In November of 2016, one wild and wooly year after I’d rejoined the corporate world, my body was giving me unmistakable signs that I couldn’t keep the pace I’d been trying to maintain. Whether it was warning me of a heart attack or the squeezing in my chest was from panic attacks, the stress of my life was starting to take its toll. I’d been working multiple part-time freelance jobs in addition to my job at Incredible Pizza, trying to keep our family afloat. It was beginning to dawn on me that I made more money at the freelance jobs than I did my day job. More and more, my oldest son Dylan and I began to discuss opening our own marketing firm.
A couple of things happened that month that would once again change our path. First, I went to my boss at Incredible Pizza and explained that I couldn’t keep going with the status quo. After a few discussions, it was decided to farm one piece of my job out to a different department, bring in someone full-time to take over another piece of my job, and I would cut back to half-time from home to do the piece I’d originally been hired for: social media ads and strategy.
The second thing that happened was Booktrope friend and colleague Jesse James reached out to me on Facebook with a simple question, “Want to take over the universe together?”
My response was equally simple, “Sure.” Thus was the birth of 16 Hand Marketing. Sure, maybe being an entrepreneur isn’t the best way to reduce stress, but my gut told me it was the only way I would ever be able to truly support my kiddos while still having the flexibility I crave. And, being totally honest, it’s crazy how much I love this little company. In the five months since Dylan, Jesse, and I hung our shingle, we’ve assembled the most amazing team on the planet. I love each and every person we work with and I’m blessed beyond measure to spend my days creating magic with them. I’ve never been so proud of the things I’ve been part of as I have in the past five months, and I’ve never laughed so hard at work or felt so alive.
There are times, like right now, when I panic that I’ll drop the ball or somehow mess it up and 16 Hand will go away. But then Jesse reassures me that’s not gonna happen, and if it ever did, the company would just morph into something new.
Amusingly, Dylan and I are trying to run a digital marketing firm while having terrible internet at home. And, in one of life’s snarky little twists, our subpar internet got ridiculously useless once we really needed it. We struggled through for about a month when we realized someone new had purchased the defunct coffee shop in town and had reopened under a new name, Maple and Main. We gave it a try—mostly for the WiFi, partly because we’re coffee shop kind of people.
I have to sheepishly admit that, despite it being our sole purpose for being there, it was our fourth visit to the shop before we got the WiFi password. The owner was always busy and I didn’t want to be a bother. Then it got to the point that we felt stupid not having asked already. Dylan and I both tend to overthink things, so we were in real danger of never finding out the password. Eventually, I mustered up the courage to ask and we were once again reunited with the interweb.
We wound up spending so much time at Maple and Main over the past four months that its owners have become dear friends. I can’t imagine my world without them; they’re such creative, kind, and lovely people. In many ways, I credit their friendship for helping bring me back from nearly slipping over the edge—them, and 16 Hand Marketing.
I am positive there are those who would hear my story and think of a dozen or more things I could have done differently, moves I could have made that were much smarter. Sometimes I can feel the judgment rolling off of people in my life, or at very least they’re baffled by my choices. One of my dearest friends here in Buffalo is a realtor; when she heard about the circumstances surrounding our move down here, she said “Oh Heather. I wish I’d known you then…” and proceeded to rattle of six different things we could have done differently that wouldn’t have left our family staggering under the weight of this tax burden. I wish I had known her then—she’s one of the kindest, most amazing people on the planet and I'm sure she could have made a difference—but I went with the advice and resources I had at the time. That seems to be a pattern for me.
Having never been in an actual bar fight, I can only guess at what it feels like. Still, the best comparison I can give is that my life has been something of a bar fight for at least the last six years, if not twenty. Life is bigger than me, an experienced fighter with muscles, and life doesn’t fight fair. Me and life, we’re in the parking lot and a crowd has gathered around to watch my opponent just absolutely kick the snot out of me. With each blow, I get up a little slower and I stagger a little bit more.
I can hear people in the background, “Oooh, she should have gone left there,” or “Hasn’t she realized life telegraphs those right hooks?” But those things are harder to see when there’s blood in your eyes. It’s hard to process when your ears are ringing and the noise surrounding you is so deafening.
Sometimes it feels like I call out to God, “You are bigger than life! Why won’t you stand for me? Do something!” I probably send out this particular SOS more than I care to admit, actually. The response varies. Often, it feels like God just claps me on the back, gives me a quick drink of water and responds, “Nah, you’ve got this, champ. It’s good for you,” before shoving me back in the fight. Sometimes He’s silent. I look around the crowd and I can’t see His face.
But sometimes, He gets in a clean right hook that causes life to stagger back and give me a breath. Blake not only surviving his accident but thriving in the face of it is one of those moments. And so the times when I can’t even see God’s face in the crowd, when I can’t hear His voice, I cling to the memory of the when He clobbered life for me. And until He steps in to do so again, I keep getting up—however slowly—and I’ll keep staggering around the makeshift ring, trying to win this fight against life. And to think, there was a time when life and I were friends.
Not too long ago, I was on the phone listening to a friend talk about a struggle she’s having. Something about that conversation brought to mind the book of James, Chapter 1. I’ve always scoffed at the notion of rejoicing in trials and tribulations. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful; I just wasn’t sure patience and perseverance were worth the cost. But in that moment, I knew God has used the past 6 years, 10 years, 20 years to change me. He’s used these trials to change my children. He’s made us stronger, calmer, and kinder.
In many ways, I feel like I’ve been in a chrysalis. And now it’s time to break free from that cocoon of suffering to be the creature God has been molding me to be.
Mine and Adam’s marriage has never been a stable one. The things I write about in my books, they aren’t part of my own story. Sure, there were aspects of me in each book, but the love story that provided the heartbeat of my novels, it wasn’t mine.
Still, we both fought to save it, to make it work. Usually not at the same time and rarely in effective ways, but we tried. But in late 2008/early 2009, the marriage died, replaced by an arrangement that would spare our children having to shuttle between houses at a young age. Adam made it clear he wanted to someday have more. I made it clear I didn’t know if I’d ever get there. I won’t go into the reasons why—that’s between me, God, and Adam.
I’d agreed to stay, to see if time would heal wounds because our kids had been through so much already. And then the accident happened. And then the past six years happened. The days blended one into the next and somehow I forgot there could be anything different. It took longer and longer to write a book. I blamed my schedule, but the truth was that I was deeply depressed. I’d given up on love, on life. I was existing for the sake of my children and silently wishing I would die because then I’d be free.
It was a silly Facebook game that woke me up. It was probably click bait, but I fell for it. I clicked and took a picture of my resting face to see if I have what’s known as Resting Bitch Face. The app then analyzes the emotions your face gives off at rest. My face, without the smile to hide behind, shouted sadness. Like, off the charts.
We tried the app with each of my kids’ faces. Blake was neutral-to-happy. Dylan and Chris both showed underlying anger—a lot of it.
They took their dad’s picture. According to the app, his face oozed contempt. I’d put less stock in the results if my kids hadn’t unanimously said of all of the results, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
It was like a slap in the face, or a bucket of cold water over the head. That’s when I decided it was time to come out of the cocoon. It was time to change my life so that I could once again live my life, so my children could live their lives--because whatever I'd told myself, the world I'd created for them was not one of stability. It's not a healthy dynamic being modeled for them.
When I told the kids about the divorce, they barely blinked. On some level, they seemed almost relieved. Maybe it’s because Adam has operated separate from us for so long—he spends most of his time gone or in his room. But I suspect it has as much to do with the tension that hangs in the air of our home, permeable and ever-present.
The months since the decision was made have been have been some of the most stressful of my life. We switched cars since mine was in his name and his was in my name. The Blazer promptly died, leaving me car-less. Finding a place to rent has been a nightmare—there aren’t many rentals when houses can easily be sold. We owed taxes again this year. I had a farm full of animals to find good homes for… the list goes on. And on. And on.
But these weeks have also been, in many ways, some of the best times I’ve had in a very long time. Once the decision was made, something changed with my boys and I. Something lifted. Excitement settled over us in its place.
For the first time in a very long while, I have things I look forward to each day. The stressful stuff is easier if you’re fighting for something beyond mere survival, when there is joy and laughter woven throughout each day.
We finally gave up on finding a rental and bought a small house in town. Lord willing, everything will come together and we’ll close in 10 short days. It feels like 10 excruciatingly long days. People have commented that I don’t seem excited; I’ll be excited when the papers are signed and I have keys in hand. Until, then, I’m trying not to fret, to trust that God’s got this. Every now and then the excitement bubbles up, but I’m still afraid the rug will be pulled out from under me again. I hate admitting that my faith is so weak, but God already knows, so there you go.
The nice thing about buying a house is that I can take all three pet dogs with me. I’d been worried sick about having to leave someone behind. As for my horses, they’re going to be boarded. An intelligent person would sell them, but we’ve already discussed that that doesn’t apply here. I can’t bear to do it. It’ll be hard enough only getting to visit them when I can get my hands on a car, to not be able to walk out into a field and hug Daisy’s neck whenever I feel like it.
Yeah, I still haven’t solved the car pickle. Until we get over the expense of moving, it’s not in the budget. I tell myself that living in town means I can walk wherever I need to go and I’ll lose all the weight I’ve packed on over the past few years. I already have a 25 pound head start—that’s another change I made this year. I’ve begun the slow journey back to physical health as well as mental.
The one thing that has hit me, hard, during this process is how blessed I am by the people in my life. I am realizing that those roots I’ve longed for had already begun to grow in this little town I’ve come to love. But it’s not just here, friends from all over have stepped up in support of me and my boys. I feel completely and totally wrapped in the love of those friends, and that’s not a bad place to be.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.