The simple definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover from difficulties”. I have constantly heard how “resilient” I am throughout the differing degrees of adversity that I have been forced to endure. When I look back at how I reacted and carried on through these situations I am stricken by the fact that I could not have moved forward on my own.
Twenty-seven years ago at 23 years old my life was thrown upside down. Up until that point I had lived a life that I would say was charmed. Then tragedy struck when the love of my life, and the center of my amazing life, was suddenly killed. I look back now and reflect on how was I able to get through each of those early dark days. Most people in my life at that time did not handle the situation very well. They said the wrong things. They expected me to react in an unrealistic manner. Or they avoided me all together. But in those darkest of days unexpected heroes emerged. They allowed me to be me, but they also forced me to continue to live life and move forward. When I was living through those days I didn’t stop and think about how much certain people were doing for me. It wasn’t until many years later that I could look back and put into perspective how those handful of people had such a part in my initial ability to exist and my ultimate resilience.
Something I learned at this early age was perspective. Most people my age did not yet have life experiences that could relate to mine. It was very isolating to be the one that had something so tragic and final happen to. The heroes that emerged in my life didn’t try to say they knew how I felt. They just let me be and they listened. But they also didn’t throw a “pity party” for me. They lived and laughed with me too.
Some people do manage to go through life fairly smoothly. They don’t lose a partner or a child at an early age. Their parents and siblings live a long and healthy life. They are healthy themselves. But this is really the exception, rather than the rule. Most people we encounter on a daily basis have some burden and pain that they are carrying with them. This pain and these realities of life enable us to become more empathetic people.
I look at the life circumstances that have happened to me since Dana’s death and they are big in their own way. In 2005 I was running the fastest growing start-up supermarket chain in the country. This was “my baby” that I had helped develop from the beginning. As I was working like crazy, a power-play was emerging with my “right-hand” man. I did not see this at the time. I have always been a loyal and trusting type. To make a long story short, I was pushed aside. But I was dealing with so much anger and rage back then, I know my out of control temper was sabotaging me too. I had stock in the company. I thought the document I had proved a certain amount of stock options. The owner had a different idea on what that document said. He ultimately won that argument and the millions of dollars that I thought would be mine never materialized. Eventually the company was sold for several hundred million dollars.
How did I handle this? With plenty of anger and bitterness. But I also had perspective from what I had gone through earlier in life. Sure this was my career that I had worked so hard to build and this was a lot of money. But it couldn’t compare to losing the love of my life at 23 years old. I made it through that so I certainly could make it through this.
I pulled my boots up and reinvented myself. Rather than move the family and listen to the calls from grocery industry headhunters, I changed gears and went into a whole new line of work. I had some time with a severance package. So I took that opportunity and I got into the mortgage business as a Mortgage Loan Originator. I took a class from a young originator named Kyle. He taught me the business and I quickly thrived. In my first year I made more money than I had made in the previous year as a grocery executive. I knew a lot of people that respected and trusted me. I built a strong business out of referrals developed from this respect and trust. Kyle and I became business partners. Business was good and I loved the freedom and flexibility of my new line of work.
We bought a beautiful house and had it remodeled into our dream home. But not long after doing this the housing market and the economy began to crumble. Property values fell dramatically. Banks started to fail. This was a nationwide crisis, but here in Phoenix the depth of the crisis was as bad as anywhere in the country. I had plenty of clients that wanted to refinance their loans. But values plummeted in such a way that people suddenly owed more than what their homes were worth. I couldn’t get many loans closed. My income was 100% commission, so my income drastically declined. The housing industry was in a catastrophic situation. The economy was suffering in a way we had not seen in my lifetime. It was like I was right in the middle of another bad dream. But again, with the perspective I had, I did not let these new challenges phase me.
I did need to figure out a way to make more money than what I was currently making in the housing industry. So I jumped back short term into retail. It was an opportunity running a Halloween store for Spirit Halloween. I worked night and day. Setting up and running the Halloween store and continuing in the mortgage business at the same time. The Halloween season came and went quickly, but I sure appreciated the money and the challenge while it lasted.
Once the Halloween season was over, I again needed to supplement my income. The economy had gotten so bad that grocery jobs were not even available. I had a realtor friend that had started driving a cab for the biggest local cab company. She was making some decent cash. I quickly decided to do this. I didn’t hesitate at jumping into this opportunity.
It’s amazing what you will do to provide for the family when your back is up against the wall. I quickly became the best possible cab driver I could be. Initially my plan was to stay out of the unsafe areas of the city. But that plan quickly changed as I chased the most lucrative fares throughout the 6th largest metro area in the country. Shifts were 12 hours long. Sometimes I’d work day shifts, but I found that I preferred 5 PM to 5 AM. I would do this several days a week, and then work on my mortgage business during the day.
I found myself meeting people from every walk of life and background. I could be driving a wealthy lady on a series of errands to minutes later driving a homeless person with all of their life-long possessions to a city park for them to spend the night. Or at 4 AM I could be waiting to pick someone up on a dark side-street in the most crime-ridden square mile in the city.
I have always been a competitive person that enjoys challenging myself to new inner-goals. It was no different driving a cab. The hustle and the unknown of what each shift would bring became fascinating to me. I soon had return clients calling me from all areas of the city and was quickly making $250 to $500 a shift. The long-time “cabbie” friends that I had made said my success was unheard of. I found the more relaxed and talkative that I was, the more money that I would make.
This six-month experience was life changing for me. I remember driving in the middle of the night thinking how much more rewarding this was than being the big-shot executive that I had once been. At that point, I was one of the biggest names in the retail side of the fast-growing natural foods industry. Five years later I was anonymously driving a cab through the “mean-streets” of Phoenix. Society would say that this was a tremendous fall. I was losing my house and was hustling in the middle of the night (in constant danger) to have just enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table. But the realization that I wasn’t alone and that I needed to count the blessings that I had hit me like a ton of bricks. So many of my passengers had such sad or inspirational stories to tell. I would listen and sometimes share different aspects of my story of resilience with them. I started learning that people were generally good. Most people just want someone to listen to them and treat them with respect. I was discovering that people were generally the same, whether they were in the wealthiest or poorest parts of the city.
Halloween season came along and I was asked to run a number of stores for that season. I found that I had become a better manager after the experience in the cab. I had become more empathetic and understanding. I also had done tremendous work on my temper.
During this Halloween season I got a call and was asked to do a grocery consulting job for a natural food retailer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A couple weeks after Halloween I took a five-day trip to Wyoming. This store owner had just bought the store. He had never been in the grocery business before and was realizing that he quickly needed help. There were so many areas of opportunity where I helped him with the business while I was there. He kept me on retainer to keep helping him once I returned to Arizona.
About a month after my visit to Wyoming he asked me what it would take to move up there and run the store for him. I threw out a crazy annual pay number to him. That number didn’t faze him a bit. Suddenly I had this lucrative job offer to get back into the grocery business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I told my wife Shelly and she thought that was a ridiculous idea. But I was a realist and knew this was much better than any opportunity in Arizona. The economy was at rock bottom. The mortgage business had become so tough and there weren’t any adequate opportunities back in grocery. I had connected well with the owner of the store. He had been a successful entrepreneur and had the finances to run the store in the right way. He respected my knowledge and success in the natural food business and was eager for my help. On a personal level, he had lost his wife five years earlier, so we seemed to bond with our similar experience of loss.
Five weeks later I left the 70 degrees of Phoenix for the winter wonderland of Wyoming. Shelly and our boys stayed behind until summer. The family was not thrilled to leave Arizona, but they embraced the new adventure. It seemed every move I made with the store became a success. Sales and profits skyrocketed. Per square foot we had become one of busiest natural food stores in the country. My natural foods “swagger” was back! I built a team of the smartest, most passionate people I had ever been around. As the small town local grocer I became a well-known and prominent member of the tight-knit mountain community. I was asked to be a board member with three of the local non-profit organizations. I also became the host of a popular weekly alternative music radio show (with the help of my oldest son, Dylan). The warmth of the community and the beauty and peacefulness of the countryside was again life changing for me.
Shelly, being the amazing baker that she is, started a small baking business. She really missed Arizona, but had gotten busy and was meeting people through her business. We had battled back and were finding success in our new surroundings. Then one day everything changed once again.
On January 17th, 2013 I was at work and received a call from Shelly that she had been hurt. It was hard for me to understand at first. There was an explosion in the kitchen, she had been hit in the face. She sent me a picture of her swollen, bloody, black and blue face. I was horrified. I was thirty minutes away, I made some calls to try get her a ride to the doctor. To no avail, I rushed out of work and toward home. I had severe winter conditions to battle on my drive up and over the Teton Pass to our home in Victor, Idaho. On the drive home I received a call from a nurse. Shelly had managed to scrape the ice and snow off of the windshield enough to be able to barely see to drive herself to the nearby urgent care. The nurse said she needed to be driven quickly to the hospital in the next town, which was about fifteen minutes further north. They were worried about her eye and nose. The nurse drove her to the hospital and I met Shelly there. I was shocked seeing Shelly so battered and bruised. It turned out that her eye was fine, but her nose was broken. All else was reported as being fine. We felt thankful and drove home.
What had happened was that Shelly made some homemade ginger ale. She put the finished product in empty 2 liter bottles. One bottle ended up at the back of the refrigerator. Shelly discovered it one day and decided to pour it out. She sat it on the kitchen counter, got busy and forgot about it. It sat on the kitchen counter, slowly turning into a bomb. At the exact split second that Shelly passed the kitchen sink, the bottled exploded. The force of the blast knocked Shelly to the ground and unconscious for twenty minutes or so.
All seemed fine as Shelly’s face continued to heal. About two weeks after the accident Shelly called me at work to tell me what to bring home for dinner. She could not get the words out. Again I quickly rushed home. Shelly was suddenly struggling to walk and struggling to talk. We saw a neurologist the next day. In a very non-compassionate manner he told me that Shelly had a traumatic brain injury. She was like a soldier that had been hit by a bomb at war. He also told me her life would most likely never be the same. 90% of those knocked unconscious never regain consciousness. So we were told that we should consider ourselves lucky.
The journey since has been one that has amazed me with Shelly’s grace, strength, courage and positive attitude. She has had to learn to walk and talk again. Many pieces of both her long-term and short-term memory are gone. She struggles to multi-task. Her brain is in constant panic mode from the severe PTSD she is saddled with. But she never ever feels sorry for herself or asks “why me”. I have become her caregiver, as she cannot do many things on her own.
Since this accident there has been so much new adversity for us to battle through as a family. The medical bills piled up. My employer didn’t have as big a heart or prove to be as good of a person as I initially thought him to be. We were a thousand miles away from the support of close friends and family. Good medical care was five hours away. It was such a long, lonesome and painful road for Shelly to adjust to her “new normal” in a strange, remote environment. But we became an even stronger and closer family, and I became even more empathetic.
Two years ago the opportunity to come back to Arizona presented itself. Kyle, my old partner in the mortgage business, had stuck with the business through the toughest of times. The housing market eventually corrected and the economy came back to life. He asked me to get back down here and join his company.
I have reinvented myself once again both personally and professionally. I am starting to thrive again in the mortgage business. But most importantly Shelly is thriving back down here with her friends and the comfortable surroundings of the city she loves.
What a battle and journey it has been and continues to be. I look back through it all and can’t believe how far I have come as a human being. I continue to take it one day at a time and strive to be the best person that I can possibly be. Thank goodness for resilience, because without it I can’t imagine where I would be.