The H Word
Because happiness comes again.
I called my brother in L.A. from where I was in NYC and told him about TJ (just how many initials can we fit into one sentence).
“He’s different,” I said, “He’s on the radio and has his own apartment in lower Manhattan. He has curly hair and is from New Jersey.”
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“Different is good,” my brother replied. “The other guys haven’t worked out. Different might be great, actually.”
“He’s not a musician,” I added.
“Yep—I think it’s time for something different.”
TJ always got up really early for work in morning radio at the time, but one random Thursday night he texted me past 9pm. I was shocked to hear from him at that hour, but he explained he was off the next day. I was out with my friend and she told me TJ was *pointedly* letting me know this. “He wants to hang out with you, Jess,” she explained. I was only a brokenhearted divorced girl who’d never dated much; I didn’t know the difference between somebody pointedly telling me something and somebody just telling me something.
“Do you want to hang out?” I asked him (pointedly, I may add).
“Do you?” he texted back.
“What does it mean when he answers a question with a question?” I asked my friend. By this point, she was rooting for us hard, so no matter what, she was going to tell me to go hang out with him.
“Sure,” I said to TJ. “If you’re not busy, I guess,” I added, deciding to act a little bit like I don’t care because isn’t that what you do when you’ve only been dating someone for, like, a month or two?
I went over to his place and felt a little dumb because what if he really had just been telling me something and it hadn’t been pointed at all?
While I’m busy overthinking my life, I notice TJ remove his retainer from his mouth. The kind people wear overnight. Oh my gosh, I think with alarm. He really was just texting me good night. It wasn’t pointed. He was getting ready for bed and now I show up and force him to take his retainer out and stay up to talk to me.
I ask if he wants me to leave so he can go to sleep. He smiles and says no. I believe him. We sit down and talk and I let myself silently wonder if we might get to do this forever.
I had no idea, though, not really. I didn’t know that I’d one day get to sit down across from him at a Japanese restaurant and first realize, then say aloud that my period is late; that I’d dream of what that could mean for us. I’d take a test the next day and the two little lines would compel me to buy a stuffed elephant and a baby hat and wrap them up for TJ and he’d open the box and wonder what either of those things have to do with him as he politely thanks me. I didn’t know that I’d get to show him the positive test and his face would change under the bloom of recognition, realization, then joy. We’d sit there, together, spellbound by a future that suddenly looks different.
I had no idea that I’d someday be able to read him like my favorite book; that I could use my words and my prayers and the mighty act of listening to turn his pages, to find some resolution and peace and contentment without ever leaving the couch and the fireplace and the winter outside our door.
I didn’t know that happiness would become a word I let myself use again. Like a child picking up fine china, using it for silly games, common days, whimsy, and make believe, having no idea that it can crash and break and be gone in an instant—I reach out, I pick it up again. I use it every day, not just on Sundays or when fancy people are over. I use it by myself, take it out and just stare at it to stare at it and call it mine. People come over on a Thursday morning and I ask if they want to see my happiness and they wonder why in the world I’d drag out something as precious and fleeting and expensive as that for a day of no occasion, but I’ve learned to start spending instead of saving when it comes to happiness. When it’s here, I use it and I’m not so afraid anymore. I know it comes back. I know it’s more like a boomerang than an arrow. I know it takes time and I know that, as long as I’m here, I have the same amount of hours as everyone else. 24 today, 24 tomorrow. I know that none of us really know how old we are; not really, in the grand scheme of things. All the time, young people die and old people live, so who knows who’s really gonna be here longer. But as long as we’re here, we’ve got a lot of hours in today. Enough for something good to start and pile up and bring with it some happiness. Eventually, anyway. And for the times between, there is hope. I’ve learned to keep that in my pocket always. Learned to sew it under my skin when my pockets have holes.
I didn’t know that faith would become a more solid thing than the trees I avoid walking into while hiking through the woods. Trees grow and grow and, in the places where they grow the best, are taller than most other things. Until they crash and become the ground and return to the earth from which they sprung. But once this happens, nutrients housed within the tree for decades or even centuries are released into the soil, helping seeds and young trees to thrive. More sunlight finds these young trees through the spot where the dead tree once stood, allowing them to grow better. Massive amounts of carbon is released to the tree’s neighbors, once again, releasing greater life even as it dies. All of this means that not even death is just death. The end is not what we decide it is when our feelings are mounting, the only evidence we see, convincing us of our own demise. Because then (and I can never quite tell how long that space between the last sentence and this one will be) something extraordinary happens: the rhythm continues, the end isn’t the end, life wins. It is this way with the trees; it is this way with us. And it raises my faith, helps me to breathe like it’s worth it, like life is unfolding, a story worth telling, worth writing, worth listening to.
Happiness comes again.
I think about the vulnerability of guessing that TJ wanted me to show up at his place that Thursday night in the city, the doubt that crowded my mind even as I did so anyway. I think about the email I sent him after we’d first met. “Will you be my friend?” I asked in way too many words and in desperate need of an editor, but I asked and the answer is one of my greatest gifts on earth. And the asking and waiting and hoping and wondering and even doubting—it is intrinsic to this happiness. The vulnerability, finding my way through the darkness, trusting promises despite what I’ve seen and even still see—it’s all intrinsic to happiness.
After my son Luca died, I spent my hours at night searching online for people whose baby had died and were okay. I wanted them to be an oracle, a mirror I didn’t mind gazing at. I remember reading the tragic story of a celebrity’s girlfriend delivering their dead baby. Within six months, the two were broken up and she’d died in a car crash, having gotten high and drank too much and driven home. She was buried next to her baby. I read the story and kept thinking, We only have a little bit in common. Not everything, please God, not everything. Her story scared me. I started reading fiction, stories that had nothing to do with stillbirth, soon after.
We aren’t actually each other’s oracles—and neither our tragedies nor our triumphs are contagious in the sense that maybe we dread or we hope. But I wanted to write about happiness today—that bold and reckless word that I’m throwing around like I picked it up in bulk at Costco—because, we can see a little better through the lens of each other’s stories. I like to draw this, trace the unmissable through-line from suffering right into happiness. In fact, sometimes when I do this, I find they are even enmeshed in places, like it’s a casual thing to invite such opposite, dominant beings to sit at the same table, side by side, listening to each other. Suffering and happiness.
Happiness is not someone else’s story. Maybe it is today, but tomorrow is waiting. A whole 24 hours worth. That boomerang is on its way back; stay sharp, keep looking, don’t forget how to close your fingers around something good that’s barreling right towards you. You’re gonna need to know how to catch it, I promise you. Maybe you need a little counseling, some prayer, less scrolling and more talks with people who love you. Maybe you need to read books that have reminded humans how to be for a good long time. Maybe you need to do the next right thing and trust that the outcome is worth it. Maybe you need to eat something, I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here, but what I’m not doing is suggesting you wait and do nothing. I’m saying actively live—in whatever season that is yours—and learn how to catch a boomerang.
Because happiness comes again.
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