The Problem of Happiness

It’s been a while since I’ve written a “How’s Fatty Doing?” post. The reason for this is pretty simple: I haven’t wanted to.

Why I haven’t wanted to, however, is a little more complex.

So today I’m going to try to explain what’s going on in my head, and I’ll deal with the feedback as it comes.

The Short Version Is Not Short

I could — if I were the kind of person who keeps things short and sweet — simply say, “I am happy.”

However, if I were the kind of person who keeps things short and sweet, I would not be the kind of person who could write — pretty much daily — about riding a bicycle for close to five years.

And besides, how I feel is a little more complicated than straight-up happiness.

It’s been about 5.5 months since Susan passed away. So when I say “I’m happy,” I worry. About a few things:

  • Should I be happy so soon?
  • Will people think I am a bad person for being happy?
  • If I’m happy, does that mean I’ve changed?

Honestly, I haven’t worked through the answers to all of these questions to my satisfaction. But I’m going to try to explain where I stand right now.

Should I Be Happy So Soon? Am I a Bad Person for Being Happy?

Maybe it’s a guy thing. Maybe it’s just a “me” thing. But regardless of how I feel, when asked I tend to dial it back a few notches. Back when Susan was extremely ill and getting worse, I would say, “I’m doing OK.”

When in fact I was far from OK. I was exhausted. Frightened. Alone.

Now, on the other hand, when people ask me how I’m doing, I say, “I’m doing OK.” In spite of the fact that I am, once again, far from OK. It’s just that I’m far from OK in the other direction. I’m energized. Hopeful. In love with someone who has known me for fifteen years and loves doing the same stuff I do.

So why don’t I have an easy time saying that? I think it’s for a couple of reasons. The first is that I expect people will think I am doing Susan’s memory an injustice. She died just last Summer, after all. And some people have in fact said this, although — interestingly — they always do so under cover of anonymity.

The people who know me in real life, on the other hand — and by “in real life,” I mean in-person, as well as those of you who have followed me long enough that when I meet you in the physical world I still don’t have any new stories to tell you — often make the observation that the day Susan died was hardly the day that I started the grieving process. That it was hardly the day that our relationship changed.

That day was probably sometime around three years ago, when I began the transition from husband to nurse. As I grieved daily over the loss of Susan’s physical and mental ability. As each month brought a new problem without a solution. As she died over the course of years.

Over the course of a few years, as I took care of her every physical need — well beyond what I’ve described or will ever describe here — Susan’s and my relationship deepened in some ways, and changed in others. It’s inevitable, I now think, and even desirable. I consider it my life’s finest accomplishment that I was able to adapt to be whatever she needed.

Meanwhile, of course, Susan could not take care of me in any way whatsoever. Not because she didn’t want to — she did– but simply because she could not.

Which is the heart of the Caretaker’s dilemma: finding the strength to give continuously, without expectation of getting anything back. I really believe that it’s possible, that anyone can find that strength for however long you need to find it.

I guess my point is that by the time Susan passed way, I had been grieving for years. And her loss, in my case, meant that I could finally stop grieving. That I could finally stop worrying about in what way I would lose her next.

It also put me in a position that — as surprised as I was to find it so quickly — I appreciated someone (who is a nurse by profession, maybe not coincidentally) who wants to — and is able to — give back. Someone who understands what I’ve gone through. Someone who knew and misses Susan, too.

So to some people, yes, it must seem like I’m happy very soon after my wife’s passing. From my point of view, though, a dose of happiness has been a long time coming, and I doubt there are many people who appreciate it more.

Have I Changed?

Something I have seen in comments pretty frequently lately is that I have changed. This bothered me — still bothers me, really — because I don’t want to become the jerk some people evidently think I am becoming (or have become).

Here’s how I make sense of it so far.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am not taking care of a very sick wife. A few months ago, for the first time in my life, I had an immediate family member pass away. For the first time in 20+ years, I am a single man. For the first time in 21+ years, I am dating.

When I consider all this, I find myself wondering how weird it would be if I didn’t act a little bit differently right now. If, in spite of a huge cascade of giant life events, I continued to act exactly the same.

So yeah, I’m probably acting a little differently. But I would estimate that difference at about 1%. It makes me wonder if the people who see me as being a lot different really knew me at all before the horror of last Summer. That was when I was being a lot different. If the way you expect me to behave for the rest of my life is the way I behaved as my wife was dying, well, I just don’t have anything to offer you.

Still, there has been one difference in my behavior I’ve noticed that I am not very proud of. Namely, in the past month or so I have not done much in the fight against cancer.

The reason for this, I think, is not too different from the reason I recently had a strong aversion to putting together a big program for a religious event for my daughters: putting together a program — any program — reminded me too strongly of putting together the program for my wife’s funeral.

People hounded me about my daughters’ program, saying I was late, that I needed to get moving on it, and I just didn’t want to. And I was too embarrassed to explain why.

It’s been kind of like that with the cancer fundraising stuff. Last year, that was my tether, my way of making something good out of something bad.

For the past little while, it’s been a strong reminder of what was a darker and more difficult time than I’ve ever told anyone. I’ve wanted, lately, a break. To have fun and concentrate on telling jokes. To stop thinking and talking about cancer.

But it was just a break. I will not ever stop that fight, and you should expect to hear more from me on that in the very near future.

And In Conclusion…

Seriously, have you ever had a more long-winded explanation of why someone has the right to be happy?

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