My family and I recently moved into a little home that, had we purchased it, would be considered a “fixer-upper.” We’re no longer homeowners though, so we’ve taken to referring to this little home of ours by the bay (the latest in a long string of rentals) as “crumbly” (a euphemism selected by my optimistic husband Dan). Our modest abode came complete with rat traps; broken windows; splintered doors whose doorknobs had suspiciously been removed by the previous tenants; unsettling odors; carpets with stains that the most powerful carpet cleaner couldn’t begin to touch; and an absentee landlord who despite promises of restoration has gone missing-in-action. It’s not what you would call a renter’s dream and it’s not where we expected to find ourselves just shy of celebrating our 10th anniversary. I suspect it was the surprising nature of our current circumstances that prompted Dan to wonder aloud, “How did we get here?”
Just over five years ago we signed on the dotted line and became first-time homeowners. Unlike our current residence, that home really was a dream. It sat smack dab at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a family-friendly, established neighborhood. It was well-made and lovely in design and was the perfect size for a young family—cozy but with a touch of growing room. It sat on a half acre underneath towering pine trees and I knew the minute I laid my eyes on it that it was The One. We savored that sweet home for two years then headed west on a new adventure leaving dear friends, treasured family and an excellent job behind.
I know. What was I thinking?
In all honesty, I wasn’t really. Not clearly, anyway. Rather, I found myself under the influence of a treacherous cocktail comprised of one part familial pressure, one part taste for adventure, and two parts unchecked impulsivity. I lacked life experience and still possessed that feeling of invincibility that is common to youth. I say “I” rather than “we” because I really was the driving force. Dan wasn’t opposed exactly, but he probably would have been perfectly happy to stay right where we were for the duration. Throw in a bad economy and a lack of job security and you find yourselves moving down in the world instead of the up you were always told was inevitable.
Compounding our challenges is the fact that whereas five years ago we had two small children who only required that I bathe, feed, and love them, we now have five little ones under the age of eight who have a myriad of needs (including schooling) that I am responsible for meeting. Ours is a life full of joy, laughter and grace. I thank God for it every day. But it is also a life that can be hugely overwhelming at times.
But, overwhelming isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it was this feeling of being overwhelmed that coaxed me onto my knees recently and led me to beg Our Lady for assistance. I told her, “I simply can’t do this anymore. I’m exhausted. I’m not adequately meeting my children’s needs and I have no money for a babysitter. We can’t afford Catholic schools and the local public schools are abysmal. This house is a disaster, the car is a disaster…even my hair is a disaster! I have no family nearby to call upon. Simply put: I can’t find a solution to save my life. Please, please help me.” And that was it. I got off of my knees and returned to my daily grind confident that she would find a solution. And then I waited.
And I waited. And I waited. And I waited. I tried to be patient knowing Mary’s timeline might look a bit different than my own. I attempted to find solutions to the difficulties that plagued me but I failed over and over again. And finally, I cracked: “Well, okay then. I get it. Mary’s not going to help me. She clearly doesn’t care. God doesn’t care. Nobody cares…” You get the idea. Not the most spiritually mature reaction, I’ll admit.
Not more than an hour after my outburst my phone rang. Dan was on the line. He’d just had lunch with his father who had made him a very kind offer. His father was in the process of buying the house next door to his own home of thirty-some years. It was a well-built, brick home with a beautiful backyard. He had plans to freshen it up and rent it out but before offering it to the public he wanted to see whether we’d care to occupy the house. Not only was it a fine home in a wonderful little neighborhood with rent far under market value but we would live just yards away from my mother-in-law who would be more than happy to help us out with the children from time to time. We quickly decided we’d both spend some time thinking and praying about the offer and then talk it over before making a decision. I hung up the phone and promptly burst into tears.
A holier person might have been crying tears of joy. Not I. My tears were tears of despair. Clearly this was the answer to my prayers—a lovely house, inexpensive rent, and childcare assistance all in one! But all I could think about was that I was being asked to live just steps away from my in-laws. It’s not that my husband’s parents are bad people. Quite the contrary–they are the salt of the earth. His father is an honest, hardworking, and courageous man. His mother is selfless, gentle and kind. But I am intensely private and intensely private people don’t generally opt to live next door to their in-laws. That’s just not what we do.
But then it occurred to me that this offer had been extended (from what I can ascertain) at the exact moment that I had been petulantly asking Mary why she was refusing to help me. Did I really want to be the gal sitting on the roof of her house watching the flood waters rise and begging God to save her but all the while refusing to hop aboard the boat that had come to rescue her because she would have preferred to have been lifted out by helicopter?
If I had learned anything during our last five years of moving down in the world it was that I don’t always know best. The colossal failures I’d left in my wake were evidence enough of that. But I’d also learned that I was the apple of God’s eye and that he would love nothing more than to pick me back up and shower me with His mercy, grace and assistance. I needed to be able to see those offerings for the gifts they really are, though, in order to accept them. And in order to see I first had to be humbled. Some gifts are so exquisite they can only be viewed through the eyes of humility.
Once upon a time God had given me a beautiful home at the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, but I’d lost it because I had dreamed of something different. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming or with taking risks as long as it is all aligned with God’s will. Unfortunately, my decisions had not been and so had ended in relative disaster. But, of course, God can bring good out of anything–even the most epic of failures. In my case, I learned to view His gifts with humbleness so that I might see them in all their resplendent beauty.
Through sinful eyes all I could see in my father-in-law’s offer was my proximity to him and my mother-in-law. I was paralyzed by the thought of losing my privacy and independence. But through humble eyes I was able to see that my in-laws know how private I am and are respectful of that fact. I was able to see just how much assistance our young family had to offer my husband’s aging parents. I was able to see that I would have two generous and loving people living mere steps away to help me when the going got tough. I also saw that the small amount of rent due each month would relieve Dan of a huge financial burden. And I saw what a gift it would be for my children to have a warm, welcoming house with a charming yard that backs up on the same woods that Dan played in as a child.
Yes, I had foolishly thrown away the gift that was the first home Dan and I had owned together but our merciful Lord had gently taken that mistake into his skillful hands and had molded it into something of value. He poured in a little suffering, a touch of humiliation, and a bit of anxiety. From those things I learned to trust, I learned to discern, and I learned to look for the good in less-than-ideal situations.
At the end of this month we will move into that little house that stands directly next to my husband’s childhood home. Intensely private I will live within a stone’s throw of my in-law’s house. Five years ago I would have told you this was my worst nightmare. Today finds me on my knees thanking God for this turn of events—for our new home and my ability to see the goodness in both.