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The night had been long and restless, tossing and turning, eyes darting to and from the small hand of the table clock. In hindsight, following the big hand might have imparted some momentum to my painfully slow wait for daybreak – all night long!
It was not my wedding morning, nor graduation day, and fortunately not a hospital trip to monitor health conditions of an ailing elder, but my anxiety level was on par with all or any of those significant life events. It was a D-Day of a different kind – the day to register my four-year-old for spring and summer activities at the local recreation centre.
With the exception of the day of my daughter’s birth, and some odd-hour flights to my native nation, it was the first time in routine life that I’d woken up and experienced the surreal calm of 3 o’clock in the morning. Something about that moment felt like the calm before a storm, or in warfare, the quiet before an attack. What ensued was nothing less.
I gulped my extra-strong coffee (stored in a thermos the previous night). Then, armed with a much- coveted copy of the Toronto City Fun Guide, heavily dog-eared, and my husband’s iPhone charged to capacity, I headed out into the dark, frigid morning to join the lineup. Despite my anxiety it was exciting for a mostly indoor stay-at-home mother to sneak out on a sleeping family, all equipped for combat.
The sluggish wheels of my car zigzagged on snow-covered highways and dangerously slippery exit ramps. It took longer than I’d expected to reach the holy ground, but it was important to be safe, alive and alert.
As I snaked my way through the fast-filling parking lot, an ominous sense of failure loomed; something was telling me my hopes may be crushed. I found a spot (survival instincts seem sharper in those raised in developing countries) and sprinted through calf-deep snow, stepping in the ready-made footprints of others rather than lose time making new ones of my own.
At least a couple hundred heads were in front of me, bobbing like penguins on ice, jogging on the spot, doing jumping jacks or whatever else they needed to do to keep warm – or entertained. My conceited ego took a beating. I confess I was a little envious of my competitors’ paraphernalia: camping chairs, step stools, coffee. With such contingency planning they would surely hold an extra edge.
Discretion is the better part of valour, I decided. I would capitalize on the opportunity granted by 200-plus minutes of waiting to scan the fun guide again and reprioritize my colour-coded programs.
Given the approximate head count, and considering the elementary laws of statistics, even an optimist like me had to accept the truth – the much-sought-after weekend skating and swimming classes were not for my girl, at least not this season.
Arts and stories were things I did at home with her (for free), but I underlined some preschool programs just in case. It would be a shame to come home empty-handed. There had to be some justice to the ordeal, even if it came with a price.
The experience brought back childhood memories of going to spiritual retreats with my folks, seeking solace in divine intervention. Back then there was hope, some assurance that after all the waiting there would be a reward, at least a glimpse of the holy shrine.
Here, it was more like climbing a mountain in the dark. You didn’t really know where you stood, or how much farther you’d have to scale to reach the pinnacle of success. You couldn’t see where the others were.
Perhaps that thought got into other people’s heads, too. I got some firsthand insights into human behaviour when it’s put to the test.
The extra-smart rats who tried to sneak into the race got caught in the wrath of others. Even seniors with little grandchildren were not spared if they dared to jump lines or break rules. Tempers rose, fists clenched and voices soared.
Some enterprising onlookers took it upon themselves to mediate in verbal skirmishes. Others who weren’t interested in stalling miscreants or playing referee contented themselves with providing valuable suggestions to parks and recreation authorities – such as provide security or police protection!
When the doors opened an hour before actual registrations began, the queue began breaking up at the entrance. I wasted a few precious seconds reading an interesting notice on the door: “Chairs and stools do not count as placeholders.” Like the fabled rats of Hamlin, we scurried en masse.
For my part, I won some of fortune’s favour (or received my just reward): I managed to sign up my daughter for one course and waitlist her for another on our high-priority list – a partial victory.
I returned home fairly contented, yet exhausted. The child was still fast asleep, oblivious to all that went into the building of her life skills, and to the lengths to which so many parents will go to ensure their kids have some fun on Sunday afternoons.
Saumiya Balasubramaniam lives in Toronto.