By Mary Lahaj
When my mother died in July of 2010, at the age of 89, my whole life changed. Since I had spent more time living with my mother than with any other person, her loss affected every aspect of my life. It was perhaps more like losing a spouse. For the last ten years, I had lived with my mother in her condo, worked part-time, and took care of her. I have missed her constant support and wise advice. In my family, she was the only person with whom I shared the same religion, which I treasured.
While all transitions are difficult, some are more difficult than others. At the time of my mother’s death, I was 62 years old and would have to find a new place to live and a decent job to support myself. Starting anew in life, after making a career of “coming home,” I was suddenly terrified at the prospect, which quickly became the most difficult part of losing my mother. My siblings (two older brothers and one younger sister) were supportive and told me I could remain in the condo for as long as I needed. But we tacitly agreed it would be most advantageous to sell the condo, as soon as possible, and divide the profit between us for our inheritance.
Since I had worked mostly as an adjunct professor, teaching philosophy at a community college, I started to apply for a teaching job. Meanwhile, I tried to sort through mother’s possessions, consigning her furniture, and giving away other things. We finally put the condo up for sale in December of 2010. Although the economy was still slow, and we entered a buyers’ market, we were lucky to own the condo outright and set the highest asking price we could, of 275K.
By the end of February of 2011, I had not received a single job offer. As if the universe conspired to make me more anxious, no one had inquired about the condo either. I was at a standstill and feeling the weight of my own inertia. My present position was unsustainable, and my future appeared unhopeful.
My name had been on a waiting list at a new apartment complex in town, since that previous September. As part of a Massachusetts Affordable Housing program, the complex sets aside a few apartments to accommodate the salaries of the dwindling middle-class, for teachers, firemen, and the elderly. The complex had called me twice that year to say there was a place available, but I had to decline, until we sold the condo. Until I got my inheritance, I had no money. Until I found work, I had no income. Without an income, I could not move. By March, I was anxiously awaiting for something to give. On Friday, March 4th around 11:30 AM, the complex called me again with news of an available apartment. My reply was the same: please keep me on the list.
I was making weekend plans to drive down to Yale in Connecticut to attend a conference. I was almost out the door, when I checked my email one last time. There it was: 11:45; an email from our real estate agent and old family friend, Deb. She was on vacation in Aruba, and she had received a serious offer for the condo. The offer was for 260K.
I quickly contacted my siblings. My sister, Donna, and her husband Tom were on vacation in Florida. My two brothers, Mike and Richard, were together in Mexico. I called my sister on her cell, while I Skyped my two brothers. But first, I called back the apartment complex and arranged to see the available apartment the next day. Maybe this was truly serious!
I could hardly hear my sister’s voice at the beach, but over the ocean wind, she said, “That’s a good offer. Let’s take it.” WIND WIND WIND… “The economy is bad. Let’s just sell! Hooray!”
When I talked to Mike, he said, “I think our counter offer should be on the high side, since mom took such good care of the condo.” Richard said, “Let’s not budge from the 275.”
As self-appointed head of communications, I decided to go with Mike’s idea, and gave Deb a counter offer of 273. Within half an hour, the buyer moved up, from 260 to 268. Luckily, we had prevailed, despite the noise of our siblings, who feared losing the sale and falling prey to “greed.”
Deb wanted to know, “What do you want to do now? Take that offer or not?” Despite continued grumbling from our siblings, Mike and I were encouraged by the big jump in the buyer’s counter offer. It convinced us that the buyer had tipped his hand and revealed how much he loved the condo. To build greater confidence, Mike suggested that we dig out the picture of mom mopping the floor. We all wanted to honor her loving care. I sent the picture to our two siblings, and to Deb, with the message that we would be making a counter offer. Deb left us alone to debate the question of how much to counter.
Our beloved brother-in law, Tom, joined the debate in support of Donna. The discussion descended from, “It’s a bad economy, so we should take the current offer;” to, “Let’s not get greedy;” and, “You don’t know anything about selling a house;” and, “So, how many houses have you sold?” And so on and so on.
Mike and I agreed to counter with an offer of 271. Mike also had an idea to make negotiations more interesting. If Donna and Tom want to pay us the $3,000 difference, we would accept the 268 offer. This tongue-in-cheek suggestion achieved the desired effect of cooling down the heated debate.
Having canceled my plans to go to Yale, I was glued to my computer at the kitchen table. Negotiations (and the stressful sibling rivalry) had been going on for seven hours straight. By 7:30 PM, my ear was sore. Our 271 offer was on the table. Deb was waiting to see if the buyers would accept.
With everyone on vacation, except me, I was just starting to feel sorry for myself, when my cell phone rang. It turned out to be an old friend I hadn’t talked to since 1988. I was completely surprised. Linda and I had a short, but meaningful history. She was an Arab American activist, who, in 1988, had called me out of the blue, recruiting people to become delegates for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, was working on Jesse’s campaign. He was determined to send as many Arab American delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta as possible. Given that Arab Americans reside at the bottom of the political-power pole, Jim’s hard work in that 1988 campaign paid off. Previously in 1984, there had been 4 delegates. In 1988, there were 54, counting me.
I may have met Linda once. But she didn’t go to Atlanta, since her role was primarily recruiting Arab Americans. She convinced me that I could get elected as a delegate, saying, “Don’t worry, Mary. You’re a shoe-in.” She was right.
About two years prior to this March 4th phone call, Linda and I had accidentally discovered each other in a freelance editors’ email group. Linda had no idea that I was looking for a job. But she called me to ask if I had seen the job she posted to the group a few days prior. I recalled seeing something about a job at a law firm. Linda said it was where she worked. I remembered deleting the email, since I didn’t know anything about the law. Linda wanted to know why I didn’t apply. I told her that I was looking for a teaching job.
For some reason, Linda persisted, “You can do this job, Mary.” I resisted. It was the end of a long day, and I had been focused on selling the condo. I couldn’t wrap my head around what she was offering. Linda explained more about what the job entailed and finally piqued my interest, when she said I wouldn’t need to know anything about the law to do the job.
To apply, I would have to redo my resume and reinvent myself as a writer/editor for the job. Linda offered to “eyeball” my resume and send it to her boss. Allaying my concerns once again, she said, “Don’t worry, Mary. You’re a shoe-in.” And she was right, again.
Meanwhile, at 9:30 PM Deb emailed me to say that the buyers had countered our offer of 271, offering 270, up from 268. Would we accept? By now, it had been nine hours of negotiations. I called my siblings, and we all agreed to accept the offer.
Once the negotiations were done, I spent the next two hours revising my resume. I sent it to Linda at 11:30 PM. In the morning, I went to see the available apartment, and it was beautiful. I could move in by April. The condo sale was scheduled for May. For many years, I lived in that apartment and worked for that law firm as a freelance writer and researcher, with Linda as my mentor.
Coming back to look at this one miraculous day, March 4th (forth), when these major life changes took place, has become a way for me to memorialize my mother’s passing. I still have to pinch myself to believe that it happened this way, and I am open to the possibility of divine intervention. But I also understand something about life. The time comes when you no longer have a choice, except to march forth.