Happiness is never stopping to think if you are. ~Palmer Sondreal
At 5:31 AM on August 1st, I texted my brother: “Happy Month!” A few minutes later, “Happy month” was texted back. Like me, my brother is an early riser. Wishing family members “Happy Month” on the first of each month was a tradition of my mother’s; her father, my grandfather, had started the tradition when she was a young girl.
Last week’s “Happy Month” was bittersweet, those words exchanged between my brother and me a scant four days after the anniversary of my mom’s death. Four years.
For as long as I can remember, “happiness” eluded me; there was always something to attain, something to reach for, and then, once achieved, the feeling of joy would wash over me, then dissipate. It’s like the first sip of wine, the heady feeling, and the warmth that spreads throughout your body. Or the purchase of a new pair of shoes, that quick rush of dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter – that was the feeling I expected when I thought of “happiness,” rather than a sense that life matters.
“Karen, just be happy,” she had said to me as we sat outside in the backyard, a month before she died. “I am happy, Mom,” I had replied quickly; I didn’t want her to know how hard it was to be happy.
For the first few months, I dwelled on my mom’s death as life continued. I could either choose to stand still, wallowing in sadness and self-pity, I could choose to push down my grief, or I could figure out how to move forward. Before she died, I promised her I would take care of my father, stay connected to my brothers, and enjoy every moment with my children. Launching myself into the responsibility of making sure everyone in my family was taken care of, I didn’t stop to think, “Am I happy?” instead, I placed my energy into doing what felt right.
Over the last four years, my mom’s words, “Karen, just be happy,” would pop into my head. I would push the thought away as I focusing on handling my dad’s financial affairs, spending time walking with him, and cooking healthy meals for him.
After taking his car keys away, my dad relies on me to ferry him to the grocery, dental and doctor appointments. It is during our drives and walks in the neighborhood that I feel the shift that has transpired in our relationship, from rocky and unpredictable to one that is more patient and understanding. The positive impact we have had on each other’s lives doesn’t bring a feeling of “happiness” but rather one of contentment.
My mom may have said, “Karen, just be happy,” but it wasn’t until now that I understood what she meant: happiness was not a goal, a badge or something to achieve; instead, it is a byproduct of staying connected, honoring values, being present, and gratitude.
“Mom? Now I understand. And, now, I am happy.”