Look, it’s not that I stopped caring about you. Actually, I talked to you every single day, inside my head. But when it came to writing my thoughts down … I kept getting stuck. There was always just too much, you know? And some of it was so LOUD – first during the interminable build-up to Election Day, and then in the ongoing aftermath. Bad enough to feel anger and disappointment and anxiety constantly ramping up inside me. Worse to feel angry and disappointed at some of the people closest to me – and worst of all when those feelings, as happened all too often, bubbled over in a toxic mess of words and tears and bitter silences.
And then, of course, there’s covid. I guess I should be embarrassed to admit this – a lot of people have died, and are still dying all over the world, and many of the survivors are still experiencing aftershocks, and of course there’s the economic devastation … but this is one place where I choose to be as honest as possible, and so I’m going to admit that on a personal level I haven’t found living through a pandemic too great a hardship. Only a few people I care about got sick, and none of those is experiencing ongoing problems. Having to wear a mask sucked, but that’s over now for us. The stimulus money got us comfortably over a hump that we’d been laboriously climbing for years.
The hardest part – the part I’d have written about, if I’d wanted to add to the noise – was the endless stupid. And even that has been useful, in that it’s given me an excuse to distance myself from people I had ceased to find congenial. I mean, when someone you love takes a dismaying political stance, that can be hard to accept. One wants to feel in sync with one’s tribe, after all. But if you work at it, you can quite often explore your differences, maybe find points of harmony. Or you can agree to disagree, and move on to talk about other things. Disagreements over covid are different. Essentially, either you’re Q, or you’re anti-Q – there’s no meeting of the minds. Sometimes love is enough and you can slide around the issue (while maintaining a safe distance, because that shit might be contagious, people!) Other times, the only cure is full-scale social distancing, wielded like a scalpel to radically reshape your social circle.
The thing is, I didn’t want to blog about any of that. There were already plenty of opinions out there … I had no value to offer, and I didn’t want to add to the noise. But it has felt impossible to write about anything else. The noise, both inside and outside my head, has been so loud I couldn’t hear the cricket-like chirrups and yawps of my small but particular life long enough to catch them and pin them to a page.
Hence, only two posts in the past 18 months.
And oh, I have missed this so much! Every day the small events of life – the challenge of persuading a cow to stand still for artificial insemination, the delight of a new calf, chicks raised and a chicken killed by an over-excited Malinois and hens that trip you up trying to sit on your feet when you go out to feed them. The deep-down joint-aching suckiness of getting old, and strategies for avoiding the alternative. Estrangement from a dear friend and then news of his death. Encounters with homeless people and what happens when you let their peculiar brands of nuttiness into your life. Rescue, of course – dogs, and occasionally cats, that break your heart or your bank balance, and others that make your heart sing. The death of a beloved but long distant cousin and the sheer impossibility of knowing what to say to the people who grieve his loss. Encounters with the Black Dog – who is not permitted to dominate this space, but can’t be ignored if I’m to write my truth. Stories written, books read, movies watched, and weird shit found in my news feed. Gardens planted and the endless war against weeds. Experiments in the kitchen. The fundamental oddness of being married to a hubbit.
So much to yawp. Most of it so trivial … I can’t understand why anyone would want to read it, and yet, for all that, I want – I need – to write it.
So … hello, World. I’m back, I think. Is anyone out there?
They come in waves – swampy breath in your face, on the back of your neck. They bump against your knees to shepherd you away from a threat, slam into you during a wild game of tag, leap to snatch your attention. They snuffle at you – a cold nose in your ear, a whiskery muzzle against your cheek, the quick lap of a tongue swiping your fingers.
This is what it means to offer yourself up for rescue. There are so many dogs, and there are always more, and you want to write about each one – capture the who and the what and the why of each, but as one leaves the next comes and there are always more, clamoring. How does one write about that? How do you capture the essence of each individual dog in such a jostling crowd?
But writing is what I do. Even when I don’t do it, it’s who I am. This blog is my journal. In part, it’s my story garden, to harvest as I gather the ingredients of my longer story of Henrietta Gurdy – my imaginary love child, my heroine, my nemesis. Henrietta and I have only one thing in common: we rescue dogs. If Henrietta were in fact writing her story it would have been done long since. She has her flaws, but procrastination and disorganization aren’t among them. So she’d be well into the series by now, instead of struggling to pinch out the time and creative energy and butt-to-chairness required to finish the first book.
So … this is my goal for today: to write about the daily round of dog rescue, preserving the stories of a few particular dogs and also capturing the relentless pressure of even a small rescue effort. This is more about the who and the why, than about the high drama of acts of terrible cruelty. Those acts do happen, and one deals with them as best one can, but mostly rescue is about a dog, and then another dog, and then another, one after another slipping a leash around your heart so that you have no choice but to take them home.
Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Walla Walla, waiting for the vet clinic to call me to pick up Zeus and Violet. Do you remember Zeus? I told you about him, first here, then here. He needed all kinds of vet care before we could send him home, including having a broken canine extracted. He is the sweetest, most loving boy … but Zeus is a cop, and sharing a home with Argos, my Malinois and our resident delinquent, was an exercise in stress and vet bills. So it was a relief when he went home a few weeks before Christmas! He settled in well with his new Momma, Goldie, who rapidly became a friend to me as well, and flooded me with happy updates about how well he was doing.
Unfortunately that didn’t last. But before I tell you what happened, I should tell you about Daisy coming back. I’ve never told you about Daisy. She needed a temporary place to stay while her family moved house, so the Hubbit and I offered to take her in. That happened last summer, before Zeus arrived. You still with me? We had various dogs, including Daisy, during summer … then Daisy left and Zeus arrived … then Zeus left and Daisy came back.
Daisy was a mess when we got her in summer. Her nails were so long that her toes were starting to dislocate. She had a roaring ear infection. And she was half out of her mind with the need for a job, and attention, and something to do, and to run, and to sniff, and loves, and to be seen, and and and just … more! She is a hard-driving, excitable working girl … and her designated owner was an angry teenage boy who thought he wanted a hunting dog, insisted on a purebred puppy, and then didn’t train her, wouldn’t walk her, left her at home with his non-dog-savvy family while he went out to hang with his friends. She grew lanky and wild and desperate for attention, and he grew surly and wild and refused to pay attention, and by the time Daisy came to me she was out of control (and so, apparently, was he, but that’s no concern of mine. I’m not in the business of rescuing, or indulging, teenage boys.)
So for the six weeks I had her I put her through biweekly visits to a groomer for nail trims, and took her to the vet to treat her ears, and let her run and didn’t let her be rude. I also lobbied the boy’s parents to give her up for adoption. It was maddening! They acknowledged that they weren’t a fit for her, but they couldn’t bring themselves to take her from the boy, and he insisted he loved her (although not enough to visit her, or take her for walks, or call to ask how she was doing). So eventually she went back to them, and a week or two later later we got Zeus, and it was only a few weeks after that that Daisy’s people called to confess that they’d realized life was better without her constantly wanting attention and exercise while they wanted to watch TV, and the boy was never home, and the fence he built so she could be out in the yard had fallen down, and his sisters were having to take care of her which wasn’t their job, after all, and would I take her back and find her a new home?
So after Zeus went home I fetched her. She was frantic. She couldn’t understand why she had to lose her people again. She was scared to go far from our house, but desperate to run. They’d failed to keep up with the toenail trims so her feet were hurting again. She tried to play with Argos and he was still pissed off over Zeus beating him up, so he beat her up. She tried to play with the other dogs and they snapped at her to chill the fuck down! She tried to play with the horses and they threatened to stomp her. She tried to play with the cat and I spanked her. She tried to play with the chickens and I dragged her away by the collar and wouldn’t even let her keep the feathers. At last she went home – to people with another hard-bodied happy-go-lucky girl in need of a playmate, and no cats, chickens or horses, and miles of trails leading from their back door – and we heaved a sigh of relief and promised each other to take a break.
But then the vet called. One of her clients had found an abandoned Shar-Pei … Would we help?
We don’t say no when a vet who helps us asks us for help. First she was spayed and had surgery to correct entropion, so she was a sad, sore, scared, skinny beast when I brought her home. She’d had puppies and was still lactating – they weren’t dumped with her – so we couldn’t feed her as much as she wanted, because her poor little body needed to stop producing milk. She had to wear a cone, and she was in any case a weird-looking dog with her skinny body and squinchy eyes and great hippo nose. Even our blase pack treated her like a pariah. But over a few weeks she healed. Most importantly, she healed inside. She learned to trust us, and to play, and to ask for snuggles. It was time for her to go home.
Usually it’s a relief to hand off a dog into someone else’s care, as long as I know I can trust them. It was different with Donnabella. I knew she’d be safe and loved – I’d not have left her otherwise. But she was so afraid, when she saw I was leaving. She had given herself completely to me, by then – her squinchy gaze, her crumply smile, her starved little heart: they were all mine … and then, just as she believed herself safe, I left her with strangers. I acted in love but in the moment it felt like cruelty, and I sobbed all the way home.
Mind you, that might have been because I was so, so tired. Rescue is hard! You see such stupid-ugly things, you think such angry thoughts! And then there’s the pee, and the poop, and the visits to the vet, and the giving of pills, and the shed hair that you never have time to vacuum, and the house smells like a kennel, and your own dog gets resentful and starts acting out because he can’t even with all these damn strays!
Kuja and I agreed, and I promised the Hubbit: No More! We’re taking a break!
But a few days before Christmas we got a call about eight husky cross puppies, only five weeks old but weaned so they had to go immediately. By the time we got to them, a couple days later, they’d already given away four, so we brought home four pups from that litter (we nicknamed them the Fuzzybutts), plus Bambi, a pup from a different litter in the same house. There were also a great many cats, but we found someone else to help them, and we had most of the adult dogs remaining in the home sterilized and vaccinated. We found a foster home for the four puppies; we did the vet stuff – vaccinations, microchipping, deworming; we took pictures and posted them online to be adopted as soon as they were eight weeks old.
And while all that was going on, just before New Year, we took in a litter of seven Labrador mix pups – the Snugglepot litter. They urgently needed to be removed from their home, but we didn’t immediately have a foster home for them, so they spent their first three days in the Hubbit’s and my spare bathroom, pooping enormous, tangled piles of worms like scoops of hellish spaghetti out of their grossly swollen bellies. They perked up pretty quickly once they were done with that, and soon learned to come running, full tilt, when I called “Hey puppypuppypuppeeee!”
The next few weeks were a frenzy of processing applications for Fuzzybutts and Snugglepots, as well as little Bambi. That’s no small task, the way we do it. First, we write very detailed profiles of all our dogs, which we post on Adopt-a-Pet and Petfinder. That generates email inquiries – fewer for “less desirable” dogs (like adult Chihuahuas and Pit Bulls) but the floodgates open when puppies are on offer. Our application forms are around five pages long and comprehensive, and when they come in we follow up with online background checks, and phone calls to landlords, vets, references, the adopters themselves, and sometimes home visits. We’ll choose the best homes we can, and write to disappoint the people who didn’t get to adopt them. We’ll follow up after the adoption to make sure all is well , and advise if it isn’t, and post upbeat pupdates on Facebook to ensure our supporters don’t get bored and drift away, taking their wallets with them
The last of the puppies went home about a week ago, but by that time we had Dax. You know how some dogs just make you happy? That’s Dax. As best we can tell, his previous owners bought him for their teenage son (what is it with people giving ridiculously unsuitable dogs to their least reliable family members?) and then, when the son lost interest and didn’t bother to feed him, they let Dax go hungry. Eventually when that failed to accomplish whatever the hell they were aiming for, they advertised him (the dog, not the kid) for sale on Craigslist. One of our young volunteers was foolishly browsing the pet listings (I say “foolishly” because she can barely support herself, her kid and the dog she already has, never mind daydreaming about rescuing another one) and she was horrified by the sight of this poor skinny puppy, so she emptied out her bank account and went to get him. Then she called us, and voila, the Hubbit and I got to have another German Shepherd living in our house.
Actually, Dax was easy – a sweet, happy boy who gained weight fast and got on with everyone, even Argos. We all took a deep breath. He’d be easy to rehome, and then we could take a break, right?
A few days ago the people who gave us the Fuzzybutt pups called us to take another two pups and Lola, the mama – now, now, NOW! – because Lola had killed a goat and Papa was getting ready to shoot her and her verminous offspring. How dare they insist on eating? Did they not realize they were only dogs? I took Lola to be spayed on Monday (she wasn’t done with the others in the house, because at that time Papa was determined to breed her to a husky and make lots of money) and yesterday a delightful couple of husky-lovers drove all the way from Bellingham – six hours at least from our small town – and took her home with them. They’ve offered only to foster her, but we’re hoping they and their husky boy will fall in love and invite her to stay for good.
The two new Fuzzybutts are pretty girls and will be easy to place in good homes … but Kuja is barely keeping it together, and I’m dragging so badly my tail is muddy. We handed them off to another rescue group that we trust.
Meanwhile, I got a call from Goldie, Zeus’ adopter. She was hysterical. Out of the blue, with no provocation and no visible warning, after six weeks of living together in harmony, he’d just tried to rip her other dog’s head off. He was also threatening to kill the cats.
So I told her to bring him back. I decided to put him in boarding for a week to recalibrate while I girded my loins for a prolonged period of juggle-the-dog – because obviously he had to come back to me for reevaluation, but equally obviously he couldn’t be trusted with any of our dogs until we figured out what was going on with him. I met her at a park to let him stretch his legs before we dropped him off at the boarding kennel … and while we were there, what should we find but a happy, friendly, pretty puppy. Of course I took her home – what else could I do?
Goldie named her Violet. I have no idea why, but I was too tired to argue. In any case, she was in good condition, so I figured she’d escaped from her yard and would be claimed soon.
Sometimes when an adoption fails you know it’s the adopter’s fault. Somehow you missed something about them, during the interview process. And after living with a dog 24/7 for several months, you know the dog. But in Zeus’ case … no. There had to be something else going on. He’d been through an enormous amount of stress – not just being dumped and then all the vet stuff while he was with us; within two weeks of his adoption, the family had been hammered by two deaths and a sad Christmas with people they don’t much like. But I think the root cause of Zeus’ behavior is some undiagnosed physical problem.
So I persuaded Goldie to quit beating herself up, promised to figure out what was wrong with him and place him in a “better” home … and gave her Dax. I get almost daily updates about him, and they invariably make me smile
Violet, meanwhile, has turned out to be a disrespectful, destructive, jumping-up, counter-surfing, pushy, loudly opinionated, completely clueless, piddle-anywhere pain in the butt. It’s very clear that she didn’t run off – she was dumped – because, after all, when you get a puppy you expect it to be fun and cute and cuddly, not to grow into a big clumsy beast who needs training! Right?
People make me tired!
Anyway, as I write this she’s being spayed and vaccinated. Soon she’s going to a foster home where there are kids, and cats, and younger, energetic humans who will teach her manners. Then we’ll find her a home.
Meanwhile Zeus is back in our home, living in my study (while Argos reigns supreme in the bedroom). We’re putting him through an array of blood tests. So far everything looks normal, but we’re waiting on results for his thyroid test. And right now he’s back at the clinic that extracted his canine, because it turns out they left a chunk of it behind – which is something that can happen with canines, but dang I wish I’d known this one had broken during the extraction! It’s entirely possible his behavior was due to a sudden twinge of toothache! Bits of broken tooth were pushing up through his gum – can you just imagine? And … can you imagine if it had twinged when Goldie’s seven-year-old son walked past him, rather than her dog? The thought gives me the cold horrors!
Anyway, he’s with us now, and we’re working with a behaviorist and figuring it out. Hostilities between him and Argos continue, but he’s comfortable with Jim’s four, so managing the war zone is less complicated than when he first returned. And after the thyroid test results come back, and we know whether that’s something that needs attention, we’ll post him for adoption again … and this time, I hope, we’ll get it right.
I’ve just received a text from a woman I loathe and despise. She’s a backyard breeder of Belgian Malinois – a breed that only a few hardy souls, outside of the police or military, should even think of owning. (Yes, I have one. No, I really shouldn’t. But … I had one before, and they’re addictive!) She sells them for a royal sum to whoever will write her a check, and when her dogs are no longer cute, entertaining puppies, and start tearing up their homes and threatening the neighbors, they flow into our local shelters and rescues. Anyway, she wants to know if we “still take dogs”. I don’t pretend to be friendly. “Why?” I ask. She’s “in overload”, she says, is “thinking about rehoming one”.
I’m not encouraging … but … It’s a Malinois. What will happen to her if I don’t take her? I tell her, “If you decide you want to, contact me.” I hesitate, my finger poised over my phone, then hit send. I’d like to jump through my phone behind the text and bite the silly bitch! If she must breed something, why not Golden Retrievers? It’s inexcusable to pick a breed every damn fool out there wants (because so smart, so much drive) and most can’t handle (because too damn smart and in perpetual overdrive).
The vet just called. It’s time to pick up Zeus and Violet and head back home.
This was good, taking time out to write, even if all the time went to a blog post instead of the novel. I promise myself to take more time, and next time to work on the book, not indulge myself by blogging. Because rescue matters, it’s important … but writing stories is why I’m here. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. Somehow … somehow, between the waving tails and lolling tongues, I have to find timeouts like this.
Lately I’ve been trying to blog more often than I did before. Before what? Well, before I started trying to blog more often. I’ve realized that some of my favorite bloggers simply rabbit on about their everyday lives and random thoughts. Others among my favorites put serious thought and research into their posts.
In a spirit of blatant self-indulgence I have to confess that I’m too lazy to emulate the second kind – at any rate, not on a consistent basis. Also, who am I to pose as an expert on anything except my own small life? Fact: this blog is intended to entertain (mainly me) and also to record Thoughts And Happenings That Are Interesting (at least to me), as well as getting the old verbal juices flowing so that I’m able to glide smoothly into Serious Writing Of The Novel. So that’s why I want to blog more often, and if I manage to do so in a way that makes you want to stick around for the coffee and donuts served after, so much the better!
The problem I have with blogging … Well, there are several problems, actually. Sometimes the Black Dog pins me down and … I … just … can’t. Other times I’m so busy Doing or Being Done To that I don’t have the time or energy to write about it. That’s frustrating, because I’ll be going through the doings, and quite often my primary link to sanity and a sense of “this too shall pass” is the mantra “blog fodder”. I write so many posts in my head while on the run!
Somewhere I have one of those little digital recorders. I really need to learn to use it.
Actually, I think my phone might have a digital recorder app. Hmmm.
Right … where was I? Oh yes – another problem is the perpetual presence of distractions. I mean, just two paragraphs up I was about to abandon this leaky little boat and go in search of the digital recorder. The only thing that stopped me was the recollection that the Evernote app on my phone might do the job.
Do you know how much I want to get up now and rush off and find my phone and test it???
Seriously … where ismy dang phone?
Moving on! Then there’s deciding what to write about, and when to write about it. Should I start a post in the middle of the events I want to write about? If I do, will I remember to come back with a second post to tell how the story ends? (So far that would be a no; usually I wind up telling the ending in the comments, if people ask.) If I wait until I know the ending, will I still feel like writing about it? (Quite often not – either because I’m in the middle of something else, or because I’ve blogged about it so relentlessly in my head that it’s just not entertaining any more.)
Anyway, all this is merely a prelude to telling about what happened yesterday, which I can do very quickly because it’s not that big a story, but it caused some palpitations and foaming at the mouth all the same.
There’s this blogger I follow, David Bennett – his photographs are lovely. You should go take a look. Not now – later! For now I’ll just tell you they make me want to rush out and take pictures – which is a challenge all on its own because a few birthdays back I bought the Hubbit a rather nice camera after years of listening to him boast of his photographic prowess, and he has lost the charger.
Okay, it’s possible that I put the charger Somewhere when I was reorganizing his Hubbit Hole while he was in rehab early this year – which, by the way, is a classic example of an activity I blogged about extensively and hilariously in my head for so long that I could not bring myself to sit and write it all down … The point is, the charger wasn’t in the fancy camera case I also bought him. So now the camera is friggin’ useless.
Not that I ever really figured out how to use it. Cameras have changed a lot since I bought my first one, a Box Brownie I got for R5.00 (that’s five rand, South African money, which back then was worth US$10, but today would be worth around US$0.75) that I carefully saved up when I was ten years old. I take pictures with my cell phone, and sometimes I’m pleased with them – they’re better than anything I managed with the Box Brownie, anyway. In fact, since this post really doesn’t lend itself to illustrations, and just for the heck of it, I’ll include a few of them here.
The reason I mention David today, however, is that in addition to sharing his photographs he tends to write his way through various technical challenges, and lately he’s been fiddling around with the design theme of his blog. So there are these posts referring to this theme and that theme that he’s been trying out, and to be honest I don’t read those in depth … but I notice them.
So yesterday I slapped myself around the head because it’s been more than a month since my last post, and I’ve been writing and writing inside my head but never quite making it as far as butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard. After the head slap I plonked myself down, fired up the laptop, and prepared to Expound.
But … about what? I have things to say about Trump – but those require research if I don’t want to be just another liberal whiner. I want to update you about Zeus, and I have other thoughts to share about rescue. I read a post recently that calls for a response. I don’t think I’ve ever told you about Garcia – did I mention I got my horse a horse? There was a minor disaster with our Thanksgiving turkey, which has led to the production of fabulous bone broth, and I really should tell you about bone broth. So Many Things!
Well, I clicked over to see what other people were writing about – not so much for inspiration as to give my subconscious time to chew over the matter – and there was David, with a gorgeous picture of an iris, yattering away about his latest blog theme adventure.
He distracted me! It’s his fault!
Because obviously after that I wandered over to the WordPress collection of themes to take a look. After all, I’d been thinking my blog needed sprucing up. One theme looked interesting, and I wondered how it would look on my blog.
There were two icons – one labeled “Activate”, the other “Preview”.
Just then, the dogs broke out in an uproar, and as I irritably rose from my seat to find out what the problem was … guess which icon I clicked?
Just like that, everything went beige! It was horrible! And there was no way to un-activate it!
I wrote a frantic appeal for help to the WordPress Happiness Engineers, and spent a palpitating few hours restlessly clicking between forum responses to people who had also accidentally destroyed the careful design of their blog, and also bouncing around the house distracting myself with chores, and, of course, periodically clicking hopefully on my blog to see if it had magically returned to normal.
It hadn’t. Also I learned, during the course of all this clicking, that the theme I’d been using was “no longer supported”.
So eventually last night, at only about half an hour past my intended bedtime, I went “Screw it” and sat down and test drove a bunch of themes. Found one I liked. Got it all set up. And here it is! Voila!
It doesn’t do all the things I want … but for that I’d need to (a) spend a lot more time searching through hundreds of themes, (b) probably pay for it, and (c) figure out how to make it work. Ehhh … Life’s short. I think this one works, and the picture I took last summer of our little farm and our cows is okay – don’t you agree?
So you know how sometimes you have to dial an 800 number, and from the first syllable emitted by the robot voice you can tell by the roiling in your gut and the pricking of your thumbs that this isn’t going to go well, but you persevere because you screwed up and now you’re in a panic?
And the reason you’re in a panic is that you’ve just woken up to the fact that your husband’s insurance has been blithely denying all the claims relating to his tractor accident? Okay, in all honesty I don’t know they were necessarily blithe about it. They may have been in ho hum mode, thinking about the past weekend or looking forward to the next one. No reason for me to presume there were any shrill cackles of banshee glee. Either way, to get back to my point…
What this means, in ordinary everyday terms, is that the giant wodge of papers covered with numbers and headed, reassuringly, “Explanation of benefits” and “This is not a bill”, which you’ve been ignoring because, seriously, who reads those things … but then you do, and HOLY CRAP!!
Oh – and I should mention that the reason you’re reading the wodge is that suddenly you’re getting actual bills – $1,814 for the emergency physician, who is the guy who essentially saved the Hubbit’s life, so it was totally worth it (most of the time, although maybe not so much when he refuses to wear his hearing aids) but, you know, on the other hand, you could do a lot with $1,814, if you had it. For example, that’s pretty much the cost of a pregnant cow around these parts.
But I digress. I was telling you about bills you might happen to receive following a major medical event.
Like $961 for the emergency hospital. You go “Ouch” because, after all, he was there for only a couple hours before they shipped him off to a hospital that was actually capable of keeping him alive – and then you look again and you realize the $961 is what’s left over after insurance kicked in $25,765 – and I mean, seriously, that’s more than $10,000 per hour! The Hubbit’s a smart guy who was highly qualified and certified up the wazoo back in his pre-retirement days, but no one ever thought he was worth that much back then! If they had, we’d probably be in ho hum mode at the sight of these numbers. Or maybe not, because … there’s more. So much more.
A whole sheaf of bills for the ambulance services that got him from home to the local emergency hospital, and from there to the bigger hospital in Spokane … and bills for the rehab facility, and the orthopedic clinic, and the imaging company, and the physical therapist. But that pile of bills is still smaller than the “explanation of benefits” wodge, so you start flicking through it, and you come across one for $25,765, which is the amount due for the local emergency hospital, and you realize that when the hospital sent you a bill for $981 they were (blithely?) assuming that the insurance company was going to pay – only this particular benefit explanation says, in a word, “Nope”. And you keep going and you find one for $99,285.97, which is just for that first day at the hospital in Spokane – less than a day – he arrived there after 6.00PM, for crying out loud. But that’s what it cost to make it so that he didn’t die right away.
And you look at it and you think, “Well, he’s alive. So there’s that.” But at the same time you realize your heart is going “Ofuckit Ofuckit Ofuckit” like The Little Engine That Could, after it made it to the top of the hill and headed down the other side and then gravity took over just as it noticed there was a wide, churning river at the bottom … and no bridge.
You know how that feels?
I really hope not, because if you’re taking the time to read this blog I like you, and I value you as an important source of warm fuzzies and endorphins, and I don’t want you either to plunge headfirst into a river or succumb to a heart attack.
Anyway, at that point, feelings aren’t really the issue. The issue is, what are you going to do? What I did was clutch the wodge in sweaty hands and take it to the Hubbit, and pick a fight with him about politics – his being conservative, and therefore opposed to state-funded universal healthcare. That urgent business having been satisfactorily concluded (it’s hard to concentrate on defending a philosophical point of view when your doting wife has just delivered a quarter million dollar-or-so whack upon your shiny pate), we agreed that there was no point in worrying about it, since payment was impossible. I promised to call the insurer on the next business day for a WT actual F conversation, organized the wodge into a neat stack (ordered by date and page number), put it on my desk, and promptly forgot about it.
I have an excuse. The Girl Child has been visiting and I’ve had coffee to drink and arguments to have and … oh, just generally more interesting things to do. Every few days a fresh bill would arrive, sometimes with a plaintive note scrawled across it from a medically-oriented bookkeeping person dismayed by the failure of the insurance to pay, and I would snicker at their naivete and rush out to suck down another coffee with the Girl Child. A couple included a form and a request that we complete it with the details of the “motor vehicle accident”, and I’d roll my eyes, because a tractor is not a motor vehicle, it’s farm equipment, and the reason I know this is that it’s not insured as a motor vehicle, so obviously it can’t be one! I’d add each bill to the growing pile on my desk and promise myself (and, occasionally, the Hubbit) to deal with the matter “tomorrow” – which, as we all know, is always a day away. Hooray for tomorrow!
Well, a couple days ago I was poking around on my desk and I came across a letter from the insurer dated April 12. It was addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam”, and expressed regret at our injury/accident and a wish for “good luck with your recovery”. There was also some reference to the need for a prompt reply.
Ofuckit Ofuckit Ofuckit.
They provided a post office box address, and a phone number.
I pondered my strategy while remembering how to breathe.
It was clear that a snail mail letter wouldn’t work. For one thing, my hands were trembling too much to type. Also, my grammatical synapses felt out of whack. And this wasn’t all bad. While tremor and grammatical uncertainty are a problem when one is wording a professional-sounding business letter, they can be helpful in presenting the persona of a slightly dotty and forgetful old lady.
I picked up my phone and dialed 1-800-ETC-ETRA – as provided at the end of the insurance company’s letter for the Other Party Liability office. A chirpy young woman answered, and introduced herself as Jessica. She asked for my name, and I gave it. With cheerful enthusiasm she expressed her eager willingness to help me. “But first,” she said, “I’d like to tell you about a great opportunity we can offer you.” Then she asked whether anyone in our household was over fifty years of age. I didn’t feel like listening to a sales pitch, but on the other hand she sounded so hopeful and eager that I decided to humor her. “Yes,” I said warily, “we’re both over fifty.” She launched into a description of a medical alert system the company was offering. She was clearly new to selling – she said “um” a lot, and a couple times she forgot to tell me something and had to backtrack, and although she was very sweet after a while I ran out of humor and cut her off.
That is, I tried to cut her off. “You know, I don’t want to waste your time. I really just want to deal with my query. Can you put me through to someone?” She ignored me. Just kept right on talking, rolling over me. “Hey!” I said. “Jessica, stop! I’m not interested!”
There was a pause, then she asked, “Would you like to talk to one of our representatives?”
“NO!” I shouted. “Just put me through to customer service!”
“Oh! Okay!” she chirped, perky as ever. I ground my teeth and breathed deeply, and a new voice came on. This sounded like a more mature, experienced woman. She also expressed a desire to help me – but first, she said, she’d like to offer me a great opportunity. Did I have a cellphone? I exploded – I was totally and irredeemably out of humor by then – and blow me down, she also just rolled straight into her pitch.
It finally dawned on me that she wasn’t human, and nor was Jessica. Nor was the woman who invited me to sign up for a roadside assistance program, or the friendly young man who wanted to know whether we had a TV. They were all, every one of them, bots. Not even real artificial intelligence.
The fact that Jessica had fooled me was profoundly embarrassing!
So, anyway, by the time the fourth robot voice came on I gave up on the number provided in the letter. If you’re wondering why I didn’t hang up sooner, it was because I kept hoping for a human! There comes a point in any venture where you’ve invested so much time and emotional energy that you can’t stand to quit, in case you’re just one cuss word away from Nirvana. Come to think of it, that’s probably also why I keep buying Lotto tickets.
Anyway, eventually I called the number on the back of the Hubbit’s medical insurance card. That got me through to someone who could find no record that I had authority to speak with them on his behalf, so we got to have one of those super-fun threesomes that so enrich the lives of partners of the hearing impaired. You know how those go: you turn on the speaker phone so you can both hear, and he leans over the phone, breathing heavily into your ear, and then the person on the other end says something and he says, “Huh? Whut?” So you repeat it, and he loudly and clearly enunciates his response, and … rinse and repeat, for however long it takes. In this case it took a while, and the grand finale was when she read back a contract, and every time he started to say “Huh? Whut?” I’d frantically flap my hands in his face, because we did NOT need to be interrupting an electronic recording of a legal document. Eventually he got to say the required legally binding words, and he was given leave to kiss the telephone, and they were married. Or something like that.
We all heaved a sigh of relief and the Hubbit trundled off to play with his tractor, leaving me to explain the difference between a tractor (wheeled farm equipment) and a vehicle. “Oh,” she said, “No problem. You just need to speak with the Other Party Liability department. I’ll give you the number.”
“Oh no you don’t!” I exclaimed. “If the number you’re planning to give me is ETC-ETRA, forget it. That’s the number I called before this one and it connects directly to the fifth circle of Hell!”
There was a slightly stunned silence. “Are you sure you dialed the right number?” she asked. I said I was, and launched into a tirade about companies that infest the ether with robo-voices and inflict sales pitches on helpless little old ladies (at this point I remembered to insert a slight tremor into my voice) who are exhausted by caring for their injured and aging spouses, and also potentially facing homelessness because of denied claims and unpayable medical bills in a world that keeps voting for Damn Capitalists who refuse to support Medicare For All and just want us all to die in penury..
She offered to connect me directly to someone in the Other Party Liability department, and I said that would be acceptable provided she could vouch that they were human.
So that’s what she did, and this time I remembered right from the start of the conversation to quaver and dodder and make reference to how slowly old men heal after running over themselves with heavy equipment (which is not the same thing as a vehicle), and how stressful that was, and how difficult it was to remember everything, especially when we’d dealt with all sorts of paperwork at the hospital and I’d no idea there was more. I should mention that by this time I was tired, which meant I had to pause and say um occasionally while I thought about what to say, and I tended to forget details, which made it necessary to keep backtracking and repeating elements of my story, and all I’ll say about this particular young woman is that she sounded perky enough but she didn’t exhibit much empathy or compassion. She abruptly cut me off. “Was he at work when the accident happened?” I explained that he was loading up the tractor to get feed to the animals, right here at our little farm, and that he’s been retired for more than fifteen years now. She interrupted me again. “Okay,” she said.
“Um,” I said. “So what happens now?”
“I’ll adjust the record and pass it along to the appropriate department,” she said.
“But what do I have to do?” I quavered
“Nothing,” she said.
And that was it. What had been building up to be a fabulous blog post on the fundamental awfulness of the American medical insurance system fizzled with a soft pop. Which doesn’t mean I won’t still write it … but maybe not today.
Instead I thought I should write a blog post on the fundamental awfulness of insurance companies that use robots to try to sell services to people who want to deal with serious business, so I decided to call back 1-800-ETC-ETRA and find out just how many exciting new opportunities they’d offer me before connecting me to a human. I looked up the number on the insurance company letter.
That’s when I realized that the number they’d provided was in fact 1-866-ETC-ETRA. The 1-800 version of the number connects to a company that sells panic buttons, roadside assistance, and similar products.
So what the heck am I supposed to blog about now?
Please talk to me! What do you think about the cost of healthcare, and how it should be funded? Do you talk to robots on the phone, and do you find it reassuring or terrifying when they sound human? How do you decide what to blog about?
Needless to say, he didn’t pick the little old Ford tractor to get run over by …
… although, on consideration, that one might have been worse, because although it’s little and cute it has monster wheels designed for gripping soft stuff, like dirt, snow and the flesh of absent-minded old men. In any case, the tractor of choice for his life-altering moment of inattention was this one…
If I’m sounding a tad pissed off, it’s partly because this is not how this blog was supposed to go. When I started here, my goal was to entertain, with occasional detours to expound, philosophize, denounce, and share recipes. But the first seven months of this year were so fundamentally shitty that I quit writing altogether until I recognized it was my sole defense against the Black Dog, and since then it’s been one damn shitty thing after another, and now this.
Here’s what happened: The Hubbit was in the workshop getting grain into buckets to feed the cattle before he started on some tractor-related fun-on-the-farm. The tractor takes a while to warm up, so to save time he stood beside it to turn it on. It was supposed to be in neutral. He always leaves it in neutral. Except this time.
He leaned into the tractor, pushing down the clutch pedal with one hand while he started it with the other. It roared to life, and he released the clutch. The tractor leaped forward. The big rear wheel trapped his foot, rolled up against his leg, and slammed him down onto the gravel scattered over the concrete apron at the door of the shop. It crunched over his pelvis, abdomen and shoulder, before – oh, the sweet grace of God – it rolled offhim, rammed into some barrier inside the shop, and stopped.
I was in the corral, around the corner of the shop, pitching apples into a wheelbarrow to feed to the cattle. I heard him yelling. “I’m coming!” I called, starting to close the gate to the stall where the apples were so that my old horse, Vos, wouldn’t get in and eat them all and founder himself. The Hubbit kept calling.
It’s annoying, living with a deaf person. They call you, and you say “Yes?” You say, “I’m coming!” and they don’t hear. They keep calling. Sometimes it’s as though they’re not even trying to listen for an answer. Just call, call, call until you appear. Sometimes it’s so annoying that I very deliberately finish what I’m doing and take my time about going to him, refusing to be rushed.
But not this time. There was something in his voice that snatched my attention so that I left the gate swinging wide, let the apple-laden wheelbarrow tip over, ignored Vos as he shoved forward to grab what he could. I wrested the big corral gate open, hurried to the tractor – I’m too damn fat to run, but I can hurry. He was on the ground and at first I thought he’d just fallen – it happens; his knees are shot and the dogs are clumsy. But he kept calling until I was right up next to him and put my hand on him. He appeared to be bleeding from his eyes, his face was bloody and scratched. “Get an ambulance!” he wheezed.
We live 20, 30 minutes from town. While we waited I hurry-hurry-hurried inside for blankets and pillows – not much use against the cold ground – I didn’t dare move him – but better than nothing. He’d fallen below the bucket of the tractor, and I didn’t trust the hydraulics to keep it up, and even more I didn’t trust myself to raise it, so I scurried about finding random objects that I could prop under it so it wouldn’t drop and crush him. I called the Cool Dude, who called our neighbor Paranoiber, who arrived and then left immediately to chase down the ambulances and lead them down our private road. (They brought in a helicopter as well; it landed in Vos’ pasture, but he was too busy eating apples to care.)
And then the the bustle of people whose clothes glowed luminous orange and yellow, reassuring smiles, figuring-it-out frowns, staying out of the way, staying close enough to answer questions. A wail of pain as they lifted him, the juddering roar of the unwanted helicopter leaving, the wail of the ambulance on the road to the hospital. Cool Dude insisted on taking me in and then didn’t listen when I told him the way to the new hospital location. His battered, swollen face on the white hospital pillow. Internal bleeding that demanded a flight to a better hospital in Spokane. I came home when they took him away, took a shower, threw some clothes in a bag, fed the dogs. I put fresh bedding on the bed so it would be nice when he came home – which seemed to make sense at the time.
He has a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, a cracked scapula, and bruising, but no organ damage. The scans also revealed a lump in his throat – something unrelated to the accident – so before they released him they biopsied that, which gives us something extra to think about.
I spent the first interminable week in Spokane sitting, first in ICU then in the orthopedic ward. I kept insisting that I hadn’t married him for his looks so his brain better be okay until, to shut me up, they showed me scans that proved the wheel had missed his head. I cracked inappropriate jokes about every indignity, photographed under his hospital gown so he could see the astonishing size and purpleness of his swollen groin, nagged him to suck on one plastic tube and blow into another, coaxed him to eat, bitched when his blood sugar soared, applauded when it dropped, and, hour after hour, waited for the doctors to come.
He’s been in rehab now for a week, and the waiting continues. He can sit up, can get from his bed to his wheelchair, can use a portable commode if they get it to him in time, but it’ll be a while before he can walk. He’s on heavy doses of pain medication, so of course he also needs laxatives, and … well, suffice to say they’ve spent the past few days figuring out how much of those he needs and how long they take to work. I’d like to think that next time the need for laxatives arises they’ll be in less of a hurry for them to work before they wallop him with an extra dose, but since the people giving the laxatives aren’t the people cleaning up when they do what they’re meant to do, that’s by no means certain.
I visit him for an hour or two most afternoons. Usually I take a dog or two. Sometimes we chat; sometimes we seem to have said everything we will ever have to say to each other. They put him through an array of tests when he arrived and, for the first time in his life, he didn’t ace the cognition test. His world has shrunk; it encompasses his pain scale, his physical therapy exercises, his carb intake, his blood sugar count, his bowels. He has a pile of books that he doesn’t read. For the first time in as long as I’ve known him he watches television. I’ve bought him a Lumosity subscription for Christmas, and when he’s dull and spacey I release my inner bitch and pick fights with him over his failure to despise that asshole in the White House as comprehensively or intensely as I do. (Sometimes it takes a poke with a sharp stick – or the verbal equivalent – to send a good surge of oxygen-laden red blood cells shooting brainwards. One does one’s wifely best.)
My world is misshapen and discombobulated, and to find my way around it I’m redefining the boundaries of what matters, and excising everything else with a sharp and ruthless blade. Some days I look at the weeks or months ahead and blaze with a kind of excitement – this is a shake-up, an opportunity to change, to renew our marriage, our life, ourselves. I’m acutely conscious of God’s grace, and hungry to draw close to Him. I make lists of the things I can make better, develop strategies for personal growth and home improvements. Other days I drag myself out of bed and put one foot in front of the other until it’s bedtime again, and then sometimes I can sleep.
Let’s talk. Have you had periods in your life when every time you thought things were as bad as they could be they got worse? How did you cope?