My new furniture in Key West arrived last week.
It is not a lot: a sofa, a loveseat, and a coffee table. But it is more than that.
I have finally planted roots.
I have spent the last 5 years wondering what to do about this house. Did I want to live in it? Were two homes too much to manage?
It began simply, my husband decided that he wanted to retire in Key West and New Jersey while I continued working. His first retirement project was to renovate a home just for us. We purchased a modest house in a good location and planned to use my salary to pay for the renovation.
We closed on the house in July of 2014. My father died in October, and we decided to spend a long weekend in Key West to recover and commence our new life.
The next day I found myself racing to a Miami hospital where my husband had been medivacked after severely injuring himself in a fall. After a month-long stay in a hospital with bi-weekly surgeries, we decided he would recover in Key West and I would retire, also, to care for him.
In 2014, the home was an empty shell. While caring for him in the Miami hospital, I went online and purchased everything that we needed to get started: beds, linens, towels, dressers, silverware, kitchen equipment, pots, pans, bowls, food, and outdoor furniture, which was temporarily placed in the living room.
Over 50 boxes awaited us when we arrived back from the hospital that evening. I opened boxes until I could find enough sheets, towels, dishes, kitchen equipment, and basics.
By 3 AM, I was exhausted and took a long-awaited shower only to feel large cockroach like palmetto bugs climbing up my legs (it turns out they live in shower drains of vacant houses). I screamed; convinced that I was in a horror movie. Then, my husband inadvertently locked the other bathroom door and we now had no bathroom, palmetto bugs the size of eggs scurrying around in the dark…and no bug spray.
When the hardware store opened, I purchased the basics. But we soon discovered that there was more in store for us. Two adjacent houses were undergoing major renovations and we spent the winter listening to the sounds of buzz saws, ceramic saws, cement trucks, drills, and jack hammers, while construction dust poured into our windows.
The dogs were still in NJ, our clothes were in NJ, our car was in NJ, our bills were in NJ. I flew to NJ while Jeff’s sister cared for him and my brother-in-law and I drove a packed car down to Key West. During that desperate winter, my husband suffered repeated relapses, staph infections, more hospital stays while secretly being consumed by an undiagnosed, rapacious cancer. He died in August 2015.
I returned that fall, a new widow, dazed and vulnerable. Now three homes were undergoing complete renovations. My corner house was ground zero for contractor parking; and they abused it. One contractor, in particular, gleefully discovered that I was a new widow, telling another sympathetic contractor that I would be too weak to challenge him. He anonymously reported my Christmas decorations and planters to code enforcement. At night he would move them close to the street and call code enforcement. Embarrassed, but unable to do anything, code enforcement asked me to call the police, who also sympathized, but could not help. I finally located the new owners who stopped him.
I spent the next several years in a state of grief, depression, and fear, but most of all confusion. What was I going to do with this house in Key West?
The first year I spread his ashes in the ocean near our home…his home.
Each year, like a migratory bird on autopilot, I returned to this home of sorrow. To me, the house was Jeff’s tomb. A memorial to broken dreams.
And each year, there was another house under construction. In the five years that I have lived here, there has always been construction and my house is their parking garage. My dogs bark at them incessantly.
Yet through it all, there has been grace. My family has been my rock. Friends have been supportive. My daughter has made extended visits. A friend gave me sage, minerals, and crystals to rid the home of sad energy. An outdoor lighting company heard my story and installed outdoor lighting at cost, creating an outdoor paradise. I met new friends at the dog park.
Last year, I decided that I would no longer be a victim of the contractors. I resolved to take charge and build a life that I never saw coming. I realized that I didn’t need a grand home and that my modest dwelling fit my new life.
And that is how we recover from grief and struggles; no Disney moments, just a refusal to quit, a determination to keep getting up each time we fall.
So last week my outdoor furniture was finally moved outdoors and I have new living room furniture to go with my new life.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.