Meet the Smiths, longtime Tri-Valley residents who seemingly did everything right to achieve success, only to see it completely unravel, year by year, as they struggle with serious health and financial woes. This is Part One of their story and one in a national Patch series called Dispatches, a look at the changing American Dream.
LIVERMORE — Nancy and Troy Smith sit side-by side on a couch in the living room of their apartment, legs touching absent-mindedly, talking quietly about their lives 27 years ago, when she was the Pleasanton manager and he was a long-haired rocker who loved sunsets and believed in miracles.
The memories come in bursts. They tell a Patch writer about going to rock concerts, the marriage proposal on the beach, their vacation to the World's Fair in Canada. And now their only daughter is 21 and a mother herself living in Massachusetts. It went by so fast.
Something bad happens and you think, 'God, I just can't take one more thing.' This could be the one thing that breaks it.
Then something halts the conversation.
Nancy Smith's seizure that recent day came on slowly, first just a dizzy spell. She couldn't find the words to say what she wanted to say, and within seconds, her limbs are flexing involuntarily, her body and face contorted. That's how it goes, says husband Troy Smith, a Pleasanton park maintenance worker. He has seen it a million times. He grabbed his wife's hand, rubbed her thumb with his, then waited wordlessly and with wet eyes for Nancy to be still.
When it's over, she apologizes to the writer who is there to tell their story, a story of what illness, a foreclosure and unemployment have done to this family of three and their dreams.
She hates that her husband, the love of her life, has become her caretaker. Hates that she can't drive, can't work, can't remember conversations from 20 minutes ago.
Because she can't work, they lost their home of 22 years. Their income cut in half, they had to declare bankruptcy. The Smiths, both 47, now live in an apartment on Water Lily Commons in Livermore, just paces away from their old neighborhood. Sometimes it's hard to be so close, but they couldn't leave, either.
The illness rips at the Smith family from the inside, testing their bonds and their love for each other, testing their ability to make it in this world.
"You raise your kid and that kid leaves the nest and you think, 'It's just going to be us again,'" said Troy.
"But then all these things happen, and you can't do any of those things you wanted to do. Everything just … changed.
"Something bad happens and you think, 'God, I just can't take one more thing.' This could be the one thing that breaks it."
Troy and Nancy Smith represent one of the many families in California to lose their home in the mid- to late 2000s. They slog daily through the Social Security and disability payment mess, through bankruptcy and the fallout from foreclosure. Add to that the social stigmas in this era of Occupy and the gap between rich-versus-poor — they are all too aware that they're part of the struggling 99 percent, and are yearning for a dignity and respect that they used to take for granted.
They say maybe they won't ever get back to where they were before. But maybe they can find a middle ground.
Troy and Nancy decided to share their story as part of a national Patch series about the changing face of the American dream. They said sometimes they feel alone, but they know that others may be going through the same things, and they hope they can relate.
Nancy's first dizzy spell was 22 years ago, when she was pregnant. She was in the shower, started to see white and didn't know where she was for a few seconds.
Nancy, who is adopted, called her mom afterward but she had never been pregnant and couldn't help. She asked about her biological parents' medical history, but her mom had no detailed information. The spells happened a few more times, and then after daughter Chelsea was born, they went away.
Then when she was 32, working as an office manager for a food broker in Pleasant Hill, she started having hallucinations at work. Again she didn't know where she was, and this time, she also didn't know who she was.
She went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a "seizure condition."
The doctors did an MRI and saw no abnormalities; they put her on medication and then kept upping it to get it right.
Then, she started seeing doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, the top university in the country for epilepsy research and treatment.
It was there that a student doctor nonchalantly noted her epilepsy, then said, "You don't drive, right?" Nancy was stunned. She told him no one had said that to her before. That day, he reported her to the DMV.
"I didn't remember the drive home," she said. "The doctors had told me I had epilepsy, and all I could think about was 'I can't drive.' I didn't do one thing wrong. I worked hard, I did everything right and this happened. It was a huge blow to just have it dropped on me like that."
She underwent more testing. At work, she would break into cold sweats and couldn't concentrate. The dance with medication continued over the years — increased dosages, fiddling around with different types to see what worked best.
When Nancy was 37, UCSF decided she qualified for brain surgery — a left temporal lobectomy. But it took awhile to get her in, as well as time for Troy's insurance to give the OK. He'd been with the city of Pleasanton for 16 years at that point and had great insurance, but it still took time. After a year, in August of 2002, doctors opened up Nancy's head.
They removed three pieces of her brain — all the size of an egg, she says. Normal brain tissue is supposed to be soft, but some pieces were hard — gristly, like steak.
Nancy has suffered head trauma in her life, but no one knows if this is what caused her condition, or if it would have happened anyway. There were four major incidents that could have yielded scar tissue. First, she was thrown off a horse as a teen. Then, when she was 20, she was camping with her family and dove into a river, hitting her head underwater. She was embarrassed and never told anyone.
Also in her 20s, she was hit in the head with a baseball during a co-ed game; that one landed her in an ambulance. Then 15 years ago, someone crashed into her green Saturn full-speed on a freeway off-ramp near Pleasant Hill. Her head hit the window.
"The docs think the head trauma may have caused this, but they don't know."
Surgery and its aftermath
After the surgery, Nancy woke up with a giant bandage on her head, unable to speak. Troy remembers being petrified.
"I went home and prayed and lit a candle and went to sleep. Then the phone rings at 2:30 in the morning — it was her. I just hear this, 'How are you?' and I swear, at that moment, the candle went out. It was the most amazing feeling — I was crying and saying, 'Thank you, thank you.'"
He got up, threw some clothes in the washer and decided he wouldn't go back to sleep that night. He wanted to be at the hospital first thing in the morning.
Troy took care of his wife over the next three months. She went from barely able to eat cereal to a functioning adult. She went back to work, but only part-time, and was not, in her words, her old self.
Her short-term memory was shot, for starters. She stuttered. She couldn't plan ahead, and being a very organized person before, this frustrated her.
At this point, she was working for a company managing software product lines. Her boss told her she was doing a fantastic job, but Nancy didn't believe it.
A year later, she was still struggling. While reading a book, she couldn't remember what was on the previous page. Pre-surgery, she had devoured Harry Potter books, in all their 600-page glory.
"I felt disabled," she said. "I was told, 'This is how you'll be.'"
She went seven-plus years without a seizure, but definitely suffered.
"Then I said, 'No friggin' way,' and I did everything I could to reactivate my brain."
She read "The Da Vinci Code" by highlighting prominent parts of the book with markers and re-reading them to jog her memory. She looked up pictures of all the famous paintings mentioned in the book. She used colored sticky-notes to represent certain themes. It took her a long time to finish the book, but she did it.
Then, she started doing the same thing at work — managing her product lines through color codes. But in 2007, she was laid off, and that's when the real trouble began.
She had 15 years of experience but no college degree. By this time, the country was beginning to fall into a recession. The housing bubble had burst; in 2008 alone, when the Smiths started struggling with their house payments, 25 percent of mortgages nationwide were delinquent.
Foreclosures that year had nearly doubled over the previous year, and then went up another 21 percent in 2009, according to data-tracking firm Realty Trac. Stockton, a mere 40 miles away from Livermore, had (and still has) the distinction of being the city with the nation's highest foreclosure rate.
In 2009, Nancy worked as a part-time checker at Safeway to try to make ends meet. That same year, she landed a job — against all odds — doing the same type of thing she'd done before, with a company in Hayward. She had gotten her driver's license back years before, so the commute wasn't an issue. They were still underwater on bills, but it seemed things were finally looking up for the little family that could.
Then the seizures returned.. And this time, they couldn't stop the bank from taking their house.
"It never occurred to me to cut and run"
Nancy hasn't been able to work since. She went back to UCSF for tests, and Troy took more time off work to be with her. He says his bosses in Pleasanton have been understanding, but you can only take so much time off before it affects your paycheck.
Now, doctors are saying Nancy's condition is different, that her seizures are "non-epileptic." In February 2010, she gave up her driver's license again. She relies on Troy to get around, but she hates inconveniencing him. They are both stressed, and Nancy gets depressed.
She cries sometimes, asking Troy, "Why are you still here?"
Troy, who is a big, tough-looking guy but cries easily, said he never thought about leaving.
"It never occurred to me to cut and run," he said. "You don't do that when times are tough. You stay, and you bail the water out of the boat. I wouldn't have chosen this, but you make the best of the situation.
It never occurred to me," he said again. "I love her."
Read Part Two of Troy and Nancy Smith's story by clicking .
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” at The Huffington Post.