Have you ever promised yourself a gift? Something unnecessary, something perhaps even excessive, but something just for you, from you?
When I was 22, I left America to study a spring semester in France. I had always been drawn to Paris– the French, the language, the lifestyle–but I could never pinpoint why. I just felt I needed to go one day. I became so philosophical about wanting to go there and not understanding what was fueling my desire that finally I called my brother Nick in a strange self-induced panic. “I want to study a semester in France.” “Great!” he responded. “But I have no idea why!” A pause. “Who cares?”
It was my freshman year, and I often called Nick with my college-born troubles. I remember him telling me with such sincerity, “Mary, don’t think to hard about it. You want to study in France, so study in France! You’ll know why once you get there.” He was correct. Three and a half years and a crap-ton of paperwork later, I packed two ridiculously sized suitcases and prepared for life abroad.
Technically, the timing couldn’t have been worse. I felt very troubled leaving. It had been one of the hardest years of my mom and I’s life. Just less than a year earlier my step-dad died suddenly, and everything sort of stopped. None of us were prepared for that. As if that wasn’t hard enough, a few months later my black lab Brusky, who had just turned one year old, developed an infection and also died suddenly. Brusky was one of the only positive things my mom and I could count on that year. When things became intense or overwhelming or sad, he’d always do something to make us laugh. He was truly a wonderful dog. He was my sunshine. And when he died that morning, I really felt forgotten. There was an empty feeling of chaos inside. I watched the world spin on but I felt stuck standing still. I was jealous of happy people. I was doubtful for our future. And I was losing faith that we could ever be happy again. It was partially the reason I went to France. At that point it felt like I didn’t have a lot to lose.
But I was the last kid left in Louisiana. Most weekends I drove home from school to be with my mom. There are so many logistical things to tend to after someone dies. Just cancelling his cell phone with AT&T took months and months. My mom always told me to stay at school. That I didn’t need to come home and that she’d be fine. But when you see a parent lose someone they love, you see a piece of them go too. She’s tough, and she rarely reaches out for help. And that was mostly the reason I went– so she wouldn’t have to. When I received the acceptance letter to a university in a small town in France called Besançon, I was immediately excited and then immediately distraught. How could I leave my mom at such a pivotal time? She insisted I go. Insisted she’d be fine. The last thing she wanted was for Roger’s death to hinder us. I grappled with the idea of staying and the idea of going. Finally it felt like I had to go. If I stopped exploring, learning, living, loving, trying, then I’d have let fear and doubt and melancholy take over. We had to keep living, both of us, and maybe while I was gone, something wonderful could happen to her too. It didn’t make our goodbye at the airport any less sad. I held it together as best as I could, but still I felt the fear and the doubt and sadness right there on the surface. We hugged goodbye and I prayed all the way to Paris. It was the only thing I could do to keep my confidence alive in a decision that I wasn’t outwardly sure about.
Once in France, my brothers words rang true. Meeting amazing people who are still incredibly close friends. Watching the first snow fall. Cafe au lait and croissants and vin chaud and ridiculous business hours and cafes and little French children. It was perfect. All of it. I fell in love. With the country, with a boy, with my friends, and my life there. “This is why,” I thought. I’d found my answer. Something in my soul must have known I’d find happiness there, at a time where I’d forgotten what happiness even looked like. I lived in a space maybe half the size of my bedroom now with a twin bed and a desk, and I have never been happier. Best of all, I felt vibrantly alive for the first time in a long time.
Not only that, but while I was gone, my mom said yes to a coffee date, with extreme hesitance. A friend convinced her it was only coffee and so she went. The coffee date turned into a dinner date. Which turned into an every meal date, and falling in love and happily ever after. Would that have happened if I would’ve stayed? We’ll never know, but I’ll always wonder.
When leaving after an adventure like that, you make a lot of promises. You think you’ll go back. You think you’ll stay in touch with everyone. You’ll carry on traditions. But these are more optimistic than realistic. The real world resumes on when you return. (It’s awful!) Although I made two best friends there, one of which is My Stupid Friend Jess, very few of us stay in real touch. We reminisce. We get sad when we think about the fact that if we all went back now, it wouldn’t be the same. Our experience was wonderful, carefree, spontaneous– but impossible to repeat. It was five and a half months of not living in the real world as we know it. School was very easy, teachers were lax. They encouraged you to immerse yourself in any and everything, and if that meant missing class, pas de probleme! I loved it. It was truly perfect.
But I did make one promise that I have always intended to keep. I promised myself that I’d return to Paris and celebrate my 30th birthday there. I’ve thought about this promise throughout the years, and I think over the last two years I’d sort of lost hope and resorted to the idea that Paris wouldn’t happen. But when I turned 29 this year, that promise seemed to reignite inside me. I realized it’s only impossible if I say it is. I have a year to make this wish come true. I have no idea why I made the promise for my 30th birthday. I probably assumed I’d be wealthy and successful by then. Hahaha!!! Life is funny.
So I’m not exactly wealthy and successful (yet) but I still have 10 1/2 months until my 30th. A lot can happen in that amount of time. I know that work is required of me. I know there is a way for me to have this illness but still contribute in a meaningful way and support myself and Monty and pay back all the debts I’ve incurred along the way! I truly think it’s possible. I constantly see items on TV or in magazines and think ah, when I’m a millionaire, I’ll totally have a temperpedic mattress and my own jet for travel so I’m not subjected to modern commercial air travel. They are fantasies, sure, but something tells me they could really happen. It’s not like this type of success doesn’t exist. It’s not impossible! It’s just going to require getting creative. Most people don’t make millions from bed, but it’s not that far off the radar. I mean the Kardashians did it!
Anyway, I don’t have the money yet but I haven’t aggressively tried to get it. I’ll need to strategize. And maybe I won’t be in great health, and it will be different than last time and I won’t be able to walk the city as freely. But I’m going to turn 30 no matter what. Here or there. And if I’m sick here, why not be sick there? I don’t mind being sick in Paris! And if it’s just me, alone on a terrace, watching the Eiffel from afar, that’s great too. As long as I am choosing life, and honoring my passions and keeping my dreams alive and not stifled, I don’t think I can really go wrong. I don’t know how this is all going to fall in place, but somewhere deep, someplace where I once felt that initial drive to go and didn’t know why, I feel that it will happen. And if I keep letting the illness infringe on every dream, I’ll never get anywhere. Things will stay the same. And once you stop dreaming, what is the point really? This was a promise I made to myself. Not for a boy, not to prove anything, just a gift I promised to my soul. Last time I left, it was a troubling time and I was uncertain, but once I arrived it all made sense. It appears to be that way again.
The only question left to ask? WHO’S WITH ME?! :)
La Santé, Le Bonheur, et La Promesse