke another kid’s nose. It hadn’t been provoked. But it was the start of a pattern.
I was the rich kid who had nothing at all.
I was the rich kid who drank. I was the rich kid who vandalized property. I was the rich kid who mistreated everybody around him. I was the rich kid whose father bailed him out. Not because I deserved it. And not because he cared. But because I made him look bad, and he couldn’t allow that to happen.
I was the rich kid who had money, good looks, and brains. And I was the rich kid who had nothing at all.
When I was seventeen, my father ran for Congress. I knew why he ran then. My juvenile record was sealed. It was his last chance. I stood there with him, smiling. So did my mother. We made the perfect political family. He ran as an expert on healthcare and a family values man. He ran promising to clean things up.
And, the very next day, I left.
I didn’t just go down the block. I stole my father’s boat and just sailed out into Biscayne Bay. And then I kept going. While Cubans tried to get to Florida, I tried to get to Cuba. I just wanted to hurt my father and I couldn’t think of anything that would damage him more.
The Cubans knew who I was, I was already a public figure. And I’m sure they thought of trotting me out as a propaganda trophy. But my father wasn’t anything yet, there was no advantage in bringing him down. So, to my disappointment, they didn’t. Instead, they provided me with one well-maintained room in a small complex near Havana. I’m sure it was luxurious from their perspective, but not from mine. I was angry and confused. Then, they ran me through a battery of tests and they decided I would become a doctor. I was enrolled in the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world. It was not only large, it was a decent school. It was even internationally accredited. There were students from over 100 countries.
I even found a new father.
Life was hard there. We lived in barracks. There were 19 other students in mine. We ate rice, beans and bread with a bit of meat on the side. We wore uniforms. The Internet and even TV were limited. And we worked and studied constantly. It was hard, but I found I loved it. Cuba had given me new hope.
I even found a new father. Fidel Castro himself had given birth to the idea of this school; a school that would help the have-nots of the world become doctors and serve their own. It was a school that would throw off the evil of capitalism. For me, the school was a rebirth.
I got the first sign that something was wrong while I was still in school. Parts of Havana were beautiful. But much of it was poor and collapsing. We international students ate meat and high-quality vegetables, but the diet of the citizens were far more limited. Our bunk style living spaces were actually the envy of many. I was bothered, but the disparity was explained. We were serving a great purpose and needed to succeed in our studies. And so, we were worth more and should live better, for the benefit of the people.
the school served a propaganda purpose and I embraced it.
I accepted that answer. I knew the school served a propaganda purpose and I embraced it. I was doing something meaningful. I graduated at the top of my class. I was told I’d been the best student in a generation. I met Fidel himself. I was honored and I looked forward to my first assignment.
I was sent to Venezuela. But I wasn’t sent to some poor rural community. Instead, I was assigned one of the most prestigious jobs there was. I was to assist President Chavez’ personal physician, a Dr. Gonzalez. I was to help a lion of the movement carry it forward. And, best of all, a part of my salary would go back to Cuba; to fund the next cohort of medical students.
I came back to the real world in Venezuela. In a very practical sense, I returned to the Internet and TV news. My father had won the election in Florida. He’d spun a tale of family tragedy, of a mysteriously missing and beloved son. And he’d used it to create and then ride a wave of public sympathy to public office. Isabella, of all people, had become CEO of his business.
My boss, Dr. Gonzalez, served not only the President, but also the population. At first, I thought he was dedicated to the cause. But before long, I realized that was only the public marketing. The reality was more complex. Dr. Gonzalez treated those he was told who to treat. The President was building up a bank of personal obligations, obligations he could call on. And one of the favors he bestowed was care for the sick, by his own personal physician. Do him a favor, or promise to, and you could get the best treatment in the country. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Dr. Gonzalez was storing his own bank of favors; owed by the most powerful man in the country.
… it was just as real as any digits in an account.
Bit by bit, I realized the entire country was operating this way. Instead of exchanging money, they exchanged favors. Wealth was power. There was no bank balance an auditor could point to, but it was just as real as any digits in an account. In public, the system was about service to the people. But in private, it was about the accumulation of power. It helped to explain the overwhelming poverty.
I asked Dr. Gonzalez about what I’d seen. I was seeking support for the cause. I was seeking humanity from a fellow physician. I was seeking a better truth. But he just smiled and said, “Justin, welcome to reality. We’re all just meat and statistics, so you might as well enjoy yourself.”
The guy I fought didn’t fight back.
I knew right then that he was right. I did the same thing I had done when I was younger. I got into a fight. This time in a bar. But I was no longer a rowdy rich teenager. I was a protected man. The guy I fought didn’t fight back. I hurt him badly. And then I left.
It was then that I realized, fundamentally realized, that this was the way the world worked. This was the way all systems worked. There were only two kinds of people: the naïve and the cynical. And everybody was just meat and statistics.
President Chavez died not long afterwards. He’d been killed by bowel cancer Dr. Gonzalez had failed to detect on time. Gonzalez was fired and I was promoted. I became the personal physician to the next President, Nicolas Maduro.
Things were different with Maduro.
But things were different with Maduro. Compared to Chavez, he was incompetent. He didn’t manage to inherit Chavez’ networks of patronage and he didn’t manage to build his own. He was kept by others only because they valued the stability of a ruler they controlled. In the absence of the great caudillo Chavez, a new system of favors of evolved. And I was woven into that system.
Local drug lords, ministers in the government, were desperate to launder money. They had cash and they needed to get it into the legal system. On the other hand, the local population, suffering shortages of everything, was desperate for basic medical supplies. To serve both, I opened a clinic. The drug lords opened medical supply companies in the U.S. and I bought their supplies at heavily inflated prices. I bought on credit. The prices were justified by the risk of loaning to a Venezuelan clinic. I spent the drug lords’ money, cleaning it, and I got the medical supplies as my cut. Everybody was happy. Even the poor.
Everybody had something to offer,
My clinic ran on favors. Everybody had something to offer, even the poor. I was getting rich the Venezuelan way. And nobody expected any different. In Caracas, in those days, there were many cynical people. The naïve, the true believers, were few and far between.
I did well. I was feared. I had power. I had luxury cars and luxury women. I ran roughshod over the little people. I ignored their suffering. But I hadn’t simply resigned myself to this reality. I embraced it. We were all just meat and statistics. Dr. Gonzalez, and my father, had been right all along. There was no reason to feel bad about winning.
For the first time in my life, I was at peace.
And then she showed up. Her name was Maria. Her son had cancer. Her educated husband worked at a government job that probably hadn’t paid a full wage in years. Her family was poverty-stricken. They were the kind of people who walked to my clinic because they couldn’t afford the bus. Maria had every reason to be one of the cynical and that’s what I expected to see when I looked up from the notes my nurse had passed me.
But that wasn’t what I saw. What I saw was a woman who was neither cynical nor naïve. Her eyes were wise and full of life. They were careful, but filled with hope. They were beautiful. And they were holy.
I was frozen between love and hate
She had been through more than I, but she had kept her humanity. She had chosen to keep her humanity. She was not simply meat and statistics. She should not have been possible.
I looked at those eyes and for a moment I was frozen between love and hate. But then a simple need overcame both. I knew I needed to destroy this woman. I needed to more than hurt her or kill her. I needed to crush her spirit.
I needed to destroy her so I wouldn’t need to destroy myself.
I had no idea how strong she really was.
In the Torah, gold represents the divine and silver represents the reflection of the divine.
G-d commands the movement of the camp and the silver trumpets repeat that command for the people. The angels are gold, but the people are counted by the silver half-shekel. Of course, the silver half shekel is more than a reflection. It is called the shekel hakodesh – the holy shekel. It captures the divine in every person.
When I read the names and numbers that fill this Torah portion, I do not see a useless tallying of long dead people. Instead, because of the silver shekel, I see people, deserving of recognition before the Lord. Whatever their earlier shortcomings or later mistakes, they earned a place in His Torah and they earned our recognition.
By counting their half shekels, their holy half shekels, we recognize that they were not simply meat and statistics. We recognize the divine spark within each of them.
Has the discovery of the divine in another changed your life? Share in the comments …
But we too can learn from this. I believe this recognition is the first step in our own redemption. Only when we can find the divine in others, even those long dead, can we fully develop within ourselves. Only when we recognize that we are fashioned in the image of G-d, and are not simply meat and statistics, can we ourselves stand before G-d and be counted.
For the young doctor in this story, Maria represents the first step in a long road towards redemption.
Bamidbar (Numbers) 1:2 Lift up the heads of the witnesses of the children of Israel, by their families, by the houses of their fathers, by the numbers of the names, all males/memory by their units.
The story above is fiction. I chose the name Maria because of the connection to Miriam; who kept her humanity despite the hardships of Egypt.
Image: Justin Green Flickr