Frickin’ Lion – Ann Kathryn Kelly

Olive the (lion) dog. Image by Andrea Farrow, via Instagram

The mane streams behind the dog as it tears across weathered gray floorboards.

“Frickin’ lion.”

The seven-second Instagram reel auto-loops on my Thursday lunch hour and I become obsessed with this dog that I later find out belongs to my colleague Jessica’s sister, Andrea. I learn the dog’s name is Olive. A jubilant yellow Labrador, racing laps around a backyard deck off a North Carolina home. On replay, I watch Olive and her friends zig-zag, their barks punctuating the space between chatter and laughter as their owners call out to them and compare notes on the best Halloween canine costume.

“Frickin’ lion.” 

Peals of laughter. No people in the frame. I visualize the women I hear, doubled over and pointing. Faux tawny locks billow behind Olive’s soft yellow coat. Her legs in frenzied motion, her nose to the ground, a pack of dogs in all shapes and sizes on her heels. The video loops again. I pick out Jessica’s laugh as she pans her iPhone across her rambunctious, four-legged guests. One pooch, a wiener dog, wiggles into the frame, Wonder Woman’s gold tiara perched atop the Dachshund’s head, red and blue cape draped over her back. I see Jessica’s beagle, Amos, decked out head-to-tail as a pirate. A pointy hat with skull and crossbones sits jaunty on his head.

In that brief moment I see a world of joy that makes me LOL IRL at my desk hundreds of miles away in an office with yellow walls. My window looks out onto a maple that was brilliant red a week earlier; now, holding on to just a few faded leaves. The next rainstorm, I know, will strip it.

The video auto-loops one, two, five times. A small group of thirty-somethings, masked for COVID – granted, Halloween masks – coming together in a backyard to socially-distance-celebrate an eighth “barkday” for Amos. I swipe through photos: Amos on the porch next to a Happy Howl-o-ween sign, a table draped in black and laden with a plate of “pupcakes,” a bowl of “pupcorn,” a tray of crackers with slices of “pupperoni.” Puffy balloons in the shape of letters spell out “Let’s Pawty.”

With little in our current world to delight in, Jessica’s video lifts me. I want to meet Olive. I wish she was mine, in her sassy lion’s mane. Olive made my day, my week, just about my whole year. A year that brought sickness and death from a pandemic that stalked the world, coupled with escalating racial divides, brazen murders weekly in the name of the law, people taking to the streets, thousands of acres of forests burning, twice the usual number of hurricanes swirling. An American presidential election that divided family, friends, colleagues.

A lost year.

I send Jessica a note on our company’s instant messaging platform. I’m OBSESSED with that lion dog! (Three laughing/crying emoji faces.) Funniest thing I’ve seen in months!

I tell her I cracked up at whoever I overheard muttering “frickin’ lion” as Olive tore past. We agree we’ll use it as our code phrase when something irritates us; a reminder to smile. A day after watching the video, my resolve is tested. I need our code phrase to pull me from a depth I’ve sunken into over an unexpected and insanely large medical bill.

For the last twenty years, I’ve needed brain MRIs. I’d been diagnosed with a neurovascular disease that resulted in a tumor on my brain stem. One that bled. Often. For the first nine years, I went in for MRIs every twenty-four months to monitor it. In 2009, however, monitoring was no longer getting the job done. My tumor was growing, bleeding more often, slamming me with a range of deficits. My disease punished me with pounding headaches for decades that at times made me vomit. I developed nonstop hiccups. Dry heaves. I’d been put into a leg brace.

I was scheduled for open-head surgery, an ordeal that turned into twelve hours face-down on a table where my head was pinned and locked into a head vice. Cut open. They got most of my tumor, save for a miniscule shred that they’ve been saying for eleven years requires follow-up MRIs. Since my day-long surgery, followed by nearly a month in a brain injury rehab facility where I learned how to swallow again and progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, I’ve felt better than I ever have. Eleven years later I’m fully recovered, with the only deficit an almost imperceptible limp and a tendency to cough from a vocal cord that was partially paralyzed in surgery.

A day after Jessica posted Olive’s video, I opened a bill for an MRI I’d gotten three weeks earlier. A $4,200 sticker shocked me, but I assumed it meant my insurance carrier had not yet paid their portion. Then, I saw they had. The original cost: $7,000. The $4,200, I realized with a sinking gut, was my responsibility. My eyes moved from the “Amount you owe” box, down to itemized numbers, and back up to the amount owed line. I dug out my bill from two years prior. That MRI had cost $5,000, leaving me to pay $1,800 after my deductible. The procedure had jumped $2,000 in two years.

My $4,200 bill is essentially the cost of two vacations, a week each, to an all-inclusive island resort. I could buy five brand new iPhone 12 models. A full year of groceries, if I budgeted $350 per month to eat. It’s the equivalent of a $179 monthly car payment, spread over two years, which is what I negotiated with the hospital. A friend encouraged me to go back to them with a hardship plea. My friend said if ever I had an argument on my side, our COVID world would be my ace. I tried, over a thirty-minute call.

“I agree, it’s steep,” the billing clerk and the insurance agent each said, in separate calls.

“I’ve never seen an MRI billed that high before,” the insurance agent added. “But, look on the bright side. You’re not on the hook for the full $7,000.”

My forty-five-minute test cost $155 per minute. I spent my Saturday dwelling on that. The following morning I went on Instagram and found Jessica’s video. Spotted Olive, racing, swerving, navigating a pathway across a deck, her faux mane obscuring smaller dogs crossing her path. I watched the Labrador-turned-lion frolic, a willing canine enduring dress-up in a tawny Halloween wig.

I thought about this yellow dog, hundreds of miles away, that I will never meet; how the image of her at play brightened my outlook. I thought about MRIs. About how, eleven years earlier, one projected onto a screen in an OR helped a neurosurgeon navigate pathways across my brain, and about how images often make clear what we need to guide us.


Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals.

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