Separation Gives Marriage Second Chance
By Hans and Margaret Kirkman
Editor's note: Hans and Margaret Kirkman have been married since May 1988 and are parents of nine children, ages 1 to 14. They reveal how Hans' 15-month training and service in Iraq rebuilt their relationship.
Margaret: We had been intensely involved in marriage counseling for about two years before he left for Iraq in summer 2005. In December 2001, when he lost his job, we just went in a spiral that took us to the bottom — financially, emotionally, spiritually, everything.
Hans: We've always been committed to each other and said that divorce was not an option; it's not even a word we would talk about. But at the same time, we weren't always committed 100 percent in our hearts and minds.
Margaret: There would be times that we would call our marriage counselors and urge them to come over when we weren't talking. They would say that we live simultaneous lives in the same house.
Hans: A lot of people think it is strange that being apart actually was such a good thing for us. Early in our dating, we had never developed the ability to communicate. So during my time over there, we obviously couldn't have any physical relationship, so we spent hours and pages upon pages of e-mails talking. I was gone 15 months, and it gave us a chance to build.
Margaret: It was kind of like a second chance. We had been married 17 years when he left. The physical part of our relationship, pretty much the glue that held it together, was taken away. So without that, it was a second chance to go back and build the communication we should have learned.
Hans: It was great because we had some awesome dates because she's a night owl and I'm a morning person. So I would get up at 4:30, 5 o'clock over there, and it was 10:30 or 11 p.m. here. We could have great conversation, and I wasn't falling asleep or she wasn't falling asleep. It was a process over time, sort of exercising a muscle — the more we talked, the easier it became, and the more we understood.
Hans: I guess my big thing was that I became very aware that I needed to step up and deal with issues and make decisions. It was a different level of commitment in my heart and my mind that really turned things around for us. I was bound and committed to staying involved, even from Iraq.
Margaret: After he came back, he has really spent time looking at our priorities and defining things for our family — setting goals for the kids and for the year. I am much happier and more fulfilled now than when I was running everything. It is not an individual sport if you are married or have a family. You need to be willing to not be the star but to be a participating player.
Hans: It's never too late to start over, to start afresh. We were at the 17-year point. This time apart has just drastically changed our relationship and our commitment and marriage. —As told to Bethany Emerson
A Widower's Walk Down a New Road
By John Randall
Editor's note: Barbara "Barbie" Randall, wife of John Randall and mother of Erica, 14, Dalton, 11, and Grace, 7, died at VCU Medical Center on Aug. 24, 2007, after a two-year battle with cancer.
Barbie had what's called mesothelioma. Basically it's lung cancer. She had Hodgkin's disease as a teen, and the radiation came back to haunt her. It was during that time when she was in the hospital that the community — our church community, baseball team, Boy Scouts, neighbors, people we do not even know, people I work with and in my school — just started coming around and lifting us up as a family. So actually our getting past our grief started before she passed away, with all of this love, care and support from the community. Since she had been in the hospital for five months prior to her death, her absence was also a step in our grieving.
When Barbie was in the hospital, we were hoping she would come home, so I was trying to fix up our house, just to do a couple of things that Barbie always wanted. A couple guys from our church said they were coming over, and lo and behold, like 50 people came. A guy I did not even know in our church came, and his company paid for it all. Everything from flooring to washer and dryer to doors to whatever — he just went and bought it. It was like Extreme Home Makeover, except it wasn't a show. My kids felt loved, and it showed them that God will provide for them, that they were not alone.
It came to the point when the doctors said Barbie could not come home, but when they heard about our story, they decided to figure out a plan to get her home. So they let her come home for four hours on Friday, Aug. 17. It was probably the best day of our lives. We celebrated birthdays — the day she came home was also my birthday — and all the kids had a show. We renewed our vows; I sang a song to her that I wrote for her. It was just a really neat time, and I think that helped our grief.
She passed away a week later. I found myself with this void in my life and my kids, too. The world wants to fill it with entertainment or exercise or junk food or whatever it is — you want to fill it with something. And I tried that for about a week, but none of it satisfied anything.
Then I turned to the Psalms. For two or three months at night, I would grab my guitar and sing them straight through; it was amazing. I would find myself asleep with my guitar. What is wonderful is that for a person or a family that is grieving, you have all these feelings, but you don't have words to describe them, but David does in the Psalms.
I took a semester off of teaching history at Providence Middle School. When I returned, I started narrating historical novels that my friend Steve was writing. So this business that I have begun with him has allowed me to be home now, so I no longer teach. Basically I will narrate and then for about 20 or 30 seconds I will sing. It makes all levels of readers enjoy and get the big picture of history, trying to make history alive for kids. We are starting to go from school district to school district, selling them.
My mom just got diagnosed with cancer, and a lot of my family members are kind of reeling with that. But my family, we have experienced God being faithful in the situation we're in, so why can't he be faithful in the next situation? —As told to Bethany Emerson
Starting Anew, All those Times
By Nikole Sarvay
Editor's Note: For three years, Nikole Sarvay shared entries about trying to become a mother at her blog, babylust. Along the way, she left her full-time job, created a network of support and strengthened her marriage.
It was my sixth pregnancy that brought us our daughter, nearly three years after we began trying to have a child.
I'm often asked how we kept at it after experiencing so much loss. How did we heal the broken places in our hearts, people wondered. How did we start over again and again?
There were many moments when I felt completely hopeless, when I was sure I would be completely swallowed up by anger, resentment and doubt. There were times when I questioned my body's capacity to carry a child. Still, we kept trying.
In the beginning, it was denial that kept me going. One miscarriage was just a fluke; two was really bad luck. Surely, it wouldn't happen again. After the third loss, we realized that there might be a problem. But, by then we had a specialist and a plan, and it became easier to hope again.
My fourth pregnancy, a boy with Down syndrome, ended at 10 weeks — bad luck once again, the doctors said. Next came fertility drugs, 14 months of trying and still no baby. My fifth pregnancy, the shortest-lived spark of them all, left me thinking that it was time to explore other options.
But then, the very next month, there were two lines on a home pregnancy test, and once again, we were on the roller coaster. And on April 18, 2008, we hopped off the long ride when our daughter was born at 36 weeks via an emergency cesarean.
That's the short version.
The real story of how we made it through those stops and starts is in the in-betweens — in the ways my husband and I learned how to take care of ourselves and each other, and in the exploration and redefinition of what constitutes a full life.
There were subtle shifts, changes in outlook and perception. There were more dramatic changes too, like leaving my full-time job as a grants administrator to give myself space to breathe deeply and heal and to explore my creativity.
During those three years, I gathered a circle of support — family and friends, a grief counselor, a couples therapist, a support group, a reproductive endocrinologist, an obstetrician, and an acupuncturist. I started writing about my experiences of loss in a blog, which led to an incredible community of women on a similar journey. But most importantly, I took refuge in my relationship with a gracious husband who offered his unwavering support. We were lucky that our marriage grew stronger on this journey.
Those external supports gave me the strength I needed to go inward — to integrate the losses and their aftermath and to heal my spirit. It was important to create stillness in my life — to retreat to a quiet space that allowed me to listen to what my soul needed — to hear the inner voice that whispered, "pause and rest" or "I'm ready." Healing meant giving myself permission to fully experience the range of emotions that accompany loss, despite my first instinct to numb, ignore or move through those emotions as soon as possible.
I honored those flickers of life. I created rituals for closure. I found deep comfort in helping other people going through similar experiences. Each connection I made was a way to honor my own beginnings and endings.
Ultimately, the brightness of possibility led us out of the darkness through which we walked.
Now we are in the midst of a new beginning. Each time I look at my daughter, I am grateful that we didn't give up, that we found a way to start anew all those times, that we believed, that we hoped, that we persevered.
A Former Realtor's New Reality
By Tonya Smith
Editor's note: Tonya Smith, 34, was a Realtor from 2002 through 2007, the boom years, especially for residential-investor sales in the city. When the recession hit at the end of last year, she made the leap into another field.
I landed in Richmond in 1997. I was a certified dental assistant and radiology tech. I worked as a dental assistant and then applied to VCU School of Dentistry. I was about a semester away from going into dental school when I made the decision not to go. I was in a position financially to make that choice.
I got licensed to sell real estate in 2002. I surrounded myself with people who could teach me how to make money, something the university fails to do, (laughs) and I was making my living selling houses until the fall of 2007.
I specifically made a living selling historic properties in Church Hill. I rarely had to go out to the county. There was enough inner-city demand to sustain me. I never felt like it was job. I loved selling houses. And I made more than $100,000 a year doing it.
The only bad thing about real estate was no benefits. It's the "Eat What You Kill" plan. For six years, I had enough deals in the drawer; I was able to maintain a lifestyle. That's what I was faced with at the end of 2007, when I felt the market turn.
I noticed a very abrupt decline in the everyday investor. The folks who were willing to take a chance and jump into a fixer-upper — those folks just disappeared. All the first-time homebuyers I'd sold to weren't willing to upsize. If they were changing at all, they were downsizing. Everything stopped, and my salary went down by 50 percent. So, clearly, when your salary gets cut in half, you have to line yourself up, choose your battles and get a real job, if you will.
Specifically, I posted my résumé on the Internet, at CareerBuilder and Craigslist, and went to as many interviews as I could. I found myself in a position of "beggars can't be choosers." Jobs were getting harder to come by each week.
I'm now part of the office-systems division of the Océ international printing-services company. I've never been in the corporate world before. I went from selling real estate in Church Hill to working at an office complex in Innsbrook.
I was recognized as part of what they call the Freshman Club, the elite new hires of 2008. It's an interesting career. A lot of people I work with have been in the business for 20 years. The copier industry will grab ahold of you and not let you out, and when you get good at it, you become a staple. Océ recognized that I wanted to be back in my bubble downtown, so that's become my territory.
It's paying the bills. Certainly I'd love to be selling houses again, but I'm not going to complain when I have Realtors calling me, wondering if there are openings. I'm lucky to have a job with benefits. Copiers are 10 and 20 grand apiece. I get a base salary and benefits and a car allowance, plus a commission on everything I sell.
I'm building my own territory and planning to increase my salary by 10 grand a year. That's through hard work, being a salesman, and being diligent and maintaining your connections. You've got to keep going. —As told to Harry Kollatz Jr.
Digging Out From Under
By Patricia Vaughn
Editor's note: In her late 50s, Patricia Vaughn had saddled herself with $8,000 of debt. On a private-school teacher's salary, Vaughn was in over her head. She sought help from her church, a therapist and from ClearPoint Financial Solutions, a nonprofit in Richmond that focuses on helping consumers achieve financial stability.
I'm a person who has suffered from bipolar disorder all my life. One of the symptoms is excessive spending. I got in deep. I would not pay my bills but buy clothes, not fix my house but buy new furniture. I had a budget, but I would totally smash it up. I was probably around $8,000 in debt, with MasterCard, stores, everything.
I have two adult children. My husband is a truck driver, and because of my spending, he took care of everything else, from the utilities to the mortgage.
Ultimately, in 2007, I ended up getting on medication and seeing a therapist. I also have a life coach, Dr. Barbara-Ann Reis, who's also my pastor.
I went and spoke with the people at ClearPoint Financial Solutions, and they set me up on a payment schedule. You pay in cashier's checks. You have to be serious and stick with them. They called some of the places to see exactly how much I owed, got the interest rates reduced for some of them, and this has resulted in zero balances. And nobody's calling me on the phone to frighten me anymore, and my stomach doesn't churn when I'm at work.
ClearPoint was the beginning of hope. It stopped me in my tracks. They backed up Dr. Reis with the discipline. With the two working together, I have victory.
The only debt that I have now, that ClearPoint was not handling, is MasterCard, which is down to about $3,000, and my monthly car payment, $324 a month. By the end of next year, though, I'll be completely debt-free, and in October my car will be paid off.
And I don't make but $900 a month. I'm a teacher at a private Christian academy. I had to sacrifice. My husband now buys the food. I like extravagant things, but I settle for what he brings me, and I eat it and shut my mouth.
Dr. Reis had me cut all the cards up. I got clear with Macy's. At the end, they sent me a letter saying I owed them 43 cents. I sent them a dollar. Keep the change. Keep it. I'm free and I'm staying free. —As told to Harry Kollatz Jr.
A Failed Business Leads to Really Living
By Sarah Gayle Carter
Editor's note: Artist Sarah Gayle Carter, 55, closed her Richmond design business and moved to Maine in October. She writes about her journey at VibrantNation.com. A lifelong Virginian until now, she has been married twice and raised four children. Here is an early post from June 2008.
I think the main problem with being a small-business owner is you have to wear so many hats that you can't wear any of them very effectively. You end up spreading yourself too thin, pouring your energy into areas that aren't even a good fit for you. It doesn't matter who you are, or what your business is, you face this problem.
This was certainly true for me in my design business. I was doing something that I loved to do and having lots of fun. But for years, even before we expanded into licensing, I was spending way more of my time managing the business than doing anything creative. I don't mean I needed or wanted to be purely creative; I didn't necessarily want to do "art for art's sake." I think I'm a combination of left and right brain. What has always intrigued me most about design work — applied art — is the creative problem-solving. ...Your job is to come up with a design that fits the criteria. I loved the challenge of solving that puzzle.
But as a small-business owner, I didn't get to do enough of the kind of work that fed my spirit. So, after my business failed, and I realized I didn't have the wherewithal to resurrect it in its past form, I felt so disillusioned.
For about six months after the last big furniture deal fell through, I was in shock, paralyzed. But finally I thought, "OK, what am I going to do?" Someone I knew suggested I hire a business coach, so I did. I went to this woman, and I described the collapse of my life's work. She said to me, "Don't tell me what you can't do because you don't have enough money. Tell me what you want your life to look like."
What did I want my life to look like? What a question! Before this moment, I think I would have responded automatically. I would have been sure I knew what success looked like, what my life was supposed to look like. I would have been sure that bigger was better, and of course I wanted x, y or z.
But I had just been through this traumatic period, over a year of being forced to realize that the treadmill I had thought was taking me somewhere was really not. And something else was going on, too — one of the threads I mentioned earlier, that would eventually come together with everything else to transform the way I saw my life, and what I wanted: I had been dating someone.
He was an organic farmer who lived outside of Lexington, in the mountains. For me, spending time in his world was a very eye-opening experience — another way to live.
Life on a farm was very different from everything I'd known before. It's slow. There's time. There's space. There's quiet. There's no sea of people, just a small community, and the things that are important are things like growing vegetables. Somehow all of that spoke to me. And even after my relationship with this man ended, I found myself missing that way of life.
For whatever reason, it began to dawn on me that I could have Lexington without this man attached to it; and that felt like a little stream of light in the darkness, a little bit of hope in the midst of the chaos of my life.
So now this business coach was talking to me, asking me what I wanted my life to look like. Given the fairly dire circumstances I was in, it almost seemed like a joke question. What did I want my life to look like? How could what I wanted possibly make any difference? And so, without really taking the question too seriously, I answered without thinking. The words just flew out of my mouth: "I want a house in the mountains with a studio, and I want to paint."
It was the first time I'd ever heard myself think this thought, or speak this wish. —Reprinted with permission from VibrantNation.com
By Rob Cardwell
Editor's note: On Dec. 31, 2007, WTVR news anchor Rob Cardwell realized how out of shape he was and how many excuses he had been making. His new year was spent reshaping himself with the help of his wife and son.
I'd always considered myself to be in shape. I played soccer in high school. And growing up in Florida, I played beach volleyball for years, and I was in the Air Force for eight years. But then life kind of grabbed me by the ankles, and it just slowed me down. I would almost make excuses not to be active.
But the day I decided to change was Dec. 31, 2007. I was in the backyard tossing a football with my 9-year-old son, Jacob. I got winded. Like sucking wind. Out of breath. On New Year's Eve, I weighed about 205 pounds. I'm about 6 feet 1 inch tall.
Sounds cliché, but I picked up a Men's Health and read about the benefits of doing a little of everything. I always thought weight lifting was how many plates you can do until you split your pants, but it's really about lighter weights, more reps, and mixing up the routine.
I wanted to be 160 pounds again. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. I started running, every time trying to beat the last time or run a little farther. Then I started doing yoga with my lovely bride, Debra.
I'd wanted to turn my garage into a poolroom for years, but I've turned it into a workout room instead. I got some dumbbells and a little weight bench. I also have a refrigerator and a freezer and a wheelbarrow and shovels in there.
I walk and run, and I take my golden retriever, Dixie, to Pocahontas State Park, where we run until both our tongues are hanging out. Before, I'd be sitting around watching TV. Now as a family we're getting on the bikes and going around the neighborhood.
I've been motivated to eat healthier. If you work out, instead of eating fries with your burger, get a salad; instead of a burger, get chicken.
My kryptonite is French fries. Instead of eating a super size, I split them with my son. Another motivational thing is giving yourself goals and constantly dangling the carrot.
I also started out obsessed with the scale until I realized that I was working for the scale and not me. I hid the scale under the bed. I broke it out two weeks later, down five pounds, then 10 pounds. After a while, I stopped messing with the scale.
But the cool thing is that the benefits have been more than losing weight and feeling better. My attitude and energy have transferred to my job, to my marriage, even to my church. It motivates me. You replace bad habits with good habits.
I went from 205 to 165 pounds now. I'm in the best shape I've been in 20 to 30 years.
Now the best thing is that my son is the one who gets winded. He's like, "Dad, can we quit?" and I'm saying, "No, go deep!" —As told to Harry Kollatz Jr.