RED: THE COLOR OF FOUNDATION
I figured since we all know the story, it’s appropriate to set the tone with a cliché. We’ve all had that feeling, the one where we ask ourselves, how did I get here?
November 7, 2019, was that day for me. It'd been two years since I’d left an abusive marriage. The idea that time heals all wounds was almost laughable at this point. It felt like time was the brine evaporating salt from the already existing injuries. My divorce attorney told me I'd be able to get my life back, words that flew so effortlessly out his mouth the day I filed. Easy for him to say, he drove a Maserati. My life was a far cry from anything that resembled a life I deserved.
It was a big day, surrendering to my last resort to seek relief; filing personal bankruptcy. Only 15 percent of US bankruptcies are recorded as a result of divorce. A number that was shockingly low in my mind. How do people bounce back without filing? Everything had been crashing down before my very eyes, and there wasn’t anything else for me to do except let it happen. Filing for bankruptcy went against everything I believed, everything my parents taught me about the importance of financial responsibility and how to protect your assets.
I carried the weight of every decision thus far in front of an audience of two children, Gabby and Eli. A pair of eyes counting on me to rise above the statute of limitations in more ways than one. I started every day the same way, for the last fifteen years, rolling out of bed and taking someone to school. I remember the excitement on Gabby’s face when she experienced a preschool car-rider line for the first time.
When Eli came into our family, he joined us in the car-rider line too. As he grew into a toddler, he never missed a morning. As soon as he heard us moving around in the kitchen, I'd hear his little feet patter on the linoleum to get to my side. He always carried his favorite blanket and a green alligator named Hatches in his arms. With his security items in tow, all four of them, he was ready to go.
Even though I was married, it always felt like it was just the three of us racing against time. We had our routine down pat, always rushing out the door, often showing up last in the drop-off line. Every morning, the hot tea in my favorite ceramic mug sloshed around, sometimes spilling on my lap before I’d secured my seatbelt.
The kids would laugh at my reaction after the hot liquid hit my thigh. “Shit, that’s hot,” I'd say. They thought it was funny when I said a bad word. To distract their attention, we’d turn on our favorite music on the playlist of Disney songs I made for them.
As Eli grew old enough to articulate his thoughts, he made an observation, “You know, Mom, you could pick the cup with the lid, right?”
He didn’t miss a beat but often had to wait patiently for Gabby to finish a sentence before he could speak. Eli couldn’t wait to go to Gabby’s school. I spent most of my days volunteering at her school, with Eli trailing right behind. He practically grew up there. I avoided being at home even after Eli was finally old enough to share the car-rider line with Gabby. It was never easy walking through that door alone.
Gabby was always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the mornings. I don’t know where she got that from; no one in the house was a fan of mornings. I preferred at least an hour before I was ready to have a full conversation with anyone other than myself. Gabby spoke as soon as the sun outlined the creases in the curtains hanging on her window. It was all I could do to respond with a pitch that reflected her excitement. The good news was, she talked so much as long as I nodded and gave her a word every now and then; she was content having the floor to speak.
Neither Gabby nor Eli was ever ashamed of my pajamas or barely brushed hair as they leaned over for a kiss on the cheek before exiting the car. The memories of the three of us always got me through days like today. It was just Eli and me now in the car-rider line. Gabby had outgrown us. She drove herself to school each morning after getting her license a couple of years ago. Some would argue Eli was too old to be in the car-rider line as an eighth-grader, but the quiet twenty-minute ride downtown was a window of time that offered peace in our overwhelmingly complicated existence.
We became dependent on our time in the car as an escape. Despite the change in my marital status and strain on my pocketbook for the extra gas, it was important Eli had the same time Gabby did in the car with me. So I sacrificed. Gabby and Eli knew our story was unique. However, they didn’t know all the sacrifices we would make beyond the car-rider line. Time certainly didn’t change our morning routine, but time changed the way we lived.
“Eli, have you seen my keys?” I asked.
He used his patience in the morning for me, “No, Mom, where did you last have them?”
“Not sure, buddy.”
His gentle reminder to use my resources reminded me of his wisdom beyond his years, “I’ll finish making your tea while you look for your keys. Use your Tile app, Mom.”
“Thank you, but I think the battery is dead,” I replied. He silently shook his head and smiled while stirring honey in my tea.
His compassionate heart helped ease things along. After he poured the milk, he helped look for the keys. Not having it all together was something I struggled getting used to. Sure, we ran late, but everything in my house was in its place most of the time. I preferred it that way. My days and nights had been running together from working every day against the clock to make money and be the mom the kids remembered. The one who had it together.
On our way to the car, Eli shook his head, watching me struggle with my tea situation. He laughed when I said, “Shit, that’s hot,” after the tea hit my thigh.
He chimed in, “Still learning that lesson, Mom?” If he only knew the truth. There were many lessons in my life I'd learn more than once and often the hard way.
I fired back in a playful way, “I’ve tried other mugs, but this one’s my favorite. This cup of tea right now is giving me life. Stainless steel is too hot. Plastic absorbs into the flavor of the tea. The ceramic mug with the handle is just right,” I said, looking at him, offering a light-hearted smirk and an eye roll.
Eli and I were getting used to our time––just the two of us. His morning preference was listening to music rather than talking on our way to school. We shared a love for our playlist, which often spoke to our mood. Depending on the day, we could be listening to anything from the Beatles to Billie Eilish. We both appreciated vocals and lyrics that told a story in a way only a true artist would understand.
In a few weeks, Eli would be auditioning for Musical Theater at the school for the arts. He had a quiet fire about him, wanting to explore becoming a divorce attorney after watching what I'd been through. I let him know real quick that wasn’t a job for a tender heart like his. The dark side of the legal system had already shown its ugly face to me. Eli was better off singing and dancing to the Broadway show tunes he listened to every morning in the shower before we left for school. His dark curls gave a nice contrast to his caramel skin. They were my favorite. The tight tendrils kept his look of innocence alive. His bright heart beamed through the light in his eyes and was softened with a sweet, genuine smile.
We rolled up last in line. “You think you’ll make it to class on time, buddy?” I asked.
“I think so. I love you, Mom,” he leaned over for a kiss on the cheek. I was always surprised by the fact that he hadn’t outgrown that yet. Although he'd turn the music down before exiting the car. That’s where he drew the line.
Before he shut the door, he looked at me, “Do you think you have enough gas to make it home, Mom?”
I looked over at the gage, “Oh yeah, eleven miles; we are only nine away from home. I’ll be fine.” He shook his head and shut the car door. My body ran off the fumes of faith and trust; my gas tank was no different.
After dropping Eli off at school, I was left with twenty minutes of silence on the way back home. Time to think and reflect on the challenges of navigating life on my own before heading to the bankruptcy court. If assets of the heart and soul were worth even just a penny, I would be a millionaire. That wasn’t my reality, and this world didn’t give a flying fuck about the amount of love in my heart, my character or the fact that I was a hard-working individual willing to lay my life on the line and risk it all for the “American Dream.”
The dream that would allow me to build a life after the one stolen from under the rug carefully laid in what was believed my forever home. The dream to inspire two individuals who kept a close watch on how I was navigating our new life. Giving up was not an option. I was legitimately attempting the unimaginable, trying to land on my feet after the unforgivable aftermath of a divorce. A feat proving to be impossible. This side of life offered a brutal reality, even harder than the brutal reality I'd left.
I arrived home, still in deep thought, looking a mess from rolling out of bed. Surprisingly, my eyes were dry. My mind was in a state of shock as I stood in my morning shower, staring out the window. The bathroom in my new home was humbling. Everything was original to the year 1945, when it was built. The porcelain tub was lightly stained with seventy-four years of stories staring out that same window. The window brought in the light of day, exposing fear that someone might see through the painted glass on the bottom half of the windowpane. If that isn’t the metaphor of my life, I don’t know what is.
In order to process and really accept what was happening, I imagined playing a life-size game of Monopoly. Instead of the dog or hat pawn, my pawn was life-sized, frozen in time and in the middle of drying her hair. I kept myself distracted by telling as many terrible jokes in my mind I could think of like, “Well I’m definitely not collecting $200 for passing go today…maybe I could just sell Park Place.” My fantasy options of getting out of this mess, were just that—a fantasy. As if my journey hadn’t already been humbling enough after uncovering the side effects of abuse, an addiction unbeknownst to the ones in the cycle.
My sister, Holly, called, saving me from my downward spiral. She greeted me with her sweet voice, “Just wanted to say good luck today and love you so much.” Just before she hung up, she threw me a line, “Hey you should pick up a lottery ticket on your way.”
She made me laugh. She was brilliant. My sadness changed over to excitement in my response to her, “Yes! Then it really can be like playing Monopoly when we were kids! I could use Community Chest!”
I hurried out the door with an understanding that life was no different than a game. According to my attorney, today was just going to be about answering a few questions—that was it. The case would stay open for sixty days, then I'd finally receive my “get out of jail free” card. This would be my last step, or so I thought, to recovering from the financial effects of divorce and gaining control over my own finances.
It was a good thing I lived in an area of town where the gas station was right around the corner. I pulled up with one mile left to spare leaving me to wonder how much further I could make it before the engine stopped.
At the gas pump, I looked down at my phone. Mom reminded me over text: “Don’t forget your coat, it’s going to be cold today. Oh, and disconnect your water hose outside so your pipes don’t freeze overnight. That’s a costly repair for your landlord and an inconvenience to you too.”
I was never short on friendly reminders or support from my family. They were my angels, always showing up when I needed them. I'd forgotten my coat and was shivering at the pump when her text came through. I quickly ran into the gas station to purchase the lottery ticket before running back home. The weather was just about as predictable as my life. Yesterday it was summer, 90s and sunny. Today, straight 40s and rainy without a grace period in between.
Mom was right, the hose was still attached to the spicket outside. My coat was nowhere to be found. While I franticly searched, fearing I might now be late, my border collie, Zoey, followed me around the house. Her paws reminded me of Gabby and Eli’s footsteps in the morning when they were little. Much like both of my kids, Zoey never left my side. As sweet as that was, it was also an inconvenience. I often tripped over her when I was in a rush. Just in the nick of time, I found my coat under the mound of clean unfolded laundry on my bed. Should have known, it’s the same place I found my car keys earlier this morning.
The drive downtown was like any other when the weather was rainy and gloomy: no one in the city could drive. The radio reported multiple accidents on all four highways around town. The rain clouded my vision this morning too, only my rain was coming from the inside while listening to songs that were on my “heart-broken playlist.”
This was the same playlist I listened to in the shower every day for the last three years before getting the courage up to leave my marriage. It’s also the same playlist I played while waiting in line with the other parents throughout Gabby’s entire middle school experience. We moved away from the happy songs in our life. Danny Gokey’s “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” single-handedly saved my life. There was comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one living with a broken heart waiting for the winds of change.
I finally made my way downtown without finding any free parking. The rain danced in the wind, straight off the Ohio River, but my furry hood shielded me. I walked with gratitude for the reminder from Mom and the coat that provided me with just the right amount of comfort needed for the two blocks it took to get to the courtroom doors. The security guards made small talk as I laid my purse on the belt. They asked me how long I’d been an attorney after my high heels set off the metal detectors.
“It’s always the shoes with you ladies,” the guard said with a smile. Holding back a response, I politely smiled and laughed off the irony of my reality: I was being represented, not representing.
In disbelief about my current situation, I walked back over to the belt, grabbed my purse and found the elevator to the second floor. For the last decade I’d been building what I’d hoped was going to be a forever career. I invested a lot of time and thought into what kind of work would provide me flexibility to be there for Gabby and Eli. They still needed me, now more than ever. My vision didn’t include the idea of growing the business enough to support us financially this quickly.
I started my business in retaliation to Judas, my ex-husband. His choices and behavior towards us all, were the fuel I needed to find a way out. We’ll get to that soon enough. Gabby, Eli, and work were the only three things inspiring me to move forward with life. They were also the three things I could count on to bring a sense of pride and belonging to my spirit. My business reflected the same pride and belonging as I built a job around the one thing I knew a lot about—family.
I’d been working as a postpartum doula providing in-home care to families bringing home newborn babies in the phase we call the “fourth trimester.” The heartfelt service was designed to eliminate the stresses of bringing home a baby and helped families understand the nuances of the newborn. Each family service was catered specifically to their needs, building confidence and setting goals for milestones during those first few weeks of life. The work filled my heart. It allowed me to give emotional and educational support to people who valued my voice in their home. As much as the service was for them, it was for me, too.