When my daughter and I moved to Montreal 8 years ago, she was just over a year old. I hadn’t lived here in over 10 years, and I knew only 2 people in the entire city. I was 21 when I left, and I was coming back as a recently separated single mother.
I was so freshly separated that when I discovered my ex-husband’s suit had been mistakenly packed with my things, I believed it was a sign that we would reconcile. I used to slide myself into it and pretend his arms were wrapped around me. Truly the worst of times, for me.
Those early days as a new mother in a new-ish city were overwhelming for us both. For weeks after we moved, A. took her Lambie everywhere - the stuffed animal she usually reserved for bedtime was her constant companion. And for those first few weeks, she was my Lambie.
The first time her father came to fetch her so she could spend a weekend with him in Ottawa, I felt like I’d lost a limb. I cried like a baby. Or the lost mother of one. I had no idea what to do with myself, and barely a clue as to who I was without her. So I signed up for the crazy hip hop class I used to take when I was 17, and danced my Saturday mornings away.
Slowly I tried to make Montreal mine. I forced myself to attend events at which I knew almost no one, just to connect and meet people. The hardest was the Kids for Kids ball where I knew only the brother of one of my best friends - and not well. Everybody knew each other - it was right out of one of those bad prom scenes from a 90s flick.
I’d spent the previous 10 years in 3 different countries, so my friends were everywhere but there that night. But I stayed, I smiled, I danced, I bumped into old acquaintances, and I made sure not to impose myself on anyone too long. That night vaccinated me against being afraid to put myself into alien situations. It was my social Ironman, and just as painful.
A.’s neediness was my burden and my salvation - it anchored me to myself. I signed us up for playgroups, for music classes during which I would sit in a circle with other mothers and sing songs, for swimming classes in the dead of winter. Anything to stay busy: these activities were as much for me as they were for her. And I’m still friends with the gorgeous Anny who I met in that singing circle, and the wonderful women I met in playgroup, in the basement of the Westmount Baptist church. They still tease me about the time I showed up at playgroup with a raging hangover from a dinner party the night before, and spent most of the morning not socializing with my friends, but vomiting in the men’s bathroom, while my child sat sweetly singing something about the wheels on the bus.
The weeks of crushing sadness eventually let in a day or two of I’m ok, and then those ok days started to link one to another. Slowly I made friends who cared for A. and I as though they’d known us for years, and we needed that care so badly. And once in a while I felt so high with stomach-flipping-joy that I’d wonder if I was normal.
Now the grief rushed in less often, but always at unexpected moments. At the cottage, after we’d spent a week splashing in the sun by the lake with my girlfriends and their kids. The moment their husbands would show up to join their wives and kids for the weekend, the kids would run squealing to jump in their father’s arms, and my friends’ focus would shift to their families. A. had nobody to run to, and I felt like someone had hit me in the heart with a canoe paddle. We’d retreat to the cottage, my stomach curdled with sadness.
This happened at the park, it happened at the ski hill - the places where families do things together, where parents cheer their children on, where they live the public moments that glue their memories together. One glimpse of a father pushing his daughter on a swing, and I’d want to throw up with sadness.
It’s taken me years not to be punched in the heart by the togetherness of families, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I left the family cocoon that is Westmount, but it happened again yesterday, when I took A. skiing. I’d forgotten how it felt to be surrounded by dads helping their kids get up after they fell flat on their faces, sharing the carrying, cheering, dragging that is the real skiing-with-kids experience, with their spouses.
It’s still just us, me and A. But it was a beautiful, fun day and I refuse to stop doing what we love just because it hurts a little. We’ve been through worse.
I’m not in love, and sometimes I wonder if I ever will be again. But I love that couple I drove by last night, standing at the bus stop in the nasty damp cold, staring into each other’s eyes with the most happily maniacal grins. In love, in lust - who knows what stage they’re at - it’s awesome. I hope they stare at each other like crazy people for a long time to come.
But today is not just for couples and love is not just romantic, slurpy, googley-eyed love.
Love is listening, really listening, to the other side of the story, instead of just waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can speak.
Love is an open mind: giving someone whose beliefs are not yours a chance to express them, and really consider what they have to say. I don’t care if it’s about the death penalty, the Middle East, la charte des valeurs. Listen, and try to understand their point of view.
Love is forgiving someone before they’ve asked you to.
Love is offering your help to someone you don’t know.
Love is not expecting anything back.
Love is not always”putting yourself first”, it’s a bungee jump for the soul (call me anytime, Hallmark). Love is risking being hurt or offended or misunderstood - love yourself, and you’ll survive it all.
Happy Valentine’s day. Give love, take love, share love.
Driving home from school today: “Mum, whenever you give me advice it only works at first, and then it disappears into nothing after a few minutes”.
So much for trying to give her advice on how to deal with a young twit named J. who today told her she was “special needs” because her parents are divorced.
And tonight, as I tucked her into bed:
“Oh mum, you are so beautiful inside, you just need to let it out of it’s cage!”
So much for watching Life of Pi before bed.
This speaks so strongly to the part of me that suspects she needs to be creative to be happy. From Wangechi Mutu, speaking about failure:
"I chose to pursue art without knowing exactly what path it would take. I never said to myself, “I don’t care if I fail,” but rather, “You have no choice but to succeed.”…As far as anyone was concerned, I was jumping into an abyss of failures. So for me the idea of failure began with being an artist.
In a sense, failure is a tail that’s chasing me. I’m running away from it, but it’s attached to me. It helps me project myself forward. It keeps me from looking backwards too much…And the longer you live, the closer you come to dying, and the more you have to keep generating new ideas and new reasons to be here, to be useful, to be important, to be a living being”.