Her name couldn’t have been more befitting of her disposition. It was as if the gods had convened and prophetically chosen it for her.
In truth, however, she was unintentionally christened when her mother, thoroughly drained after thirty-eight hours of labor, simply looked out her hospital room window and muttered, “It’s sunny.” A nurse who’d been attempting to complete a birth certificate for more than twenty minutes assumed this was the answer to the question she’d already asked three times, to no avail, and proceeded to write it down. It was official. The baby girl would be called Sunny.
Sunny was a cheerful baby and rarely cried. She gently fell into a deep sleep early every evening and always awoke blissfully the next morning cooing to her toys and stuffed animals in her crib as she awaited her mother’s perpetually late arrival to bring her a bottle.
Sunny’s demeanor was fortunate, for her mother knew absolutely nothing about caring for babies or children, having never been around them until the day she’d given birth to her own child.
When Sunny went to kindergarten, she was sweet and kind to all the other children – even the boys who teased her about her messy hair that her mother hadn’t thought to brush, or her wrinkled clothes her mother had pulled out of the balled-up heap of laundry on their living room couch. That aside, everyone wanted to be Sunny’s friend and she got invited to every birthday party. She couldn’t have been more pleased.
In high school, with her outgoing and enthusiastic personality, Sunny was extremely popular. She was a straight-A student, head cheerleader, and even elected class president at the beginning of her senior year. Everyone waved and smiled at her in the halls and wanted to sit at her lunch table in the cafeteria.
By the time she was in her mid-20s, Sunny married a man she was certain would be successful, looking forward to the white-picket-fence life she’d always dreamed of. She would live in a swirl of summer cocktail parties on the veranda, going to brunch with girlfriends, hosting catered holiday events in their home, and so much more. She couldn’t have been more ecstatic on her wedding day, knowing her life was about to begin.
Unfortunately, however, she rapidly discovered she’d unwittingly married an alcoholic who couldn’t hold a steady job. “No matter,” she always cheerfully said to herself, adding, “I have a good job and I can pay the bills. It’s not perfect, but I’m not homeless either. Always look on the bright side!”
When Sunny returned home from work every night, she simply went about her business picking her husband’s clothes up off the floor and cooking him a nice dinner. She paid all the bills and dropped them in the mail with merely a shrug. She was the lighthearted yet responsible one on their team who would take care of everything.
Sunny effervescently went to work every day, dazzling the office with her smile and her zest for life. Just being in Sunny’s presence lifted everyone’s spirits. She flitted around the office delivering homemade cookies. She stopped at each desk to compliment her colleagues on their outfit or their hair; or ask about their weekend, delighting in stories about their families and their children’s activities.
No one realized they knew very little about Sunny. She’d been deeply sad for as long as she could remember, having learned at a very early age that she couldn’t depend on anyone but herself. So, she had adapted, simply smiling, and acting joyful, no matter what life threw her way. When she did that, everyone loved her.
Sunny was terrified to think what would happen if she ever removed her mask and revealed the real Sunny - the sad, lonely, and anxious girl who never experienced the warmth of someone truly loving her. She simply wasn’t Sunny without her happy face.
But as she got older, she realized she could either continue to reside in her lifelong fog of cognitive dissonance, which she’d been embracing for decades, and just be happy, or she could finally choose to be real.
She slowly and carefully tested the waters, with her first attempts among the relative safety of strangers. She told the barista he needed to put more creamer out, rather than just smiling and waving goodbye as she headed out the coffee shop’s door with her unsatisfactory coffee, sans creamer. She’d say, “Ouch,” when someone bumped into her rather than smiling and saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry, that was my fault!” And she’d strike up conversations in line at the grocery store about how dreary the weather was or how horrific traffic had been that day.
Before long, Sunny realized what a huge relief it was to no longer hide behind her manufactured façade and even considered changing her name to her middle name instead. The name Sunny was no longer a satisfactory fit; it was something she always had to live up to.
As Sunny pondered the idea, she realized she had no clue how her mother had chosen her middle name. She never thought to ask, and rightfully assumed the answer would have been wildly unsatisfying if she had inquired. The truth was that her mother had had no energy or interest in coming up with a middle name for her, and had waved the nurse away, with a dismissive, “I don’t care. What’s your name? Use that.” So, Sunny’s middle name was unceremoniously penned on her birth certificate as “Denice.”
“Yes, I’m going to go by Denice instead of Sunny,” she finally decided. She chose to make it official and went to court to legally change her name.
As the judge reviewed the document he was about to sign, he looked up at her and inquired, “That’s a good strong name for a young woman. Do you know the meaning of that name?”
“No, your honor, I don’t,” she replied, her cheeks turning bright pink from embarrassment.
“Well, it’s my mother’s name,” he told her as he handed the document to a clerk, “And it means a determined and truthful being.”
“It’s perfect,” Denice softly whispered.