The Mislaid Plans of Wives and Men

Last summer the hubs and I took a field trip to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (aka Paradise) in Mansfield, Missouri. It was a fun day. There’s a whole little village built around the store, with much more for sale than just seeds. But seeds were our target acquisition, and we spent a good hour browsing the hundreds of varieties of just about everything that will grow in Missouri, before making our selections of…I don’t really remember.

Seed store

I do remember we both were excited to the point of giddiness about the prospects for what we could do in the yard the next spring. In my mind, 2018 unspooled ahead of me with a level of organization I’d never before achieved. Seeds started indoors in February. In the ground in April. I did a lot of reading about optimal conditions for indoor seedlings and mentally bolstered my self-image as a budding urban homesteader.

What really happened was  – well, a lot. Much has happened between our seed purchases and now. I got a second job. This is good. We needed the income stream. But it takes time. And my son started experiencing some medical problems that have turned doctor’s appointments into a time-consuming mother-son hobby. And winter has just gone on and on and on. And…all those excuses aside, my husband and I both forgot where we put the seeds!

We’ve looked in the usual places, and then some unusual places. We haven’t been able to find them. Now I can’t even remember what I bought. I’m pretty sure the spouse went for heirloom tomatoes and possibly some varieties of sunflowers. Me? I can’t say. Basil? Another herb? Maybe? Some kind of flower, I think — possibly nasturtium. I like nasturtiums. It’s likely I’d decide to grow those.

But not this year, apparently. I guess, if we ever get past the danger of frost and I ever find the time, I’ll go buy a few things from a nursery to stick in the ground. And the seeds will eventually turn up, right? And then it will be a delightful surprise. And I’ll be able once again to ignore the stark divide between the self-sufficient homesteader I want to think I can be and the real, disorganized, there-would-be-world-famine-if-everyone-gardened-like-I-do person I am.

I have an acquaintance who really is an accomplished homesteader. She cans. She makes her own soap. She raises her own sheep, shears them herself, spins the wool, and then knits it into blankets and clothing. Me? I buy seeds and mislay them.

To comfort myself, I try to remember the things I actually do well. Um… I excel at word games. And I can alphabetize like nobody’s business. If you ever need things put in alphabetical order, I’m your person. And if you need someone to daydream about gardening, I’m also your person.

 

 

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Favorite Children’s Books, or My Family’s Holy Texts

Recently, my kids and I found ourselves in a waiting situation without much to do. Uncharacteristically, we didn’t even have books with us. To pass the time, I used my phone to look up some conversation starter questions online.

One question carried us for several minutes. What’s your favorite book from childhood. I have never felt more success as a mother than when they both assured me I knew the answers without asking. And I did!

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My Son Emerges From His Room

My 19-year-old son, who is living at home while taking college classes, has started coming out of his room when he’s home. And he talks to me. I mean, he initiates conversations. It feels like a bridge crossed. Or a bridge rebuilt. Or something about bridges.

In the year before he graduated from high school and for the year or so since he moved back home, he kept mostly to his room when he was in the house. He’d come downstairs if I used my phone to message him that I’d cooked some food, or to briefly take care of whatever household chores he was assigned for the day. Otherwise, I had to make an effort to make sure I saw and talked to him each day.

He tended to leave his door open, at least, so it was easy to pop in and say hi. The conversations generally went something like this:

Me: “How’s it going?”

Him: “OK.”

Me: “Keeping up with your schoolwork all right?”

Him: “Yep.”

Me: “Well, see ya.”

But lately, he’s been bringing his laptop downstairs into the living room or dining room to do his work. He comes and sits next to me on the couch and starts conversations. Granted, he somehow manages to do this just at the moment I’ve decided I’m exhausted and need to go to bed. But I’m so glad he wants to talk, I stay up anyway.

My son is having some struggles at the moment, with health issues and with decisions about the future. The amazing part is when he says he wants my advice. We sit and talk about his life, his concerns, sometimes deep, philosophical issues, and other times more light-hearted topics.

The other day he even gave me a compliment, one that touched me at the very center of my thrifty core. I had shared my excitement about the deal I got on crackers at the grocery store. “If you bought a single box, they were $2.50 each, but if you got five, only $1 per!” At our house, we go through crackers like mobile apps go through updates, so five boxes is not overkill.

My son, rather than rolling his eyes, said, “I have a feeling that if anyone else were managing the money in this house, our standard of living would be lower.” He acknowledges and appreciates my accomplishments as a penny pincher! What more could a mother ask?

Shout out to parents who have a teenaged son shut away in his room right now. Some day he will emerge, and you will get re-acquainted.

 

The Messy Art of Disputing Medical Billing

My firstborn (FB for identification purposes in the rest of this post) is 22 years old. I thought I would have taught them everything I could by now, life skills wise. It started with things like tooth brushing and pouring drinks. I turned over laundry duties nine years ago. A driver’s license has been in hand for five years. The kid has held a responsible, paying job for fifteen months, and even managed tax filing without my help this year.

But life is always throwing something new at you. I currently find myself in the midst of assisting Kid A with the messy art of disputing medical billing. Perhaps you’ve read some articles recently about surprise emergency room charges. We’re living it.

It all stems from a late-night sudden illness last June. The insurance benefits posted on-line made it look like a trip to the ER should cost a total $100 copay. I offered to split the cost of the bill. Going to the ER turned out to be the right medical decision, but a second trip was nearly induced a couple of months later for heart issues when the health insurance statement showed up, claiming the total patient responsibility was $401.92. Whoa Nelly!

FB tried calling to straighten it out, but quickly became overwhelmed by the bureaucrat-speak, and gave permission for me to handle the issue. I made sure they knew every at step what I was doing, because dealing with health insurance snafus is sure to be a recurring issue in every American life.

I wish I could say I resolved the problem, but it’s still ongoing. In fact, I have a formal complaint filed with our state’s insurance commission and have also contacted the attorney general’s office to see if they can offer advice.

I did teach my kid some specifics for handling communications, though. Document all phone calls, taking names and writing down what was said. When the recorded voice tells you this call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes, keep that in mind. Don’t inadvertently go on record sounding like you agree with anything you really know is wrong. For a Midwesterner raised to be agreeable and pleasant at all times, this is hard. I keep wanting to say, “Okay. I see.” Instead I say, “No, that’s not right.”

Of course, the insurance company gave me the run-around, saying they would send the claim back for review, followed by radio silence until I initiated contact again. Then all of their stories changed when I talked to a second, different person. The real kicker is that, in the meantime, the hospital bill arrived and it was $501.92, even a hundred more than the surprise amount on the insurance statement.

I thought at least that extra hundred would be easy to straighten out. Simply show the hospital billing office the EOB we received. Nope. In November, I called and agreed to pay the $401.92 (FB kicking in the original $50 they agreed to), with the understanding we were still working on the insurance company to get things fixed and we would expect a $300 refund eventually. I worry about bad credit. I was told yes, to pay that amount and fax them a copy of the EOB I had. I did as told and assumed we were finished dealing with them until we could harass the insurance company into doing the right thing.

Nope. A couple of weeks ago, FB got a rude young adult awakening with a letter out of the blue from a collection agency, stating they owe an unpaid bill of $100 to the hospital. I got on the phone with the hospital again, with FB listening, and was able to read them my notes from all previous phone calls to them and insurance company. I said I would once again send them copies of the insurance statement we received, which clearly said “Total patient responsibility: $401.92.” I got an email address this time and scanned the letter to them.

The next day, FB and I were both off work, so we drove to the hospital billing office and presented the paperwork in person, proof it hadn’t been altered in any way. The woman who helped us was as confused as I. She said, “That’s sure what they told you, but when I look it up online, it tells me $501.92.” I talked her into calling the collection agency and putting a hold on their collection efforts until we got the bill straightened out.

After providing proof three different ways, we walked away expecting a phone call from the hospital stating their bill had been corrected. Guess what, though? Right – radio silence again. I finally called back a week later and ended up with a manager, who insisted the higher amount was correct because it’s what they see on the computer. The only way they could change their bill was to get a new, revised EOB from the insurance company.

But when I called them, the representative refused to issue one, saying, “I’m looking here and it says $501.92.” I also emailed them scans of the statement they sent me. Back on the phone with the billing manager, she said she talked to someone at insurance who told her basically that I was lying, that I had simply withheld pages of our insurance statement from her, and if I looked on the very last page, there it said we “might” owe $501.92. I apprised my kid of the latest developments and showed them how to dig in. I went back to the hospital in person again on my day off and presented in person the entire insurance statement I had received, which had the number $501.92 nowhere on it. In fact, the last page was only a list of how to get information if you speak a language other than English.

After hours worth of phone calls, with ever shifting stories from our health insurance company, my temporary, wimpy resolution of the issue was to drive a third time to the hospital billing office, agreeing to pay the $100 only to get the account out of collections and save my child’s credit rating here at the beginning of their adult life. But I also filed a formal complaint in writing to the insurance company and to the insurance commission, and insisted on a note being put on the account stating we didn’t agree the amount was owed.

My biggest concern was that, if they’d already moved the goalposts twice, they could move them again. I was afraid we’d hand them another $100 and then in three months, they might decide the total owed was actually $600, or $800 and ding us again. So I paid the hundred only under the condition that they cancel the collection agency altogether while I was sitting there to witness it and they print me a statement showing a zero balance on the account.

Now, we are waiting to hear back from the insurance commission or attorney general’s office. The thing is, if they had only been a large amount greedy, I would have let it go at 400. But when they went from large greedy to huge greedy and threw in some gaslighting on top of it, they transformed the whole issue into the hill on which I was willing to die. Now I’m working to get a full refund.

I know it’s most likely we’ll get nothing, but I hope at least I’m showing my kid that you keep standing up for yourself. If a bureaucrat is going to swindle you, you should at least make them work for it.

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Legacies and Living Memorials

Our parents never leave us. It sounds a little corny because it’s been said so often. But it’s been said so often because it’s true. Please excuse me if I get a little sappy as the second anniversary of my mother’s death nears.

The other day, I had a conversation with two friends who have also lost their mothers. The three of us, middle-aged ladies all, confessed that we still carry on mental conversations with our deceased parents, and that our mothers especially make themselves heard in our heads quite a lot. One said her mother tells her she should be doing more, the other that her mom is her cheerleader. My mother pops in to express disappointment when I behave with less kindness than I could have.

Yet another acquaintance who has recently lost her mom has started a project, along with her partner, to honor her mother’s memory. Once a week, they put forth an extra effort to do a good deed for someone — delivering supplies to a shelter, for instance. Her mom was an avid volunteer. They are filling the void as they can, helping people she would have helped were she still around.

I have a couple of pieces of my mom’s jewelry – a turquoise bracelet and a butterfly pin. They aren’t worth a lot of money, but I like them and they help keep her memory alive when I wear one of them. I also treasure one of her favorite books, 101 Famous Poems, and frequently read the ones she kept bookmarked.

People inherit all sorts of things from their parents — eye color, musical talent, junk cars, fancy cars, money, debt, beloved books or quilts. But the examples our moms and dads set for us, the lessons we learned from their lives and behavior constitute the largest legacies, the ones with the most impact.

We all have to choose how to use those inheritances once our parents are gone. We can squander money and we can squander lessons learned. Or we can choose to fund endowments or to apply the lesson in a positive way. Sometimes the only thing a parent leaves is a warning example of how not to live. Even that can be made into something of value when the surviving child chooses to do better.

My parents both had their flaws, as do we all. I’ve thought a lot about what positive legacy I want to carry on from each of them. I didn’t inherit money, so I can’t fund scholarships or charities. But from my dad, I can carry on his life-long love of learning, a desire to research and read and dig for information and continue to learn to do new things. I can pass it along to benefit others by teaching some of what I know, which I do through my writing and through teaching tech classes at the library where I work. One of my mom’s best characteristics was one I took for granted until I was an adult, because I didn’t realize how sadly rare it was. You know the advice, “If you can’t say something nice…” She lived it. She never spoke ill of others behind their backs, even if I could clearly see they deserved it. I can best honor my mom by trying to emulate that quality. My memorial to her is the goal of striving to speak with kindness not only to people in their presence, but about people when they are not around. To be honest, I can tend to be a little complainy at times, so this is a good work-out for me.

My biggest hope for my own children has always been that they’d grow up to be people who cared, who wanted to do good in the world. As they’re now in the early years of adulthood, I’m seeing those dreams come to fruition. They both display kindness and empathy on the regular. I hope the voice I leave in their heads will be one that helps more than hurts. I hope they’ll memorialize me when I’m gone by striving to add more love to the world.

 

 

The Magic of Snow at Christmas Time

My dad once told me I would come to dislike snow after I grew up. It hasn’t happened yet. I still feel the magic of the first snowfall every year, doubly so when I wake up to it on Christmas Eve, as I did this morning.

 

I have vague recollections of hearing footsteps going up and down stairs very early this morning before I was completely awake. Evidently, someone was so excited to see the snow, they went running out the back door barefoot.

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Note that, in theory, we’re all adults in this household. But come the first snowfall of the season, we act like giddy little children. Judging by the size of the prints in the photo above, my guess is they belong to a 22-year-old, one who has to go work at a retail job this afternoon.

I’m glad my dad was wrong, but sad for him that he lost the magic. There are some things you should never outgrow.

 

Pet Loss

CJ kittenIt’s been a tough week in our household.

Nine years ago, my oldest child — then thirteen — was visiting family in Oklahoma. And behold, there was a litter of kittens. I have never regretted saying yes when I received the phone call asking if one of the kittens could come live with us.

CJ Cat was my oldest child’s best friend through some difficult times, a consistent source of comfort and companionship. She was a talkative cat, leading us to speculate she may have been part Siamese. She was afraid of strangers and generally hid from company, but loved being with all members of the family. If we gathered in one room, watching a movie or playing a game, it didn’t take long before she’d establish herself in the middle of the group. And when there was a nap to be had, she helped with that, too.

CJ Nap

My son sneaked this pic of me and the cat, both having given up on all of the paperwork.

 

CJ was part of home. She was so present so much of the time.

As she grew up, she developed a weight problem and I became one of those people I used to laugh at for spending ridiculous amounts of money on special, expensive food for a pet. Her weight was heading in the right direction, slowly. We had the goal to bring her down from a high of nearly sixteen pounds to twelve. She’d made it to thirteen and a quarter. We set up elaborate systems and plans to keep her from getting to the food bowls of our other two cats. But she was smart and always on the watch for an opportunity to get any extra nugget.

Cat

CJ Cat loved sunbeams.

We had our morning rituals, and they normally culminated with CJ settling onto my and the husband’s bed for a nap about the time I left for work in the morning. When I’d come home, she’d hear the door and come thundering down the steps, directly to her food bowl in the kitchen.

Last Friday, a week ago today, I’d taken her to the vet for booster shots and a checkup. Everything looked good and she seemed fine. On Mondays, I work a split shift: 9-1 and then evening, 5-9. Monday morning, CJ was okay, eating her breakfast with the usual gusto, getting her morning pets and chin scratching, getting under the humans’ feet as we moved around the house. Then she got into her nap place on our bed.

That’s where I found her, lifeless, when I came home in the afternoon and she failed to run down the stairs to get her lunch. She looked peaceful and at rest, like she simply went to sleep and never woke up, which is what happened, I suppose, and the one comfort in the midst of the shock of losing her so unexpectedly.

My 19-year-old son was home, getting ready for an afternoon college class. I called my husband, who left work. We all agonized over how to break the news to our 22-year-old, CJ’s main human, the one who had brought her home as a kitten. They (our oldest uses they/them pronouns) work as an assistant manager in retail and were scheduled to be the floor manager for another three hours that day, unable to leave until another manager arrived. We all agreed they couldn’t get the news without being able to leave work.

My son went on to his class, as it was a couldn’t miss session that day. My husband and I wrapped the body in a towel and moved it to his desk chair, a place CJ loved to bogart, often jumping up to the seat the minute he left to go get a snack or use the bathroom. I washed all of the bedding and then sat vigil while my husband went to meet our oldest as they got off work and brought them home.

My heart is aching not only over the loss of our much-loved companion, but also knowing how devastating it is for my child. Let me tell you, seeing your child bereft and heartbroken is no easier when they’re 22 than it is when they’re 5, or 13.

We buried CJ in the back yard, in a spot where the morning sunbeams hit every day, because she loved basking in the sun when it came in the window.

Well, we’re ridiculous people who open our home and our hearts to a ridiculous number of small creatures. My oldest child, in particular, has always had an affinity for animals. When they passed the G.E.D. exam, for a graduation present, they wanted a pet hedgehog and even found a breeder about three hours away.

Haymitch Hedgehog lived in a largish, customized home in said child’s room, and often traveled around in a little carrier when his human went to sit in a park and write or eat lunch. He was close to six years old, which is elderly for one of these animals. Two days after CJ’s passing, Haymitch followed her across the Rainbow Bridge. At least this one wasn’t a surprise.

Haymitch

I’m not sure what the neighbors think, with my family out in our yard two different nights this week, wielding our flashlights and shovels. As we laid Haymitch to rest, it began to sleet on us, because of course it did. I actually laughed at the universe going so over the top. The precipitation lasted only a few minutes, ending as we were heading back indoors.

We still have two cats and also two pet rats, all of whom have been receiving lavish attention the past few days. But there are still big empty places. I know the pets we have now will eventually pass (one of the surviving cats is coming up on sixteen years old in the spring) and we’ll mourn again. I don’t see any of us changing our essential natures by not taking in animals as they come along. I grimly joked that some day archeologists will excavate the site of our home and yard and it will just be full of small animal bones.

That’s the nature of life when you like having pets around. They have shorter lives and you get your heart-broken over and over. Do you ever get numb to losing them? Not in my experience. It’s difficult every time. Is it worth it? So far, yes, absolutely.