Three weeks after my husband died, I received a hand-written letter in the mail that read, in part, “Hello…I send my condolences to your family in your time of grievance. My wife and I are real estate investors and…we want to buy your property and relieve you of the burden of having to keep up with the house.”
It went on from there, discussing the virtues of his business and how it would be a good idea for a new widow to sell the house. He implied that I’d never be able to handle such a responsibility on my own and included his email and phone number. Horrified, I took a photo of the letter and sent it to a few girlfriends. Within minutes, the letter had made the rounds among my friends and their texts back to me started to flow in. They were rightfully incensed and all started calling this guy and leaving messages about leaving me the hell alone. “I may or may not be launching a campaign to go after this a**hole,” one friend wrote from inside a taxi. “I may or may not have left two very clear voicemails. And I may or may not have just scared the living crap out of my Uber driver. He may or may not think that I’m some straight-up Mafioso.”
It made me laugh. And it was effective, especially coming from at least a dozen grown women. I never heard from that guy again.
And yet – the letter gave me pause. We had enough financial security so that I wouldn’t have to sell the house. I had enough sense to know that if I did need to sell the house, going with this guy would be a very bad idea. Moreover, I didn’t want to sell the house because I wasn’t 90 and ready to move to a retirement village. I was 38 and my husband and I had bought this house just a few years ago.
Our forever house, where we’d raise our kids and then grow old together.
That was the plan, anyway. We were so young and newly married and we came to Washington for Shawn in the summer of 2004. He had a job that paid him $400 a month and he dreamed of doing the jobs he would actually do less than a decade later at the Pentagon and the White House. I was a teacher and remained a teacher here in DC. Teaching is something that I could have done anywhere, but we were in love and he had a plan and I thought, “why not?”
Though we may have moved to Washington for Shawn, a few years later we moved to our neighborhood for me. He was happy about the move, and knew that it would be a great place where we could walk our kids to school and borrow yard tools from the neighbors and throw some great parties with our friends.
In our new neighborhood, almost all the families were like ours. By that, I don’t mean they all looked exactly like ours, but rather that the family structure was like ours: two parents and a few kids, people with stable jobs and happy lives. Seemingly minutes after we moved in, we knew almost everyone. We hosted countless backyard parties where my husband would DJ and kids would run wild. We moved there for the community, but we also made sure to weave ourselves into the fabric of that community.
When Shawn became sick, the outpouring of support was overwhelming. It still is, even though it has been months since his death. Before every baseball practice, I get texts from a half-dozen families, offering to pick up Austin. At least a few times a week, someone calls me from the grocery store or Target or somewhere else and asks what I need. My next door neighbor mulched my yard the other day and our other neighbor fertilized it. And even now – even months after Shawn’s death – we are still getting food from friends and neighbors. I am living in hell, but it’s a hell where all my friends and neighbors keep throwing me ice buckets of water to cool off. It makes me so glad to live here, among all these wonderful families.
But living here is also hard. It’s hard because our family is not like everyone else’s anymore.
The other day, I came home from school on a beautiful day and Austin asked to go out on a bike ride. We took our bikes and rode from street to street, looking at the blooming flowers and talking about the day. It was idyllic. At one point, we turned the corner and saw a dad carrying a baby. At his side were two other little kids on their tiny bikes. We nodded to each other and moved on.
I had to wipe away tears so Austin wouldn’t see me crying. The thing is, I’m fine with being around happy couples and happy families. Until I’m not.
The community – all the kids and the parents and the happiness – is still here. The parents still gather at the elementary school and the birthday parties still happen in nearby backyards and the families still hang out at the local park. These people aren’t going away. They are here, in my space, reminding me every day what I’ve lost.
But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It hurts to see so much happiness sometimes. It hurts to know that my family is broken and that my kids don’t have their dad riding alongside them. But this community is what’s coming together to support us as we figure out how to be a family again.
I’ll take the messiness that comes with living in a community that loves me and that loves my family. Because this is what I get in return:
“HO. LEE. SHIT!” texted one friend, after seeing the swindling realtor text. “It’s on. This is un-f**king-believable. I’m calling him now and filing complaints with half a dozen places. So is everyone else. He has no idea what’s about to be unleashed.”
Community. It matters.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.