Life comes with setbacks.
Like the rest of humanity, I have had my share of setbacks…but 2014-2016 was a doozy. Over an 18 month period, I mourned the death of my husband, my father and two dogs. I lost end my career to care my sick husband. I lost my home, my health, even my health insurance. I was audited and sued by the IRS and the State of NJ, I had a summary judgement issued without my knowledge, I was harassed by contractors, cheated by a long-time NJ real estate agent, hounded by collection calls, my valuables were stolen, rats and cockroaches invaded my Florida home…and this is only a partial list.
My life foundation was flattened by a tornado of events. The most important document I possessed was my husband’s death certificate. All that remained of our love story was an official green sheet of paper with beginning and end dates.
I developed depression, anxiety, and PTSD from the trauma.
I worked hard to heal. I read books, sought counseling, experimented with holistic and spiritual healing, attended seminars, prayed, and dabbled in naturalistic philosophies; but the anxiety, PTSD, and depression became the resilient pieces in my new life. At the same time, I was impressed by how others were able to overcome their own devastating losses, including the loss of a child. Yet, I remained frozen in grief, dread, and anxiety, abandoned by my former strength and resiliency.
After seven frustrating years of wandering, I have mostly healed. I will never be the person I was, in some respects I am better, more empathetic, more sympathetic, less arrogant; in other ways I am worse.
But even after healing, my toughest demons remained.
The first demon was accepting the totality of what happened and not allowing it to define me. I was not a victim; only someone who hadn’t been able to live on her chosen path. Each time I tried to reconstruct the events, especially the death of my supportive husband, I felt the crippling PTSD and anxiety return.
I gained some dominion over this demon by accident.
A few years ago, I got another reminder of the nonsense that widows and widowers face. A check for a security deposit in my late husband’s name was sent to me, 6 years later. But my bank refused to deposit the check because it was in my husband’s name, even though I produced a will confirming that I was the only heir. And the issuing company refused to reissue the check in my name because it was for my husband’s account. So, I had a check that couldn’t be deposited or cashed. A typical catch-22 for survivors.
In a pique of frustration, I wrote a column about the red tape that widows and widowers deal with, calling it the widow’s gut-punch.
To my surprise, I received an overwhelming response from this article from fellow survivors validating my experiences and telling their own. Some board members at the Chesapeake Forum, a life-long learning program, requested that I team up with a colleague to create a course to help others avoid this widow’s gut punch.
While my challenges were greater than most survivors, they felt that my experiences could be a learning opportunity for others. Despite my fears, I made it through, and the course became its own healing. My audience was empathetic, supportive, and kind, and it felt good saving others from my trauma.
One demon down, but the biggest one remained.
My home in Key West.
Jeff and I bought what was to be the home of our dreams. He wanted to retire in his favorite place in the world. Over the years, we saved our money and were finally able to purchase a house that needed some TLC in an ideal neighborhood. We had a perfect plan. Jeff was going to design and oversee the renovation for our paradise in paradise. To fund our dream, I was going to work for another 10 years.
To quote a Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs.”
In October 2014, after my father’s death, we flew down to Key West for a long weekend of recovery and to take stock in our new home. While I worked, Jeff painted, cleaning up the jelly stains and fingerprints. But, while reaching for that last spot, he plunged from a 16’ ladder. Seriously injured, he had to be medivacked to Miami.
In that instant, everything changed. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had become the protagonist in a horror movie that would consume the next 8 years of my life.
Jeff’s injury required a month-long hospital stay. While he was in the hospital, I managed the households. There were bills to pay, dogs to find care for in NJ, our NJ home to maintain (it was for sale).
We decided he should recover in Key West rather than battle the ice and snow of New Jersey. Thank goodness for online shopping. I purchased everything that we would need while Jeff underwent eight operations: beds, sheets, furniture, kitchen appliances, silverware, dishes, pots and pans, washer and dryer, cleaning supplies, soaps, towels, sheets, furniture, etc. Voila, instant home.
Okay, we acknowledged that our original plans would take longer, but like innocent characters at the beginning of a horror movie we believed that it was just an unexpected delay.
We could get through this. But we were unwitting characters in a horror film.
After Jeff’s release from the Miami hospital, we finally arrived at our Key West home at midnight. It was stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes filled with supplies, so by the time I unpacked enough to get us through the night and washed the sheets, it was 3 AM.
Jeff collapsed into the bed, and I decided to hop in the shower to wash off the grime and germs from the hospital.
It was dark, most lightbulbs were missing or burnt out, but a dark shower was better than none at all. While showering, I felt a strange sensation crawling up my legs. Eeek! Palmetto bugs (yes giant-sized cockroaches) were crawling up my body. (I learned later that they take up residence in uncovered shower drains.)
I ran out of the bathroom, naked and screaming, slammed the door shut, only to discover that my husband had accidentally locked the other bathroom. One bathroom had no key, the other was infested with palmetto bugs. We would have to get through the night without a bathroom.
At 6 AM the next morning, I arrived at the local hardware store, and sympathetic clerks helped me find a key for the locked bathroom and boric acid for the palmetto bugs.
In the meantime, our life (including our 3 dogs) needed to be brought down from New Jersey to Key West. My sister-in-law flew down to care for my husband while I returned to New Jersey and spent a week getting the NJ house in order, fixing broken pipes and appliances, keeping it maintained for real estate showings. Exhausted, I packed our belongings and the dogs, and my brother-in-law and I drove 30 hours straight to Key West.
I thought that the worst was behind us.
But I was barely through the opening credits.
Back in Key West, local construction commenced. All around us, neighborhood homes were being gutted. Instead of the soft palm breezes and soothing bubbling water sounds from our pool, we were accosted with screeching buzz saws, grinding routers, pounding jackhammers, and squealing drills. The contractors used their equipment outdoors next to our property. Sawdust and ceramic dust covered everything. From 8 AM to 8 PM, six days a week, we endured relentless grinding, drilling and, of course, pounding.
Now, we had our horror movie soundtrack.
My uncomplaining husband required round-the-clock care…but he wasn’t getting better. Each week he endured the excruciating 12-hour round trip to Miami for doctors’ appointments. Sometimes he had to be readmitted to the hospital for staph or bone infections.
We stayed in Key West through the winter of 2014. But Jeff’s health continued to decline, his pain worsening. Something was wrong. (Unbeknownst to us, the understaffed hospital had neglected to conduct a routine test that would have revealed that my husband had a rare cancer that had already metastasized in his bones.)
Our Key West home tormented us…poorly built, bugs and pests entered at will, old appliances broke, our fearful dogs barked incessantly, and our outdoor paradise was shut out by windows that had been closed to give us a modicum of peace from the grinding construction and dirt.
And Jeff got sicker and sicker. By April, we abandoned paradise and returned to New Jersey for medical treatment and finally, a diagnosis. Terminal cancer, my husband was dying. With the help of hospice, we spent our last days together in our NJ home. In August 2015, the malignant invader claimed its victim and my husband’s torment ceased.
Mine worsened. I could have gotten through it all, if only I had him by my side.
But I didn’t, and that autumn, I returned to paradise with his ashes and our dogs (two would die later that year).
Back in Key West, two neighboring houses had joined the construction circus. More dust, more dirt, and escalating harassment from contractors who took over the driveway, blocked the gate, while operating their saws. One contractor was particularly vicious. He had planted his equipment on my property and had no intention of moving. After gleefully discovering that I was a recent widow, he devised a strategy to take advantage of my weakened state. Under the cover of darkness, he dragged my heavy Christmas decorations onto the city property line and anonymously reported this violation to code enforcement. The code enforcers were sympathetic, but there was little they could do. (It took a month before I identified my tormenter. Once I did, I notified the absentee owners, who apologized profusely and put the contractor on a leash.)
A pool renovation in an adjacent home unleashed a rat colony that fled to the safe harbor of my home. Each night, I closed the bedroom door, huddled in bed with my dogs, listening to rats scurrying throughout the rest of the house. The quickest exterminator was weeks away.
At night, I was tormented by rats and palmetto bugs, during the day, by buzz saws, jackhammers, and construction dust into my asthmatic lungs. No palm breezes. Only a paradise dust trap. More appliances died, plants succumbed to the toxic dust, tradesmen and contractors continued to block access…my frightened dogs barked and barked. A fraudulent inspector had given us a false report about the condition of the home, there were electrical fire hazards and leaky plumbing that needed to be repaired. Termites, always a problem in Florida, munched on my tasty new wooden kitchen cabinets.
And that was my life for the next six years. Each year when I returned to this “paradise,” my anxiety and PTSD followed. The home was a time capsule for the worst period of my life. I missed Jeff so much that it hurt, and my eyes remained fixed on the place where he fell.
Over the years, I attempted to change the story of this house…looking for that redemptive ending to my personal horror movie. I replaced the furniture, added a bathroom, repainted most walls, changed the linens and curtains, replaced plants, replaced the splintery deck, updated the kitchen, “saged” the house, added crystals and orbs to change the energy. Because I was now unemployed, I could not fund our original dreams. Despite my efforts, the house remained frozen in 2014.
This year, I accepted that my home held too much sorrow, I would not be able to conquer it. Too many sad memories of what it should have been. So, I put this home up for sale. I was going to buy a smaller, less expensive “conch” cottage in Old Town.
“We plan. God laughs.”
It was not to be. Due to soaring home prices and new tax laws, I could only trade my modest home in a great neighborhood for a cheap starter home in a sketchy section of town.
I took the house off the market. The house and I would have to make peace.
As in every horror movie, there are good guys. My family, friends, and daughter have been with me throughout. A number of white knights have come and gone. My newest white knights became my Key West realtors.
Most of the construction in my neighborhood was over. Now, I get to gaze at much nicer homes than mine. My new realtors patiently helped me recognize that I was viewing my house for what it wasn’t. They showed me what the house was, the great features that I had overlooked and belittled.
So, now I choose to claim this home as my own home…not the place I originally envisioned…not a home of broken dreams…but a place where I can live a new life. Not the life that I wanted. But the abundant life that I have been given.
And that is the way most of our stories are resolved. There is no white knight, only the recognition that we must take a different path, no matter how painful. And our only real choice is how we choose to see this path. This house will never be what I planned, but it will be something else, and my life is filled with friends, family, a delightful daughter, kindness, and generosity, and yes, the colors, palm trees, and soft breezes in paradise.
Roll the credits.