How My Valley of Trouble Became an Adventure of Hope
How being roller-skate-broke inspired a documentary about my father entitled Burning Questions and laid the foundation for healthy grief recovery in 180 Your Life. I hope that sharing this true story with you will be an encouragement to never give up!
In 1992 I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and then studied and worked abroad for six months. I came home to Hollywood, FL totally broke but happy in 1993. I worked different jobs, finally learning on-the-job to be an audio technician with my father, a network news cameraman. We freelanced together for three amazing years.
I had moved in with my Mom after college and, having raised my brother and me, it was her turn for an adventure. So she packed up a few months later and moved to Central Florida to pursue her dream of living near Native American friends and attending their cultural events.
Booted from home, I rented a room at a friend’s nearby house in Hollywood, FL for $300 a month and, after stints as a substitute teacher, a dinner theater technical director, and directing plays at my local church, I started working with my father in network news. After more than 20 years as a cameraman with NBC News, he was now freelancing with ABC and CBS too.
As his sound person, I was responsible for the audio details during a shoot for the Today Show, Nightly News, GMA, or World News Tonight. I fell in love with this kind of work. Problem was that I was learning a highly skilled profession on-the-job with my father who was nearing retirement age. He didn’t have a pressing need to work every day or even every week.
The news work during my first summer in FL was not plentiful and I struggled financially to make ends meet. Audio work paid well when I had it. Back then, I only needed to work three days a month to float my cost of living, but I never knew which three days that would be. I could be called to work at any moment. Or not. Still training on-the-job as an audio tech with my father, I wasn’t yet reaching out to work with other news camera operators until I was more experienced.
Times got tighter and I ran out of food. In three day’s time, the only meal I’d had was a banana. So I drove to my father’s house in Miami to ask for advice…and money. My father had made it clear when I graduated from college that ALL financial assistance would stop within 30 days. He wasn’t kidding. During our visit, he relented only slightly and gave me $35 for food and said that if I couldn’t make it in the news business to get a job at the mall.
I know now as a parent, that must have been very hard for him to do. As his daughter, I cried all the way back to Hollywood, FL. It was a defining moment for me and a blessing in disguise for both of us.
As the summer heated up, my car stopped working and was in needed major repairs. I didn’t have the money to fix it for two months. I started making just enough money in the news to cover my monthly rent and food expenses. My father would pick me up for our occasional news gigs together.
One morning the air conditioning broke at the house where I was renting a room. The humid, Florida heat was sweltering outside and stuffy and sweltering inside. I was told it would take several days to fix the air. To beat the heat, I started riding my bike everywhere. The Ft. Lauderdale main public library located in downtown Ft. Lauderdale was beautiful…and air-conditioned. With a packed lunch, I would ride my bike ten miles one way to spend the day reading and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.
I did this consistently and got to know the policemen, security guards, and librarians at the main library enough to say hello and wish them a good day. One day, as I walked out of the library to the bike rack I witnessed someone snipping my bike chain and stealing my bike! This happened about 50 feet in front of me. I stood in shocked disbelief. It wasn’t an expensive bike by any means, but it was my main mode of transportation. I reported the incident to the police officer on duty at the library and called a friend to drive me home.
I had to laugh because for the next week I traveled on my roller skates to the store for food. During this time, I was invited to my first Beth Moore Bible study. This was the first weekly Bible study that had companion video lessons that I ever attended and it was a lifeline of hope for me.
Sometimes, I’d ride to the beach with a friend in their car and we would enjoy a prayer walk during sunrise or sunset. God definitely had my attention. I found this verse and it became my anchor. It still is to this day…
I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
I was surprised to receive a call from the policeman that I had initially logged a report regarding my stolen bike. He requested that I come back to the main library because he had a bike for me! It was a pretty, blue beach cruiser that I could use to make the twenty-mile round trip from my home to the library and back. I’ll never forget that kind officer and his thoughtful gift.
The air conditioning was now fixed at home and I resumed my trips to the library. I savored praying and thinking while I rode my bike and also enjoyed quietly exploring books while musing what I wanted to do next with my life.
Not long afterward a librarian struck up a conversation with me. She said something like, “I see you around here a lot. Are you researching something?” “I want to make a documentary about my father and his experience as a Polish Catholic boy surviving a Nazi concentration camp,” I replied. She loved this idea! Right then and there, this librarian made my dream into our shared project. She gave me research assignments and scheduled appointments for me to check back with her on my progress.
I was excited about my new dream but had no idea how I would pay for tickets to Poland for my father and me to meet his side of our family. I had never met any of them outside of my grandmother and his sister, my aunt.
My father, on the other hand, had no intention of returning to his homeland with me, much less create a public documentary about it. Still broke, I wondered how I would ever get us there. One day my librarian friend told me about a local grant in Ft. Lauderdale that could help with the costs of travel to Poland to make my documentary. I applied and about two months later received the $1,000 grant! Now I could purchase plane tickets!
During my bike rides to the library, I often rode past a small travel agency. A poster of Warsaw, Poland in their window always caught my eye. One day I went inside and asked how much it would cost to fly to Warsaw and shared my dream with the travel agent. Even though the cost was greater than one thousand dollars for two tickets, once I received the $1,000 grant, the agent pulled some strings and I was able to buy two roundtrip tickets to Warsaw for the exact amount of my grant! I couldn’t believe it!
My father couldn’t believe it either, but for different reasons. He was horrified. He never intended to revisit his boyhood trauma, which included the forceful removal of his father by Nazi soldiers, nor did he want to lead his daughter as she filmed his recollection of precious and painful memories in his homeland.
I had a different perspective. There was a yearning in my father that I felt my whole life. It was a yearning for healing after unspeakable trauma. Instinctively, I knew that this healing would come when we connected with his family in Poland.
I’m don’t speak Polish, so when I asked my father to call my Great Aunt Stephania in Warsaw, he flatly refused thinking that this would quell my insatiable desire to meet my Polish family and make this documentary. After his refusal, I found a bilingual Polish Catholic priest at a local church in Florida and asked him if he would help me call my great aunt and coordinate my arrival in Poland. I conveniently left out the part that my father had stonewalled my efforts. He was more than happy to help me initiate contact with my Great Aunt Stephania Porebska.
Back then, calls to Poland were very expensive and costs were racking up as I coordinated this event. Since my father refused to go to Poland with me, I started reaching out to bilingual Polish cameramen in Warsaw to shoot elements of this documentary for me. Mark Potter, then a national correspondent with ABC News, was a friend and news colleague. He allowed me to make a couple of calls to Poland from the ABC News bureau so I could save a few dollars. He called my venture, “The Great Heist,” referring to my plan to convince, or rather canive, my father to come to Poland with me. I will be forever thankful for him believing in my dream and being a helping hand on our journey.
The wheels were in motion and I was ready to go to Poland by myself in just two weeks. It was December of 1993 and I was planning to stay there through Christmas. My father’s ticket was still available to him though he continued to refuse it.
Then one day, he called me and offered for us to get together and talk. It was about ten days before I was leaving for Warsaw. During our visit, he agreed to travel with me to Poland and, as a professional cameraman, shoot this documentary. He was concerned that I would get our family documentary on PBS or NBC (which I did) and he felt compelled to protect his Porembski production reputation from my novice attempts. Whatever his reasoning, I was thrilled that he was joining me! Thus began our documentary journey together as father and daughter.
The process of making Burning Questions, the title of my documentary, changed our lives. The gifts of this project and program are new every year. Watching my father confront his grief in such healthy and freeing ways became the foundation of my own grief journey when I lost my husband to suicide while pregnant with our second daughter fourteen years later.
The intuitive grief steps we took as father and daughter, later gave me the tools I needed as a newly widowed mom and then as a widowed author in creating the 180 Your Life grief empowerment program and videos as well as, Widow Strong, our companion nonprofit organization that supports widows and their children with practical strategies and programs for health, hope, and healing.
Today, I want to encourage you that no matter your circumstances, you are not alone. God has a plan for you and though times are hard, it can lead to a wonderful adventure!
What to do? Make your next, best decision.
Take a walk, talk to a friend, have a quiet time, ride a bike, pray, and be patient with the process.
Your circumstances, your bank account, your health do not define you. God’s love for you and your choices in the midst of tragedy define you. Time with God and healthy choices can launch you on a beautiful journey that lasts a lifetime and leaves a lasting legacy.
This valley of trouble can be your doorway of hope!
To raise funds for Widow Strong’s nonprofit programs that benefit widows and their children, please consider renting or purchasing my Burning Questions documentary online today. All proceeds benefit Widow Strong.
Mishael Porembski is a widowed mom, adventurer, founder of Widow Strong, a 501c3, and author of the 180 Your Life series of books and companion videos. Learn more at WidowStrong.com