Thursday, September 30, 2010

Break, Broke, Broken Revisited: This Time It’s Personal

“Did you hear something pop?” asked the paramedic.

“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t really hear much over the screaming.”

“Screaming?” he asked, looking all around. “Who screamed?”

“Me,” I admitted sheepishly.

These days I can’t seem to catch a break. Well, Okay, maybe this time I did. Sort of. You see, apparently appliances are not the only things that can break when times are tough financially.

Remember what I said in my August blog post, “Break, Broke, Broken”?: “Stuff may be broken, but I am not.” Well, just a month later, I almost was.

Confession time: I have a history of epic-level klutziness—the kind of stories you trot out at parties to make people laugh.

One incident involved a dark Halloween night, a winding country road, an Angus bull (2,000 pounds worth) and a totaled Toyota. The good news is, I didn’t get a scratch in the accident.

Another fiasco was a fall at the nursing home in front of no less than 100 onlookers—an event later requiring surgery and months of physical therapy. (Embarrassment trumped pain as I realized I, the young person, was on the ground being loaded onto a stretcher as the frail, elderly folks stood over me, watching solemnly.)

Thankfully, in my latest klutz attack, my foot and ankle did not get broken. Although, in all truthfulness, an actual break may have hurt less and healed faster than the torn ligaments I now have.

And, worst of all, I didn’t even get a good party story out of it. You’d think if a person has to clomp around for a month in a knee-high moonboot, it would be more interesting to relate a tall tale of being chased  by rhinos on a Serengeti safari. Or at minimum, a story of reckless Alpine snowboarding.

September 4th, the Saturday before Labor Day was beautiful in Georgia. It was the kind of late-summer weekend that leads a woman to daydreams of beautifully weeded flower beds, immaculately cleaned living quarters and super-purged closets. It was the kind of day when accomplishing that mile-long to-do list seemed possible.

But, my first thought was, I’ll quickly get the laundry chugging so it’ll have plenty of time to line-dry. (Dryer’s still broken.)

Apparently I wanted that laundry done a bit too quickly. As my mind focused far away on the to-do list, my body flew over the last step of the stairway.

It’s amazing how time slows in an accident. At some point in the endless freefall, I tossed the laundry hamper sideways, thus making room to land face down in the foyer as some woman screamed loudly very close to my ear.

My right foot lay at an odd angle beneath me as I sprawled less than a foot in front of my new water heater. (Okay, I love my new water heater, but falling down to kiss its feet is a bit much.)

Yep, klutzy is my middle name; I admit it.

As I rose carefully from the floor, I watched a big blue goose-egg emerge on the top of my foot.

This is not good, I thought, as I hobbled to the phone to call Mom and Dad (again).

“Call 911 this minute!” Mom instructed. “It’ll take us at least an hour to get there.”

“Is it gonna cost me if they come?” I asked, my on-the-dole persona flipping into instant alert.

“Just call them,” she snapped in that tone of voice only a mother is legally allowed to use—the kind of voice that instantly makes you feel 12-years old again and mentally adding the “or else” part even if she didn’t say it.

I called 911.

Five minutes later: two paramedics, two EMTs, two firefighters and three shiny red trucks arrived. Must’ve been a really slow morning in my semi-rural community, I thought.

In the middle of the chaos, neighbor Lynn burst through the front door in time to hear a trip to the ER was necessary. Still worrying about money, I actually did put six highly-trained emergency personnel on hold while calling to have my mother check the insurance plan book to see if I could afford an ambulance trip. (We have the same carrier.)

I could not.

Yes, that’s right. In the midst of total chaos and excruciating pain, my chief concern was price. I am, after all, living on the dole, and I just paid for a water heater, too.

Fortunately, Lynn stepped in to offer to give up her Saturday morning to drive me to the ER so that I could save the ambulance fee. Where would I be in this dole adventure if it were not for family and friends, I asked myself for the thousandth time?

Still, trust me on this, you do not want to have an orthopedic accident on a Saturday morning of a three-day weekend when your orthopedist won’t be back in the office until Tuesday. Let me explain the effects of this long weekend succinctly: “Ouch! Ouch! OUCH!” (for 72 hours straight in spite of heavy-duty painkillers).

Still, I did “catch a break” this time—the foot was not broken, but, I badly tore the ligaments, necessitating weeks in a cast.

Very funny, Doc. Wise cracks thrown in at no additional charge.

It’s a good thing that through my ongoing klutziness over the past 12 years, we’ve become friends or I might, in my pain and drug-fuzzed state have needed to hurt him for that one.

Oh, and just to make things interesting: Did I mention this foot in the cast is my driving foot? How am I supposed to get from Point A to Point B?


Oh, and as if driving me around like Miss Daisy is not enough, she also gets to cook my meals, scoop cat litter boxes, and push me in a wheelchair when I have a business appointment. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is when your mommy has to help you in and out of the shower? (Thankfully, at least it is a hot shower—glad I got that water heater before this happened). Meanwhile, Dad waters plants, runs errands and takes on whatever else Major Mom assigns him to do—all while remembering not to complain about the haphazard schedule now going on at his house.

It has been nearly four weeks since my fall. My foot no longer looks quite as much like a purple football with five fat sausages attached. More importantly, the pain has lessened to the point where I can now focus on other things—such as money.

Since that plunge down the stairs, my medical bills so far now total more than $2,000. Thankfully, insurance covers a big chunk of that amount. Still, I’ll have to figure out how to pay the hefty co-pays and deductibles. I’m hoping there’s no need for surgery or physical therapy, but the fact that it’s still swollen and discolored three weeks later is discouraging. That unmet annual deductible looms large, but I’m trying hard not to think of that too much.

As I consider my own situation, I wonder how people without health insurance manage? How do they pay $2,000+ for emergency medical care? And, my bills are just for a badly torn ankle and foot. What if it was some life-threatening emergency?

Right now, my insurance is somewhat reasonable, but still a stretch on my teeny-tiny dole checks. But, in April, my monthly insurance cost will skyrocket to an amount larger than my monthly dole check. 

In fact, at some point, the dole check will dry up entirely. I can only hope that the business I’m starting has taken off by then. I was making great progress on it until the fall, but a four-week setback at this point is not a good thing.

Yes, I still have financial worries but throughout my “broken” situation, whether it’s broken appliances, a broken bank account or even now my bruised-but-not-broken body, I’m learning what’s still whole in my life—my family and friends—and to be thankful for that with my whole heart.  

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Photos Courtesy of:

Cast & Crutch (not Ariel):
X-ray (not Ariel's X-ray):

Thursday, September 2, 2010

. . . And Then I Took a Cold Shower

It's a dark and stormy night in Georgia.

Lightning flashes. Thunder explodes. The cat tries to become one with the carpet beneath his bed. I pull the covers over my head to muffle the house-rattling booms.

Then . . . total darkness.

When the power goes, it's amazing the sounds you don't hear. No air conditioner hum. No air purifier buzz. No ceiling fan swooshes.

I'm reminded of what else I'm not hearing: the sounds of the gas burner rattling on to crank up the water heater located just beneath my bedroom.

Just yesterday, I discovered dampness on the closet floor next to the water heater. Not too surprising—at 23 years old, the ancient dinosaur was the last original appliance left in my house. There had been warnings, but each time I'd seen rusty water, I'd convinced my got-no-money self it was only the pipes.

Four AM: Sleep escapes me; I ponder my finances, the water heater floating to the top of my worry list.

Dang! It perks along just fine for 23 years, but decides to quit now—just when I have no spare funds for repairs?

This month's earlier financial fiasco—air conditioning repair—has not even made it to my credit card statement yet, much less been paid.

Two major home repairs in one month? Are you kidding me?

It's 4:10 AM: I lie sleepless with nothing to do but think. And, the more I think, the more I just want to go kick something.

And, today's there's a cold shower in my future.

Obviously, I have royally ticked off the appliance gods.

Okay, this isn't cute anymore. I've gone from a novel, mildly-annoying-yet-eco-friendly laundry experiment to what's shaking out to be a mega-annoying, primitive lifestyle. I've spent nearly a year maintaining my optimism while being jobless, but this is just too, too much. I didn't sign on for a pioneer gig.

Yesterday, when I saw the dampness and heard that insistent drip-drip-drip sound, I had (again!) phoned my dad. He talked me through checking this and that, but there's no getting around the reality of the coming watery tide on the closet floor if something isn't done.

I consider my migraine-inducing options.

But, really, there are no options. There's nothing to be done but to order a new water heater and pay for installation.

Thursday mid-morning: My stomach churns at the $900 price quoted by two different plumbing contractors as well as a home improvement store. No matter where you go or what brand you choose, the price comes out the same. But, hot water is a basic necessity. Hanging up wet laundry, I can do, but cold showers and stove-heated water for hand-washing dishes? I don't think so.

But, where does $900 come from? I can't find that much spare change in the sofa cushions or sell that many pints of blood.

Wait! The home improvement store offers a six-months-same-as-cash plan. (Just wondering: What kind of place gives a shiny new credit card with a $1,000 limit to a person on the dole? Yes, that's exactly how much they approved. It's September, and my year-to-date dole checks total less than I used to earn in a single month.)

Six-month-same-as-cash is good except . . . same scenario six months hence: spare change, sell blood, etc. I'm starting to feel like Miss Scarlett again. I'll think about that in six-month's worth of tomorrows.

"Would you like it installed today?" the store clerk asks cheerfully.

"Definitely," I reply.

The clerk glances at the oily, unwashed bangs glued to my forehead and says nothing. She dials plumbers and insists the job be done today.

Still, even without counting the financial concerns, as I drive home, I sense it is all a little too easy.

Surely you can't just waltz into a store, put a water heater on a brand-new, instantly-issued charge card and enjoy a hot shower by day's end.

Hours later, the plumber arrives as promised, my new water heater on the truck . Then, as expected, Murphy's Law strikes: The new tank is damaged.

But, it gets worse: The plumber announces there can be no installation today anyhow. Apparently some dummy built my house around my water heater.

Yes, you heard right—the builder constructed this house around the water heater.

Old one won't come out of the closet. New one can't go in. Demolition work ahead.

"The company doesn't allow me to do demo work," the nice plumber explains sympathetically. "You'll have to get a handyman."

Or, he explains, I have another option: a tankless water heater in the garage. Oh, and that will cost around $2,700—new pipes, fittings, vents, widgets and hocus-pocus.

How can I possibly pay $2,700 when I can't imagine where I'm going to get the previously-quoted $900?

I watch forlornly as "my" water heater sails into the sunset, strapped to the retreating back of the plumber's truck.

I don't have a handyman. Even if I had money, isn't the handyman a mythical beast? Has anyone ever actually seen or hired one? Still, I do have my ever-reliable, always-on-call "Super" Dad, but it gets kind of embarrassing at my age to keep yelling for my father.

Still—what choice do I have? Once again, I make the call.

Now it's Friday: All plumbers charge extra for weekend installations; two more days of cold showers.

Saturday: Dad removes the closet door and door frame. I hold my breath as he measures. Yay! The old one will come out with a quarter inch to spare. But . . . the new, fatter one still won't go in.

Third day with no hot water: I get an e-mail from a family friend two miles away. She's inviting me to her house for showers. My spirits perk up. I don't go, but the invitation cheers me. Somebody cares!

Off we go (parents now joining this rolling circus) to the home improvement store to choose a taller (slimmer) tank that will fit through that narrow closet door.

It's now Monday: Cold showers and hand-washed dishes for nearly a week.

And . . . that "nice" plumber who came on Thursday now demands an additional $334, even after my father removed the closet door and drained the water heater. The bill leaps to $1,200. (More spare change? More selling blood? I'm starting to envision myself in a chicken suit waving discount coupons for fried nuggets at passing motorists.)

Couldn't this stuff wait until my business turns a profit in a few months? Right now, with start-up costs, I'm still drowning in red ink. Computers, business licenses and supplies aren't cheap.

When I likened starting a new business to taking a plunge in the icy waters of the North Atlantic sea, I had no idea that metaphor would come to life as a cold chill in my own bathtub.

When I dared to exclaim with good humor that I was on board with the eco-concept of line-dried laundry, I never dreamed that soon I would be hand-washing dishes, too.

And, "Romance on the Dole"? Seriously, people?

Forget the eligible bachelor everybody thinks I should find. You know, the one with the good job and health insurance?

Nope, one brawny-can-do-hunky-Carter-Oosterhouse variety for me, please! (Do these heroic creatures actually exist in the wild? Or, are they, like the so-called hireable handyman, merely a fantasy? And if they do exist, there's that whole issue of my current lack of hot water and allure—just two more reasons romance on the dole ain't gonna happen, folks. (Go ahead if you think differently; try shaving your legs when they're covered in goose bumps.)

Once more, my savings account leaks profusely. But, I remind myself how fortunate I am to still have savings. And, I'm thankful I even have a home to repair when so many hard-working folks have lost theirs.

Unexpectedly, I get a sudden break: my mother's Facebook friend whom she hasn't seen in 40 years and who lives five states away tells Mom about a plumber a mere five miles from my house. The plumber's wife is friends with the Facebook friend and knows my grandparents or something. I still haven't sorted out all the connections, but he's a highly-experienced professional with a better quality water heater he'd be happy to install today.

Yes, today!

Even better news: His website shows he's running a special on water heater installation at this minute.

Total cost: $600.

Even the expansion thingie the other guys quoted at $125, this plumber will install for only $35.

Then, my new hero repaired—for free—a little drip under the kitchen sink and told me not to worry about paying for 30 days. (Is it possible for plumbing repairs to make me as ecstatic as that blissful haircut from a few months ago?)

That's right, folks. After days of cold showers, I just saved $600 thanks to Mom's Facebook friend (whom I've only met in e-mails) and the world's most awesome plumber.

Life is not so bleak after all.

After sending a gushy thank-you e-mail to Mom's friend and posting an even gushier note on the plumber's Facebook page, I begin to wonder about the future. What happens next with my finances? Will my new business succeed? Will I ever again have a pay check to deposit? Will things eventually change for the better? And, just how long does "eventually" take?

Things aren't so bad after all, I decide. I have a roof over my head. I have food in the fridge. I have a Dad who loves me enough to demo a closet for me and some really great friends who consistently come through for me. Some way, somehow I will scrape up the money to pay for that water heater.

Sure, a few days of cold showers were a little primitive, but, as far as I know, goose bumps never actually killed anybody.

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Just for Fun: Watch Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in "The Money Pit":

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Photo Credits:
Last Shower: