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These Pearls: Finding Freedom
“I’m leaving you these pearls to remind you to set yourself free and relax sometimes. I know you don’t like these things; I know they’re not worth much, but in time you will realize their true value. Take good care of them, Anna.”
I hadn’t understood her cryptic words when she’d said them on her deathbed, and I still didn’t. However, that didn’t stop me from feeling the pain I felt every time I so much as thought about Grandma Rose. As a result, my body felt oddly numb as I picked up the necklace I’d inherited from Grandma, holding it up to the light to see the tiny metallic flecks that shone off each pearl. It had been her last gift to me before she’d succumbed to lung cancer twenty years ago. She’d wanted me to cherish it, love it, but alas, it had ended up in my dusty attic for two decades before I’d finally dug them out today while doing much-belated spring cleaning. I’m sorry, Grandma.
Of course, I’d been busy, to say the least. As a managing partner for Lake & Hewitt, there were endless litigations to keep me persevering. I was busy enough to have a head full of silver strands by the time I’d hit 30 (which I kept well-hidden with regular visits to Toni & Guy). Busy enough to have lost any friends I’d gained during university in Yale. Busy enough to have won almost every single case I’d touched. As a result, I had the house on the Peak, the prestigious job, the closet full of great clothes. On paper, it seemed as if I had the perfect life.
But I hadn’t been happy. Wasn’t happy. Sure, the salary was great, but other than that, nothing about my job really thrilled me. As a young girl, I’d dreamed of saving innocent people from injustice and contributing to the world. All big ideas that didn’t mean a thing when it was all about your billable hours. Being a lawyer wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, with the long hours, bad coffee and unscrupulous sharks. I was content, yes. I had everything I needed. But I was definitely not happy.
Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t had a man for the last five years. Oh God, has it really been that long? Let’s do the math…Daniel walked out on me in 2002. And now it’s 2007. I couldn’t believe it. Had it really been so long since I’d last held someone’s hand, since I’d loved and been loved? Could I even remember the feeling? No wonder my hair was going grey. I was fast becoming an old spinster, and I knew it.
Or perhaps it was the fact that most of my friends from Yale were scattered across different continents. Back in the good old days, I’d partied many a night at a New Haven bar, but now my social life was practically nonexistent. My friends, Katie, Donna and Jeffrey were scattered in the U.S., Italy and the U.A.E. respectively. We’d vowed to keep in touch at first, but the emails kept getting fewer and further between. You might ask why I hadn’t managed to make any friends in the years I’d spent back in Hong Kong, but the truth was, I barely tolerated anyone in the circle of lawyers I knew. As a result, I spent the rare free nights either staying in or obligingly meeting my mother for dinner at a quiet restaurant.
Brushing away the stray tears that began to fall, I began examining the pearls for the sake of something, anything to take my mind off the state of my sorry existence. They are beautiful, although their surface appearance is nothing compared to their inner meaning. I wonder why I decided to stash them away and not take them out all these years.
But I did remember. I remembered all too well. Grandma had died only a few days before I’d left Hong Kong for Connecticut. It was such that I’d been in too much shock and grief to pack properly and had just stuffed everything into my suitcase haphazardly, including the pearls. And when it came time for me to pack for a permanent move back to Hong Kong, I’d pretty much done the same thing. The necklace had ended up being stuck under a loose floorboard in pretty much every place I’d lived since then.
It hurt too much. I know it sounded weak, but that was the truth. And although the pain of her death had been shoved away for awhile, finding the pearls had basically ripped the wound apart again. Grandma Rose hadn’t been just any ordinary grandmother; she’d been more of a mentor to me than my very own parents. She’d been there for me whenever I was sick or down, letting me play dress-up with her stuff when I was young and just being there for me when I was older. She’d always given great advice; she’d always been uncannily right about even the most trivial of things. She’d been the one person in the world who’d truly known me. And now, she was gone.
I took the pearls with me as I left the dusty attic for my room, hoping the change in surroundings would alleviate my pain. Stopping in front of my antique mirror, I hesitantly held them up to my chest, just to see if their beauty could transfer to their bearer. As I was porting pajamas, the pearls were obviously mismatched, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. What stunned me was my haunted reflection in the mirror. The wrinkles on my face. The lackluster of my eyes. The dullness of my hair. At 39 years of age, I looked, felt easily ten years older than I was. It was most definitely not a healthy sign.
“Relax, Anna,” Grandma told me, stroking my five-year old hair as she tuck me in. “You worry too much. Worrying isn’t good for you. Go to sleep now and dream away your fears.”
But how could I when I barely had any time to eat and sleep? When most of my time was spent slaving away at a job I essentially hated? Why was I doing this anyway? I deserved some rest; a few days of sleeping more than six hours. Some peace; to be away from all these cases. Some, god forbid, happiness.
Maybe I should take a sabbatical, I mused. Now that’s a thought. Just a few months leave; God knows I deserve it. A couple of months, maybe even a year of soaking up the sun, traveling the world, taking a break from the hectic pace of city life. Just relaxing. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself in a luxurious resort in Bali, visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia, skiing down the Rockies. I imagined myself sleeping in for more than a long weekend, escaping to a place where I could get by without a single cup of coffee. All that money I’ve earned over the years can pay for this, and besides, if money isn’t spent, then what is it for? In fact, nothing sounds better to me at this moment. Should I? Should I? Should I?
Before I could change my mind, I sat myself down at my desk and set the pearls down, turning on my computer. I can’t believe I’m really doing this. It’s the first time I’ve felt so exhilarated, so giddy in a long time. And I’m loving the feeling. Opening up the word processor, I began tapping out the following e-mail to my boss:
To: Carlton, Matthew
RE: Long-term leave of Anna Lee
I’ve been thinking lately, and I’ve concluded that I should take a sabbatical for about six months. This may seem a little sudden, but I’ve been reevaluating my life, and I think this is what’s best for the company and me at the moment. By taking a sabbatical, I can immerse myself in different surroundings and undertake new experiences that will benefit the company in addition to me. As much as I love my job, it is stressful, especially after more than ten years here (as I think you’d know!) and the time off will help me recharge and in turn, perform better. I hope we can work something out regarding this. 1: 00 lunch on Monday?
Hitting ‘send’ with a buoyant feeling of victory, I leaned back in my seat with satisfaction. There, I can’t believe it, but I’ve done it! Now all that’s left to do is to wait and see what he says…
Three months later…
Attn: Elizabeth Lee
Flat A, 24/F, Wyndham Court, 1 Bell Road, Hong Kong
From: Anna Lee
Greetings from Phuket, Mom!
I’ve been here at this resort for two weeks and I’m still not sick of it! For the past fourteen days, all I’ve done is lounge around and sunbathe every day. It’s obviously doing me good, because my pale skin appears to have been replaced with a glorious tan and even my wrinkles seem to have disappeared. I still like the hotel in Guam better because the bed was softer, but this does nicely. Very nicely indeed.
This feeling of total freedom is so foreign to me, Mom. I haven’t sat down and just done nothing in forever. I’ve haven’t experienced the unadulterated joy of being able to do whatever I want without thinking of responsibilities for so long. It feels like being a child again. And I love it.
I miss you, but not enough to come home yet. Kidding. See you in another three months!
On pure impulse, I set down my pen and unzipped my suitcase, searching for a particular object. Ah, the pearls. Carefully untying the strings of the pouch I’d long reserved for it, I drew the necklace out. It was, as always, a classic beauty, with radiance and a timeless glory about it. Some things never did change.
On the other hand, for me, so much had changed since the last time I’d put the pearls on. Now that I’d been away from work for awhile, I felt like, as cheesy as it sounded, I’d found myself again. These days my heart rate rarely sped up unless I was exercising, unlike the old days of constant nerve-wracking moments that felt more like panic attacks. I enjoyed eating my meals at a leisurely pace, unlike the not-so-distant past of shoving down a bad salad at full speed before rushing off to yet another appointment. It was like a piece of me had been lost in the corporate world of buzzing activity and I’d found it again by doing what Grandma always wanted me to do: relax and stop worrying.
Besides improving my physical and mental states, my sabbatical had also made me feel free in a way that I hadn’t since I was a child (which. believe me, was a very long time ago). I’d regained a more positive outlook on life, believing in a “half-full” philosophy rather than a “half-empty” one. Believing that anything was possible was also a foreign feeling. But I loved it, loved everything about my life at the moment. Oh, I hadn’t gone mad, knew I would have to go back home and to work someday, but the thought of it didn’t scare or depress me as I’d thought it would. I felt ready take on life as it came at me, felt ready to face any challenges that might arise. I even felt ready to wake up at six in the morning again! That definitely had to be a sign of improvement, right?
In their own funny way, these pearls have quite literally set me free. I finally understand what she’d meant. Grandma Rose had been right once again.