My Happy Princess Slippers

Verushka Samarkina (+Video)


I come from a country where appearance matters to the extent that it defines you. Brand name clothes and genuine leather shoes will set you apart from the rest. In the Russian mindset, “well-off” and “happy” mean the same. 

In the twisted, money-oriented reality of my motherland, romantic individuals like me with a PhD in Literature don’t fit in. Although I loved shoes, I couldn’t afford many back home. Even with all my education, I couldn’t provide for living. I was a loser, so I was looking for a fresh start somewhere where I could belong. 

With that mentality, in 2009, I set foot in Toronto Pearson Airport wearing a pair of stilettoes. All dressed up, my husband, my daughter and I were ready to start living our American dream.

Five years later, we were well settled, and it felt as if we had finally arrived home. My elegant shoes from Russia wore out, and I was excited to buy new ones. However, my shopping spree didn’t go the way I had planned. 

At the age of thirty-five, I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. With IVs sticking out of my body, nauseated from radiation and chemo, I couldn’t imagine wearing knee-tall boots, or combat shoes that require lacing. Sure enough, I had to forget about Mary Janes and wedges. Any heel would make my head spin. 

But I did buy shoes. With an urge to indulge in self-pity, I diminished myself by buying a pair of Costco sheep leather slippers for twenty dollars. Quite a sensible choice—easy to put on, easy to take off, comfortable, and ugly. At that moment, the woman inside me died. 

Yet, I couldn’t give up the “I am fine!” façade. How could I let out the cry of despair in front of my eight-year old daughter? How could I crumble before my husband, who was now supposed to be twice as strong? I was the bomb that had exploded and ruined the promise of the happy future that we had been hoping for. 

In fact, my presence was a disturbing reminder of our mortality. Believe me, few are emotionally ready to hear “the ugly truth” that we all die sooner or later. So, I tried to be gentle—not with myself, but with others. In my ugly slippers, the least I could do was pretend I was fine.  

But pretense is a hard job. It asks for energy and artistic skills. “I am fine, I am fine, I am fine!”  These words held me strong in front of others. In fact, they held me up. I was such a good actor that I cheated myself into believing my own lies. Meanwhile, deep inside, something was cracking: the seed of a new “me” was germinating.   

Immigration is a symbolic cycle of death and rebirth—giving up old ways for the sake of new beginnings. My cancer journey has completed the transformation. It shattered me to the core, chipping away false beliefs, and redefining happiness. 

Today, I look at my slippers with gratitude. They’ve helped me walk my new path. They’ve taught me that sometimes winning is about losing and re-creating yourself like a phoenix. These are my “happy princess slippers”. 

I am happy. My battle with cancer has been going on for years now, and in the midst of it, I have learned to be not only tough but also vulnerable, to grieve, and be joyful. I have learned to be gentle with myself and accept that sometimes I am not fine. And I‘ve learned to be true to myself. That makes me feel like a princess. 

Today, I am wearing my stilettoes because I can, but I could wear anything as well. Now I know I am not defined by my shoes. I define them! The path I am walking is what matters the most, so I choose to walk it with gratitude, love and laughter. Every day is a miracle, and I choose to fill it with joy. I choose to be happy no matter what!

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