A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: A nation that went to the moon should be able to solve today’s complex problems

Families got a package deal on tonsillectomies when I was a child. At least that is how it seems to me as I reflect on my experience. I was the one with constant sore throats and upper respiratory infections. My older sister Jeanne had none of those complaints, yet we had our tonsils out at the same time.

Daddy stayed home from work, and my mother made us dress in church clothes, white gloves and all. That combination alone was enough to startle us into silence on the half-hour drive to Rahway Hospital.

Once there, we were whisked away from our parents and escorted to a room with metal beds. We were promised that we’d see our parents again soon, but shortly thereafter, we learned that was not true.

A nurse ordered us into garments she called gowns that were nothing like Cinderella’s raiment. The stern woman rolled up my good Sunday coat with the velvet collar and stuffed it in a locker, and then snatched my patent leather shoes and crammed them into a drawer with my sister’s.

They came and got me first, warning me to stay still. In the operating room, a cup-like plastic contraption was placed over my nose and mouth, and I was told to count backward from one-hundred. I was four or five, and remember being afraid of what might happen if I made a counting error; but I drifted off before I got to 96.

Even for an adult, waking up from surgery is disorienting. For a child, it was scary. I was not sure where I was and why I was there. Confused, I looked beyond the metal bars of my crib and saw that my sister was not in the room. The front of my “gown” was splotched with blood. When I began to cry, a different nurse strode in and threatened I’d have to stay there all night by myself if I didn’t stop. I choked back my tears and stifled my sobs. I wanted to go home.

What happened in between is still fuzzy, but a few hours later Jeanne and I were back in the room we shared at home. Nothing had changed. The pink wallpaper was still festooned with circus scenes. Tumbling acrobats, cartwheeling clowns, elephants in tutus on tiptoe had not missed us at all.

Our throats hurt a lot, but we were in our own nightgowns, and our clothes were properly hung in the closet, patent leathers lined up underneath. Mother brought us each a bowl of sherbet so swallowing would not be so painful.

Tonsillectomies are no longer routinely performed on children. We know better now and are aware of the risks. As I write this column, however, children are being taken from their parents at our southern border and sent to quarters that resemble prisons. Some of them are mere toddlers, and many speak languages other than English. One might safely generalize that they are traumatized by the separation, especially because they are forcibly removed for reasons they are way too young to understand.

My purpose in writing this is not to support or decry parents’ decisions that endanger their children, but to ask for some basic information. Where are the children being housed? Who exactly is caring for them? How is their whereabouts being documented so they can be returned to their family caregivers without undue delay?

I ask such questions because I, like many, doubt the ability of the federal government to do the job. Oh, I know. They can hire contractors. Right. Remember when the Pentagon spent $640 on a toilet seat? Or when we sent $12 billion dollars in cash to Iraq with no systematic control over who received it or how it was used?

I actually heard TV commentator Laura Ingraham compare where kids are being placed to “summer camp,” and later repeating a San Diego newspaper’s claim that likened one to a boarding school. Really?

Seems to me it is time for the people we elected to go to Washington to make some decisions about fixing a broken immigration system. The problems have lingered for years, generations even, and no one is willing to take a leadership position in figuring out how to proceed. We can go ahead and blame the parents for taking the risk to enter the U.S. illegally, but in the meantime are we really proud of practices that traumatize children and seem to jeopardize their safety and long-term well-being?

There is much to be proud of in our nation’s history. We won a revolution against rule by the King of England. We liberated thousands of people who suffered in Nazi death camps. We helped rebuild countries that had been our enemies. Despite our flaws, this country is the dream destination of people around the world fleeing oppression and terrorism.

For goodness sake, we went to the moon. Is it possible there is no longer the will or the guts to solve complex problems without endangering the innocent and disgracing values we claim to hold dear?

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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