Let me tell you about one of the best days of my life. It was Wednesday, March 17, 2010. I was acing most of my courses in my third year at the University of Toronto Mississauga, I worked part-time as a traffic reporter for a media company, and I had my ulcerative colitis under control thanks to two daily doses of Asacol pills.
My first class of the day began at 10 a.m., a linguistics course focused on English grammar. I had one friend in the class, Jericho, a muscle-laden yet gentle young man from Singapore. Whenever the class took a break, Jericho and I would talk about football, his past military service in Singapore, and technology. Jericho had a laptop with a thick, hard metallic shell. He called it his iron maiden. Our English grammar class was pretty dry, and we’d both end up yawning a lot as the class wound down at noon.
“Where are you off to now?” Jericho asked.
“I’m going to the gym, probably run for a while. I have 6 hours until my next class,” I said.
“Well I might see you there later. I have to meet my editing group now.”
“Cool, I’ll see you.”
I went to my locker and pulled out my gym clothes and my grey Asics running shoes with red and black stripes. I packed the clothes into my backpack and walked towards the gym, carrying my shoes in one hand. I liked to carry my shoes in the open so that other people could see them. So that they could see I was going to the gym. So that they could see I was a runner. So that maybe I would impress them.
It was a warm day for March 17. People were driving with their windows down, a few female students wore skirts, some male students, myself included, wore shorts. I decided to run outside, rather than on the gym’s indoor track. In the locker room, I changed into a pair of white shorts, my green Werder Bremen jersey – it was St. Patrick’s Day and all – and my Asics running shoes. I clipped my iPod to the waistband on my shorts and slid a pair of earbuds into my ears. I stuffed my clothes and backpack into a locker and walked towards the gym’s front doors. An intramural game of basketball was happening on the gym’s main court. I stepped outside and felt the spring sunshine toasting the air. As I started running away from the campus, a driver honked his horn as he slowly rolled past me. The green-clad driver gave me a wave as drove ahead of me. Sure, St. Patrick’s Day spirit and shit. I smiled and kept running.
From the southwest corner of the campus I ran east along Dundas Street. I ran across a bridge that rose above the credit river. Down below, two men stood at the river’s edge and cast fishing lines into the flowing water. Dundas Street borders Erindale Park, and from the street, through the still barren tree branches, I could see an expanse of gentle green rolling hills. I turned north on The Credit Woodlands and ran through a peaceful neighbourhood full of well-kept medium-sized houses. I passed a schoolyard full of children playing on their lunch break. I followed the street to Burnhamthorpe Road and turned west. I ran above the Credit River again, this time on a much taller bridge. The river snaked its way through patches of green and brown in the valley below me. I turned south on Mississauga Road to return to campus. I passed a newly made cul-de-sac and the wooden frames of massive houses under construction.
As I ran along one of the streets within the campus, another car slowed beside me.
“Hey Rasheed!” a voice called from the car. I looked over and saw my friend Marina behind the wheel. I pulled up, took my earbuds out, and bent down beside the open passenger-side window on Marina’s car. Marina pushed her black sunglasses onto the top of her head. The sunglasses pulled back her straight brown hair.
I tried to catch my breath before smiling and muttering, “Hey Marina.”
“Were you running on Burnhamthorpe?” she asked.
“Yeah I was.”
“I saw you back there. How far did you run?”
“From Dundas up to Credit Woodlands… then Credit Woodlands to Burnhamthorpe… to Mississauga Road… to here.”
“Holy crap that’s awesome, man! You catch your breath, I’ve got class in like 5 minutes.”
“Thanks. I’ll see ya.”
I walked the remaining few metres back to the gym. I went into the locker room and took my water bottle out from my locker then went back outside. I wanted to sit outside for a bit longer and drink my water. As I sat on a bench in front of the gym, I spotted another friend of mine, Amani, walking towards the gym from the parking lot. Amani and I had psychology and philosophy classes together in first year, but nothing else since. We would still say hi to each other though if we crossed paths around campus. Amani had a black bag slung over her shoulder and she carried a textbook under her arm. She noticed me sitting there on the bench. She smiled and sat down next to me.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey. Nice shirt,” I replied.
Amani wore a white t-shirt with a shamrock and the words “rub for good luck” printed across the chest. “Nice shirt” was all I could come up with. Smooth.
“Haha, thanks. Today’s the only day I can wear it,” Amani said. “Were you just in the gym?”
“Sort of. I ran around the neighbourhood for a bit. Sorry I look so disgusting.” I wiped the sweat off my forehead.
“You’re fine, don’t worry about it.”
“How are your classes going?”
“They’re pretty good. Lots of work for my psych courses, but they’re good. Do you have any exams coming up?”
“Just one, so I can’t complain.”
“Lucky you. Well I better get going, I have class.”
“Sure. It was good seeing you again.”
Amani headed for class and I sat for a few more minutes on the bench. The warm breeze felt good on my bare arms and legs. I finished the rest of my water and went back to the locker room to shower and change.
I still had about 4 hours until my next class, “Visual Culture and Activism,” and I was hungry. Instead of eating the usual campus fare from Tim Hortons or Pizza Pizza or Mr. Sub, I decided to take advantage of my Mississauga Transit bus pass – a freebie for all full-time students – and head over to California Sandwiches, an excellent Italian sandwich shop a few kilometers away.
While waiting for the bus, I noticed another familiar face. It was Chris, the first friend I made at UTM. Chris was an exchange student from Germany, and we met at orientation. I remember two main things about Chris. One, she had a small silver star bonded onto one her front teeth that sparkled when she smiled. Two, she always carried a green adidas shoulder bag. I noticed her at the bus stop because of that bag.
I tapped Chris on the shoulder and she turned around and gave me a hug. I hadn’t seen her since the end of my first year. We talked for a while about our classes and how she was going back to Germany in the summer. We hugged again when her bus arrived and said our goodbyes. It was the last time I saw her.
My bus arrived a few minutes later to take me to California Sandwiches. On the back of my 7-kilometre run, I devoured a chicken sandwich with sweet peppers, mushrooms, and provolone cheese. I had eaten plenty of sandwiches from the restaurant before, but that one somehow tasted better and felt more satisfying than any other. I sat at a counter at the front of the restaurant that looked out onto Winston Churchill Blvd. I took sips from a can of ginger ale and watched the cars and trucks and buses roar by.
I returned to UTM a little after 3 p.m. I headed to the library to do some reading and work on some assignments. I enjoyed my schoolwork. It didn’t feel like work. I left the library around 5:30. and walked over to Tim Hortons to get a bagel. With the sun still shining and the air still warm, I sat on a bench outside of the South Building and chewed on my sesame seed bagel with herb and garlic cream cheese, waiting for my class at 6.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Patrick, another UTM student who I befriended in my second year, but I hadn’t seen since. Patrick and I were in the same specialized prose class, a fancy term for short story writing class, and we edited each other’s stories. Patrick sat down on the bench beside me and we shot the shit for a few minutes. He told me that he took some time off school to work at The Home Depot. He was back on campus to enroll in a few courses for the next semester. Patrick usually had slightly shaggy hair and a beard that ran along his jaw line. He had a pretty easy-going demeanour, and I was happy to see him again. As it got closer to 6, Patrick headed for the bus stop and I walked to my Activism class.
The activism class focused on how visual projects, like appropriated billboards or performance art, can be used as a form of activism. It was an interesting course that spoke to the naïvely optimistic part of me that believed I could change the world. I also liked the course because I got to spend time with my friends Rita and Sydney, both of whom I got to know pretty well during my second year. Sydney was a really cheerful person who knew how to balance work and play. Rita was a polished and fashionable, but still very approachable. After class the three of us talked for a bit about the final project we were working on for the class. We decided to take advertisements for common products and alter them with messages designed to promote less consumption.
Sydney and Rita made their way to the bus stop and I walked to my locker. I packed up my gym clothes and the books and binders I needed for the night and headed back to the bus stop. My commute home consisted of a 45-minute bus ride followed by a 20-minute walk. I did some reading on the bus and listened to music on the walk. I got home a little after 9:30 after a most successful day at UTM.
One of the best days of my life had no major standout moments, but lots of unexpected little moments of joy with people who made life valuable. What made the day so memorable and so wonderful was not so much the series of happy events, but what they meant. Seeing my friends meant that I was socially well-adjusted, running meant that I was physically healthy, studying meant that I was mentally strong, feeling at ease at UTM meant that I belonged. On that St. Patrick’s Day in 2010, I felt valued, respected, healthy, intelligent, skilled, and capable of doing meaningful things in my life.
~ ~ ~
Today, on the anniversary of one of the best days of my life, I visited my surgeon to chart my progress since my ileostomy closure operation last month. I’m making decent progress, and that’s good, but today was hardly a banner day. My abdomen is laced with disfiguring scars, I have to spend hours on the toilet each day, my career has stalled, I still live at home, I can’t run, and I can’t even carry a goddamn bag of groceries because it could cause a hernia somewhere along my surgically altered digestive tract.
Sometimes I wonder what the hell happened in the last 4 years? Where did that positive self-image go? Where did that sense of sanguinity go? Where did that happiness go? Where in the goddamn motherfucking hell did it all go?
Four years. It’s a long time, and I’ve fallen a long way in that time. I don’t feel any better for my struggles over the last 4 years: the ulcerative colitis relapses, the inability to find full-time work, the frayed relationships, the surgeries, the complications, the pain, the wasted days, the sleepless nights. No wiser. No stronger. No better.
I look back on March 17, 2010, and it makes me sad. I want to run on that bridge on Burnhamthorpe Road that skies above the Credit River. I want to randomly run into people I know and not have the conversation centre on how my horrible body is holding up. I want to eat a California Sandwich and not worry about how long I have until it thrusts its way out of me. I want to feel that sense of mastery and accomplishment that comes with earning an A.
But I can’t do those things. At least now right now. My goddamn body is still in the way. Four years ago, I would take a palm full of pills everyday and my body would behave, it would stay out of the way of my actions and ambitions. I’m not so lucky anymore, and that just sucks. Yeah yeah yeah, it’s not as though I haven’t had any good days since March 17, 2010. And yeah yeah yeah, there’s a lot I can still do in spite of my illness. But you know something? It’s really fucking hard. It’s hard to do the things that were so utterly normal four years ago. I’m tired of waiting for this goddamned body of mine to behave again. To just get the hell out of my way.
Image via University of Toronto Media Room