Thursday, June 17th–one day before I head to the airport for a flight to Italy. Did you ever think you’d vacation again? I can tell you that for a long while, I certainly didn’t think so. The last year and a half has been filled with worry, depression, joblessness, sickness, and death. Back in January, things got serious in my life. My dad began having inexplicable seizures that left him deathly ill. My mom was in a desperate situation. She was juggling being my grandmother’s full-time caretaker (grandma has cancer and Alzheimer’s) and my father’s only link to life or death. She watched time and time again as he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance while she stayed behind with grandma. In the hospital, doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. His pulse would drop to 20bpm, which would usually kill an ordinary person, but he stayed conscious through it. We learned that my dad’s congenital condition of Athlete’s Heart helped him as his pulse was normally slower than us mere mortals. Every time he went to the hospital, we were worried sick that he might get COVID, which would have been a death sentence in his state. If he brought it home, it meant my mom or grandma could be at serious risk.
But the nightmare didn’t end there. My brother’s wife became sick with a mysterious illness that closely resembled COVID and nearly died. She was bedridden and could barely breathe. For several weeks we debated whether to take her to the hospital or keep trying to keep her alive. Finally, we became convinced that if they intubated her, her chances for survival would worsen. So through a series of steroids and breathing therapies, she began to cope. Later, we discovered that she had gotten BOTH of the flu strands circulating at the time. Somehow in the middle of this, my brother and his wife managed to find a house in the country (close to my home) that came with a large farm storage building. They got into a bidding war but finally managed to close. This house gave them the opportunity to continue their book business by downsizing to the best 50K books. The rest had to be trashed and the warehouse cleared.
Earlier in the year, China had given the US an ultimatum about not taking recycling waste, so finding a company to take thousands upon thousands of books (paper garbage) for free was insane. My brother had to pull every string and ping every contact to make this happen. While his wife recovered, he snuck into the warehouse and began the herculean task of emptying 20K square feet of books from every floor and cleaning the place. For all of you who are about to get “sad” about throwing books out, know this, no one wants 18 wheelers worth of books at a moment’s notice. There was no way to sell them or negotiate. The pandemic made all other options impossible. Business stopped. No one was working, and it was illegal to be “open for business.” So yes, all the books he couldn’t’ take to the new place had to be recycled.
What I saw my brother do during this time was nothing short of a sad miracle. He worked day and night for four months to dismantle a business that he had built with blood, sweat, and tears over a decade. And he did this all alone. He worked 16+ hours every day for months on end to clear his warehouse of books, all while getting harassed for rent payments he couldn’t pay, dealing with his wife’s sickness and my dad’s deteriorating condition. My brother had poured his heart and soul and savings into Best and Fastest Books, and there it was, leaving the building one recycled book bin at a time. A decade of work–gone along with the dream. I tried to stay positive during this time and focused on helping him move forward (there was no other place to go), but I suffered his loss deep down. I understood what he was going through, the sense of defeat and despair. I don’t think I could have done what he did–neither build that kind of operation–nor dismantle it. My brother remains to this day, one of my heroes. He’s an incredible human being. Giving up was never an option.
The news was locked in a constant cycle of Trump’s poor leadership, the ever-worsening COVID numbers, and racial tensions exploding around the country. 2020 was a year that has given us all some level of PTSD which will take decades to unravel. Early on in the pandemic, a close friend lost a family member, then my aunt got it, and people we knew died. Unlike other parts of the country, the early months of the pandemic were very much felt in the tri-state area. In West New York, where my family lives, the death toll was steep.
Sadly, my brother wasn’t the only one to lose his job. My husband was laid off from his tech job in February. On his side of the family, his retired mom stopped working, and the dental school she worked at shut down due to COVID cases. To put this in perspective, every single person in our family was unemployed except me. I closed down Ebon et Noir for a month as I shifted the shipping method (to avoid going to the post office). But when I reopened, business was slow. Buying antiquarian books was low on people’s priorities during the plague.
Are you exhausted yet? Cause the tale continues.
In March, in the midst of clearing a book warehouse, seizures, and joblessness, my parent’s house flooded with raw sewage. The putridness came up through the first floor, filling my brother’s apartment (he lived downstairs at the time) and making the place uninhabitable. Every time a tap was opened upstairs, more shit flooded downstairs. So, the house had to be evacuated, but not before my dad tried to fix the problem himself and subsequently gave himself a very serious ear infection. We think some of the polluted water entered his ear canal from splash, etc.
That’s when I got the call. The family was inbound.
My brother and his wife packed their few belongings and began to squat at their newly purchased house. They took the barest necessitates and their pets and left everything else back in their sewage-riddled apartment. For my brother this meant driving an hour+ everyday to clear the warehouse of books while his wife languished with severe asthma on an air mattress. In her condition she couldn’t help him. Weeks would pass before she felt well enough to leave the house.
My parents packed grandma’s meds, clothes, and food from their fridge and came to the castle. I was glad to have the room to make everyone comfortable but begged my mom not to let grandma throw her diapers down my toilet cause if she did that, my septic was toast. Just as the sizeable Cuban family was assembling, my stove broke, and we were relegated to one burner (first world problem, I know). I can laugh about it now, but back in April, it wasn’t funny. The fridge also began leaking, and the propane clothes dryer eventually caught fire cause why the hell not.
We baked many homemade loaves of GF bread in 2020 because the supermarket ran out, and I learned how to grow microgreens in 13″ lasagna pans. My husband took it upon himself to fire up his man cave in the garage and began building all new shutters for the house from scratch. The shutters, I might add, came out stellar.
I had not lived with my parents since leaving home (at 21), so this shift took some serious adjustment. And yes, there were days when I just curled into a ball and cried. I was sad at the thought of losing my dad, my brother’s failing business, our lack of income, the rising death count, our awful politics, you name it. As my dad’s ear infection worsened (as did his pain), I tried telemedicine in vain to try to get him meds. I finally got through to them, and we got a prescription for antibiotics at a local pharmacy. This felt like a small victory.
During this time, my dad’s doctor’s appointments all fell to the wayside. His cardiologist, who was supposed to do tests to figure out if he had a heart issue came down with COVID, and his neurologist stopped taking patients. Because of his insurance, he was dependent on a series of steps and specialists, so we were just at the mercy of calling 911 should something happen. Luckily during his stay with us, he experienced some dizziness but no severe seizures.
My husband began trying to figure out my parent’s sewage problem in between looking for jobs. Did I mention no one was working? Weeks went by as we figured out insurance claims and what to do about my parent’s house. The $900 grocery bills were really worrisome as well. No one talks about this, but the price of everything went up and has stayed up. I doubt the cost of living will decrease anytime soon.
In April, things began to turn around. My husband found a new job working remotely but took a massive pay cut. C’est la vie. Hell, we were just thrilled to have some income coming in. Roto-Rooter returned our phone calls and said they could help (with an added COVID premium). Unfortunately, when my husband and dad showed up at the house, the place was disgusting. Flies clung to every surface, and the stench was overwhelming. To make a very long story short, the plumbers took the job and fixed the pipe, but not before destroying the hardwood living room floor. The clean-out took two weeks and ruined a good portion of my brother’s furniture and belongings. Mold, flies, and stench covered everything, and it took fans running 24-7 for a week to get the smell and humidity out. We think grandma threw something big down the toilet, and the subsequent plumber that my dad called then lost his wrench down the pipe–just great.
In the middle of this madness, I spotted a multi-family mixed-use building near my brother’s new house with six rental units (four apartments and two shops) and did a viewing. The brick building was on Main Street and dated back to 1845. The neighborhood had seen better days, but the property seemed reasonably solid. After my husband lost his job, we started experiencing severe anxiety and began having night terrors about money. I began making inquiries about the property, and it seemed like a good investment on paper, but upon viewing it, we changed our minds. If tenants stopped paying rent due to COVID, we’d be in real trouble with the expenses. So in May, we called the real estate agent and told her to forget it. She assured us that the property would still be there if we changed our minds.
In the next few months, the real estate market exploded. We began to see country houses shoot up in price and fly off the shelves. People were leaving New York City and settling in the Hudson Valley and in Northern New Jersey. The house boom was upon us.
As my husband settled in his new job, I focused my energy on helping my family and running my business. I became so worried I found it hard to sleep and concentrate, never mind write. I think I managed a pathetic 1000 words on my WIP in all of 2020.
I did, however, ship out a lot of hardcover books after completing my first Kickstarter.
My dream of publishing a hardcover book came true in 2020. I began the process of designing and re-editing the whole book back in September 2019. I worked for months non-stop and got the files to the printer in China at the end of November. Had I waited even a few weeks, the pandemic would have disrupted the arrival of the container ship, and the Kickstarter campaign would have failed. Instead, the books left China right around the time when news of a mysterious illness began circulating. My coauthor and I ran a pretty solid campaign and recouped 100% of the costs of printing, shipping, and customs for our order of 1,000 books. We learned a lot in the process, too and we are far better poised for a future Kickstarter campaign. My one regret was being unable to fulfill the audiobook portion of the pledge, but as you can see, I was a little busy with life. Recording audio was near impossible this year.
My coauthor and I had a lot of ideas in the pipeline as to how we were going to sell The Unseen Hand, but fate had other plans. We happened to launch our first full-sized novel during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Go us! Who could have predicted this would happen? All of the venues and trade shows we had booked canceled on us. Hawking the book in Central Park was out of the question. We were all destined to live like frightened hermits for the next 12 months. The best we could do was try to survive.
I lied when I said I hadn’t written. During the past 15 months, I’ve sent many handwritten postcards and letters to friends, family, and even strangers. The personal touch helped me with the lack of social contact. After my parents returned to their house, my dad’s condition worsened, and he wound up in the hospital several times. He finally risked going to the neurologist and cardiologist, but both were at a loss. Then, a breakthrough came when the cardiologist suggested an implant of a small chip that could dial remotely the next time he had symptoms. Sure enough, as one of his last seizures struck, the chip provided invaluable information. It turned out that the signal between his heart and his brain was faulty. This bit of information was what the cardiologist needed to propose a solution. My dad needed a pacemaker.
The good news is that my dad’s heart operation went well, and The family was thrilled. We felt like he had gotten a new lease on life. Had his heart not naturally beat slower because of his Athlete’s Heart condition, we would have lost him. I can’t tell you the relief we all felt. Thank god he is much better now. As a result of all this, my dad quit smoking after 50+ years. He also stopped drinking and began to eat better. Awesome!
During the year, as my stress levels rose, I became less productive and found it hard to focus. Daily tasks became mountains, and my motivation plummeted. My husband and I found it hard to connect and most conversations revolved around money woes. Around this time, I began daydreaming about Italy. Italy is my favorite place, you see. As a result, I wound up browsing Italian real estate sites and imagining a different life. It was escapist, but it made me feel good. I’d sent Marzio the links to these cheap old houses and infected him with my mind virus–LIFE IN ITALY. He’d indulge my flights of fancy as I indulged his. Everyone was crawling along at this point, languishing in day-long zoom marathons. UGH.
Strangely enough, around this time, an author writing a book on Italian painters commissioned me to create a custom map of Italy. Working on this made me feel really good. It focused my attention.
After my parents left, fear of contagion kept us apart. We saw each other briefly in August when they came to enjoy a pool day. We saw our friends very sparingly as well. On one rare occasion, my coauthor came over, and we toasted to our new book with a bottle of Dom Pérignon we had bought two years earlier. We had meant to open the damned bottle when we finished the book, then we postponed it till we edited, then to when we published, then to the end of the Kickstarter, on and on. Finally, we popped it open when we heard that Biden had won. Crazy. But it was about fucking time we drank the damn champagne.
Election Day was particularly warm and beautiful in the Hudson Valley. The sun was shining and we were happy about the results. It was great to see my best friend too. Our conversation that day was poignant. Both of us felt like we had been through a war. We confessed how stressed we both felt. During this time, Marzio almost lost his job and worried about money or getting sick. He, too, was having trouble sleeping. We sent quite a stack of letters, postcards, and stickers to each other which helped stave off madness. It will be strange to read these letters five years from now.
In July, my husband and I decided to purchase the Victorian building on Main Street. It was a risky investment but worth it considering the rising cost of real estate. One of the tenants was vacating a shop, and I figured maybe I could use it as an office for my business. We called the realtor and began a process of inspections and due diligence that culminated in the closing at the end of October. From October onwards, I have learned a lot about managing a rental property. I am happy to report that our tenants are lovely people. One runs a community food pantry which is super good karma. Since then, we’ve done quite a bit of repair to the old-time traveler, including putting in new water heaters and redoing the whole facade. My new old building is looking beautiful, and we’ve made tremendous progress on setting up the store. While we were renovating the store, a person passing by saw my book in the window and bought one. That first sale put a huge smile on my face, and needless to say, I’m framing that $20 bill.
I am looking forward to opening my store next month.
As I write this, my dad feels much better and has mostly recovered from his heart issues. My brother and his wife are enjoying country life in their new home, which is slowly filling up with books from the overflow of the barn building. He managed to save his book business and feels really good about downsizing. Grandma, sadly is not so good. She’s very fragile these days but is still at home with my mom, who spoils her rotten. My parents’ plumbing is fixed, and the downstairs apartment is now completely renovated and rented.
In a few hours, I’m going on vacation to Italy, the destination I spent so many hours dreaming about during the lockdown. Travel has always been the one thing that reboots my brain and sparks my creativity. I’m an explorer at heart. I love new places and experiences, the energy of being somewhere unfamiliar, and the possibility of adventure. So yes, I feel incredibly blessed to have arrived at this perfect moment. Finally, my family is doing well, my friends are healthy, and my brain fog is lifting.
This feels like the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
I didn’t just spend days daydreaming about Italy; you see, I took action.
I placed an offer on a house site unseen in a place I’ve never been during a pandemic. Crazy.
This leap of faith is an investment in the kind of life I want in the future. Life is too short to fuck around. Italy is my favorite place in the whole world. And I want to travel more and be closer to all the things that inspire me. It’s a crazy plan, I know, but trust me that it’s a good one.
The pandemic changed me. It forced me to face my mortality, to question what I want out of life. And maybe I’m better for it. I didn’t pen many words on my work in progress, but I succeeded in so many other ways; I excelled even. I am happy I could help my family when they needed me, to shelter and comfort them (though some days it wasn’t easy- lol). Through the worry, my husband and I put a lot of thought into early retirement and the kind of future we wanted. We bought a building which brings in passive income and will soon house our office/retail store.
Damn. What a year!
I didn’t write much, but I did dare mighty things…
As some of you might recall, my current work in progress takes place in a fictionalized fantasy Italy set in the late 1700’s. The story stars a naive young woman who becomes a servant in the estate of a licentious zealot. The horrors and wonders she experiences in this mysterious house decorated with magical frescoes changes her life.
And on that suspenseful note….I have to run…I have a plane to catch!
I’ll fill you in on what happens next when I get back.