Walking out of the hospital in a daze, we make our way down the Rue d’Ulm and toward the Place de l’Estrapade as spring sunshine warms the tips of our noses.
My stepmom is hiding her distress behind giant sunglasses. My father is hiding his in upbeat, chirpy talk that makes a new chemo protocol sound like something to look forward to.
Technically, he isn’t wrong as it is medical excellence that keeps my stepmom alive despite Stage IV cancer. The last protocol failed and her oncologist just told us new metastases are showing on the latest PET scan.
Not that my stepmom or I were surprised. She’s very much in tune with her body while I consume inordinate amounts of medical literature to try and anticipate how best to help my parents. But my father’s ears sealed shut at some point during the consult as his heart and mind pushed back against the latest news.
I try and gather my thoughts, drawing solace from the architectural beauty of my surroundings.
Paris is gorgeous and the nearby presence of the one Portuguese bookshop in France never fails to soothe my achy heart and make me smile.
This is because, in many more ways than one, I owe my current ability to keep going to Portugal and to its many linguistic, cultural, and human treasures.
Suddenly, something unusual catches my eye and it is so unexpected I’m blown away by it as the little child in me takes over, all wonder and awe.
There’s a man taking pictures of giant teddy bears on a parked bike.
I end up nose to nose with one of the creatures which looks at me with benevolent eyes, one paw under its chin. Its sudden appearance conjures up the same delight I greeted its two smaller yet similar cousins with in the winter.
Back then, the teddies were sat at a table outside the Corsican café, watching the world go by and greeting customers.
My parents and I stopped there after another oncology appointment to celebrate better news. The first protocol my stepmom underwent did a good job of shrinking the tumor and reducing metastases. Although remission was never mentioned, it was progress.
Looking up, I spot a minivan with its trunk and side windows open and more golden faces looking at me.
The effect is one of complete surprise, one I share with other people who are all sporting a huge smile on their face.
Like me, they’ve stopped to take pictures and temporarily forgotten where they were going.
“Look!”, I say, pointing at the vehicle as my stepmom falls under the teddies’ spell and my Dad just stands, clearly bewildered.
Leaving my parents to take in the wondrous sight, I walk up to the photographer, who turns out to be a bookseller named Philippe.
The vehicle is his, as are the plantigrade carnivores inside.
Still reeling from the impact of our hospital visit, I try and find out more about the bears.
But although I usually default to interview mode with anyone I meet, I’m struggling to think clearly today. Not only do I fail to ask the photographer who he is or take down his contact details, but I don’t even introduce myself either.
Instead, I let the little kid within do the talking and Philippe kindly humors me. Asked where the ursidae come from, he launches into extraordinary tales which wouldn’t be out of place on stage at a storytelling event.
From what I gather and the internet will confirm later, the bears are neither a publicity stunt nor a creative marketing endeavor. They live between two of Paris’ arrondissements and pop up randomly, depending on their human’s inspiration.
By then, my parents have joined in the conversation.
“I just want to spread a little random joy around,” Philippe tells us.
My stepmom’s voice catches in her throat as she tells him that said joy is most welcome as she just got some bad news. I’m so distracted by her palpable distress I can’t even find the words to convey my family’s gratitude for this most unexpected of surprises.
The giant bears jolted our hearts and minds when we most needed it.
Had we allowed bad news to hijack our brains, we might have walked straight past them.
Instead, we took the news in our stride as we always do and kept going despite being wobbly, sad, scared, and distraught.
Life can numb you.
It did me for five years.
I lost those to major depressive disorder, an illness that took away my ability to think, my writing voice, and my livelihood,
Although rebuilding a life after such a long hiatus is a slow and complex endeavor fraught with setbacks, it is possible. It’s what I’ve been doing since last summer, one word at a time, initially holding my own hand until other humans showed up and offered me theirs.
Little by little, colors came back into my uniform gray life. Although my family situation is far from cheerful, our daily reality is bursting with love, joy, and laughter. We value and celebrate moments, like the random apparition of an army of giant plush teddies.
Life is contained within precious moments that are so fleeting they’re easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or always chasing the next best thing.
When you focus on the small things, life becomes a daily adventure that will sometimes blow your socks off if you let it.
Sometimes, it takes a giant teddy to remind you that life can be fun, against all odds.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.