In Her Own Words

In Her Own Words: ‘What I Gained When I Nearly Lost It All’

Susan Vagnoni Murphy's world came crashing down around her. Somehow she found the strength to soldier on. Read her remarkable story In Her Own Words.

What I Gained When I Nearly Lost It All - Lioness MagazineThink of the things you fear most in life:

  • Death of a family member
  • Divorce
  • Life threatening illness of your child
  • No money
  • Your home repossessed

In a five-year period in my life, every one of those things happened. It was as if the entire universe decided it was against me. If I were on my own, I may have been crushed by the weight of it all. However, I had to be present for my two little boys who were four and eight years old at the time. Their world was just as upended as mine.  How on earth did we get to this place?

My marriage, much like a cancer, could look healthy on the outside but was silently destroying me on the inside. Despite the books I read, the counselors we saw, the family advice, the long discussions and short arguments, and my tattered faith, it was inevitable – my marriage could not be saved. My own parish priest told me my husband was drowning and pulling the boys and me under with him.  It was time to leave.

So I went through the divorce and the annulment. The Catholic annulment process has you write out every part of your life before, during and after the marriage. The ritual of putting it on paper and facing it by making it so tangible was agonizing. But afterwards, there was a strange easing of the burden. A release of some of the hurt and disappointment I held inside for so long.  It was not an instant healing, but it was a start.

The divorce was in progress when the boys and I had to leave our home which was being repossessed.  I hadn’t known we were so behind in payments, and on my own I couldn’t begin to make up the gap. One of my dear friends and Godmother to my eldest was my rock during this hardship. Joanne would show up every weekend like clockwork with boxes, tape, Chinese food and some beer.  We spent many nights in that cold house (the heat had been turned off to save money) cleaning and packing what we thought might fit into the apartment I was moving to. Everything I owned was sorted into piles to give away to friends, donate to charity or just toss. Each piece of my life was examined for its worth to me or its value to others. A forced letting go of the past. At the end of each night, Joanne would pack as much as she could into her little car and haul it away so I could see the progress and not the loss.

I was job hunting at the same time and I felt overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my life and the future for my boys.  I remember unstoppable tears soaking my pillow as I fought to fall asleep at night.  In the morning, I would wake unable to move a muscle until I repeated over and over again, “It’s OK … it’s OK … it’s OK … it’s OK.”  The chant gave me strength. I only had to make it through that one day and the rest would have to wait.

I took on not one but three jobs, and one of those was managing a 54-unit apartment building in return for free rent and a small stipend. I knew nothing about this type of work and I am not sure how effective I was, but at least the boys and I had a roof over our heads.

Once we settled in, my brother John came up to visit. He died not long after so I recall this visit with great affection. We were not close as children, but in those years we really started to communicate and truly appreciate each other. It was a real blow to lose him at this point in both of our lives.

He took me to lunch one afternoon and told me how proud he was of me. He said he had friends who went through divorces and were bitter and consumed by it, but he saw the opposite in me. I was becoming my old self again; the gentler person I was in the past. I cannot tell you how much his words meant to me, because I certainly could not see that in myself at the time. I started to feel some strength creep back into in my life which helped me confront the most crushing event which was still to come.

That December, my 11-year-old son Alex nearly died from burst veins in his brain. I immediately learned that things can be worse than divorce or losing your home. A comatosed child with tubes coming from his head prioritizes everything. As I held my breath beside him in that hospital room, an army rose up in support. That watched over my younger son Nick, they prayed, they encouraged, they fed us and sent money for the medical bills. People I never met from school children to prayer groups in other countries lifted my boys and me up when we had nothing left but faint hope. A month in the hospital and four surgeries later, Alex was on the road to recovery.

Today the boys and I still live in that two bedroom apartment. I have been a single mom for years now and I know that life makes me no promises. We will be tested again and we are not alone. Looking back on it now, those heart-wrenching years taught me more about myself and the people around me than any other time in my life. I have learned you can make it through the hardest of times and find a resilience you never knew you had. As others find themselves in their dark days I try to be the support I witnessed. I have gained strength that hasn’t faded and for that, and for making it to the other side, I am eternally grateful.

As a young girl, Susan Vagnoni Murphy wanted to be Lois Lane uncovering all the cutting edge exclusives. The problem…she also wanted to be Superwoman making a difference in the world with her mad skills.  Who knew you could be both by having children and raising hell here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Susan writes articles, blogs, poetry, grant proposals, business media and just about anything else that needs a human voice.