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Coming of Age Sad Happy

Happiness is like the sun. Those few words repeated themselves in my head as I saw the star rise slowly over the horizon, its rays breaking apart as they crashed onto all the houses they illuminated. He hadn’t even said it that much, the old man, but that phrase was all I could think of as I saw the sky turn from blue, to red, orange, and even pink and purple in some places. The clouds reflected all of this, and it was the sun who gave it to us; the most beautiful canvas there was to see. How long had it been since I’d seen the sun rise?

The wake ended at around nine last night, that’s when the last guest finally went home, and we were all given instructions to go to bed early because, “We had a big day tomorrow.” But going to sleep was easier said than done, so I stayed up, just...staring up at the ceiling of my childhood bedroom. Remembering.

God, there was so much to remember.

Before I knew it it was five o’clock, and the sky outside my window had turned from black to this pale blue. I rubbed my eyes and chided myself, but in the end decided that if nothing else, my insomnia would at least give me the chance to do something I hadn’t done since my all nighters back in college; watch the break of dawn.

I headed out to the backyard and looked at my old treehouse, remembering for the first time in forever the few mornings I had seen come to be in that old construction hazard, and decided to climb up. It felt right, poetic even, to do something spontaneous like that before the house came to life. Afterwards I could go back to bed and pretend I’d slept, but until then...well it was certainly one way to kill time before a funeral.

It looked smaller than I remembered, though that should have been obvious, I’m twenty-seven now, and my siblings and I only used this place up until elementary school. There were crayon drawings stapled to the walls and nerf guns eroding away in the corners. There was some water damage, branches growing through the cracks in the floorboards, and lots of bugs walking around like they owned the place.

The family cat, Whiskers, had even created a nest for herself in the corner of the room using old, lumpy blankets.

“You don’t think I’m old, right Whiskers?” She meowed softly in response before going back to sleep in her pile of rags. He wouldn’t get a conversation out of her at this hour.

I thought of all that had happened since I’d left this place, not all of it good. High school, college, my first job, breakups, rejections, late nights, lost friends, and at the end of that long road, I had somehow stumbled into adulthood and gotten stuck.

But this place reminded me of what it had felt like to be a kid. It had been so long since I’d seen the sun rise.

And that was the best part, from here, I could see the entire neighborhood sprawled before me. When I was a kid, I genuinely thought this was the highest place in the entire world -except for the Himalayas, obviously-. Looking at it again, this time with the sun slowly bathing everything in fiery hues, it certainly felt like the top of the world.

I found myself smiling, even though this was the worst day to smile, and slowly remembered something my grandfather had said to me before. It was something about the sun and a...cycle? Or something about...was it…

“Happiness is like the sun.” I said aloud, and in that moment the sky turned from blue to orange without warning; like a fireworks show the sky was full of fiery reds and yellows.

I sighed and leaned my back against the wall, feeling unexpectedly depressed at the sight, because how could today of all days be so beautiful? Today was meant for misery, not anything else. And most of all, I felt this tightness in my throat, thinking of how my grandpa couldn’t see the sunrise with me.

I thought back on his phrase, how simple it was, but still so full of mystery. Yes, the sun brought warmth, color, and light to everything it touched; just like happiness did. Right? Was that all the old man had meant by it? After all, the first time he’d said it to me was when I was a kid, drawing the sun as a big yellow circle in the corner of my paper.

But then what was bugging me about it? Hadn’t he told me that same phrase over and over throughout my life? And for what?

I did my best to repeat the phrase inside my head using his voice, ignoring the painful thought that one year I’d probably forget what he sounded like, and found that helped. He said, ‘Happiness is like the sun. Because...it goes away.’

It sounded bitter, but it was true wasn’t it? The sun always went away, but that’s not how grandpa would want me to take his words right?

Truth is I can only imagine what he meant all those years ago, saying it again and again to a kid, and then more as I grew up. It wasn’t necessary, I knew what happiness was. Everyone did. One more time I thought using his voice, and he said:

“Happiness is like the sun. Even though it sets, and it will set, it will also rise again.” But this time I heard it outside of myself, like he had really…

And there he was: Sitting next to me in his signature plaid button down, khakis, and his thoroughly shined leather shoes. His hair was still full, and dark grey like he’d had it when I was a kid. He looked healthy, and he smiled like he always used to. Like he’d never left.

 “You look good, old man.” I said, deciding that this illusion was grief, and not schizophrenia.

“I’d like to say the same.” He said, or I thought, or...whatever. And honestly, fair enough, I was dressed in old clothes as substitutes for pijamas and my hair was probably all over the place, not to mention the bags under my eyes.

“Well, do you know what today is? Hard to sleep after a wake isn’t it? Which is ironic if you think about i-”

“Shut up.” He said with a half smile, “Goddamn puns. I know what today is. Everything you know I know.”

“Right.” I said. “Obviously.”

“Anyway, you got it, didn’t you?” He talked like nothing was out of the ordinary, like two grown men weren’t sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce in a kid’s treehouse that was falling away to time, looking at a sunrise. “My lesson!”

“I got it? You connected joy to the sun and I got the lesson by saying it’ll all go away?”

“Yes!” He seemed to be enjoying himself.

“What are you, bitter?”

“Did you not hear the second part of my very wise lesson? The sun will rise again.” He raised his chin and crossed his arms after saying, like this was all a game.

“So?” I said, growing exasperated with the old man, “Obviously you can become happy if given enough time. That doesn’t matter when the ‘night’ keeps on coming, and coming, and won’t stop enveloping you, every single day.”

He didn’t respond, just looked at the sun. Perhaps I took it too far.

“It just,” I sighed, “It just wears you down.”

“I understand how you feel.” This was questionable.

“Do you? I mean, not to be selfish with the self pity but...You’ve always been this...you always were this happy, indomitable person.”

“Do you think that means I didn’t experience this ‘night’ we speak of? Do you honestly believe happy people are born that way? Behind every smile are lots of bad memories that we have to live with, no matter what. You can’t just go through life without pain. It’s impossible.

He said the last sentence in his native Spanish, and with such force that you can’t really argue against it. So I didn’t, and just stared at the sun I couldn’t reach.

He saw the defeatist in me and exhaled deeply.

“Look. Some nights are colder, and last longer than others. But the warmth will come again. Accept it when it does, and accept the night as well, they are inextricably linked to each other and our lives. They will never cease, not the night, and not the sun.

“You are young, mijo, and old at the same time. Don’t you see how the world functions in this duality? Haven’t you already seen my message to be true?”

“Honestly?” I looked at my grandpa, and thought about all the nights I’d experienced but never told him about, because I didn’t want to make him worry about me. But what does it matter now? I decided to finally open up fully to my grandpa. “Yes.”

“Long ago I recognized the pattern. How the ‘night’ always seemed to come time and time again, no matter how many times I tried to stop it. How I’d break my heart with one girl after another, and lose touch with new and old friends no matter how many I tried to keep, how my every attempt to keep hold of the happiness of my life was useless, because it’s always slipped through my fingers.

I recognize the pattern, and that has made me depressed, grandpa. To think that my life is inextricably linked to suffering, and hope, and suffering again.

No matter how many times I put myself out there, how many times I try, it just all seems like one long night. The dawn seems so far away.”

My grandpa chuckled.

“What’s so funny?”

“How short-sighted people are!” He exclaimed, “Our sympathy is very limited, even for our future selves. When we’re full we can’t imagine ever being hungry again. When we’re freezing we can’t remember why the heat ever bothered us.

Let me ask you, when the sun goes down in the night, do you worry it won’t come back up in the morning? No! That’s why the sun is like happiness. How many times do you have to be reminded of your own happiness before you start believing in it?”

“So I’m just supposed to be okay with people leaving me? With you leaving us?” My eyes felt warm, my tears brimming to the surface.

“Forming a relationship with someone isn’t about how long they stay with you, or how much they can give you for as long as you want, kid.” He shrugged his shoulders slightly when he said it. “Connections with people aren’t often meant to last, what they actually do is create precious memories that represent certain times in your life.

Look, what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t judge our past relationships and friendships by whether we’re still in contact with those people today, instead we should appreciate we ever knew them at all, and how lucky we were to share our lives with each other if only for a brief moment.”

“Well that’s just shit!” I felt like a little kid arguing the way I did, but I meant every word.

“Yes! It is. But that’s life, kid.”

“Whatever happened to happily ever after?”

“Doesn’t exist.” He said it like a fact, you don’t have to love it or hate it, just acknowledge it. “You can’t live your life for the day when ‘it’s all going to be okay.’ Because the night isn’t going away, not for you, not for anyone else.

You could hope for the day when you can get that big raise, get married, or have kids. But each one of those gifts comes and goes in waves. You’d still get more responsibility, you might outlive your wife, and your kids will move away. And that's the best case scenario.”

“So then, happiness causes suffering?” I asked.

“Yes, because it makes you care about the things you’ll likely lose.”

“Careful grandpa, you’re sounding as pessimistic as me.”

“I’m not being pessimistic, I’m being realistic.”

“That’s so pessimist of you to say.” We both laughed at that, but the smile died quickly on my lips; I was too busy tallying all the good and bad of my life by that point. I lost count, though I think the night was winning. Then again, apparently I’m short-sighted.

“So then, how does this help me?”

“Who said it was supposed to help you?” I should have stopped being surprised by that point. But he didn’t cut it off there.“Figure it out.”

And as much as I wanted to wallow in my familiar cynicism, I realized what he’d been trying to teach me all this time.

“Knowing this makes the nights more tolerable, because all you have to do is wait, and the sun rises.”

“Good. Now-”

“And in the day, it makes you appreciate what you have that much more, because you won’t have it forever.” It was my turn to be philosophical.

There was a pause.

“See? I knew you were smart.” He smiled, his eyes never leaving the sunrise.

And then I realized that if some nights are longer than others, and the same was true for days, then my life has been one spent mostly in the light. Or else how could the night hurt me as much as it did, still?

Truth was, if I were actually accustomed to the night, I’d feel numb to it by now, and that would be so much worse. The pain is a sign I’ve led a privileged life.

“The happiness you feel today or tomorrow is temporary, but so is the pain. It’s a simple statement, and not one that many truly believe.

“And,” He glanced at me wearily, “If you end this cycle of happiness and sadness when you’re sad, you won’t ever be happy again.”

End this cycle? What did he mean by tha- “Oh.” I said, aloud. “So...you know.”

“Everything you know, I know.” He pointed at each of us when he said it.

“Don’t worry grandpa. If I pulled the trigger in the middle of the night, how could I ever see a sunrise like this again?” The sky was now blending its red with blue, which meant the show was almost over.

“This isn’t a joke, mijo. If you-”

“I know, okay? That was a long time ago.” I didn’t look at him when I said it. “I’ll keep looking forward to the sunlight, no matter how long the night seems.

“I’m not so short-sighted anymore...I can see the break of dawn from here, I just have to wait right?”

“Well...the sun won’t come to you just with time, it also takes hard work, but that’s a story for another day.” But he smiled, a small smile, but his eyes looked so much more content. Maybe he just needed to be reassured.

They admired the view for a little while longer, the sun now fully above the horizon, and the sky a simple blue. This was also a canvas.

“So grandpa, if it’s all a cycle,” I asked, “When do you get to watch the sunrise again?”

“What do you mean, mijo?” He turned to face the blinding sun, which made his wise eyes glint brighter still, “I’m watching it right now, with you.”

I turned to see the sun as well, wondering if that’s all it took to be happy, and when I turned back he was gone. But his voice still remained, for one single sentence more.

“Maybe it’s not a perfect metaphor, maybe life isn’t an exact cycle.” The only time he’d ever back tracked in his argument. Weird.

Then a meow came from behind me, and when I turned around I saw that Whiskers’ lump of blankets was not empty. When I rolled the cover back a bit, I saw a litter of kittens. Whiskers was a mom.

I audibly groaned in defeat. Apparently, when grandpa’s right, he’s right.

“Goddamned cycle.”

June 26, 2021 03:57

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1 comment

Lauren G
16:39 Jul 01, 2021

Very interesting dialogue. I like how you sprinkled in the description of the sun/sky changing as the story progressed.

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