The lawyer sits across from us, trying his best to look concerned and caring, but clearly he is in a hurry. He has a waiting room full of people just like us and, he tells us, a month’s backlog.
We are there to file for bankruptcy and, while he respects the paperwork we’ve brought along, to facilitate things he’s prepared a packet that we should fill out at home and return along with his fee. He asks us about the two properties we have just lost in foreclosure: one we were supposed to sell to offset the cost of the other which, up until two days ago, we’d lived in.
Currently we’re renting a two-bedroom rambler, me, Dirtman, the two Heirs, six dogs and two cats. I can’t help but think of Katherine Hepburn‘s line from Lion in the Winter: “Packed in like the poor. Three to a bed.” Our third is Topper, our Australian Shepherd, who doesn’t take well to change.
Before you rush to judge, know that we didn’t have a fleet of Hummers in our driveway. I don’t own one single designer item; don’t own a lot of jewelry, valuable or otherwise. My kids bought their cars with their own money and they both have jobs. Most nights we all eat dinner at home together. We’ve always vacationed within 500 miles of where we live.
Before finishing our new house, we had no credit card debt, more than six months cushion in the bank and prepared a budget for the new house that would withstand a 75 percent reduction in our business. We thought we’d planned for everything.
And, no, we didn’t use a sub-prime mortgage. But we did have a house to sell that was supposed to mitigate the mortgage on the new house we were living in, a new house that ended up costing three times the estimate for one third a house due to the rise in construction costs after Hurricane Katrina. And our income depended on the decimated building industry.
The lawyer doesn’t want to hear my story. He wants to know about our houses; where they’re located and what we think they are worth. I realize later on that his grandson, who shares his suite of offices, is a land broker and I understand why he is anxious to handle bankruptcies and foreclosures. I understand it’s just business.
To his credit, he pauses respectfully when my throat tightens as I talk about the house it took us four years to plan and build. Not a “McMansion,” but certainly larger and in better shape than the 1950 farmhouse we were trying to sell.
“I’m very sorry about your house, Ma’am,” he says as we walk out. He doesn’t remember my name and the waiting room is crowded.
Dirtman and I fill out the lawyer’s form, listing everything we own and assigning a dollar amount and I think of the general perception of people who file for bankruptcy: spoiled hedonists who play while others work hard and then dive for cover when the bill comes due.
I’d asked the lawyer if we could keep anything. I was thinking of my kitchen table, the bane of my brothers’ existence since they are the ones who have had to move it every time I change residences. Every time I move my brother John tries to talk me into leaving it behind.
“They don’t want your possessions,” the lawyer had said.
I wondered did he mean they didn’t want stuff in general or they didn’t want just my stuff. And why not? Wasn’t that part of the punishment for being a spoiled hedonist? And who are “they” – the faceless “trustee?” Do “they” want to hear my story about how I’m not a spoiled hedonist?
I spend the first night after seeing the lawyer worrying that they’ll try to take my dogs. The second night I obsess over what I can do to give Dirtman his self-confidence back and wonder who is going to help me with mine. By the third night I’m panicking that I haven’t slept much.
I’m scraped raw and bruised and have lost the right to ask anyone for sympathy. I keep my mouth shut and try to look guilty and sufficiently chastened when in public. In private I walk around angry with myself and what this is doing to my family.
A friend offers me an Ambien. I’ve gone 50 years without taking a single tranquilizer, through the death of both parents and the death of a son. My brothers consider me the strong one, the one who handles whatever crisis hits and bolsters everyone else.
The fourth night I take the Ambien.