love

It’s a funny thing, love

Hi my mommy!

How you doing, Ma? Today is the 6th anniversary since you died in your sleep. Your death ripped a hole so big in my heart I didn’t understand how to keep on living. For a long time, I couldn’t. I was stuck in my grief, a zombie going through the motions. I was so angry at how you died, and so very ashamed at how I had been a selfish daughter. I couldn’t forgive, and I most certainly could not heal. I blocked all of it out, all of it, for years, paying a steep price: I didn’t know then that you can’t chose to only blot out the painful emotions. Denying myself the bad stuff meant also shutting off access to the good stuff. To love. To joy. To gratitude. #noneofthecolors

3 years ago, I began to un-thaw. I wrote this. It was the first time I allowed myself to really remember you. 2 years ago, I began wearing your ring, as a talisman, to keep you close and keep me grounded. 6 months ago, I fixed the watch you gave me, and since then I’ve worn it every single day. I stopped wearing any other bracelets because they can’t compare to my watch despite its scratch marks and slight tarnish. These two pieces of jewelry form my armor against the world. Tony Stark has his electromagnetic reactor. Batman has his batsuit. Vanilla has a ring and a watch. Same.

3 years ago, the moments where I experienced joy and love so deep I couldn’t block out the feels, started to multiply. It started with Qc cousin #2’s wedding. Continued with Dynamo’s wedding. Solidified with the return of Allie to Montreal. I really wish you could have met Allie, Ma. She knows how to love, that one. Patiently, so very patiently, she has let me grow comfortable with her endless generous love – for the longest time I didn’t feel worthy of it, because I was unable to reciprocate as selflessly, and that seemed unfair to her. As my world wobbled this past year, she was always there, a pillar of peace and quiet acceptance. (P.s. she just had a little baby boy and he is SO CUTE #auntievanillaisready #boyisgonnalearn). But that’s the funny thing about love, Ma. The more I accept it in my life, in it’s various forms, the more I open myself up to it, the more I find myself stumbling on incredible examples of it. I might not have been able to see many of the colors this year, but even when the sun stopped shining and I wasn’t sure I could make it to the next day, there were people around me to catch me and stop me from falling deeper and deeper into darkness. Coworkers. Friends at the gym. Family. Strangers.

Here I am now, once again able to see the colors. You know what the best part is? Every time I experience a moment of love or kindness, I am reminded of you. That’s what you were to me, my mommy – kindness and love personified. When you died, my capacity to see kindness and love was suspended. But somehow, with time and with the best friends and family in the world, I see them again, and that allows me to carry you in my heart after a long absence.

I’ve missed you.

I woke up on Monday, and felt an overwhelming urge to visit my Ma. I love the Mount-Royal Cemetery. I find it spectacularly beautiful. And rather than photograph it in black and white, I chose to photograph it with all of the colors. Because there is something so very fitting about the contrast of vivid blue skies and luscious green leaves that are so very alive, with the tombstones that bear silent testimony that loved ones lived and died. This birdhouse in particular seemed perfectly poignant. Why shouldn’t the birds that watch over our deceased be a little more comfortable and cozy?

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More than a watch

Back when I still worked at a Big 4, I wanted a watch. Classic, timeless, elegant, that I could wear in the day time, or at a swanky 5à7-8-9-way-too-late-for-a-weekday, at drinks at a pub or even at a wedding. Not a statement watch, but something graceful. That criteria effectively ruled out 99% of all watches, which typically have thick bands/straps. I searched high and low, but nothing was quite right. For months, I kept an eye out. It bugged me. A watch is the new status symbol: it serves no practical purpose, now that cells are omnipresent. But pulling out one’s smartphone at a meeting, during a conversation or a party is so much less well mannered or elegant than glancing at one’s watch. I craved that elegance.

Christmas 2011. I’d just successfully passed the UFE, the last step of my 5 year journey to obtaining my professional designation. My mama was proud. I was exhausted.  That was the first year I hadn’t had the time to decorate their Christmas tree for them – too busy at work. I was ashamed at not having taken the time to make my parents a priority. My mama’s health was on a sharp downward spiral. We’d started having the conversations about her life expectancy, which was under 5 years. Christmas day, we delayed opening presents till almost noon, to give her time to sleep – she’d only fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning, because of a massive flare-up of her painful symptoms. We opened the presents in the family room, I remember her sitting on the couch in her fluffy cyan blue bathrobe*. She looked so cuddly, I wanted to squeeze her to bits except I couldn’t because it would hurt her. My heart ached. My heart ached even more when I saw her Christmas present for me: a beautiful watch. Perfect. If I could have conceived of a watch that was exactly what I wanted, it would be the watch she gave me. She’d hunted for months to find it, bad health and all. It immediately became an extension of my body, the first thing I would put on every morning when I woke up, and the last thing I removed at night.

Summer 2012. The battery died a few days after her funeral. I took it off, and stored it in my jewelry box.

February 2017. I was going through a pretty intense wave of missing her (Letter from my Mama and Memory box). Since I find the tangible reminders of her so helpful, I dug out my watch and put it in my purse to have the battery changed. For ONE YEAR I carried around that watch in my purse, because I couldn’t bring myself to hand it over to a stranger, lest they lose or damage it. Instead, I would slip my hand into my purse and touch my watch for strength.

This week, I was walking through a shopping mall in downtown mall, near my gym, distracted by work and life, when I spotted a boutique jewelry shop. Two middle-aged Arab men were at the counter, with a teenage girl helping out. A family business. It was the angle of one of the men’s head’s that caught my eye: his body language was one of careful concentration. The whole energy of that place reminded me of Dynamo and the love that I always feel from his family. On impulse I went in, and asked for them to replace my battery. My hand shook as I handed them my watch. I watched nervously as they did the simple repair, and then they cleaned my watch for me, just because.

I couldn’t explain why I was crying. But they looked at me with kind eyes, and reminded me that even a $5 watch was priceless if it was a gift of love.

And that is how, on February 8, 2018, a nothing special day, I wore my mother’s watch for the first time since Summer 2012.

#loveandgrief

Alphonse keeping track of time, making sure I get stuff done at work.


*Her cuddly cyan blue bathrobe:

My father lived for 3 months in their home, constantly surrounded by all the reminders of her. Her slippers. Her coats hanging on the coat-rack in the entry. Her towels in the bathroom. He wasn’t ready to change anything. Then, after 3 months, he agreed it was time, and it would help if we sorted through her clothes, and removed them from the house. My uncle and aunt came down from Quebec city to help with that god-awful task.

I insisted on keeping her blue bathrobe. My aunt offered to wash it for me. I agreed, for hygiene purposes, but it made me so sad. Her smell would be gone.

I use it as a blanket now, whenever I am sick. Wrapping myself in it, with Mimi overseeing the cuddles, is the closest thing to having my Mama take care of me.

Fairytale weddings require leprechauns

It was Allie‘s wedding this weekend. She looked like a princess, got married in a castle in Vieux-Québec, her knight in shining armor looked dashing in his blue suit and spiffy bow tie, and it went off without a hitch.

Except.

Remember Brown Socks and Tinker Bell? Here they are, still happily married and adorable 2 years on.

Since Dynamo couldn’t make it to the wedding because of Mini-Boom’s late arrival 6 days ago, Brown Socks and Tinker Bell took it upon themselves to keep Dynamo informed of all of the proceedings. Which is why I got periodic texts from Dynamo throughout the day, including edifying ones such as:

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Brown Socks deserves to spend a few hours in a special area of hell. We all know that one should NEVER photograph a woman eating. Especially a woman scarfing down delicious poutine at midnight after a long day of wedding festivities.

My friends, y’all. Can’t take them anywhere in public.


Allie has asked me to house sit her condo during her 2 week honeymoon. (Incidentally, she still doesn’t know where her honeymoon will be. Her hubby William – so named because he is British, he is her Prince Charming, he has a similar hair sitch to Prince William, and theirs is a fairytale marriage with a happily ever after – has not told her, only instructing her to pack clothes for a warm climate & her hiking boots. She will find out their destination upon arriving at the airport… assuming it is a direct flight. I find this so romantic, and indicative of the levels of trust between Allie and her hubby. Allie, to put it mildly, is a bit of a control freak. Yet she completely trusts that William will plan an idyllic honeymoon. Le cuteness-overload!) I’m under strict orders to not kill her 2 plants and cat during their 2 week absence. Never let it be said that I back down from a challenge, no matter how formidable it may be!

Her maid of honor, upon hearing of this arrangement, commented, “You know what Vanilla? It might do you some good to take care of a living creature.”

Allie’s friends, y’all. Can’t take them anywhere in public.


Some weddings are boring. Some weddings are lame. Some weddings train-wrecks where you wonder if the couple will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

And then there was Allie & William’s wedding.

It was a celebration of the beginning of their Happily Ever After. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind, least of all Allie’s and William’s, that theirs will be a marriage that lasts until death does them part. Their bond is almost palpable. They bring out the best in one another. While neither is blind to the other’s faults, they chose to celebrate each other’s constant work at becoming all they can be, and in doing so, they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a wondrous thing to observe.

A perfect day. Everything went off without a hitch, every guest from the wee babies to the great-grandparents was on their best behavior. There were many tears throughout the day, but only of joy. My cheeks still hurt from smiling so much.


Not gonna lie, I really enjoyed dressing up. Baby pink is not my go-to color, but the makeup artist and hairdresser were brilliant in giving me that slight edge that made the look me, without ruining the romantic, soft, elegant vibe Allie worked so hard to create. I felt like a million bucks. More importantly? I felt like I belonged in this fairytale.

Once upon a time, I would have felt that the happiness Allie has found was not something I could aspire to. Her unshakeable belief in the worthiness and goodness of all the people she loves would have felt like a burden, something I was unworthy of. Without doubt, I fall short of her vision of me, but rather than feel shame, I want to knuckle-down and work on becoming the good person she believes me to be. And in doing so, it no longer feels quite impossible that one day, I will experience a fairytale of my own.

That Allie. What a force of nature.

Mini-Boom

That moment when your bestie becomes a father.

That’s right. Mrs. Dynamite gave birth yesterday to Mini-Boom. A healthy baby, miniature and perfect. Mommy, Daddy and baby were all happy and exhausted when I left them yesterday.

As I gently touched my Muslim godson (yes, I am Auntie Vanilla, his non-Muslim godmother), I whispered my prayers for him,

Mini-boom, you are gonna grow up to be as smart as your daddy and as funny as your mommy. You will perpetuate their legacy of kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity. You will appreciate the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, and not be afraid to stand by your moral convictions. You will be open-minded. And you will be brave. I don’t want you have an easy life. I want you to have a full life, which means you will be faced with difficult moments and you will navigate them with honor and integrity. You will have dreams, and you will follow them.

I love you. You are my Bingi, my darling. We are family. You don’t know this yet, but you have a huge family, blood related and not, who will take a bullet for you, face down the monsters under your bed and in the real world. You are loved, you will always be loved, and you, in turn, will love wisely and truly.

And then Dynamo showed me the video of Mini-Boom’s birth, the moment Mrs. Dynamite first heard her son’s cries, and I cried. To be accurate, I should describe my crying as sniveling and hiccuped sobbing, an overwhelming rush of emotion I’ve never felt before, wonderment, joy and awe. For once, for once, Dynamo did not make fun of me – he deemed that to be an appropriate reaction to something that far transcends the limits of words and language.

Mabrook!

My Arab & Muslim family

When I told BossMan and IronSweetie (Dynamo‘s brother & sis-in-law) I was coming to Dubai, they insisted I stay with them.

“Vanilla, of COURSE you will stay with us, you are family. Don’t insult us by staying anywhere else.”

You are family. Strong words. I wondered if perhaps the phrasing was slightly hyperbolic and dramatic, as is sometimes the case when dealing with Arabs, and especially with BossMan (#dramaqueen).


Dynamo’s wedding last year.

IronSweetie took me under her wing: teaching me how to dance & introducing me to her family. Showering me with love, despite us only having met twice, briefly. I was Dynamo’s friend, I had been a friend of BossMan prior to his move to Dubai; that was all she needed to know, to befriend me.

Dynamo insisted I participate in the wedding pictures, adjusting his bowtie. After the first dance, when the dance floor opened up to family and close friends, I hung back, until BossMan yelled at me to join them, because I belonged.


I cannot dissociate my mother’s sudden death with Dynamo’s incredible care of me. Which is perfect, really: my mother was Love. It is fitting that her death triggered one of the most perfect demonstrations of Love I’ve experienced.

Dynamo had to leave for a month-long business trip; he almost missed his flight, taking care of me in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. He was distraught that he’d miss her funeral. I tried to explain that he had misunderstood: his presence at her funeral, while lovely, was irrelevant. In the Russian Orthodox faith, a person’s soul stays on Earth for 3 days after their death – on the third day, it departs to (hopefully) heaven. Therefore, my mother had seen his kindness and help towards me and my father. She knew we were loved, and that would free her soul to continue on its journey. He had done more good than he could know – he had helped my mother.

2 days later, at the wake at the funeral parlour, I was surprised to see Dynamo’s sister arrive, alone. I’d met her a handful of times, over the years, but we were not particularly close. She bore a beautiful bouquet of flowers, with a card. She met my family, paid her respects, and stayed 30-45 minutes making perfect small talk and giving her support.

“Our thoughts & prayers are with your family. May God help you within hard and good times. God bless her.”

I assumed Dynamo had sent his sister to represent his family, since he was out-of-town and BossMan had moved to Dubai. I was wrong. She volunteered. Those beautiful – perfect – words were her own. I carry that card with me always, to this day.  (Yes, it is water-stained from my tears.)

Dynamo’s family is devoutly Muslim. My family, especially my parents, is devoutly Russian Orthodox. Dynamo’s sister found the perfect words to bridge the (irrelevant?) gap in our faiths. In the Russian Orthodox faith, we believe that praying for the forgiveness of sins of the departed matters, and contributes to their salvation – our human understanding of time is inevitably too narrow when compared to the Eternal. Similarly, I believe that the prayers of my Muslim darlings for my mother’s soul have contributed to her salvation. That they would care about her salvation, and pray for her, fills me with endless gratitude and love.


BossMan and IronSweetie hosted me in Dubai, treating me always, showering me with generosity and time, despite it being a busy work week for them. We traded stories, shared moments of vulnerability. They showed me their world. I spent time with each one individually and together and met some of their friends. They were the best possible ambassadors for Dubai – answering all my questions and explaining cultural differences.

Their love was so strong. I resisted at first: I felt unworthy of such generosity and kindness. But Love, when untainted by other human failings, is too strong to resist. With every day I spent with them, I grew to understand and accept that I am family. They are family.

This may have always been the case. But this trip finally made me understand.

I love them so.

May God bless the Dynamite family.


Recap of this trip so far:

BossMan

Dynamo. My darling. My bestie.

I got to know Dynamo’s brother BossMan in Montreal in 2011. BossMan was going through a rough patch: he was an extremely high-achiever who was underperforming. Born to be an entrepreneur, he was having trouble developing a business model that was successful. A few too many costly flops, and his self-esteem was rather raw. Yet, always, he had an unwavering confidence that he would succeed one day. He just didn’t have anything to show for it, and society does not look kindly upon those dreamers that preach greatness but don’t have demonstrable results. I was studying for the UFE. I was in the danger zone, pre-depression (I slid into it, badly in 2012). I was a bundle of fear and insecurity and anxiety. BossMan decided we’d be friends – he didn’t give a damn whether or not I wanted to explore vulnerability, he imposed himself in my life. (In choosing a pseudonym for him, I considered Endearingly Explosive Bully, EEB for short, but that sounds like some medical procedure.) He saw the real Vanilla, drowning in my fight against my sick brain, and he always addressed his friendship to that part of me. I’d weep about the UFE, convinced I’d fail; he wouldn’t comfort me, no. He’d yell at me for dreaming too small. He didn’t understand that at that time in my life, I physically couldn’t dream – that is the cost of depression. I didn’t understand how he could still dream after all his failures, but I recognized that this was someone who could teach me about life. I clung to him.

Fall 2011. I was in the car with Dynamo, when BossMan called him about a business idea. Dynamo listened. Dynamo cautioned against the inherent risks in that industry & market. BossMan got irritated at Dynamo’s lack of vision. Later, I asked BossMan for an offhand update about that business idea. That innocent question led to BossMan sharing his business plan with me, consulting with me, trading ideas/approaches with me. He’d call me at work and get annoyed that I was busy and couldn’t walk him through a new tweak in his concept rightthatinstant. He listened – the only time in all these years he has ever listened to me. #EEBalltheway I enjoyed working on this prototype with BossMan. I enjoyed seeing how someone with vision and dreams tackled life.

BossMan left for Dubai in early 2012, with pocket change, the prototype we’d worked on, and his dream of success. I thought he was KA-RAY-ZAY. We kept in touch as he struggled to get his new business off the ground. He confided that his romance with IronSweetie was heating up; he married her a few months later. He launched his business, successfully. Via Fbk, I watched his life take shape, and with every new success, I was proud of him for grabbing life by the horns. But like in my dealings with BlondEyes, I knew: that thirst for life was not for me.

At Dynamo’s wedding last year (2016), BossMan was delighted to see that I was less paralyzed by my fears and insecurities. But to my dismay, he told me I still had a ways to go. I wondered if maybe he was right – the first time I considered that freedom from depression was not the same thing as happiness.

BossMan picked me up at the airport when I arrived in Dubai last week. He asked me what tourist attraction or landmark I wanted to see during my visit. My response: his office, to see the results of that prototype that has grown into a very successful business, and spawned a 2nd business that is shaping up to be as successful, if not more. “Of course! You must!” He introduced me to every single one of his employees. I had trouble not crying: I’m so proud of him. Not for succeeding financially – no. Proud of him for becoming the man he knew he could be back in 2011. Not giving up. Persevering. Overcoming incredible odds. Building a life of happiness for himself.

On the last day of my trip, I was telling BossMan of the various stories from the dance festival, how transformative an experience it has been, all the people I’d met, my various meltdowns. I got the only compliment I’ve ever gotten from BossMan: “Many people would not have done what you did. Good for you. You are living now. Don’t stop.” I know that he is proud of me for becoming the girl he spotted beneath my depressive mess back in 2011. Not giving up. Persevering. Overcoming incredible odds. Building a life of happiness for myself.

We all need those people in our lives that believe in our capacity to be our best selves even when we can’t see our way.

Dynamo & BossMan. What my life would have been without you both.

Thank you.


Recap of this trip so far:

 

Discovering different kind of friendships – Moments of Truth, part II

On my 3rd day in Dubai (the day before the saga of multiplying dishes of food), I had 2 brunch dates. Funnily enough, both people picked the same restaurant as a meeting spot; I am BFFs with the wait staff now.

The first was my fairy godmother‘s niece. My affection for my godmother is such that if she tells me I should meet someone, I will, because it will be a good experience, one way or another. And so it was. I spent 4 hours chatting with her niece, about all kinds of topics: life in Dubai as an expat, democracy, the struggle of self-realization (finding one’s dream and purpose), marriage, the convoluted twists and turns of a career, misogyny. The conversation had an astonishing level of vulnerability given that we’d never met each other before – we just shared love for the same person, her aunt/my fairy godmother (my mother’s best friend who still watches over me in all her love and wisdom). That love created a safe space for truthful revelations.

My second brunch was with BlondEyes.


I did one year in MechEng with BlondEyes, before dropping out. We were 2 of the 25 girls in the 130 student class. I admired her so much. She represented everything I wasn’t and wanted to be: confident, happy, friendly, fun, smart, determined, a delight to be around, always surrounded by people wanting to enjoy her company. Meanwhile, I was paralyzed by my insecurities – I kept BlondEyes at arm’s distance despite my affection for her, because I was too ashamed of who I was and I feared she’d be unimpressed if she knew just how much of a mess I really was. (Honestly! I remember those days of deep self-hatred, and I wish I believed then what I know now: it really isn’t a big deal, we all struggle with adulting, join the party, don’t isolate yourself child! #vulnerabilityreallyisthewaytogo ). Despite this, BlondEyes welcomed me in her circle.

We kept in touch after I dropped out of MechEng in 2004. BlondEye continued to shine brightly, approaching life as a thrilling ride, determined to squeeze every ounce of experience out of it. I yearned to be fearless like her. Our lives diverged after her graduation in 2008: her career brought her to Edmonton, I was struggling to put myself through school and earn my accounting designation. That is life, right? We can’t hold onto everyone we enjoy.

Fast forward a few years (2012). I was a senior working at a Big 4. My first out-of-town mandate was in Edmonton. I posted a pic of some Albertan oddity on Fbk, and BlondEyes commented, asking if I’d be available to catch up. Yes. We went for a 4 hour brunch. She was so happy, her star still shining brightly. This time, I felt I deserved to sit at the same table as her: she was a respected engineer, I was no longer a flunkee but a respectable CPA. (Seriously. The years of unhappiness my brain imposed on me!) She told me of her relationship with her new fiancé, and uttered a phrase that I will never forget: “Vanilla, I know now that love should be easy. Easy doesn’t mean boring. You can feel more alive than you have ever felt with him, but it should still be easy and simple.” I think that might have been the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. It had the ring of truth to it: she radiated joy. Rather than feel envy – I couldn’t, my depression dictated that happiness was not within my grasp – I felt pride that BlondEyes, at least, was succeeding at happiness.

Fast forward a few years (2017). I post a Facebook status indicating I’m travelling to Dubai to visit BossMan and IronSweetie. Once again BlondEyes commented, asking if I’d be available to catch up – I’d forgotten she’d moved to Dubai 2 years ago. Yes. We went for a 4 hour brunch. BlondEyes: happily married, pregnant with their first child, career going strong, her star shining still so brightly. For the first time in our friendship, her happiness at seeing me didn’t shame me: I too am capable of happiness. It felt like finally, after 13 years, this was the friendship that always could exist, but had never manifested itself. There’d always been a genuine appreciation, goodwill and encouragement of each other, but my former incapacity for joy had made me avoid hers. Now, my thirst for life matches hers, and we can fully celebrate each other’s stories and struggles. And celebrate we did.


Will I ever see these women again? Who knows. I really hope so.

It’s taken me close to a week to understand why that day of brunches made me SO happy: it is because I lived Moments of Truth with them.

Looking back on the three years since my mother’s passing, despite doing my best to keep the world at arm’s length so as to not reveal my messy inner turmoil, I now see that I’ve shared several surges of pure emotions with coworkers, friends, and teammates. Some of these shared moments have blossomed into friendships, and some never morphed into anything other than a momentary connection. But regardless of what happened subsequent to each moment, they are all valuable to me, as they involved an emotional connection. We shared a moment of reality, and in that brief moment we shared our true selves.

And so I begin to reconsider my struggle with truth. Perhaps my concept of knowing someone has always been too narrow: however wonderful and deep the connections I shared with that boy and my mother, they were similar to beautiful paintings, constantly getting reworked to become better approximations of reality. Without doubt, I still aspire to share that process with someone once again. But, in the meantime, as I continue to make my way through life alone, I can revel in each of the brief yet permanent connections that come from sharing a moment of truth with another person.

I feel so blessed to be free finally to connect with people, and live these moments of friendship. Deep, joyous and permanent.

I’m alive – something that was out of my reach for so long.

#mentalhealthstruggles

#grateful

#solocationwhat?


Recap of this trip so far: