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. 

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. 

Seem.

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.  

Dear Santa, Thank You

Dear Santa,

This isn’t your ordinary Christmas letter. I’m not sending a long list of gizmos and gadgets that will unfurl across the workshop floor. In fact, I’m pretty well set with stuff this year. I just wanted to say thank you.

I don’t really know when I stopped believing in you. I can’t recall a traumatic scene where I saw dad unloading presents under the tree and I certainly never saw you plant a kiss on mom – I can’t imagine the confusion that would have caused. No, mine is the garden variety of unbelief. Somewhere along the way, I guess I got too old, too mature. I wanted to be all grown up. Looking back, I think when it happened, I lost myself, not you.

I began chasing what I thought was important and neglecting what you stand for: consistency, generosity, peace, love, joy. You can’t blame me, I was young. I didn’t know. It’s what everyone else was doing. But regardless of what I believed, or where I was, you showed up – year after year like clockwork. You relentlessly pursued me despite my rejection.

I married a woman who never forgot. She tried to bring me back around when we were newlyweds but I only saw price tags and expenses through the lens of a limited budget. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t see… until children came. Through their innocent eyes, I found you again.

 

All the while I thought you were there for them, but you were gently bringing me back into the fold, too. There was always something in your bag for me. Even though I stayed in the back and watched from a distance, I loved every minute of it. You had some rough encounters with number three. Your beard was a little much for her. But you patiently waited until she understood.

Little number four loved you from the start. She loved everything about Christmas and nothing more than you, Santa. The elves you entrusted her with made December special for many years. She truly loved you.

 

 

I use the past tense because we lost her to cancer almost four years ago. I think you know that, Santa, but I’m not completely positive because you still visit her here. Still, you show up. When that first Christmas came around, I didn’t think I wanted to see you – all that you stand for had departed with her and you could only bring memories. Yet there you were in your frumpy red suit, spreading joy that admittedly felt somewhat fake at the time. But nevertheless, you were there.

These last four Decembers have been hard. But lately I’m figuring something out that I should have learned long ago: it’s not about me. Santa always gives and never takes. And when I set my heavy bag down to lay things out for someone else, my burden is lighter. In doing for others, I somehow find peace and joy for me. That’s kind of what you’re about, isn’t it Santa? How did I not see that before?

And this year, you asked if you could meet us early… just to say “hi” to one of your biggest fans. It was only a minute. But you’ll never know what it meant to me. It was a reprieve from everything I feel like she is missing. It was sweet, and it was special. It was Christmas.

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I realize that for the rest of my life, Christmas have a hard edge because it makes me miss little number four. But from now on, I want you with me, Santa.

 

Thank you, Santa.

Thank you for not giving up on this poor old fool. I know it took a long time, but I believe again. And this time it’s for good.

 

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