When I was ten years old, my mom wanted to go back to work full time. That meant my brother, Yogi, and I would be home alone for a couple hours a day just after school until 5pm when Mom could get home to us. Yogi is five years older than me, which, at the time, meant he was in the prime of his teenage years. After a few weeks of testing this new normal out, it was clear Yogi and I could not be home alone together without getting into a fight, so I asked Mom if someone else could be there with me after school. Mom brought home a girl named Dominique to meet me.
Dominique was breathtaking. She walked in the front door with shiny long black hair, tall and graceful, strong as a soccer player. She sat down quietly at the dining room table in a chair next to mine, smiling, and watched as I finished my homework. She didn’t ask any questions, she didn’t tell me what I was doing wrong, she just watched me as if I was already special and wonderful in her eyes.
Dominique spent the next three years teaching me things, but what I learnt most from her was how to live life without fear. She had an air that traveled with her everywhere she went- as if anything was possible if you fought hard enough for it. The first thing she taught me was to write legibly and beautifully. She taught me to never be scared of heading a soccer ball and to stop saying sorry every time I shanked. She taught me to smile through a fight because nobody could make me feel inferior when I was happy. She taught me to love myself when all I could do was hate myself for all my perceived flaws.
I never asked much about her life, but then one day she took me to her home. Dominique lived on a ranch in Fremont, which was uncommon amongst the families and friends I grew up with. As we drove up to her house, horses galloped beside the car. She took me inside to meet her Aunt and Uncle, who raised her and her twin brother, Andre. Dominque told me she was part Indian and part Italian, but that her parents were no longer in the picture, and she didn’t know the cultures too well, but she wanted to get to know them better one day. She wanted to work in fashion in Italy one day, she told me.
Her life was so different from mine. Her’s was harder and the road ahead bumpy and unpaved- she was caring for me because she needed the money- whereas mine was predestined and cushy, but she filled her life with such a love for adventure; I knew I wanted to be exactly like her when I grew up.
This was the mid-90’s, so AOL was still on dial-up, and life-long email addresses were not a thing yet. So when Dominique left to study in Australia, we lost touch. I would hear her favorite song play on the radio, “I love you, always forever” and my heart would flutter in her memory. I visited Australia a few years after her, secretly hoping I’d run into her somewhere along the way. She was my first mentor, sister, and sherpa, but she had disappeared almost without a trace. She existed only in my memory.
A decade later, during a summer internship in Europe, I decided to backpack through Italy. I started in Venice, which was expensive, hot, touristy, and rude. I was determined to make the most of my intern’s salary, though, so a fellow backpacker and I walked to a grocery store to buy wine, cheese and crackers for lunch. We sat down on the steps of one of the millions of bridges in Venice next to a violinist, and ate our lunch.
As I stood up to wipe the crumbs off my shirt, I spotted a woman in the distance who looked like an angel. She wore a long fluffy white skirt and had shiny black hair that blew in the wind. It was as if a halo shone upon her. Her back was to me, but I stared at her, waiting for her to turn, confident I was either drunk or hallucinating.
As she turned to face me, I squinted my eyes to focus on her features. She had that same bright and beautiful smile. The same creases in her neck that she hated but I loved. The same grace that I remembered from a decade past. She walked in my direction and although I was still sure it could not be her, I blurted out, “Dominique!?”
The woman stopped at a short distance from me. She had not changed much, but I had become an adult in the time since we last met. She stared, confused.
“It’s me, Shub,” I said.
She blinked in disbelief. “Shub? What? How? What are you doing here?”
“This is my last day in Venice,” I said. “I can’t believe it’s you. It’s been forever. What are you doing here?”
“I live in Italy now. I work in fashion. I am living my dream! This is my fiancee, Flavio. We’re running late to a train, but here’s my email address and number. I want to hear all about you!”
We kept in touch after that. She left fashion and went into early childhood education. Eventually, so did I.
Today, pancreatic cancer took the life from my big sister after months of battle for the sake of her four beautiful children and her husband, Flavio. I was reminded of a handwritten letter Dominique wrote me from her dorm in Australia decades back.
“Now that I’m here, I’m happy to say that I’m having the absolute time of my life in the most beautiful place I’ve ever imagined. I often sit back and smile just because I can’t believe that I’m on a whole other hemisphere than anyone I’ve ever known. The sky is different, the buildings are different, the people are different. I’m living a whole new life in a whole new world. It’s unreal.”
Dominique, I hope you’re living a whole new life in a whole new world today. You were, and will always be, one of my greatest inspirers. I hope I can be a little bit more like you, everyday, and in every way.