I felt like I got hit in the chest with a two-by-four when my neighbor Greg broke the news. The reason why the lawn of the family who lives across the street from me looks like such crap these days is because they're gone.
Marc and Marcy, high school sweethearts clocking in at year 15 of wedded bliss; young Jacob, who at the tender age of eight could pluck out "Smoke on the Water" on his tiny electric guitar; and Zoe, the baby girl who was born less than a year after we all moved into our brand-spanking-new homes in our suburban subdivision, are gone. Grandma and Frank the big black lab, too -- all gone.
No "For Sale" sign in front of the house, no moving trucks, no teary goodbyes to us neighbors who'd had the extra cup of sugar for these last eight years, just a silent midnight run.
I'd heard they'd hit a rough patch -- Marc losing hours at work and Marcy pulling double-shifts at the hospital to make all the ends meet -- but I never once imagined that the intermittent vanloads of stuff leaving the house these last few weeks signified any more than just your standard spring cleaning.
Greg filled in the details: in November Marcy had confided that things had gotten desperate with the money situation and they were looking for a new school for the kids. Then last Thursday night when he was mowing his own grass, passing close to their house's windows, he noticed everything was just ... gone.
He called me over and we peeked through windows where just two weeks ago a happy, vibrant, upper-middle-class white family had dwelled -- apparently suffering in silence and so scared to lose it all that they pulled a preemptive strike and took off.
This is what foreclosure feels like from the outside ... all of a sudden, trusted neighbors whose children I was watching grow up were gone and all that's left is a littered, empty home. Not that it's the only one in my upper-middle-class neighborhood.
There are at least 18 empty townhomes in my little slice of subdivision. Of the single-family homes, there are four abandoned and empty homes literally rotting away from mold and disrepair. Like my other neighbors do, I will now have to mow Marc and Marcy's front yard so the house doesn't look abandoned.
According to a Chicago Tribune story last week, 13,647 Illinois homes received a foreclosure filing in April, 54 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to data released May 13 by RealtyTrac. Mary Ellen Podmolik's story further reported that national foreclosure filings were flat for the month but up 32 percent from a year ago.
Marc and Marcy's house will be in that pile in the coming months, the orange flier pasted to their front door like the others on my block.
"Why, why?" I lamented. "The worst thing you can do is dump your house!" I called the good folks over at The Resurrection Project, a Chicago community development organization that frequently hosts workshops on avoiding home foreclosure, to get their take on the midnight run.
"That's the worst thing you can do," Kristen Komara, director of financial services told me last Friday. "You're still the owner -- at least attempt to keep your home. The foreclosure process in Illinois is lengthy and can take as long as a year.
"Nobody's going to come into your house in the middle of the night and tell you to leave your home," Komara explained, pinpointing everybody's worst nightmare. "You still have rights as a homeowner. If you know your back is to the wall and you're not going to be able to do anything because you have no income then at least you can put a plan into place with a sensible time frame to how you're going to make a soft landing into a new home, or start saving money for a security deposit for a rental."
As a young homeowner who lost her job 16 months ago (but luckily landed on her feet, avoiding this tragedy), I know the fear that can grip even the most level head, and asked Komara for her best advice to others thinking of running from their house problems.
"When people are facing missed mortgage payments there is so much hurt, pain, frustration and vulnerability," Komara said. "The first step is to not panic and understand that you have rights. Don't make irrational decisions, stop and learn where to go for solid information and talk to someone knowledgeable in these issues -- there may be several options available to you."
How I wish Marc, Marcy and the brood I'll miss on warm summer nights had found Komara and her optimistic advice.
Esther J. Cepeda is an opinion journalist and writes on www.600words.com