At the elevator, brace still on, crutch still under his arm, he tells me he thinks that a good return-to-work date would be June 4, five days before we leave for Spain. He seems optimistic as he hobbles down the tiled hallway, as we enter the carpeted office, as we check in and he holds the door open for a woman with a walker, pointing out, “It’s kind of strange they don’t have an automatic door in the orthopedic’s office,” to which she adamantly agrees.
On the plastic, paper-coated bed, he hands me the folder while the PA takes him for x-rays. After just a few minutes, the doctor enters with the films. He has photographs of the entire procedure. He intricately describes the meniscus (intact), the bones (drilled into), the ACL (torn and then repaired). Bruce and I lift our eyebrows at each other, barely able to distinguish the tiny details he points out in each picture.
In his cozy spinning chair, the doctor is also optimistic. “I think you can ditch the brace right now and ditch the crutches by Friday. Use the stationary bike on Sunday. By Monday, you should be walking around the block. Maybe driving.”
From the green paper folder, I begin to pull out the forms. First: short-term disability approval. A list of lines with dates, surgery and medication verification. Affably, he takes them in stride: “I’ll be sure to get these to the right people to fill them out.” Because he has people. Because he charged the insurance company $36,000, more than half of what I earn in a year, for an outpatient surgery that took less than 90 minutes. Because we live in the land of the free.
From the green paper folder, I continue to pull out forms. Bruce begins to tell him–without ever being able to finish because of the doctor’s rambling explanations, the doctor’s defense of his procedures, the doctor’s justification for not filling out anything–about wanting to return to work before Spain. I pull out The Form, the one that CenturyLink requires for him to be able to work: a release of liability for driving a company vehicle, an “if-something-happens-it’s-not-on-us, your-injury-better-not-affect-your-work” form.
From his throne, he glances at the wording. He throws in more anecdotes peppered with cussing colloquialisms. “In twenty-six years of doing this, I have never seen a company require a form like this. What if you’re a shitty driver? How can I, as your medical doctor, determine if you’re OK to drive? I won’t sign a form like that. If you get in an accident and hurt someone and I’ve signed this form, then it’s all on me.”
From my plastic chair, I listen to the tone of my twenty-years-spouse change from respectful to grainy. I can almost feel the lump at the back of his throat as he tries to go on. “Well, my supervisor is willing to let me come back on light duty…”
From his throne, the doctor interrupts: “What you’re going to be dealing with is HR, not your supervisor, and if HR says you can’t work, that’s where things get muddy when I start putting my name on these forms.”
From my plastic chair, I am counting down the hours in my mind until the moment I can let these tears actually fall. First I have to continue listening to this white-haired, privileged surgeon continue rambling on about lawsuits. Then, we have to make Bruce’s appointments for physical therapy. Next, we have to drive home and track Mythili’s progress on her bicycle, as I had no way to pick her up today. After that, I have to take her to her doctor’s appointment, where they will make commentary about how my thirteen-year-old hasn’t had her period yet.
From my plastic chair, I am frozen and without words. The doctor turns to me. “You look frustrated.”
Is that the word you would use? Do you think frustration sums up the past six weeks of my life?
“The thing is…” Bruce begins, “… I’m probably going to get laid off on July 30.”
The doctor has finished listening. “That’s why we have to be so careful when filling out these forms. This happens all the time, when companies decide you can’t work.”
“No, it’s unrelated…” he begins again, that painful lump sitting on top of his beautiful, sexy voice.
“Are you really not going to fill out the form?” is the only thing I can muster. The doctor hands it back to Bruce, asks if there’s anyone he can call, anyone he can talk to, any way he can go back to work without it.
From the tiny patient meeting room, he stands. He shuffles us out the door. He guides us to his people who will make the next appointment. I place The Form neatly back inside the green paper folder.
I think of a few cussing colloquialisms I could shout. I think of hindsight, all of it. Of next year’s ski passes we wasted $2300 on. Of the thousands we’ve already spent in this office. Of the four weeks at seventy-percent-pay he’ll get for short-term disability. Of the thousands we’ve spent on Spain that is gone and tarnished before boarding the plane.
But I have no words in these moments when I have bowed down to our litigate society, our corporations’ fear of liability, our doctors’ refusal to help the little man other than spurting cussing colloquialisms while trying to relate to us.
At the elevator, his brace in my hand, crutch still under his arm, I don’t speak. Picking up Mythili, exhausted from her bike ride, I don’t speak. At the following doctor’s appointment, where, as usual, we only get to see the PA, I cross my arms and don’t speak, forcing Mythili to respond to questions about who she lives with, how she likes her sisters, what kinds of food she eats.
From my recliner at home, I do have a few cussing colloquialisms for the orthopedic surgeon. I could spout them all day, all night, every waking moment of the past twenty years of marriage, every waking moment of my life as a not-quite-middle-class American who just needs A GODDAMN FORM SIGNED SO WE HAVE A FEW PENNIES TO OUR NAME…
From my recliner at home, the words are useless. All the words, all the work, all the life we have put into living, everything feels useless.
And there is no cussing colloquialism that will bring me that doctor’s signature, bring my husband his job, bring me some peace. So why bother spouting them at all?