You Seem Happy

He looked across the small table at me, eyes filled with emotion and said, “You seem happy. How?”

The observation took me aback. I wish I had something clever or meaningful to say. I’m not sure exactly how I replied but I spent the next few days considering what I should have said. How? How can I be happy? Have I smoothed over the hole enough that I can be happy?

Today marks four years since I held Kylie for the last time. Four years since she breathed her last and I carried her lifeless body from our house. I remember standing at the edge of our driveway as the hearse pulled away on that cold February evening. I stared into the blue night watching steam rise with each breath – unable to shout, unable to move. Planted. Frozen with only one question rolling through my troubled mind: “What do I do now?”


Now with this unnatural thing that has happened.

What do I do now? What do I do to lead my family through this? What do I do now for my wife? What do I do now my children? 

All nature seemed to listen to my question that night; silence its only reply. And it’s been silent ever since. Four years have come and gone – highs, lows, tears, smiles, joy, and pain. We’ve had graduations, gone on vacations, attended weddings, held babies, changed jobs… and I seem happy. 


Am I truly happy?

If I am happy, am I betraying her? 

When I was a boy I was given a kaleidoscope. My grandfather showed me how to hold it to my eye and turn it in my hand to reveal beautiful colors in the light. I was enamored with it – constantly staring into its colorful ever-changing patterns and marveling at how it worked.

A kaleidoscope makes magic with light and mirrors. It is usually a tube containing two or more reflecting surfaces tilted to each other in an angle, so that objects on one end of the mirrors are seen as a regular symmetrical pattern when viewed from the other end, due to repeated reflection. 

What speaks to me about kaleidoscopes is that if you don’t like the pattern you see, all you have to do is turn it to reveal another. And sometimes you turn from something stunningly beautiful thinking the next pattern will be even better and find yourself disappointed. But you can’t go back. Every pattern is unique and gone with the turn of the tube.

Since Kylie died, one of the most rewarding things I do is sit with other fathers dealing with either cancer treatment or devastating loss. It is both cathartic and emotionally draining. There is little advice to offer; mostly I listen. I want them to know that I’m still here; my family is still here – whether I’ve done this right or wrong, we’re putting one foot in front of another and waking up every morning. There is comfort in knowing you’re not alone. When I was a month out from her death, there were men who did this for me. 

The statement I started this post with came from a coffee I had with a new friend – a dad who finds himself confronted with a dreadful situation few can imagine. I wish I had thought to tell him about kaleidoscopes when we talked because I am happy… sometimes. And sometimes I’m very sad. Most of the time the two are intertwined. They coexist together in my mood and temperament like those pieces of colorful glass. Often the shift from one feeling happens on its own and there are also times when I must work hard to shift the kaleidoscope when the pattern hurts too much. 

Taking from the basic science of the device, we need a light source, mirrors, and colorful objects. When Kylie died, she became the light source for my life’s kaleidoscope. There are constant objects: my faith, my wife, Kylie’s sisters, friends, work, hobbies, and more. And there are objects that will enter anew: weddings, sons-in-law, and grandchildren she will never meet. Whatever enters my life will shine in the reflection of her light.

Am I happy? Yes, at times. I sense that she wouldn’t want anything less. But the colors are ever-fluid and shift into a pattern that might make me very sad or hurt seconds after I was happy. These conflicting emotions live together in a fragile pattern. Everything – all of it – is held up to her light.

And that’s just how it goes now.  

28 thoughts on “You Seem Happy

  1. Once again this site is not allowing me to LIKE. unless I go do it on my actual computer. But once again you poked my heart. And I have a feeling you have a book in you on this very subject!!!!!! I bet a lot of parents need to hear from a heart like yours that has had it drug through the sharp pieces of glass & yet still can feel all of the emotions. Even happiness. Even joy.
    You my friend are a teacher.

    1. Thank you. It’s amazing how this has resonated with many. There are too many of us who have experienced this loss. It is so good to know we aren’t alone (even though I wish we were together in other ways.)

  2. One of the things my son Daniel said to me when he was in cancer treatment was “you don’t seem happy, Mom”…my son died 3 years ago and so I try to live a good life but it isn’t easy. The memories, the sadness, missing my son will never be gone completely, but I wouldn’t want them to be gone. Daniel was an important part of so many people’s lives. And none of us will ever be the same. Sending love to you and your family.

  3. Such a lovely analogy. New patters, ever changing, but no way to go back no matter how wonderful the last. Hugs and good wishes to you and your family on this sad anniversary.

  4. That’s so beautifully written, Mark. A tribute of light shining from so many angles for a girl who spread her light to to families far and wide. We all suffer grief and loss and tragedy, and we can’t see ourselves ever smiling again… but somehow having had the love and light from the Kylie s in our lives…helps us to revel in small moments of little yellow smiley faces. The loss is tremendous and forever. But so is the love that was shared, and left it’s legacy…💛💛💛

  5. this is a perfect analogy. that is so true, a delicate balancing act, sometimes up, sometimes down. but always there. you deserve to be happy, all of you do, and i think that would make her very happy. she was happy to be loved by you and you are happy to be loved by her. that is eternal on both sides.

  6. When we lost our son, the tears in our eyes cleared our vision for what we wanted our family to look like with the two little boys we still had : and gratefully for the daughter and son that were to come: while we as young 23 year old parents could not comprehend this tragic event, we decided we were going to laser focus on them… and each other and move on, and not get in the fetal position…which would be standard behavior and an 85% divorce rate for parents dealing with this.
    We believed that God had a plan for our lives and to Trust Him with this…, it was still excruciatingly tough but He kept sending people our way with similar experiences and now, 53 years later, we’re still together, have 4 adults, 11grands and one Great Granddaughter and another on the way: He will prevail if we focus on His leadings:

    1. What a fantastic testimony, Charlie. Thank you for sharing it with me. Excruciatingly tough is right – but we’re still together and moving through life with what remains.

  7. I finally learned to have a box of tissues close by whenever I visit this space, Mark.
    You never fail to move me, sir.
    Kylie is smiling down upon you saying, “All I want is for you to be happy, Dad.”
    So keep going until the day finally arrives and you see your amazing little girl again.

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