Broke and Broken
For people who aren’t planners, death will play havoc with your finances. Herb had a way of living for the moment. He hated the idea of life insurance and bought the things that were important to him, whenever he felt the need. On the day he died we were over $150,000 in debt, not including our two mortgages. There was hardly a credit card that wasn’t maxed out and we were scraping to put together the funeral repast. I had sold most of our gold and silver the year before cashed in all of our savings. After several weeks I collected some small sums of insurance from my work and a couple of old policies that he had. After paying the undertaker and catching up on the bills, the boys and I found ourselves as broke as ever.
In July Rob found full-time work and I cashed in a pension from one of my former jobs. I had taken a life insurance loan on my own policy and spent all of Adam’s college money. Whatever scrap gold I had was sold. We lived from hand to mouth and started cutting corners wherever we could. I washed my own car, we cut our own grass, and the pool guy was history. Suddenly store brands replaced any name brands of the foods we were used to eating. I had the cost of dinner down to five dollars a night and became creative with any leftovers. Dessert was bread pudding (that strange thing I hated!) made from stale crusts, or brownies that I made when the mix was on sale for a dollar per box. Eating out was a huge luxury as were my haircuts, dye jobs and pedicures. My cats ate leftovers or anything that was cheaper than canned cat food, (like dark tuna fish). The newspaper got cancelled and I turned off the phone.
School carried a tab of $10,000 a year, even with help from my job. With January looming I started to wonder how I would pay for the next course. I needed $2,000 and couldn’t get the company money until after my grades came in. All my life I have always been lucky. Whenever I had a rough spot, things always turned out. I guess my life was “charmed” in some ways. I had never known adversity. Never had a crisis. But now Christmas gifts had to be bought and Social Security informed me they were cutting me off. With Adam turning sixteen my widow’s benefits were about to expire. They told me I was making too much money anyway. It sure seems funny that $35,000 a year is considered “too much” in anyone’s book.
I frequented the local Wal-Mart in search of the cheapest groceries I could find. I learned how the people with nothing do it. Most nights I could get dinner for Adam and me and stay within my five-dollar limit. I became smart at knowing where they stocked the meat specials and bought things in bulk. I bought bread for eighty three cents a loaf and anything I could find that was on roll-back. I bought a winter coat for Adam that cost seven dollars and a turtleneck for just four bucks.
Herb willed me a piece of land that could sell for a hefty sum, but no one was buying anything in 2009. The economy was in the toilet and there was just no point to dumping the land in desperation. My husband and I also had an empty lot near the golf course in town. We had hoped to build our dream house some day. When Herb was laid up we got an offer for it, but we weren’t looking to sell. My husband shocked us all when he said we should consider it, especially since the offer was triple what we paid for it. A deal like that could get us out of debt and help pay for Adam’s college, so we signed the contract with a six-month option.
By the time Herb had passed away, the buyer backed out and I was back where we started. With the economy so bad, our buyer had changed his mind. He wriggled out of the deal on a technicality and so I was lost. On the day after I got the news, I relisted the property for half of the previous offer. After that there were two preposterously low offers and very little else going on with it.
In July a man approached me with a deal to lease a small parcel of my husband’s larger parcel for the purpose of putting up a cell-phone tower. My husband’s sister Una was willed a minority share in the land, so together we signed a lease. By December there had been no zoning permits and nothing on the town agenda. Month after month I would check the town’s website to see if anything was happening, but there was nothing.
When you lose your husband and all your money, you feel as if you have lost everything. You face your tomorrows with a blind faith that something will sustain you. The only thing you really have is faith. A legend says that the good shepherd trains a wandering lamb by breaking its leg. The lamb becomes dependent on the herder to carry it everywhere until it is healed. Sometimes Christ is depicted with a lamb around his neck. The lamb is not just a decoration. It is a reminder that we all can be carried when our legs get broken. I was not deeply religious in those early days of widowhood, and yet, there were these conversations I would have with God from time to time. I know that what happens is His will. I know that I have to accept being knocked down. Life for me had changed in so many ways I had just “let go and let God,” to borrow a phrase. After the devestation of losing your spouse, you tend to just let go of a lot of things. You give up trying to make sense of anything because, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”
After Christmas I sold my wedding ring to ship presents to Herb’s grandchildren in New Jersey and Seattle. I used what was left to buy dinner for Adam and me. Around that same time Adam and I started rummaging around for things to sell on E-Bay. Auction money started coming in by dribs and drabs, I put my resume on the Internet, and I left messages for the guy with the cell-phone tower lease.
So if I was supposed to be broke, fine. I had lost my husband, so why not my money too? I could go on. I figured I’m a pretty tough gal. I don’t crumble that easily. Even in my weakest moments, I knew that I would get through. I still had my house and my sons. Life could have been worse. I still had my health and a job that I liked. What is there to cry about? (And yet, I still cried sometimes.) The main thing I guess is that hope goes on. Even when wishes don’t come true, it shouldn’t mean the end of faith. There are tomorrows for the majority of us, and it is our job to meet them. Stay strong in your faith, whatever shape it takes. Don’t give up. Faith, hope, and love will guide you.
A Final Goodbye
I received a card from Father Tom at Enders Island back in the fall. It said that mass would be offered in my husband’s memory on January 10, 2010. This was not the exact anniversary of Herb’s passing, but it was the Sunday closest to it. The mass intention had been arranged for by my husband’s brother, Bob. He spends every Tuesday there with his wood-carving group and remains close to Father Tom and all the staff at Enders Island.
I packed myself up and drove off through the frosty winter sun and showed up at the chapel as prescribed. No one I knew was there. Not even Bob. Had they all forgotten?
I took a seat in the last pew. Through the tall windows on either side of the altar I could see ocean, shiny and grey. The people all sang and everyone offered me a sign of peace when the time came. Earlier on I listened for my husband’s name when the list of prayer intentions was read. I was sure I hadn’t heard it. Even so, mass was lovely and I found some peace if only for an hour. As I filed out of church with all the strangers, I picked up a bulletin to look for Herb’s name. As I sat warming the car, I did not see any names that looked familiar in the least. Then, further down the page, there it was. “Mass will be offered on Tuesday, January 12, 2010 in loving memory of Herbert D. Smith.” Father Tom had given me the wrong date.
In any event, I had my personal lonely goodbye all by myself. On the way home I cried through the sunny cold morning. This was it. My year was over. I cried for losing Herb but I cried to know that I finally had to move on. Somehow that milestone, my “year of goodbyes” had come to an end. I didn’t know if I was ready to say goodbye to grief. After all, after the one-year remembrance is over with, it’s like people just move on. I felt like the world would expect me to move on by now too. Still, one thing I knew for sure. Grief leaves some scars that you carry around inside you, and they never go away. So if coming to the end of my grieving year meant that I was supposed to be happy, I decided I would be happy as best I could.
For me, I grew up a little bit that day. It was time to take care of my own business. When I got home I called Bob to thank him for offering a mass in Herb’s name. I told him how I had gone down to Ender’s Island by myself. Bob told me that Tuesday was the right day and that he was personally looking forward to it since he goes there every Tuesday as is his custom. I thanked him again and explained that I had to work and wouldn’t be joining him. So Tuesday came and went like any other day, and I set out about my business in a very mundane way.
Arriving at my job someone had left a single blueberry muffin on my desk in a bakery container. “What’s this? “ I thought. I did not get the connection right away. Putting down my purse I sat down and began moving things around on my desk. Then I saw it. A simple card signed by “Your friends.” It showed some old gents sitting on a bench, but there was an empty space among them. Inside the card, the sentiment was perfect: “He was one of the good guys, and we’ll miss him.” How lucky I have been to have a work family that cares so much! Ever since then, a muffin has appeared on my desk every year on my husband’s anniversary without fail.
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I struggled through the rest of that winter dodging collectors and finishing my studies. At the end of March I earned my MBA and celebrated the return of my tuition money that I paid to earn my last three credits. I paid the utilities and kept the cell phones on; brought the car payments and insurance up to date. I learned how to shop with next to nothing in my pocket and burned a lot of wood in the fireplace. At the beginning of April I got a contract for our building lot near the golf course. I counted the days to the closing and hounded the accountant to finish my tax return. I was still struggling financially but the end seemed to be in sight. There was no Easter brunch and no chocolates or jelly beans in 2010. The boys were happy with a roast and some cake. I sent more resumes out over the Internet.
By September of 2010, I sold our lot on the golf course. My dream home was gone and I settled for a thin return on our original investment. My lawyer and I cut deals with all the credit card companies and we managed to reduce my total card debt to about $25,000. I fixed up the house a little and later got a new mortgage with easier terms. The cell tower people began construction on my other property which meant a monthly rental income would soon be starting. I learned to live on what I earn and take advantage of bargains whenever I could.
The hole in my existence is slowly filling in. Time is a great healer, although hard to believe for those who are newly grieving. There are things that you must realize and do if you are to ever be whole again, however. No one wants you to forget your loved one. If you are like me, that person will always be inside your heart. Here is my final advice to anyone who had lost their spouse and is struggling with how to live.
1. You are broken and in pain. Find positive ways of dealing with the hurt. Volunteer. Watch a good movie. Read something inspirational. Do crafts. Clean the house. Cook a good meal.
2. You matter and you have always mattered.
3. Accept that your life has changed. Accept that you will never be the same as before. Know that you might actually be better than before, if you try. It is natural to keep wanting to “go home” in your mind. Finding and redefining yourself takes time. By taking lots of baby steps you will eventually become a new person. You will begin to think of yourself as a new “someone” who is different from the person you were before. Do not be afraid to change your looks, your flower-bulbs, or your curtains. Bring out your personal tastes and change your style. Holding on to your old life will only make your grief last longer.
4. Keep an open mind as you find out who you were meant to be. Think of this time as your turn to make your mark on the world, even if you already have accomplishments that you are proud of. What can you do as a single person? It is your time to find out.
5. The rest of your life is waiting for you. Do not waste it. Remember the saying, “What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.” God gave you widowhood for a reason. Your destiny may be to minister to others who are feeling what you feel. If not that, maybe you were meant to help the world in some other way. Whatever you decide, be a beacon of hope to someone else. Know that they might benefit from your experiences.
6. Be the beautiful parts of your past. Most people have emotional baggage and dysfunctionality in their familial backgrounds. Do not identify with your negative experiences, no matter what form they took when you were growing up. Look deep inside you and make a list of anything you have to be thankful for. These things will affirm who you are and give you the tools to create more happiness in your life.
7. Limit your self-pity. There is a wonderful widow’s group in San Diego called the “Soaring Spirits Foundation.” Michelle Hernandez became a young widow overnight when she lost her husband in a tragic bicycling accident. Today she leads an army of widows through her outreach program filled with messages of hope an inspiration. Channel your grief into hope by sharing your experience with others at the right times and in the right places.
While I was writing this story and for some time after it was finished, people felt compelled to counsel me about returning to my Catholic roots. Herb’s brothers in particular urged me to make my confession and ask forgiveness for having lived in a marriage not blessed by the church.
“Sorry, I don’t ‘do’ Catholic,” was all I could say.
But God keeps calling you when he knows you will someday listen. After an old acquaintance brought it up, I knew it was time. But how could I confess that my married life and my kids had been a mistake? It was too late to go there in my mind. All that was left for me was the here and now. What was done was done. The marriage was not the way the church would have wanted it and her teachings are clear. I should have stayed the traditional route and I didn’t. Who is to say what kind of life I would have had if I had done things differently? No one can really say. No matter how “wrong” my marriage was, I can never un-love the person who was my partner and soul mate for twenty-eight years. And regardless of how my boys got here, they are no less dignified in God’s, eyes...ever.
So I have opened my new life in the church; joined the choir, studied the catechism, and got involved. Our faith has something to teach us every day, but we need to always be open to the learning. So far I have not been disappointed because I’m seeing that God is always there, no matter what happens to us or where we are. It is faith, together with hope and love, which sees us through. It is faith that really matters.