By nine in the morning, Pat is back in bed having whisked Spencer to his bus stop and Murphy is sleeping on the couch. He glows with fever, his curls sticking to his reddened face, looking like a Victorian porcelain doll. I consider forcing him awake and walking him around in circles like people do in movies when they have to sober up a drunk.
I’ve laid a my cool hand on his forehead a couple of times in the last few minutes and said, “Remember we have to wake up soon to go to the dentist.” But the only response has been a flutter of eyelashes.
I can’t do this to Murphy. If the whole point of cramming all of these appointments in at the last minute was to take care of my children in the best way I could under the circumstances, then forcing Murphy to go to the dentist in this condition is the opposite of that. I have to think of him first and not the money. I’ll have to pay for the cavities out of pocket. That’s all there is to it. We can save up for a few months. Or we can sell the coronet. We can even turn it into a family joke, “Remember, now. Those are the fillings your grandfather’s coronet paid for.”
Lately, it all comes down to the coronet. When we don’t have the rent, Pat looks at me sideways and says, “Maybe it’s time to sell the old girl.” Meaning the instrument, not me. Although, given the strains in our marriage lately, the ambiguity is downright poetic.
Pat’s half-brother gave the coronet to him after their dad died, extracting a promise that Pat would never sell it. We’re the kind of people who traditionally honor promises like that. But that fraternal contract was made when Pat and I were making four times what we make now – when we had health insurance and every reason to believe that our fiscal future was bright. Pat was an at-home dad, acting in a couple of national commercials a year. And I was writing for television.
I pick up the phone and call the dentist.
“Oh, yes. We completely understand,” says the receptionist. “And we wouldn’t want to make the Dr. Olsen sick.”
There is that too, I think. Dr. Olsen is a sweet man who is so cheerful you can almost believe that filling and extracting teeth is his life’s singular passion.
“I don’t suppose we can reschedule the Murphy’s appointment for the end of the week?” I say, trying not to sound desperate.
“Oh, no,” she says brightly. “There won’t be anything open until next month.”
I pause, listening to the clicking of her computer keys while she searches for an opening next month. I feel shaky and about to cry. But I take the chance, “You see. We run out of health insurance at the end of the month and I’m not sure when we will be able to afford to bring Murphy in again.”
The keys stop clicking. Tears spill down my cheeks and I adjust the phone so she won’t hear any sounds that I might make.
“Oh,” she says, not giving anything away. I sniff as lightly as possible to stop the snot from pouring out of my nose. “Well, what we could do is make the appointment for next month, but I will change the date on the insurance forms. That way it will be covered. We don’t do that often. But we can do it for you. Will that help?”
Will that help? Relief suffuses my body like a fast-acting drug. Snot flows out of my nose and I sputter, “Yes. Yes. That would help us very much.”
I wipe my nose with my sleeve. The computer keys click again and I say, “You know we will pay you everything we owe you. I promise.”
“I know,” she says. “Times are hard. And you can pay us a little bit each month like you have been. We know you will.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” I say, like I’m kissing the hem of her skirt.
I put down the phone and walk into the bathroom to grab tissues and honk into them. Looking up, I catch my reflection.
I look like Mickey Rourke.
But I’m so spent, so drained of feeling, that I don’t care. In fact, it crosses my mind that this is exactly what I should look like – a has-been fighter who is desperate for a comeback.
In the bedroom, I lie down next to Pat who flops a semi-conscious arm over my belly. I think about the receptionist’s kindness and how she rescued me from complete despair within seconds. The last two years have been the hardest of my life. But there have been glorious moments throughout. Little rescues like this one. Flashes of clarity about what really matters. Even times of uncontrollable laughter that completely gutted me over some adjustment we had to make because we were broke. I have been more angry at Pat than I have ever been. And I don’t know when I will be able to let go of it. But I have loved him too. Fiercely, protectively, resentfully.
And I have discovered a seemingly endless well of compassion inside me for anyone who is broken or helpless or lost.
Which is all of us at some point or another.
I roll over and look at Pat. His chest rises and falls. The cat jumps onto the foot of the bed. My thoughts settle. “You are here, right now,” I tell myself. “You are here right now with your husband and your cat and a boy in the living room who you have just taken care of. “
Naming what is around me is one of the ways that I have saved myself from feeling completely helpless. And in the last few months I have learned that we have to save our own lives over and over and over again. By staying conscious. By naming. By actively choosing, rather than waiting for life or an intemperate god to put up a roadblock or toss us a bone. The dental receptionist was kind but I had to choose to ask her for help. I did it with snot spurting out of my nose. I shook with the effort of it. I looked like hell. But I had fixed the problem.
If this cosmically tiny domestic challenge had stood in front of me two years ago, I would not have been able to scale it.
I put my hand on Pat’s stubbled cheek.
This is my husband.
The cat is at my feet.
It is sunny outside.
Spencer is at school and Murphy is on the couch.
There is food in cupboard.
There is work to be done.