"You know what we are, Mary-Jo?" she'd ask me daily. "We're too lucky." This is what she'd say as she backed her Datsun out of our driveway, taking in a view of our house, the eccentrically painted lawn furniture and the large sticks transformed into colour-splattered art-deco snakes that dotted our yard. She'd shake her head in disbelief, reminiscent of someone who's just won the jackpot -- usually the school janitor and his wife -- posing with their Paul Bunyan-sized cheque.
On my mom, the perpetual disbelief across her freckled complexion was endearing. There was a childlike quality to her surprise, as if this unfathomable "luckiness" had somehow fallen upon us in the middle of the Nova Scotia night while we slept. She, in the rectangular room likely designed for the oldest child. Me, in the master at the end of the hall.
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The only way to describe that bedroom is sunburnt. Pink carpet. Pink bedspread. Pink walls. If it were flesh, it would've been ready to peel. Ironically, because it was the 1980s, my own skin rendered me camouflage in that room's pinkness. In the summer, I would set up on the front yard, marinated in a sauce of baby oil, holding a large mirror under my chin in order to multiply the rays. I needed to panfry in the reflection of the panfrying.
Oh, how I miss the brainlessness of being 16 years old in the 1980s. When the only things on my mind were how pink I could make my skin and how big I could make my bangs. It would be a half decade before the cancer would nest in my arm, almost a full decade after that when it would find its place in my back, and a few years later when it would slither its ugliness into my foot.
In 1988, I had a tan that made my teeth look whiter. I had a bedroom that said "Teen Barbie was here!" I had a mom who, like gospel, dictated our good fortune daily. If there was a perfect youth, mine was it. And I am among the lucky few who recognized it at the time.
"Mary-Jo, when you're in a good chapter, realize it. Because every good chapter ends."
If asked in 1988 what a Deepak Chopra or an Eckhart Tolle was, I would've guessed brand names. ("Um, kind of like Esprit de Corps?") I wouldn't pick up a book written by anyone who fell into the spiritual camp until I was 21 years old and dating someone who believed in fine-tuning the act of betrayal. In the darkness of those wasted days, I needed solace. I needed to hear my mom ask (and answer): "You know what we are, Mary-Jo?"
But when you're living in the land of the all-girls' university dormitory, the only question you're asked daily is: "Can I use your microwave to make popcorn?" Today, the smell of microwave popcorn makes me feel hollow. Bringing back images of tear-soaked pillowcases, a glass half-empty and the unending sting of duplicity.
Once I was at a dinner party in Toronto hosted by a glamorous woman. It was the first time I knew for sure I was standing near a glamorous woman. Usually these women drove by too quickly in their Land Rovers to allow for a quality glimpse -- a blur of ash-blonde highlights and silver bangles. So when a friend-of-a-friend's mom had us friends-of-friends over to her swanky condo, I soaked in her glamour like the extra-absorbent diaper I felt I should be wearing.
Through no fault of hers, she made me feel like a baby -- awkward, inarticulate. Every inch of her confidence equaled a mile of my lack thereof. She said: "Mary-Jo, when you're in a good chapter, realize it. Because every good chapter ends."
Lucky isn't picking the right six numbers. It's seeing that the sad times let you better love the sweet ones.
Stumbling in a tango with a partner who bruised my figurative toes, I knew I was too young to be in a not-good chapter. I knew I had decades left to suffer the pain and monotony usually reserved for much later in life, when you wake up surrounded by piles of dirty laundry, beside someone to whom you pledged "eternity" because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Her passion left me knowing there were two types of women in the world: The me's whose weekends consisted of lighting IKEA tea lights and binge watching Law and Order. And the hers who smelled of Paris and wine.
I don't remember what we ate, only what I learned. If life is divisible by chapters, then I was in what could be called a "bad one." I decided that if the glamorous woman was right about all good chapters ending, conversely that meant the bad ones could, too. I told myself to just keep flipping the pages.
When I got sick the second time, my doctor said: "My dear, there may not be a next May." When I got better, and it was May again, I loved every day that month. Even the days my dog lifted his leg against the couch. Even the days I ate too much licorice and felt fat and sluggish. Even the days my career felt meaningless. It was May, and I was in it. Thirty years old, and back in the game -- cleaning up puddles of dog pee and too fat for my fat-jeans.
Mom didn't have to ask me: I knew what I was.
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If someone pressed their nose against the window of our lives back then, maybe we wouldn't have looked lucky. Maybe my mom's alone-ness would be another woman's fear. Maybe our crazy lawn furniture would be another family's yard sale. But for my mom, another family's "it'll have to do" was our "abundance."
I was years away from concepts like cancer and aching from the lonely smell of microwave popcorn. I was years away from meeting a glamorous woman. I was even more years away from knowing I could actually be a glamorous woman. But at 16, I knew "lucky."
Lucky isn't picking the right six numbers. It's seeing that the sad times let you better love the sweet ones. That sickness lets you better love health. That wacky lawn furniture of the home that needs a new roof, means you actually have a home. Lucky is milking every word out of the good chapters. And when you're in a bad one, lucky is having enough strength to turn the page.
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