Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The only other choice

Sometime in March: My son receives an offer of financial aid from Baylor. He has already been admitted to the Choral Music Education Program in the School of Music, and he signs the offer and returns it, indicating his intention to enroll.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave behind.

In April, having filed my federal tax return, I go back to Jeremy's FAFSA and update my Adjusted Gross Income. Shortly afterward, a letter arrives from Baylor stating that, on the basis of new information, Jeremy's financial aid offer has been revised downward. He is once again asked to sign and return the letter.

I call the Financial Aid office and tell them that the extra income I reported, which came from Barbara's disability payments, is no longer available, since she passed away at the end of last year. That's OK, they say; they can do a "verification" of the FAFSA that will certify the reduction in my income, and Jeremy's original offer can be reinstated. All we will have to do is fill out some paperwork.

You think you're doing well until ...

I would rather not do that, I tell them. Filling out those forms to begin with was difficult enough in the wake of Barbara's passing. Having to revisit them will, I am sure, come at considerable emotional cost. I am reassured that the required paperwork is quick and easy. Although Jennifer's financial aid status has not changed, I might as well do it for her as well. She might be able to qualify for more subsidized loan money, and at current interest rates ...

You think you're doing well until something happens.

The paperwork comes; we fill it out and return it.  I receive an email from the Financial Aid office saying that they still need two copies of each of our federal tax returns. No problem, I say; I have those on my computer. Can I just email them?

The email goes through, but Financial Aid is unable to open the files. I should have anticipated that. They were done using H&R Block's proprietary program. Undaunted, I print all three returns and, one morning before class (it's now June), I run them by the Financial Aid Office.

These are the federal tax returns, I am told. Isn't that what you asked for? What we need is the transcript from the IRS. What difference does it make, I ask. The returns have all the information you need. Sorry, they say; it's just the law. We can't proceed without the official transcript from the IRS. Call this number and request it.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions.

To my deep shame, I almost break down. I don't want to have to call that number, I say. It was painful enough for me to go this far. Revisiting my tax returns and FAFSAs repeatedly in order to prove that my wife is dead is an agonizing experience. I am astonished by the amount of pain that surfaces each time I am forced to return to the issue.

They are very sorry, of course, but that's the law. Can I just stop the whole process, I ask. I'll happily accept the revised financial aid offer if only you don't force me to go through any more verification. I have their deepest sympathy, I am assured, but no I can't. That's just the law. They have no control over it.

I call the IRS number and respond to a long series of automated prompts. I enter my social security number, confirm my address and request the official transcript of the tax return. After what seems like forever, I am finished and get to hang up. The copy will be sent in 5 to 10 days. It will cost me nothing (except my heart).  Then I have to make the same call two more times, one for each child. I wasn't sure I could get through it. Resuming my teaching less than three weeks after Barbara's death was a walk in the park compared to this.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave.

A week and a half later the forms arrive in three separate envelopes from the IRS. It is now July. In barely over a week I will leave for a long-anticipated, desperately needed vacation. I take the forms to the Financial Aid office hoping there will still be time to complete the "verification" process before the bills for the fall semester are due at the end of the month.

Oh no, I am told. The IRS did send the tax return transcripts for both children, but in my envelope they sent the account transcript. It might have been their mistake. On all three calls I responded exactly the same way to exactly the same series of prompts. But unfortunately they cannot accept this form. They need the return transcript; without it, they can't process either child's financial aid application.

This time I come even closer to breaking down. I raise my voice. I rest my head in my hands, struggling to hold back tears of agonized frustration. Do they have any idea how painful it is every time I have to revisit this process—how having to call the IRS again, and probably suffering an interminable wait to speak to a human being who can correct the problem, will cost me emotionally? They are truly sorry, they say, but they can't use this form. That's just the law.

On the drive home, Jennifer, who was along for the ride, berates me for my emotional immaturity and the embarrassment it caused her. When we arrive, I proceed to demonstrate, at considerable length, just how deep were the emotions that I hadn't yet expressed—the emotions that I had so far managed to hold back despite being pushed to the brink of human endurance. When it's clear I'm not going to be able to manage to cook, my sweet but uncomprehending daughter offers to treat me to dinner. We talk.

You think you're doing well until something happens to trigger those emotions that you will never leave behind.

Tomorrow I will get up and call the IRS again. It is going to cost me, but what choice do I have? We mourn in bits and pieces, and just when we think we're making progress the ground drops out and the depth of what is beneath becomes apparent. We swim, because the only other choice is to drown.


  1. So sorry you are having to deal with this.

  2. Ow.

    I wonder whether the harrow tells the toad, So sorry, but we have no choice.

    And of course Jennifer has her own pain, and Jeremy his.

    We have certainly constructed a very hard world.

  3. Update, Wednesday, July 11, 2:49: I just heard from the Baylor financial aid office and they have taken care of all the issues on both Jennifer's and Jeremy's bills without my having to do anything else about them. I'm not sure which of the strings I pulled earlier today did the trick, but thank you, thank you, thank you. An enormous burden has been lifted from my shoulders.