Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

"If I ever lose my faith in you, there'd be nothing left for me to do." -Sting

We started with a couch. A three-seater sofa. That's the first thing My Director and I owned together. We took a major plunge, moving in together after she graduated from college. My dad and I picked it up from the furniture store in my hometown. When we got back to my parents' house, I called her on the old land line. (Cell phones weren't quite a thing yet in 1999.)

There's the old couch. in the middle of
our old condo.
"This is it," I told her. "We're building our Empire."

Our Empire. I have always referred to our life as that. I haven't shared that on this blog until now. We've built quite the little Empire in the fourteen years since we bought that couch, if I do say so myself. But it all began with that couch, which first sat in our one-bedroom roach motel of a railroad apartment.

It moved everywhere with us over the years. Two apartments, a condo, and our house. We had to get rid of it last year. It was getting pretty beaten up. Had our basement not been wet at the time, we could have stored it down there. That would have been nice. As much as you tell yourself you don't want to become attached to things, this couch was special. It represented the start of our Empire.

Building an Empire is never easy. There are moats to dig, an army to train, serfs and peasants to keep in line, and the occasional rebellion to squash. I'm speaking, metaphorically of course, of obstacles. Money. Health. Career. Children. When we started our Empire, we had dreams. Dreams become plans. Those are often nice to make. But you know what John Lennon said about plans, right? "Life's what happens when you're busy making plans."

Peanut & Luna on the old couch, Halloween 2008.
Every job offer for each of us came with rewards and risks, and discussions about them. Often those conversations took place on that couch. Our Empire was humming along with Peanut, Luna, our modest house, and the swagger wagon. My Director and I were both enjoying successful careers. In fact, she had just taken the job that earned her the title of "My Director" on this blog. Soon thereafter, the Empire - our plans - took an unexpected turn.

I was sitting at my desk at work when my phone rang. It was My Director. Life is funny. You wake up and go through your entire routine like any other day. You're sitting at your desk and a simple phone call shatters your normal. Shatters it so much that you yearn for even a hint of normal, let alone a full return to it. No matter how much you curse the routine at the times when you're stuck in it, deep down you embrace it. You need it. It would be a while until we returned to normal. In fact, it was just recently.

It was an attack so bad she couldn't stand.  I left work and met her at her doctor's office. From there we went to the emergency room. An initial diagnosis of vertigo temporarily eased our minds but didn't stop the symptoms over the next days, weeks, and months. Persistent dizziness brought us on a non-stop carousel ride of doctors, neurologists, MRIs, physical therapy, prescriptions, acupuncture, psychotherapy, and yoga. You name it, she tried it.

When the first MRI revealed spots on her brain, we feared the very worst. But it wasn't cancer. We were actually relieved when we heard it might be multiple sclerosis. Could you imagine being so desperate for an answer, a diagnosis? Wanting one so badly that hearing it was MS would be a relief? Three different top New York City neurologists said it wasn't. We still weren't convinced. This all started just before Halloween  2011 and lasted for the better part of the next year.

Still no answers and yet, My Director continued to work. Every day. She didn't take a day off. Dropping Peanut off at daycare. Taking the train into New York. Working a full, stressful day. Taking the bus home, often in traffic. Every day she felt this way. Every day she worried if she could make it to daycare, to work, and home. Soon this would consume us. The dizziness. The not knowing what was causing it. The not knowing when it might come, or end. A wife frustrated at her still-unexplained illness. A husband frustrated by his inability to help.

What do you do when even the doctors don't have an answer? When they can definitely say what it's not, but can't reasonably say what it is? You scrap the plan. And that is when we took a second child off the table. That is when we decided to live our life and enjoy Peanut because tomorrow isn't guaranteed. We had it all figured out, didn't we? Our family, our home, our jobs. She'd take the bigger job with the bigger responsibilities because it came with a bigger salary. Thus we could afford a bigger family. We were so smart. Wrong. We never thought about the bigger anxiety leading to the bigger health problems. And they started the month we were starting to try to have a baby.

Almost seven months into this endless cycle, it was time to make another big decision. My Director was offered a job in our town. It was a lot less responsibility, a lot less stress and yes, a lot less money. After a bit of back and forth for about a week, I came to the conclusion that our decision really was a no-brainer.
"You should take the job," I finally said. 
"Why do you say that all of a sudden?" She asked. 
"Because Peanut isn't going to notice that we go out to eat less. She's going to notice you're home more."
We had been discussing ways to keep Peanut from having to go to after-school care once she started Kindergarten. Here was our solution. My Director, who has never failed at anything in her life, felt she was leaving a job unfinished. She also felt this way after our decision not to have a second, which she said made her feel like she was letting down our family. Neither could have been further from the truth. She was doing these things for her family. More important, she was doing them for herself.

On her last day at that Director's job, the president of the school where she was working walked the six New York City blocks in summer heat from his office to My Director's office. He wanted to say goodbye to her in person, and tell her what an asset she had been in the less than two years she was there. After he left, they told her he had not stepped foot in that building in six years. When I tell you she is an amazing, talented, strong, understanding, impressive woman, I am not making it up. Yet, she married me.

Whenever we don't have an answer to something life throws at us, I always tell her, "We'll figure it out. We always do." It sounds dismissive, but I truly believe that. We've come out on top nearly every time. Job changes, home purchases, moving, having a baby, buying a dog. Whatever it may be, things have a way of working themselves out. The Empire survives. It transforms. It endures. It keeps moving.

About a month after My Director took her new job, I got a promotion. The financial gap created by her new job was suddenly filled, buoyed by Peanut no longer being in daycare. "You see?" I said. "All of that worrying we did, and we're right back where we started." As for My Director's new job, she says she's the happiest she's ever been in her career. That she truly feels she is making an impact on the lives of her students. Money doesn't always buy happiness. Often your rewards are less tangible.
Look at her go now! Running and everything!

Sometimes things don't work out and you just deal with it. But a lot of times they do. As this school year ended, My Director ran and emceed the honor's night for her school's graduating class. Near the end of the program, the girls she mentored and mothered, bonded with and fought for, surprised her with a speech and a gift, then led the auditorium in a standing ovation for her. She worked miracles for a lot of those girls, and got them all into college. They knew it and recognized her for it.

As I stood in the audience that night applauding her with everyone else, I bent down to Peanut and said, "Everyone's clapping for mommy." When she asked me why I said, "Because she's awesome at her job."

My Director is the strongest person I know. She, and not some silly couch, is the cornerstone of our Empire. We've persevered. We are strong, because she shows us how to be. Because she's awesome at her job.

To read the story behind why I refer to her as "My Director," click HERE.


  1. Thanks for making me cry over my lunch! This is just so beautiful and honest. It's funny because our reasons to take a second child off the table were different but surprisingly similar at their essence, and the feelings you describe your wife having still haunt me as well.

    You men tend to be better at making the black-and-white, this is OBVIOUSLY the right decision decisions. I tend to second-guess and weigh down decisions with so many "what ifs." So this whole post really struck close to home for me.

    It sounds like you two are one hell of a team.

    1. We are a good team. But don't get me wrong. This ordeal also brought out the worst in both us at times.

      Still, these are the things that are unnecessary to discuss when someone obnoxiously asks, "So when are you having a second?" Uh... none of your business.

  2. Truly made my eyes well up. It was your pride when telling your daughter that they were clapping for her Mommy. You are a special heart and both fortunate to have one another.

  3. So wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

  4. I truly enjoy reading your work. I picture you giving a monologue wearing those orange pants. It makes me smile. Thanks for that.

  5. What a nice piece! Really touching. I appreciate your faith and recognition that all happens for a reason and for the best. It sounds like you have a pretty special director.


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