OZARK, Mo. — Lisa Grim braced herself as she turned the key to her family’s new apartment.
It had taken more than a month to find a landlord willing to accept her – a newly widowed 33-year-old raising two kids, barely making $20,000 a year. None of the other 20 apartments had returned her calls and emails. This unit, which she had rented sight unseen, was the only one that approved her application.
“I’m not expecting anything fancy. As long as it’s clean and doesn’t smell,” she said as she opened the door on the first day of July, trailed by her 10-year-old son, Ralphie. She’d left her 4-year-old, Walker, crying that morning at the new day care he hated.
Nine months had passed since her husband Alan, 37, died of COVID-19 in a rural Missouri ICU once again filling with coronavirus patients. Nine months since Lisa realized that without Alan’s salary, they could no longer afford their mortgage, forcing her to put the family’s house on the market and move to this apartment an hour away from everything her boys had known.
“Oh yay, it doesn’t stink,” Lisa declared as she walked into the living room. “It’s not bad, not horrible at all.”
Ralphie trudged in behind her and frowned. “It’s smaller than our old house,” he said.
He’d cried and yelled at her when she told him that they had to sell their modest, three-bedroom ranch home.
“It’s the only house I’ve ever lived in,” Ralphie argued. “It’s the house Daddy lived in.”
Alan’s death had not only devastated their family emotionally, it had broken them financially. Even as they grieved, the Grims – like tens of thousands of other families shattered by the pandemic – were now facing a cascade of secondary losses: income, home, school friends, long-held plans for the future.
In her left hand, Lisa clutched an inspection form property managers had given her that morning to note any problems in the apartment.
“The stove looks OK,” she said.
“It’s rusty,” Ralphie replied.
Her son — so often angry and sullen these days — seemed delighted to find so many things wrong with their new place.
“Light outside the door doesn’t work.”
“Weird duct-tape stuff on the screen door.”
“Crusty washer outlet.”
“Porch light got melted off.”
The aging unit was on the second floor in a neighborhood of strip malls and cracked asphalt parking lots. When Lisa spotted the listing in June, the property managers told her she couldn’t see the place because tenants were still living there. A few weeks later they told her she couldn’t move in yet because mold had been found in one of the rooms and needed to be removed.
So, before she put down the deposit weeks earlier, Lisa had parked outside the apartment complex to look at it from the outside. She tried to imagine what life inside might be like, whether this was the place they could recover, where the three of them might figure out how to be OK again.
The list on her inspection form grew longer. By the time she and Ralphie finished examining every corner, there were more than a dozen problems spelled out in her neat handwriting. Lisa tried to remain upbeat.
“It’s better than I expected,” she told her son.
Later that afternoon, with Ralphie at a friend’s house, Lisa sat alone on the floor of the empty apartment, opened a bulging green folder and spread their bills from the past year onto the carpet. There were car payments, cremation fees, credit card balances. There was the $1,000 in legal fees she paid when the mortgage company refused to give her the deed because Alan died on Oct. 1, 2020, without a will.
There were dozens of notices from the hospitals that treated Alan: $2,749.26 for the ER doctor that admitted him, $2,425.75 for the cardiologist, $7,747.07 for his stay at Cox Medical Center in Branson before being transferred to a larger facility, $228.09 for the final X-ray on his chest.
Words were highlighted in red: “Past due.” “Final notice.”
Lisa had increased her hours at the spa in Branson where she massaged elderly tourists. But just a few months earlier, the pressure she was under had sent her rushing back to Cox with acute gastroenteritis and a full-on panic attack.
Now, the bill from her visit – $910.08 – sat on top of the others for her husband.
As she knelt on the floor and flipped through the papers, Lisa began quietly sobbing.
This apartment, she knew, had to work.
– – –
With all the furniture moved out, the old house felt hauntingly empty.
Most of their belongings had already been packed up and were in a moving container headed to the new apartment 35 miles away.
The one exception was the garage, which was still crammed with Alan’s tools and random knickknacks.
“He was a sweet man, but such a pack rat,” Lisa muttered aloud as she waded through the mess.
It should have been straightforward – sell, throw away or keep. For weeks, she tried to make progress. But each new object she picked up felt weighed down by history.
He’d loved vintage Volkswagens and had been working on restoring a 1964 Beetle when he died.
She discovered a power drill set – brand-new, still in its case – that Alan had conveniently neglected to tell her he bought. When she looked online and discovered it cost $400, she felt both annoyed and amused by him. They could use the money, but Lisa couldn’t quite bear to sell it.
“Your daddy sure loved spending money on his tools,” she laughed, as her boys ran through the house. “How many voltmeters and hammers does one man need?”
In his old bedroom, Ralphie was leaping from one corner to another, explaining with each spot his feet landed where everything used to be.
“This is where my bed was.”
“This is where my train set was.”
“This is where the dresser was.”
His parents had bought the house in 2010, just months after marrying.
The two had met while working at Branson’s biggest amusement park. Alan worked at the Powder Keg roller coaster. Lisa worked in a tourist shop.
He was a big man – 6 foot 6 inches, 350 pounds – with a gentle manner. Lisa had struggled her whole life with anxiety and depression, and Alan was the first person she met who fully accepted her for who she was.
The three-bedroom house was supposed to be their starter home – a $65,500 fixer-upper on a cheap, rural patch of land.
Lisa had despised its hulking box shape and puke-brown cabinet doors, but she loved what the place represented.
They had found out she was pregnant with Ralphie just weeks before they secured the keys. The future seemed so full.
Alan eventually worked his way up to a $40,000-a-year job at an alarm company and planned to launch his own business installing fire alarms. Lisa wanted to go back to school to become a therapist.
They would save up and buy a better home. Move beyond Branson and its low-paying, tourism-dependent jobs, to a city with better prospects for their boys.
Instead, 10 years later, here Lisa was, walking through the house, taking apart that future piece by piece.
She’d nervously introduced her sons to the man she was dating, David Troyer, an accountant she’d met online. She told them she still loved their father but this was someone who was becoming important to her. She’d noticed from the start how kind he was. It reminded her of Alan.
They’d been been staying with David for the past three weeks as they tried to sell the old house and move into the apartment.
“Why not move in here?” David had asked her.
She tried to explain to him. She wanted her boys to know she’d take care of them and that she didn’t need another man to do it. She wanted them to know their family of three would overcome all that they’d lost.
Now, walking through the house, Lisa ran her fingers across the dark-blue leaves she had stenciled on the wall of the bedroom she had shared with her husband for more than a decade. She paced along the faux-hardwood flooring Alan and Ralphie had spent four days installing in the kitchen. She paused at the bathroom Alan had remodeled on his own.
“He was so proud of this thing,” she said.
They never saved up enough for their dream home. When they tried to sell their house two years ago, a property inspector torpedoed the deal because of a sinkhole in their backyard that he said endangered their septic system.
A few months after Alan died, when Lisa listed the house again, two offers fell through again because of the hole.
So she hired an excavation crew to fill it in and received a new offer for $118,000. But as she looked at the newly level backyard, she spotted another problem – the crew had torn up all the grass, leaving the area completely brown and bald.
“I don’t want the inspector seeing it like this,” Lisa said.
Now that she was paying rent on the new apartment, she desperately needed this bid on their house to lead to a sale.
The alarm company Alan worked for had sent a $42,000 life insurance check. The money had helped Lisa and the boys survive the past 10 months. To sell the house, Lisa had used $7,500 to replace the roof, plus $2,700 on the sink hole.
Already, half of the check was gone.
– – –
The car was silent on the long drive to the therapist’s office.
In the back seat, Ralphie fiddled with his phone. Beside him, Walker played a game on his tablet.
From the driver’s seat, Lisa glanced at her 10-year-old son in the rearview mirror and struggled for the right words to say.
They were arguing a lot these days. Ralphie contradicted her constantly. The more she tried to help, the more he seemed to resent her.
She understood his anger. She was angry, too. At the people who refused to get vaccinated, who talked constantly about the virus as a hoax even as the delta variant surged. Her own mother had said to her after Alan’s death that the pandemic was being exaggerated by the media.
She could feel the eagerness of everyone around her to simply forget and move on. All along the highway, billboards celebrated America’s reopening and readiness to get on with life.
“Stop by for free chocolate samples.”
“Every 5th drink free!”
Her drive to work every week took her past the big hospital – CoxHealth Medical Center – where Alan spent his last days. It was there that nurses had held a phone to Alan’s ears so Lisa could whisper her last words to him before they put him on a ventilator.
“We’re going to be OK. We’re going to be OK,” she had told him. She didn’t want him to die worrying about her and their kids. Months later, she still didn’t know if that was a promise she could keep.
She’d found a new therapist for them to see. But Ralphie made it clear he hated the weekly sessions.
“I don’t want to be better,” he told her after their last visit. Did it feel wrong, she’d asked him, to be OK without his father? The 10-year-old had refused to say.
The one thing that excited him these days was video games. After Alan died, Lisa caved and bought Ralphie a PlayStation 4, desperate to see her son smile again. He was obsessed with the game Minecraft.
In moments like this as they sped through the rocky Ozark terrain, gaming was often the only thing that would get him talking.
“Did you know your daddy used to play video games too?” Lisa ventured from the front seat. “He loved this one called RollerCoaster Tycoon.”
Ralphie perked up. “Hey Mama, remember that time I got you to play Minecraft with me?”
“You gave me a sword and ordered me to slaughter those cute little pigs,” Lisa chuckled. “I felt so bad for them.”
Since losing his father, Ralphie had cried and opened up to Lisa only a handful of times. But even then, he never let her hug or hold him.
What bothered her most was when Ralphie treated her as if she were stupid, like his constant criticism about selling the house.
She had explained to him the money they would save. But just as important was the fact that the new apartment sat in a school district six times bigger, with the behavioral resources to help Ralphie, who had been diagnosed a few weeks earlier with a major depressive disorder.
By the time they arrived at the therapist’s office, Ralphie had lapsed back into silence, watching Minecraft videos on his phone.
“Hi! How ya doing?” said the therapist, a balding man with glasses.
Ralphie looked away.
“Sorry we’re late,” Lisa stepped in to say.
It was only their third meeting. In their first, Ralphie had been a stone wall, refusing to talk. The therapist had spent their second session playing chess with Ralphie, after which the boy seemed willing to give one- or two-word answers to his questions.
Now, the therapist was trying to finish his assessment.
“How often do you feel sad?
“How’s your appetite?”
“Do you ever think of harming yourself?”
Ralphie kept his eyes on the ground, his mother said, and gave a curt reply: “Yes.”
Sitting beside him, Lisa stifled the urge to cry.
As soon as the session ended, the boys bounded out of the room.
On the drive back, Ralphie asked if they could stop at Wendy’s – a favorite of Alan’s – for a junior bacon cheeseburger with ketchup, mustard, pickle and no lettuce, just the way his dad had liked it.
He and his dad both loved pizza too, and had gorged on it every day during a cruise to Jamaica.
It was the last family trip they took, just weeks before COVID shut the whole world down.
“Me and Daddy ate so much pepperoni pizza, the cruise people knew exactly what we wanted the second we walked in,” Ralphie said from the back seat. “That was a good vacation, huh, Mama?”
Lisa glanced at her son in the mirror. She saw the smile on his face, and she smiled back. “It was.”
– – –
As the movers hauled furniture up piece by piece from the storage container, Lisa stood at the door directing them into the new apartment.
It was filling quickly. Each new item felt like a problem from the past complicating the future she was trying to create.
In came the gray-and-blue-flecked rug that Lisa had bought the day before Alan was diagnosed with the virus. It had seemed wrong to throw away something new, but now Lisa couldn’t stand the thought of waking up to the rug – a daily reminder of just how much their family had endured since she bought it.
“Ralphie, would you want this for your room?” she asked.
“Sure,” her son said.
The movers plopped down two hulking brown couches Alan had purchased to fit his large body. The recliners looked comical in the tiny apartment, swallowing the entire living room.
They hoisted in an enormous china cabinet – a gift from Alan’s parents. She’d thought of giving the handcrafted heirloom away, but as they were preparing to move, she saw her father-in-law’s face after one of the glass doors broke.
“Let’s put against the kitchen wall until we figure out what to do with it,” she told the movers, exasperated. “I can’t just keep dragging it everywhere I go for the rest of my life.”
She recently found a therapist for herself to help her work through the stress and grief of her new life. In their last session, he had urged Lisa to make the new apartment a space of her own. Not a shrine to Alan. Not a smaller version of their old house and what their family used to be. But a reflection of their family now – what she wanted it to be.
She’d enrolled in a graduate program to become a licensed mental health counselor. The classes started in two months. It would take four years to finish. Four years of juggling work, child care, night school, as well as $25,000 in student loans. The enormity of it frightened her, but she knew she would need a career in coming years that could support their family, maybe even pay for Ralphie and Walker to go to college.
The next night, Lisa and the boys were eating burgers and shakes at the apartment, getting ready to stay there for the first time – a test run on their new life.
“Time to brush teeth, little guy,” Lisa said to her 4-year-old.
Walker stepped into the bathroom and opened his mouth, waiting as Lisa struggled to find his toothpaste. “This is the only kind we have, so it might be tingly, OK?” she warned.
Through the window in Ralphie’s room, the sun was setting on a half-full dumpster in the uneven parking lot asphalt.
No one was sleeping very well these days.
Walker was only able to drift off lying on the living room couch with the TV on. Ralphie hated the dark so much that he refused to get in bed unless his lights were on.
At first after Alan died, Lisa returned to the bed they’d shared. She found herself always on his side, curled up in the indentation his body had left behind. It was comforting at first, until one day she couldn’t stand it anymore and had the mattress hauled away.
She bought a new one with a pure white bedspread that Alan would have hated. But it didn’t help as much as she hoped.
As she finished getting Walker washed up, she glanced at the new mattress and wondered how long she would spend lying awake tonight.
“You got your bear?” she asked Walker. Her son nodded.
Lisa lay down with her son on one of the brown couches occupying the living room.
On Walker’s pajama shirt, a Mr. Potato Head was in disarray with missing parts all around him. “Get It Together,” the shirt implored in big white letters.
Lisa scrolled through Facebook as she patted her son’s back. She looked at other people’s posts of backyard barbecues from that weekend. Parties, vacations and lives untouched by the pandemic.
Once Walker’s eyes closed, Lisa got up to check on Ralphie.
“You OK?” she asked. “You need anything?”
From his bed, Ralphie asked his mom, “Can you turn off the lights?”
For months, Lisa had been sneaking into Ralphie’s room in the middle of the night to turn the lights off. But her son was so afraid of the dark, he had started locking the door to keep them on.
Standing at his bedroom door, Lisa tried not to act surprised, afraid he’d change his mind. “Sure,” she said. “Love you.”
All around her, the apartment was a jumble of old and new. And as Lisa prepared for bed, she could feel her thoughts beginning to race. She was so busy during the day she could usually keep her them at bay. But at night, they kept her up for hours.
Before climbing into bed, Lisa took an anti-anxiety pill her doctor had prescribed for her increasingly frequent panic attacks.
For months she had tried fighting the insomnia with soft music, Himalayan salt lights, noise-canceling headphones. Listening to podcasts sometimes helped – using other voices to drown out the worries in her head.
But on this night, the worries spoke louder.
She thought about an article another widow had sent her about how some children who lose a parent grow up less likely to go to college, to have high-paying jobs, to be free of mental struggles.
She thought about the new family budget she had written out and the enormous graduate school debt she was about to take on. She thought about the messy garage and where to put all of Alan’s tools. She thought about the old house, the brown bald backyard and the property inspector due to visit in a few days.
Lying on her new mattress, covered with new bedsheets, in her new apartment, Lisa closed her eyes and waited for tomorrow to come.