“As if we don’t already have enough problems, now we’re going to lose our home?” I asked my mom.
“Yes, son. That’s the final word from the bank.”
“And,” she added, “we have less than 30 days to move out before they change the locks.”
As pissed off as I was about this news, it broke my mom’s heart more than mine because our home was her anchor and symbol of stability.
She had labored over each room of that house with such care, deliberation, and taste. Every room had a theme and a story. Even the bathrooms were an experience to behold, each with their own handpicked fixtures, wallpaper, towels, and soaps that complemented the mood of the adjacent room.
She’d hosted many dinner parties there and their hoity-toity friends in the community were so impressed with my our tasteful home.
And their small compliments made my her feel good.
My mom was a top student in high school, but where she came from, “girls didn’t go to college,” she told me. So her only way up the social ladder was to impress people with her excellent tastes in food, fashion, and design.
While I couldn’t see her on the other end of the line, I knew by the tremble in her voice that she had tears in her eyes and a well of courage to fill. She was trying to be as strong and stoic about all this as she could be.
But I know the reality of losing our home was breaking her spirit.
I wished I could’ve been there to help my mom, but I was 12 hours away, about to finish my first semester of college.
I was so homesick for the home and life that would soon be taken away from us.
The Dark Ages
This particular time in my family’s life was the second hardest trial we’d endured. (The first was when my brother died.)
Unfortunately, my dad lost his high profile executive job. He had been unemployed for almost 18 months and believed he was too old and overqualified for any other company to hire him.
After ten months of desperate pleas, the bank finally decided to foreclose on our home.
My ability to continue going to college was now in doubt.
My high school sweetheart that I left crying in the rearview mirror of my driveway and thought I would marry someday was now hooking up with my rival.
And I didn’t have a friend in the world to talk to at this new university, except for my roommate, who was openly racist, deep into death metal, and studying criminology to be a cop, which concerned me. (He later became a sergeant).
But my biggest concern was for my parents.
As a young person straight out of high school, I didn’t have that much to lose. I hadn’t earned or slaved over anything yet except for good grades, so I didn’t know what it was like to have your life, home, and good reputation stripped from your arms.
But my parents were losing everything they worked for their entire lives.
And it was a humiliating experience for them to endure in front of their friends, neighbors, and the socialites in the community they had worked so hard to impress.
There are times in your life when you can hide, fake, or lie your way out of embarrassment.
But this wasn’t one of those times.
Everyone in our small, tight-knit community of South Florida, knew my dad had lost his high profile job, and our fancy home foreclosed. And we knew it was the juiciest gossip of the neighborhood. We could feel it in the way people stared at us or whispered when we walked by them.
It was a type of shame that we couldn’t conceal or disguise. Instead, we just had to wear it with our heads up.
“Get an eyeful, folks!” I yelled out as the neighbors watched the repo man tow one of the cars out of the driveway at 3 am.
We all cope with our shame in different ways.
My father tried to eat and drink his sorrows away. He ballooned in weight. His posture slumped over, and his sleepless eyes had turned into puffy black rings.
He’d flown up to western North Carolina the week before to see about getting a job there. It was a low-level position for him at a fraction of his previous salary, but he was desperate.
It had been over a year and a half since he’d worked, and our family’s life savings and borrowing options had run out.
None of the other fourteen different job interviews he did amounted to anything. And everyone in his business network passed on hiring him, which deflated his ego and crushed his self-esteem.
At one point in his life, he was an established leader in the community and an emerging force in the publishing world. And in the next moment, he was unemployable and looked down upon in pity.
I watched my father’s vigor come apart one panel at a time. And he reached a point where he’d lost all his get-up-and-go. He’d fallen so far from his former status, and depleted the nest egg he’d spent his entire life building. And he couldn’t see a way to reclaim any shred of what he had before.
That’s a hard failure for a man, husband, and father to live with—whether he deserves it or not.
As a family, we were broke, in debt, and soon to be homeless. And it was enough stress to break up a marriage.
Most married couples that endure a calamity like this blame each other, openly or secretly. And they often decide they don’t want to be around each other anymore just to avoid the daily reminder of the failure and hopelessness.
But my mom spiritual champion of our family and held things together for us.
She encouraged my father to accept the offer for the low-paying job in North Carolina, which was coincidentally about 3 hours from where I went to school. And as per the requirements of the job offer he had to start work immediately.
My father rented a tiny roadside apartment where he lived by himself while my mom packed up our ornate home. My dad couldn’t afford to take time off from his new job, so soon after just starting. And I needed to finish out the semester, which was close to ending.
So my poor mom had the overwhelming task of figuring out what to do with all the curated pieces of furniture, art, rugs, books, stereo equipment, fine china, golf clubs, skis, garage tools, weights, etc. we had amassed throughout our lifetime.
We had nowhere to put all this stuff and no money to pay for storage. So the plan was to have a yard sale in front of the house. This event would be the ultimate public embarrassment — to have all your neighbors gawk, rummage, and pick through the personal artifacts and mementos of our life.
But we had no choice but to get rid of it.
As soon as my classes ended for the fall semester, I took a bus home to help my mom with the packing and yard sale. And by the second day, it was all gone, except for a few stuffed animals from my dad’s big game hunting trips, and a few handmade ceramic pieces nobody wanted.
By sundown we finished packing everything we planned to take with us and loaded it in the U-Haul truck.
That U-Haul stood out in the driveway like a neon tombstone for all the neighbors to get their final public viewing.
Early the next morning, my mom and I took one final walk-thru of our empty house and nearly drowned in sorrow, thinking about all the good times and formative years we had there.
Thanksgivings, Christmases, anniversaries, birthday celebrations, and Saturday morning waffles, cookouts and puberty, all happened in that house.
We could still hear the soundtrack of our lives playing there, but the faded walls where the pictures used to hang reminded us that this home was just an empty house now.
We grabbed our cat, old dog, and peanut butter sandwiches and drove 12 hours straight through the hailstorm of cold rain that followed us up to North Carolina.
My mom had never been to North Carolina before, and she had no idea what to expect in terms of her new life there. Her greatest fear was living like a poor redneck, not because she didn’t know what it was like, but because she spent her entire life trying to escape that fate. And the drive through the small backroads made her feel as if she were going right back to that prison.
When we pulled up to the roadside apartment my father rented, we were shocked to find that my dad had gained a lot more weight, and the apartment looked dirty and flimsy. There was nowhere near enough room for my mom, dad, and me — much less a cat, dog, and U-Haul trailer full of personal effects — to live.
In that doorway moment, I could feel my mom’s fall from grace drop another level and my dad’s embarrassment and shame in letting her down.
I watched my mom take one deep breath in — as if to say, “This is not the life I imagined” — and then exhale it out slowly, pursing her lips as she decided what her next project would have to be:
Re-building our family’s life, piece by piece.
The first task my mom set out to do was getting my dad’s body, mind and self-esteem back in good, healthy shape.
Within the week, she had him on a healthy diet and gradually weaned him off his daily pity-party drinking habit.
She made him look sharper than a tack with some bargain basement clothing she found at a discount store called World of Clothing. It was a windowless warehouse where they just dumped mounds of slightly defective clothes on the bare concrete floors. And you dug through that anthill until you found something you liked.
There was no better bargain hunter and fashion picker than my mom.
She then got my dad to become more social. They went out more often as a couple to socialize with co-workers and with the locals in their new community. The life, habits, social norms, and topics of discussion were so different in this place. They didn’t like it or get it at first, but as time wore on, they got more into the swing of things.
Within six months she moved us into a larger, yet modest and affordable home. And she went to work, fixing it up with her excellent eye and resourceful design skills, which impressed the neighbors.
She insisted I go back to start my second semester of college, and by the time I came back home for the summer to help out with things, my dad was looking healthy, sharp, and more energetic.
My mom got my dad to go to church with her where they met a whole new group of friends that weren’t so much wealthy socialites, as they were more wholesome and down-to-earth folks that would give the shirt off their back to help you out in a pinch.
My dad’s new employer kept promoting him up the corporate ladder every couple of years. And eventually, he worked his way up to becoming a high-level boss again, and his zeal for tackling the mountains of life came back with a more seasoned perspective.
My dad was a different man now — healthier, wiser, humbled, grateful, and more grounded, which made him all the better leader, husband and father.
But it was my tireless mom that saved him, me, and our family.
The Old Life
During this time, we would frequently hear news or get calls or visitors from our old hometown.
There was a rash of divorces that swept through our old neighborhood like a virus. Many of the prominent doctors, lawyers, and even the bank executive couples in our community had divorced.
It was the late 1980s, and “finding your self” became the phrase of the era. And divorce became the new vehicle through which many mid-life crisis couples believed they could find what they were looking for in life.
But this new-age philosophy of “self” left a pile of disrupted families and displaced kids in its wake.
Over half of my mom and dad’s friends ended their marriages either because of infidelity, addictions, or lack of meaning.
But thankfully, my parent’s marriage was more solid and united than it had ever been. Oddly enough, losing their home and life in South Florida humbled them and brought them closer. They were no longer chasing materialism, vanity, greed, wealth, or status.
They just wanted to be a family.
My parents both became deacons in the church. And I saw my father do things I’d never seen him do — like take my mom to the movies, or help her with the weekend shopping trips or take her out for a special date night.
I almost didn’t recognize him.
Even stranger, the place where they lived in the Carolinas, become the hot new place to vacation and live in the South. All of their friends were now trying to get a home up there in the mountains.
And here, my parents were living right in the middle of it.
Instead of looking like they had fallen from grace, they now looked like they were the ones way ahead of the game. And my mom looked like Wonder Woman for her ability to make it through the hardships of life.
All their old friends came to my mom for wisdom, guidance, and advice on navigating life’s difficulties.
My life and career in the Carolinas blossomed as well.
After graduating from college, I worked my way up in a few design firms. And eventually, I co-founded a successful architectural practice that designed many nationally recognized projects in the region.
Life Is Strange
As we look back at that seemingly disastrous period in our lives, my mom, dad, and I are convinced that had we stayed in South Florida on the same path and trajectory we were heading, we would’ve run into some disastrous results and probably ruined our lives and family.
My dad would’ve never gotten his weight and drinking under control.
His ego would have overpowered his humility and self-control.
My parent’s would have probably caught the divorce virus.
And they wouldn’t have discovered the incredible hospitality and close community bonds that they have in the Carolinas now.
I would’ve probably dropped out of college, moved back to South Florida and gotten too deep into the Miami party scene — like many of high school buddies did — which eventually turned into a violent “Scarface” drug scene.
The Great Beyond
While not everyone believes in a higher power, I do.
And I believe this higher power knew better for us than we could’ve ever seen for ourselves. But we had to have our lives ripped out from the roots of our safe, comfortable and complacent home so that we could be re-planted into a much healthier soil.
We thought we’d fallen to the bottom of society, but, instead, we received a giant promotion in life. As horrendous as things seemed at the time, we shed our shallow, vain, and soulless skin, and discovered we had a much more meaningful and healthy life underneath.
Of course, we couldn’t see any of these blessings while they were happening, but in hindsight, we now believe it was a miracle that we escaped that unhealthy life.
And my parents and I still shake our heads at how life works at times.
Our Current Crisis
Because of the Coronavirus, quarantine and the looming recession, many people right now are experiencing tremendous pain and tragedies.
These stories of loss break my heart every day, and I am angry about it.
The fear of losing my business and the magical place my family and I call home keeps me awake at night.
While I may not be able to keep the business or home, I learned from my mom that family is not held together by the walls, furniture, or objects we have or the status we have achieved in our community.
That’s just the material stuff and fluff we accumulate.
What holds our family is our ability to stick together in the worst of times. And what makes life richer is our strength to help lift each other up to face another day, no matter how hopeless or humiliated we feel about it.
There may be times when we feel like we are losing everything, but I have learned to have faith in the possibility that there might just be a better life for us up ahead — on the other side of this crisis — even though we can’t see or even imagine it yet.