One of the things people most remember about my mother was her laugh. It started in her belly and seemed to bubble up and overflow out of her mouth, a loud and sometimes alarming guffaw that she could still pass off as lady-like because she was so gorgeous. Her laugh was the thing of legends, incredible and contagious and mentioned over and over in the first weeks after she took her life. “That laugh though,” people would say to me, and I would smile, nod. Yup. I know.
You would think it would feel weird to remember someone who died of depression for their laugh, but I’m finding grief isn’t as black and white as all that. There’s room for both sides here, and the other side is big too. Because while it’s true that my mother had a great laugh, it’s also true that she was bitterly unhappy almost all of the time; diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder, coping with addiction and eventually: suicidal. Not many people knew, even at the end, but the closest of us to it have a hard time recalling when she seemed genuinely happy.
And that scares the crap out of me since I have inherited more than just her belly laugh. I also share the propensity to melancholy (at my best) and depression (at my worst.) By the time I was 15 I had already dabbled in more than my fair share of therapy and joined the half of America armed with a Prozac script. I’m better at coping now but crowds still make me anxious and solitude makes me lonely and insomnia has as of yet been my most faithful bed partner. I know the pull of the darkness and I’ve spent my share of time broken and praying on the bathroom floor: please don’t let her story become my story.
So you’d understand why I’ve tried to become an expert in my own happiness. And it’s not hard. I know what beings me joy like I know the back of my (mother’s) hands:
There’s the big things: my babies and my husband and my tribe and my career and my writing. There’s the sun shining through the freshly cleaned smudge-free window, the sound of a new bag of potato chips being ripped open, the moment of cracking the binding for the first time on an unread novel. There’s new sweatpants and old sweatpants and all the sweatpants in between. There are big bottomed goblets of wine and dark chocolate with mint and realizing I can still do a cartwheel. There is stepping into an almost-too-hot bath and payday and the smell of garlic and onions sautéing in butter. There are the days the bathroom scale is kind to me and the days my pants look hot on my ass and the moments I pause to catch my breath after a long run and my sweat runs right down my nose and I catch it with my tongue.
I could go on. I’d say this is good sign, that I–the girl with the Prozac past–COULD GO ON, but I won’t. Because the reality is these are simply moments: beautiful but fleeting, and I know that too deep in my soul to be able to comfortably rest in it. And anyway if these moments are supposed to keep us happy all of the time, it can’t help but beg the question that I’m not sure I want to ask: Why weren’t our moments enough for my mother?
So I’m not buying it. I mean sure, these moments string together into a necklace that glitters so prettily in the sun that it’s easy sometimes to forget the other side; but not for long. I don’t think we can build a suit of armor against sadness and depression and genetics with beads of happiness strung on a string. We know that life isn’t black and white like that. And if depression is the black and utter joy is the white, then maybe it’s in the in-between where the colors are, where we can find sorrow and joy often coexisting right in the same moment. Where we live most of our lives.
And I think if you cracked our chests open and all our pieces–the broken and the whole, the good and the bad and even the ones we tried to hide– spilled out of us the way my mother’s laugh spilled out of her mouth, it would make the most incredibly beautiful rainbow.
So what’s at the end of my rainbow? I don’t know yet. Life is going to be hard sometimes. I might still break. I might, again, need medication, and there’s not a single ounce of shame in that. I can’t fathom a future where I won’t need more therapy, and I need family and tribe and community too to lift me up when I fall. Because I will. I know this, even as the edges of the grief start to dull and happiness glitters when the light hits it just right.
The truth is my story–and it is mine, not my mother’s–isn’t over yet. Let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic, at least today.
Tomorrow remains to be seen, but here’s hoping the colors are beautiful.