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What I learned during my extra week of break

Reflecting on an unexpected move, COVID-19 financial insecurity, and family
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Over the holidays this December, I remember sitting at my desk with one of my cats nestled on my lap and the other spread out comfortably next to me, conveniently blocking my laptop screen with his tail and unusually large paws. Lit up on the shelf to my right and far out of immediate reach from my two cats was my seasonal Bath & Body Works candle, ‘Tis the Season. 

Though it was dark and cold outside, I was bathed in the warmth of the fire and fairy lights that my parents had put up inside our cottage at South Frontenac, Ontario. I opened the bedroom door to see Maman, Papa, and my brother hanging out around the fire, sitting closely together and sharing conversation over cups of coffee. The scene was set and my heart was full. As I allowed my mind to take yet another crisp mental picture, I was reminded once again of how much I would miss this when I went back to Toronto. 

I would miss the feeling of comfort when I join Papa for an early cup of coffee with the cats. The warmth that I felt when I snuggled next to Maman as she played with my hair. The smile that lit up my face when my brother and I sat around the dinner table, sharing stories and memories with Maman and Papa. 

Even though these nostalgic feelings hit me every time I have to say goodbye and head back to Toronto, this January felt different because of what my brother and I were going back to. 

This year, we returned to Toronto from South Frontenac early, spending the extra week that U of T added to winter break in our shared apartment in the city instead of at the cottage. In previous years, I would simply have taken the extended break for what it was — a time to relax, unwind, and refresh before the beginning of another semester. 

This time around, however, I couldn’t help but reflect on the year I was leaving behind and what the pandemic has given me, especially in terms of the people I love.

An unexpected move

It’s been months since my brother and I moved in together in September, and I can say with full confidence that he’s the best roommate I’ve ever had. There are still moments when he looks at me with a smile while making his morning coffee, and he says, “We’re actually living together.” 

This reality continues to hit me with happiness every time I get to give him a hug, and even during little moments, like when I find highlighted piles of grocery receipts posted on the fridge with the words “money you owe me” written across them. 

At the beginning of this year, we had no idea we would end up being roommates, but when the pandemic hit, our lives radically shifted. Both of my parents lost their full-time jobs. Since August, Papa has continued working on an assembly line 40 hours a week making ventilators. As case numbers continue to rise to disturbing heights daily and further lockdown restrictions are imposed, he still doesn’t know whether or not he will be called back to his former full-time job as a flight simulator instructor. 

Thankfully, Maman was called back to her part-time job as an English instructor and is grappling with the challenging task of online teaching. But as I grapple with organizing upcoming graduate school applications and getting my thesis in order on top of financial uncertainty, I still see our futures as precarious. 

My brother and I moved in together because on top of everything else, his roommate pulled out of the lease in August. Even after postings and interviews with prospective subletters, nobody seemed to fit. One day in September, my brother called me. I asked him if he wanted me to come over. 

“Not if you don’t want to,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting next to him on his futon with a packed duffle bag, a pillow, and a blanket. His small two-bedroom Koreatown apartment felt overwhelmingly large, empty, and silent as he told me how alone he felt. I sat there with my arms wrapped around him, holding him closely as he broke out into tears, and my heart broke. 

“I can’t imagine myself living here at all,” he said again and again. In that moment, I realized that he needed me more than ever, and I needed him as well. We decided that we would move in together.

While we both felt overwhelmed by our decision at first, we were excited. Not only would we be in the comforting company of one another, but we would also be saving money on rent during a time when our family’s financial situation was still very fragile. 

The next thing I knew, we were setting up furniture in our new two-bedroom apartment at the end of September and arguing over where things would go, which is a battle that I’ve won several times. And through it all, we still give each other a hug every night before going to sleep.

Realizations over this break

While my brother and I have known each other for 19 years, moving in together after living apart for four years has taught us a surprising amount about one another, but has also reminded us that certain things don’t change. In the downtime that we’ve had over the holiday break, I’ve had time to reflect upon a few of these things. 

Our new discoveries during this extra week of break usually came in small packages. My brother recently realized how sensitive I can be to the sound of people typing. He has also remembered how I will light just about every candle that I can get my hands on. 

As for me, I’ve gained an appreciation for my brother’s excellent culinary skills and how he loves to add lemon to pretty much everything, which is a common trait in our family. Additionally, my requests to have morning coffee with him every day during this last week before university starts again has resulted in me learning that he enjoys almond milk in his coffee, but he isn’t exactly a morning person.

I know that the beginning of another semester means things will change, but I still cherish the memories we’ve made together during the first week of 2021. We’ve spent the mornings chatting over a hot cup of joe and the evenings cooking late-night dinners. 

In reflection, moving in with my best friend has been one of the greatest last-minute blessings that this past year has brought me — one that I am thankful for every morning when I take my first sip of coffee in our kitchen and in the evening when I say goodnight to him. 

This week has also brought a new furry surprise, and we’ve been setting up our space for our two new roommates: our cats Mia and Marty. 

As the time with our family during the December holidays was coming to a close, I expressed to my brother how genuinely anxious I was feeling about getting through the winter semester with the pandemic. Considering the fact that my brother is allergic to cats, I was pleasantly surprised when he suggested that we make some room for our two family cats. 

It’s been a week since Mia and Marty have settled in, and we’ve enjoyed every second of their presence here. While Mia and Marty may be small, their fluffy presence has filled up our hearts with an overflowing amount of happiness. Having two furry friends to keep us company during the dark winter months has been extremely comforting. 

This extra week of break has been the perfect opportunity for my brother and I to get Mia and Marty acquainted with their new surroundings. Our cats spend their days balancing their time between sleeping, cuddling with us or each other, and staring out my bedroom window, watching streetcars and people go by. They have been a constant source of entertainment, not to mention the best type of distraction from the pandemic outside. 

Waking up in the morning and enjoying some coffee on our futon with our two fluffy friends by our side has been an unexpected yet wonderful highlight of the beginning of this year. Sharing peaceful moments like this every morning has been an important reminder to my brother and I that we hope to carry throughout these next few months: take it one step at a time. If there is any new year’s resolution that matters, it’s this one. 

Final reflections

As we take our first steps into 2021, I naturally find myself looking back at the months leading up to January 1. With almost a year gone by since the news of COVID-19 first sent shockwaves of panic across the world, time seems to have passed by so quickly yet so unbelievably slowly. Days are counted by countdowns to the end of consecutive lockdown cycles, and weeks are calculated by hopeful progress reports. 

So here we are: a new year, new semester, and a continuing pandemic with hopes for change. I remember sitting on my family’s couch this New Year’s Eve, scrolling through my Instagram feed as I watched friends, family, and celebrities from all around the world raising a glass to the end of 2020. 

For my family, the repercussions of the year still remain even with a new calendar year. But I realized that while I could most definitely clench my fists at the blows that the year brought us, I didn’t want to. 

Although 2020 definitely dealt my family a hard deck of cards, It wouldn’t be fair of me to paint the past few months with a single brush. Both of my parents are employed again, and Maman is thankfully making enough to help support my brother and I through university. We are all in good health, and we are grateful for everything we have this year. 

In the sea of negativity that has swallowed the year of 2020, it has also been a time of profound reflection that has reminded us to hug our loved ones, count our blessings, take care of ourselves, and check in with those we love. This extra week of break has allowed me to fully reflect on my experiences and check in on myself and my relationships before tackling the challenging year ahead. 

Right now, my brother and I are hanging up some big and bold fairy lights on the brick wall of our living room, adding another layer of warmth to our new home. Marty and Mia are snuggled up on the futon underneath the string of lights, letting out a long sigh every now and then. The wall by our dining table is decorated with pictures of family holidays, precious moments, and nostalgic baby pictures that remind us of feelings of light and love. 

Sitting back on the futon to join the cats, I look over at my brother with a smile. Over the sound of Mia and Marty purring, comforting words come to mind: we’re going to get through this together.