Paper and Breath



I have spent most of the last two weeks in the grips of a terrible asthma flare, brought on by whatever powerful viral misery has a hold on the country right now. Though I’m not immune to illness — I get what I assume is the average number of colds each year — this one was particularly frightening for me, and I am convinced that it sent cosmic signals out into my community, since three separate friends left bottles of juice on my porch and ran like heck. As I curled under an enormous down blanket and drowned my tickling throat — which threatened constantly to send me into another bizarre, high-pitched coughing fit reminiscent of someone stepping on a puppy — I did little more than watch hours of television and poke half-heartedly at my phone from time to time.

This is not my normal position in the world. My normal life since children has been a patchwork of several kinds of activity: my part-time business in web site design and development (hire me!), childrearing, and housewifery. In the two weeks I spent on hiatus nursing my lungs along, I was able to pull a laptop onto the couch from time to time to douse the fires of my business, and my children managed to handle their own rearing at their ripe ages of 14 and 11. The housewifery, however, fell into the crevices between couch cushions, where it waited, growing funky and fuzzy with neglect.

Of course, I have a partner, a fantastic husband who is always ready to help — and he did. The dishes got done and the lizard got fed; children were driven where they needed to go when I could not summon the strength. However, there were several administrative tasks that I had intended to manage before the end of the year, and they began to weigh as heavily on my chest as the infection I was fighting. When I finally felt up to tackling them, I found it was literally The Last Minute, which, of course, is the most productive minute of any project. The most pressing of these tasks was the one billing-related job I’ve managed in our marriage since our younger daughter, Sammi, was born. This task, coincidentally, was born with her. 

From Sammi’s day one, the task of managing our family’s medical bills has been mine. My husband handles literally every other bill that comes into our home and so, one might think, I got off easy. This may some day be true but, so far, no. Beginning with her intrauterine growth retardation and eight-day hospital stay at birth, continuing to her hospitalizations for respiratory infections, on to her first cardiac surgery, tonsillectomy, many endoscopies, and final cardiac surgery, the stacks of medical bills and accompanying paperwork were astonishing. I learned quickly that the job of managing this mountain of papers was best handled on the floor, where I could spread out all the papers into piles to organize, cross-reference, pay and document them. The piles could be categorized most often like this:

  • Bills. The largest pile, of course. Bills arrive, depending on the hospital, doctor, and billing office, in at minimum duplicate, sometimes triplicate. Because it made no sense to manage this paperwork weekly, sometimes bills would compound, creating one bill for $45.21 and one bill for the same $45.21 plus another line item for $42.15, sending me cross-eyed.
  • Not Really Bills. For reasons I’ve never understood, some hospitals and billing offices send a bill that does not need to be paid. These are merely statements designed to give me a small heart attack, creating more business for the doctors. They include astronomical numbers like $14,256.00, which is the amount the biller is sending to the insurance company. These are simply informational statements that, if I look far enough down the page, will read “THIS IS NOT A BILL.” I can use these statements to dry my armpits.
  • Explanations of Benefits (EOB). This is the bottom line from the insurance company, telling me that though the hospital billed them $14,256.00, they’ve already agreed with the hospital that the real amount is $2,004.00, of which I now owe only $200.04. The level of transparency here is refreshing, I suppose, but I can’t help but picture the doctor and the insurance company pushing a folded piece of paper across the table at each other, bidding each other down.
  • Garbage. Envelopes. Second pages “intentionally left blank.” Return envelopes for all the bills sent in duplicate or triplicate. Surveys from the insurance company, billing offices, doctors, and front desks of emergency rooms.

Today, when I sat down to do several months of bills, I marveled at the relatively small number I had this time. It’s been two-and-a-half years since Sammi’s last surgery, and her medical life is so significantly simplified that, for the first time, my own medical bills outnumbered hers by a lot. It’s as though my lungs are expelling the detritus of years of paper, paper that represented hours in hospitals and doctors’ offices and waiting rooms and surgery, and the squeak of my damaged voice box this week is the result of compressing it for years with the overwhelm of all this paper. I paid all the bills, cross-referenced them with the EOBs, and filed everything into the appropriate folders. With the comparatively lesser volume, I found myself eying the stack of unmanaged papers in my medical bill inbox.

I pulled it down. Nearly all of it was from 2014, EOBs that had gone missing in the months after Sammi’s last surgery, when we’d made it to our insurance out-of-pocket maximum by April and so didn’t need to pay another medical bill all year. I started rifling through them, remembering doctors’ names, dates of x-rays, blood work, visits and check-ups, and, looking up at my ever-patient husband at work on his own stack of bills, I asked, “Do we need to keep all of this?”

“I can’t think of why,” he answered.

And so I got to my feet, coughed heavily, and dumped it all. Oh, 2017, let’s keep the paperwork and the heath crises to a minimum, ok?


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi at Finding Ninee. This week’s sentence is “It’s almost 2017, and…” 

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One thought on “Paper and Breath

  1. What a freeing thing, to be able to dump all of the old paperwork into the bin after realizing how small the pile had gotten. I’m so glad to read that you’re feeling better after the crud and so happy that you linked up with Finish the Sentence Friday! I hope your holidays were wonderful and I look forward to reading more in 2017!

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