COVID-19: A stranger's generosity meant I didn't have to choose between food and rent

Mark Henick, Opinion contributor
·8 min read

I sat on the edge of our still disassembled bed, my head in my hands.

“We’re broke,” I said to my wife. “At least, we will be.”

I felt helpless. I could see the cliff coming, but my car had no brakes.

At the end of February 2020, our family of five moved from the condo we’d been renting in Toronto. The owner had decided to sell. We’d just had our third child, so we chose to see it as an opportunity. We could get a larger place for cheaper if we moved out of the city. Our kids could finally have a back yard.

My wife was still on maternity leave from her teaching job, so we reasoned that she would have time to get settled and transfer into the new school district before September. I had been working largely from home anyway, writing my first book. I’d left an executive position with a large mental health organization in 2017, when I got the book deal, and since then I’d built a modestly successful business as a media consultant and speaker on mental health.

While the first year as an entrepreneur was hard, I was getting the hang of it and things were only getting better. I’d started securing client contracts a year or more in advance and could budget accordingly.

So, we moved to the suburbs on March 1.

When the future falls apart

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

I was playing with my kids in the back yard we’d longed for. I checked my phone and saw the first cancellation email.

The client was invoking the force majeure clause to suspend the event. That was the standard part of my contract which allowed for clients to rebook “due to acts of God.”

Losing one contract wouldn’t have been be a big deal. But then the next email came. Then another, and another. Over the next three days, every single speaking and consulting contract that I had booked for the coming year cancelled.

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My budget suddenly looked very different. Whatever money I currently had was all I would have for the indefinite future. Having just moved and prepaid three months of rent, I had only three months worth of expenses left in my bank account.

Over the next several sleepless nights, I modeled every scenario. Will the pandemic be over by June? We don’t know. Can I get another job? Not while everything is shut down. Can we commute to the city? No, the gas expense alone would negate much of the income.

There were too many uncertain variables. If we couldn’t increase our income, maybe our only option was to reduce our expenses. We contacted a bankruptcy trustee. We might lose our car and destroy our credit, but everything was on the table. However, rent was still our biggest expense. If we did nothing about that, soon it would be a decision between rent or food.

I felt ashamed of myself. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I save more? Why wasn’t I more aggressive with my debt? I felt like I had failed my family.

Two imperfect choices

A little over a week into the crisis, I sat on the edge of our bed, and finally told my wife everything. I told her what I thought were the only two options.

“We can stay,” I said, “and we can hope that everything goes back to normal by June. The risk if we wait is that, in three months, we may have nothing at all.” She knew we’d be worse off.

Mark Henick in Toronto, Canada, in September 2019.
Mark Henick in Toronto, Canada, in September 2019.

“The other option,” I continued, “is that we move back to the city. You can return from maternity leave early, so at least we’ll have something coming in. I’m more likely to find work there too.”

Although we would have to find a smaller and probably more expensive place in the city, at least it would mean having some income versus none. If we waited, we wouldn’t have enough to move. It was a gamble either way. But we made our decision, and that night I informed our landlord.

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In an email, I explained our situation. I asked that he not cash any further checks, that he use the remainder of our damage deposit for the next two months rent, and then that he let us out of our lease nine months earlier than planned. We didn’t want anything for free. We needed understanding and compassion.

A few hours later, the landlord replied. Stunningly, he understood and agreed to help. We were all in this unprecedented time together, he told me.

A beautiful gift multiplies

Our landlord’s empathy, and flexibility, was a lifeline. Our situation felt so desperate that his one small act of kindness filled me with gratitude.

I shared part of his email on Twitter, opening up publicly about our struggle. That tweet went viral and garnered a lot of media attention. I was met with a wave of kindness from strangers. As isolated as I had initially felt, I suddenly saw we were part of something much bigger; we were all in a shared struggle.

We started receiving small offers of aid from people everywhere. I politely turned many down. I didn’t open up about our story in order to seek charity. I opened up because I had felt alone and scared, our landlord showed us some leniency, and I wanted to share the gratitude we felt.

But then, one offer caught my attention.

In April, a man emailed me through my website. He said that he had read our story, and that he wanted to help. He wanted to cover a few months rent, to give us more time to handle the situation and get back on our feet. Maybe worn down by all the other kind offers, or the ongoing direness of the situation, I replied.

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“I want to say no,” I wrote. “I want to say that we’ve made it on less, at a different time in our lives, and that we can scrape through this too. What’s stopping me from saying no is that we have three kids now. I can’t afford pride anymore.” I told him about our plan and gave him the breakdown of all our expenses.

He answered a short time later. He told me to forget pride and to let a neighbor help out.

I didn’t know who this person was, or if he was serious, until his letter came later that month.

Later that month, early on a mild spring morning, I spotted the envelope in the mailbox. I opened it and read the handwritten letter. Inside was a check for $10,000.

I fell to my knees on the wet grass, and I cried. It would be enough to cover our rent for the summer, and give us some breathing room to get back on our feet.

We found an apartment within the budget our angel investor made possible, and my wife went back to work. I was able to focus on pivoting my business to embrace the new reality. I immersed myself in writing proposals, and I secured new contracts. I finally finished my long-languishing book. I wasn’t about to squander the break we’d be given.

Thanks to a lot of grace and a bit of grit, our family is now in the highly unusual position of being better off than we were before the pandemic.

It’s all because we shared our vulnerability, and we were met with the best of humanity at nearly every turn. Pride almost prevented this. Fear wanted to keep us isolated and alone. But opening up changed everything.

I wrote to the stranger who saved us. I told him that I didn’t know how I could ever repay his kindness. When he replied, he asked to remain anonymous.

The only thanks he wanted was for us to be the kind of people we already are.

So, we’ve turned our sights on paying forward to others the gift that was given to us.

May they too be afforded the rare opportunity to be fully themselves.

What a beautiful gift.

Mark Henick is a mental health advocate and strategist based in Toronto, Canada. He is the host of the So-Called Normal and Living Well podcasts and the author of "So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression, and Resilience." Follow him on Twitter: @markhenick

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 job loss: A stranger's generosity kept my family safe