“I think I’m old enough to start to figure this stuff out now.”
I stared at the embers for a moment. The warmth of a rare fifty-degree day in northern Iowa in November had lost it’s battle with the evening chill, but I was loathe to give up the day just yet. I pulled my coat a little tighter, wishing I could pull the picnic table a little closer to the fire pit.
“What stuff, Honey?” I took a sip of my beer, wondering if we’d reached the point where the cooler was keeping the last can cold or if it was by now keeping it from freezing.
There was a pause from the other side of the table, then, “I’ve seen this happen before. I know I don’t have the best attention span, but I have a good memory. This happens every year, doesn’t it?”
“What happens, Little?”
“The trees. They look dead. But they’re not, are they – they’re just sleeping. They’ll come back again, won’t they, Papa.”
“Yep, the trees will come back in the spring,” I answered. Bonfires give a person a sense of calmness and patience that is increasingly rare in today’s world. “They always do.”
We sat together for a few moments, listening to the sound of nothing, the darkness gathering its strength from the shadows. We’re normally content with a comfortably silent companionship, but after a few minutes Little stirred again. “Papa?”
Slowly, “When the trees come back in the spring… Do you think we’ll all be here to see them?” She stared at the fire.
Another sip of beer. “What do you mean, Honey?”
“I’m old enough, Papa. I think I get it, sometimes. Things die in the winter.” She glanced at me, then back at the fire. “The trees, they come back, but some don’t. The plants, they come back, but some don’t.” She paused. “Every year it’s different.” A longer pause, then, “Will we all be here? In the spring?”
I took my gaze off the fire and looked at Little Buttercup. “Pretty deep questions for a five-year-old.”
She looked back at me, brown eyes wide in the firelight, “Some would say I’m almost 35.”
We stared at each other for a moment. I blinked first. “Am I really talking about mortality with a Golden Retriever?” Little Buttercup looked back at the fire, her silence an answer.
Bonfires, even in the chill of late November, bring a contemplative calm to conversations. We enjoyed a moment or two of quiet, thinking our thoughts. Then, from the puddle of fur at my feet, “I’m serious, Papa. I see what happens. I’m not as silly as you think. I need to know, will we all be here in the spring when the trees come back?”
“Oh, of course.” The words were uneasy.
“What about Nitty-Kitty,” she asked, lifting her head from her paws. “I worry about her.”
“So do I, Honey,” I said, “but she’s a tough little kitty.”
“She is,” agreed Buttercup, putting her head back on her paws, staring at the crackling logs. “I try to play chase with her sometimes but she never wants to play.” The fire crackled. “She’s so very small, but she doesn’t know it. Every night she’s out in the woods hunting. I worry sometimes she’ll try to fight that raccoon that lives up in Butterfly Corner and she won’t come back.”
“Me too.” We picked up little Nitty from a shelter years ago knowing she was a barn cat. Her silky black fur is stranded with silver now, but the fierceness of youth is undiminished. “But what can we do? Nitty lives to prowl in the woods – it’s what she loves. If she’s not here in the spring we’ll be sad, but we have to know that she’s doing what she wants to do.”
“Nitty’s tough.” A pause. “I hope she’s here when the trees wake up.”
We stared at the fire, my Golden Retriever and me, letting time slip through us. Then…
Little Buttercup never looked away from the fire. “Papa, why doesn’t Mama ever come outside?”
“What do you think?”
The pup was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know. I remember her coming outside once. You were working by the garage and Mama came outside with her walker to talk to you, but she fell in the driveway on the rocks and hurt herself. I tried to help her, but she cried and you ran over and were all upset.” She sat for a moment. “The only time Mama comes outside is when you push her out in her chair and she gets in the car and you take her away. Then when you come home she gets out of the car and goes straight inside again in her chair. She never stays outside to play.” Two big brown eyes looked up at me. “I think maybe being outside hurts Mama? But how can that be?”
“You’re pretty smart for a dog,” I said. I picked up my beer. Empty. I reached into the cooler for the last can, hoping it wasn’t frozen. A sip, then, “You’re right, sort of. Mama gets sick real easy and she always hurts, so it’s not easy for her to come outside. She can’t walk much because it hurts and sometimes standing is hard for her. She wants to come outside and play with you, but it hurts her too much and sometimes the air makes her sick.”
“How can air make someone sick? I breathe it all the time.”
“Oh, she has some allergies,” I answered. A glance at the Goldie Treever was enough to realize she didn’t understand. “There are invisible things in the air that make her sick.” My mind ran ahead, trying to get the words right. “And she has a disease that makes her so gets sick real easy from other people. You and me can come outside any time, and we can play with other people if we want, but Mama can’t. If she is around other people the germs – more invisible things that everyone has – will make her very, very sick. Everyone has germs and they don’t bother most people, but they make Mama really sick every time.” I picked up my frozen beer and took a sip.
Buttercup picked herself up and moved closer, still not quite looking at me. “I worry about Mama.”
“I do too, Little Buttercup.”
She leaned her head on my knee so I could scritch her ears. “When you take me in the car we only go for a little ride,” she said. “But when you take Mama in the car you’re gone a long time and I get lonely in my kennel. If Mama gets sick being outside and she can’t be around people, where do you go?”
“She has to go to her doctors every once in a while,” I answered, pulling my coat a bit tighter.
“What’s a ‘doctors?'”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Cupsy. I forget sometimes… Doctors are people who try to make Mama so she’s not sick all the time.”
“They must not be very good. She’s always sick.”
“Well, they try,” I said. “They’re really very smart people, and they want to help her. But it’s complicated.” I stared at the fire as I continued, “They don’t really know why she’s so sick all the time, and they only have a few minutes to see her so they don’t have time to really think about it much. But they do the best they can.”
“I wish they could do better. I wish Mama wasn’t sick. I wish Mama could throw the ball for me like you do sometimes when you’re not busy.”
Nothing hurts quite like honesty from an innocent you love. She continued, after a pause, “I wish you weren’t so busy all the time. You’re like those doctors – you only have a few minutes to see me.”
She let that hang in the air while she scratched her ear and I sipped my beer as time whirled inkily about us.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, Honey,” I said. “I wish I could spend more time with you, but I’m just busy.”
“Why are you too busy to play with me?”
“Well, someone has to pay the bills,” I snapped. “Those damned doctors aren’t cheap. I have to keep working to pay for this you know.”
She sat up sharply. “Wait. You mean to tell me that there are people who can help Mama, but they’re too busy – and you have to pay them? So you’re too busy to play with me?” She paused. “WAIT A MINUTE!”
I waited whilst my pup cogitated.
“Okay, Papa. Explain this. Mama’s sick. People can help her, but they won’t unless you give them money?”
“So you have to ignore me – and Mama too! – to work to make money to pay these people?”
“If they want to help her why do they need money? Why don’t they just help her?”
“I wish it were that way, Honey,” I said. “But they need equipment and tools to help her, and they had to go to school for a long time to learn how to help people and that’s expensive.”
She flopped down on the ground. “But you said they don’t have time to help her much.”
“They don’t – they only have a few minutes to see her. They have to help a lot of people every day to make enough money to keep helping people, so they can only see people for a few minutes. Mama’s illness is something they can’t really help, but they try.”
“Monkeys are confusing,” said the canine. “These ‘doctors’ must be really poor and live in tiny shacks if they have to work that hard. Why don’t people just give them more money?”
“Oh no,” I replied. “Doctors are usually very rich. They have much, much more money than we do and usually live in really big houses.”
“I don’t get it. If they have a lot of money, why don’t they help people like Mama so she can be healthy and play with me?”
“I know, Honey. It’s confusing.” I sipped the last bit of my frozen beer. “The doctors want to help, but they can’t. Mama’s illness isn’t something anyone really understands. It’s expensive, but we have to keep seeing the doctors because insurance makes us.”
At this point the Golden Retriever named Little Buttercup stood up and stared me right in the eye. “Okay, monkey, what’s an ‘insurance’ and why won’t THEY help Mama?”
This is going to be difficult… “Okay, Honey. Insurance is something people buy to help when they’re sick. You pay in a little bit every month even when you’re healthy, then when you’re sick they give the money back so you can pay the doctors. It’s like a savings account in a way.”
She stared at me with a steadiness that was unnerving. “So this ‘Insurance’ thing make you take Mama to the doctors even though the doctors are expensive and can’t help Mama?”
“It gets worse, Cupsy.” I replied. “When I take Mama to the doctors she’s around other people. Remember how I said being around other people makes Mama sick? So when I take her to the doctors, they don’t help her much AND it makes her sicker every time.” I shivered as the fire waned. “But the insurance people won’t give Mama her money if she doesn’t go to the doctors because if she doesn’t they think she must not really be sick. So she has to go to the doctors and get sick and I have to work to pay their fees so insurance will believe she’s sick and will give her her money.”
She blinked at me. “Who in the world made up this system?”
“But wait! You said these insurance people give Mama the money she paid them when she’s sick.”
“So why do you have to work so hard that you don’t have any time to spend with me or Mama?”
“Because the insurance people took Mama’s money and decided to keep it. They say she’s not really sick so they shouldn’t have to give her money back. So we have a lawyer to fight the insurance people for us, but we have to pay the lawyer. So I have to work to pay the lawyer to get the money from the insurance people to take Mama to the doctors that can’t help her.”
“My head hurts and I’m sad now. Can we go inside?”
I shook my empty beer can. “Yeah.” I put my hand on her head and scritched her ears. “I hate to say it, Little, but there’s more. Tomorrow we’ll talk about how people around us elected a government that wants to take a different kind of insurance away from us altogether so Mama can’t have any medicine.”
“I hate to say it, Papa, but I think you monkey-folk are really weird.” She stood up with a yawn, picked up her tennis ball, and headed for the house. “At least wolves look after their own and care for their sick.” A pause as she trotted up the stairs and stood by the door, waiting for someone with thumbs to let her in.
“Do you think Mama will see the trees? Will Mama be here in the spring?”
“Yeah, of course she’ll be here.”
“Why are you crying?”
“Let’s just go inside, shall we?”