“Happiness hit her like a train on a track…”
-Florence and the Machine, Dog Days Are Over
I have written before about being happy. And I wasn’t lying. Most of the times I am content and pretty happy. Happy is my default setting. But sometimes, behind the smile is a little sense of dread, a little apprehension, a dark shadow persistently tapping me on the shoulder.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t know where this phrase came from. It doesn’t really matter, we all know what it means. That other shoe is the thing that floats around in my subconscious. It is my nemesis, the thing I am battling constantly. I refuse to let the other shoe and it’s haunting presence take away my decidedly determined good mood. I will be happy, damn it.
There have been times in my life where everything seems perfect. Things feel almost blissful. And then BAM. Life slaps you in the face with a shit storm. The most memorable and significant incident went like this:
Joe and I got engaged. I was excited, I was in love. I felt incredibly fortunate. I had never been more content and sure of my life and where it was going. During this time I was struggling with a close friend who seemed displeased with all my happiness. I told a mutual friend “I feel incredibly lucky, my life has never been better. But should I feel guilty for being happy?” This was expressed as gratitude for my happy situation and confusion over the other friend’s cold reception to our engagement news. Those words that I spoke, those words would haunt me in ways I could never have imagined.
A week after our engagement we found out my brother had Stage 4 cancer. Wind, sucked out of sail. Balloon, deflated. It literally felt like the sky changed from sunny blue to colorless and stagnate. A gray suffocating blanket of pain and fear and disbelief.
That shoe dropped hard. But there was no time to wallow. We had to fight. We all, my whole family, had to strap on our boots and steel ourselves and be strong for my brother. The other shoe would continually drop for the next 18 months. Hope would be raised only to be squashed. He would seem to be getting better, only to have a scan show more tumors. The final shoe that dropped crushed us all.
We all forged ahead. We found ways to be happy again. Four babies have been born since then (I had my 3 children and my sister gave birth to her third child). We all healed a little with each tiny soul that entered our world. Each baby opened up our hearts a little more to allow some joy. Each one of them gave us permission to feel a little more happiness.
In those early days with my first child, I felt like I was constantly looking over my shoulder for that other shoe. Behind my joy and wonderment was a paralyzing fear. What if something happened to him? What if he got sick? What if someone took him from me? I had come to believe that with joy comes pain. That for every happy event, there was an equal and opposite devastating event.
I have been fighting these thoughts for all these years. They come less frequently now, but they still pop up occasionally. I have honed my mental shoe battling skills. I remind myself that I can’t possibly predict when the other shoe will drop. I can’t foresee it and therefore control it or try to prevent it. It’s ludicrous to think that I can control fate. Life will deal what it deals. But part of me is standing watch like a sentry. Part of me is ready to see that shoe falling and by seeing it coming I can step out of the way. I can pull my family to the side and watch it hit the pavement. Whew. Close one.
I don’t know if this is healthy. I know it is a way of coping with the trauma of life sucker-punching you. And coping skills can be a great tool. Until they’re not. Until they are impeding you form moving forward. Until they are preventing you from living you life.
Right now, I am happy. I think about that other shoe a little bit less. I’m still scanning the world around me vigilantly. My eyes track back and forth, along with my mind. I don’t think I’ll ever not be on watch. Part of that is being a parent. It’s our job to keep our eyes trained our young subjects. But I might be standing a little stiffer, a little more vigilante than my neighbor. Having seen that the unthinkable can in fact happen, I have no choice. But I will keep my watch with a smile on my face. I will break this vigilance to play and engage and relax. But I will never be off duty. When I’m having fun with my kids, my ears will still be listening. While I’ll sleep soundly, my rest will serve to make me more vigilant when awake. I am working feverishly to not live my life in fear of that other shoe, but if it does drop, I will be fighting like hell to keep it from landing on those I love.