After my son Henry died, I found it very difficult to perform entirely productively at my job. And I had a supergoodamazing job with a fantastic company that worked very hard with me to help me recover enough from my loss to allow me to be the employee we all knew that I was capable of being. This was a job I’d worked my way up to get; it was basically my dream job, actually, and with a dream company to boot. But when you lose a child, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re working at your dream job, because your actual dreams are shattered into a million pieces.
I never completely failed at my job; in fact I had many successes in the five years that I worked there. But I just wasn’t completely okay emotionally, and it made it harder and harder for me to achieve those successes. So one day, after a particularly tough month when I’d been crying every day from the time I got in my car after work until I got home, and then crying again from the time my children went to bed until the 2 or 3am in the morning when I was generally able to get to sleep, one day, I rather suddenly told my supervisor that I was leaving my position because I just didn’t feel that I could perform at a level where I felt comfortable. Having always excelled in every work position I’d ever held (I know that sounds kind of full of myself but I think most of my bosses would agree, with the exception of one boss with whom I grew to have a mutual hatred, but that’s another story for another time…), So that one day, at my amazing job, I realized that I was simply no longer comfortable working at an “okay” level due to the pain I continued to struggle with, not just over my child’s death, but also significantly over the way that the local sheriff’s department and newspaper treated me and my family in the years following his death. (If you want to know how awful the newspaper coverage was, know this: about two or three years after she wrote her last story on the topic, the reporter who had written most of the stories regarding Henry, our family, and Henry’s death actually called me to apologize.)
So with no planning and no warning, I quit my dream job that day.
I did not consult my husband before I did this, although he certainly knew that I was really struggling. I called him on the way home in hysterics, telling him what I’d just done. And amazing, kind, good man that he is, he told me to calm down, and not to worry because we would be okay.
In addition to traditional employment, for the six or seven years before the day I quit my job, I had been the writer behind a “mommyblog” that had become pretty successful. By 2015, it was garnering around 100k pageviews monthly. I loved writing it – the ability to write and interact with my readers had been wonderfully entertaining and cathartic. And over the years of authoring my blog I had developed a very thick skin when it came to the trolls who would either show up on my blog itself or talk about me and my blog elsewhere online. Being able to take what the trolls dish out is absolutely critical to running a successful personal blog, and like I said, I had gotten pretty good at essentially ignoring the background noise and just enjoying being able to write and have people read it.
But at the same time that I was essentially falling apart at my job-job, I began to feel increasingly unable to take what the trolls were saying about me, my blog, and especially about my family online. There was one site in particular that had sprung up for the sole purpose of slagging specific bloggers, and since my blog was relatively successful and since I wrote about fairly personal things, my blog became a particular target of the haters on this site. For a while I wasn’t aware that this site even existed, but at some point I noticed that if you searched my blog’s name, my blog itself didn’t even come up first in the Google rankings, but this site did. That’s because there was literally so much discussion of me and my blog by name on this site that it had actually taken over the name of my actual blog in the search listings.
And that’s when I first looked at this site and saw what was being said about me. And talk about crying. If I’d been crying a lot previously before, this was a whole new level of melancholia. I simply could not believe what these people were saying about me, about my writing, and even about my husband, sister and children. Almost all of it was 100% false but I knew that to respond to what was being said would only make it worse. On the very good advice of adult family and friends, I tried my damndest not to look at this site at all, and I would go stretches where I was able to stay away, but then for some reason I would be drawn back to it again and the unbelievable hurt would start back up. I honestly COULD NOT BELIEVE that people could be so cruel. And I worried constantly that my two oldest children would somehow stumble onto it.
The end came one day when I was stupid enough to look at the site and found someone posting there who said that she had seen my middle school-aged daughter at some event and that the way that my child was dressed and the way she was wearing her make-up were both totally unattractive and inappropriate.
On that day, something inside of me just snapped. I knew that as my two oldest children grew and were out in public more often, this kind of commentary on this particular website was only going to get worse. And that was unacceptable to me. Totally unacceptable. So on that day, with approximately 6k blog-based Facebook followers, more than 10k Twitter followers, and more than 100k pageviews a month to my blog itself, I invoked the nuclear option. In a period of under 30 minutes, I simply deleted my Facebook page, my Twitter audience and yes, my blog itself. I didn’t hide my blog or turn it into draft status, I just deleted it. And on that day, when I did this, our family lost approximately the other 40% of the income that I’d lost when I quit my job – income from the blog that I was making from advertising and endorsements.
Once again – and especially when I explained to him what I’d read on that blog-hating troll site that day – my sweet husband was incredibly understanding. He knew that the site had been causing me great pain, and he’d read some of what was written there, causing him great pain as well. These people had even made fun of my husband’s looks. And how do you respond to that? Do you write a reply to a comment like that saying, “Hey now, my husband really is freaking handsome and you had better leave him alone?” No, you can’t do that because it would serve no purpose and would only stir the pot – the pot that these people lived to stir. But seriously, once I told my husband what had been written on that site that day about his beloved stepdaughter, he totally supported my decision to hit the kill button on a critical part of our remaining income. He knew that there was no other option.
But there were also major consequences. We were now living on my husband’s income alone when previously, between my job and my blog, I had been the major wage-earner in our family. My husband said again and again that somehow we’d get by, but we both knew that this wasn’t true. This isn’t easy to share publicly, and in fact I never have before, but we began to fall farther and farther behind on our bills, and those bills eventually included the mortgage payment on the 100 year old, downtown Victorian that we’d lived in for the past 11 years and which we both loved. This was the only home that our two youngest children had ever known, and which contained the cottage garden that I had lovingly cultivated as a form of intense, healing therapy since Henry’s death. Our home was slipping away, month by month. And eventually it became clear that without my income, we were going to lose that home.
And again, although this is very hard to reveal publicly, and even though I know that this has happened to many people, including maybe even to some of you, we did lose our house to foreclosure. Losing our home, beyond losing my child, was one of the most painful things I’ve ever been through. How do you explain to two young teenagers, and two little kids that we had to move out of our house because we simply couldn’t pay for it any longer? I honestly don’t recall exactly how we explained the situation to the kids but I know we tried our best. And they all cried and cried and cried, including when we had to sell or give away things like their playhouse and my great grandmother’s baby grand piano both because we couldn’t afford to move them and also because we knew that they were extremely unlikely to fit into whatever house we ended up having to move into. To this day, my heart hurts just thinking about it – all of it
And as we lost one house, the obvious question became how and where we would find another – and on an extremely limited income to boot. Eventually we did find a house, on a street that I’d lived on before Jon and I married, a street of small, working class houses that I’d really found sweet and welcoming the first time I’d lived there, and which was very near the downtown area where we hoped to stay. But there were problems. For starters, the new house only had two bedrooms, which we had found was all we could afford. And this meant that on the weeks that our two older children spent with us (they alternated weeks with their Dad and his wife), they would have to sleep on an air mattress. Yes, we had gone from an approximately 3500 square foot house to our children sleeping on an air mattress.
And the house was only approximately 950 square feet in size…for six people. It did have a nice, big fenced yard – albeit a yard surrounded with a horrendously ugly chain link fence, but it did have a barn/garage out back that allowed us to store all of the boxed up stuff and furniture that would not fit in our new, 950 square foot house. The house also had an extremely nice landlord who allowed us to keep our giant, Great Pyrenees dog, and the house had an adorable 40s style kitchen, but the bottom line was that it was just too miserably small for us to live in. We tried our best – we tried very hard to make the best of what had become a really tough situation – but the misery became more miserable until we didn’t know what we would do. we felt totally, totally stuck. I even tried to start a blog about living in a tiny house, because that’s what I do; I write about things. And in this blog I tried very hard to make things sound better than they were, but I was trying too hard. Things were Not Good.
During this period, I did try to find another job, but frankly, I was so emotionally spent – including now by where were were living – that I was aware that I was failing miserably at interviews that I would have aced in previous years. I did manage to take on some of the freelance writing and editing that I’d done for many years but the simple fact was that our income remained extremely limited when it came to supporting an entire family.
And then something amazing happened – something to this day I think of as a miracle. I got a call from an old friend from my hometown in Bell Buckle. She told me that she and her husband were moving to New Zealand for the next five years as basically a life adventure and she wanted to know whether we would want to rent their 30 acre farm in East Knox County during the time that they were away. Now I had been out to Lisa and Dan’s farm before and I’d been in their house and I knew that there was simply NO WAY WHATSOEVER that we could afford to rent this gorgeous place. But Lisa urged me to at least bring Jon out to look at the farm, and despite knowing that it would simply make our tiny little house with the air mattress and the chain link fence seem even more miserable, we finally took Lisa up on her offer and came out to the farm to look around. We obviously didn’t bring any of the children because we didn’t want to give them the impression that we would even possibly be moving there.
But OH MY GOD. We visited the farm at the height of Tennessee’s fall color, and the wooded ridge at the back of the property was awash in golds and oranges and beautiful browns.
The property had not one, but two ponds, which Lisa informed us were stocked for fishing, and the large meadow between the house and the wooded ridge was covered in literal amber waves of grass. The house was set so far back that you could barely see it from the road, and the house itself, a just-the-right-size rancher was both adorable and extremely livable. It even had two bathrooms and three bedrooms, something that over the past year had come to seem like total luxuries to us. The back of the house was surrounded by a lovely deck and porch that faced the meadow and the ridge, and to top things off, there was even a tree house.
Obviously, we were literally salivating over this house and farm, but we knew that there was no possible way that we could afford to rent it. And we told Lisa that. We told her this the day that we visited the farm, and we told her that during several phone conversations following our visit. Finally Lisa asked me point blank, what could we afford to pay in rent? And I told her – I told her the same amount that we were paying for the miserable, tiny house. And amazingly, she simply said, “we’ll take it.”
WHAT? I exclaimed. How can you possibly take that amount in rent for your amazingly gorgeous property? She explained that when they had decided to move to New Zealand, they had also considered selling the farm, planning to perhaps build on some property that they own on the water when they returned. However, they had ultimately decided against selling the farm for now, and they knew that the house and farm couldn’t simply sit empty for the next five years. Lisa even agreed to let our giant dog Leo move to the farm with us, as well to as store all our extra stuff in their giant basement and use their farm equipment to keep the property in good shape.
To say that Jon and I quickly answered yes to Lisa’s amazingly kind offer was an understatement. We were literally giddy with excitement. We knew that moving to the farm would mean two household moves in a little under a year, something we kind of dreaded (moving is beyond no fun) but this seemed like a tiny price to pay to get to move to the farm. We also knew that moving to East Knox County would mean leaving downtown, the area that we had lived in the entire time we had lived in Knoxville and where our children’s schools were, but again, we figured that we would sort this all out for the chance to live on Lisa and Dan’s beautiful property.
So we moved. Moving day was a major pain in the ass since we had just done it 11 months previously, but we got it done (THANK YOU Steve, Carter and Ralph.) On the day we moved, we couldn’t even afford a large enough moving truck to get our things out to the rural location to which we were relocating, so Jon’s Dad graciously and without being asked offered to rent one for us.
The best part of the day that we actually moved out to the farm was watching our two youngest girls, ages 6 and 8, really check out the property for the first time. All four children had literally jumped and shouted with excitement the first time we brought them out to the property to tell them that they would be moving there (what a change from 950 feet and an air mattress), but on our actual moving day, we watched with joy as the two little girls explored – climbing up into the tree house, swinging on the amazing tree swing, hiking up into the woods on the ridge, throwing rocks into the pond from the little deck, and just generally unwinding after a year of living in a house where they could barely breathe.
And so we moved in. And that night the four of us (the big kids were at their Dad’s) had a picnic on the back porch and just talked and talked about what living there would mean to us.
And now we have been here for two years. And living here has meant more to us than I can possibly express. For starters, although I had been nervous about moving away from downtown, I have found that living out in the country has allowed me to unwind for the first time after the press coverage and the “Look at her; she’s the one who won’t shut up about her child dying of an overdose” gossip that I knew was all around me when I was living in the more crowded, urban setting. I found that for the first time since Henry died, I felt safe. This has allowed me to start really writing again for the first time in several years (you’re reading some of it now). I hope that soon, through my blogging again, I can regain my writing chops and will be able to re-start my previously pretty successful career as a freelance writer and editor. I even have dreams of writing another book (Yes, another. Y’all may not know this but I wrote my first book 20 years ago and have also had my essays included in many anthologies since, including the New York Times’ Modern Love collection.)
And oh, how our children have thrived here. Our older kids have enjoyed evenings on the porch watching the lightning bugs, and have had great times out at the farm with their same-age cousins and my daughter’s boyfriend, while our two youngest have come to see the whole property as their own personal playground. Living here, we can easily see that our children have truly relaxed for the very first time since their big brother died.
I can’t begin to tell you what a healing, perfect place this has been for us to make our home. We’ve now celebrated two amazing family Christmases here, with aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and this year, we had the best and biggest family Easter egg hunt ever. On a farm, you can really hide those eggs!
We’ve strung lights and windchimes around the back of the porch for evening porch-sitting,and Santa brought C, our then 9 year old a little inflatable dinghy for the pond that she’s named “The Mystic Turtle.”
And speaking of turtles, since moving to the farm, we’ve discovered box turtles, seen wild turkeys emerge from the woods, and watched beautiful red tailed hawks soar above the meadow (although the hawks did devour my small flock of chickens within 24 hours of moving here).
The little girls and their cousins love hiking back into the woods with our dog Leo, and C loves swinging in the hammock for hours reading whatever book she happens to be devouring at the moment.
At night, we like to bring out the telescope that Santa also brought to C and look up into the sky-without-city-lights to see whether we can find the International Space Station. So far we’ve been totally unsuccessful, but the fun is really in the looking.
I’ve hung multiple bird feeders near the back porch so that I can indulge in my new hobby of bird-watching, and I love the extra benefit of the bird feeders which has been a gorgeous, all volunteer sunflower garden both summers that we’ve lived here.
Yes, driving the kids to school downtown has taken some time and organization each morning, and Jon’s commute to his job each day has been farther, but it’s been worth every single minute.
But here’s the thing; Dan and Lisa will be coming back from New Zealand at some point. We knew this when we moved in and we decided to do it anyway because we believed that giving our children the years on this fantastical place would be something they will remember for the rest of their lives – perhaps as the very best years of their childhoods. Yes, we know that we will have to leave what has in every possible way become our home – in many ways more than the house we lost – but we try not to think about it. We certainly never mention it to the little girls, although perhaps we are doing them a disservice by saving this news until it’s really upon us. They’ve been through so much moving already that we don’t want them to think about losing their little blue room with the white bunk beds, the toad hunting with their cousin NC in the warm summertime driveway, or the times they’ve managed to actually catch a fish from the pond. As my very wise and practical therapist Eli says when I tell him (very, very often) how scared I am to move away from this place, he emphasizes that it’s important for me to just enjoy the moments that we get to spend here instead of worrying about the moments when we won’t.
But in some ways there’s just no way to avoid putting down some roots here. I couldn’t stop myself from planting a few rose bushes in the springtime even though I know that I won’t be here to see them mature and bear flowers, and we just enrolled C in the 6th grade at the local school for which she’s zoned, even though we know there’s a chance she will have to transfer before her middle school years are over. Jon’s currently busy rebuilding the tree house, which had become a bit bedraggled, and the odds are that we will bury our beloved but aging dog Leo somewhere on this property.
Yes, I realize that we knew that we would have to leave this place from the very day we moved in, but there was truly no way for us to even begin to understand what this place would come to mean to us.
What we now understand is that losing a home hurts, whether you lose that home because you own it and you can no longer pay the mortgage or because the house’s real owners will only be away for a limited amount of time before it’s time to move yet again.
Basically, losing your home can break your heart. That much I know. I realize that I probably should have built up more of a coat of armor against falling in love with this place on the day we told Lisa that YES! THANK YOU SO VERY, VERY, VERY MUCH!! WE WOULD LOVE THE CHANCE TO LIVE IN YOUR HOUSE! but I’m afraid that no matter how stout that armor might have been, the peace we’ve felt here and the ability to watch our children thrive in a way we never have seen them thrive before would have pierced that armor. We simply never understood that leaving a rental house could be as difficult as we know it will be when the time comes for us to leave this one – a difficulty that we never could have imagined when we were living in the teeny-tiny little rental with the chain link fence.
But for now, I will do as Eli advises and do my best to enjoy every moment that we are blessed enough to be here.
And I would be totally remiss if I didn’t thank Dan and Lisa with all my heart for giving us the amazing, life-changing opportunity to live here while they are in New Zealand. We will actually never be able to thank them both enough.