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.