Little Zoom Zoom

Julia got her first car when she was 31. No, that's not entirely accurate. She got a car of her own for the first time when she was 31.

Growing up Jules shared a Honda CRV with her sister. It was green and they drove that car hard. They hit the biggest pot holes with it, drove it around farms and construction sites, and I'm pretty sure that's the car Jules drove off the road as a teenager when she fell asleep for a split second behind the wheel.

When Jules and I got together, I brought a car into the relationship. It was always seen as my car.

Years later we bought a vehicle together. It was a brand new 2008 Toyota RAV4. Now that we had 2 kids and a dog, the back seat of the Honda Civic was a little squishy. But even then, because I was the one who drove it every day, by default it was seen as my car.

While I was off on maternity leave with Addison in 2011, Jules accepted a new job at Hydro Ottawa. This took her from working in the downtown core, to the south end of Ottawa. What was a 20 minute bus commute to the office, was about to become an hour and half one way with two transfers.  She could walk there in the same amount of time.

Just like that Jules ceased to be a transit commuter and became a car owner.

She wanted something little and compact. A vehicle that would be good on gas. She wanted a commuter car of her own. We decided to purchase a 2010 Toyota Yaris in a lovely dark grey colour (because if you knew Jules back then you knew that her preferred colour palette was grey scale).

It was love at first sight. 

 Because wives do like to capture all of the milestones in your life. Jules with her brand new, new to her car.

Because wives do like to capture all of the milestones in your life. Jules with her brand new, new to her car.

This little Yaris made Jules' heart go pitter patter. It swelled with pride of ownership. She just loved to be able to come and go as she pleased. She loved that having a car of her own made her self-sufficient. She no longer had to coordinate plans with me. She could go where she wanted, when she wanted and whenever she wanted on her own steam.

I didn't realize until we got a second vehicle how much she didn't feel that the car we purchased together didn't belong to both of us. Despite multiple conversations and repeated reassurances, she saw it as mine. 

I'm not sure that a car can launch you into independence and adulthood, especially if you're already married with a house and three kids, but having a car of her own did that in a way for Jules.

She called it her "zoom zoom." She'd light up with delight whenever she talked about her little car.

 You can do all sorts of amazing things in a little zoom zoom, like teach your friends to drive and have a dance party with your kids.

You can do all sorts of amazing things in a little zoom zoom, like teach your friends to drive and have a dance party with your kids.

 Your car can also serve as a makeshift outhouse during the early stages of potty training.

Your car can also serve as a makeshift outhouse during the early stages of potty training.

After Jules died, her little zoom zoom sat in the driveway. Untouched, unused and unloved.

We held little value in material objects, our philosophy is to drive your car into the ground, but Jules' Yaris was more than a car. It embodied her and her essence and her joy.

I couldn't just sell it to someone who wouldn't love it like she did. I couldn't bear the thought of that.

 Jules' zoom zoom wasn't getting any love sitting in our driveway.

Jules' zoom zoom wasn't getting any love sitting in our driveway.

Car ownership can provide economic opportunity. For some folks with lower incomes or grappling with poverty, a car can mean the difference between having a job and not having a job. It means the ability to get to work where transit or a bike isn't a viable option. But it's incredibly challenging to be able to scrape together the money to buy that first vehicle. [Read more about the intersection of cars and poverty herehere, here and here].

I searched for organizations that match a vehicle with a low-income person in Ottawa (or even anywhere in Canada) and I couldn't find one. 

I gave a call to the Furniture Bank of Ottawa as I thought they might welcome the donation or in the least be able to help me connect with someone in need of a car.

Emmanuel. Emmanuel was in need of car.

Emmanuel1.jpg

Emmanuel, his wife and 4 children came to Canada in 2009. Originally from Cameroon, he's lived all over the world. Madagascar. France. He used to work in forestry conservation for the World Bank. He's passionate about the forest and the ecosystem.

When he came to Canada, he trained to continue his work here in forestry. But then he got sick. It turns out that Emmanuel had diabetes. And you can't continue to explore the world and work deep inside the forest when your body needs insulin. It's hard to find a fridge to keep your medicine cool in the middle of the woods.

His doctor told him to make the difficult choice - quit his job or die.

Emmanuel gave up his passion and retrained in biomedical equipment repair at CHEO. There was a job waiting for him, only he was told he needed a vehicle to have it. The machines he needed to fix were located in hospitals and medical facilities all over eastern Ontario. They told him to come back when he had a car.

That was a year ago.

For the past year, and I'd imagine many years before this, Emmanuel's wife has been the sole breadwinner. She's a teacher who has secured regular substitute teaching work. His children are now all grown and scattered around the world with families of their own.

In this time, they managed to save up a small sum of money for a new car. Enough to get a very used vehicle, but not enough to buy a reliable used vehicle that Emmanuel could use to get to and from work. 

While he wanted to move forward with his life, he was stuck. He was handling his frustration with grace.

I could help Emmanuel. Jules could help Emmanuel. The little zoom zoom could help Emmanuel.

I gave Emmanuel a deal and a payment plan. He's only been driving for 3 years, so his insurance is through the roof. I may have come to admire him even more when he told me he had to talk with his wife to determine what they could afford as she was the only one earning money and it was her money he was going to spend.

We all have magic in us that we can share in the world. This is how you spread it around. Be intentional in your actions.

 Our last photo with mama's little zoom zoom before it drove off to its new home.

Our last photo with mama's little zoom zoom before it drove off to its new home.

 We're possibly getting better at selfies.

We're possibly getting better at selfies.

When the little zoom zoom left our driveway for the last time, my heart ached because it wasn't Jules behind the wheel.

But I was also content. Because this is something Jules would have done.

She was always giving material possessions away because someone always needed it more than she did. We went through quite a few winter coats in the early years of our relationship.

Emmanuel, who only wants to have a better life in Canada, needed a car more than I did. And through him, Jules' life continues to create small ripples in the world. 

 

Footnote: I don't have many regrets from my time with Jules. I'm not even sure if this truly qualifies as a regret. 

But at the time, to save money, we didn't buy the Toyota manufactured floor mats. In my mind, a floor mat is a floor mat and that's not where one should want to splurge. But Jules was always wistful about not having the most perfect fitting floor mats in her car.

Let that be a lesson from me to you.

If your partner is in love the idea of having a car of your own, and this car brings a warm, bubbly feeling to her stomach, just agree to buy the manufacturer floor mats. It will make your wife swoon. If the other person has a strong feeling about something they want that they feel will make a big difference in their quality of life, just support it. These little things matter. Always do the little things to make your wife happy.

 Look at that shy, but proud smile. This wasn't supposed to be a big deal, but getting a car of your own most certainly was.

Look at that shy, but proud smile. This wasn't supposed to be a big deal, but getting a car of your own most certainly was.

Vacationing As A Family of Two

When Jules found out she was going to die, we mostly focussed on the present - making the most of the days we did have left together.

When we talked about the future, we covered off only a few things off in conversation. A high level discussion envisioning her living memorial, encouragement to downsize our house when I was ready, and permission to fall in love again. She told me to seek happiness. And, she suggested that Addison and I should take a vacation with just the two of us. 

These were the things that she didn't want to leave unsaid.

Jules knew that the month after her death would be difficult. There wouldn't be time for me to grieve, to reflect and to take stock, because I'd be so busy dealing with all of the things you need to deal with after someone dies. 

When your wife leaves you so few post-death wishes, you try to honour each and every last one.

Addi and I spontaneously booked a week-long trip to Jamaica in late April.

 It was rainy in Jamaica and more than just an hour every day. Torrential downpour, thunder and lightening marked our first day which resulted in a lot of debris on the beach and an incredible number of plastic bottles.

It was rainy in Jamaica and more than just an hour every day. Torrential downpour, thunder and lightening marked our first day which resulted in a lot of debris on the beach and an incredible number of plastic bottles.

 We spent a lot of time at the waterpark. We also practiced our diving and holding our breath to swim lengths under water.

We spent a lot of time at the waterpark. We also practiced our diving and holding our breath to swim lengths under water.

 Shortly thereafter I realized that I needed to specify "no rum" or "virgin" when ordering daiquiri's for Addison without her being present.

Shortly thereafter I realized that I needed to specify "no rum" or "virgin" when ordering daiquiri's for Addison without her being present.

We talk about Mama all of the time. I want Addison to always know her other parent. To know Jules in ways through experiences they shared, and to know Jules in ways that she never had a chance to.

Years ago, in a past life before kids, we had vacationed in Jamaica with Jules' family. We'd booked an excursion to climb Dunn's River Falls that I remember fondly. I wanted to take Addison to do something off the resort, to have an adventure that her Mama had once had, to live the same joy in having that shared experience.

We also decided that we wanted to have an adventure that was unique to the two of us, so we added a stop to the Blue Hole. This is a pretty new attraction where you get to jump off of cliffs into the blue water below. My fearless kid loves to jump into water.

 Getting ready for our first jump at the Blue Hole. Not so blue on this particular day due to the storms earlier in the week.

Getting ready for our first jump at the Blue Hole. Not so blue on this particular day due to the storms earlier in the week.

 We've got this! We're fearless. And, the water was much higher and much infrastructure had been destroyed days earlier.

We've got this! We're fearless. And, the water was much higher and much infrastructure had been destroyed days earlier.

 We elected not to do the 15 foot platform and settled for this 4 foot rock instead.

We elected not to do the 15 foot platform and settled for this 4 foot rock instead.

 Climbing our way to the top at Dunn's River Falls.

Climbing our way to the top at Dunn's River Falls.

 The water was a touch cold. Just a touch.

The water was a touch cold. Just a touch.

Travelling as a queer family of two, in a country where homosexuality is illegal, presents some interesting...let me say...challenges.

I want our youngest child to be able to honour that she was raised for the first part of her life by her two mommies. I never want her to feel ashamed or to have to deny that her Mama existed. She has yet to experience shame or feeling different about her family. I want to preserve that bubble for as long as possible even while I'm simultaneously honest about the hatred towards gay people that some feel.

But in explaining our family, grief is unleashed. It gets awkward and uncomfortable. It gets judgemental as I feel the burning judgemental stare of this isn't how a widow is supposed to act.

We didn't have a day where we didn't experience an interaction similar to this one:

Other person: Where's daddy?

Me: There is no dad.

Person looks at my ring finger where I'm wearing both Jules' and my wedding bands. Then the person looks at me with pity or sadness about what presumably is my difficult divorce. Then Addi chimes in, which isn't always understandable as her English isn't as clear as her French.

Addison: I used to have two moms, but my other mom died.

What does it mean for Addi and I now to be a family of two? How do we explain our queer family? How do we not erase her other mother?

We're learning and we have no perfect answers yet. Everything we do is honest and is true to honouring Jules.

 There was a parade, a marching band and cotton candy one night. All things Jules would have loved.

There was a parade, a marching band and cotton candy one night. All things Jules would have loved.

 Sandra, a mom of 7 kids ages 2 to 25, braids hair on the beach to support her family. The unemployment rate in Jamaica is over 12%. And, she does well with her trade.

Sandra, a mom of 7 kids ages 2 to 25, braids hair on the beach to support her family. The unemployment rate in Jamaica is over 12%. And, she does well with her trade.

 The waves here came in a little bit faster than anticipated.

The waves here came in a little bit faster than anticipated.

 You want to make sure that you're in the picture and not always behind the camera. We're becoming selfie queens.

You want to make sure that you're in the picture and not always behind the camera. We're becoming selfie queens.

 Crepes for breakfast every single day.

Crepes for breakfast every single day.

There were photographers everywhere on the resort. They shot pictures of the kids all day long that you could buy. It was to "help" parents by not making us carry our cameras everywhere and bring them near the water. 

A photographer approached us and asked us if we'd like to book a family photoshoot (after he clarified that we were just a family of two and that there was no dad). 

I wasn't ready for this. Not at all.

Not only do I have a strong dislike for posed family photographs, I just wasn't ready to have our new family structure formally documented. We'd actually been working on a portrait project where I'd take a photo of our family once per month and I wasn't ready for our first family photo after Jules' death to not have her in it.  I realize that's a conundrum.

But Addi was excited. She thought this was a brilliant idea. She wanted to participate. She was pulling on my arm with glee.

In embracing this photoshoot, she was taking a huge leap forward, gracefully accepting that Mama wasn't physically present. In a way, this is part of her grief process and another first that I'd eventually have to tackle.

The sadness is nearly unbearable at times when you approach these firsts. You dread them. The occupy your mind. 

But the only way to deal with grief is to move through it. You can't stop moving. You have to be in perpetual motion. Otherwise, you'll drown. Trust that once you move through discomfort of it, you can breathe again, find acceptance and calm. You can actually slow down.

I never thought that a family photoshoot would be hard. And it was. There were tears. But that, too, was also okay. 

The first two images are from the resort photographer, the rest are mine.

Jules knew we would need this trip, and of course, she was right.

Jamaica gave Addi and I change to learn how to travel together. We established new patterns and routines. New ways of being just mommy and Addison.

There are lots of zingers. Grief sucker punches. Difficult firsts. But there are also moments of contentment and great joy. Sometimes, I even briefly forget that Jules died. 

We're learning to live and move forward as a family of two. I'm relieved that we're figuring this out. It's not always easy, but it's not as awful as I expected it to be. 

I know that the life we're living today would make Jules happy. 

Happy 37th Birthday, Julia

Today would have been Julia's 37th birthday.

Julia's birthdays were complicated affairs in our house. In more years or not, there were usually tears, followed by the joy of tacos and beer. If she cried at all in a year, it was always on her birthday. For a reason unknown to anyone, Julia always was afflicted with the birthday blues.

In the weeks leading up to Julia's birthday, she'd tell us she wanted to do nothing and wanted nothing for her birthday. She just wanted the day to pass quietly by. But when the day came, and we hadn't injected any surprise or break in the mundane, she'd be devastated. Absolutely gutted.

When we say that Julia was complicated, this is what we mean. She could be fickle and indecisive.

 Julia's 35th birthday. A small family dinner of tacos and party hats.

Julia's 35th birthday. A small family dinner of tacos and party hats.

 

Julia spent the last birthday of her life in the hospital. She was 10 days past her stem cell transplant, on a feeding tube, waiting for her new cells to engraft. She tried to find the positive, but she truly was miserable and in absolute pain.

The one thing she wanted for her birthday was something we could not give. 

Do you know that refreshing "ahhh" sound you make when you swallow a glass of water? How amazing it feels when the cold water hits the back of your throat? How a dry mouth turns moist and your body feels entirely refreshed?

That's what Julia wanted for her 36th birthday. She wanted to be able to swallow one sip of water.

Only her entire mucoscal digestive tract from her mouth to anus was in shreds from her second round of induction chemo (MEC protocol) and her transplant conditioning (BuCy protocol). She tried all day long to drink water just to get that feeling.

There would be no birthday tacos. There would be no creme brûlée. There would be no cala lilies. There would be no people other than her mom and myself to wish her a happy birthday in person because she was confined to a hospital bed, entirely vulnerable, as she had no immune system.

I showed up at the hospital with a slice of watermelon cut in the shape of a birthday cake, a candle, and hopeful that she could suck on the cool juice. After water, that's what she'd been craving. I wanted to bring her some happiness, but I knew we needed to get the requisite birthday cry out of the way. 

Instead of bringing her joy, I brought her tears she needed to cry. And after that birthday cry, all was good in the world again. 

 In patient at the hospital on the eve of her 36th birthday finally having figured out a system to deal with mucositis.

In patient at the hospital on the eve of her 36th birthday finally having figured out a system to deal with mucositis.

 

On Julia's 37th birthday, she had planned to have her celebration of life. We were going to have a big party for her.

Julia had accepted that she was going to die. She always said that grief was more about the people around the bed than the one in it. She didn't plan to be in a bed. But she did thoughtfully plan to usher others through their grief while she was still finding joy everyday and breathing. She also wanted to hear all of the nice things people would say about her that you normally miss out on because you're dead. 

Life doesn't always work out according to plan.

Instead, we're celebrating Julia's life without her. We're having dinner at a restaurant on her top 10 list of places to eat at without her. We're honouring her memory.

Happy birthday, my love.