A Master Class In Finding The Bright Side
Michael and Stacy Lee have had a really tough year. So why do they feel so positive?
Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism project. Normally, we answer questions about Vermont that have been submitted and voted on by our audience. Today, we return to a couple we met in a previous episode.
Back with the Lees
In April of 2019, we did an episode about climate change in Vermont. As part of the reporting, I went to talk to Michael and Stacy Lee, of Brandon.
They lived in a white ranch next to the Neshobe River that was prone to flooding. They were hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and again in the summer of 2017.
“The river has taught us a lot,” Stacy said. “It’s taught us how to survive.”
We sat at their kitchen table, and they told me about this really hard process they were going through. They were taking a buyout on their house — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other federal and state funding sources. They were going to put the money toward a new home, and move somewhere else that, ideally, did not flood. And this house that they’d lived in for 24 years was going to be demolished.
“One minute we’re happy to move forward and start a new life, and then the next minute we’re crying our eyes out,” Stacy said. “Because this has been our home.”
The Lees made a big impression on me. Not just because of the heartache they were experiencing, but because they talked so openly about it.
“The feeling that, you know, I’ve cracked all my teeth — just driving home, you feel your jaw tighten up,” Mike said. “And it’s because you’ve worked your whole life and all the sudden you don’t know where you’re at.”
If you missed that episode, you might go back and listen/read first. Because this story is about what’s happened to the Lees since. And it’s a lot.
“Yes. We’ve seen it all. I don’t think I could write a better one-year scenario,” Mike said recently. “We look back at now and I kind of smile — for a tricky year, it kind of turned out alright.”
"Meant to be"
I gave Mike Lee a call this spring, to tell him that the climate change episode had won a journalism award. His number is the same, but his address is different. He and Stacy live in Pittsford now, about 10 miles from their old house in Brandon.
Their Pittsford house is on a super private lot at the end of a cul-de-sac off Route 7. Woods all around, and a ton of yard space.
“We’ve got a nice back deck, we’ve got a three-season porch, and then we have our little porch here,” Mike says during a tour of the property. “And we did all our landscaping and our flowers.”
With the pandemic, of course, I can’t go in the house, so we sit on the back deck, looking out on their garden and hammocks. Stacy tells me how they landed here:
“After we talked with you, we started really seriously looking at homes. We saw this house online and we looked at it … three times. The first time, I was, ‘No.’ And Mike had to help me get past the cosmetic stuff, and look at the structure itself. Once I was able to do that, I came to terms with it.”
There were other psychological hurdles. The buyout appraisal on their Brandon house didn’t come in as high as they wanted. And then after they moved out, it really did get completely demolished.
“It’s very strange — like, he came home from hunting one day, and he said, ‘I drove by and the house is gone,’” Stacy recalls.
“They rolled in and professionally removed it. You wouldn’t even know it was there,” Mike adds.
“And I had to get in my car and go look for myself,” Stacy says. “I just had to put that to bed. So that was a very strange feeling. But now I can drive by there ... it’s just not where we are anymore.”
Here in Pittsford, both Mike and Stacy are closer to work, in Rutland. He’s a technician at Key Honda. And she’s a nurse at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Their daughter works at the hospital, too — and what’s great about this house is that part of the basement is finished, so she can live down there while she works on her master’s, and everyone can have a bit of privacy.
“So it was almost like it was meant to be,” Stacy says.
And most importantly, it stays dry:
“We did not want to live on anything — River Street, Brookdale Drive, no Lakeview. We wanted woods!” Mike says, adding they made sure the closest body of water was a long ways away. “It was a huge relief. We didn’t realize exactly how almost-OCD we were living by the weather until we got away from it.”
“Now we don’t even watch the weather,” says Stacy. “The only reason we watch the weather is so we can get on our Harley and go for a ride.”
It’s been just over a year since the Lees moved here. But Mike says it felt like home the minute they put the key in the door.
“Home is where my wife is. And everything was here, everything that we need to proceed with life was in one place. And we just ran with it,” he says.
Bumps in the road
At first I thought this story was going to be about the Lees’ successful relocation. Until I heard about everything else that’s happened to them.
“Things got better, and things got better, and then we hit a bump in the road,” Mike says. “Then things got better, and we hit a bump in the road.”
The first bump was a knee replacement for Mike. That happened in September.
“I walked bone-on-bone for a year, not knowing when I could schedule surgery, because obviously I couldn’t move [out of Brandon] if I was on crutches,” he says. “So we prolonged the knee until everything was settled, and unfortunately by that time I was about debilitated.”
Mike was laid up recovering for three months. He finally got back to work in December. But then, over the holidays, another bump. Actually, two bumps.
“It was a Saturday evening and his brothers had come over to play cards,” Stacy recalls. “And during the evening I was watching his color. His color didn’t look quite right to me. And then when everyone left I said to him, ‘Do you feel OK?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve got acid reflux really bad ... and it’s going into my back.’ And I’m like, ‘Acid reflux doesn’t really go into your back.’”
Mike was having a heart attack. But he didn’t believe it:
“Headstrong old Vermonter, not me.”
Eventually an ambulance came to pick him up.
“And then, you know, I remember a little here, a little there, I remember a little bit of a helicopter, and waking up in Dartmouth [Hitchcock Medical Center], and waking up in a room, surrounded by my family. And they said, ‘Mike, you beat it. You beat the widowmaker.’ And I said, ‘Wow, you’re sure?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, you’re good to go.’ I said, ‘You’re really sure? Because I feel like I’m having another heart attack.’ And I did.”
Fresh out of heart surgery, Mike had a second heart attack.
Stacy explains that this was a complication from the heart surgery, where the blood cells attacked the stent that was just put in.
“And the chances of that happening are like, almost none,” she says.
“So they had to take me back in, and take that [stent] out and put three more in, and pulled out a 3 ½ inch blood clot,” Mike says.
Stacy was terrified.
“Mike and I have been together since we were 17. So to have my whole life kind of like, pulled out from underneath me and dangling in front of me, and not knowing where things were going to end up was a little — um, a lot scary,” she says. “Probably the scaredest I’ve ever been. Because for a little while I thought I was really going to be a widow. And have this beautiful house that we moved into and then end up being alone. And that was a very horrible feeling. And I knew that’s not what he wanted either, and so that’s what hurt me the most.
“You think you know what a bad day is. I didn’t know what a bad day was. I know what it is now. And it kind of puts a lot of things in perspective, real quick.”
Perspective, a pandemic and protests
Mike was in the hospital for a few days. Then he came home to Pittsford to recover.
“The house took care of me for a while. I just got to sit and enjoy it, and bond,” he says. “It was — I hate to sound weird, but it was nice. I needed it.”
And the doctors said it was a good thing the ambulance only had to go to Pittsford that night, and not all the way to Brandon. The timing was that tight.
“They told us that if we had had to come from Brandon, they weren’t sure how things would’ve ended up,” Stacy says. “So this is another blessing, that we were meant to be here.”
This is what’s so remarkable about talking to Mike and Stacy. No matter how dire the circumstance, they find a silver lining.
And we haven’t even gotten to the latest bump in the road: The pandemic. Remember, both Stacy and their daughter work at a hospital.
“We were both petrified that we’d bring home the virus to Mike,” Stacy says.
“Yeah, that was an incident in itself,” Mike says. “We [set] the garage up as a triage unit, so when she came home, waiting in the garage was a fresh change of clothes and a bag for her scrubs.”
Stacy says this routine continued for more than a month, until her hospital began providing scrubs for staff to change into and out of on site.
Like his wife, Mike says the events of the past year have put things in perspective:
“I sit back and I look at all the things that have happened with the pandemic, and all the Black Lives Matter movements, and the world is so, in a state of upheaval right now, that we really appreciate our safe little home.”
Given their emotional resilience, I ask Mike and Stacy if they have any advice for people who are struggling with their own bumps in the road. And they have lots:
Mike: “Keep your head down and keep focused. Nothing lasts forever. Bad times are just blips in the road.”
Stacy: “You need to deal with whatever you’re dealing with as a team. You need to set a goal — obtainable goals.”
Mike: “We’ve learned that setting out unreasonable goals, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. Every day, even when I was home and I wasn’t working, I would set goals, you know, ‘Today I’m gonna do five storm windows and scrape a wall.’ It got me out of bed, and it got me tired enough to go to bed. And we just kept moving every day. Pick projects, nail ‘em.”
They make it sound so simple. But then, maybe sticking to the basics really is the best way through whatever challenge you’re facing.
Mike: “Sleep on things before you say things. Try not to anger the people that are helping you. Appreciate everything that everybody does.”
Stacy: “Because if you can see something positive out of it, then usually that’s what happens, is something positive. And that’s really what’s happened to us.”
Mike: “Yeah, there was nothing negative about it. We lost a beautiful home, but we ended up with a beautiful home. So there’s positives in everything. Sometimes it takes a little while for it to luster up, but it’s there.”
This episode was edited by Lynne McCrea, with engineering support from Chris Albertine. Brave Little State’s digital producer is Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR sustaining members. If you’re a fan, make a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate.