How homemade stew taught me to accept love

Mary Hoover played girls’ basketball at East High School. That’s how I met her. She was one the stars of the underperforming Scarlets squad and I was sports editor of the school paper.

I took my job seriously. I went to every game. I took notes. I interviewed coaches and players after games. I refused to do the “give me a quote” thing that was common in high school journalism.

I was very nerdy about it.

Mary was an excellent player close to the basket and a good defender. She was tall and skinny, all elbows and knees, an Ichabod Crane on hardcourt.

She sold ads for the school newspaper with her friend Ginger. I probably flirted with them by making jokes or other childish things because I never learned to talk to girls. This remains true.

The last time I spoke to Mary was probably sometime before she graduated from East in 1992, a year ahead of me. She commented on my columns in the newspaper and my blog posts now and again, but that was the extent of our contact.

I remembered Mary fondly, but I wouldn’t have called us close friends.

I never expected her to lead the charge to rescue me.

A few weeks back, when I started writing about a ligament tear in my knee and the incredible insurance costs, Mary sent me a message through Facebook and said she’d like to bring me a home-cooked meal.

I accepted. She made a beef stew so thick with meat, potatoes, carrots, green beans, and corn that I could barely jam the ladle into the container to scoop it out.

She came in for a visit and we updated each other on the last 28 years. I made my way in paragraphs and not much else. She worked in banking, then in marketing for a luxury car company. She married another East alumnus, had a son, and divorced.

Mary asked me if it was OK for her to open a Meal Train page for me. I didn’t know what it was. She told me it was a way for people to help me out while my knee was ailing by donating home-cooked meals, restaurant or deliver service gift cards, or just cash.

I said sure.

Mary was kind, but who else would bother with such a thing? I’ve been out of the public eye for more than a year.

My friends have already helped me a lot since I lost my job and went back to graduate school at Drake University. I couldn’t expect more of them with this latest wrinkle.

As is often the case, I was wrong.

As of early Monday, 139 people have donated nearly $9,000 to help me. Several people have brought meals or pledged to bring meals.

The money will help pay for the surgery and help me stay afloat during my last year at Drake before I earn my teaching license and (hopefully) secure a job teaching in the metro.

Meal Train takes a portion of the donations and credit card fees eat up another chunk. But even losing about $1,000 to fees, I am in a better position today than I was when I first met with the surgeon weeks ago.

I originally planned to get knee surgery on Aug. 20. That’s likely to be delayed less for financial reasons and more because I don’t think it gives me enough recovery time before school starts on the 30th.

A knee brace and cane have kept me mobile enough to do most of my tasks. In-person school means more walking than I’m used to, but I’ve got a temporary person with disability parking tag.

Acetaminophen tablets and prescription lidocaine jelly keep the pain in check. My flexibility has improved, and day-to-day household things are less painful.

I still struggle to stand for all but brief periods. Conversely, when I sit too long, the knee stiffens. It takes a minute to get moving.

This experience has given me new motivation to keep moving.

Positive emotions — especially those directed toward me — are hard for me to accept. Chalk it up to adverse childhood experiences too complicated to get into here.

When Parents 2.0, the people who raised me after my parents died, first took me into their home, they did not understand why I refused to accept their love. To this day, I struggle.

I just don’t see what others see in me. I never have. I’m imperfect. I’ve been cowardly and cruel, at times.

I try to be kind, but that is a relatively new path for me. I spent much more time trying to be cool or smart or right or funny.

It’s been especially hard since I lost my job at the local newspaper. I confused my identity with my job, a common mistake. Even now, with scores of people having lost their jobs during the pandemic, I feel like the unemployed are looked at as shiftless layabouts dragging everyone else down.

But maybe that feeling is just another negative one in the file drawer filled with them.

I look in the mirror and see only the bad things.

At some level, I still think, if you really knew me, if you really saw me in all my ugliness inside, you wouldn’t say all these nice things. You wouldn’t bring meals or send money.

I’m morbidly obese, broke, unemployed, and often very grumpy with a terrible case of self-loathing. I never believed that anything I wrote mattered to anybody. It felt like it evaporated into the ether the minute it was published.

That’s why I am so humbled, so deeply moved by this generosity from family, friends, my community, and beyond.

But you do it.

You keep doing it. And you’ve done so well that I will be able to get surgery, if not on Aug. 20 as originally planned, then after I’ve finished school in the spring.

My friend and Drake classmate Jason Clayworth wrote a story about the community’s efforts to help on Axios Des Moines.

I am so moved by what all of you have done for me. I promise you these two things:

First, I will become the very best teacher I can and pass on all the things I’ve learned about writing, reading, communicating, and being human to my students.

Second, I will work hard to see the me that all of you see, to accept love, and believe that I deserve it.

And this spark of hope started with my friend Mary, who wanted to make an old classmate some homemade stew.

Life, my friends, can truly be beautiful.

If you’re of a mind to contribute, the website is https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/5ek08z/donate/. Or you can reach me through any of the contacts at the bottom of this column.


Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
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Count blessings, not $4,000 surgery bill

Knee update: I visited the surgeon at the Des Moines Orthopedic Center in West Des Moines.

The doctor recommended an arthroscopic procedure at Lutheran Hospital. He said it would take about 2 hours, the surgery was virtually risk free, and I’d be on my feet the next day or so. Physical therapy might not even be necessary.

This sounded pretty good, especially against the ongoing agony I live with. We set a date for Aug. 20, which would give me recovery time before school started 10 days later.

The doctor’s assistant brought me a bunch of paperwork.

One page, the green page, detailed how the surgery would be billed.

The clinic’s policy is half the cost of the uninsured portion of the bill must be paid by two days before the surgery. I buy my insurance policy through HealthCare.gov.

The insurance isn’t great, but it gives me something in case of disaster.

Alas, this disaster came at a time when I hadn’t met my deductible.

That means I likely would have to pay the clinic more than $4,000 before I took my first breath of anesthesia.

I don’t have that money, nor do I have access to it.

I explained that to the person who handled the financial side of things. She said that was the policy.

In fairness, I don’t know what my portion of the total bill is yet. The computers hadn’t added it all up yet. It could be a little less, but it could be a lot more.

This is one of those moments where a person really needs some true grit.

I got the news, and I felt my depressed, anxious mind start to spiral.

This is it, I thought. This is where I fall and don’t get back up.

This worry plagues me.

My mind speeds through all the ways my plans to transform myself from discarded newspaper man to a schoolteacher can crash and burn.

The parade of horribles march through my mind like some freak show displays lost from the last circus.

My knee hurts a lot. Some days it is unbearable even when I’m idle. Other days, it’s livable. Unpleasant, but livable.

I need my mobility for all the obvious reasons, but especially with in-person classes starting this fall at Drake University.

I have one more semester of regular classes and then I’m due to student teach in the spring, but if I can’t walk to classes, I’m in trouble.

I’m remaking my life at middle age.

I can’t stress enough how challenging that is.

I gave all I had to give to journalism, but the trade as I knew it, died — or at least changed in such a way that it no longer included old typists like me.

So, the thing I thought I was going to do until I retired is gone at age 46.

OK, fine. I’ll teach the rest of my working life.

But this journey is fraught with peril.

I’m unemployed.

I’m broke.

I’m managing anxiety, depression, and obesity.

Oh, right, and then the knee.

The IRS seems to think it’s fine to hold on to my tax refund for however the hell long it sees fit and nobody, not even the staff of Sen. Chuck Grassley, seems to be able to do anything about that except tell me to be patient.

That cash would go a long way toward the knee surgery.

My wobbly knee and pain feel like a metaphor for this seemingly impossible effort at survival.

But I choose not to embrace misery.

That’s new for me.

I used to fall into sadness the way children cannonball into the deep end of the swimming pool.

Yet, I live with daily miracles. People like Maddie and Charles prove to me that humanity has not lost its heart, only the ability to tell the story of grace.

Scores of people have supported this website.

My friend Mary Hoover, an East High School chum whom I had not seen since she graduated a year ahead of me in 1992, emailed me after I posted about the initial knee injury.

“I’d like to make a home cooked meal,” she said.

A few days later, she arrived with a massive container of thick beef stew loaded with carrots, potatoes, green beans, corn, and meat. I could barely get the ladle into the concoction to scoop it into a bowl to reheat.

She started a fundraiser for me at MealTrain.com. People have sent money and brought me food — good, healthy food.

My first reaction is embarrassment.

Who am I to deserve this treatment?

I am a deeply flawed human who has made so many mistakes.

I am unworthy, I think.

But you know what?

How dare I think that?

That spits in the eyes of all these people who see worthiness inside me. I am not so flawed as to turn my back on the grace and kindness of family, friends, and strangers who only know me through my paragraphs.

Instead, I choose to embrace this love shown to me and pledge to pay it forward. I will never be able to square it with those who have helped me.

That’s not the point anyway.

What I will do, though, is commit to resiliency. I will find a way to make it to those classes this fall and through student teaching in the spring.

I pay the investments all these kind souls have made in me by helping to spark the fire of creativity in future generations of writers, thinkers, muckrakers, and paragraph stackers.

This challenging time brought home the stunning and joyous that I am not alone neither in this leg of the journey nor in life itself.

With all of you cheering and hands outstretched, I vow to bow my head and barrel forward as hard as I can.


Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.