Steve and Jennifer Emery and their eight children had been living on the economic edge for years.
The day they learned Steve had a brain tumor, they finally slipped over.
Today, neither parent is able to work. The family has lost its four-bedroom home and has taken up residence in a cramped room at the El Camino Motel on a busy downtown street. Steve's disability checks, public assistance and loans from family members have helped, but not enough.
Groceries come from a local charity. The family station wagon is on its last legs.
Now, touched by their plight, an unlikely coalition of friends and good Samaritans from as far away as the Morongo Valley has stepped forward to try to restore stability to their lives. Terre York, a San Bernardino County chiropractor, has opened a relief fund and is organizing volunteers and services.
"Our friends have been amazingly supportive," said Jennifer Emery, a onetime nurse's aide, who sat fingering the cross around her neck while the children played inside.
The money and support may or may not get them out of the motel, but it won't guarantee the former musician a longer life. A doctor told him he has about a 25% chance of living more than two years. Others are more optimistic, but Steve Emery, 46, knows there is no way to predict the future.
"Every day after the surgery has been a gift," he said.
For years, the couple had a tough time making ends meet. Steve, a pale, bearded soft-spoken man, worked temporary jobs to pay the bills while he played the piano and synthesizer at local bars, churches and schools. His passion is music, although he has played little since his treatment began.
He also worked as the musical director and musician for Illusions Theatre, a children's theater in Ojai.
Jennifer Emery, 33, an engaging woman who attends daily Mass at a local Catholic church, worked on and off as a nurse's aide. But between a painful bout with endometriosis, a back injury and the couple's decision two years ago to have another child, she stopped working before her husband's diagnosis.
Even when Steve was working, he said, the family had to draw on public assistance. A housing subsidy enabled them to pay the $1,400 rent on their four-bedroom home in Ojai and keep the children fed.
One night in February 1998, Steve had a seizure in his sleep. "I went to bed on a Monday night and woke up Wednesday or Thursday in intensive care with absolutely no idea as to what had happened," he said.
The doctor initially thought the seizure happened because Steve had stopped taking his antidepressants. It wasn't until he had another seizure several months later that doctors discovered a tumor.
It was a little larger than a tangerine, and growing.
Steve started to have difficulty speaking; words came slower and often he couldn't think of the word he wanted to use to express a thought. He was sick and the surgery to remove the tumor put him off his feet for weeks. His newest employer, a company that made electronic equipment for musicians, had no choice but to let him go.
On New Year's Eve, doctors removed most of the tumor but couldn't get it all. He underwent a newer radiation technique through UCLA in the spring. About a year of chemotherapy still lies ahead for Steve, as soon as his immune system is strong enough to endure it.
The state pays Steve's medical expenses but does not cover all of the family's living expenses. Steve's short-term disability will run out soon, and he does not feel well enough to go back to work.
The couple ended up in the motel after they were evicted from their home for not making the rent.
Two of their children, Colyn, 18, and Rachel, 21, are old enough to live on their own now. As for the other six, only four can fit in the motel room at one time.
Patric, the baby, and sisters Sarah Jayne, 8, Lauren, 12, and Jeni, 13, are usually with their parents. Andrew, 11, has been living with his father, Jennifer's ex-husband. Dustin, 16, alternates between friends' and relatives' homes, staying in the motel room when his sisters have somewhere else to go.
Jennifer said her children are teased by classmates because of their situation. "I say, 'Don't worry about what your friends say,' but I have to remember that children can be cruel," she said.
The Emerys know Ojai is not the cheapest place to live, but they are afraid if they leave the area they will lose the support their friends have provided. Since their eviction, they have not been able to find a rental home they can afford.
Welfare programs are focused on getting parents of healthy families back to work and sometimes can't provide all a family needs when people are grappling with illness, said Randy Feltman, who runs the local job and career center for families on public assistance.
The Emerys get about $1,200 a month in assistance. Feltman said confidentiality rules prevent him from talking specifically about the Emerys' case. But, in general, he said, "That, with six children, in this town, is poverty."
The Emerys borrowed from their parents and siblings and say there is no more to borrow. They have turned to religious charities in recent weeks.
"It hasn't been an easy road," said Betti Ridenour, who as director and founder of Illusions Theatre, has worked on productions with Steve for years. "There's been a lot of children. It makes us all kind of heartsick. They need a place to live, a house."
York said she heard about the family's situation through Steve's parents, who also live in San Bernardino County.
She said she couldn't stand by and do nothing. She opened the relief fund for them at Washington Mutual Bank in Ojai.
Steve Emery said he is not sure which would be worse: dying before his parents do or dying before he gets to know his 17-month-old son Patric. Jennifer said she wonders how she will provide for the children alone if Steve dies, when they can barely manage the task together.
But some of his doctors say he may survive several more years. Ventura radiation oncologist Tom Fogel said he is hopeful Steve will be well enough to return to work eventually.
At this point, Steve Emery's hopes are not grand. He would like to take his kids to Yosemite. Mostly, he would like to get out of the motel. "What we're looking for is the ability to transfer back to the lifestyle we were in."
Contributions may be made to the Emery Family Relief Fund, Washington Mutual Bank, 1215 Maricopa Highway, Ojai, CA 93023. The envelope should be marked Attn.: Emery Family Relief Fund. To offer nonmonetary help, contact Terre York at (760) 323-8861.