How I Learned To Be An Advocate

03/12/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015
Courtesy Lea Grover

The July sun had long since set the Wednesday night M proposed to me. By the time we went to sleep, we agreed we'd meet up at lunch the next day to pick out a ring, and I spent the morning happily posting cryptic proposal messages to Livejournal and fielding calls from my friends.

Come noon, we met up for lunch at one of our favorite spots -- a falafel joint tucked into a bizarre food court with a massive mural that featured a one legged Michael Jordan, dolphins flying out of a car, and what might have been Michael Jackson riding an orca. From there we walked to Zales, and dithered over rings.

We picked out a lovely ring, and ordered the ring with a rhodium plating, hoping that would keep my skin from having an allergic reaction. I went home to answer more elated phone calls and revel in my engaged giddiness. M went back to work for the rest of the afternoon, and from there to a company softball game.

That's where the story takes a turn. M had a grand mal seizure at the softball game, was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with stage four, terminal and irremovable brain cancer.

But that's not what this story is about. This story is about what happened a few weeks later.

As we pushed through M's diagnostic surgery, past fertility preservation and into the chaos of fighting an HMO to cover an experimental trial, we kind of forgot we were engaged. We didn't talk about the wedding much, we didn't plan, we didn't have engagement parties or take engagement photos or enjoy the knowledge that we'd decided to spend the rest of our lives together. We didn't think in terms of "the rest of our lives." That was a luxury we'd given up.

And so, as M entered the trial and started heading to daily radiation, our friends and families attempted to join us in pretending life was normal. Which led to the inevitable question.

"So? Where's the ring?"

Nearly a month after picking out a lovely square cut sapphire and leaving a credit card imprint for it, I realized I didn't have an engagement ring. So I called Zales.

"Hi, I was in there on July 5th, my fiancé and I picked out a ring? I have our order number here..."

"Ah, yes, congratulations! Well, it looks like there was some trouble with the ring. It seems they couldn't do the rhodium plating, so we went ahead and ordered a custom platinum fitting."

"Um, isn't that, you know, expensive?"

"Not really! Let me just see here, it looks like it's going to be ready on Thursday."

"And how much will it cost?"


"I'm sorry -- what?"

I had never been a confrontational person. I had never started a fight with anyone aside from my sisters, never contradicted professors I knew were idiots, never made demands.

But I had just spent three weeks looking at $90,000 hospital bills, arguing with HMO client liaison officials who claimed none of M's treatment could be covered, as the hospital the ambulance brought him to was out of network. I had spent most of a month fielding calls from pharmacists who called me "Mrs. Grover" without the nerve or gumption or energy to tell them I was only the fiancée, Miss Borenstein.

I sat, gape jawed, as the woman from Zales explained to me that actually, the ring had been ready for weeks. She didn't know why nobody called me.

And that was when I lost it.

"Do you know what happened after we picked out that ring?" I said. "That big, young, handsome man who got on one knee in the store to put that ring on my finger collapsed, not five hours later. He has brain cancer. Terminal brain cancer. Stage four astrocytoma. Do you know what that means?"

The girl stammered.

"Do you have any idea how much it costs to spend a whole night in the ER? Getting CT scans and MRIs and all kinds of drugs and neurooncology consultations?"

She stammered some more.

"Why the hell wouldn't somebody CALL US and see if it was OKAY to charge us a whole additional FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?"

She put her manager on the phone. It turns out they hadn't been calling because the following Thursday was 30 days after our purchase, when the amount of the ring would have been non refundable.

Over the next 40 minutes, I berated, shamed, and humiliated not only her manager, but his manager, and then the regional manager for all of Zales midwest. I still don't know how I managed to get on the phone with him.

Everyone apologized to me. Everyone stammered and blathered and apologized, My hands shook. My voice shook. I cried, as restrainedly as I could, and I threw out all my new jargon about glioblastomas and lifetime benefit caps, I verified with M's credit card company that he was being issued a complete refund, and I hung up the phone.

I sat on the couch, shaking, for most of an hour. And when M came home, I told him we didn't have a ring anymore.

Something profound had shifted in my brain. My embarrassment and fear had slid into a small backseat behind a person who Gets Things Done. As I fought with pharmacists who dispensed his chemotherapy to other patients by mistake, with HMOs who insisted that if he could wait for the surgeon's "A team" for the best outcomes his surgery wasn't emergency care, with doctors who refused to believe in his allergies and negative reactions, this person took over and Got Things Done.

Invariably, she would come out when somebody casually referred to me as "Mrs. Grover," dismissing me as a panicked wife rather than as an educated advocate. She became a character I played -- "Mrs. Grover" stormed into the pharmacy and terrified the technicians who always messed up his medication. She marched into patient services and refused to leave until MRIs were scheduled.

I could distance myself from her, if I needed to. So when she said something that would have made me blush down to my toes, I could save face. Mrs. Grover wasn't scared of doctors, school administrators, client liaison officers.

Slowly but surely, Mrs. Grover became a part of who I am. Thanks to her, I am the sort of person who talks to strangers. Who doesn't hold her tongue. And when I married M, I became Mrs. Grover.

But the day that Zales tried to shrug off five thousand dollars we simply didn't have, that day my life changed into Mrs. Grover's life. I didn't become Mrs. Grover when I got married. I became Mrs. Grover when things were hard and I needed to stand tall and kick ass. That's who Mrs. Grover is to me.

I'm so grateful I found her.

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