It’s drizzling, as it would at this time of the year. I carry a cooler bag that contains a key lime pie that is probably as anxious as I am surrounding its fate. It feels like I had just baked one yesterday, which was last Christmas. The concept of time seems to have gone through a black hole for the past three years. What was far seems near, and what happened last week could feel like ages ago. The pandemic has definitely flipped our lives repeatedly as if the universe was an hourglass.
What is three years?
“I’m sorry, I’m going to be late. Traffic’s on a standstill. Seems like everyone wants to come see you,” I jokingly send a text to my incoming passenger. I am on my way to pick up an old friend, a face I have not seen for more than a year. Has it only been a year since we last met? Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to call her an old friend, seeing we have only met about three years ago, in a job interview where I was trying hard to impress her to get a shot at a job I had zero clue about.
“Do you like Excel? Because you need to love Excel for this job,” she warned me with those very words. Few weeks later, I would get an email from her saying that I got the job. I would be reading that email in a hospital, just after I found out my mother was diagnosed with cancer. And a few weeks more, the world would shut down because of a pandemic.
I have almost forgotten the smell of crisp, cool air. There’s a distinct scent to it, very similar to arriving in London, or Paris, or Auckland when it’s drier and cooler (but not always cleaner). No one wears a mask anymore, but I find myself a little less brave compared to those previous times of arriving in a foreign land. Maybe it’s because I haven’t travelled in a while, or maybe I’ve just grown older. Age is relative, someone said. I think I get it now.
The taxi driver today, Nikola, is very friendly. Macedonian, moved to Copenhagen more than 20 years ago and has never looked back since. I ask him what it’s like living in one of the happiest cities in the world, and he laughed. I’m not sure why he laughed. He says maybe he has been living here for too long, so he doesn’t think much about that. He doesn’t remember much about Macedonia anymore, either. He then introduces me to various landmarks along the way that I will recognize in weeks to come.
I wonder what it’s like to forget the place you come from. Do you lose an identity, or does it not matter because you gain another?
He drops me off at my temporary home for the next 11 weeks, a swanky apartment with floor to ceiling glass windows and a bougie café downstairs to suit. Just two minutes down the road gets me to one of the most famous landmarks in Copenhagen, the Nyhavn. Nothing has quite sunk in yet, and it probably won’t for the next few days.
I take a few pictures of the neighbourhood, leave unpacking for later, and go downstairs to have the most expensive breakfast of my life. A bacon omelet + an Americano sets me back by almost RM100. I take a picture of breakfast, too.
Have you ever wondered where food goes and what becomes of them after you eat them? We know where they end up, but how they get there is quite a dramatic journey. It has sounds, smells and is closely linked to your nervous system. The more nervous you are, the quicker it moves. The quicker it moves, the more nervous you are.
I learn this as I watch the nurse clean my mother’s stoma. I learn this because I will need to do it at some point. It’s fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I look at my mother and I think she identifies with the latter. I guess your life changes when you’re looking at part of your stomach jutting out with a life of its own. I know it has changed mine.
“You need to make sure the surrounding area is very clean and dry,” she explains as she numbers each bottle with a black marker in sequence so I don’t forget.
About three months later, after many rounds of cleaning, changing and panic – a lot less than those who have to endure this for a lifetime – the stoma is reversed, and a new chapter will begin. One where I learn to turn a new house, into a home.
What a beautiful house this is, I think to myself. I have seen pictures, but it doesn’t beat being in it and seeing everything up close. A lot of thought has gone into this; underneath its Hygge ways it is a testament of someone putting things together when the world was falling apart. If this doesn’t look like victory amidst a challenging time, I don’t know what does. That green on that barn door is gorgeous.
I recognize the glasses she has laid on the table and I smile to myself. Like those glasses, we have come a long way in a very short time. And like those hand-blown, uneven glasses, we are learning to embrace imperfection. The Fray’s “How to Save a Life” comes on in the background. It’s old and at some point overplayed, but it always hits the right spot.
I have a new job, and new colleagues who have quickly become my friends. And yet here I sit in the living room of my former boss’ home, with a couple more former colleagues trying to figure out the hundred things in a platter that pairs well with crackers and some gloriously spiced kombucha. A blueberry rolls onto her dark grey carpet and underneath the sofa. We take turns to drop more food on the floor (by accident, I swear!). I laugh until I have a headache. We have that key lime pie.
I am not part of their working circle now, and I don’t miss it (yet). But I have missed them. We may have only been colleagues then, but when the world was in chaos, they were my constant. I respect them not just for their smarts (which I have learned a lot from) – but for their kindness and sense of camaraderie – even during 2AM meetings. I see them smile, I hear their laughter, and my heart is warm in this cold, rainy weather.
How privileged I am, to long and love the old and new in the present, all the same.
I park my car in the usual spot, close the door behind me, then lock – like clockwork. It is 11.50PM, still drizzling and the streets are quiet. I walk home slowly and think about strangers becoming friends, and some reversing into strangers again. In between all that, events unfurl themselves like ashes that carry time; all three years’ worth of it.
And in between ashes, there is hope.