I had just come home from Texas, back to Cincinnati, after the funeral of my grand-father. My mother and I had fought when I was there, as mothers and daughters are wont to do, even at the best of times.
I was having some women over on Sunday, so I figured I would lay low and be busy, which would give us a cooling off period — you know how it can be, when you just need to not talk to your mother for awhile.
Instead, I found myself crying on the phone with her the very next day. Because when the metaphorical excrement hits the metaphorical cooling device, I call my Mama, capital-M.
“Haley-Brooke, what’s the matter? Where are you?” she said when she picked up the phone. That’s the no-nonsense way she says my name when she hears me cry, running it together into one drawled word that comes out Hay-la-broooke.
“Mama — Luke — Planned Parenthood — they laid Luke off today.”
That’s right. My husband and I had returned home from a week of funeral events to find out he’d been laid off not only from our major source of income and soul source of health insurance, but from the job he’s had for three years and the job he’s loved more than anything else he’s ever done.
* * *
I’ve gotten a lot of bad news — worse news — by voicemail and text message in my life. Notices of car accidents, messages of miscarriage, news of death.
And this text message didn’t trump those, exactly, but the texture of it was different.
It wasn’t a punch to the gut or a loss of breath like other bad news; it was a vise that twisted my soul, turning tighter and tighter and tighter.
“Planned Parenthood just laid me off,” the text said. My husband, 3:02pm.
“Are you okay? Can you talk?” I wrote back.
“Yes, I’m okay. No, I can’t talk just yet. I’ll see you in a bit.”
I was panicked, and the vise kept tightening; I couldn’t make it loosen up.
Since 2008, I’d read stories, so many stories, of people laid off suddenly without warning, some of them taking years to find work again. So many of them still looking. Tales of drained retirement accounts, foreclosure on houses, bankruptcy due to medical bills.
Luke and I had been lucky enough to work steadily through the recession, and with him carrying me on his health insurance, I had finally been able to make the career move to writing full-time. It seemed that things were finally settled; just the night before, we’d decided we were stable enough to have children because I could work from home.
And now everything seemed to be swirling down the drain like dishwater.
I touched my left breast, where the three-inch scar from a recent surgical biopsy now lives. Without our health insurance, that little scar would have cost us upwards of ten grand. As it was, we had to borrow money from my parents for our hefty co-pay.
What would it mean for us to lose our health insurance? What would it mean for us to go on unemployment? We both had modest retirement accounts; would we have to cash them out at an ungodly penalty rate just to pay the mortgage? My husband sent over COBRA costs — it was as much as our monthly house payment. I had visions of us being able to keep our house or keep health insurance, but not both home and health.
So I called my mother. I was crying as soon as the phone started ringing.
“Mama, I just don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do; what do we do?”
My parents have worked in the oilfield service industry for almost forty years, and they’ve weathered two oil recessions, one the year I was born in which they almost lost everything they had. Eventually they recovered, but many West Texas families did not.
“Baby, there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is smile and hug Luke when he gets home; that’s the important thing. Only one of you gets to be hysterical at a time. You’re still a little family unit; we all are, all four of us. We’ll figure something out.”
I made coffee as she talked, crying all the while and then feeling stupid for crying.
It chased itself around in a circle: this is the worst thing that could happen. [Stop it; this is not the worst thing that could happen.]
This has always been my greatest fear. [Quit being melodramatic; you’ve been in worse jams than this.]
Around and around, these conflicting voices ran like a wolf chasing its tail.
Luke and I have been so lucky, in so many ways. We both had parents that could afford to pay for our bachelor’s degrees; even though we worked part-time, we had enough money to pay tuition. We both have modest retirement accounts that we’ve still been able to contribute sporadically to since the economic recession. We don’t have a great deal of disposable income, but we also don’t have any real debt, either. Compared to most of America, we’re fucking fantastic.
So why did I feel like I couldn’t breathe?
* * *
My husband’s parents died right after college, like a sick and morbid graduation present.
To make ends meet, he’s checked groceries on the third shift. He’s sold appliances. He’s waited tables inveterately. He’s taken small theatre design contracts when he could find them.
When we filed our taxes in 2010, I sat at the living room table with six different tax documents from six different jobs spread out between the two of us. They amounted to one full-time annual salary.
He’s never been afraid of hard work or hustling, but in 2008, he was hired on as an organizer for America Votes, and then with Planned Parenthood after the election was over.
And he was so happy. Health insurance and paid time-off seemed like glorious, hoarded treasure, like pirates’ gold; but even more than that, he was getting to do something he loved, not just something he had to do.
And an ugly part of me said: you should have known. Nothing good ever lasts.
I wanted to both choke that part of me to death, and painfully wallow in the words at the same time.
“Well I wrote a letter to President Obama,” said my mother the next day. She’s a Democrat, but I don’t think she’s truly loved a politician since Kennedy. But that wasn’t the point, to her.
“I wrote and I just told him. That my son-in-law had been dedicated to both his campaigns, and had worked his butt off, and was so talented and smart, and that he’d just been laid off from Planned Parenthood and that Obama should find him a job because we need more people like Luke.”
It was so damn kind, that sentiment from my mom. When she told me that, it was like all the blood in my body rushed in and swelled up my deflated heart.
It’s not that she expected anything to come of it; it was just that she couldn’t stand not to. She adores Luke, and was hurting for him, and damn it, she needed to tell someone. So why not the President?
* * *
“I could sell my truck,” I told my mother, trying to find ways to generate revenue and cut our already minimal expenses.
“Well that’s not very smart,” she fired back. “If you get a job to help support Luke, how will you get to and from work?”
Fair point. So I started looking for temp work immediately, thinking that if nothing else, maybe I could amass a little bundle for when his severance ran out in a couple of weeks.
“Why are you updating your resume?” asked Luke, looking over my shoulder.
I was kind of stunned at the question.
“Well, because I…need to go to work. I mean, full-time. With your income loss.”
“You do work. You write.”
“I know, but I don’t bring in very much money — and with the health insurance…”
“You need to focus on your writing.”
Perhaps it should have been a longer conversation, and maybe it would have been, with someone else.
Luke is seldom adamant about anything, almost to a fault.
What restaurant to go to? Does not care. What movie to watch? Meh, you pick.
He very seldom ever issues decisive, declarative statements unless it’s about big moral or political decisions, and even then they’re carefully nuanced and finely ground, like fresh dark coffee.
So it caught me off-guard, the finality of it.
The idea that, sure, we could discuss it, but anything that required me to give up writing — or required me to do it furtively and half-assed — was not going to be a sensible option for us. I’d spent the majority of our marriage working jobs with insane schedules, and a lesser part of it working more sensible ones, and all of them had resulted in a sharp decrease in my creative output — and frankly, my happiness and health.
Shirley Jackson — the literary mother of Gaiman, King, and Matheson — did it, carefully pecking out a hundred short stories and a half-dozen novels between raising four children. Laura Ingalls Wilder overcame six decades of struggle before she was finally allowed to luxury to sit and write. Even Raymond Chandler went through careers as an oil company executive, a civil servant, a book-keeper, a fruit-picker, and a military man before finding success as a writer in his mid forties.
But writing, for me, is a full-time job. My early mornings are jam-packed with reading and re-reading — other people’s stuff, my own stuff — my “lunch” hour is full of social media cultivation and answering emails — and my afternoons are full of editing, writing, and re-writing. Most of the time I’m still busy when Luke comes home at 6:00, answering emails about artwork or last minute changes.
So, yes, the idea of going to work full-time would mean simply replacing (not supplementing) my writing with a 9 to 5. Even the idea of going “to work” two or three whole days a week was daunting, but I thought maybe it was the best option, a hybrid.
I quietly called a temp agency. I didn’t tell Luke.
* * *
I’d been on the employer side of temp agencies before — a lot — and I’d seen how they’d transitioned during the recession from god-send emergency relief to the main way employers skirt providing health benefits and security. I’d seen how companies used them to keep a revolving door of assistants for CEOs who had a habit of screaming and firing about once a month.
But that was okay; I wasn’t proud.
On the phone, the nice woman at the temp agency explained that they’d need about as much paperwork as if I was applying for a mortgage — perhaps more so. Then I’d need to be tested on all sorts of skills: typing, Excel, the ability to use a word processor, my ability to alphabetize files quickly…
I’d thought that surely my resume and references would cover that — I had a degree in English literature and technical writing; I’d been an HR Manager at a multi-million dollar company; I’d run box offices from here to Dallas; I’d handled cash flow forecasting and benefits administration for years. Surely I knew which order the letters of the alphabet came in, right?
But at the end of the day, I’d be applying for receptionist-styled gigs and it was more important for them to know that I could work a 30-line phone than that I was an award-winning, published poet and author. That, they didn’t care a fig about.
It was far more information and proof of my abilities than I’ve ever provided for any job I’ve ever had.
But in the words of Jay-Z, this wasn’t a businessman, this was a business, man, so let me handle my business, damn — literally, the business of shuffling human capital around like cattle — and I could have philosophical qualms about it later. Right now, we needed money.
“I’m happy to work anywhere,” I’d said on the phone. “I’ve done a lot of office management work, that’s pretty universal, but of course I do have a lot of creative talents and would be immensely happy to work for a creative agency, even if it’s just answering phones…”
She chuckled. “Well we don’t really service many of those.” Her tone implied What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?
I’ve cleaned up dog shit and human vomit, I reminded myself. I’m not proud.
Yes, said a little voice, but at least that was for $40K a year plus health insurance.
Okay, so maybe I was the definition of proud. And pride is a sin.
I’m not religious, but I do subscribe to the idea that envy, greed, wrath, and sloth are good for no one. So why not ditch the pride as well?
I’ll have to work on that.
* * *
I try to keep perspective in my life, and that works both ways.
When something bad would happen to my mother, she would call me to talk about it. Then after about ninety seconds she’d feel guilty for talking about it because she felt like she and Daddy had been given so much and had been so lucky in so many ways. She’d clam up.
“But everything is relative,” I’ve repeated to her a hundred times over the past ten years. “You’re still allowed to feel sad or scared when bad things happen. Just because this isn’t the worst thing to happen to anyone ever doesn’t mean it’s not a shitty thing to happen to you.”
And so I’m trying to take my own advice: to both acknowledge that this isn’t so bad, but not completely eschew its challenges, either.
When Luke asked me to marry him six years ago, we’d known each other eight weeks. I was sitting up in bed in my polka-dotted nightgown, reading, and he came home and dropped to one knee beside the bed and said, “I came home tonight and saw the lights were on and then that you were sitting here reading, with the dogs. And I realized I want you to always be here when I come home. Let’s get married.”
As I said yes, crying into his neck, the first thought I had was that as long as we were together, everything would be alright.
I was far away from home, and my parents weren’t going to be happy, and I’d just withdrawn from graduate school and changed life-paths, and I was not looking forward to sharing any of this news with them – but none of that mattered as long as we were together. We could do anything if we were together; we were greater than the sum of our parts.
Time marches on, for better or for worse. If there’s one essential truth to the universe, it’s that. Time marches on. Like Stephanie Smirnov says about realizing her child, herself, her mother, and her grandmother have all been born in times of war, “Evil happens and the world goes mad and babies keep on being born.“
Today is my husband’s last day of work. I just kissed him goodbye, and told him to be careful about the snow.
When he gets home at 5:00, he will be home for awhile, for the first time in years.
I’m going to make a cake to celebrate. Because everything is relative.