Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fifteen Minutes

We were famous for a few minutes.   Our family of six was seated and posed in our tiny Lincoln Nebraska living-room, including our dog Scout, while the newspaper photographer silently took numerous shots of us.  A few days later we were on the front page of the city newspaper in vivid color.  It was an odd feeling to immediately recognize our own faces looking back from behind the little acrylic window in the box at the gas station that held the daily paper.

I bought the morning paper, and a few extra, and shortly after I got home, the phone started ringing.  The first call was from the pet shelter who wanted to donate dog food for Scout.  Several more supportive calls came offering money, babysitting services for our four children, group meeting times and places, and groceries.  Lots and lots of groceries.  We were overwhelmed by strangers' generosity and compassion.

We only spent a year in Lincoln.  We rented an apartment just a few blocks away from Stephen's work.  His boss had strongly suggested that a move to Lincoln would be a real gesture of Stephen's commitment and loyalty to the company, and consequently possibility for better opportunity and a secure future with them.

Previously, we had been living in Omaha for several years -just an hour's drive from Lincoln. We owned a very old home and had dug in, probably far too ambitiously and well beyond our capabilities, making improvements and renovations ever since we'd settled in and where we planned to raise our family.  But life changed very quickly and it all started with a little girl's nosebleed.

After a series of dramatic events, we discovered that our youngest daughter, Olivia, had an unusual blood disease that required frequent hospitalizations, often in isolation, sometimes in critical care, and usually required several day's stay. It was a routine we were forced into like many families who have major medical issues.  Our situation was not unique, it was just unique to us and we were managing as best as we could; Stephen had a decent job with medical insurance, and other than the long daily commute to Lincoln in a fairly reliable vehicle, we muddled through.

But then, we had to move to Lincoln.

We knew we had no possibility of selling the house in Omaha in its condition, so we shut it down, and made the 'commitment to the company' by moving close to Stephen's work and taking a year-long lease for an apartment in Lincoln that would allow pets and larger families.  We traveled back and forth on weekends to continue working and making improvements on the house, either for a potential buyer, or for our future in Nebraska. 

Three months later, Stephen was fired.* 

Things got more difficult, but mostly just financially.  We had a mortgage to cover, monthly rent at the apartment, and suddenly astoundingly astronomical hospital, medical, and doctor bills.  Someone at the Lincoln newspaper got wind of our story and thought it was a good human interest piece reflecting the concerns of those with middle income and rising health insurance costs.  We were featured since we suddenly had no job and no health insurance with serious medical costs and so we became the headline story, above the fold, on a weekday, in a Midwestern city newspaper for a day. Our fleeting moment of fame.

It took several years of treatments, countless hospitalizations and procedures, and surgery before Olivia was finally in full remission and considered cured.  Those difficult years are ones I often look back on to measure how we've come along, and remember those who we encountered along the way --many leaving lasting impressions that in some ways have influenced who we are.

One elderly lady who had been living for several years in a senior citizen apartment complex called and invited us to her storage area in the basement of her building.  In there, she had her own grocery store.  She had rows of peanut butter jars, carefully arranged varieties of dried pasta and cans and jars of pasta sauces, boxed potatoes, neatly categorized row upon row of canned beans, vegetables, fruits and soups.  Her son had built floor-to-ceiling two-by-four shelving all around her 6 foot by 8 foot allotted space and in there she had been storing surplus foods that she'd been purchasing ever since she'd moved in.  For ten years.  She explained she often invited people who were in situations like ours to visit with her.  She was a child of the depression, and found that if there was a sale on something at the grocery store, she was compelled to bring extra home for someone who could use it.  We left, very gratefully, with several bags of premium groceries for four growing young children.

We were reminded of this generous woman and her orderly and methodical ways of charity many, many years later.  When we were doing some routine grocery shopping we noticed an elderly woman with several plastic shopping bags at the entrance to the store who appeared to be waiting in the cold for a ride.  After we'd finished our own shopping and headed out to our car, she was still there.

We asked if she was expecting a ride or needed one --it was cold!  She meekly suggested that she needed one, so Stephen immediately collected her bags, took her arm and we gave her a ride home which wasn't far from the store.  When we got to her senior citizen apartment housing complex, Stephen carried her many grocery sacks in one trip and escorted her to her very small apartment while I waited in the car.

There she'd stashed what Stephen described as at least ten years of grocery purchases.  However, these were all in bags, sacks, and indistinguishable piles of disarray and chaos.  She invited Stephen in to her apartment and he set the bags of her most recent purchases among countless others of identical non-identifiable shape and abandon. She expressed her gratitude for the transportation, offering a generous contribution for our gas and the effort. Stephen left empty-handed but wide eyed with the contrast of a memory from a fairly similar scenario from years past.  Two senior women, compelled to purchase more than they themselves could use or needed, but with entirely different intent.

A couple in Omaha offered us a day free from parenting and providing.  She called in the morning, offering to take the three kids to the park and a variety of activities for the day, and returned with them tired and ready for bed at then end of the day providing soup and home made bread for supper.  It offered us a chance to sit quietly, at home, taking several naps with a very ill child, worry-free from the needs of others and meals.  It was a short, unexpected, and very appreciated respite that I often recall.

When our car broke down, our teen babysitter's family offered us their second vehicle so we could get around Omaha in winter until ours was repaired.  An older friend offered us her credit card to pay for the repairs, knowing her bill would take a month to arrive, and we could take another to pay her.

A friend at church, a plumber by trade, helped in a most generous way with labour, advice, skill, and services when we moved back into our Omaha home from Lincoln after a year of shut off water and frozen pipes.

There were a lot of people who helped us along in a variety of ways during those short years, but we try not to dwell on the hardship; it's much more pleasant to remember the generosity of others, the details of laughter and friendship, the gestures of kindness.

I hope to always remember those who are kind and understand those who are not.

* Since another family in the company who had a terminally ill child was fired at about the same time, I'll always believe that the reason for the firings was because of the health insurance costs for the small company.  I also suspect that Stephen's boss felt that his strongly suggested move to Lincoln (for a family of six needing proximity to a children's medical facility.) would be rejected and Stephen would resign.  Oh--the wisdom of hindsight.


  1. I never knew... I had a touch of that adolescent self-centeredness thing. Was that my parents that loaned the car?

    You know what I always loved about your family? It was your ability to be so positive -- all the time. Sometimes you both seemed so tired but you always seemed content with life's little pleasures.

    It struck me as strange that you'd pay me $20 for a night of babysitting and all you'd do was go to the library... but at the time, I had no appreciation for the sacrifices that parents made or the value of just spending time with someone. Your commitment to having 'date nights,' despite what was going on in your life (financial troubles, Olivia's rare blood disease, even bed bugs) really had an impact on what I would later value in marriage.

    I wish I would have babysat for free.

  2. It was your folks, Jaci! And no regrets; we needed a reliable, capable, fun babysitter who we could feel comfortable leaving FOUR children alone with--you provided us a worry-free night out. Few teenagers would have filled those requirements -a credit to you and your family.