41: Tending Happiness

41: Tending Happiness

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Tending Happiness

In order to have great happiness you have to have great pain and unhappiness — otherwise how would you know when you’re happy?

~Leslie Caron

I don’t think I understood happiness until I experienced a tragedy. I know that sounds backwards, but it’s true. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make you realize that happiness can be found anywhere, and at any time. The trick is to stay open to the possibility.

My mother died of cancer at the age of fifty-five. The last two years of her life were filled with medical appointments, scan results, side effects, and the fear that she would not live to see her grandchildren grow up. Those years were also filled with holidays, birthday dinners, and last vacations together. We tried to stay positive, focusing on the moment and taking each day as it came. There was happiness, but it was tinged by sadness and the fear of an uncertain future. Happiness mixed with sorrow, which I was not used to. I had always thought happiness was a pure thing, like black and white. I was either happy or I was not. Now I know that happiness is more complicated than that, that you can experience happiness even when you are sad or worried. Happiness is often a mixed emotion. Perhaps it is only pure when you are a child. After all, when you are six, an ice cream cone can be enough.

The day before my mother died I sat beside her bed listening to her breathing. It sounded much more labored than usual. The hospice nurse stopped by during her rounds and, after checking Mom’s vital signs, ushered us into the next room.

“She hasn’t been talking to us,” my father told her. “She doesn’t respond to anything.”

The nurse nodded her head, an apologetic look in her eyes.

“Your mother is slipping into a coma,” she said. “She may only have forty-eight hours to live.”

Forty-eight hours to live. My mother slept, unaware of the tension in the room. She did not hear the nurse giving my father instructions on how to administer anti-seizure pills. She did not hear us halfheartedly discuss what to do about lunch. Her breathing took on a rattling quality as the hours ticked by. We turned on the television to distract ourselves with the noise.

While I sat staring at the television but not really watching it, I noticed a small plant on the table next to Mom’s bed. It was a tiny purple primrose plant, bought on impulse a few weeks ago. My heart ached to remember my four-year-old proudly carrying it into the house. The plant had been a nice focal point over the last weeks of our vigil, an early sign of spring and hope in the dead of winter. Now the plant was dead. The leaves were shriveled and dry and the flowers were crumbling. I mentally kicked myself for forgetting to water it.

To distract myself, I took the plant into the kitchen to throw it away. I planned to water the other houseplants while I was thinking of it. But I changed my mind as I held the plant over the trashcan. Instead I turned on the tap and warmed the water slightly before letting it run into the parched soil. Not really expecting much, I returned the plant to Mom’s bedside.

As the day wore on, Mom grew gradually worse. The rest of us spent the afternoon beside her, flipping through old picture albums and remembering happier times. I hoped she could hear our memories, even though she seemed unaware of our presence. We made a pile of our favorite photos, planning to make them into a collage for the funeral. The somber atmosphere was punctuated by laughter, easing the tension even though it felt out of place. My sister held up a photo of my mother’s perfectly manicured feet, facing a beautiful Caribbean beach. “Should we use this one?” she asked jokingly, and we all agreed that we should. By the time bedtime rolled around, we had amassed quite a collection of photos along with our memories.

My mother passed away early the next morning. We were all by her side. I hope that counted for something, although she gave no sign she knew we were there. She said no last words. The next few hours were surreal: part relief that the long ordeal was over, part despair, part fear of the future. But for some reason, I began to notice things that morning. I noticed that the day, although bitterly cold, was stunningly beautiful, with a clear blue sky and the sun reflecting off the snow. I called home and, though I had sad news, I noticed and appreciated the normal sounds of my children playing in the background. “Will you tell them?” I asked my husband, knowing I could not.

After hanging up the phone, I went to clear away some things from the bedside table. That’s when I saw something that made my heart quicken. The primrose I had nearly thrown away the previous day was blooming. A tiny purple flower bud had formed and opened overnight from a plant seemingly devoid of all possibility. I placed the plant on a sunny windowsill and, for the first time in several weeks, I felt happy.

“It’s a sign,” I told my father, feeling somewhat corny as I said it. But even if the flower was not a sign from my mother, it was a sign that things would be okay. A sign that while the months and years ahead would certainly have their share of sorrow, there would be happiness and hope alongside. And rather than eliminate my happiness, the sadness would merely make it more complex. Happiness is rarely a pure emotion after all.

It’s been over a year since my mother’s death. I am slowly coming to accept that the happiness in my life will never be as pure as it was back when an ice cream cone was enough. I feel happy when I read to my toddler, when my five-year-old gives me a spontaneous hug, when Christmas is approaching. But there is always a tinge of something else: my toddler is growing up too quickly, my son will not always hug so readily, my mother will not be there to open gifts with us. Yet happiness can be found everywhere and anywhere, in the small things that make up daily living. I try to experience it as fully as I can, as often as I can. It is not easy. The tinge of sadness is always there.

The tiny purple primrose is long gone, but I think of it every day. I know now that primroses are like that. You can let them dry out and bring them back to life with a good watering. They can go dormant, seemingly dead, yet they will bloom again with a small amount of tending.

Happiness is like that too.

~Kimberly Misra

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