People say that there will only ever be a true few people in our lives that we form everlasting and deep connections with, and, I for one to believe that is true. One of those very important people in my life was named Shelley, and she was my uncle's long-time common law partner.
Strangely enough, I never really got to know her much at all the first few years she was with my mom's brother- though, not out of dislike. It was just more that my uncle was a bit distant as a person. I will admit that I got to know her for very teenage reasons at first.
Going to a catholic high school we all had to get a certain number of volunteer hours before graduation. These hours could be for a variety of kind deeds, and so, Shelley came up with the idea that I could help her do errands and house maintenance, and she would in return sign my hour sheet.
Shelley needed help with things around the house because she was battling lupus, which made her quite unable to do much on most days. And so, at first, I was in it all for the easy hours- I mean, I was a dumb fifteen year old and honestly my first thought wasn’t that hanging out with a woman over double my age would be fun. I am to this day very proud to admit how quickly I realized I was getting a lot more than my hour sheet signed, I was getting the honour to get to know one of the kindest people I have met in my entire life.
Shelley was the kind of person who was always up to spread a little positivity around, and also, some fucking good shade (my god, did we goss about current celebrity drama).
I was in awe that someone who was always feeling so physically sick was able to keep up a great sense of humour, that she just didn’t seem to know how to stay quiet when there was something entertaining to say.
Shelley, lived for the love of living. During my high school years, with everything that had happened between my parents, my physical healing after my operations, and the constant bullying at school, Shelley saved my life in ways she would never come to fully realize.
Don’t get me wrong, as I am always first to say my mom did a great job being there to care for me and my brother; but, she was a single mom, and though she had a secure job, she was still away a good lot during our teenage years; which left my brother and I to emotionally care for ourselves. It wasn’t that my mom wouldn’t listen if I told her what I really felt back then, which was afraid, anxious, and honestly a little, or a lot, fucking angry. I knew she would listen; but, I never wanted to add to her stress, and so, I bottled that shit up and spritzed myself with a little eau de denial each day in order to get by.
That was why, over time, I came to really enjoy going to help Shelley at the house. She was always sure to have some interesting and funny story to share, and as a dog lover I was obsessed with hanging out with her two rottweilers, Baxter and Betty.
One of the best parts about spending time with her was because I could talk to her about anything, and it stayed between the two of us. I would talk to her about things like what was happening with my parents, or what was happening at school. She would talk about my uncle and some of the things he did that she was annoyed with, like, his hoarding for example.
Most importantly for someone my age, she was one of the first people outside my home to fill me with positivity.
When I would be down on myself she would tell me that she knew I was going to do some amazing things with my life, and that she saw me traveling the world. She would tell me to look forward and know that unlike the people who were putting me down, I could do anything I wanted with my life, if only I set my mind to it.
I used to tell her she was wrong whenever she said that. For years I didn’t have the faith in myself that she did; but, over time, I started to really believe it could happen.
You see, I used to think that way when I was younger, until around high school.
Those years kind of beat the hope out of me for a while. And Shelley came and knocked it right back in.
Part of why I believed what she said was my knowledge she never really lied, for instance she would say she loved the way my brother and his friends dressed; but, never told me that.
I mean, I don’t blame her, my fashion was awkward AF back then just trying to blend in.
Shelley never told someone something they wanted to hear, she would tell them what they needed. So, whenever I was in doubt, Shelley would tell me that my creativity and imagination, along with my strength from what I had gone through, would take me to places other people only dream of.
That I already knew what failure and pain felt like, so there wasn’t much more left to be scared of.
With her help I began to picture a life outside my closed minded hometown, a place that would become just a visiting point mere years later.
Those years then turned to months, and before I knew it I was getting ready to head off to university in Sherbrooke, Quebec, near my mom’s extended family. A first step toward distancing myself from a past that I wanted nothing to do with. I knew even then from the moment I left for university that I would never be back for anything more than a visit.
I will never forget how excited Shelley was for me to be embarking on what she considered the first of many adventures she promised I would have. In some ways I believe she may have been living through me a little bit, as I knew she desperately wanted to feel well enough to have her own adventures again.
I also accepted the chance to go to New York City with my high school senior class, which was chaperoned by three teachers from our school. It would be my first trip abroad that wasn’t family related, and I would turn eighteen while I was there. A perfect start off to young adulthood.
I remember going to lunch with Shelley about a month before the trip, where we ate terrible Swiss Chalet chicken (she totes loved it, because she knew the family that ran the farm that supplied chickens for the restaurant, so I couldn’t tell her I hated it) and we talked about travels. I asked her where the one place she wanted to go if she ever felt well enough to travel would be, and she answered with Santorini, Greece.
I admit I was young and still a bit naive, so I talked Shelley into taking me to a travel agent to look at how much a trip to Greece would cost. Remember, this was like 2010, back before Airbnb and online booking sites became all the rage, also known as the before times.
We picked up a brochure and she dropped me back off at home after gabbing about what we would do on that perfect, fantasy, Greek vacation. Little did I know, it would be the last time we would ever see each other.
We were meant to see each other for an early birthday dinner, since I would be in New York City. My family and I had gotten to the restaurant, only to get a call from Shelley saying she didn’t feel so well. She wished me a happy birthday and told me we would catch up after my trip to New York.
I will admit I was sad she couldn’t make the dinner; but, I also didn’t think that much of her not feeling well because it was a common occurrence, and I was not surprised she was feeling too tired to make it. I didn’t hold it against her for a second.
I will never forget the moment the phone rang on the morning of May 17, 2010, just before I was due to go to school. My mom called from work to tell me that her brother had gone home to find Shelley had passed away in her sleep sometime the night before. He found her laid peacefully between her two dogs, two dogs who were so protective of her, that they bit at my uncle when he went to check her pulse.
No amount of little, perfectly thought out words can describe the feeling that hits you the moment you realize you have lost someone so very important to you. The moment all the air evaporates from your lungs as your heart loses a piece of itself.
It hit so hard I didn’t even know how to process it. I probably cried for about an hour, unable to say a word. Then, denial. I didn’t know it at the time; but, the human brain is a powerful thing. I mean, I knew she had died; but, I didn’t process it properly.
You see, she died one day before I was due to go to New York City, and I had no idea if I should go or stay for her funeral. I felt like I should stay; but, I also recalled a conversation I had with her maybe two months before, where she said “I hate funerals. I don’t want to see the people I loved dead and have that as my last memory of them. I would rather remember them as they were.”
I found it strange when she told me this; but, I also began to see where she was coming from. Had she possibly shared this with me knowing somewhere in herself that she would not be alive much longer?
I had to accept very quickly that I would never have that answer. So, with a heavy heart, and much discussion with those around me, I opted to go to New York City on the adventure Shelley wouldn’t have wanted me to miss for the world.
I mean, it was also my teenage self running away from something I couldn’t handle at the time.
Having to see a person who was so full of life, so void of anything. I knew I couldn’t handle it. So, I ran. It was that, or let the ever persistent suicidal thoughts in my head win me over- because it was only in losing Shelley that I came to fully grasp just how much she meant to me, and just how much knowing her had kept me going through some of the hardest moments in my young adult life.
The trip was honestly everything I needed at that moment to just breathe. I figured the grief would still be there even four days later when I would be returning home. All of the students on the trip managed to get along together pretty well, and we did manage to keep to our smaller groups. I do know I was one of the popular kids that weekend because I was the only one old enough to buy tobacco products, and the hockey players on the trip really needed to stock up. Don’t worry, I made a profit, sis. It was a lucrative weekend away.
Well, it would’ve been if I didn’t blow the two thousand dollars I had saved from two years of lawn cutting and working at McDonald’s.
Again, I was a teenager, and I regret none of those purchases. Low key I was probably also just masking my grief by buying everything I saw. Including that Prada purse I bought just to spite a bitch working at Saks that thought I was too poor to afford it.
Jokes on you hoe, I had five hundred dollars cash left over and a petty fucking point to prove. So I bought a clutch. Honestly the look on that woman’s face when I pulled out the cash was priceless. I also got to earn major son points for buying my mom a fancy ass purse all because I forgot to get her a gift until we were leaving the city and nothing around me was below five hundred dollars.
All of that was a distraction; but, during the trip I had many moments where we would all be laughing and having a great time, and I would start trailing off behind the rest of the group, lost in conflict, knowing I was missing the funeral of someone so important to me.
I had no idea then, that I was missing more than a funeral. I had no idea then, that this weekend of distraction from grief would turn into two more vacations, and two more distractions, before I would move out of province, for the biggest distraction- university.
I didn’t intend for it to happen; but, it became easier to pretend she wasn’t gone, simply because I was gone most of the time myself.
What I wish I could tell the eighteen year old me, is to take the time to grieve loss. Take the time to TRULY reflect on who or what is no longer in your life. Do not put on the strong act. Do not put on the I don’t care act. Do not think that just because you are out living your fantasy life means you can forget to deal with the hard stuff. Pushing it down will only lead you to more trouble.
The thing was, it wasn’t all unhealthy. When Shelley died I knew only one thing- that I would either find a way to move forward from this, or it would destroy me. And the only way I knew how to move forward at that time was to start going on these kick ass adventures Shelley told me I would be destined to have.
The first adventure was university. Rather than spend too much time detailing that I will say that I made the wrong choice in classes, thinking I wanted to be a teacher, because it was the safe thing to do. Only to come to hate it there, and end up partying away my first year there, only to drop out a year later so that I could focus on writing my books- because I had decided I really couldn’t handle a life of anything less than adventure, anything less than something worth writing about.
My plan was to take my savings and travel around Europe, visiting England, France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Germany, and The Netherlands solo, so that I could literally write my first book “Tears of Versailles” in the locations I was building the story with.
I was going to live a life so outlandishly brave, and somewhat delusional, that my younger self would be so proud of. That Shelley would be in awe of.
So, at nineteen I embarked on my journey with the help of Contiki tours, where I went solo, only to get to meet fifty people from around the world, and to travel with them around places dreams are made of.
A lot of people thought I was either brave or stupid (or let’ be real, both) to go to Europe by myself at such a young age. I distinctly remember people saying they could never do that and be away from home alone so young. Asking how I could be brave enough to do that. Honestly, that was one question I knew the answer to, more than anything else in my life.
That answer was and is simple, I am scared as hell whenever I go out of my comfort zone. But, I remind myself that I am blessed beyond measure to know that life is precious, and short- and that letting fear stop you from doing the things you dream of doing will only limit you from having the life you want.
Why would I be scared of wandering Paris, London, Florence, Rome, Chicago, and countless other cities alone, when I had gone through much more difficult moments alone? To me, getting lost in the world and what it had to teach me was far less scary than staying in a place that made me feel I couldn’t breathe.
Everywhere I went, I felt her with me. I felt her in the butterflies that flittered past me as I sipped wine on by the Arc De Triomphe. I felt her in the beautiful yellow bird that followed me through the streets of Rome, singing its sweet summer’s song.
I felt her just this last June in Spain, as the winds from the mountains clashed with the ocean breeze, and the sun set only to give way to a night sky shimmering with the brightest stars.
I have felt her everywhere I have been.
I owe so much of who I am today to Shelley, and honestly no words can describe what she truly means to me. I learned so much through her life, and her death.
I learned to let myself grieve. Though, getting to that point ended up talking about seven years. In fact, I could not even bring myself to visit her grave for three years.
I also know that not properly grieving her passing led me to some very dark places in my life. That for all those moments I was able to channel her positivity, there were moments I felt so low that I never wanted to hear her voice replay in my head ever again- because it hurt too much not to be able to share all that I had started to accomplish with her.
It would lead me to being the worst version of myself, for a time. Only to later help me heal and move forward in ways I never thought I could.
Most importantly, over time, knowing her, and losing her has taught me to always find a way to turn something bad, to something good. That you can do anything you set your mind to. And that even in the face of pain, and sadness, you must always find a way to come back to a place that makes your heart feel whole again.
Honestly, the lessons I have learned from knowing Shelley, and from losing her have taught me more than what one blog post can address.
Do not be surprised to see her name pop up plenty of times over the course of me telling you about the next few years.
Just know that I am now, and have been for a while, finally at a place where I feel healed enough to share a bit of the story of one of the best people I have ever known. And the first loss I truly felt to my core.