How a $100 Bill Brings Me Peace of Mind

How a $100 Bill Brings Me Peace of Mind
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chemotherapy, love

I could smell cleanliness when I opened my front door. Lemon. Pine. The glorious absence of dust. It’s that elusive moment right after my housecleaners leave and my home looks like it does in my imagination: orderly and spotless.

My crockpot hints that dinner is on the way, and its fragrance blends pleasingly with the elixir of furniture polish.

I love having a house cleaner. Every two weeks, I strip beds, clear surfaces, and put away messy art projects. Then I place a $100 bill on a sticky, crumb-encrusted countertop and take my laptop to the library. When I come home, it’s as if fairies have visited my life. Like magic, my home is clean.

“If only we’d hired a house cleaner, my marriage would have survived,” a man told me once when I worked at a retail counter. I stood at a wash-and-fold service in a laundromat, and regular customers treated me like a bartender, telling me their stories and unburdening their souls without risk of a hangover.

“I finally figured out that, at some point, a woman’s just not going to screw the lid on the peanut butter jar one more time,” he went on. “But I didn’t learn it until it was too late, and now I’m divorced.”

Looking at his earnest face, I couldn’t help thinking about how absurd his story sounded. Who would let their marriage go for something so trivial, I wondered.

In those blissful early days of my relationship, even working in a laundromat felt like a honeymoon. Gary and I have been business partners, best friends, and lovers since we met on a Delta flight somewhere over the middle of the United States 20-something years ago. I quit my fancy job in New York City, moved to California, and bought a coin-op with a guy I barely knew. That’s how I found myself working the counter at a wash-and-fold service.

Over the years of our marriage, I’ve made it a point to remember that conversation when Gary’s clutter crawls under my skin. I love my husband, but he’s messy. Socks on the floor. A wet towel on a doorknob. Dishes in the sink.

On days when it takes effort to forgive these trifling inconveniences, I think back to that sad divorced man and remind myself that nobody’s great at everything. In fact, I used to think back to that conversation often because little messes seemed to be everywhere and they drove me nuts.

Five years ago, that changed.

When Gary felt a lump just under the skin of my right breast late one evening, I knew I married the right guy.

We learned about my breast cancer the day before the Affordable Care Act took effect, and my family’s health insurance policy was among those canceled by the new law. I had a life-threatening diagnosis and an invalid health insurance policy.

Gary found an oncologist willing to give us an hour if we paid him $300 in cash. His receptionist made us pay up front, and then the doctor told me I could expect to live three months unless I got into chemo immediately. He said that by the time we worked through the red tape, I’d be gone.

Bewildered, terrified, and shocked, my messy husband sprang into action. Despite hundreds of phone calls to insurance companies and medical facilities, not a single physician would take me. My husband’s mission distilled into three words: Save Nancy’s Life.

With skill and perseverance, Gary punched a hole through impenetrable layers of bureaucracy. Yes, we had to drive over 10,000 miles that year to access treatment. Yes, the dining room table was blanketed in paperwork. Yes, I was officially declared “charity care” at Stanford Hospital.

But I’m still here.

Cancer has a way of stripping away that which is not important. And among those unimportant things is a messy house.

Ironically, Gary’s habits changed over this period, and he’s tidier than he’s ever been. Occasionally, though, he still throws his pants on the floor, leaves the lid off the jar, or dips his peanut butter-laden knife into the jelly. And it doesn’t bother me. Much.

Sometimes I wonder if the divorced guy at the laundromat could have been the knight in shining armor for his wife, too — if they would have given each other the chance. I hope my husband will keep being the extraordinary man he is, loving and competent, the guy who took my breath away all those years ago on a flight from Portland to New York.

I owe him my life.

And I owe our housecleaner a $100 bill.

Best money we ever spent.

***

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