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About Heartbreaks, Confidence and Life Lessons

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“This life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess up sometimes, it’s a universal truth. But the good part is you get to decide how you’re going to mess it up.” (…) ” Just because you fail once, doesn’t mean you’re gonna fail at everything. Keep trying, hold on, and always, always, always believe in yourself, because if you don’t, then who will, sweetie? So keep your head high, keep your chin up, and most importantly, keep smiling.” -Marilyn Monroe”.

We all experience heartbreak. And we all deal with it differently.

I learned about heartbreak in childhood. Heartbreak at my father’s problems, at our poverty and other experiences that I have no wish to talk about. I was a sad,  shy, introvert kid. And I was far from pretty. I had no confidence, and I found solace in books, day-dreaming, spending few hours at my cousins’s house, and spending time with my mamaia, my grandmother. And in coffee. I know. But yes, coffee.  I started drinking coffee when I was sixteen. It reminded me of my father, making his Turkish coffee every day. It was also my way of  rebelling against my mother.  I loved the smell and taste of it. Yet Mother did not allow me to drink it. Real coffee was hard to find in communist Romania. She drank a lot of chicory coffee as a substitute. So when she would find a box of Nescafe, she would hide it and keep it for special days. I would find it, break the seal and secretly savoring it every day after school. I remember the day she found the one open box. It was not pretty. Despite the harsh punishment, I reveled in my satisfaction. Upsetting my mother by drinking her coffee was a way of dealing with heartbreak. Yes, I was quite the  rebel.

When the Revolution happened, I was fifteen. My mother worked in the Counter-Terrorism department of the Romanian Securitate. During the first days of the revolution, in the panic and the confusion that ensued, her group was considered the enemy of  freedom. A group of her friends and coworkers were caught as they were protecting the streets, decapitated and their bodies mocked in the streets. Her  friend’s 18 year old son was shot in the head and killed. In those days of revolution, my mother did not come home.  My grandmother was a wreck. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had called in the early days and said her goodbyes. She did not think she would ever come home.

The worst part of the experience is to see that our neighbors wanted nothing to do with us and refused to help my grandmother. My mother’s friend, whom we called on, told us to never contact her again and hang up on us. For a fifteen year old, that was a tough thing to experience. To this date, I still have nightmares from the Revolution. That month of December 1989, I learned a different kind of heartbreak, and, I admit, I learned what the idea of revenge feels like. It brought some level of relief.  And it brought the ambition and drive to overcome, attributes that have guided me later in life. I also  learned to be strong. I took care of my kid sister, I went out to get bread and food and despite the fear, rejection and humiliation, I learned to hold my head high in front of the neighbors. I learned pride and I reveled in it.

Despite some horrid experiences of the revolution, I also experienced the best of what life, people and true friendship have to offer. I was horrified that when I went back to school, my classmates will react the same way my neighbors and Mom’s friend had. I was an emotional wreak. And yet, the day before I was due back to school, my phone rang. On the phone was my friend and former classmate Gino. He talked to my mother, asked her how she was, and told her he will be waiting for me at the gate of the school.  Gino was the real rebel. He was always at risk of repeating the year because of chemistry and physics classes. All he cared about was basketball and he spent a lot of time on the court. He was the cool jock of the highschool.  He asked for my help and we spent a lot of time making sure he learned his chemisty table so he could pass his tests. And when it was his turn to help, he never wavered. Next day, Gino escorted me into the school. Unbeknownst to me, two other classmates, Cosmin and Vali, had made the same promise. I don’t think I will ever be able to express my feelings upon entering the classroom, and seeing all my classmates gather around me, relieved my family and I were okay. I cried. Up until that winter vacation, I was the nerdy, shy kid, overwhelmed by the maturity of some of her female classmates, who were far more beautiful and experienced in all things boys and life  than I. It was the status-quo of my life and I never questioned it. Up until that winter, I had never known my fifteen year old classmates could care as much as they did. The same day, as we proclaimed democracy and held elections for the first time in our highschool, they selected me class president. In those two weeks of the revolution and immediately after, I had matured beyond a normal fifteen year old.  And I made lifelong friends. To this date, Gino and I are still great friends. The best attributes of our friendship are the honesty towards each other (who can forget the speech last year during his visit), and that we never waver in our commitment to each other, despite geographic separation or life experiences.

And now let’s talk about love heartbreaks.

It was in my first year of college that I had started to understand the effect I had on men. Sure, I had a highschool crush, but I never talked about it. Or with “it”. I was in love from afar. I thought of myself unworthy.  I was far from cool, I was wearing third generation hand-me-downs, I was growing skinny and tall, and I hated my curly hair.  I was so convinced of my unworthiness, that when one of my classmates called to profess his love for me, I laughed at him. What I was lacking in confidence, I more than made up in sarcasm. He never brought it up again.

In the year after highschool, I went to Gino’s 18th birthday party. It was one of the first parties I have been to (yes, I was brought up Spartan-way). I started to dress a bit more feminine. I started wearing make up and heels. (I should stop and credit my change to my sister Ruxandra, my biggest fan and critic, who always pushed and encouraged me;  and to Dora, my friend and college classmate, who saw what I couldn’t see and helped change me for the better.).  At the party I sat observing from distance, in my usual way, when  couple of Gino’s classmates came by and asked who I was. I was annoyed they didn’t recognize me, feeling the re-iteration of what I already knew to be true about myself: always fading in the back, always unmemorable. I knew exactly who they were, who their girlfriends were, and which class they were in for all four years of highschool. They were surprised to learn I went to same highschool and in the same year. One of them said wistfully he would have remembered me. I shrugged and thought of them as immature. Never said thanks for the compliment.

I remember very clearly though the first time a grown man complimented me.  Also in my first year of college. I was leaving the internship job to go home, when one of our partners came running after me. As we were walking together towards the bus stop, he said something that surprised and in a strange way, changed me. He said I had the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen. I remember stopping and looking at him quietly for a long time, trying to decide if I should tell him he’s full of crap. Then I just left him standing on the street.  I didn’t say anything. I just turned around and left. But that evening, I spent a long time in front of the bathroom mirror. And from that day on, I never thought of myself as unmemorable. Yes, I still felt self conscious and I still struggled in my relationship with men, but I did not beat myself up anymore.

Alas, “the most beautiful eyes”, newly-found confidence or life experiences did not protect me from heartbreak. Like most of us, I loved deeply and hurt deeply. I remember to this day, as if it was yesterday, THE heartbreak. Curling on the floor in a fetus position, crawling to the bathroom and throwing up from the pain. Wishing I had suffered a great deal of physical pain that would take away from the emotional pain. To this day, I remember the feeling of rejection, the pain of learning love is not always shared, no matter how much you will it so. And yes, to learn the one you love has feelings for another. How is that for heartbreak, Miss S? Still, I don’t regret any of it.

I will never forget my life experiences, my friends, my loves.  Sometimes I found it a little harder, sometimes it took me a little longer to move on. I still struggle through rejection, lost friendships, life lessons. Because of friends (thank you, Livingston) and family  (thank you, lil’ sis), I keep moving on. I hope to return the favor and make a difference in somebody’s life.

In the end, despite the heartbreaks,  rejection and hardship, I am grateful  my life  has molded me in the person that I am today: the good, the bad, and most importantly, the strong.

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The Best Friend I Never Met

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“A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand. Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?”- Khalil Gibran

I am starting to see a trend here. Blogging about unlikely friendships.

My friends are the surrogate for the family I love and miss, back home. I don’t have a lot of close friends, but the ones I have I care deeply for.

Take Livingston and Diana for example. All work gals, whom I have a deep friendship with. I think they will all agree, it took me a long time to trust ’em. With Livingston, was about a whole year before we became friends. I admit, I have  trust issues that keep me from sharing my life with others.  Alas, I’ve had the same problem trusting men. But that’s a whole new blog in itself.

Amazingly, every once in a while, I find that one person that I connect with instantly. Take Arpie for example. I met Arpie for the first time in 2007 in my first year at the Foundation. I don’t know what exactly stroke me about her, but I immediately felt an instant connection. Maybe because she is Armenian. She is one of “us”. I trusted her implicitly and we became friends.

Than there is Jen. Jen requested my friendship on Facebook about a year ago and on an impulse, I accepted it. I have never met Jen in person, and I don’t know her well,  but I am now pals with her and I admire her from the distance.  She is probably one of the most selfless, strongest women I have met. I want to be her when I grow up.

And then there is Farrah.

I hope I can describe through words what an unexpected, and faithful friendship this has become. I am still amazed about it and strangely, Farrah is one of my best friends. Thing is,  I have never met Farrah.

On the Tuesday after the Aurora horrific shootings, I was at my desk, when I noticed the voicemail light blinking on my phone. As I listened to my voicemail, I became more intrigued and confused. The woman on the phone had gotten my name from a local reporter and wanted to ask for permission to visit the “victim in the hospital”. Since I work for Global Down Syndrome Foundation, naturally, I felt intrigued. I called the woman back. And so it began.

Farrah, as it turned out, was a reporter in Texas, who was doing the story on one of the victims in the shootings. I spent a good 10-15 minutes or so talking to her and put her in touch with the right contact at Anschutz Medical Campus. Something about this woman really fascinated me. She had a slight accent. We spoke very naturally. We talked only about work and we were very matter-of-fact, and yet, it was almost as though we did not want to hang up the phone. She thanked me for taking the time to help, and she followed up with a message, one that said: “I don’t believe in coincidences, I believe there is a reason why we got connected.”

We have never stopped writing to each other since.

We truly became what in the old days used to be called “pen pals”.  I learned, through email exchanges, that Farrah’s name means “happiness” in Farsi. Now that I’ve known her for couple of months, I think it fits her well. She is East Indian. Grandparents hail from India, while her parents are from Africa. Was born in Tanzania, went to school in London and Canada. A nomad, she lived in different countries and states, till she decided to “live on the edge” and moved to a small town in South Texas, to witness the gap between the very rich and the gaspingly poor. (yes, I made up the word)

I feel compelled in my emails to her to be  honest and to trust her. She has found a way, through her writing, of  bringing me out of my shell and share personal things that I would otherwise never share, especially with… well, a stranger. We called eachother this past weekend and we just spent a long time chatting about work, my family, psychology, just about…stuff.

I have no inkling as to what drew me to make the instant connection with this stranger. Or how to explain her innate ability  to know I am having a bad day. Or how she knows to pick a perfect Paul Coelho quote that fits my mood in a certain day.  We think the same way and we like the same things. We both love to run and bike, we listen to the same kind of music and have the same fascination with the Middle East, Gibran and classic literature in general. There are strange similarities in our lives. Well, you get the idea.

I keep on trying to rationalize the strange coincidence of that one phone call. By all accounts, it should have never happened. A metaphorical Freudian slip of faith.

Will I ever meet Farrah in person? I hope soon.

But right now, I am  grateful for the “should have never happened” phone call that brought us together. And so here is to you Farrah, the best friend I never met.

The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding English (and Romanian) Idioms

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There are some hard to learn languages out there: Arabic (tried, and gave up), Hungarian (would rather start all over with Chinese–no offense, Balazs), Farsi. Then some lesser challanging languages: Chinese (I know, right?), Spanish, French or Romanian. Trust me, I know. I speak all of the latter ones fairly fluently.

English? Easy by comparison. But what makes it really hard for me to understand, is the logic behind certain English idioms. I am also baffled by homonyms, similar-sounding words that really mean different things. I can write and explain eloquently what “grandiloquence” means, yet I am baffled by “tweezers-Twizzlers”.

About three weeks after getting married I was getting a bout of flu. I tried to get my husband to commiserate with me and told him I was feeling sick. When he failed to come up with the right response,  I put my hands on my hips, leaned over to him and asked: “Did you hear what I said, I feel obnoxious!!”  His swift response: “Honey, I think you mean nauseous“. No, I think I mean you get off your bum, fetch me some tea and cater to my every wish.

And then there is my husband’s ten year high school reunion. Dressed up to the nines (another illogical idiom, if you ask me), and you know, feeling good about myself. Long, flowing hair, tight (really tight) dress, flashing smile. Feeling Angelina Jolie-ish and imagining walking the red carpet (it was dirty green) at the Oscars (it was the Arvada Double Tree hotel). Paparazzi fighting to get my pictures (it was an overweight sweaty old man), giving the queenly wave to the adoring fans (ok, so there was a Silver Sneaker convention happening at the same time). But I digress. When I suddenly noticed my spanking new (is this appropriate??) husband looking intently at this… woman. Yeah, she may have had a smokin’ body, really low cut spandex dress and dripping in cubic zirconia, but which,  in my modest opinion, could not compare with yours, truly. I asked my husband, rather discreetly and through clenched said-flashy smile, who was the object of his intent staring. He played really surprised. Yeah, um, I do the acting in this family, and honey, you make the money. Anyway, later on, during dinner, I catch him looking sideways at the woman. Mad by now, but still trying to save face and make a statement, I declared that I don’t understand men. “It seems to me”, I said haughtily, “that men always think the neighbour’s goat gives more milk than their own.” The husband choked on his food and with an embarrassed laugh explained to the rest of the table: “I think she means the grass is alwasy greener on the other side“. Yeah, whatever. I hope you found the grass is always greener on the other side of the doghouse.

Four years ago, I had sent out invitations on my office’s behalf, to a black-tie event. I was asked by Jamie, our co-worker, what the dress code will be. Without hesitation I told her it would be befitting her to dress in a white nightgown. Still reeling from the shock, she asked: “You mean evening gown, perhaps?”.  Americans are well known for their ingenuity. Couldn’t they find another term for sexy pajamas?? Did we have to use same time of day and come up with confusing terminology?? Think about the foreigners, people, think about the foreigners.

Oh, yes. Diana at our office has her favorites. She  insisted I write about hers. You know about our Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, right? Two years ago we had Eric Hutchinson, a young singer, coming to perform. We gathered two nights before the event to talk about gift baskets. We found ourselves at a cross point, when we found out the guy is vegeterian. I say, good for him. Point was, well, what would we replace the Perky Jerky with??  I followed logic and I thought about something chewy. So, loud and clear, I spoke my mind: “What about tweezers?”. Confused looks around the table and finally, Diana, who by now understands my English scarily well, explained: “She means Twizzlers“. I have never seen or heard Ellen snort before in my life. My favorite part of the story though is the next day Emily and Diana ceremoniously presented me with a Costco-size box of Twizzlers. I hated them. Still do.

We sometimes have long meetings at the office. Some people drink coffee, others check their blackberries. Well, Emily likes to draw. I asked her in one of these meetings what was she grazing. I don’t think I can accurately describe the reaction in the office. It was more like hollering.  Please y’all tell me doodling is more logical and than laugh at me.

And then there is my own way of describing surprise. I was trying to convey to Diana that I was taken by surprise by an unexpected event. Romanian language is very rich, and colorful, and sexy. And so yes, I sometimes inadvertently revert to ad-litteram translation from Romanian to English. Remember the goat example? Well, this time, my explanation sounded like this: I felt like a cow staring at a new gate. I can still hear the crickets in the background as she was trying to make sense of what I said. It just means that I looked completely shocked and bewildered. Cows get scared of new things. Get it?

Anyway, I have many more examples, but I think you had enough. I hope you will try to put yourself in my shoes and walk a mile in them (No, literally, I want to see it, I wear 6 inch stilettos). I dare you to follow my logic and I am sure you will commensurate with me.       Wait. Um. Commensurate? Commiserate?? Where is Diana?? D-I-A-N-A !!!!!!!!

Xmas Letter

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Seven years as an American citizen, I figured it is about time I send out my first Holiday letter. Where does one begin?

The biggest accomplishments this year for me, as in every year since they were born, are Matei and Ella. They continue to amaze me with their strong personalities, kindness, intelligence, stubbornness and humor.

Matei continues to be an incredible athlete. He started soccer in the YMCA this year, but moved onto the more competitive Colorado Rush league. He is nicknamed “the secret weapon” for his speed and goals and continued to score goal after goal after goal. He is doing great in basketball and swimming and he proudly boasts he is a better skier than his mother (clearly, he has been hanging out with his dad too much). He’s a strong fan of the Broncos and Tebow in particular. Being involved in sports has helped Matei achieve a new stage of maturity, he learned to control his emotions (he is half Romanian, afterall) and he is more disciplined. Alas, he is also a lot more articulate, more outspoken and more sarcastic, which of course amaze and annoy his mother at the same time.

Ella is as much of a princess as she’s always been. We still have a lot of pink in our house, princess outfits and tutus galore. Ella is a firm believer that girls only stick with girls (oh, lord, please make that last till she is 25). Therefore mommy has to dress her, put her to sleep, feed her, take her to school, take her to the bathroom, take her  shopping,  do nails together and do just about everything together. She is my shadow. I sometimes feel like a metaphorical Hunchback of Notre Dame. This year Ella assumed the role of household head, successfully bossing her dad and brother around. She is a favorite at school, a fast learner and a very kind little girl. She loves nothing more than taking care of her younger cousins and keeps telling everyone who will listen she wants to be a “mommy” when she grows up. That is of course, after she goes to college and gets a master’s degree from Harvard.

Jeffrey’s business continues to thrive. He keeps busy with the carwashes, commercial buildings, credit card equipment company, real estate business and so on. He diligently makes the money his wife and daughter diligently help spend. He continues to keep busy with his hobby, the saltwater fish tank he built the house around. He spends a lot of quality time with the fish, at times making the wife question priorities. But Jeffrey’s favorite activity is spending time with his kiddos and is instrumental in Matei’s athletic accomplishments.

I have had a busy year with kids, soccer and basketball games, keeping the house, and work. I feel like a Starbucks to-go cup: always in a hurry, always on the move.  I continue to love my work on behalf of kiddos and people with Down syndrome by working at the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and serving on the board of Mile High Down Syndrome Association. I also love the role I play on the advisory board of the John Lynch Foundation. I have, for the first time, trained for and finished a half marathon under 2 hrs. (1:57:48, but who is keeping score?). My mother came to visit for three months and helped with the kids and the house. I miss my sister, my family and Romania with all my heart.

But what I want to talk about most in this letter is my father-in-law, David. For those of you who don’t know, in December of last year he has been diagnosed with stage IV Lymphoma. David has fought really hard and bravely went through grueling rounds of chemo. Unfortunately, the treatments ultimately proved to be ineffective.  We lost him yesterday, Monday, December 19, at 7:00am.

When I came to the States 13 years ago, David welcomed me with open arms. He treated me like the daughter he never had. He lovingly called me by my Chinese name, Anqi (“angel”)-he is the only person in this world who genuinely believes I am an angel. He accepted me for who I am, the good and the bad, and never judged me. He loved his family unconditionally. He fought cancer with the same determination and simplicity in which he lived his life. He drew strength from his wife, sons and daughter-in-laws and his four grandkids. He was and is to me, the epitome of the father I never had. I will always take with me the image of him grabbing Matei and holding him so tight the night before his passing. He could no longer talk, but his firm grip said it all: he was not ready to leave us and he still had a lot of love to give.

I pray for strength for the family. And I pray that one day, we will find a cure for cancer.

For the holidays and the New Year, I wish you all the same I wish for myself: health, happiness, love and yes, world peace. I hope you enjoy the little things in life, love with passion, follow your heart and have no regrets.

Happy Holidays. Sărbători Fericite. With love,

Ella, Matei, Anca and Jeffrey