Back to Square One

Square One

For the last ten years or so, Jamie’s business has provided customer service at a tradeshow in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Working on this show has always been a family affair.

Over the years, the show has become more than just another job. Now it’s more about friends and family. It’s tradition, reunion, loyalty, fun. 

It was while we were at the tradeshow in Myrtle Beach last March that Jamie and I first heard rumblings about COVID-19. Busy with the job at hand and without much free time, we didn’t pay close attention. We had no way to know then that ours would be one of the last tradeshows in the country. 

Within ten days of our return home, Jamie lost all the clients he had on retainer. Suddenly, what had been just part of the static of our daily news feed, came crashing into our lives like a tsunami.  Square One Creative, the graphic design business Jamie started sixteen years ago from our two-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC, had all but evaporated. 

For sixteen years, he cultivated, fertilized, and toiled to make his business a success. Then, with very little warning and in an incredibly short amount of time –  it was gone. It is equal parts breathtaking and devastating.  

For a day or two, Jamie and I spun in circles like the tilting teacups ride at the fair. What do we do? Where do we start? What’s going to happen? What does this mean? 

Soon, the boys were dismissed from school, sent home with their bookbags full of  Xeroxed worksheets put together in a hurry. Sent home in the middle of memorizing multiplication tables, on chapter six of Charlotte’s Web, two weekends away from a Quiz Bowl tournament.   

Then, my office shuttered, too. Thankfully, I was able to move my office computer, office phone, and all necessary files to a corner of our sunporch and continue my full-time job uninterrupted. 

Jamie refocused fast. Quiet and still, he began searching for work on a website for freelance designers. Those first days were full of being on hold with calls to the bank, the utility company, our mortgage holder. Jamie handled all that flurry of numbers, figuring, and estimating in almost complete silence. 

By nature, I’m a fixer. A doer. An in-crisis casserole maker. I’m Pollyanna on steroids, always looking for the silver lining and finding the bright side. I stay busy so negatives are held at bay.

True to form, I went all-in. I visualized Rosie-the-Riveter. “I’ve Got This” became my mantra. I made cards and construction paper artwork to send to front-line workers. I grocery shopped for friends and neighbors. I made bread. I instituted family game nights. I researched starting a vegetable garden. For a hot second, I considered buying a pressure cooker so that I could start canning vegetables. 

I picked up two part-time jobs. “I’m a contributor. I will become the breadwinner and single-handedly make up the difference. I can do it.” Easily distracted by all this self-imposed activity, I didn’t stop. 

At first. 

Countless times before, my tried-and-true Pollyanna attitude empowered me. But, I’d never had to Pollyanna for this long before. This crisis seemed to have no end. It’s a thunderstorm that never trickles to the slow, lazy drizzle, but remains an endless torrential downpour. 

After a few weeks of nose-to-the-grindstone, we-can-do-this attitude, I came to a screeching halt.  Just as quickly as Pollyanna appeared, I sent her packing. 

Head down, I shuffled through the house like a zombie, my movements habitual and dreamlike. Everything felt futile. Those things that had felt so important just a few days before became silly, stupid, too much effort. 

For the first time in my life, when I prayed, I couldn’t articulate my prayer. All I could do was whisper my husband’s name to the heavens, with the hope that God knew what it was I was trying to say.  

I was grieving. Lots of days, I still am. 

Grieving for a business Jamie and I had sacrificed for: years and years of late nights, canceled plans, ruined vacations, unexpected ups, and disappointing downs. 

Grieving for plans canceled: a sixteenth birthday celebration in Atlanta, Holy Week preparation and Easter Sunday breakfast, a family vacation planned for NYC in the fall, a long-held promise of a trip to Disney for Colin. 

Grieving, because saying, “We lost the business,” out loud carries a stigma that is hard to shake, even if the loss has come through no fault of your own.   

We are grieving. But, even the grieving feels selfish. All we lost was a business. Some lost so, so much more. In the real scheme of things, we have much for which to be thankful. All the things that are supposed to be the only things that really matter –  we maintain. I know that to be true. Most days. 

So, why does getting a shower take so much effort? Why does making supper take so much brainpower? Since when does “She’s in Love with the Boy” played over the loudspeaker at WalMart make me cry so hard I have to leave my buggy in the dog food aisle and go to the car? What is wrong with me? 

This loss isn’t something that can be articulated very clearly. Losses like this aren’t typically something that friends and family know how to help you through or even ask about.  Not really. 

Jamie and I don’t talk about it with people. We rarely talk about it with each other. Why would we? What would we say that we haven’t already said a thousand times? Why keep talking about something you’re still in the middle of handling – every single day. 

Southerners are so good at so many things. When someone is hurting, we look for all sorts of ways to make it better. Calls and texts, casseroles and cards, visits and cups of coffee, flowers, hugs. We comfort. We pray. We gather and mourn. We do all those things – and more.  But not for something like this. This doesn’t fit what we know how to handle. 

This enormous, catastrophic, hole of hurt – doesn’t fit into a category that we know how to respond to. This is one of those awkward, strange, nebulous kinds of categories.

It isn’t the worst thing that could happen. It’s not death or a fire. It’s not an accident or a diagnosis. It’s not a crime or a hospitalization.  

Losing your business is taboo. It’s untouchable. It’s embarrassing because it’s a big stewing, bubbling stockpot of money and pride and livelihood and status and wealth and career and money and money and money.  And, we don’t talk about those things out loud. It’s not classy. 

What a mess. 

So, what do we do? Where do we go from here? How long do we keep moving forward, heads held high? Working. Planning. Scrimping. Thinking. Budgeting. Week-to-week. Job-to-job. Freelance-to-freelance. 

We tighten our wagons, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and reimagine, rethink, refigure, redesign a business that isn’t dependent on trade shows – because we don’t know if tradeshows will ever come back like they were before. Even if they do come back, it will take us years – YEARS – to build back the client base we lost. 

Not long before Christmas, I overheard Jack and Colin in the living room and had enough sense to write down their conversation before it scampered out of my full brain. 

“Jack, do you think Santa Claus can get COVID-19?” Colin asked while lazing on the couch.

“What do you think?” Jack responded.  

“Probably not? I mean, I don’t guess?” he questioned. 

Jack answered, his big-brother voice deep and calming, “There is no way Santa can get COVID-19, Buddy. Santa is magic, and memory, and all good things.” 

I was aghast at how easily that wise answer fell from the lips of my teenager. Comfort. Reassurance. Love. Hope. 

All the things I needed to be reminded of then – and now.

We only lost our business. I’m betting you lost something, too. Big or small. Replaceable or not. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief. 

The tides come in and out. The moon waxes and wanes. This is just a season. 

Way Down Deep is back. It’s back because I couldn’t write anything else until I wrote this. It’s back because in May we return, thanks be to God Almighty, to Myrtle Beach, our umbrellas in hand.  It’s back because I keep looking up, every day, knowing our rain will eventually stop – and yours will too.