I say the words, and they are true. But as I watch my 4-year-old nephew across the table, giggling at his little sister who is making a picture out of the spilled rice on the table, it occurs to me that happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child if they are happy. You see it, I think as I watch the brother and sister laugh and toss food at each other. The baby breaks the silence with a shrill cry. You hear it too. They’re either happy or they aren’t. As adults, we talk about being happy because we feel the need to assure ourselves and others that we are, in fact, feeling that emotion. Is it because largely, we aren’t? Talking about a feeling like happiness is like trying to bottle up the late summer air, as my grandmother used to say. It’s much easier just to let it blow all over you.
“You look happy too, you know,” I say to my sister and laugh at the scene when she halts her movements and looks up at me. Her 10-month-old little girl is smearing smashed carrots down my sister’s left arm and all over her own face. Her son has started picking up the rice from the table and shoving fistfuls of it into his 2-year-old sister’s mouth. They are loud, they are messy … and they are all hers.
My sister was going to be important. She used to tell me that exact thing when we’d discuss what we planned to be when we grew up. She was going to be a doctor or a teacher or a counselor. One of those important and respectable professions where you helped save lives, whether it was literal or figurative. She was going to marry a man with an equally important job, and they were going to have the perfect life together.
My sister was always clean and well-groomed and … well, beautiful. Put together and always right – about everything – and knew how to help you even when you didn’t know you needed it. She gave great makeovers and manicures, taught me what calories are, bought me my first flat iron and revealed the sleek-hair-wielder in a grand gesture like she was offering me the secret of life. At the time, it could have been considered the secret to hers. She hated playing games or getting dirty. She hated breaking plans, commitments or deviating from the schedule. She hated imperfections.
But she never looked half as happy then as she looks today, sitting across the table from me at the Chipotle down the street from my office. She’s (insanely) taken her three children (all under the age of 5 and one still nursing) on a road trip to visit their great-grandparents in western Kentucky and then down to Nashville to see their favorite aunt. The usual 3-hour drive took her about 7, and she’s now sitting across from me sharing stories about the hamster that’s been loose in her house for two weeks and about kids and body fluids that don’t seem to phase her in the least but have caused me to push my half-eaten burrito to the side. And I’m staring at this creature – with her hair pulled into a messy pony tail, wearing no make up and a casual jeans and t-shirt – like she is an alien. A glowing, and happy alien.
Where is the girl who used to pick me apart in search of my faults and weaknesses? She’s much more subtle now when she tells me she doesn’t care for my shoes and “when was the last time you brushed your hair?” (This morning.) Where is the girl who was going to be a career woman and a doctor’s wife? She’s left her tobacco-farming husband at home and is a professional toddler-crisis-solver.
“Well I guess since you’re happy that means you’re not going to law school like we’d discussed,” she says as she shoves another spoonful of squishy carrots in the baby’s mouth, just to have it smeared across her arm again. “Well, we won’t say ‘never’ right? I mean–”
She’s interrupted mid-sentence when her 2-year-old throws up all of the rice her big brother has been shoving in her mouth in the middle of the table in the busy restaurant. My grin widens.
My sister was going to be important. She is.
“I think we all end up exactly where we’re meant to,” I tell her as I pull my nephew into my lap and away from the mess. “Maybe we learn things we never dreamed we were going to learn.”
My sister doesn’t answer me. She’s too busy saving the world, and saving face. My nephew turns in my lap to face me and squishes my cheeks between his dirty hands and plants a sloppy kiss on my mouth.
And I don’t care if we’re never going to be the people we said we’d be.