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Of Birthdays and Bucket Lists

March 27, 2012

Shelley’s 60th year came to an end Sunday, but nothing that had occurred these past 12 months could have prepared us for what was about to happen.

Earlier in her year, as you know, back in July, she went to the hospital due to re-emerging Cardiac Artery Disease, which  her third Angeogram couldn’t fix, as the first two had. It soon became clear her working days were over. 

At the time, Shelley had planned to retire in less than 2 years, upon reaching her 62nd birthday, with full pension and health coverage for the both of us. Suddenly everything was threatened.

When we met with her union to review her options, we learned the strange truth:  Since she’s stopped work 20 months early, even after having put in close to 40 years, she’ll receive only 70% of her pension, and that will be without health insurance for either of us.

“Unless, of course,” the union pension person added, “You get SSD (Social Security Disability). Then we’ll give you full pension and full benefits!”

So that’s how it is in America these days. When you need less, you get more. And vice versa.

So apply for SSD we did. I say “we” because we both took this on as a major project impacting our future well being. She went online, gathered information, spoke to those who’ve been there. I, being ever the anal perfectionist, did my own research and made sure every i and every t in the gargantuan application was dotted and crossed. And when an attorney I contacted by telephone who specialized in these cases suggested we get a letter from one of her doctors stating she “shouldn’t return to work for at least a year”, I made sure it got done, and with those words exactly.

Half the battle is with Social Security, probably one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, and half is with our own minds. 

“You don’t get SSD the first time around.” This is the common wisdom we’re hearing over and over. “They’ll turn you down as a matter of course, but then you hire a lawyer and try again, and eventually it goes to a hearing.”  Maybe we’ll get it by the summer, but the whole process can take the better part of a year. And maybe we won’t get it at all.

Shelley has refused to consider this last possibility. Years ago, we were into that book and DVD The Secret. I know it looked like a bullshit fad to some, but it’s worked for us time and time again. So Shelley has embraced this point of view once more, and is staying positive. My belief system is more about prayer and having faith that it’s all working out. But I confess I have my doubts, or at least my fears, about this one.

And how long can we hold out on one income while we wait it out? Besides this, I’m worried because Social Security will have Shelley see their doctors, which they do as a matter of course. The doctors will look at her medical records and see that she has a legitimate claim. But Shelley herself has such an upbeat spirit and is so perky I’m afraid one of them will take a look at her and think, “She’s doesn’t look so sick to me…”

On top of this, her primary care physician isn’t doing her heart any good. “Stop believing you’re going to get this right away. Any patient of mine gets turned down the first time.”  He is also growing tired of all the paper work she’s giving him. And all of her questions. We are starting to wonder if he’s starting to consider her a nuisance and maybe won’t support her case when Social Security contacts him. The attorney website says, “Nothing’s more damaging to a case than for a doctor to write, ‘Patient is obsessed with getting disability.’”

Meantime, the financial burden has begun to all fall on me, and I’m starting to feel the burn. Her short-term disability has expired, and with it, any income for her at all, and our health coverage to boot. 

And with the added weight of the stress – financial; fretting about her health; the move; etc. — I’ve also been going through my own health concerns.  Lately I’m feeling older, my step is heavier, and I’m feeling a slowly growing alarm: I seem to be aging a bit faster now.

And when you start thinking like this, guess what comes up? The bucket list.

So as the weekend came, and we are out celebrating with some of the men from my men’s team and their wives and girlfriends last Saturday night, and Shelley is making her wish as she blows out the candles on her birthday cake, I am thinking about what I haven’t yet done in my life.

Later, back at the house, I slowly cultivate a White Russian buzz and, as I continue to drink and dream, something in me breaks through:

Shelley, I’ve got to talk to you.

And I tell her about the top of my bucket list.

You see I’ve always aimed for a life that’s experience-rich rather than money-rich. And in this I’ve succeeded, except for one glaring omission. There’s a life in me that remains unlived: The view of reality you get from traveling to the other side of the pond.

In my time, I’ve seen Hawaii, Canada, California, Grand Canyon, Jamaica, Cozumel, the Bahamas. And that’s about it. If we wait too long to go to Europe, we”ll be seeing it with a walker or a wheelchair, or we’ll be relegated to a cruise with five hour stopovers where they hawk expensive trinkets to the tourists.  No, I want to walk around and see London, and Dublin and Paris and Amsterdam and Venice and the Greek Isles and Berlin and Barcelona and Istanbul and I want to visit the Holy Land as well.

We could wait untill it’s financially prudent, I tell her (and I am the voice of prudence these years) but then it could be too late to enjoy it fully like we still can now if her symptoms can remain under control. 

And when being prudent and reasonable means waiting until it may be too late, it’s time say fuck it.

I don’t care if we gotta do the whole thing on credit cards, I tell her. Years from now, what will matter most is having done it while we still could.

(My father had another way of putting it:  “The man who dies with a full bank account is an idiot!”)

Shelley, bless her heart, gets it. Besides, though she’s been to Morocco, the British Isles and Israel, there’s much she hasn’t seen herself.

So we awake Sunday, her birthday, with this surprising new reality:  We are going to travel — sooner, not later. And prudent or not.

During the early evening I give her a card (actually three, a ritual of ours) and a birthday present (nothing too expensive this year), and retire into my office to unpack some more boxes.

Later, at night, she knocks on my door. (I don’t like being disturbed when I work; she knows this, and that she risks getting barked at). She wants to show me some more decorating ideas.

Ok. Now please let me work.

Five minutes later, she knocks again.


“What’s this?” she asks.

Shelley walks into my office, pointing to something on her iPad. There’s a current view of  her checking account, which is very depleted. Except, that is, for a deposit showing from the day before, for almost $5,000. 

Obviously some mistake.

And then I see a description, an abbreviation right before the number:


Stunned, it slowly dawns on us what has happened.

Shelley has been approved for SSD! Months early; no doctors of their’s to see. And they have just paid for the first two months. It’s a miracle! 

We hold each other and weep. 

“What do you think I wished for when I blew out the candles?” She told me today. The check had actually been deposited within hours of that moment.

And oh yes, we are so going to Europe this year!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Shelley Wininger permalink
    March 27, 2012 3:11 pm

    Call it faith, prayer, The Secret, to God, Allah, The Universe, you just have to believe. I am not religious in any way, shape or form, but since my brush with death 5 years ago I have become more spiritual. The (Universe, God,Allah) pick one or add your own,) has made me trust. I am still very cynical about our government, but I trust that with an upbeat attitude, good things will happen, sooner or later. I knew my SSD would come, but I expected later rather than sooner, so I was especially surprised and grateful for that. So, yesterday I went out and picked out a birthday present fromCharley, a pearl necklace. The pearl is a miracle from nature, just as our lives are. Very rare, very beautiful.
    When Charley told me, with such urgency, how he needed to travel ( and this was before we knew about the check in the bank) the only BIG question was, France or Italy? Or both?
    There are 3 sayings ( there are tons more cliches that I have, but these 3 are for this topic)The first is from the movie “you can’t take it with you” in which the main character says ” you can’t take it with you”. The 2nd is ” tomorrow is promised to no one,”and the third is from a book called Middlesex, in which a woman tells her cousin ” you live and then you die, and that’s the end of it”. Sooooo, France and/or Italy, here we come!!!

  2. gary telfer permalink
    March 27, 2012 4:23 pm

    i’m so happy for you both – and happy 60th to you beautiful!

    diane and i took a train from rome to florence, then rented a car and drove around tuscany back through porto san stefano to rome – it was awesome. in montepulciano the ex-mayor befriended us in the town square for some reason, and took us back to his apartment for lunch, where we entered massive rooms with paintings of clouds on the ceilings, and a huge portrait of mussolini – yikes!

    and of course france is the epicenter of romance. if you’ve got the resources do them both since you’re already over there

    much love

  3. gary telfer permalink
    March 27, 2012 4:25 pm

    i realize now that’s a happy 61st shelley!

  4. March 28, 2012 2:23 pm

    Yay Charlie…what an amazing story. I’m so happy for you. Bon Voyage…

  5. April 4, 2012 8:13 pm

    Traveling is one of the things that makes me feel rich, and I’m sure you won’t regret dedicating resources to it! I have resistance to hearing you say you are aging faster, Charlie. Being that I am a very health-conscious person, I am sure that if you choose to slow the process, you could make some modifications to your diet, drinks, etc. and a few other things that would turn things around. You can do it, if you choose! You can still travel and have fun, without the terrible thought that you may not be able to do it in the future.
    Best wishes,


  1. Over There « Waking At Midnight

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