I AM the kind of person who awakens with a start at 2 a.m. and feels compelled to trudge upstairs to check my sleeping girls and make sure there is no fire, burglar, or draft. I have been known to turn back after five miles to check if the iron I used yesterday is unplugged. I find that when I make cookies I will double the recipe to freeze a few dozen, just in case. Growing up in a family of Cuban refugees who lost everything when they fled has made me, apparently, strive to make safe the small particul ars of life as best I can.
Which is why the shock of finding my husband disqualified for a job that seemed assured has left me gasping, unprepared to lose this very basic life security - the career. When we planned three years ago to make the necessary changes for an international life as part of the United States foreign service, the way was paved with supposedly smart moves and encouragement. When the difficult exams were passed, the security check completed, and the family medical forms filled out, we sat back waiting eagerly f or a challenging new life to begin. We were unprepared for the brisk note we received one day in September informing us that because three of us had minor physical problems, my husband had been disqualified. Our three-year endeavor ended abruptly with that letter.
My husband and I sat stunned, speechless, and looked over and over at the words that made no sense. I didn't realize it then, even after the tears began, but we were, from that moment, propelled into a new territory that was not on any map: We were on the outside looking in. Everything we wanted, dreamed of, and expected, was no longer possible. We were, in a sense, outcasts forced to remove ourselves from the future we still kept imagining. There were those who were inside, working at the life we had fe lt promised. But suddenly a wall of separation had planted itself between us and them.
It is that alien territory known by the evicted family who must leave their home to wander blindly down unfriendly city streets. Or by the man in crumpled clothes who rummages through the dumpsters in the park collecting soda cans from other people's picnics. It is a scary place to be, on the outside looking in. Five months ago I would not have believed we could have lasted here so long.
And yet, we are more fortunate than most. We are able to keep paying the rent because of income from our leased farmland. The used clothing stores where I shop lend a kind dignity that those who must take handouts are denied. I also haven't felt the sting of using food stamps at the grocery or visiting the free clinic. But yet I feel a sense of solidarity with others going through this uncertain, interminable time when thoughts reverberate with the refrain, "Will we make it or not?" It begins to feel alm ost like a misplaced key that if found would surely open the right door and life could resume its pace. For many, the key is too long in coming; cities are filling tragically with those who just might not make the jump from hopelessness to a fighting chance.
We fought immediately that seemingly unjust decision, knowing our fitness for the job. An appeal committee met. Doctors and bureaucrats studied our medical information and a long letter of supportive evidence. After days of waiting, a brief note came with an unequivocal "no." We were informed that although two of us were cleared for worldwide service, our six-year-old's condition was considered a liability that the State Department found unacceptable. My husband, qualified though he was, would not be hir ed.
On the nightly news I watch as Haitian refugees are rounded up and sent back home to face more political repression, or Russian citizens stand in long lines to buy a loaf of bread, or American unemployed line up in the hundreds to apply for 20 jobs. I've driven by men standing on street corners holding signs that say, "I'll work for food to feed my family." I've seen farming families go bankrupt and auction their ancestral acres to pay the bills. Before my eyes, the faces of the needy pass, and I feel th e churning anxiety of injustice start its grip.
I have found, in living through these months of "outsideness," that injustice is a two-edged sword that can lead to hopeless inactivity or renewed strength of will. I'm not proud to say I've given in many times these months to despair. When 50 organizations receive my husband's resume and don't respond, I'm often grim. When 20 phone calls around the country to check up on leads yield polite wishes of good luck, but no interviews, I begin to doubt. The security and opportunity I once took for granted has been replaced by a "walking over an abyss" kind of anxiety that plagues my dreams and greets me at daybreak. But, we've kept on walking.
Eventually, the stunned grief gives way to tenacious struggle. I've discovered that life is too short to waste and that I have a choice. An unshakable determination to fight this situation has stirred from some unexplored region deep within. Perhaps it is the legacy of a father who fought to free his country from oppression and died, a hero, in Castro's prison. Perhaps it is the hope-filled faces of our children who deserve the best that we can give. From somewhere the strength has come; I'm doing things
that before I wouldn't have managed.
I've approached ambassadors and senators to plead our case and, in doing so, felt dignity restored. I've taken a part-time temporary job teaching Spanish in a private school to children ages 10 to 13. Never, I used to say in the past, will I teach this age group five days a week after so many pleasant years with adult students. But when the offer came, our situation forced me to reconsider, and I find myself daily presenting verb conjugations and dialogues to fidgety and vocal youngsters. Each day as I w alk into that privileged school, I feel the sharp reminder of our own precarious budget even more.
We are still, nevertheless, on the outside looking in. Christmas has come and gone and still when relatives ask I have to say, "No, he hasn't found a job yet." Our phone rings less and friends, though sympathetic, decide it's best, for the most part, to stay away. For them, life moves on in busyness and demands, achievements and rewards.
We have moved on too, in the reduced, humble way of those in transition. We've concentrated on the basic everyday pleasures of walking the dogs on a rare winter's day of sunshine. We've delighted in the children's basketball games and science-fair projects and unexpected newborn hamster babies. And everyday the job search continues with new letters to write and calls to make.
My husband has pounded pavement in Washington during one job-seeking stint and will return again soon. But before he leaves I will remind him how we are all, at one point or another, on the outside looking in. There is never absolute security in this world. Governments change, wars begin, businesses collapse, and peach crops freeze. But we can know that we have a choice: to move on beyond the abyss or to stay on the edge despairing.
We'll keep on looking for our own particular niche where frustrating joblessness can be replaced by productive labor. I hold on tenaciously to the belief that we'll survive this season and like our last, best peach crop on the farm we once managed, bring forth unexpected fruit. Then, perhaps, someday, somewhere, we'll have the chance to extend a hand to someone else on the outside.