I took this picture when my father was still alive. Peaceful, isn’t it? He lived at the Jersey shore and this tranquil scene occurred up the street from his house. The sun was about to set, the clouds decorated the sky and a boat stood anchored a short distance from the street’s end. In less than a year, my father would join those clouds in heaven, where my mother waited for him.
On my fireplace mantel there’s a picture of my parents, enjoying the 50th wedding anniversary party us kids threw them. Lots of guests came and a good time was had by all. I glance at it daily, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for minutes. They seem so alive, so happy. I miss them. A lot.
As I folded towels at Phipp’s today (a task that never seems to end, but is oddly comforting), my thoughts strayed to Mom and Dad. What would they think of me now, the kid who had such a dazzling career in music and the arts? Who had a teaching fellowship in Europe? All gone, just like them.
It’s kind of a complicated story, but marriage changed my career. I sold my apartment because my husband didn’t want to live in the city. I changed my career when we decided to have a family and both of us couldn’t work there. Though I loved working for the museum who hired me, my pay halved. Then when it experienced a financial crisis, I found another museum to work for. But after adopting a special-needs son, I could only work part-time. He needed me to take him to therapy, to tutors, to counseling, as well as help with homework and practically everything else in his life. My husband continued to grow in his career and receive regular promotions.
Then my parents became ill. I went from part-time to no time. It was too much going back and forth to their house, plus taking care of my own family. Between all that, I squeezed in writing when I had free time. When they died, I found a freelance job that I thought would be a bridge to my next job. It wasn’t.
My husband said he was fed up with me for neglecting him and found someone else. By now, his career skyrocketed, earning the big bucks. I had no career left, it having died with everything else, it seemed.
After my sister and I sold my parent’s house, I bought the one where I now live. Eventually, I found a job at Phipp’s. They were the only one who would hire me. In the meantime, I kept looking for that elusive full-time job with benefits. Resume after resume went ignored. Or I’d have interviews that went nowhere. It happened again recently. I got to tell you, it’s discouraging.
I pause over the towels. I’m driving myself crazy rehashing my past. If only someone would hire me for a living wage with benefits, I’d pull myself out of this rut. What’s wrong with me? Why isn’t anyone paying attention to my resume? I can help, I swear! I won’t call out and I’ll work weekends if I have to…
Someone’s approaching. I snap back to present in case it’s my boss or one of the managers. Can’t appear like I’m slacking off. Those messy towels won’t fold themselves into a neat pile. I peek over the fixture.
It’s one of my coworkers, Ella. “Did you hear? Beth’s husband passed away.”
I glance at Ella, shocked. Beth takes off for Florida every winter, returning to Phipp’s in the spring. Her husband was in his late 50s. He came north for a few days to check on the house and attend to a few other things. When Beth didn’t hear from her husband, she grew worried. Someone entered the house. He was found dead.
“My God,” I say to Ella. “How horrible for Beth. I can’t imagine what she must be feeling right now.”
Ella agrees, her eyes growing watery. She pulls out her phone and shows me a text with funeral details. I can’t make it, but I can at least send a card. But something tells me this isn’t all.
“My brother…he’s on life support,” Ella says, her voice thinning. “He’s got a day, maybe two. I don’t know…”
Immediately I pull a tissue out of my pocket and hand it to Ella. I wrap my arms around her and give her a hug. “I had no idea,” I say. It’s true. I didn’t. She never said a word. Never told me about the cancer that wasted his body. That nothing could be done.
“Why are you still here?” I ask.
“Because I can’t sit home,” she says. “I’ll go crazy. We’re going to see him when I leave here. The rest of our family is there now. I don’t want to crowd him. But when I get there, I’m staying.” Her shoulders shake and I give her another squeeze. She goes back to her section of the store, slowly. Later I see her, helping customers, forcing a smile, pretending to be strong.
Man, life sucks sometimes.
And don’t I feel ashamed.
Here I am, beating myself up about my past when the present of these two women is just plain horrible. I have no right to complain. These women are suffering the worst losses imaginable. I don’t know what Beth’ll do without her husband. They lived off his pension. They had a nice life in Florida. Who knows what’s in the cards for her now? Ella’s brother wasting away, watching him helplessly…so agonizing for her. Wanting to help and yet unable.
Sometimes the fates kick in at our lowest point to show us the good we have right now. I might be a salesperson today. Tomorrow, or the next day, week, month, whatever might change all that. As impossibly difficult as that is, I have to convince myself of better days. I want to give up, but in my heart I still hope. Am I being a fool? Or human?
Later, I’m home and check a few text messages. An acquaintance of mine texted me and asks if my house is near the town where her country house is (she also lives in the city). I tell her it is. She asks for a few details of the place. I tell her about my heated front porch, the flapper showgirl who built the place, its proximity to a lake, and so on.
Her answer surprises me. She says, “Oh how the universe has rewarded you! Walking distance to the water? A heated porch to read books? After so much chaos in your life, this place is meant for healing! You deserve it. I am so happy for you! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!”
Is that why I found this place? Is that why I’m here? Is this what the universe is telling me? That I need to heal myself first before I can be of use?
I’ve always felt comforted by water. I grew up by an ocean and lived by a river in the city. Now I’m in the country by a lake. As impatient as I am, perhaps the universe is telling me I need more time to become whole again. Sure, I can try a little harder to reach the goals I’ve set for myself. But in the end, I come home to a house that’s every bit of welcoming. Sometimes, I feel like it’s wrapped its arms around me.
It’s all good. I just have to learn how to believe. And have faith. Especially in myself.