Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Murphy's Teeth and the Insurance (Part Two)

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.
It’s hopeless.
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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Murphy's Teeth and the Insurance (Part One)

              I wake as I do all school days, two minutes before the five-thirty alarm. I am wound tight, like a night watchman who accidentally dozed off.  My hand slaps the alarm that never gets a chance to buzz and my feet hit the carpet as I prioritize. No day is the same and there is little room for error. If I forget to pack a lunch, write an excuse note, or buy toilet paper on the way home from the bus stop, everything will be thrown off. The boys are on two different school schedules and keeping track requires a mind capable of last minute recalibrations. Pat for example, who sleeps on the other side of the bed, has probably neglected to tell me about an appointment that can scatter the best-laid plans like an ill wind on a neatly raked pile of leaves.
Which isn’t to say I don’t love him. But I don’t have time for that now.
I pad out to the dark living room and turn on the lamp. This is routine. I flip on the light switch in the kitchen, feed the cat, and walk back into the living room to turn on the computer and check the weather. I look out our bay window, seven stories above a street in West Hollywood. The odd car drives by. A woman walks her dog.
I breathe in.
The top priority today is getting Murphy to the dentist. We lose our health insurance at the end of the month because our union only gives insurance based on income. We didn’t make enough last year to get more coverage. Three months ago, I assigned Pat the task of booking our physicals and dental appointments so we could get everything done before we move to a plan that only kicks in after we have paid an $8500.00 deductible per person.
A gate across the road swings open and a man in a business suit shuts it behind him.
$8500.00 out of pocket per person. I feel my lips curl. I told a friend that all I would be getting for $450.00 a month was assurance that if one of us got cancer it wouldn’t cost us more than twenty percent after we’d paid off $8500.00.
She said, “Forget cancer. What if one of you breaks a leg in three places? That adds up fast.”
Now I have to worry about our legs being broken in three places.
I breathe in again to soften my belly, which is tightening.
The lady with the dog across the street unlocks the gate that the businessman just passed through.
Of course, Pat didn’t schedule the physicals and dental appointments. It’s not his usual job. He does the bills and the car. I do the appointments and dusting. I allowed six weeks to tick by, waiting and reminding him to make the appointments until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I picked up the phone to do it myself. It took me all of fifteen minutes to nail everything down in a tight, almost triumphant voice that must have confused the office assistants. Then I wrote the appointments on a clean sheet of paper, in jagged handwriting, and smacked the list down in front of Pat at the computer. Proof, you see. Proof that I have to do everything around here.
Except the bills and the car.
And the bathrooms.
I haven’t done a bathroom in twenty-one years. My girlfriends want to know if Pat has a brother.
A truck drives by.
In the last month, all four of us have had our physicals and teeth cleanings. Spencer and Murphy are scheduled to see an orthodontist later this week. I just had a pap smear and my mammogram. And Pat and I both had colonoscopies. It’s like we are on a reality show that involves a wacky family health challenge. We would have an excellent chance of winning it too. Except that Murphy ended up having seven cavities.
“Can you squeeze his appointments in before the end of the month?” I implored the receptionist, who has known our family for several years. “I’m leaving town in April.” I wasn’t about to tell her that our insurance was running out for fear that she would drop us entirely. “Or what about doing all seven cavities in one sitting? Has anyone ever done that?”
The receptionist smiled vaguely and consulted the schedule, “I don’t think an eight-year-old can sit in the chair that long.”
I had to stop myself from yelling, “Don’t you have a fucking drug that can knock him out?” Instead, I waited anxiously while she squeezed three appointments into my inexplicably rigid time frame, all of which involved pulling Murphy out of school.
I turn away from the window, breathe again, and walk to the door of the kids’ bedroom. I twist the knob as noiselessly as possible so as not to wake Murphy who can sleep until it’s time to go to the dentist. I reach up to the top bunk and grope around for Spencer’s shoulder.
“Spence,” I whisper, “time for school.”
“OK,” he croaks. “Is Murphy all right?”
“What do you mean?”
“He threw up last night.”
“Yeah,” I hear Murphy say from the dark on his side of the room.
I wheel around, “You threw up? When?”
“It wasn’t a big deal,” says Murphy. I can just make out his blonde curls glowing faintly in the streetlight sliding in through the window. Spencer inches down the ladder behind me.
“Spence, why don’t you go into the living room and start getting ready,” I say, without turning to him.
“Ummmmph”, he says, which is a preteen affirmative.
I lean down and touch Murphy’s forehead. It is hot. Very hot. Unmistakably hot. He coughs. It is a phlegmy, chesty alarm that trumpets in my brain, “NO DENTIST TODAY!!! Now you are going to have to pay thousands of dollars for dental work because you wanted to test Pat to see if he really was going to be more responsible after the last time he disappointed you!!!”
“Honey, can you move to the couch?” I ask Murphy as gently as I can. “You will need to have some medicine.”
What am I doing? Why don’t I let him fall back asleep? Because I am still hoping that I can bring down his fever and mask his cough in time for him to see the damn dentist so that I can prove to myself that I am not the most selfish bitch-mother on the planet for making my kids’ health a wedge issue in my marriage.
Murphy sits up, pulls his blanket around him, and swings his legs off the bed. I trail him out the door, his blanket dragging like the cloak of a boy king. A sick boy king.
Spencer has already gotten himself some cereal. My throat tightens. I usually do that for him. I quickly remind myself that I need to start letting him do things for himself anyway. He’s a remarkably responsible kid who could probably run a country more efficiently than I manage my writing career.
Murphy crawls onto the couch, adjusting his blanket as I grab medicine from the bathroom cabinet and sit on the coffee table. He watches me pour the gelatinous, cherry flavored elixir up to the right line on the measuring cup.
“Hold on, I’ll get you some juice,” I say. He always needs a juice chaser to erase the taste of the medicine as fast as possible.
I jump up and head to the kitchen, hoping that my dark purpose is isn’t showing itself in the quickness of my gait or the sharpness of my speech. My sole mission is to get Murphy well enough to see the dentist today.
Part 2 will be posted next week.

Murphy, when he isn't sick

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Finding Relief at Ragdale

             Last week I lost my unemployment insurance. Last week, I lost health insurance for my whole family. And, last week, Pat and I declared bankruptcy. Believe me when I tell you that I know that many people have had far worse weeks.
            The day of my bankruptcy hearing, I finally allowed my feet to hit the floor at four in the morning. I had been flinging the covers on and off, forcing Pat to roll over, readjusting my pillow, and picking up my glasses to look at the clock for what seemed like hours. The clicking of the analog clock’s seconds evoked images from science fiction movies – the painful slowing down of time before the dreadful, predetermined hour when life as we knew it would be completely destroyed.
It might be worth noting, here, that Pat was clearly going to sleep trough my apocalypse. In fairness, this might be because he’d already been through nights like this with me before. And we had – so far – arisen those following mornings with hearts still beating and no sign that our bodies had been claimed as hosts for a galactic showdown that was not of our making.
            Four in the morning is the hour for reckonings. Three o’clock still belongs to the night before. It is a post-party hour or the hour that one wakes up on the couch with the TV still on. But by four you have been to bed. You’ve attempted sleep and failed. You are up alone with no one to lie to. It is pre-dawn and the day is coming whether you like it or not. Four o’clock in the morning most assuredly belongs to tomorrow. Unless there is no tomorrow. In which case, you’ve got a whole host of new problems you haven’t even gotten to yet.
            I walked over to the clothes that I had set aside for the bankruptcy hearing. I was hoping to look respectful but not too upscale. The second part of that description would excuse the run-down pumps that I had picked up at a garage sale. Would the judge be looking at my pumps? Or at my sad, worried eyes?
            To be accurate, bankruptcy proceedings aren’t “hearings” or “trials”. By the time you sit in front of a Trustee, you’ve pretty much proved that you haven’t got a thing left but your second hand pumps and a prayer. The trustee takes control of your non-existent assets and BOOM… you’re discharged. With a credit score that looks like the circumference of a single cell organism and, if you’re me, a lot of self-reckoning.
            I am a woman who expects to pay her debts. I am a woman who likes to work hard. You can call me in the middle of the night and I will spend an hour listening. I will lend you money if I have it. I will watch your kids at the last minute. I am good for a favor, a pep talk, and a lengthy analysis of which pair of earrings you should buy even if the conversation bores me to distraction.
            I have my failings, for sure. But I am not a shirker, a flake, or a no-show.
            And I am bankrupt.
            Self-reckonings. Do I deserve a tomorrow?
            A suitcase was next to my worn pumps and the business slacks that I had only worn once before to a funeral. Yes. That afternoon, after my bankruptcy proceedings, I would grab that suitcase and hop on a flight to Chicago, Illinois. I was going to be spending an entire month at a writers’ residency called Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois.
            Was I running away? From my family? From the bankruptcy and my responsibility for it? That’s what it had felt like days before when I talked to one of my closest friends.
            “Everybody needs relief,” Stephanie said on Skype. I could see an unusually sunny afternoon in London outside the window behind her.
            “But it’s crazy,” I said. “I should stay here and get a job in a furniture store.”
            Lately, whenever I fantasize about getting a ‘real’ job, it’s always in a furniture store. Part of the reason is because the furniture in our apartment is falling apart and I believe I’ll get some good deals. But it goes deeper than that. I like furniture. It’s solid. It’s uncomplicated. It’s utilitarian. Furniture is the opposite of a poem. And, because being a writer is a small part of what landed me in bankruptcy, working in a furniture store feels solid. Like a cure. 
            “But you said, yourself, you’re depleted,” Stephanie said.
            “True. But any sane person would tell me to get a job, not run to an artists’ colony to write something that may or may not sell.”
            Stephanie smoothed her hair back from her forehead, “You’ve always said that you sell the things that you’re passionate about.”
            “I could be passionate about furniture. I could be super-passionate about a red leather club chair and hand-crafted knotty pine bookshelves.”
            “Listen. You’re not going to make that much money at that furniture store but you could make a lot of money selling a book. I could make the argument that taking the residency is the most fiscally responsible choice you have made in the past ten years.”
            I loved where this was going. Not only was I being fiscally responsible but I was also getting to spend a month living in a pretty room that looked out onto a prairie, reading novels, and eating gorgeous food that was prepared for me every day.
            Stephanie looked skype-straight into my pixeled eyes, “Trust yourself. You know that you need this. You’ll be better in every way. It’s healthy to look for relief.”
            I have thought a lot about that conversation since I arrived at Ragdale two days ago, relief suffusing my bloodstream like oxygen as soon as I stepped over the threshold of my room. I set up a picture of my two sons on my desk. I look at it whenever I doubt myself.
            There are different kinds of relief.
            I came here for artistic mooring. Time and space to listen to my inner voice. Room to distance myself from the expectations of others. I came here to be gentle with myself. To nourish my body and breathe crisp country air. But the main reason I came here, in spite of every practical reason to stay at home, was to save my own life.
            That sounds dramatic, I know. But I believe that our lives need saving over and over and over again. We all get lost. We all fuck up. We fuck up really, really badly. And when I look at that picture of my sons on my desk, I know that I owe it to them to find my way again. And, sadly, I wouldn’t have found it in a furniture store. Although I’d be happy to work there, once I’ve reclaimed what I lost. Or more accurately --- claim who I am now.
            Stephanie was right. We all need relief every now and then. And it is our duty to admit when we need it and to accept it when it’s offered. My relief is singularly luxurious and that is why I know – I REALLY KNOW – that people have had far worse weeks than the one I just had. I only hope that their relief comes quickly.
            Take it. Use it. And then give it to someone else.

Where I sleep

Where I write

Where I sit and think