The happiest and the saddest day…

Every year on my birthday, for years and years, my mammaw would call to tell me she was thinking about me. She would always start off by saying, “This was the happiest and the saddest day of my life.” And then she would tell me about how my pappaw woke up the morning I turned six and said to her, “Today is our girl’s birthday.” And I could see in my mind’s eye the “life-size” doll that he had planned to give me, a “fashion doll” in a frilly formal gown, leaning against the wall in the corner of their upstairs apartment in Salyersville, Kentucky. At six years old, I preferred baby dolls but was fascinated that this doll, dressed in someone’s idea of a glamorous gown, could stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

I was the first grandchild and the only girl in the family for a long time. Eventually there would be eighteen of us cousins, but on that happiest and saddest day, the day my pappaw died, my sixth birthday, there were only four of us–me, my brother, and our cousins Randy and Timmy. What I know about that day is that my father was on his way back to Norfolk, where he was stationed in the Navy. I also know that dad and pappaw had parted on bad terms (they had recently fought, with dad refusing to get out of the Navy and take over the family grocery store). On the morning I turned six, pappaw suffered chest pains so severe that the family decided to drive to the nearest clinic, about an hour and a half over winding mountain roads.

These days doctors can save many people in my pappaw’s situation by putting in a stent or replacing a valve or performing a bypass or any number of other procedures that are so common we take them for granted. But back then, there was nothing to be done. My pappaw, who was only 49 at the time, died later that day. I don’t know if he died there at the clinic and the family had to bring him home somehow, or if he came home first with some sort of medication and then died later. I should ask my father about that. There was also at the time no email, no cellphones, no text messaging, no way to contact my dad and tell him he needed to turn around and come back for his father’s funeral, other than to send a Red Cross message, which he found on the pillow of his bunk when he returned to base. He thought it would be good news telling him his younger sister had had her baby, and he was shocked and saddened to read the contents of the brief message.

In my imagination, dad arrived by plane, in his dress white uniform, and I was thrilled to see him coming back to me so soon after he had left. But I couldn’t understand why he was crying. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. The next thing I remember was my pappaw lying in a box in a formal living room for the visitation and all my aunts and uncles and great grandparents and second and third cousins, and cousins twice removed, and other people I didn’t know standing around in dark suits and Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, telling stories and occasionally laughing. At one point mammaw took me in to kiss pappaw goodbye, which seemed like the most natural thing to do and did not freak me out at all, although my mother, when she found out, was beside herself with worry over how it might damage me psychologically.

It has been nearly nine years since mammaw died. Although she remarried a widower who had twelve children of his own and remained married to him until he died, mammaw is now buried beside pappaw in the family plot, along with my baby cousin Connie, who died when she was only three days old. After all these years, I miss hearing mammaw tell me about her happiest and saddest day. Although everyone in the family obviously knew the facts of the matter–that pappaw died on my birthday–no one else ever brought it up. They did their best to let me have my special day and not mess it up with sad stories. But this year, when my dad called to wish me a happy birthday, it was as though he were channeling his mother, when he said, “You know this is a happy and sad day for me.”



A Dose of Venom is Good for What Ails You

Today was allergy-shot day. I am still on a weekly schedule, being injected with honeybee venom to try to build up my immunity. Eventually I hope I won’t have to worry about going into anaphylactic shock if I am stung again. I was just diagnosed with a bee allergy earlier this summer, and I’m not quite used to the idea yet. I had a good scare a year ago and then another bad reaction this past summer, so I decided to consult an allergy specialist, who confirmed that I am severely allergic and should do something about it. Since I keep bees and raise a garden filled with plants that bees love, the number 1 recommendation (i.e., stay away from bees) was not going to work for me. I decided to undergo immunotherapy, but until I have built up resistance to bee venom, I carry an epipen in case I’m stung.

Although my reaction was not that severe either time (my main symptom was dizziness), the more I read about anaphylactic shock and the more I thought about how long it had taken the ambulance to arrive at the beeyard, the more I realized how serious the problem could be. I also learned that once you have had a single allergic reaction, you have a 30% to 60% chance of having a similar allergic reaction in the future. I had been stung numerous times before (as a child running barefoot through clover and in the past 12 years since I started working with bees) and had on occasion been stung multiple times at once, but I had never before had an allergic reaction. I did, however, have large local reactions, which occur in about 10% of people. (Apparently, my mother was right to worry when I told her I was going to start keeping bees.)

Some people probably think I should just give up beekeeping, but it’s not that simple. I love being in the bee yard with my husband, especially on warm, sunny afternoons when the bees are buzzing contentedly, flying in from the fields in a straight beeline toward the hives, their pollen baskets filled with bright yellow and orange and red pollen. There is something imminently satisfying about all that industry and the elaborate forms of communication among the workers. I love the smell of the smoke and the wax; I love the creamy texture of freshly drawn comb; I love the taste of honey on my tongue. I love looking out on the world through the mesh of my bee veil at the bees that hover just before my face, as though trying to get my attention and tell me something. I enjoy searching a frame of bees closely to try to find the queen, and I find the contented buzzing of the bees soothing (or at least I did before I learned I was allergic).

Now I must admit that since my diagnosis, I am much less calm than I used to be when thousands of bees are flying about, even on days when they are happy, and I am more attuned to the slightest change in mood, more alert to the different kinds of buzzing that might indicate that the guard bees are, well, “on guard,” ready to attack. I have since begun wearing gloves, which I didn’t used to do; I take care not to stand in the beeline; I always approach the hive from the back; I make sure to wear light-colored clothes; and if the bees seem even a little bit unhappy, I back away from the hives, trying to move slowly, without any jerky movements that might cause them alarm. I look forward to the day, three to five years from now, when perhaps I will no longer be allergic to these fascinating creatures.

close-up photograph of honeybee on yellow flower

This photo of Apis mellifera Western honey bee was taken by Andreas Trepte, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

It’s Guessing Time!

November is the month when we have an opportunity to switch healthcare plans, increase life insurance coverage, sign up for longterm disability insurance, and make other changes to our employee benefits plans. Of if we do nothing during the annual enrollment period, our previous coverage will continue at the same levels until next November, when we get to try again. The trick is figuring out what each plan offers and whether the benefits will outweigh the costs. Of course, there is no real way to calculate how much coverage we might need, since it is impossible to know how many times we might go to the doctor, whether we will be involved in a catastrophic accident or have a stroke or collapse on the dance floor from some hidden malady.

By now we have received the glossy new brochure outlining the major changes for 2012 and informing us of new online tools that will supposedly make the whole process oh so much easier. It’s a given that whichever health plan we sign up for this year will cost more than last year and likely provide higher deductibles and lower benefits. At least, I assume that’s the case. I haven’t actually done the math. It’s hard to take the process completely seriously, though, when one of the plans is called MyChoice, and the other is called MyOptions. The last time I looked, “choice” and “options” meant the same thing. I did try to go online and check out the MyDecision tool that was supposed to help me decide which plan would best meet my needs, but all it did was pop up a video that started playing automatically and could not be stopped. One of my coworkers, who has apparently looked a little more closely at the two plans, says that the list of things not covered is actually quite entertaining. According to him, treatment for recovering from a religious cult is not covered, nor will our insurance cover the costs of special pajamas worn to the hospital.

I know I am lucky to have a job and health insurance these days, but still it irritates me that healthcare is so expensive and that for-profit insurance companies play such a large role in all medical decisions. And don’t even get me started on pharmaceutical companies. The process should not be this complicated. I consider myself fairly smart, but I am completely befuddled. While putting off making decisions about which healthcare program to sign up for this year and how much to put aside in my flexible spending account, I began to wonder what things were like in my parents’ and grandparents’ day. Did my grandparents have health insurance in the 1920s when they had their first child, or were they able to pay the doctor directly out of their savings? When my mother gave birth to me by Caeserean section in the 1950s and needed blood transfusions, who paid for that, and how much did it cost? And who received the money? I assume the payment went directly to the people who provided the services, namely the family doctor and the local hospital. If they needed medicine, they bought it from the local drug store. They banked at one of the two local banks in town, either Farmers or Merchants, and everyone knew each other personally.

The connections between doctor and patient were more clear. When mom needed blood transfusions, the students and faculty at the college where she taught went to the hospital and donated blood, knowing it would go directly to someone they knew and cared for. I think it’s the connections in general that are lacking these days. Everything has grown so complicated, so filled with middlemen standing between the providers and the ones who need their service.

I remember my father-in-law Bill telling a story about when he worked in the installment loan department at a small-town bank. The bank was about to close one evening when a man came in asking for a loan. Bill invited him in and chatted while they filled out the paperwork, trying to make the man feel comfortable, knowing that some people are embarrassed to have to borrow money. (What happened to those days?) He asked the man where he was from, who his family was, what he did for a living, and he wrote down the information on the loan application. Finally, he got to the point where he needed to know what the loan was for and was told that the man and his wife were expecting their first child. Bill congratulated him and asked when the baby was due (of course, they wouldn’t have known whether it was a boy or a girl until after the birth; there were no ultrasounds then). Imagine his surprise when the man gestured toward the window and replied, “Well, I’m not sure about that, but my wife is out in the car now, in right smart pain.” Bill said, “You’re telling me your wife is in labor now?” And the man said he guessed so. Bill stood up, took a roll of bills out of his pocket, handed $100 to the man, and told him to take his wife to the hospital straight away. He could finish filling out the loan application later. Now, you tell me whether you think any of that story could happen these days.

Well, this obviously isn’t helping me decide what coverage I need for next year. I’ll probably go with the MyChoice (or was that MyOptions?), and I’ll put enough money in my Flexible Spending account to cover the copays on my bee allergy shots, new lenses for my old glasses, and a pair of sunglasses. And I’ll hope I don’t have any other copays for hospital visits or dental work. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act of 2010, my younger son will be allowed to stay on my insurance until he turns 26 in April. But then what? I definitely need to educate myself about healthcare issues before next year’s annual enrollment period comes around.