Just over a year ago, we lost all our money.
The other day, as I was looking up ways — I'm not kidding — to use leftover toast, I realized that my husband and I, and our nine children, had survived a full cycle of seasons. No longer did I wake sweating, my heart bashing my ribs, certain that I was dying and not convinced that this would be a bad thing. It took every single day to come to grips with the grief and to plan my comeback. The grief was easier. What lies ahead is so hard that even right now, it brings tears to my eyes.
See also: Slang 50 plus should drop.
For this is my second comeback.
Sixteen years ago, when I was barely 40, my first husband died, horribly. I was left with a future broken, four young kids and no life insurance. Through 16-hour days, I wrote speeches, ad copy, even warning labels, and a year later, astonishingly, the novel Oprah Winfrey chose as her first book club pick. More books followed. I married a younger man and, through birth and adoption, we had five more kids — the youngest now just 5, born from a long-frozen embryo. Secure in our emotional and financial ability to give, we adopted two daughters from Ethiopia. The same week, the money theft broke over us. No one would have blamed us for changing our minds about the adoption. And anyone would have chosen little Marta, a 6-year-old cuddle bunny. But something in the eyes of Merit, then 11, defined the name of the orphanage, Miskaye, which roughly means "the lost one."
The wrong done us was grievous, but two wrongs didn't make a right.
Photographer: Virginia Sutherland/Courtesy of Jacquelyn Mitchard
Long story short, a con man posing as an investment adviser named Trevor Cook convinced my husband not that we would get double-digit investment returns, but that we might fare reasonably well in the punishing stock market. In 2007, not many people had heard of Mr. Ponzi or Mr. Madoff. Cook could do 20 years in federal prison: but his thousand victims face a life sentence. People often wonder if Chris and I have one double-digit IQ between us, for we must be stupid, and greedy too. My husband looks away. But I ask, are you absolutely positive that your dentist didn't get the diploma on his wall from a website?
On that last best day, Chris and I were on Cape Cod, watching our little boys running through the sprinkler, the slanting sun painting rainbows above them. Then Pam called. Pam has worked with me in my home office part-time for 14 years, Her voice was so strange that I immediately assumed there had been a tragedy with one of the older boys, who wasn't with us. Rob is still alive but come right away. When Pam said, "All your money is gone," there was a tap of relief before the room began, literally, to spin.
Six months drowned in a howl of mourning: The older kids would have to drop out of college. There was no time even to get a second mortgage or student loans, only to start selling, begging and borrowing. The young ones would never see Disney World or take ballet or play soccer. Regular people morphed into drawings with price tags attached: Purse, $80; Haircut, $50; Shoes, $125. Innocently, friends mentioned upcoming ski trips. Savagely, I loathed them. Unable to find work as we faced bankruptcy, my husband hinted perhaps "the universe" was guiding us toward simpler lives: My words for him and the intentions of the universe would scorch through the page on which I write this. Even loving notes reminding me that I was the "comeback kid" and I just needed to write "the next Harry Potter" were salt on the sore. There's a special circle in hell for the wealthy acquaintance who quipped, "Call Oprah. She made you rich before."
Debt, a friend wrote, taints every transaction. There is no present, only a gilded past and an invisible future. The smallest wish granted — mascara, movie tickets — punches another hole in the wall already streaming with guilt.
The con man promised restitution, then told the lawyer appointed to recover the lost funds that he'd no idea how to find the gold coins, the Swiss accounts, the Rolls Royce Silver Clouds. The man said Cook made him "physically sick."
But time passed. And I got physically sick, too — of my fine whine. Writing was like trying to crochet wearing oven mitts, but I dug in. So did the children, swearing that old clothes were the new black. I'd been poor before. Grudgingly, I recovered the knack. Christmas came from Craigslist; Goodwill became our Macy's.
There were stunning acts of kindness: My best friend, living on disability with MS, sent me two months' mortgage payments, unasked. A stranger brought my girls 10 boxes of once-worn designer kid clothes. Six months later, she did it again. There were moments of grace. We played board games. I cooked from scratch until my arms and hands looked like The Deadliest Catch. Francie, 15 (whose favorite brother is a musical theater major) asked, "So, Mom, when do you stop with all the homemade noodles and trivia tournaments?" Probably never, I told her. Turning to her sister, Francie said, "Take my hand, Mia, I'm a stranger in paradise."
One day, our Merit, now 12, came home from choir and dug into her spaghetti, casually relating how helpers at the orphanage stole food for their own families.
"I am big. I don't mind," she told me. "But I said, the babies are crying. They're hungry." One woman threatened Merit, but no one backs Merit down. So the woman beat Merit across the back with a broom. Looking up, Merit said, "Don't cry, Mom. It was so long ago."
I thought, hang the self-pity. Game on.
Surveying my skills and passions, I decided to teach in a program for MFA students in creative writing — and loved it. In fall, on scholarship, I will go back for my own MFA and I aim to teach, full time, forever, no matter what success comes. My husband and I found a grad student in psychotherapy who would work with us for a fee we could afford — nothing. Shame and blame can beat a marriage to death and, day to day, we still aren't sure ours will survive. The fact that Chris hasn't found work is no help. So now, I study the Currier and Ives views from the windows of the beautiful home he built as I would the face of a married lover — with longing, understanding our time together is borrowed.
Nothing will ever be the same. But as Betty Smith wrote in my favorite novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, "Enjoy the little things in life, for one day, you may look back and realize they were the big things."
The season for mourning has expired. The fall was the hardest part.
Once I found bottom, there were only two alternatives: to lie stunned forever or get up and try to find a handhold on a slick wall. If it were me, I could never rally, said a friend. But she would. You do. You must. The universe was not trying to upbraid me: What happened didn't happen because I flew too close to the sun, or failed in will, charity or wisdom. It just happened.
I'm no refrigerator magnet; but there is peace in acceptance: My life is changed.
I will always grieve for what I call The Things I'll Do in Heaven — flying first class, picking up the check, Tuscany in August. For now, my best hope is one more quote from that novel — to be something, every minute every hour of my life.
And oh yes, that leftover toast? Fry it in olive oil. Great croutons.
What I learned:
According to the journal Analytical Insights and other sources, Americans lost a quarter of their worth between 2007 and 2009, with the wealthiest least hurt. But it was those who had something to lose who got stung. No investment is scam-proof, but my own experience taught me four inviolable laws:
- Get proof of a federal license in good standing. Even if you're scammed, federal tax law offers relief if you're stung by a licensed rogue.
- Interview other clients.
- Make sure you have to sign off on every single transaction.
- Most importantly, trust your gut. Boss, beau or banker, your instincts know everything you'll ever need.
Jacquelyn Mitchard, the best-selling author of 20 books, lives near Madison, Wis., with her family. Her next novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, will be published in September by Random House.