Thursday, November 3, 2016

Birthday Surprise at the Tundra

I had been resistant to the idea at first. Honestly, I didn't see how it could work, and whether it is healthy or not, one of my more effective emotional coping mechanisms is optimism suppression.

Due to an underbooked charter flight, Parker and Belinda saw a way to get Audrey and I to Churchill, and wanted us to come surprise Fenya for her birthday; all we needed to do was get ourselves to Winnipeg.

Of course I wanted to do it, are you kidding me? I love that part of the country, Parker and Belinda are just two of the finest people I know in the world, and after 4 months, I was well overdue for a hug from my firstborn, but I just couldn't picture it working. Deploy emotional countermeasures!

  • Winnipeg is a full day's drive, and then there's gas and meals and lodging.
  • And even if there weren't, I didn't have enough vacation days.
  • And even if I did, Audrey couldn't just pack up and go during the school year, and I would fear weird and guilty going without her.

So it was easier and more sensible and (most importantly, less disappointing) to file this kindly suggestion under W for "Wouldn't It Be Nice If..."

But then a number of insights and occurrences transpired that moved the scenario into the realm of plausibility:

I finally remembered that there was a new budget airline called NewLeaf that could get us to Winnipeg for less money that driving. ($370 return for the two of us, in case you were wondering).

Then my workplace decided they would close for the two days they were scheduled to be open between Christmas and New Year's, freeing up the vacation days I had been saving.

Then Audrey explained how she is now entitled to two personal days off per year, and could ask for the other two we would need as unpaid time.

I double checked our figures while she emailed her time off request to her principal, who approved it the same night (after hours, bless him), and once I got approval for mine the following day, we committed.

Glory had initially expressed an interest in coming, but when she realized that she could not come to the pub where the birthday festivities were taking place, she elected to stay in Edmonton and celebrate Hallowe'en with her bestie, consoling herself with a pillowcase full of spoils from trick-or-treating.

Maintaining informational security was hellaciously difficult. We limited the number of people we told in order to make the duplicity second nature, and to avoid someone asking, "Hey, have you gone to Churchill yet?" on social media. Our tongues were  raw from the biting that ensued during Skype sessions with Fenya, as we frantically avoided letting the cat out of the bag with a telltale, "See you soon!" or "oh, we can just bring that with us when we come."

Somehow we managed to keep the secret, and we arrived in Churchill the morning of Hallowe'en, the day before her birthday. The initial plan was to wear a costume and come to her place as plus-sized trick-or-treaters before unmasking, but no adults were dressed up, and we couldn't wait until dark anyhow.

Instead, we snuck into the Tundra Inn Pub, across the street from the hotel where she was working, we took a seat in the corner away from the entrance she would use, and Belinda gave her an ersatz pre-order to carry over to the kitchen. Fenya dutifully did so, partially in response to what she thought was panic on Belinda's part but which was actually a combination of adrenalin and fear at tipping her hand. In fact, so focused was Fenya on what she was doing, she never even noticed us until after she had delivered her message and was heading back at a brisk pace, at which point I finally said, "Happy Hallowe'en, kid."

Her reaction was everything we hoped it would be:

It may seem a bit cruel (and probably is), but the tears went all the way around. The chance to appear unannounced, as if by magic, was not to be wasted, and even after recovering her composure, Fenya said, "It's just all so surreal..."

The really cruel part was sending her back to work in order to complete her shift before we could finally take her to lunch. Then, with no agenda until supper time, we were free to just hang out for first time in what felt like forever. We even had a chance to grab some delightful latté's at Lazy Bear Lodge.

That evening, she, Audrey and Belinda caught up and chatted over supper while I went on Hallowe'en bear patrol with Parker and his friend Lionel. (Bear Patrol: In order to vouchsafe the little trick-or-treaters in town, volunteers with radios take their vehicles to the outskirts of town and create a perimeter to make sure no polar bears wander in. None were sighted, but the time felt productive since we were doing almost exactly the same thing we would have been doing at the house, and Belinda (bless 'er!) even brought bison burgers and yam fries from the Tundra Inn to our post!)

Fenya had the next day off, so we had a late breakfast together at Gypsy's, then Parker lent us his truck so we could go looking for bears with a couple of her workmates (future post).

"My i.d.? Mais bien sur, m'sieu!"
That evening, Fenya got to go to the pub as a legal adult for the first time in her life, but I don't think she was half as excited as the friends she has made working there. They even brought her a candlelit cake that showed their appreciation for her 'old soul', reading "Happy Birthday Gramma Fenya!"

The pub was bustling, which was normal for a Tuesday night, but it made it hard to hear Fenya when she participated in Open Mic Night, but that's okay. There were a few shooters bought for her, but not an excessive amount, and it was an appropriately late night, but not too late.

We didn't travel 3000 km and traverse three lines of latitude to hear her sing, but to be there for a milestone birthday. At the end of the night, we walked home in the crisp wintry air in one of the loveliest - yet most remote and occasionally dangerous (future post!) - places we have ever been.

So many feels! I feel so blessed that so many things came together that permitted such a surprise to take place. I am so grateful to Parker and Belinda for making this happen, and for the chance to meet some of the people that have been so important in Fenya's life since we left her on the edge of Hudson's Bay back in July. I'm proud that my daughter has made such a positive impression on so many amazing people. I'm so happy she enjoyed the surprise. I'm relieved that Audrey was recording on the iPad when Fenya's abrupt appearance startled me so much I fumbled my phone.

This is a terrible picture; a blurry screen grab with poor composition due to necessity, but it depicts a moment I will cherish for the rest of my days. The moment when Fenya saw something impossible happen, willed into existence by the love and effort of many people.

Happy birthday, sweetheart.

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