The right words in the right place at the right time

For two years I lived in a really great apartment. And for the first six weeks of having that apartment, I felt like the luckiest person I knew.

Its advantages were obvious—good location downtown, newly renovated, big rooms. But those aren’t the things that made it so fabulous. When I first went to see it, I had no intention of signing a lease. I didn’t think I was ready. I still had to sell my house, and this was the first apartment I looked at. I had decided it would have to be pretty special for me to take it. It was the beginning of February and a snow storm was just starting when my daughter and I went to view it. We slogged through the snow, met the building manager, went up to the fourth floor, took our boots off in the hall, and stepped inside … to an absolutely breathtaking view. The end of the living room was a wall of windows looking out on the lake and the big island beyond. Even on that grey, stormy day, it was something to see. “Well, damn,” I said to myself. “Guess I’m getting an apartment.”

The years before that apartment came into my life had not been easy. My sister died of cancer. My mother-in-law had a massive stroke. My husband ended our marriage. Most of our friends and his side of the family found that awkward, so they went away too. I was left to raise my teenaged daughters pretty much on my own. I would have liked to move then, but my girls didn’t need any more upheaval in their lives. When they were finally ready to move, both of my parents had become ill and my time was spent looking after them. Then doctors discovered that my mother had been having silent heart attacks, and she died 3 months later. The next year my daughters started their final years of university and high school, and I decided it was time to make the change I had needed for so long. I was finally going to get out of the house that was full of so many bittersweet memories. I spent a year getting things fixed so I could sell it. I leased the great apartment, then spent the next few months chewing down my nails while I waited for the house to sell. I got an offer just a month before I got the keys to the apartment. A few more things  in the house broke but nothing bad enough to scare off the buyers. I tentatively allowed myself to think that things were working out.

My lease started on the 1st of May, but I didn’t plan to move in until June. I had a month to bring over the things I could fit into my Camry. The new place was close to my work, so I gave up my parking pass and started parking at the apartment building. Every morning I would carry something upstairs and take a look out those windows. On the first Saturday of May, I loaded up the car for the first big drop-off. After a couple of hours lugging boxes up in the elevator, I finally took some time to appreciate my new setting. I unfolded a lawn chair in front of my wall of windows, opened up a cold drink, and started playing some music on my iPhone. The first song that came on was “Ordinary Day” by Great Big Sea:

I’ve got a smile on my face and I’ve got four walls around me
I’ve got the sun in the sky, all the water surrounds me.
I’ll win now but sometimes I’ll lose
I’ve been battered, but I’ll never bruise
It’s not so bad

The lake was a brilliant blue with the sun sparkling brightly upon it. A warm spring breeze blew in through the windows. Along with Great Big Sea, I could hear the cries of seagulls and the distant voices of people as they strolled along the waterfront. The words of that song filled my brain and I actually laughed out loud, then started to happily cry. After so many years of sadness and loss, of setting my own needs aside to make room for others’, after worrying up until the last days that I wouldn’t be able to sell my house and take this apartment, here I was, exactly as the song said—smile on my face, four walls (and not much else besides the lawn chair), sun in the sky, water in front of me. Had I actually come out ahead? It was almost too good to be true. I felt like I had won a lottery.

We moved in a month later, me and my daughters. When I took the apartment, I didn’t think they would be living with me, but circumstances changed and they both ended up staying with their mom. And sharing a bedroom for the first time in their lives. We got all of our stuff out of that big house into that much smaller apartment, spent the day unpacking and arranging, then picked up a pizza and sat down on the floor in front of our wall of windows to eat our first dinner in our new place. It was dark, and a full moon hung in the sky directly in front of us, the moonlight like a path on the water leading up to our balcony. We were mesmerized. Did we really get to live here? I thought of that Great Big Sea song again—no sun this time, but there were these words:

… it’s just an ordinary day
And it’s all your state of mind
At the end of the day, you’ve just got to say
It’s all right

It was definitely all right. The three of us had been through a lot in the past few years. Now my oldest was graduating from university and my youngest from high school. They had their lives ahead of them, and so did I. We had mustered up the courage to take a step away from the pain and memories, and start over. And we just so happened to have an amazing place in which to do so. Could we really be that lucky?

No, as it turned out. Two weeks after we moved in, my father was diagnosed with ALS. It was progressing rapidly and he was losing his ability to look after himself. Soon he would have to give up his home, and reluctantly move to a place where he could receive the care he needed. And I came to regret my decision to take that apartment. My house had been close to my father’s home. If I had stayed where I was, I could have easily looked after him and given him more time in his own place. Or he could have moved in with me. Or I could have looked for an apartment big enough for him and the three of us. Neither he nor anyone else ever said anything to suggest that I had made a selfish decision; I reached that conclusion all on my own. I’m not the kind of person who easily makes choices just for myself. I had always been the oldest child, or part of a couple, or a loving mother, or a dutiful daughter. The only time I had ever thought only of myself was when I signed the lease for that apartment. I got to enjoy it for six weeks and live in it for two, feeling like I had finally won, that my ship had come in (and docked right down there in view of my living room). And then my father got his diagnosis, and the shine came off that wonderful apartment.

Two years later, I left. My father had passed away and my daughters had moved on and out. I myself had a different bit of luck, having reconnected with an old boyfriend and fallen in love again. He lived in another city, and was in the midst of dedicating his life to his own child. They were happy to have me join them. So I gave up that wonderful apartment. My boyfriend sometimes expresses remorse that I had to give up such a nice place, but I always tell him that regret can take away the wonder of anything. As amazing as that place was, once my father was diagnosed and I realized that I could have helped him more if I had stayed where I was, any joy that place brought was tinged with regret. I didn’t hate living there. It was still a nice apartment with a great view, and I enjoyed all of its advantages. But it wasn’t quite as shiny as it had first seemed. To quote that song again, “It’s not that bad.” It became just an apartment, not the symbol of positive change that it was in those first, heady days. Besides, an apartment is just a space to put your stuff. Happiness comes from the people surrounding you, not the four walls or the water. It was an easy trade—the apartment for him.

And I’ll always have the memory of how I felt that Saturday in May, the sun shining, the water sparkling, that song playing … the right words in the right place at the right time.

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