Ever since the kids became responsible, tax-paying adults, the holidays have been a nightmare of scheduling. During his senior year in college, Travis went to work for a chain pharmacy which is known for being open 24/7/365. Nikki in her retail years sometimes was free on Christmas, but then she married a firefighter and all bets were off. When the kids were little we used to have a big dinner party on Christmas Eve, then open presents the next morning and relax the rest of the day. I miss that.
With Dale’s job, the one day of the year he was guaranteed to be home was Christmas Day. The touring industry is pretty seasonal, so it was usually easy enough for him to have downtime on that day. Particularly in the years when he was home from Thanksgiving till nearly Easter. Some years not so much, though. Our first Christmas, in 1981, he flew in off of AC/DC at midnight on Christmas Eve morning. That day we went scrounging for a tree, and found one for $12. It was short, spindly, and had an enormous hole on one side, but it was by-God real and it was our first.
Even the year (2001) he worked for the Trans Siberian Orchestra, whose entire schtick is Christmas music, he managed to make it home. The tour just happened to have a show in Nashville on December 26. Dale cruised in with his passengers on Christmas Eve day, and because nobody on the tour was permitted to fly home for the holiday, Dale brought nine guests with him for dinner that night: the tour manager and eight of the musicians. The viola player made homemade eggnog for us, and we demolished the biggest turkey I’ve ever seen, let alone cooked.
For the past dozen years or so, though, with the kids grown and having their own lives, we’ve had to give up the dinner parties and get together at the time when a majority of us were available. Dale was always there, and a few years ago his mother moved into the area, but sometimes Nikki had to eat and run, and there were years when Travis had to close the store Christmas Eve and open on Christmas Day. The grandsons arrived, but then when the divorce happened the boys’ presence was dictated by the court and nobody took that well.
Last Christmas, for one bright, shining moment, it all changed.
That time, it all came together, like magic. The boys and their mother live here now, and it was our turn to have them on Christmas Day. Travis last summer was promoted to general manager of his own store, guaranteeing him Christmas Day off. And Dale worked to mid-December, taking an extra week with the Grateful Dead (these days Dead and Company), and came home in plenty of time to enjoy a break.
Both the kids (they’re in their mid-thirties now) took me Christmas tree shopping. There’s a tree lot that for a number of years has set up on a vacant lot that used to be a funeral home. (Yeah, I’m one of those people who give directions like, “Turn left at where the old WalMart used to be.”) We’ve gotten into the habit of buying our trees there, and that’s what you call tradition. It was a special treat for me that Travis and Nikki were there, because they know I like tree-shopping as a family.
This year, it was no Charlie Brown tree. The kids bought us a huge, flocked one. I’d never had a flocked tree before in my life. My mother used to sneer at them, so I had never been interested, but when Nikki asked me if I wanted our chosen tree flocked, a mood came over me. Yes, this flocking was pretty. And when I felt of it, I could tell it would stay on the tree and make the branches sturdier. I accepted the flocking with much pleasure.
This year we weren’t particularly flush, but we had enough. When I asked Dale what he wanted for Christmas, he couldn’t think of anything. So he mentioned that his watch needed repair.
That’s not much of a present. I’d bought him that watch for Christmas several years before. But he couldn’t think of anything else, so I took it to where I’d bought it to see if they could fix it. They told me all it needed was a new battery. Sixteen bucks. I had them fix it, then texted Dale. “Watch only needed new battery. Suggestions? Off to browse Best Buy for ideas. I’ll return the watch when I get home.”
He replied, “Ok. I don’t know something fun maybe whatever is comfortable to budget lov you.”
“Fun it is. I know exactly what.” First time ever, I knew what to get him. I went looking for a VR headset.
Christmas Eve the boys got to toast marshmallows in the fireplace, a tradition that for me goes back to about 1960 when my brother and I were preschoolers. They said goodbye to Buddy, their Elf on a Shelf, and hung their stockings by the chimney with care.
Christmas Day was like old times, but without the stress. Jack-O-Lantern pies made from Halloween decorations. Turkey–a cheap one shot with broth, which are never dry and always taste fabulous. Dressing with gravy, and I make the BEST gravy. My grandmother’s recipe for sweet potato casserole. Nobody poised to eat and run. Nobody arriving at the last minute. Nobody annoyed, and Dale even seemed to like his VR headset.
It was one of the best Christmases ever. God blessed us that we had no idea that last Christmas would be Dale’s last Christmas.
Taking a moment before the next post about why I stopped posting in August, here’s one for a good laugh.
Today my son pulled down from the garage rafters the ten or so leaf bags full of t-shirts Dale had stashed over the past forty or so years. The bags were crumbling into big plastic flakes, but the shirts inside were all in pretty good shape. Except for one Spinal Tap shirt that disintegrated in my hands, I’m going to sell them to supplement my Social Security. First step was to separate the keepers (Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Black Sabbath, etc.) from the Goodwill shirts (Loch Raven Coach, Molly Murphy’s Restaurant, Harley Davidson, etc.), then carefully fold the keepers and put them in tubs to keep them safe and clean until their turn on eBay. I spent the entire day at this.
Many of the shirts meant nothing to me; I had never seen them and they’d never been worn. But there were many that brought back memories of tours when I’d accompanied Dale. The several Jefferson Starship shirts made me smile. Dale’s first tour as a bus driver (previously he’d driven a semi, hauling tour equipment) was on the Nuclear Furniture tour in 1984. I accompanied him on it for three weeks.
Did I meet Grace Slick? Of course, I did. But that has nothing to do with this story.
Shortly after I arrived on the tour, Dale and I got on an elevator in the hotel, and Grace and a man I didn’t know got on with us. Dale needed to stop on the floor where management had their rooms, which was also where Grace needed to go. They both got off at that floor, and the man and I continued on to the top floor.
He seemed like a nice guy. Asked me if I was Dale’s wife, and I explained that I was visiting him for a few weeks. He said some complimentary things about Dale, etc. As we left the elevator and proceeded to our respective rooms. Thinking I was being polite, I asked him if he worked for the band. I had, after all, seen him get on the elevator with Grace.
He replied in the affirmative.
I asked him what he did.
He said, “I’m the bass player.”
Yeah. Pete Sears.
“Oh, I guess you do work on the tour.” Had there been a hole to crawl into…
I apologized sincerely. He laughed and forgave me.
Now the t-shirts are all packed up. Fourteen large tubs They’re going up on eBay, but the memories stay here.
[This series of posts over the next few weeks tell of why I haven’t posted since August. If it’s too depressing, feel free to skip them over.]
Well, I’m back. Ready to tell the story of the stroke I had on October 19. Weirdly, typing is painful in ways I never would have expected. Sometimes it requires medication, sometimes medication stronger than Tylenol. I try to avoid painkiller.
But let me tell this from the beginning.
On Thursday, October 19, I was struggling to make peace between two good friends. We’d known each other for about forty-five years, and had been through much together. Now they were fighting and I wanted to smooth things over. For about six hours I talked and negotiated, and as one might guess I got nothing but grief for my effort because, as you know, Bob, no good deed goes unpunished. Then, in the midst of this, my daughter came into my office and accused me of setting the thermostat too high. The thermostat was new, a fancy-schmancy smarthouse sort of thing, and we’d spent about a week trying to figure out how to set it so we wouldn’t have to keep fooling with it. So I went to see what I could do.
I don’t do numbers well. I was already stressed out and exhausted from a day of failing to make peace, and now I was supposed to figure out this unfamiliar technology. I’m generally pretty good at assimilating new things, but, you know…numbers. My daughter had her brother on the phone, and they were both trying to tell me what to do while I struggled to think and listen at the same time. Suddenly my upper lip went tingly-numb.
My first thought was “stroke,” but the numbness went away after about sixty seconds. Huh. I was accustomed to neuropathy in my feet, and that’s what this felt like. So I went back to what I was doing, reset the thermostat, and continued my chat with my friends. I did take a BP reading, and it was high enough I should have gone straight to the ER, but the numbness was gone so I decided I didn’t want to go to the ER just to be sent home again. I don’t have money for that sort of thing.
The following morning I woke up with no feeling at all in my lower-right face and my right hand. I knew something was terribly wrong, but I still didn’t think it was a stroke. I thought strokes always involved muscle weakness or cognitive difficulty. To me, this felt exactly like I’d slept weird on one side, or the peripheral neuropathy I’ve had in my feet for nearly a decade. Business as usual. So I waited for it to go away, as it had the night before.
The following day the numbness was still there. It began to scare me. It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better, either. I called my son to take me to the ER, but ended up changing my mind. I still wasn’t convinced it was a stroke, and knew how much it would cost for an MRI or CT scan. I didn’t go to the ER.
The next morning my English handbells group was to play in church. I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble playing; I could still read and move. But when I arrived at the church and I learned one of the bells needed its rubber clapper spring replaced immediately, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to just tough this thing out. I was the only player who was sufficiently skilled at replacing bell springs, and I knew my lack of sensation in my right hand was going to keep me from succeeding at this. I talked another player through it, and decided that I needed to go to the ER as soon as we were done playing that morning.
I ducked out of the service as soon as I could, went home, and asked my daughter to take me to the ER. First I had to contact my insurance provider to find out whether there was an in-network hospital nearby.
The Hendersonville Medical Center (TriStar) ER is where my brother died in 2001, and is also where he was sent home with no diagnosis two months earlier for having no insurance. In short, as I’ve mentioned here before, my brother died for lack of coverage. It was more than creepy going into that place, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the room I was in was the room he’d been in when they’d tried to revive him. And there I waited, accompanied by my daughter.
I went through the usual, vitals, bloodwork, heart monitor, etc. Then I was taken out for a CT scan (my grandson is called CT, and I wish they still called them CAT scans), which was a breeze. After some more waiting in the room, a neurologist came to tell me he had a pretty good idea I’d had a small thalamic stroke. But he wanted to see an MRI to make certain.
MRIs aren’t so bad. I’d heard they were loud and scary. The operator carefully explained to me what was going to happen, and I was able to ask questions. (Will I be able to rest my arms, or will I have to hold them up?) Then they slid me into the VERY small opening in the machine. My only moment of panic was when my shoulders touched the sides of the tube and I didn’t know how narrow it was going to be. But once I stopped moving and was able to find a spot for my arms, I was able to close my eyes and practice being still. I awaited the noise I’d heard so much about.
Wasn’t so much. Yeah, it was loud, but not startlingly or overwhelmingly so. They’d told me it was going to take awhile, but I was able to drift off in the rhythm of whack-whack-whack, and the scan was punctuated by two or three pauses. More boring than scary.
Back in the room that my brother may have died in, we waited some more. My husband called, and I updated him. Then we had to have the Living Will conversation. I didn’t have one, and since we were probably dealing with a stroke but didn’t know anything else about it, I had to tell him no machines. I wanted to be DNR. It was pretty upsetting for all of us, but it had to be said. And I made a mental note to do some legal paperwork once I had the chance. It came home to me that death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen in a hospital.
The stroke was confirmed, and I was admitted. The cash register in my head went, “Ka-ching.” More frightening than the MRI noise.
Since my arrival at about noon, I’d been asking about getting something to eat, because I hadn’t eaten since early the day before. But when they wheeled me to my room I was told it would be awhile before they would do the eating test that would determine whether I could chew without choking. I waited. It was nearly midnight before I was given the test and awarded a small turkey sandwich. Still polite, I didn’t complain about the tiny piece of bread and single slice of processed turkey. I waited for breakfast the next morning.
Food service was somewhere around 7:30, and I was beginning to feel light headed and cranky. I kept asking when it would arrive, and nobody seemed to know. Finally, about three hours after I woke up, a tray came. I could smell the sausage from the hallway.
My tray, however, contained a bottle of Ensure, some Jell-O, and a bowl of grits.
I lost it. Entirely. I’m a diabetic, and there was nothing on my tray I could consume without having a sugar spike. And…for God’s sake…grits? Furthermore, there wasn’t enough food on the tray to put a dent in my hunger, even if I had been able to eat it. I’m afraid I wasn’t very gentle in my request for a real breakfast.
The kitchen responded with a single scrambled egg and some orange juice.
The egg was fine, though not nearly enough. Orange juice has been off my diet for years, because it’s extremely high in sugar. What part of “I’m a diabetic” did they not get?
By this time I was frantic. I complained to the nurse and wanted to know what in bloody blue blazes was going on. She had no information, which is retrospect was probably a lie. I insisted on actual food. They sent someone (I forget her title) to talk to me.
It turned out that some doctor (probably the hospitalist, who turned out to be a true nitwit when I finally met him) had decided that, because I was a stroke patient, I should be on a liquid diet. Never mind that I’d passed the eating test the night before, this guy who had never laid eyes on me decided to put this diabetic on a liquid diet that was 100% carbohydrate. More on him later.
So when my lunch tray came it was still the liquid diet, but I was told to eat what I could from that tray and a real lunch would follow soon. So I wolfed the turkey soup (yes, you can wolf soup if you’re hungry enough), which was the only thing on the tray I could tolerate. Soon after another tray came with a sandwich, salad, and other goodies. I finally felt human again.
On the subject of that day’s hospitalist, here’s why he’s not getting paid by me. He did finally come by my room that afternoon, and informed me that he didn’t like my cholesterol numbers and he’d prescribed Lipitor for me. I informed him that I won’t take Lipitor because I saw what it had done to my husband. I have a long history of bad side effects and searching down the right medications, and won’t take anything that is likely to make me sick. No Lipitor for me.
He argued with me. I argued back and wondered out loud why Lipitor was the only thing he had. I asked for an alternative, but his response was to tell me he was prescribing it and I didn’t have to take it if I didn’t want to. When I asked him, “Is that all you’ve got?” He reached for his phone, pretended to take a call, wandered away, and I never saw him again.
When I saw his bill, which was an outrageous amount, I threw it in the trash. He’ll not see a dime out of my pocket.
I spent a total of two days in the hospital. I’m not sure what the purpose was of the second day, except maybe they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go home and start bleeding again. My meds and diet haven’t changed, though I’m more mindful of keeping stress levels low. (Yeah, right. See next rock.)
It’s been five months, and I now have sensation in my face and hand. At first it was terrible pain, but the pain has eased off somewhat and it’s now just an uncomfortable sensation. Like burning, whenever I touch something. I’m told it may eventually go away entirely, and at least for now it’s tolerable.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been AWOL, and I apologize. I expect you all found other things to amuse, and I haven’t been much fun in any case. On the 31st I had oral surgery, and it went well, thank you. Then four days later my dog died.
You know, this blog was not intended to be a litany of people and pets I’ve lost. Honest. No, really. I swear it. When I migrated my website, I fully expected to have more worthwhile things to say than “my dog died.” But let me tell you about Max. He was the best dog ever.
In June of 2010, we found ourselves dogless, and it had only been seven months since I’d lost my very favorite cat, Silas. My husband knew I wanted another Border collie, and thought he might meet me at the airport on my return from a trip to New York and present me with a puppy, but thought better of it and let me pick out the puppy myself. So we found a breeder up the road in Beth Page, and went to look.
The place was clean, the dogs seemed happy, and there were several puppies to choose from. All the unusual-colored ones were spoken for, but I was happy to take a black-and-white rough coat. I picked up one of those, and he settled into my arms while I looked at the other puppies. We talked about rough coat vs. smooth coat, eye color, and other sundries. I wanted a rough coat, and thought I might like one with blue eyes, but at five weeks old it was too early to tell eye color. We looked at the parents. The father was a smallish, red, rough coat with erect ears. We were told he was an agility competitor, and his parents had both been imported from Scotland and Ireland. I liked that very much. Mom was quite large for a Border collie. She was floppy-eared and so shaggy she almost looked like an English Sheep Dog. Her people were working cattle dogs from Kentucky.
The puppy in my arms fell asleep, and when it came time to choose, I saw no reason to put him down. So we bought him and named him Max, then left him there to grow up for another week.
The following Saturday I went to pick him up after he’d had his shots, etc., and the breeder greeted me with, “I have good news. It looks like he’s going to have one blue eye.” One blue? I thought that was a little weird. But then later he ended up with one blue and one blue/brown merle, which I found unutterably cool.
At six weeks old, Max was still very young to be leaving home. Eight weeks is the recommended age. But I had the time and energy to focus on him. I would sit with him on the carpet, and he would play for about ten minutes, then fall asleep in my lap for five. Play for ten, sleep for five.
He was the first puppy I’d ever had who was specifically my dog, and with my husband on the road there was nobody else around to influence him. I bought several books on dog training (I can do anything if I have the instructions), and began readying him for the obedience class I planned to take, which would be a learning experience for both of us. At eight weeks I started showing him the concept of “fetch.” Mostly I would take his favorite toy, toss it in front of him, then praise and pet him when he picked it up. It was maybe a couple of weeks later that he caught on that the objective was for him to bring it to me, and from then on he was a fetching fool. A Border collie with a job is a happy puppy.
Some months later we signed up for an obedience class. He already knew how to sit, but hadn’t yet grasped coming on command. He learned it in no time flat. Every week the instructor was at a loss to fill the time because Max would pick up the day’s lesson in about five minutes, then go, “Okay, what else ya got?” I decided I liked having a dog who was smarter than me.
Even for a Border collie, Max was high energy and smarter than average. We have a broadcast-style (no wire) invisible fence we’d bought for our first Border collie, Ziggy. The instructions say to give the dog a couple of days to get used to the perimeter. Ziggy, being of a breed known for intelligence, learned it in a couple of hours. Max, at about a year old, learned it in five minutes. Which is also about how long it took him to learn to catch a Frisbee (aka Slobber Disk.)
As I said earlier, Max was a fetching fool. Anyone who came to our back door was immediately presented with Max’s honeycomb ball. Like a bridge troll, he expected the ball to be thrown several times before he would allow that person to pass. And no matter how many throws he got, he always went, “Piker!” Often when I walked down the driveway to get the mail, that ball would go rolling past me to the street. I’d turn around and find Max standing at the top, waiting for me to throw it for him. The neighbors all loved playing fetch with Max, which I encouraged because I could never keep up with him.
On August 4, two weeks ago, Max died. The vet showed me the x-ray, which revealed something that looked like a bone in his colon, and a shadow that looked like a massive infection. Since everyone in my family knows not to give bones to a dog, I can only guess he got it out of the garbage. In any case, he passed only a few minutes after I got him to the vet.
I’ll get another puppy, probably in a year or two. Meanwhile I’m working with my daughter’s dog, a Mountain Cur named Cooper. He’s not a stupid dog, but compared to Max he seems badly retarded. I’m so spoiled by Max.
On October 3, 2001, at 7:30 in the evening, I sat in front of the TV, waiting for Farscape to start and my brother, Alan, to arrive to watch it with me. It was a regular thing, and I looked forward to it every week. Tonight he was late, but that wasn’t unusual.
About five minutes into the show, the phone rang. It was a woman, who asked, “Who’s this?”
I replied, “Who’s this?”
She only kept asking who I was, and I finally hung up. I have no patience for anyone who can’t identify themselves on the phone. I went back to watching the show.
The phone rang again, and it was the same woman, asking again who I was. I insisted she tell me who she was, and got another runaround. This was beginning to annoy me. This was before we had a DVR, and I was missing my favorite show. Again I hung up.
A third time the phone rang. This time it was a police officer, who informed me the call was about my brother, who had just had a heart attack. Apparently I was his emergency contact, and I was summoned to the hospital. I picked up my purse and left immediately.
On the way there, I sorted out in my mind how we would take care of Alan during his convalescence. I was his only local relative; he would need to stay with us and I would be responsible for him. That was how it had always been. He was my little brother, and all my life I had been held responsible for him.
In the ER, I learned he was still coding. They’d been trying to restart his heart for about half an hour. I was told that at this point, even if he responded he would probably end up brain-damaged. But as it was, they gave up soon after and pronounced him dead.
It turned out that the woman who had called twice then hung up was a friend of his, who had discovered him on the floor of his computer shop about half an hour after he called her, complaining of severe chest pains. (And by half an hour I mean God only knows how long it really took that flaming idiot to finally decide Alan needed help.)
Much later, from various sources including witnesses, emergency responders, and hospital records, I was able to assemble the truth of what happened. Alan began experiencing chest pains early in the evening, and phoned his friend the brain trust. She later said to me he told her to not call 911, because he couldn’t afford another trip to the ER and thought he could just tough it out the way he always had before. I learned he’d been having these episodes for about six months. Two months earlier he’d gone to the emergency room after going unconscious during one of them, but by the time he got there his rhythm had normalized and he was stable. The ER had done nothing; the episode had simply ended. By law, hospital emergency rooms are not obligated to find out what happened, they’re only required to stabilize. I know this because the ER at TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center, where Alan went for help and where he ultimately died, has notices posted on every available wall space stating in detail that they are not responsible for treating patients who are not insured, and once a patient is stabilized he is expected to leave the premises. So, since my brother was conscious and breathing, the hospital booted him out the door and he went home with a medical bill he would never have been able to pay even if he’d lived. He was a self-employed computer tech, new in town and barely scraping by, and had no way of affording individual health insurance. Ever. An individual policy for someone his age would have cost more than his entire income.
Alan told his friend not to call 911, and told her it was because, if he incurred another medical debt, he would never be able to have anything for the rest of his life. So she didn’t call anyone, and a while later wandered over to his shop to see if he was all right. He was, at that point, quite dead.
Had he been insured and not afraid to call for help, he could have been taken to the hospital in time and ::cough:: stabilized. And they might have stumbled across the cause of these episodes. Or perhaps, even, he might have had a diagnosis after the very first episode if he’d had access to a GP. But almost no GPs take new patients who are not insured. Why didn’t he get on Medicaid? Fffff…right. Be real, this is Tennessee. You need a lawyer to get on TennCare. In short, my brother died for lack of health insurance, as surely as if some actuary from Blue Cross had put a bullet in his brain.
So…I told you that story to tell you this, and some other stuff. (Yeah, this is going to be a long post, but I hope you’ll bear with me.) Skip ahead a few years. President Barack Obama, after at least a year of struggle which I followed closely, with fingers crossed that he would put an end to our health care system which was killing people, signed into law the Affordable Care Act. I decline to call it “ObamaCare,” because the main thing to remember is the word affordable. Let’s note that affordable is not part of the Republican repeal bill, on any level. We’ll get back to that shortly.
I won’t go into detail about the law itself; it’s extremely complex and deeply flawed. I’ll spare the rant on why. The central issue on this is that this law enabled millions of people, including me, to have more or less affordable health insurance. For some it is the first time in their lives. I had been uninsured my entire adult life. Being insurance clueless, I approached the government exchange with trepidation. It was confusing, but not nearly as hopeless as the teeth-pulling nightmare I’d experienced when signing my husband up for an individual policy several years earlier. (Just him; we couldn’t afford to insure both of us.) The information I needed was there on the site, I just had to interpret it. I signed up for insurance on the exchange, barely affordable because of the subsidy, and began to feel like I belonged, and no longer fallen through the cracks. It’s impossible to describe how good that felt.
My husband’s profession (entertainer coach driver) doesn’t offer health insurance at any price, because this is Tennessee and entertainment unions are by law prohibited from any sort of collective behavior that might give them any power. Welcome to Right to Work. I have been a freelance writer since 1993, but though I have been a member of the Authors’ Guild they were unable to offer me health insurance because I live in Tennessee. I point out these things lest anyone accuse me of just not wanting to pay for health care. The ugly truth is that over the years I have paid many, many times as much for the smidgens of diagnosis and treatment I’ve managed to pry out of the system as what was charged for the same tests and prescriptions to insurance companies. I’m not talking about copays, I’m talking about total cost to the insurer. Because my husband was briefly insured, and we’re both diabetic and taking the same tests and pills, I have bills to prove it.
During these past few years of being fully insured (except for optical and dental, because apparently the health insurance industry doesn’t consider eyes and teeth part of one’s body), I’ve finally been able to control my blood sugar and blood pressure, goals that had eluded me during previous years when every office visit had to be budgeted and certain medications were impossibly out of reach. In December of 2014 I developed a blister on my foot and was hospitalized with a diabetic foot ulcer. It was caught soon enough to avoid amputation because I hadn’t hesitated to have it checked as soon as I realized there was something wrong. Nowadays any foot sore will send me to my GP immediately, because my copay is one-fifth the cost of an office visit. Though they told me the cellulitis that developed from the foot ulcer might never heal entirely, after two and a half years has healed up and there’s no sign of it. I’ve also managed to lose a little weight, and my thyroid is being properly tested and medicated, which helps weight control and therefore blood sugar and cholesterol control. I can get antibiotics for respiratory infections and stomach bugs, thereby spending days under the weather rather than weeks or months. All in all, the advent of the ACA has enabled me to feel healthier–be healthier–than I had for decades.
Thank you, Mr. Obama.
Now jump to January 20, 2017. Trump put his hand on a couple of bibles and swore to defend the Constitution, a promise we knew at the time he didn’t mean, and now he’s showing us just how little regard he has for it. At that moment I was on a bus full of women in pink knitted hats, headed to Washington D.C. to let the world know Trump is Not My President and that we weren’t going to allow him to plunder the country. Six months in, it’s beginning to look as if our political system–even the rule of law–is crumbling around our heads. Regardless of which side one supports, it can’t be denied that Washington D.C. is not getting anything accomplished, and those of us who are retirement age or close to it, who have the rest of our lives at stake, are watching the three-ring nightmare with white knuckles. I am literally counting the days until I will be old enough for Medicare. Mitch (Yertle the Turtle) McConnell is leading the charge to yank the ACA, among other things. Every few weeks it looks like millions of us are going to lose our health care–and therefore our health–so that monstrously, absurdly, unthinkably rich folks can pay less in taxes and by that become even more monstrous, absurd, and unthinkable. It appears we are doomed.
But I say there’s hope. (You knew I was going somewhere with this, yes?) Trump isn’t going to be impeached this year, or next. However, neither is he fooling most of us. We in the pink hats have made ourselves clear, and will continue to do so. Those in Washington who care about democracy, rule of law, and the individual lives of Americans who are not rolling in money, are sticking up for us. Last night (Thursday, July 27, 2017) the Senate voted on the Republican ACA repeal bill, and the vote was “no.” In a Republican-controlled Senate, McConnell’s mean little bill hasn’t gone forward. Three Republican senators made the difference by joining the forty-eight Democrats in not wanting to hurt people. John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins helped stick up for those of us who are at risk.
McConnell, having postponed the vote so McCain could participate, is not a happy camper today.
So all is not lost, despite the White House turning into Animal House. The ACA, obviously, is not the whole picture, and there will likely be more repeal attempts in the future, but for now the Senate has moved on to other things and many of us will be healthier for it.
Now we must get the message to our representatives that we want the ACA fixed.
Last night when my daughter came home from work, she informed me that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was having an audition cattle call in Antioch this morning. She thought I should go, because I stand undefeated at the Trivial Pursuit genus game since it was invented. Nobody likes to play with me anymore, and I don’t really blame them. My Achilles heel is sports, but the rest of the categories are mine, all mine.
“You should go,” she said.
I was thinking about it, but at the same time I really, really didn’t want to end up doing the Walk of Shame like I had when I auditioned for the fourth season of Master Chef and got no callback. At least I had always known I wasn’t really Master Chef material, but Millionaire is Trivial Pursuit with prizes and to fail that audition would be an eternal embarrassment. I would never hear the end of it. Ever.
“You should go,” she said.
I told her I would think about it.
There wasn’t much time to think. The audition times were 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. the next day. Antioch is nearly an hour’s drive from here, the other side of Nashville, during Friday rush hours. I would have to get up at 6 a.m. and drive down with no coffee or breakfast (who could eat?), and take a multiple-guess test on God-knew-what. When it came bedtime, I had to make a decision. I sighed and told Alexa to set an alarm for 6 a.m. I had no choice, for if I didn’t go I would never hear the end of it. And they’d be right. A coward dies a thousand deaths.
Nervous? You betcha. I did a little stress barfing on the way there and had to pull over briefly to compose myself. I stopped for gas, and bought a bottle of Fiji Water. (Never mind that other stuff, Fiji is the water that makes my mouth water.) After that I was fine. Mostly.
Until the GPS sent me to someone’s house in Antioch instead of the event center I’d programmed in. So I turned around to find a place where I might ask directions, and found my destination in a strip mall I’d passed. So far my luck was running hot.
I got there just in time to miss the first group to take the test. I sat on the floor of an anteroom and listened to unintelligible instructions and sporadic laughter from the inner room. There were only three chairs for about ten of us, and I just knew when I got up off the floor the Millionaire people were going to see me struggle to my feet and they would sadly shake their heads at the fat old lady who thought she should be on television. So I stood up before they could.
It seemed to take forever for the first group to finish. When they did, we in the anteroom watched the folks who didn’t pass the test make their Walk of Shame from the building. My heart went out, and it rather sank as I realized how many there were. I glanced inside at those who remained, waiting for their call-back interviews, and it appeared fewer than half had passed. I took a deep breath and decided I was going to be sent home, too. I would slink out without meeting anyone’s eyes and pretend I wasn’t there, and never speak of it to anyone.
Several people in the anteroom were talking about other auditions and other shows they’d actually been on. One man had auditioned for this show three times, twice in New York. Another did a lot of bragging about how he stands out in a crowd, but I’ll tell you what: I’m from Los Angeles; the pink blazer and shaved head don’t even approach my lookythere threshold. One woman had actually competed on Jeopardy. She and Pink Blazer had been on Wheel of Fortune. I was an egg.
Finally we were allowed into the testing room, where we received pencils, scan cards, and instructions. They passed out the tests, and we were off.
The next ten minutes were actually fairly enjoyable. I’m a much slower reader than average, given my light sensitivity which gives me a dyslexia sort of trouble, so I did my best to read quickly. But even so, I felt confident in my answers. I noticed that a surprising number of the answers I had to get by elimination. I couldn’t tell whether the test was designed that way, but that was my experience. But though I hurried, when we received the one-minute warning I had to start making random marks and didn’t mark the last two questions at all.
Dang. Well, I guessed I now knew why there had been so many who hadn’t passed the test. I sat very still while the cards and tests were retrieved by the testing crew. I told myself that I was relieved of the stress of making a trip to Las Vegas, and running the risk of making a fool out of myself on national television. But even so, my eyes watered up a little bit. It would have been an adventure, and I like adventures.
They started calling the numbers of those who had passed, and I heard my number.
I sat up. Really? I got in? No Walk of Shame? My day suddenly got way better, and I no longer minded risking embarrassment on TV. The girl sitting across from me hadn’t made it. She and about half the rest of the room were invited to leave and better luck next time. I got to stay. I got to stay!
What came next was what they call a “call-back.” They wanted to interview us to see whether we’d be presentable to a TV audience. A Nice Lady called me into a smaller room, where she asked me about my plans for the prize money, my childhood, my writing career, why I auditioned, why I’m a trivia wiz, and why I dyed my hair blue. The pressure was off, and I chattered happily about myself.
Nice Lady told me that if they want me in Las Vegas this summer they will contact me within about a week and a half. Watch this space.
Hello. My name is Julianne, and I’m a packrat. Okay, maybe a hoarder. A border hoarder. I’m able to throw things away, but it takes focused resolve and a commitment to not pull things from the Goodwill pile before they can make it out the door. And I do get rid of things. Junk. But not nearly enough of it. My bookshelves are not just crammed with books, and books stacked on top of books, but in front of the books are crowds of knicknacks. Greeting cards I can’t bear to throw away, executive toys I haven’t played with since the seventies, more clocks than anyone could need, collections of stones inscribed with inspiring words like “faith” and “peace,” a faux Roman coin I bought in a souvenir shop in Carlisle…junk. I tell myself that the only reason the path through my office is so narrow is that my daughter and grandsons are temporarily housed in my guest room and my stored belongings needed to go somewhere. I watch hoarder shows on cable and tell myself that at least there IS a path through my office and I keep it sanitary.
I have a friend who acknowledges her shopping/hoarding problem only because she has rooms she can’t enter because they’re too full of stuff she bought but never opened. Stacks of that stuff have fallen against the inside of the door. I tell myself I’m not a hoarder. Just a packrat. I come by it naturally; my dad was constitutionally incapable of throwing anything away. After he passed, it was discovered he had about a dozen BB guns stashed here and there for no particular reason. They were found amid the books, magazines, old slides, model airplanes, model cars, shot glasses…
He kept them clean and more or less organized, so you see…packrat, not hoarder.
Scariest among the hoarders are the people who have too many cats or dogs. Folks with fifty or a hundred or a couple hundred animals. Sometimes living in such horrible, filthy conditions they have to be rescued from the people who thought they were the rescuers. I see these folks pop up on Animal Planet often. Among normal people there’s a fascination with cat owners who don’t see they are so overwhelmed by the urge to nurture they can’t see the harm they’re doing. I know the urge, and I’ve struggled with it myself. Taking in cats can be a slippery slope. Every homeless animal makes me want to take him or her home. People who know I’m a sucker for cats and kittens always think of me first when they encounter a stray or a pet they can’t keep. But I have to turn them away, because I know exactly my cat limit. It’s 2.5.
Well, yeah, it’s incredibly hard to find that half a cat, so I waffle between two and three. I currently stand at two, am mulling taking on one more kitten, but am resisting the urge by imagining the extra cat hair, litter box, vet bills, and especially the pissing wars that can break out when personalities clash. Over the past thirty years of cat and dog ownership as an adult, these are things I know well.
Tasha was the first cat my husband and I took in after moving to Tennessee. She was a young adult shorthair tortie who appeared one day and stayed with us for a few years.
In the late eighties my husband brought home three abandoned littermates. Four cats was plainly too many. We found a home for one of them. Later Tasha disappeared; I like to think she was taken in by someone in the new condos behind us, the way we’d done. We were then left with Spot and Star. Star, a calico, disappeared almost immediately after we moved in ’93. Spot was, of course, a striped shorthair tabby. (What else does one name a striped cat but Spot?) So for the next seven years we held steady at one cat. All was under control.
But then my daughter brought home an orange-and-white stray Ragamuffin kitten, about six weeks old. He looked like a fluffy creme-sicle. Silas was the best cat buddy I’ve ever had. I knew the instant I saw him he was special, though he’d been rejected, dejected, neglected, infected, and infested in just about every way possible. The vet wasn’t certain he would live, but he did, and he turned out to be filled with relentless life. I nicknamed him Zoom Kitty, because as a kitten he had two speeds: all engines full, and asleep. He lived up to all the wonderful things you hear about Ragamuffins. All was well, with two cats, until Spot passed away at the age of thirteen. and Silas lost his second mommy. He was ten months old.
The following year my husband brought home a six-week-old female who had come into the bus yard riding in the engine compartment of a pickup truck. We named her Aeryn, and later I identified her as possibly a Siberian mix of some sort. She looked very much like a Siberian. (Thank you, Animal Planet and Cats 101.)
Then, while I was away on a research trip to Scotland in ’03, I phoned home and received news of a new kitten that had followed my daughter home. It had only been three months since we’d acquired Aeryn, but one more cat didn’t seem out of line. Marley was a blonde medium-hair, who as a kitten closely resembled Bill the Cat from Bloom County. He grew into a pretty guy (a pretty fat guy), but at first he looked very much like the sort of kitten one would get from a homeless teenager who couldn’t take care of him. Which is what my daughter had done.
That was when we tipped to half a cat too many.
Straight away Marley’s presence brought trouble. Not his fault, but when my daughter brought him into the household she neglected to take him to the vet. When I returned from Scotland, I assumed she had. For the next several weeks she kept giving him baths to get rid of fleas, which puzzled me because I’d assumed some topical flea killer would have been part of the vet visit. What I finally discovered was that there had been no vet visit, and Marley had brought in fleas and tapeworms.
It took three weeks. Four sets of medications for three cats and two dogs, two bug bombings, the yard sprayed (twice), topical flea killer for everyone (twice), and two hundred dollars later, we were finally free of tapeworms and fleas. From then on, no unvetted cats for me.
The difference between two cats and three is much more than the difference between one and two. The third cat seems to double the hair, the expense, and the behavioral issues. Marley was mellow enough, but the pissing wars weren’t pretty. At one point the kitchen stove became disputed territory, and I assure you there is no stench more appalling than burning cat piss. Also, Marley liked to chase Aeryn around the house as if he’d forgotten he was fixed, and we discovered Aeryn was epileptic. Stress triggered her seizures. We’d always known she had a screw loose, and now we knew why.
So…we were learning that though having two cats might seem to leave room for another, three cats was just a teensy bit too much.
But then my daughter began bringing home every stray kitten that crossed her path. I had to tell her to find another place for them. I was at my limit, and when a friend of mine died, leaving behind her eleven-year-old cat named Smoky Blue, I had to dig in my heels. As much as I would have loved to save every kitten on the planet, space and resources are always finite. Even the ASPCA knows that. Smoky went to another friend.
But two months later Silas died of heart failure, a problem common in Ragdolls and Ragamuffins. Meanwhile, Smoky was being handed from one adoptive family to another, unable to get along with other cats. A few months after Silas died, yet a third friend of mine told me she was going to be forced to take Smoky to a shelter because she couldn’t keep him and nobody wanted an eleven-year-old cat with bad habits. I volunteered to take him, though that put me back at half a cat too many.
Smoky was a cat and a half. He really should have been an only cat, but there was no choice in our house but to get along with the other residents. But Smoky was also in poor health. After a year and a half of chronic barfing, inappropriate peeing, hair loss, weight loss, and general crankiness, we learned he was suffering from kidney failure. We put him on an expensive prescription cat food and consulted with the vet regarding end-of-life strategy. His condition improved, we put down pee pads in the one spot he chose to visit (the doorway into my office), and closed him into my office at night to reduce the competition for territory and expensive prescription cat food.
The other thing with Smoky was that he’d been declawed. I hate that euphemism, declawed. One should say “The cat was scratching the sofa, so we took him down and had his front toes cut off.” I learned that many of Smoky’s least desirable behaviors are common in declawed cats. They can’t scratch, so instead they bite. They can’t jump and climb. They can’t balance. They’re crippled in ways humans often don’t understand, and it makes the cat cranky. All we could do was keep Smoky safe and fed.
Then my mother-in-law had to move in with some cousins who were allergic to cats, and she had to get rid of her beloved Maine Coon, Muffin. My husband asked if we could take the cat. I hoped another accommodation could be made, but when it became plain my MIL would have to lose the cat forever, I agreed to take her. We were up to four adult cats now, and none of them going anywhere.
Muffin was a five year old only cat, and poorly socialized. When she came to us it took a full month to get her to come out from under the bed in the guest room. The first time I found her sitting on top of the bed, and she let me tippytoe in and take her onto my lap, it was a major victory. I’d never in my life seen a cat purr and growl at the same time. She left after a minute, but next time she stayed longer, and eventually she was sleeping on my bed and taking up more than her half.
The Gang of Four were almost never all in the same room. Smoky owned the office. Muffin had the top of my bed and Aeryn slept inside the box spring. Marley had the kitchen and living room. Muffin guarded the litter box in the bathroom, so I had to set up another one in the guest room. But then I took in a boarder. She lived in the guest room.
With her cat.
Sassy stayed in the guest room, with her own private box. We didn’t see much of her, but Aeryn would sit by the door and sniff underneath it with the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. I felt the pissing wars coming on. Five cats in the house was more than I could take. They required more attention than I could give. There were twice as many cats as there should have been, but there was nothing I could do about it. Every day was a struggle for normalcy, every evening a ballet to get everyone fed the correct food in the correct amount without conflict. The dust bunnies in my house all had real fur. It was that way for about six months.
Then the boarder moved out with her cat. Shortly after, my mother-in-law left her cousin’s house to take an apartment near us, and reclaimed Muffin. It was a happy day when Muffin went back to her real mommy. I was attached, but everyone was happier this way and I was tickled that my mother-in-law hadn’t given away her cat to a stranger.
Then, alas, five years after we took Smoky in he finally passed away from the kidney problem. He’d been on the expensive prescription cat food for more than three times as long as the vet’s best-case prognosis. He was approximately sixteen years old, and it was time.
Last December we lost Marley to liver failure at the age of thirteen. He’s now buried in the back yard with Spot, Silas, Smoky, and two dogs, Ziggy and Riley. We were down to just one cat, Aeryn, for the first time since Silas came in 2000, and Aeryn was the same age as Marley. Plainly this would never do. I looked around, wondering where to find a kitten. I’d never had to actually look for a kitten before. They all just were brought to me. It felt very strange.
So I signed up for a pet-finding online service. The first email I got had a picture of a fluffy gray-and-white female who was marked like Silas, but had odd-looking eyes. It turned out she’d been born prematurely, without eyelids, and had required surgery to enable her to close her eyes and save her sight. The cat rescue who’d taken her in, FLUFF, had paid for surgery for her and two littermates. When I met her she sat on my lap and wouldn’t budge. Her medium-length fur was so soft she sometimes slid. I took her home and named her Morrighan.
Now I’m finding kittens everywhere. I want them all, but know I can’t take them all. Morrighan is my shadow and my lap magnet, and she makes me laugh exactly as Silas used to. I’m holding steady at two cats. See…packrat, not hoarder.
I’d thought I was going for a final visit. My father had been sick for a long time, and had been living on borrowed time since his heart attack in 2005. I pictured myself spending a couple of weeks hanging out with my dad, looking at old family photos, saying things that needed to be said, answering questions and settling misunderstandings.
My flight reservation was for 4:28 p.m. on May 2. That morning I got a phone call, and the caller ID said it was Dad. Half asleep, I picked up and when I heard a man’s voice say my name I groggily thought it was him. Surely calling to say he was feeling better, and he’d see me later.
But it was my stepbrother, telling me my father had passed away half an hour before. Suddenly my visit became a trip to a funeral.
I used to like flying. Before 9/11 it felt like a Grand Adventure to climb on a plane and head off to places I’d never been before. Scotland, New York, Montreal, Frankfurt…then the TSA entered the picture and it’s never been the same since. But today there were no hassles. The world had turned…soft. Dreamlike. As if everyone knew I was not really here anymore, and that no matter what happened in transit, it would still be better than the morning I’d had.
I landed in Spokane shortly before the car rental counter was due to close down at midnight, with an hour and a half drive still between me and Colville. One of the handles on my suitcase had been broken off, but I had more pressing things to deal with.
I turned on my phone to call my husband to tell him the plane hadn’t crashed, but the thing went into a beeping fit and turned itself off. Huh. Turned it on again, and it beeped some more before blinking off. It appeared I would need to plug it in once I got into the car.
The nice car rental fellow gave me a key and sent me to slot J4 where I was supposed to find a cheap, wind-up-toy sort of car. Economy was all I could afford.
No car in J4. I peered at the key fob to see what it said, but my reading glasses weren’t anywhere near my face and all I could see was a big J4 scrawled on the fob in black sharpie. And even I could see there was no car in J4.
I pushed the door unlock button on the fob, and the car in J5 blinked a “hereIam.” I blinked back. It was a 2017 silver and black Camaro. Convertible. I was tired enough to go, “Oh, dear.” I knew for sure the car rental guy was going to come scurrying out of the terminal any second, and take away the fob he’d mistakenly given me. He couldn’t possibly have meant for me to have this car. But I was too tired to do anything but say “screwit” and make a note to argue with them later.
The trunk was absurdly tiny, but my bag made it in. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and couldn’t see over the dashboard. It was dark, and I was afraid to feel around for random buttons lest I accidentally put the top down and couldn’t get it back up. So I tried to see what I was doing in the dark. (See above: no reading glasses.)
I got the car started somehow, though there was no actual key on the fob. Also a first for me. Good thing the dashboard gave me an error message telling me to put my foot on the brake, or I’d still be there, pushing that button. I found the cigarette lighter plug and plugged in my phone. Tried to turn it on, but it only beeped and pooped out again. I started to become frustrated.
The car was one of those newfangled, quasi-manual shift cars with no clutch. I like a standard transmission, but I don’t think they make those anymore. I had never, ever seen one of these with no clutch. I had not the faintest idea how to shift this thing.
I had a GPS with me, and felt around, hoping to find a second cigarette lighter plug. No luck. I had to unplug the phone to plug in the GPS. I didn’t much like being unable to call my husband right away, but I had no clue which way to go to get to the road north.
With the GPS booted, I went to enter my destination, which was my dad’s house. I realized I did not know the house number. Which was on my phone. Which I couldn’t turn on.
I unplugged the GPS, plugged in my phone, then sat for a moment, beyond frustrated and holding back panic.
I noticed an OnStar button, and pushed it in desperation though I figured I would get a robot voice asking for a credit card number. But instead I got a live person, to whom I spilled my guts about my situation. She happily sent me the directions to Colville via the onboard GPS.
So I backed out of the space, nearly an hour after my plane had landed, and made my way out of the parking lot.
That was when I realized the shifting procedure wasn’t going to make itself apparent. The shifter did nothing once it was in drive, and there was no obvious control for changing gears. I could hear the engine winding up, and had to pull over to think about this. I was having nightmare visions of driving all the way to Colville in first gear and arriving sometime near dawn.
As I poked around the dashboard, looking for the bloody shift control, my phone rang. It was my husband. I picked it up, certain the thing would turn off as soon as I touched it. When I heard his voice, I burst into tears I was so relieved.
He talked me in off the ledge, explained to me how to shift the car (paddles on the steering wheel…who knew?), and then tried to help me figure out which way to pick up the road to Colville. Because he’s spent the past forty-five years driving everywhere in North America and some places south of the border, he knew where I should go. However, he couldn’t know exactly where I was because I could see no signs. I had to hang up, plug the GPS back in, and see if I could shift the car well enough to get out of Spokane. Then I looked up dad’s house number on my phone, entered it into my familiar GPS, and proceeded on my way.
An hour and a half later I pulled up at my father’s house, where my father no longer was.
My stepmother and two of my stepbrothers were there. Over the next few days we all picked carefully through the minefield of memories, photographs, and paperwork. We pulled together the details of Dad’s life, and I helped write his obituary. It was a surreal experience.
He was all about airplanes. He learned to fly before he learned to drive. After high school he studied aeronautical engineering and began military flight training in the Naval Reserve. He declined an appointment to Annapolis so he could continue his flight training, then was called up for active duty in the Korean War. He finished his training in Pensacola. His flight gear and log book are on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum there.
During his eight years of active duty, he flew fighter jets off the U.S.S. Boxer and U.S.S. Hornet, earning seven citations and service medals. After the war, he flew as a test pilot and was assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, California. I was born on that base.
After his discharge from active duty, he went to work at Lockheed Missiles and Space Corp. Still with the airplanes. In his forties he took a hiatus from there, finished out college, picked up an MBA, and worked as a flight instructor, instructor trainer, and aerial photographer. He tried to teach me to fly, but I couldn’t get past the unshakable conviction that the instant I took control of the plane it would plummet from the sky. I still have the logbook that shows half an hour of flight time.
One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken by my dad when I was about three years old, as I was running across the yard to hug him. When I was four, he came home from somewhere with a copy of Black Beauty for me. I looked inside and said, “I can’t read this; there aren’t any pictures.” He said, “Then learn to read.”
And I did.
In 2002 when my second novel was released, I was visiting my dad for a family reunion. We went into Barnes & Noble and found seven copies of Outlaw Sword on the shelf. I said, “Cool. Let’s see if they want me to sign them.” He laughed, thinking I was joking. But he stopped laughing when I took the copies to the service desk and the manager was happy to have me sign them. As I did, my dad stood there looking like he was going to pop from pride.
On May 18 he was buried in a veteran’s cemetery outside of Spokane, with full military honors. Jet airplanes taking off from nearby Spokane airport added an oddly appropriate soundtrack as we mourned a former fighter pilot. In the distance the United States flag flew at half mast. Three riflemen fired three volleys. Strangers in uniform saluted him, with all military precision and respect
I knew him for sixty years, and now I can’t imagine the world without him in it.