Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My Own Personal Guardian Angel

Do you believe in Guardian Angels (G.A.)? 
Trust me, if you had one your entire life you would!

Hello my 9-yrs old self!
Take a look at this kid with pig tails. It is1978 and bell bottoms and pointy collars is so much the raging fashion that my mom thought that only a flower-hat pin was needed in order to make me look picture perfect! We were vacationing in Greece, the Island of Thassos (where my father taught me how to swim!) It might have been my birthday; I'm a summer baby.

It took me a good thirty years to look this girl in the eyes and see what my life's guardian angel always saw: PERFECTION.

My only uncle, the favourite person of my childhood, peacefully fell asleep on December 6th. He had a great family and a great life and although I would have bargained with the heavens to keep him with us just a tad longer, I am grateful he didn't suffer. And I'm thankful we're 'departing in birth order' as my wise ancestors described lucky families. And I am richer for every minute I got to have him. This story is about him.

Imagine a giant teddy bear. Then imagine that he is real, he is funny, he is handy (a mechanical engineer who knew how to fix everything!) Imagine that he has a body-guard streak. And that he possesses the sensitivity rarely found even in mothers of daughters, let alone a father of two boys. And then imagine my luck - that the daughter he never had but always wished for happened to be me!

My Teddy Bear's name was Zoran - a common Serbian name - but for me he was Koka. His lap was my safe zone! As a fairly mouthy child - alas, not much has changed - I used it very often. It was "Geneva" - offering full protection from being disciplined no matter the offence.

Remember that school chewing gum incident? I never told how that ended, did I? I went home and told my parents. They empathized as my mom cut a chunk of my hair while hoping I 'learned a lesson'. Chewing gum was no good for my teeth anyway. 

Then I called Koka. A minute later he was already sitting in our living room sipping coffee.  
"What did you say the teacher's name was?" - he whispered in my ear as I found my shelter right away, retelling the school drama. 
"And this week you go to school in the afternoon? A-hmmm" - his acknowledgment sounded more like he was engineering a project. The eyes behind the thick-rimmed glasses suddenly looked as if they had a powerful calculator at work. 
      "Is she doing this to other kids?" 
      "You have math tomorrow?"

I was running down the stairs with friends after the class, eager to get the best spot under the tree for our magical recess games, when I saw two men in trench coats in the school lobby, looking serious. The somewhat surreal recognition turned into wonder as his barely-visible wink signalled me to keep going to the yard. From under the shade my eyes were glued to the glass door. Like in a silent movie, I saw our fierce math teacher pause as someone introduced her to the two gentlemen. Her blank stare was replaced by a red face, her head vigorously shaking as if she was a child being scolded. Our game started, I got distracted and by the time the bell rang and we rushed back in, the trench coats were already gone. 

My body-guard, my G.A., my Koka was a man of both justice and action. It took him 24h to show up at my school with his much fiercer colleague Miško, the two of them looking all FBI-like demanding the teacher to never, ever punish another child again if she didn't want them to return. Not only did it work, this big mouth here managed to never tell a soul about it - up until right now! 

My entire life Koka has been my safe harbour, my mischief buddy and my confidant. When he caught me crying - mean girls at school were calling me names for my protruding ears (you are welcome to scroll back to the photo above) despite my parents' finding that I actually looked charming, he took me to his plastic surgeon friend who agreed to perform the first aesthetic surgery in Belgrade's Children's Hospital in exchange for a before and after photo for her office. Dr.Gordana Janjić - I have never forgotten your gift! I was 10 years old and coming back to school with my ears beautifully fixed gave me a quantitative confidence boost that ensured the survival of my late starting puberty.  

Still, the real treasure was enjoying Koka as my G.A. long into my adulthood. He was my back-up parent of the best kind. He was the one who taught me how to let go of failed man and marriage. He was the well-needed second grandpa to my son; the kid felt like a little king in his care! He was the favourite teddy bear I never grew too old to hug. And he was my only bank - the one that loaned me the money needed for immigration, even though those years were tough on everyone and that was rainy-day fund. 

My Teddy Bear - Belgrade 2013
The unexpected gift of immigration, after we all survived the initial grief of being separated, is that our forever began right there. As in true life-long friendships, dimensions of distance and time mean nothing. We stayed close and grew closer even though a decade and a half passed before we would see each other again. And when that day arrived and I saw my G.A. waiting for me at the Nikola Tesla International Airport, my heart exploded and rejoiced as I threw myself into the best embrace on Earth. That week in Belgrade my life got prolonged. Endless hours of talking, laughing, drinking coffee, reminiscing our fun times, analyzing tough moments - that week will forever stay preciously stored in my heart. Yes - for the unbelievable abundant love and optimism and energy I'm still kindling inside of me. It will never expire. But more so for regressing into being their 'baby', the youngest of all kids in the family, the one with special privileges and my own personal guardian angel.

The night my Koka fell asleep I woke with an answer to a pressing question I've had for a while. The answer was so crystal clear it brought instant relief that helped me fall sound asleep right away. A few hours later tears streamed down my face as I read the message from my cousin - my loss will always be immense. But somehow I know Koka hung around as long as he could to have this one last real lesson sink in and see the tide change. 

What I feel is true is that there is no departure - we were already pros at long distance! The absence of the physical only means that Koka is so much closer to me now - riding along with me. I'm safe, comfortably nestled in for what's to come, his lap wide as heaven itself.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Rats! or The Best Love Story Ever Told?

The receiver of our beige rotary dial phone seemed unusually heavy in my hand. The porcelain felt cold on my ear. My heart was beating hard with fear and excitement. What if I don't understand him?

As if she heard my thoughts, my sister said from across the ocean - "Listen, you don't have this in Serbia. It's three-way calling.” She went on describing this ‘advanced’ technology. “So worry not, if you don't understand something I will translate it for you. OK?"

Once prestigious red passport
What ensued was a clear and concise conversation that changed the course of our lives. The third person calling in was a famed immigration lawyer whose fees I would only be able to afford to pay many years later. But my payment was never necessary. The bill for the consult was paid in full by my sister's employer. 

The information learned on that call led to a day that resembled a spy movie. At the wee morning hours I was to line up in front of the Canadian Embassy in Belgrade which was rumoured to have already started packing for evacuation. It was imperative that I was amongst the first in line - they accepted only a select few ‘consults'. The trouble was, the embassy was located directly across from the home where I had lived with my in-laws and first husband  - the one who had left me for his mistress 10 days before our baby was born. The one who refused to sign the document allowing my son to immigrate without going through... Well, you can read that in the memoir when it comes out! 

When the doors opened, my task was to recite my immigration file number and change the profession registered on my file from  'retail pharmacist' to 'industrial pharmacist'. Both of these were listed on the degree I had earned with honours 5 years previously, however the allocated space on the visa application form only allowed for a single entry. Bureaucracy the Beautiful!

This is Inflation
This power-house lawyer in Ontario's Immigration Law office taught me on this most important three-way call of my life that the vocation of retail pharmacist that I had listed two years earlier at the time I started the process now carried zero (0) points in contrast to the previous ten (10). The designation of industrial pharmacist however now carried ten points as opposed to zero previously. The math was simple: 0 points for previously-listed vocation x 10 points for fluent in English x 10 points for fluent in French x 10 points for having a close relative in Canada x10 points for having a child under the age of 3 still equals = ZERO. In that way my visa application had been suspended indefinitely due to insufficient points. After two years of waiting, I no longer qualified to be granted landed immigrant status. 

And just as in a good spy movie, the time was ticking. I was cold, a bit hungry, dead tired, and very apprehensive that the ex's parents - he himself having been long gone to the Lone Star state - would perhaps be standing on the balcony smoking and drinking the world's worst coffee and would see me line up for immigration thereby jeopardizing my whole chance of getting out. Damp with adrenaline, I was still able to remember my file number and the vocation code when a woman named Jacynthe asked me for it in French. Soon after I emerged back onto the street, my step swift, gaze focused on the ground, clutching a little yellow slip as proof my file was again deemed active.  

A chapter of my memoir-in-the-making "Marina Has Son" has the precise account of our heart-stopping exit from a war-torn Serbia whose borders were becoming tighter in the months and weeks that led to the 78 days of NATO bombing. My son and I and my parents narrowly managed to escape, courtesy of a North American corporate employer that had met me only twice before during interviews.

Passport photo - Attempt #9 
The day my visa arrived was a Friday and I worked the afternoon shift at the pharmacy. I hugged my colleagues Daca and Sneža tightly at the end of the work day, feeling I would never see them again. My three closest friends Tanja, Vladimir and another Vladimir were the only people other than my family who knew of my plan to leave. "Defectors" were not viewed with sympathy even if the reason was survival. On Saturday while Tanja played with Filip, the two boys helped me pack, duct taping shut all of my worldly possessions. Our flight left the following day and not counting the brief stop-over in Paris, the journey was 17 hours.
We arrived in Canada on a crisp and cold grey Monday morning. My not-yet three-year-old son was cranky, disoriented and confused - where were we? Where was grandma and grandpa? Why was it so cold? Where were his toys? Who was this woman? 
My visibly-shaken sister, who was in disbelief that we were really standing in front of her having actually made it out of the war zone, was a total stranger to him. After all, she had only seen him once at 6 months old when she had visited. He cried inconsolably as I left him with his aunt and went - jaw tensed and white-knuckled - to my first day of work. With 6h jet-lag and a new pair of glasses that somehow made the ground look farther away.

1st day of work: Fresh off the boat 
This was the day I signed my first contract with the employer that had invested in me through care and that hefty celebrity immigration lawyer's fee before I had even earned enough to buy a bottle of water. The date was December 7. It was a Monday. Alongside my children's birthdays, it has been the most significant date of my existence. Because it meant existence. 

North American corporations are often viewed as greedy, ruthless and impersonal. The career ladder is expected to be treacherous, infested with master-liars, manipulators and backstabbers. Commonly it's referred to as a rat race

Well, not for me and mine. Because this particular rat is genetically predisposed to outlast. It is fully infused with inspiration. Roaring with resilience. Leaping into learnings. Wired for wonder. And bound to blog about it.

Today is Monday, December 7 and we are celebrating a crystal anniversary together. I wonder why is it called crystal?  Perhaps because by now one's vision is crystal clear? Or because it is so fragile it can break into smithereens with the slightest blow?

Looking back, it's been just like a real relationship - fulfilling and rewarding for the most part, yet sometimes turbulent. One brief break-up followed by a sweet make-up! Nothing that a few sessions of couple's counselling can't fix - which actually comes as part of the offering under the heading of  'resilience training'. I'm in, so sign me up! 

Malcolm X said: "The future belongs to those who prepare for it today" - and I couldn't have been more prepared. 

But for today, it is still the best (career)love-story ever told.