No, not that Homer.
The bureaucratic world has handed me countless fatiguing waits in the elusive hope of finding a real human to whom to pose a question not encompassed by pressing “1” through “7” in some institution’s demonic “customer service” system.
A few days ago I finally reached a human being at a governmental entity with which every American citizen (tax-paying or of the scofflaw variety) has some familiarity.
I must say, this time it was worth the wait.
This was not just any human. This was a human who actually answered my questions, and stayed on the line until he had solved a nagging problem.
And as if that were not enough, when I made an arch aside about laughably incorrect advice I had been given by a certain local branch of a federal agency, this human said, “Even Homer nods.”
Let me tell you about the two preceding institutional encounters, which were typical of the genre.
First, I was on the phone tangling with an institutional representative. I got an ovation from the people in line behind me when I took the phone from the cashier and told the credit card company representative: “Wait, you’re telling me you couldn’t reach me to ask about a charge so you suspended my account without telling me…..after you just had me prove who I am by confirming the four different ways you have on record for contacting me, not one of which you bothered to try?”
Next, just last week I felt compelled to pick up the phone and argue with a telephone service carrier about its inexplicable choice to continue sending my husband monthly statements reporting he still owes nothing on an account the same carrier closed because of his death. (“Who do you think he is? Generalissimo Francisco Franco?” I did not say aloud, lest the person on the phone not be of a vintage to appreciate classic Saturday Night Live news updates.)
And here I had a civil servant alluding to Horace’s Ars Poetica?
Perhaps my luck is turning?
It’s not just that I finally didn’t draw the institutional representative with the highest cluelessness-to-combativeness correlation. I got a thinking person, and one whose quick comment was the kind Jim would have spoken and truly believed: not everyone who causes needless work for which I don’t remotely have energy is a villain, and not every mistake is a personal affront.
“Cut them a little slack” might be the more current version of quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus. (Jim studied Latin.)
And while you’re at it, Steph, cut yourself some slack, Jim would have added. He would have told me to stop obsessing about the mess I have made of bills and receipts and finances, about monumental errors in paperwork and insurance and household organization–all the things he had no trouble handling (and I suspect he even enjoyed doing) after a very long workday. This was a man who prepared and filed his own tax returns twelve days before he died, and whose meticulous records were a wonder even to his CPA sister. This was a man in whose files I weep to find he spent time on “memos to file” with directions to me about how to do things when he could not.
Jim was always the glass half-full to my half-empty one, the even-keeled antidote to my rambling worries.
He always told me, “I’ll tell you when it’s time to panic,” so I could put my worries on hold. We both understood that he would never tell me that time had come.
“Is it time for me to panic yet?” I might ask about a notice from the IRS, my failure to have entered numerous withdrawals on the books, a process server at the door (long story), or the results on a glucose tolerance test.
He would shake his head with an amused look, no matter how badly I’d screwed up or what the worst-case scenario might be, and I magically would be absolved of the need to worry.
If it could be fixed, he’d figure out how to fix it. If it couldn’t, then he didn’t see any value in my losing sleep about it.
Jim was as incapable of panic as he was of being harsh to another person. (He was moderately concerned by the time I’d been in labor for two days and a crash C-section was required, but not even close to panic.)
Then came the Thursday night when Jim told me there had been some curiosities on an ultrasound: something was not quite right around his spleen and pancreas. It would need to be followed up.
“Is it time for me to panic?”
For the first time, he didn’t smile when he shook his head from side-to-side.
We found ourselves in that windowless doctor’s office a few days later, with a CAT scan of his pancreatic tumor on the surgeon’s computer screen.
And somehow, for my sake, he was strong enough to put his right arm protectively around me as I leaned in to his shoulder and gently tell me: “I think it’s time to panic now.”