an Essay by Molly Rideout
First there was the dead cat.
We’d seen a lot of dead cats out on the rural highway at the end of our drive. Three in as many years. Or maybe that wasn’t a lot in the grand scheme of cats and cars. I don’t know. Last year’s cat had been a kitten. Small, orange and white. Same as the year before. Joe had put the animals in black trash bags and carted them to the dumpster for the Wednesday pick up. But this morning Joe was asleep, and the cat, its head flattened and bloody, was a full-grown adult. I headed to the barn for the broad manure shovel.
The rigor mortis hadn’t set in. My shovel almost couldn’t scoop him up. But that was more an issue with the fur, which had fluffed up in the summer breeze and caught under the edge of the shovel. A few more hefts and I got the animal’s butt onto the wide silver scoop, but after that, the rest of the body simply slid along on the asphalt in front of my shovel. I pushed it along for a few feet, then a few feet more, feeling rather like I was playing a game of curling, if curling were played with a dead cat for a puck. Finally I got enough leverage. A car was approaching.
The dead feline sailed over the tall grasses that stretched up from the ditch behind the mailbox. For one horrified moment, I imagined the cat with its smushed head landing, as I had been taught all cats did, on its feet, alive. The thump as the body hit the rain-packed earth echoed like a slap on the chest: dull and jarring, the vibrations traveling through my organs.
That night, I found the pigeon.
It was the second dead bird on the roof of the pigeon house that week. Unlike cats, which were unsettling but commonplace, dead pigeons were not supposed to happen. The pigeons had nesting boxes. They had three kinds of food and brightly colored houses that the hobbyist breeder, who rented space on our farmstead, kept locked up at night. The pigeon houses were nicer than some of the farm buildings we had converted into writers’ and painters’ studios, and sometimes the artists who stayed with us got jealous.
There was no question that the bird was dead. It had caught between the slanted blue roof and a perching bar, its white and pink speckled wing the only thing preventing it from sliding the rest of the way off the roof. There was no sign of an attack, no blood or injury. That was how we had found the other bird too, the Classic Oriental Frill Blondinette. The pigeon breeder had texted me the name after he arrived to assess. But now the owner was out of town, in St. Louis until Sunday. And I couldn’t even remember what the Blondinette had looked like in order to discern whether this white and pink bird, stuck on the roof, was the same kind or different. I wondered if there was an illness spreading through the coop. I wondered if I should get the bird down or leave the crime scene untouched. I wondered if I would get sick too. I wondered how a bird got to the top of a roof and then just keeled over dead.
My grandmother died last week. She actually died a couple of weeks ago, before the birds fell sick and the cat was hit, but it’s felt like “last week” for a while now. She died on the last day of the month that I turned twenty-six, better known as my last day legally insured under my parents’ generous health care policy. She died in her sleep at a care facility that my cousin worked at. “In her sleep,” was how my mother, after a minuscule pause, described it. I took the peaceful euphemism to mean that the ninety-six-year-old’s heart had stopped after passing out from either drugs or pain connected to any of three things: her broken hip, urinary tract infection or pneumonia. “In her sleep,” was probably how the other pigeons had described the loss of two of their flock to their nestlings. They had been perched on the roof, when they fell asleep. Then they weren’t on the roof any more.
Earlier in the day, while Dad made calls from back home in Wisconsin and figured out how to stop Medicare, I had signed into my new, wholly inadequate, federally-subsidized health insurance account to make sure my bill was going to be paid for tomorrow’s start of coverage. Having delayed signing up for new coverage through the online marketplace until a week after my twenty-sixth birthday and only ten days before I was slated to lose my doctor’s note privileges, I was nervous. Anxious even. Now there was just one day left, but the premium still hadn’t come out of my bank account. I had called the billing department, but they didn’t accept payment over the phone. Around eleven that morning, I had finally, I hoped, gotten everything squared away, when my cell rang on my desk and the word “Home” appeared on the screen.
My father’s voice sounded tired more than anything else as he outlined what his next couple of days would look like: the bank notifications, changing of the trusts and other accounts. “Grandma was leaving us for a while,” he said. “It’s more of a business change than anything else.” He told me there was a diamond ring headed my way. His mother’s engagement ring. Her mother’s before that. “If you don’t want it,” he said, sensing my hesitation, “you can throw it in the air and see who grabs for it.” My grandmother had prepared her obituary, which Dad was forwarding me now. I didn’t realize people wrote their own obituaries, but he assured me it was quite common. At her wishes, there would be no viewing and no funeral service. She would be cremated on the funeral home’s schedule. “Your aunt and I talked about it. We agreed that if you wanted to do any art with the ashes, you’re welcome. We have two urns full of grandparents now. So if you or any of your artists have any projects you’d want to do with them, you can do whatever you want.”
My parents had donated a lot to the artist collective I ran: dishes, furniture, the old minivan I’d learned to drive on. In the name of art supplies, we accepted a lot of odds and ends from donors: unwanted CDs, unwanted scrap wood, unwanted power tools. This was the first time that someone had offered us unwanted human remains. My grandmother hadn’t been dead twenty-four hours and she had already become some future crap in the basement.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
On the day my grandmother died, a twisted part of me hoped to experience some kind of existential crisis, some Heart of Darkness horror show. I wanted an emotional tailspin. A crying jag at the very least. I wanted to feel, because feeling implied that my grandmother had meant something to me, and not feeling meant the opposite. But I didn’t go into a tailspin. I didn’t even cry. It was only a business change, my father had said. It’s hard to be sad about declaring bankruptcy when your profits have been plummeting for years.
Leaving my parents’ health insurance, that’s what terrified me. I faced my own mortality not from my grandmother’s corpse, but amid the bronze, silver, gold and platinum level PPOs of the Health Insurance Marketplace. For the first time in my life, I was forced to place a wager on the physical failings of a human body, my human body. Plagued with headaches, back pain, teeth grinding and a decade of tendonitis, the odds weren’t good. My conundrum was this: because I divided my year between Iowa and California, I needed either an affordable Iowa policy with only catastrophic coverage in California or a policy twice the cost of the first with adequate coverage in both states. I turned to Facebook for advice.
“Run the counterfactual in Excel,” advised one friend, a professor of economics. “What’s the probability that you get in a major accident (e.g. car wreck)? Use the national averages as a starting point. Then imagine that you invest the extra $100 in a Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (approx. 7% a year nominal return). Adjust for inflation. You’d need to verify the numbers but my guess is that the extra $100 added to the emergency fund (with interest) dominates, especially over a longer horizon.”
Advice from an economist. You can understand why I began to feel my mortality creep in.
Out of all of the complaints about the U.S.’s new health care system reported on the news—the biases based on income, gender or self-employment—I had never heard anyone discuss a bias based on location, or rather, the multiples of location. I had planned for issues like contraception. I had not thought about being taxed for traveling, for calling two places home.
My grandmother had traveled a lot too, safe in the coverage of Medicare and her husband’s university insurance. She wrote about her trips in her obituary, complete with a list of her favorite places: Mexico, Central America, especially Costa Rica. I wondered about the person whose job it was to transport my grandmother on her final trip, from the care facility in Reedsburg down to the funeral home in Madison. Were there companies who provided this kind of specialized cargo conveyance, or did the funeral home take care of it in-house? Did they contract with FedEx? I imagined the confessional memoir of a man who did nothing but ferry dead bodies from one end of the country to another. One More Ride with Death, it would be called or something else reminiscent of a rock-and-roll reunion tour.
I wondered what kind of health insurance the driver got.
For a week I fretted over medical statistics. I was far less likely to be in a car in my California neighborhood than in rural Iowa, but far more likely to be in traffic. If I fell gravely ill out west, how likely would I be able to get on a plane and fly back to my provider network in Iowa? I paced my office, calculated costs on my phone, and imagined one horrific situation after another: ovarian cysts, rabies, earthquakes. On an episode of House M.D., a tick crawled into a girl’s vagina and infected her with Lyme’s disease. The ticks in Iowa rarely carried Lyme’s disease, but that hardly mattered. I could run the counterfactual all I wanted. Statistics only got me so far.
After staring at benefit spreadsheets, comparing provider ranges and national data, weighing policies that at that moment seemed even more valuable than the precious metals they were named after, it was difficult to feel anything remotely existential about the death of my grandmother. I had placed a dollar value on my life. I was done. You couldn’t ring anything more out of me. Yes, my grandmother had died. Yes, it was a thing. It was a thing on a long list of other things: cats, birds, my future self.
It rained like hell on the day my grandmother died. Our test-tube gauge had four inches of water by the end of dinner and marked in at six and a half inches in town. This on top of what had already been the wettest June on record, meant we watched helplessly as water infiltrated cracks in our buildings that we had never even considered, but were now acutely aware of: the seal between the chimney and the roof in my attic studio, a hole in the wall where pipes threaded through, the high ceiling of an out-building. The washout in the gravel driveway that we had fixed just the day before returned as an even deeper ravine. A river appeared in our northern field, rerouting the lines of cut alfalfa and oats that hadn’t dried enough to bale before the wet week began. Forty acres of crops rotted in the fields. I could smell the decay from the road. I shoveled water out of a low spot in one of the basements. She’s burying bodies, our visiting artists joked as they listened to my metal shovel scraping against the crumbling cement floor, the same metal shovel I would use to hoist the dead cat into the weeds at the side of the highway. I hadn’t told them about my grandmother.
Late in the afternoon, I sat on our screened-in porch and watched the rain fade to a drizzle, and then stop. I rocked idly, thinking about my new health insurance and whether it was enough, thinking about my parents and whether or not I should drive back to Madison to be with them, thinking about what the artists were making for dinner and whether I had time for a snack. Furniture stood in a jumble on the dry side of the room. The blue-gray carpet underneath it curled at the edges. I continued to stare at the wet floor in a stupor that, if asked, I would have attributed to the weather and certainly nothing else, when a motion from underneath the stacked furniture drew my attention.
A worm. A six-inch night crawler was making his lone way across the uneven floor of the porch. Living on a farm, I was used to sharing my space with flies, roaches and mice. For the last week, I’d kept company with a jovial spider hunting for prey on the windowsill of my attic studio. But the mice and the roaches and the flies had legs and wings. In order to reach the floor of the porch, a worm had to scale three wooden steps and a concrete stoop before sliding under a half-latched storm door. It was a Herculean task for a creature with only a little more dexterity than a piece of string, yet here the annelid was, stretching and contracting, and then stretching and contracting again, on a silent quest to escape his flooding subterranean world. It defied statistics. Had the worm also ran the counterfactual in Excel? Had it looked at the probability of surviving a flood and, adjusting for inflation, concluded that desiccating on a carpet was a better way to go than drowning? I was now on my stomach tracking the worm’s progress with a camera. A worm inside my house, surviving when so many other, smarter things had died. Before the cat and the pigeons, there was a grandmother. After the grandmother, there was a worm.
It roiled at my touch as I picked it up and carried it back outside. The roof had stopped dripping rain and the sidewalk was no longer a river. I tossed the worm over the stoop railing and into the bushes, where it caught on a twig. The creature hung suspended in the air, so I shook the leaves until it fell to the mulched ground below. I was either saving its life or sending it to its watery death. It was impossible to tell which.
Molly Rideout is a rural writer and social practice artist based in Grinnell, Iowa, where she also directs the Grin City Collective Artists & Writers Residency. Her work has been published in Marathon Literary Review, Bluestem Magazine, Embodied Effigies and the book Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland. She works in the intersection of creative writing and public art and her work is installed on library and storefront windows throughout Iowa and Wisconsin. Her fiction installation, Due Date, was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart.