‘Up until that point, I’d lived a charmed life. Then tragedy struck. It was isolating. But they also didn’t throw a ‘pity party’ for me.’: Man credits resilience for getting him through ‘each of those dark days’

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“The simple definition of resilience is ‘the capacity to recover from difficulties.’ I have constantly heard how ‘resilient’ I am, throughout the differing degrees of adversity I have been faced with. When I look back at how I reacted and carried on through these situations, I am struck by the fact I could not have moved forward on my own.

Back in 1990, at 23 years old, my life was quickly thrown upside down. Up until that point, I had lived a life that I would say was charmed. Then tragedy struck when the love of my life, and the center of my amazing life, was suddenly killed in a car accident.

I look back now and reflect on how was I able to get through each of those early dark days. Most people in my life at that time did not handle the situation very well. They said the wrong things,  expected me to react in an unrealistic manner, or they avoided me altogether. But in those darkest of days, unexpected heroes emerged. People that allowed me to be me, but also forced me to continue to live life and move forward. While I was living through those days, I didn’t stop and think about how much certain people were doing for me. It wasn’t until many years later, I could look back and put into perspective how that handful of people had such a part in my initial ability to exist and my ultimate resilience.

Something I learned at this early age was perspective. Most people my age did not yet have life experiences that could relate to mine. It was very isolating to be the one that had something so tragic and final happen to. The heroes that emerged in my life didn’t try to say they knew how I felt. They just let me be and they listened. But they also didn’t throw a ‘pity party’ for me. They lived and laughed with me too.

Some people are fortunate and manage to go through life fairly smoothly. They don’t lose a partner or a child at an early age. Their parents and siblings live a long and healthy life. They are healthy themselves. But this is really the exception, rather than the rule. Most people we encounter on a daily basis have some burden and pain they are carrying with them. This pain and these realities of life do enable us to become more aware and more empathetic human beings.

I look at the life circumstances that have happened to me since Dana’s death and they are big in their own way. In 2005, I was running the fastest growing start-up supermarket chain in the country. This was ‘my baby’ I had helped develop from the beginning. As I was working like crazy, a power-play was emerging with my ‘right-hand man.’ To make a long story short, I was blind-sided and pushed aside. At the time, I put all of the blame on those within my inner circle. But as I reflect now, I realize I was dealing with so much anger and rage back then. My out of control temper was also sabotaging me. I had stock in the company. I thought the document I had proved a certain amount of stock options. The owner had a different idea of what that document said. He ultimately won that argument and the millions of dollars I thought would be mine never materialized. Eventually, the company was sold for several hundred million dollars.

How did I handle this? I handled it with plenty of anger and bitterness. But I also had perspective from what I had gone through earlier in life. Sure, this was my career I had worked so hard to build and this was a lot of money. But it couldn’t compare to losing the love of my life at 23 years old. I made it through that so I certainly could make it through this.

I pulled my boots up and reinvented myself. Rather than listen to the calls from grocery industry headhunters who had opportunities in other states, I changed gears and went into a whole new line of work. I had some time with a severance package. So I took that opportunity and I got into the mortgage business as a mortgage loan originator (loan officer). I took a class from a young, twenty-something originator named Kyle. He taught me the business and I quickly thrived. In my first year, I made more money than I had made in the previous year as a grocery executive. I knew a lot of people that respected and trusted me. I built a strong business out of referrals developed from this respect and trust. Kyle and I became business partners, and he patiently helped me get my complicated loan files closed. Business was good and I loved the freedom, flexibility, and the ability to make a positive impact on others in my new line of work.

My wife, Shelly, and I bought a beautiful house and had it remodeled into our dream home. But not long after doing this, the housing market and the economy began to crumble. Property values fell dramatically. Banks started to fail. This was a nationwide crisis, but here in Phoenix, the depth of the crisis was as bad as anywhere in the country. I had plenty of clients that wanted to refinance their loans. But values plummeted in such a way that people suddenly owed more than what their homes were worth. I couldn’t get many loans closed. My income was 100 percent commission, so my income drastically declined. The housing industry was in a catastrophic situation. The economy was suffering in a way we had not seen in my lifetime. It was like I was right in the middle of another bad dream. But again, with the perspective I had, I did not let these new challenges overcome me.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

I needed to figure out a way to make more money than what I was struggling to make in the housing industry. I jumped back short term into retail. It was an opportunity running a Halloween store for Spirit Halloween. I worked night and day, setting up and running the Halloween store and continuing in the mortgage business at the same time. The Halloween season came and went quickly, but I sure appreciated the money, challenge, and fun while it lasted.

Once the Halloween season was over, I again needed to supplement my income. The economy had gotten so bad, grocery jobs weren’t even available. I had a realtor friend that had started driving a taxi-cab for the biggest local cab company. She was making some decent cash. I quickly decided to do this. I didn’t hesitate at jumping into the opportunity.

It’s amazing what you will do to provide for your family when your back is up against the wall. I quickly became the best possible cab driver I could be. Initially, my plan was to stay out of the unsafe areas of the city. But that plan quickly changed as I chased the most lucrative fares throughout the fifth largest metro area in the country. Shifts were 12 hours long. Sometimes I’d work day shifts, but I found that I preferred 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. I would do this several days a week and then work on my mortgage business during the day.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

I found myself meeting people from every walk of life and background. I could be driving a wealthy lady on a series of errands and minutes later, be driving a homeless person with all of their life-long possessions to a city park for them to spend the night. At 4 a.m., I could be waiting to pick up a fare on a dark side-street in the most crime-ridden square mile of the city.

I have always been a competitive person that enjoys challenging myself to new inner-goals. It was no different driving a cab. The hustle and the unknown of what each shift would bring became fascinating to me. I soon had return clients calling me from all areas of the city and was quickly making $250 to $500 a shift. The long-time ‘cabbies’ said my success was unheard of. I found that the more relaxed, humble, and talkative I was, the more money that I would make.

This six-month experience was life-changing for me. I remember driving in the middle of the night, thinking how much more rewarding this was than being the big-shot executive I had once been. At that point, I was one of the biggest names in the retail side of the fast-growing natural foods industry. Five years later, I was anonymously driving a cab through the ‘mean-streets’ of Phoenix.

Society would say that this was a tremendous fall. I was losing my house and was in constant danger, hustling in the middle of the night just to have enough money to pay some of the bills and put food on the table. But the realization I wasn’t alone and I needed to count the blessings I had hit me like a ton of bricks. So many of my passengers had such sad or inspirational stories to tell. I would listen and sometimes share different aspects of my story of resilience with them. I started learning people were generally good. Most people just want someone to listen to them and treat them with respect. I was discovering people were generally the same, whether they were in the wealthiest or poorest parts of the city.

Halloween season came along and I was asked to run a number of stores for that season. I found I had become a better manager after my experience in the cab. I had become more empathetic and understanding. I also had done tremendous work on my temper.

During this Halloween season, I got a call and was asked to do a grocery consulting job for a natural food retailer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A couple of weeks after Halloween, I took a five-day trip to Wyoming. This store owner had just bought the store. He had never been in the grocery business before and was realizing he quickly needed help. There were so many areas of opportunity where I helped him with the business while I was there. He kept me on retainer to keep helping him once I returned to Arizona.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

About a month after my visit to Wyoming, he asked me what it would take to move up there and run the store for him. I threw out a crazy annual pay number to him. That number didn’t faze him a bit. Suddenly, I had a lucrative job offer to get back into the grocery business in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I told Shelly. She thought that it was a ridiculous idea, but I was a realist and knew this was much better than any opportunity in Arizona. The economy was at rock bottom. The mortgage business had become so tough and there weren’t any adequate opportunities back in grocery. I had connected well with the owner of the store. He had been a successful entrepreneur and had the finances to run the store in the right way. He respected my knowledge and success in the natural food business and was eager for my help. On a personal level, he had lost his wife five years earlier, so we seemed to bond with our similar experience of loss.

Five weeks later, I left the 70 degrees of Phoenix for the winter wonderland of Wyoming. Shelly and our boys, Dylan and Taylor, stayed behind until summer. The family was not thrilled to leave Arizona. Shelly and I always made it a priority to not move the boys from their schools and familiarity, but these were desperate times. Eventually, with differing degrees of enthusiasm, all three embraced the new adventure.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

It seemed every move I made with the store became a success. Sales and profits skyrocketed. Per square foot, we had become one of the busiest natural food stores in the country. My natural foods ‘swagger’ was back! I built a team of the smartest, most passionate people I had ever been around. As the small-town local grocer, I became a well-known and prominent member of the tight-knit mountain community. I was asked to be a board member with three of the local non-profit organizations. I became the host of a popular weekly alternative music radio show on KHOL 89.1 FM (with the help of my son Dylan) that we named ‘The Hole Enchilada.’ The warmth of the community and the beauty and peacefulness of the landscape was again life-changing for me.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

Shelly, being the amazing baker that she is, started a small baking business. She really missed Arizona, but had gotten busy and was meeting people through her business. We were finding success in our new surroundings.

Then one day everything changed once again.

On January 17th, 2013, I was at work and received a call from Shelly she had been hurt. It was hard for me to understand at first. There was an explosion in the kitchen and she had been hit in the face. She sent me a picture of her swollen, bloody, black, and blue face. I was horrified. I was thirty minutes away. I made some calls to try to get her a ride to the doctor. To no avail, I rushed out of work and toward home. I had severe winter conditions to battle on my drive up and over the Teton Pass to our home in Victor, Idaho. On the drive home, I received a call from a nurse. Shelly had managed to scrape the ice and snow off of the windshield enough to be able to drive herself to the nearby urgent care. The nurse said she needed to be driven quickly to the hospital in the next town, which was about fifteen minutes further north. They were worried about her eye and nose. The nurse drove her to the hospital and I met Shelly there. I was shocked seeing Shelly so battered and bruised. It turned out that her eye was fine, but her nose was broken. All else was reported as being fine. We felt thankful and drove home.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

What had happened was Shelly made some homemade ginger ale. She put the finished product in empty 2-liter bottles. One bottle ended up at the back of the refrigerator. Shelly discovered it one day and decided to pour it out. She sat it on the kitchen counter, got busy, and forgot about it. It sat on the kitchen counter, slowly turning into a bomb. At the exact split second Shelly passed the kitchen sink, the bottled exploded. The force of the blast knocked Shelly to the ground and unconscious for twenty minutes or so.

All seemed okay as Shelly’s face continued to heal. About two weeks after the accident, Shelly called me at work to tell me what to bring home for dinner. She could not get the words out. Again, I quickly rushed home. Shelly was suddenly struggling to walk and talk. We saw a neurologist the next day. In a very non-compassionate manner, he told me that Shelly had a traumatic brain injury. She was like a soldier that had been hit by a bomb at war. He also told me her life would most likely never be the same. 90 percent of those knocked unconscious never regain consciousness. We were told that we should consider ourselves lucky.

The journey since has been one that has amazed me with Shelly’s grace, strength, courage, and positive attitude. She has had to learn to walk and talk again. Many pieces of both her long-term and short-term memory are gone. She struggles to multi-task. Her brain is in constant panic mode from the severe PTSD she is saddled with. But she never ever feels sorry for herself or asks ‘why me.’ I have become her caregiver, as she cannot do many things on her own.

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

Since this accident, there has been so much new adversity for us to battle through as a family. The medical bills piled up. My employer didn’t have as big a heart or prove to be as good of a person as I initially thought him to be. We were a thousand miles away from the support of close friends and family. Good medical care was five hours away. It was such a long, lonesome and painful road for Shelly to adjust to her ‘new normal’ in a strange and remote environment. But we became an even stronger and closer family, and I became even more empathetic.

In late 2015, the opportunity to come back to Arizona presented itself. Kyle, my old partner in the mortgage business, had stuck with the business through the toughest of times. The housing market eventually corrected and the economy came back to life. He had worked hard and had become a big success. I have so much gratitude he asked me to get back down to Phoenix and join the busy branch he was managing.

I have reinvented myself once again, both personally and professionally. It took time, but I am starting to thrive again in the mortgage business. But most importantly Shelly is thriving back down here with her friends and the comfortable surroundings of the city she loves.

What a battle and journey it has been and continues to be. I look back through it all and can’t believe how far I have come as a human being. I continue to take it one day at a time and strive to be the best person I can possibly be.

Thank goodness for resilience, because without it, I can’t imagine where I would be.”

Courtesy of Bob Millsap

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Bob Millsap, a 50-something who has been on a long journey with grief and adversity. He is blessed with an amazing family, wife Shelly, and sons Dylan (24) and Taylor (19). He lives in the far western suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. You can follow his journey on his blog, Ten Thousand Days.

Read Bob’s emotional backstory of loss, and finding love after loss:

‘As I drove up to the cute 1950’s California ranch house, the emotion of our shattered future hit me hard. The tears flowed down my face.’

‘Three more weeks and we will never have to say goodbye again’: Man epically recounts ‘fairytale’ love story

‘Ginger ale slowly fermented and turned into a bomb. It detonated at the exact moment she walked passed it. The force of the blast knocked her unconscious to the ground.’

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