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 Two of their story and one in a national Patch series called Dispatches, a look at the changing American Dream.
To read Part One, click .
Troy Smith's mom was a regular at in Pleasanton back in the 1980s, and got to know the restaurant's spunky manager, 18-year-old Nancy Caddell, whose parents owned the place.
When Troy's mom would go in, she would say to the girl, "You're so cute — I should adopt you."
Nancy, who actually was adopted, took a liking to her. They shared an interest in the soap opera "Days of Our Lives" and would chat about it often — not the version on television now, but the one back in the day that featured Bo and Hope and Stefano DiMera and the Salem Strangler. Before Marlena got possessed by the devil.
"The toughest thing for me is, we did everything in our power to do the right thing. We emptied our savings, our retirement accounts, our life insurance, and it's still not enough."
As it turns out, Troy's mom had gone through an adoption ordeal herself. Nancy wanted to find her birth mom, and said, "Will you help me?" So she put Nancy in touch with the Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), and Nancy found her birth mother in one day. They became amazing friends.
One day, Troy's mom said to Nancy, "I have a son you should meet," and showed her a photograph of Troy — a cute, smiling high school senior. Then Sandra brought him in one night and introduced them.
"I think she expected fireworks, but it was just really awkward," Nancy said.
Years later, when they were both 21, Troy Smith went into the restaurant one day alone. Nancy didn't recognize — by then, he was a strapping 21-year-old construction apprentice, long-haired and leather-jacketed. Every girl's dream. Nancy thought he was gorgeous.
"I said, 'Hey Nancy,'" he said.
She said: "And then I recognized his voice."
She made his pizza that night, and he offered to hang out with her at the restaurant the following Saturday while she did inventory. Then, he invited her to the Laserium in San Francisco to see a Pink Floyd show. She said, "Pink who?" She listened to the Pointer Sisters; he was more into Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and KISS.
He made her a mix tape, and then they listened to it in her blue 1984 Toyota Celica GT. However, Troy had a long-distance girlfriend, so he and Nancy were just friends at first. But after he and the girlfriend broke up, the two started dating.
Today, they've been married longer than they'd been alive when they met in those Straw Hat days — 24 years.
Some snapshot memories: A 14-day car trip to the World's Fair, camping the whole way. A marriage proposal at 7:34 p.m. May 4, 1986 (the exact moment of sunset) in Monterey. A 21-year wedding anniversary celebrated atop that same Monterey rock outcropping.
"She's very Cancer," says Troy, who's 12 days older than Nancy. "I'm very Leo."
Epilepsy, unemployment and foreclosure
Now parents to a 21-year-old daughter and grandparents to an infant boy, they never imagined the hardships they would face over the years: Nancy's struggle with epilepsy, unemployment and a foreclosure on their home in Livermore.
When Nancy talks about it all, Troy holds her hand, just as he does when she's not feeling well.
They both say that losing their house, in many ways, has been just as horrible as Nancy's seizures. They bought the home near Garaventa Ranch and North Vasco roads more than two decades ago — a mere year after they married.
"Before Nancy got sick, I was never late with any payment — not even a credit card bill," Troy said.
But to the banks, 22 years of on-time payments means nothing, he said, noting that they finally lost the house in 2010.
"They know Nancy is having problems, but it doesn't matter. The toughest thing for me is, we did everything in our power to do the right thing. We emptied our savings, our retirement accounts, our life insurance, and it's still not enough.
"Sometimes it brings me to tears. As big and tough as I look, I've shed tears."
The weekend they moved out of their home, Troy had to sit in the car for a minute to regain his composure before saying goodbye to neighbors.
"As you walk out of the house, your life kind of flashes before your eyes — everything that got left behind. I kept telling myself, 'It's just stuff.' And then I'd see the tree by the driveway that I planted when my daughter was born, or the marks on the bathroom door as we marked her height, and I'd lose it.
"And I realized that the old saying, 'The harder you work, the more you have' — well, it's just not true. We've never lived a lavish life. But that 1 percent out there — they don't understand what it's like to have to make these kinds of choices."
They also lost their Honda, and a lot of other things in bankruptcy. They are fighting to get Social Security and disability benefits but are caught up in red tape because the government won't recognize Nancy's illness as a permanent disability.
These days, Nancy has a seizure every one to three weeks so she can't work. The financial stress is surely a contributing factor, Nancy says. She does yoga, Tai Chi and meditation, but nothing seems to help.
She forgets conversations and makes to-do lists to cope but then forgets about the lists. Troy said it's frustrating when he has a conversation with her and then the next morning, she doesn't remember.
"I can't get angry," he said. "I just get kind of introverted."
Nancy says, "It's so embarrassing. And I know it's frustrating for him."
But they want people to know they are not the sum of their bad luck. Troy, for example, is a photographer when he's not working for the city of Pleasanton. He has some of his work displayed in virtual galleries.
Nancy, also a photographer who has sold her images at the Art Walk in Livermore, is a graphic artist in her down time. She can see something in her mind's eye and then create it. She has designed T-shirts and also loves doing comedy at open-mic nights. She tried out for "Funniest Mom in America" on Nick at Nite a few years ago and would love to get back into it.
Both Troy and Nancy's Facebook pages are filled with hope — thank yous to friends who sent little gifts in tough times and memories of days gone by, when things were a little more carefree.
And these days, there's even a new baby to celebrate.
"Our daughter," Troy said, tearing up again. "She had a baby boy on July 10. We have a grandson. His name is Colton."
Daughter Chelsea lives in Massachusetts; she is close to her parents, but they try to shield her from many of their problems so she can live her own young life.
Some days, they say it's just too hard to stay positive — there's always a sad reminder. Christmas was tough this year, for example, with more cuts to their budget than ever. They bought gifts for their niece and three nephews, gave See's Candies to Chelsea and her husband and are saving up for a gift card for Colton. They asked loved ones not to get them presents this year, knowing they wouldn't be able to reciprocate.
If they could just get the disability payments, that would change a lot of things. For starters, they'd have the money to take a cruise for their 25th wedding anniversary in February.
If they don't go, Troy said, it would be the first time they haven't been able to celebrate a major milestone wedding anniversary.
"This is what I want to fight for," Troy said.
"But I'm blessed to have the job I have — I love it. And we're so lucky to have all of our family and friends.
"We try to never forget the things that are really important."
To see Troy's photography, go to his Blue Canvas website.
Follow Troy on Twitter: TWSPhotographer.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” at The Huffington Post.