Life lessons from an African Princess
When searching for a house on the web, my greatest hope was to find someone "with God in front of their eyes", meaning someone with good intentions..a good human being. I was coming from the other side of the world, i didn't know anybody in Montreal and school expected me to find my own arrangements in terms of housing. Downtown was full of rooms for rent, apparently, but i didn't learn about it until i actually started to attend school. I never heard of Kijiji or Craiglist before so my online research led me to this website called Easyrommates.ca.
Out of all the ads available, one caught my attention. It was from a mom of four girls who worked as a social worker. She seemed kind so i chose to contact her to know if the room was still available.
She got back in touch almost immediately and we started to chat. She was originally from Cameroon, one of her daughters had recently married so she decided to rent her room to make some extra money. I didn't know yet, but that decision didn't come easy. It was led by necessity and she was as scared to rent as i was to move in. Maybe that's what made us click, or maybe we were just lucky but we connected almost immediately. She called me on my cellphone and we had a decently long conversation. My English was broken and i couldn't always understand what she said, sometimes her voice would break up, other times i just couldn't find the right words to express my thoughts but overall it was a success. We both felt safe and confident in our choices and we hung up agreeing we would see each other at the airport on September 8th.
When i landed i saw my name hand written on a piece of carton and three smiley faces looking at me. J. was since the very beginning very caring and thoughtful towards me. She made sure i had everything i needed and took every possible extra step to make me feel part of the family and comfortable in the new environment. As the weeks passed by i started to realize she wasn't doing well physically. She was very weak and she was working only a few days a week based on the doc's recommendation. One day she finally told me her story.
She was born and raised in Cameroon in a very prestigious family, being the eldest of 7 sisters. Her family was high in the social ranks and people would bow at her whenever they would cross her path. She had "power" among her people but she never felt that was an excuse to be entitled or snobbish. She was a humble princess who loved her people and her people loved her.
Once in her 20ies she got married to a man who i never heard much about. The only thing i knew was that he was a very abusive and violent man.
That shook her world to her core and one day, after 4 daughters and many years of psychological and physical abuse she decided she had enough.
She prepared her bags, took her 4 girls and moved to England where she started to work as a clerk in a bank. But that was not the life she wanted to live. She wanted to help people and being behind the desk of a bank wasn't going to bring much contribution to the society, so she did some research and found out that McGill University in Montreal had one of the best Social Work programs of North America.
Once again she packed her bags, took her four daughters and traveled to the other side of the world to start her new life and make her dream come true.
Life wasn't easy. She was working full time at a local bank while studying and taking care of the family. Her determination and strength of character helped her push through and after few years she graduated with Honors from McGill University.
After so much struggle she was finally able to quit her job and start working as a Social Worker.
As the years passed by though, the responsibilities continued to increase and so did the stress.
The straw that broke the camel's back was her daughter's wedding.
Four hundred people were invited and the entire planning and execution of the event fell on her shoulders as the groom's family was living in Europe (though they were originally from Cameroon).
She put in all that she had to make the event a success but the toll she paid turned out to be bigger than expected.
Few days after the celebration her body, overworked and over stressed by years of grinding, fell apart and she collapsed exhausted on her kitchen floor.
She was rushed to the hospital but doctors couldn't tell what was killing her. Her life started to slowly slip away from her body and as she laid helpless in that hospital bed, surrounded by her daughters and few close friends, she started to realize that this could be the end.
Her younger daughter was only 12 years old.
Few days passed by and things didn't get any better. One day she woke up feeling nauseous due to a pungent smell in the room. With a feeble voice she asked her daughters to get rid of the smell, open the windows, spray something in the air but, much with her surprise, none of the girls moved from their sits. They were standing like marble statues on their chairs staring at her with horror in their eyes. There was no smell in the room.
Later on she called that the "smell of death".
As the days passed by, slowly but steadily her body started to get better and she finally was dismissed by the hospital with the recommendation of resting and coming back for frequent check ups.
Her body had finally put a stop to years of abuse and grind and its decision was final.
When i moved into the house she was still on a partial medical leave and she was scheduled to be back full time around the time of my departure. She was not doing well though, weird symptoms would pop up randomly, like blue marks on her skin or sudden, violent attacks of migraines. She was afraid of going back to work and her hope was to get an extension of her medical leave.
Her story touched my heart. She was an example of strength and love and the living proof that you can turn your life upside down No Matter What as long as you are willing to put the work in.
It was not the first time i witnessed that lesson in my life. My parents showed me that years before. At the age of 45, after 15 years of marriage and 4 daughters, my mom decided it was time to take her life into her hands and make her dreams come true. Before getting married she was studying for her Masters in Law School. When she discovered that she was pregnant with my elder sister she decided to put on hold her student carrier and dedicate her time to her new born. Little she knew that within 3 years she would have had two more kids, and certainly didn't expect to have the 4th one 6 years later. Life was happening quickly for my parents and she felt she had no other choice but putting her ambitions on hold. After 15 years though, those ambitions came back to haunt her and in spite of her love for our family she felt the only way to be really happy was to go back to law school and put an end to that unfinished business. So she started to wake up every morning at 5am to catch the bus that would bring her to "La Sapienza" in Rome (roughly a 2 hours ride). She had to overcome the embarrassment of being the only 45 years old in a crowd of 19 years old, the anxiety of taking a test in front of hundred of other students, and last but not the least that sense of guilt that came from changing the lifestyle we had for over 15 years while she was a stay at home mom. But her efforts paid well and at the age of 50 she finally started to work as Director of Administration and General Services in a local school, the highest position after the Dean. It was an achievement NOBODY thought was possible given her age and her total lack of previous experience.
My dad was her biggest fan and supporter and the day we learned she got the job we all cheered at her accomplishment while feeling proud of each other. After all, that accomplishment was the result of everybody's efforts and was a proof that we were a great team.
My mom's audacity to dream bigger, coupled with hard work and support from those who loved her paid off big time.
I guess the reason why J.'s story touched me so much is that she had no shoulders to cry on during hard times. Having witnessed the struggles that come with dreaming big and defying the odds, and having realized the key role of love and support during those hard times, i couldn't stop asking myself how she made it through so much struggle and pain all by herself.
Human beings can be so much more resilient than what we think and the power of our mind is so underestimated.
Each and everyone of us comes to this world with a challenge (or many challenges) to overcome. Some have it harder, some have it easier but all of us must suffer to grow because hardship is what makes our souls evolve and our consciousness expand.
All that i hope for is to face my life challenges with the same strength and grace that i have seen in my parents' lives and in the life of people like J. who crossed my path for a short period of time but left a permanent mark on it.