Six years wide | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Jul 12, 2017

I got a text message, six years ago. It was late and I was already in bed, exhausted by a day of bad news. By months of bad news, actually, crawling and lurching its way into our reality until it never left us. It never does, it turns out.

And on July 6, 2011, we reached peak bad news. A year earlier, my wife’s long struggle with her eyesight, with headaches, with word-finding difficulties, with all sorts of oddities, had become understandable: She had a brain tumor, and she needed to get rid of it. The next few months would all be about this, surgery and recovery and adjustments.

In the spring of 2011, demonstrating proper breathing technique to a young singer, my wife suddenly had pain. The next day she couldn’t climb stairs, and so we added a heart attack to her medical history. There would eventually be anticoagulation and stent placement, and recovery from that.

While she was being worked up, routine mammograms detected what we thought were probably calcifications in both breasts. We thought wrong, and so the specialists talked to each other and juggled treatments, needing to keep her blood thin to treat her cardiac condition and yet needing to do a biopsy. It was tricky, and took weeks of waiting, but a biopsy was eventually done.

We sat down together, that July 6, and listened to her doctor on speakerphone. Calm and measured, this physician described the cancer that had invaded my wife, explaining that it was early and treatable.

But, again: We’d been climbing this mountain for a while.

This is old news. I wrote a book about these years, about how one goes about negotiating with dispassionate fate. No one to blame, nothing to attack. Bad stuff happens. Occasionally it keeps happening.

And six years is nothing. I remember it well, that July, and how July bucked us up, the sunshine and warmth buoying us a little, lifting us above the waves. As did love and friendship and good surgeons, whose care was personal and kind. And expensive, although by then the costs had drifted into fatalism. We were spared bankruptcy, but not going broke. If you can appreciate the distinction. It wasn’t a great time of life to go broke, but tell me about a better time.

It was a combination of bad luck and worse. Our health insurance had been cancelled, nothing sinister involved, only a slight change in status. My wife and I weren’t strangers to buying insurance on the open market. It had never been a problem.

Now it was. Now, my wife had a preexisting condition. Now, my wife, who continued to work three jobs and 70-plus hours a week, couldn’t have touched an insurance policy with a 10-foot pole. Assuming she had enough vision left to see the pole, which she probably didn’t.

So our story just became another cliché of the era, just another family devastated by the cost of a health crisis. Three crises, actually, although by the time she had chest pain, we’d gotten some help. This was from a barely publicized early feature of the Affordable Care Act, months before A high-risk pool was established, and for an outrageous monthly premium she managed to get health insurance.

We still went broke. Again, this happens to millions of Americans. If maybe you can understand how I feel that the ACA saved my wife’s life, you can still disagree with my notion that the program was a good thing. Unless you have a vote in the U.S. Senate, I’m not all that interested.

I wrote a column, years ago, when I first found myself without health insurance. It was a strange feeling, after an entire adult lifetime of coverage, and a retired Edmonds schoolteacher wrote me a note. She told me to shut up, that it was entirely our fault, and that I should stop writing for the newspaper. People are funny.

But I was talking about this text message. I’ve discovered an intimacy to this, a few words that travel a thousand miles and nudge me in bed, keep me from dreaming for a moment while I read. It was from an old friend, just hearing the news. She wanted to touch us, comfort us, rail against the universe with us. It was a kindness.

People mostly didn’t know what to say. Mostly, they just showed up, and a lot of that was a digital presence. Proximity might be preferred, but long-distance love is still a pretty sweet deal if you can get it.

So love was good. Support was good. And time, ultimately, was good. The five-year mark has come and gone. Chemotherapy is over, and my wife counts fewer pills these days. Her routine appointments in three specialties have spread out a bit. She’s blind in one eye now.

Live long enough and tragedy will sharpen its outline. You’ll see it when it happens, and understand that it happens all the time, to everyone. These moments come and go, the devil being in the details but the details keep changing. It’s just life, and it happens to all of us.

And if the sea is so big and your boat is so small, friends are good. Love is good. Health insurance is very good.

But maybe you need to get a bigger boat. Ours is six years wide now. We know every inch, and we know that ultimately we are not the captains. The sea will never give us a break. It’s just lovely to look at the waves, and remember.

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