It was 2008 and I heard a buzzing all around me. I had gone to the doctor and was misdiagnosed as having dementia but I discovered later that I had had a nervous breakdown. I said to my grown daughter, 'What is this thing called Obama?' and she replied, 'Obama is a black man and he is running for president, Mama.' 'Oh my Lord,' I said. 'My mama had told me this day was coming and now it was happening.' Then I realized that I had to pull myself together. I had to watch this historic moment take place.
Jean, a 77-year-old black woman, uttered those words in a room full of about 20 white people at a senior center in a predominantly white working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. I was there to do a reading from my book Tea Leaves, A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012), and then to lead a discussion and conduct a writing exercise. I looked at Jean. My mother's name was Jane. She was 74 when she died and she had been misdiagnosed as having arthritis by an HMO doctor who prescribed Extra Strength Tylenol. My mother found a new doctor but it was too late. She was correctly diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer of unknown origin and six months later, she was dead.
It has occurred to me, as I go around reading from Tea Leaves and listening to people's stories, that in writing about my mother, I have not only written her story and my story and my grandmother's story. I have touched into a deep, mostly untapped vein of writing the story of many women -- and men -- whose lives are often overlooked not only in literature, but by society in general and by the medical system in particular.
Another woman in the group talked about being misdiagnosed and, as a result of her untreated illness and the wrong medicine that the doctors in the hospital had given her, she went down to 87 pounds and nearly died several times. She got better and then felt she had wasted her life up until that point -- in pettiness, in pursuing things that didn't matter.
The group met in a 55-plus senior center, but most of the people in this group were in their mid-seventies. I have taught creative writing through the years to children, teenagers and adults of all ages, but have always recognized that my older students are the ones with the best stories to tell. Everyone in the room was brimming with stories -- one man wrote about being placed in an orphanage at age 4 because both of his parents died of tuberculosis. He then went on to serve in the military but afterwards was denied entrance to college based on low math scores. An extremely fit woman in the group -- who works out every morning in the center's gym -- wrote how her husband became frail and ill and how one day she came home to find that he had not been able to get out of his chair all day. She gradually became his caretaker. The hardest part was learning how to be the strong one and not let her grown children know how terrified she was.
This was a group of people who consider themselves writers or who have long been interested in writing and they meet every two weeks. It was a group where writing was discussed, not politics. But somehow, the conversation turned to Social Security.
Another member of the group spoke up:
When my grandmother came around she would push me away when I tried to hug her. She came to collect money from her daughters. She never held out her hand. She would wait until they gave her the money and then she would leave. I understand now that her daughters were her Social Security -- they gave her the only money that she had to live on. But back then, I just thought she was a mean old woman.
"She was just trying to preserve her dignity," said the woman at the other end of the table, who had taken care of her husband. Jean nodded.
My mother had to talk my grandmother into taking Social Security, which I wrote about in Tea Leaves, because she obstinately insisted that she wasn't going to take handouts. "You worked for that money, Ma," my mother told her. My grandmother worked as a spinner in a textile mill in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and after that she was a domestic. She would have been 65 in the early 1960s, thirty some years after The Social Security Act was passed in 1935.
When I told the group this, most of them shook their heads. The woman sitting next to me said that she couldn't imagine not having Social Security -- "How would people live?" she asked. Smiles and nods spread around the room. Everyone agreed. The Social Security Act was one of the best things that ever happened.
There are conflicting stories on the future of Social Security. One report states that the Social Security trust fund will be depleted by 2042 and the system will be operating in the red before then.
Watching the Republican National Convention gave me the distinct impression that the Republicans treat the old and infirm the same way they treat any vulnerable group in society by telling them basically, "you're on your own."
If you become old and haven't saved your money for retirement, whose fault is it? This is America, and if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, anything is possible.
A recent article in the New York Times calls Social Security "a critical source of income for most retirees" -- and also notes that most people cannot afford to retire. This presents a Catch-22 with the high unemployment rate. The specter of the depletion of the social security trust fund (or the restructuring of Social Security if the Republicans gain power), is a grim one.
The preamble of the Social Security Act describes its purpose as follows:
...to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health, and the administration of their unemployment compensation laws; to establish a Social Security Board; to raise revenue; and for other purposes.
It is a system that allows people to live with dignity, without resorting to depending on their adult children (if they have them and if they are able to help) or standing in line at food kitchens. Think about the phrase "Social Security." It brings to mind the fact that we are most definitely not on our own.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters here.
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