People who love America love it because of the iconic stereotypes that - with rare exception - actually exist in small towns all across the United States. Each small town has at least one diner or coffee shop where the hamlet's local characters hang out and even though everybody in town doesn't know them, they sure as heck feel like they do.
In one small Pennsylvania borough there's a coffee shop that serves as a community center where characters, curmudgeons, and colorful residents collect. Across an alley from the county courthouse the aptly named, Courthouse Commons, has been the unofficial office and meeting place for one of Carlisle's most beloved individuals, Mary Parks.
Mary Parks hasn't been there for a while. A regular fixture to passersby, Mary's missing from the bench where she used to perch inside one of the shop's large storefront windows. People knew Mary, and no one could miss Mary, because Mary weighs more than 500 lbs.
Mary's life is a fable. She was born in poverty to a middle-aged single woman who thought she'd never have children. Mary never met her dad. Mary was raised by her mom and grand-mom in a tough, inner city Philadelphia neighborhood. Mary's only 34 years old but both of those women are long gone. Her mom had a series of strokes when Mary was young and her teens were spent caring for these two ailing women until they died.
Devoutly religious, Mary didn't drink or use drugs, her painful childhood allowed for only one excess and that was the cheap, high calorie food that is so abundant at food banks and in shelters.
With no family left to care for her or about her, Mary ended up homeless. I used to work in a homeless shelter and Mary came to us when her poverty and her personal struggles cost her, her home.
I interviewed Ed Asner last year. He had gone home to Kansas City to do a benefit performance for the local United Way. Asner's spent much of his career agitating for change: for America to live up to its potential. At his press conference I asked him what he liked best about the United States. The aging actor replied, "It's the people it creates. It creates monsters too, but it creates the labor organizers, the teachers who give their own, the ministers and clergy, the social workers. It's the little people in America who believe in the myth of America and try to embody it."
Asner was describing Mary when he spoke of the Americans "who believe in the myth of America and try to embody it." Mary believes in God, her fellow person, and hard work. Like so many homeless people, Mary worked, but didn't make enough to make ends meet. Mary lends her considerable artistic talent and self-taught computer genius to others without question. Mary dismisses the ridicule her obesity elicits from onlookers. Sadly, she lets the comments hurt her feelings, but remarkably she doesn't hate the cruel individuals who mock her.
Mary's obesity handicaps her so completely that she cannot walk more than a few feet and her excessive weight stops her from adequately caring for herself. Her size is causing serious health complications including high blood pressure and diabetes. Both of these conditions would likely abate if Mary lost 300 pounds.
Mary's fate was sealed - Mary was eating herself to death - that is, until the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. Once Obamacare took effect, Mary could no longer be denied insurance because of her prior conditions.
Mary purchased insurance and paid the premiums. People from her town, her church, her childhood, and her Facebook network raised the money she needed to admit herself into a clinic that specializes in eating disorders: But only after her insurance provider said that her care would be covered 100%. They lied.
After traveling 1,200 uncomfortable miles by car to The Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Florida, and after her insurance company again agreed to pay for her care, Mary was admitted into the program.
Mary's tackling her Binge Eating Disorder (BED), depression, and several other baseline causes of her morbid obesity but her insurer has pulled the plug. They want Mary discharged even though her psychiatrist - and other health care providers - says she needs to stay.
Mary is struggling to save her life in a system of for-profit medicine that succeeds only if people like Mary die. Her community is committed to helping her, but like Mary, most of her friends are poor. The Affordable Care Act has increased coverage to include Mary, but because the insurance companies can deny care, the morbidity rate under our present system will not decrease the way it should. Before Obamacare 45,000 U.S. residents died each year. Perhaps only 20,000 Americans will die now, but they'll die one at a time. And they are people like Mary. And an entire American town will suffer from the loss.
Follow Pat LaMarche on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PatHLaMarche