Over the five weeks of Trump’s idiotic shutdown over a wall he will never build, my wife and I discovered just how much support we had from our friends and family. It was a humbling experience and one we were not expecting.
To be honest, Deb and I were a little bit jaded. And not without reason. We were among the last to get married in Debbie’s age group among her family. Most of them had already had kids and were in the full parenting swing of things. We weren’t super close to begin with but when Jordan was born and was diagnosed as autistic, they did what most people do: Poofed into thin air.
We didn’t take it personally. We saw how isolated families with special needs children were and we saw Debbie’s parents go in to a form of denial. We ourselves skipped a few steps of the grieving process because, frankly, we didn’t have the time for it. Anastasia was already on her way and Jordan needed our full focus and attention. We didn’t have the luxury of denial or anger or bargaining. It was what it was and he needed our help right goddamn now.
Almost all of my family had scattered to the four winds years before and were no longer living in New York at the time so they were a non-factor. Debbie’s parents babysat on occasion but not nearly as frequently as they did for their other grandkids. Jordan made them uncomfortable. Our friends also mostly poofed into thin air for the same reasons. They had kids of their own and no one wants to have their kids around the special needs kid. They didn’t know how to respond so they didn’t.
We didn’t go it totally alone but we understood that we did not have the strongest of support systems in place. That made it easier to move to Virginia five years ago.
Since then, we’ve built a support system for ourselves but mostly we were the support for others. We’ve run the PTA for the last four years. We volunteer at the school. We help out parents in our community. When a woman whose daughter had played with Anastasia a few times at the pool told me she was getting divorced and was panicking about how to get her daughter to school in the morning, I offered to take her. This random woman, Claudia, ended up moving next door to us and becoming our best friend and I became a surrogate father for her daughter Lila. We helped other families, particularly those with special needs kids.
We did these things because we were in a position to help and we remembered how much it sucked to go it alone. We had the time, the money, and the knowledge to make life less stressful for some of the people in our lives so why not do it? Don’t get too excited. We didn’t spend thousands of dollars on good works and spend every (or any) weekend at shelters. We’re not saints. We just helped out here and there.
Still, we were pretty jaded from our time in New York and when it became clear the shutdown was going to go on for weeks, possibly months, we started to go to food banks and clamp down on every penny.
And that’s when the support system we weren’t aware of went into high gear.
During the January 2018 shutdown, both Deb’s father and my father sent us a check to cover rent just in case (we were unaffected by the 2013 shutdown). We ripped them up when the shutdown only lasted a few days and Deb got paid in time to pay our rent. They sent another check for this shutdown and this time we ended up using them. But as grateful as we were, that wasn’t unexpected.
What we weren’t expecting was money from Deb’s brother-in-law and her stepbrother. They found out that we had been going to food banks to stretch our food budget and their heads exploded. So did the heads of several of Debbie’s cousins. They sent us checks, some of which we didn’t cash because they came after the shutdown ended but because Trump is threatening to shut it down again, we have to hold on to them just in case. It’s not a great feeling but it’s good to know it’s there in an emergency.
We got several cases of cat food and 70 pounds of cat litter from three different people back in New York. That was a surprise because all Debbie did was ask if anyone knew where in Alexandria we could buy discounted cat food. Carla, a friend of my niece that I’ve known since she was maybe 10 sent us two cases. Dee, a friend of mine from when I was a camp counselor a lifetime ago sent food. Deb’s cousin Kathy sent a case and cat litter. The cats are very happy and that was one less thing for us to worry about. If there’s no shutdown in three weeks, we’re putting most of that on the side for the inevitable next one that’s coming.
Then there were the $200 in Aldis (a grocery store) gift cards from a retired coworker of Deb’s. And a set of Giant (a different grocery store) gift cards from a former member of my PTA that had moved out of state last year. And a $200 Visa gift card from a friend to use on whatever we needed. My boss Ben Cohen gave us $100 to help out. Claudia paid our internet bill last month and one of the moms we know from school gave us a pork shoulder that made us three dinners’ worth of pulled pork.
Jordan’s rec center is holding a spot for both Jordan and Anastasia for summer camp because we haven’t be able to put money down for the first payment. They were also going to let us put off Jordan’s March and April payments until the shutdown ended (we’d already paid January and February and Anastasia has a yearly fee at a different rec center). They were also looking into getting us a grant so our payments would be covered, just in case. That’s no longer necessary (we hope) but it was astonishing to know that they were willing to do that for us.
There was more but you get the general idea. The outpouring of support was far outside anything we had experienced before. Granted, we had never been so public about any financial difficulties before but it wasn’t like we were on social media talking about how we were packing up to live in our car. And the fact that it came from every corner of our lives without warning was truly a humbling experience.
At the same time, it highlights how brutal this shutdown was for hundreds of thousands of other families. We had stocked up on food because we knew there was going to be a serious shutdown at some point. Over the five weeks, spending as little as possible on staples like milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, we used up about 1/3 of our deep freezer and pantry. We had an enormous crutch to lean on so we were able to shield our children from the consequences of the shutdown although they knew we were in a tough spot because of it.
But most households don’t have someone quite as immersed in politics as I am so it wouldn’t occur to them to plan for a longterm shutdown two years in advance. And even if they did, not every household can afford to stockpile that much food “just in case.” Like most households, we live paycheck to paycheck and it really did take us most of that time to squirrel away that much food. We would have liked to have two or three months’ worth of rent and bills put away but we simply couldn’t afford it. Most people can’t.
So what must it have been like for the families that weren’t ready for this idiotic shutdown and didn’t have an insanely generous support system like ours? We got a glimpse of it in the news and on social media. Families worried about running out of food. Parents struggling to buy diapers. Choosing between mortgages and medical bills and food on the table. When we stood on line at a food bank, there were hundreds of people there with us. How many of them were hanging on by a thread while we had been thrown a lifeline? I don’t know but I guarantee it’s more than you or I want to believe. As I wrote four weeks ago, no one should have to live like this.
Our time on the PTA is coming to an end. Four and half years running it is quite enough, thank you very much. We’ll still be volunteering at the monthly food bank and I’m sure we’ll be a part of the PTAs at both our daughter’s new school and the middle school our son will be starting in the fall. We just won’t be running them, thank Dog. If not, we’ll have to find some other way to help out that fits with our fairly chaotic schedule. I have no idea what that will look like but with so many people willing to help us and our family, it would be unforgivable if we didn’t continue to give back to our community.
I’m a stay at home dad, father to a special needs son and a special daughter, a donor baby daddy, a militantly pragmatic liberal, the president of the PTA, a hardcore geek and nerd and I’m going to change the world. Or at least my corner of it.