My brother died four years ago today (5/16/2011). That year, 2011, was possibly the most difficult year of my life. I learned so much about myself that year. In the strangest contradiction I could imagine, I am so thankful that I LIVED through that painful year by moving forward with decisions despite the struggle I was experiencing. I chose to persevere. Once the year was over, I was given the “30 Under 30” award by REALTOR Magazine in 2012 for not only past real estate production but also sharing the sequence of events from 2011.
“Are you haunted by the echo of your Mother on the phone… crying as she tells you that your brother is not coming home?” ~Brad Paisley
I heard that quote in Brad Paisley’s song, “This is Country Music,” the other day. I’ve heard the song a few times before, but that line never hit me like it did this week. The song probably meant more for me this time, because I knew that this was the week my brother, Billy Malnati, died back in 2011.
A year consists of 365 days; each day is 24-hours long. One year really represents a large amount time, and its amazing how our minds recall just a few major events from a given year.
At the beginning of 2011, my wife, Courtney, was pregnant with twins. We were nervous on so many levels as expectant parents can be. Our anxiety was definitely magnified, because we had dealt with infertility for several years and we were nearing the end of that struggle. If we could make it to March, we would have the busy little family we always wanted with three children.
3/20/2011: We welcomed twins, a daughter and a son, into our family. Amelia and Henry were here. Wow! Our first daughter, Charlotte, was just 16-months old. I felt so happy but was a bit overwhelmed. I knew that another date was looming in the distance… after a 3 month maternity leave, Courtney was going to retire from a career in financial services to start a new career as a stay-at-home mom and home economist. For the first time in our marriage, our financial survival was going to rest solely on my shoulders.
4/13/2011: One of my best/repeat clients, Todd, called me. He owned rental real estate as a side-business to supplement his main business, owning a real estate brokerage firm. We met and he asked a question that I’ll never forget, “would you ever leave the company you work for?” That one question opened up a few weeks of conversations that lead me to join Madison & Company Properties. I was consciously making a choice to leave one of the best career experiences I could have imagined. I worked alongside a family member that was like the older brother I never had, I had mentors that cared about my personal development, and I was the top producing real estate agent at the firm just 16 months prior.
5/16/2011: I actually had a closing that morning (1159 Corona Street), but I had to look back at my sold-list to remember that had happened earlier that day. My memory of that evening is seared into my brain forever. We had a great dinner. We put all of the kids to bed early, and the kids were quiet. My mom had just stopped by our house to check on us before she went to the grocery store, and SHE was in such a good mood. Courtney and I were relaxing over a glass of wine while sharing highlights from our day on the couch. I remember that our conversation was more engaging than it had been for a while. That evening we actually had the feeling that we were going to be able to make it as parents of three children under two years old. The conversation was interrupted by a phone call from my brother, Phil Malnati, who lived on the east coast.
Phil called me a little after 7 o’clock in Colorado. I remember asking Courtney if I should take the call, because I didn’t want to stop my conversation with her. I talk to Phil on the phone often, because he lives in Maryland. She thought it would be a good idea for me to catch up with my closest sibling on a quick phone call. Phil told me that he was contacted by a police officer in Alabama and was notified that our brother, Billy, died in his sleep earlier that morning. Billy was a student at the University of Alabama, and he had been born with a congenital heart defect called hypo-plastic left heart syndrome.
My parents live near us in Colorado, and I knew that I had to call my Dad to see how they were coping with the news. I called my Dad, because I didn’t want to have to hear my Mom over the phone. What I didn’t know was that my Mom received the same news right after she left our house while she was grocery shopping. She left her grocery cart full of items and went right home. I knew that I needed to see my parents and quickly left for their house. We talked and cried together that night.
5/17/2011: I had a full schedule at work that day, and I actually chose to go work. I had a couple of showings set up for a client that I really like. He’s a good old boy from the Midwest that wears a simple outfit every day: a work t-shirt, paint splattered jeans, and suspenders. This guy is the millionaire next door. I chose not to cancel my appointments, because I think I wanted to get back to a little normalcy before extended family started coming into town for the funeral. I remember another phone call that I made as I was driving into the office. I called my HR director, Tracy, to tell her that my brother had died. Her husband, Matt, is the family member that I talked about… Matt was the older brother that I never had and he owned the company that I worked at. This was a difficult call for two reasons: 1). it was the first person outside of my immediate family that I told about Billy’s death and 2). I felt a little guilty for receiving condolences because I hadn’t told her that I was thinking of leaving the company in a few weeks.
6/9/2011: My first day at Madison & Company Properties was actually at a company wide golf tournament. At that time, the company was about 25 people (agents and staff). It was probably the most welcoming start to a new career adventure. I had a lot of fun that day playing golf at The Ridge at Castle Pines. Courtney’s salary from maternity leave would expire just two weeks later.
8/9/2011: My first closing since Billy died. To put context on that statement, I was used to closing one transaction a month. I had gone almost 3 months without income. Closings are always a great time for a real estate agent; you’re getting paid for months of work. I chose to use the closing experience as a tribute to my brother’s memory. I started donating to charities that over the years had helped Billy survive (Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House).
9/21/2011: Courtney and I bought our first investment property which was a bank foreclosure. We liquidated our stock account that was our emergency fund to buy this rental. She had made some great investments that grew a lot and enabled us to make a down payment on a rental.
10/1/2011: It was a Saturday and I had spent the last two weeks working to get the house ready for rent. We were advertising it for rent the whole month of September, but had to keep dropping the offering rent amount because our projections proved to be too high. We made a decision to reduce the rent on our online advertisement to a rate that was getting close to our “bottom line.” We got a call that day from a prospective tenant that was moving to Denver to be closer to his adult son and his grandchildren. This phone call was a life saver.
12/1/2011: We were broke and payroll was due. Money was tighter than ever now that we didn’t have Courtney’s salary. We had new expenses from twin infants and a rental property while we also had reduced income from sporadic closings. I was juggling so many things at that time: my emotional energy was drained from Billy’s death, from sleepless nights with twins, and getting used to a new working environment. I chose to take an advance on a home equity line of credit to pay my trusted assistant, Casey.
12/9/2011: I had my last closing of the year (1328 Corona Street). This closing had special significance, because I had closed my first listing at the new company. I knew that this was a special transaction. It had signified that I had made it. I was going to succeed despite the circumstances. I was going to thrive.
As I was contemplating this blog post, I came across a quote by author, Seth Godin, that perfectly summarized my feelings about 2011:
“Part of being our best selves is having the guts to not avert our eyes, to look closely at what scares us, what disappoints us, what threatens us. By looking closely we have a chance to make change happen. ~Seth Godin
One of life’s strange contradictions is choosing to be brave when the odds are against you… to be courageous when life knocks you down. These moments of courage define YOU.