The Gift of Unemployment
When it first came, we hardly noticed it. It was hidden among the jumble of personal effects in the cardboard box my husband carried the day he was laid off. I remember it in an out-of-body sort of way, like a flashback in a movie: the two of us, on a hot July day, sitting together on our front steps while he quietly told me the worst had happened.
The environment at his workplace had become so toxic even workers in their 20’s were quitting for health reasons. I remember thinking this could actually be a good thing, because if he had continued working there, it might have killed him. Still, the gift of his health lay buried in the cardboard box he wouldn’t unpack for more than two interminable years.
Several months into his unemployment, the small severance had run out, and our savings were gone. This time the gift came not in a box, but in a paper grocery bag. It was left in front of our garage door. There was a card signed in stamped letters that said simply, “You are loved.” The bag was full of food. I wept.
Food had begun to be a problem. We are a family of six. It was time to go to our local food shelf. I’d been there to donate. I never thought I’d be in need of their services. We were greeted by smiling volunteers and counseled for intake by a true gentlewoman. Though it was so hard to take this huge step no one who donates to food shelves thinks they’ll take, we left with the gift of our dignity, wrapped in brown paper bags full of food and sundries. Our grocery bills were just too big to keep up with. Hell, all our bills were big. Electricity, water, garbage…
COBRA. For those of you who’ve never needed it, it is a law requiring all employers to extend health benefits to laid-off employees for 18 months, but at full cost to the former employee. For us that meant our healthcare costs were almost equal to our house payment. But we had to do it. We couldn’t let anyone in our family go uninsured. We loathed and scoffed at it at the time because it was so expensive. But then it ran out. Our gift was wrapped in the 18 enormous checks we had written for our healthcare. Inside was gratitude for those 18 months of healthcare and the wisdom to recognize our naiveté at our insistence that we would never be able to do without it. Because we did.
My husband and I are still uninsured. All of the children are now covered. We found ways to cut some of our medical expenses by switching to cheaper prescription drugs, which in some cases was no small sacrifice. We carefully thought through every doctor visit, every medical test. We used minute clinics for acute illnesses. We shopped around for the cheapest pharmacy. We were gifted with self sufficiency and control at a time when those things seemed to have vanished from our lives. We now have a different outlook on health care in our nation, and no, we do not believe in ObamaCare or any form of national socialized medicine programs for the general population. But we do see how each of us plays a role in the enormous cost of medical care in America.
Lest you think I’m some kind of freaky, bubble-minded saint, I will freely admit we weren’t discovering a gift around every corner. Sometimes the discovery came months later. Someone told us after about 18 months of unemployment that the depression in our house was so great it was palpable when coming through our front door. That’s hard to hear. But it was true. All of us were affected in different ways, and all of us are changed. We each went through our private hell, a hell that some of us are still clawing our way out of. Except for the baby.
She loved having my husband home full time for most of her life. If I needed a break from care giving, he would take over for a while. If she wanted to see him, she would yell, “Papa, I need you!” in her sweet baby voice, dragging him from his never-ending computer search for work. Her gift was Papa’s always available lap, ready for her to snuggle in to learn about coins or watch country music videos. Our gift was, and is, simply her.
The next gift was enormous. We managed to hang onto our home. I would often have nightmares my family was living somewhere else, and we would drive by and watch from our car windows while another family moved in. The nightmare reoccurred in many forms during those two years.
We didn’t hate the empty space made by the deck we tore off our house just prior to my husband’s lay off only to have to spend the savings for our new deck to survive. The back of our beloved home is ramshackle at best, and the front isn’t doing much better. When you have no money to spare, home ownership becomes a whole different animal. Our paint is peeling, our front deck is rotting, and our lawn is full of weeds because weed killers and fertilizers are not necessities. Our concrete steps are cracked and our driveway needs to be seal coated. And that’s just the outside. But we love our home more than ever. We don’t look at it and see its flaws anymore; instead we see the place where our family has grown for the past 11 years, our dream home we fought so hard to get in the first place and then to keep, though the things we had to do to keep it sometimes hurt our hearts and our dignity. But we learned sometimes a gift can come along with dents in your armor and scars you’ll bear forever.
Because behind the scars is the biggest gift of all. It’s a gift we’ve always had, but sometimes it seemed invisible. We took it for granted many times when we did see it, because it was there all the time. We are forever humbled by its enormity, its continuity, its loyalty.
The greatest gift is, of course, family. If not for them we would have lost our home. If not for them we would have gone hungry. If not for them we would have no electricity, heat, water, gas for our cars. If not for them, I believe our little family may have fallen apart.
They were there after friends got tired of our chronic miserable state and the invitations for dinner, drinks or just to socialize dried up just when a free meal or a break from the monotony would have been so welcome. We couldn’t afford to be “fun” anymore, I guess, so friends just stopped calling. But our family rallied around us and not only kept us financially afloat with their generous gifts—the ones that were so hard to accept, the ones that left the scars on our dignity—but they held me above water while I cried for my children, my husband, myself.
They held us up through the deaths of our two beloved dogs who died unexpectedly three months apart from each other after having been in our family for more than a decade. They held us up through the lost of my husband’s father, about whom I have written more than once on these pages. During that time we almost lost my father as well, and we lost our church home. There were times I cried out to God asking what we weren’t learning, what weren’t we getting, why was it taking so long and why was there so much loss along the way?
And there are so many answers. When I said we have changed forever, I meant it. We can divide our lives into Before Unemployment, and, mercifully, After. Before unemployment we were wasteful. We saw the flaws in our lives, not the gifts. We dwelt more on what we didn’t have than on what we did. Though we said grace before dinner, we weren’t truly thankful for the food on our table. Things we would have complained about before don’t bother us (my husband came home after the first week of his new job and said that very thing because he’s so grateful to be working that none of the little annoyances—the ones those who feel their state of employment is untouchable see everywhere—faze him).
Unemployment and the gifts it brought taught us so much. So, this Thanksgiving, I am most grateful simply for the ability to be truly thankful.