When Chris first came to stay with us, he quickly began to realize how many things were in bad physical shape in the house. Doorknobs that fell off, holes in the wall that had never been patched, lights that didn’t work – the list was really long. He was sweet about it, but sometimes seemed concerned that I’d let things atrophy so much.
In those early days, I remember thinking, good thing he doesn’t know about the other “systems” I use to run my life.
The thing is, when Shawn died there were so many parts of my life that seemed to break down. In particular, I didn’t know how to repair anything in the house or the car, and I didn’t know how to manage my finances. In both cases, I resorted to patchwork. Fix the most acute problems in a way that makes those problems stop for now, and move on.
Now that Chris and I are married, we’re trying to combine many of the things in our lives. So, the other day, we decided to try and get him on the mortgage payment. He suggested I log into my account online (at a bank I’ll call “Bank A”), and I told him that I’d never done that. I simply got the paper statements and paid the bill each month. And yes, I realize that this makes me sound like I am 85 years old, but that seemed like the simplest way.
Chris encouraged me to go online and figure out how to log on. Turns out, I couldn’t get a recovery password because it had to be texted to Shawn’s phone, which doesn’t exist anymore. So I got on the phone with a somewhat tone-deaf woman at the bank who was confused as to why I couldn’t just get the information another way. I repeated a few times that Shawn had died, so I didn’t have access to his number. “So, if you really can’t reach your ex-husband….” she started again, to which I finally interrupted and said, “he’s my late husband, which means he’s dead. He’s not my ex. I can’t just call him up!”
She told me I had to go into the bank branch. This was too complicated for her to handle over the phone.
I was incredulous. The bank already had the death certificate and everything else. I knew that was true because in the very first months of widowhood, I’d visited the bank multiple times to make sure I wasn’t going to default on my mortgage. It was a total shit show – here’s an excerpt about the situation, from the blog post “To Update the Account“:
Shawn had opened an extra bank account at Bank A, in his name only, where he would transfer our mortgage payment each month and then the mortgage would be automatically deducted from that account. I have no idea why he did this (maybe it got us a lower rate initially?) but in any case, my name wasn’t on this account. When he died, our mortgage payment for the month of January was stuck in there as the account was frozen.
So I spent two months going through probate to get a piece of paper that says that yes, I am his wife and yes, I am the executor of the estate. Let me be clear – we had a will! But the will didn’t mean I could just take over assets like this. In any case, I finally got this letter and took it to Bank A.
The guy at Bank A, who I had been to see about a dozen times at this point, was super friendly but told me that he could only close the account and write a check to a new account with the name “estate of Shawn Brimley” rather than a bank account in my name. I would need to open a new account in order to cash the check.
The post goes on and on, describing how I was trying to consolidate and pay my bills. It involves multiple trips to and from two different banks. How I’d managed to do any of this at that time is truly amazing.
Anyway, what it meant back then was that I hadn’t had the energy to fix the online banking portion of my account. So, last week, I went back to the physical building of Bank A. I hadn’t been inside the branch for almost four years.
When I came in, I saw a man who looked familiar. He was in a mask and had longer hair than I remembered, but there was something in his eyes when he saw me. A recognition, maybe. “I don’t know if you remember me,” I said, “But I think you were the banker who helped me many years ago, right after my late husband died.”
He nodded. “Oh, I remember you! Of course I do. How are you?”
We started to chat. He asked about the kids, about my life teaching, about the pandemic. I was amazed at how much he remembered. He was still young, and had been even younger and more idealistic when he first helped me. I mean, he spent so many hours with me and watched me cry and I remember thinking back then, “this poor guy is not emotionally prepared for me!” But he managed everything. He even hugged me a few times! I remember him as being overly talkative back then, more annoying than anything else. In my head, I’d dismissed him as yet another person that I had to deal with in order to make sure my life would be stable.
But there he was, four years later, sitting in front of me. He looked older, but had the same glint in his eyes. He didn’t seem annoying to me anymore.
He needed to call someone high up at the bank to deal with a part of my problem. While he was on hold, we chatted about our lives. I tried to summarize the last four years for him, and I told him about Chris and our wedding. I could tell he was smiling under his mask.
He asked about the kids, and referenced their physical appearances of 4 years ago, which I thought was strange. Had I actually brought them into the bank back then?
He reminded me that we had once ran into each other right outside the bank. “You had a stroller and the kids were hanging off it everywhere. You were handling a lot.”
I laughed. That was an understatement. They had been so little. “Wow,” I remarked, “that’s right, my baby was still in a stroller!”
He asked about Tommy and I told him he was in second grade and could read and do math. “Wow, that’s amazing,” he said. He seemed a bit awestruck. I kept going and told him about Austin and Claire, both of us marveling about how little they’d once been.
“I was a wreck back then when I came into the bank to see you,” I said.
He paused for a second.
“It was really hard for you,” he said. “I remember, the first time you came in, you were really upset. It was 4:52 and I was getting ready to go home. But I saw you and I knew I couldn’t leave.”
I remembered. He’d stayed with me for at least an hour that day. It was mere weeks after Shawn died, back when I was wild-eyed and so worried about everything.
And he’d been kind to me.
“I always wondered what happened to you,” he said.
How many people had I encountered like him in the early days? Of course, many of them wouldn’t remember me, or only met me on the phone, or somehow got me on a day when I wasn’t a total wreck. But many of them saw the most raw version of me.
And some of them, like the man at the bank, were warm and helpful. Even when I thought they were annoying, and even when I wasn’t necessarily nice back to them.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about people like this.
When the man at the bank was young, maybe he thought he was going to save the world. I often see that kind of youthful idealism in my students. Maybe he imagined that he’d restructure the financial system to be more equitable, or help entire communities come out of poverty.
But he didn’t do that.
He was simply kind to me. He just stayed an extra hour one night as the bank was closing, and then let me cut the line when I came in for unscheduled help a dozen more times. He showed real interest in my hardship and in my family. He saw that I really needed help back then, and he gave it.
And that was it.
He didn’t hug me when I left the bank last week. Maybe that’s because we’re still living through a global pandemic, or maybe it was because he knew I didn’t need it. Still, he smiled.
“It was so good to see you again,” he said.