Happiness

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As I look at this photograph, I have no problem with my soft face or gentle smile. It is something about the eyes – those intricate, unusually thoughtful eyes that fails to rest well in my mind. Something about those eyes prevents me from feeling instant happiness when study this picture of my brother and me – the first time I held him in my arms. I should have been happy. For all these years, I have forced myself to believe that I was happy on this day. I am only realizing now my mistake in assuming that a happy day causes happy thoughts in the simple mind of a five-year-old. As the perplexing fog of time clears, I begin to remember…everything.

The chair is hard. Hard and blue. Even the flowers on it are blue. So are the leaves. I’ve never seen blue leaves. These flowers are not pretty. They are lumpy and round. Like cabbage. I don’t want to think about cabbage when I’m holding him. My baby brother. I want to think about clouds and sunshine and pretty flowers in every color except blue. I want to feel like a cool breeze dancing around the leaves of the tree in our backyard. But when my cheek touches his face, it’s not like a breeze. It’s hot. Hot as that soup I had for lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Cabbage soup. Maybe his face is hot because it’s so red. Red like a fire truck. Red like my dad’s face when he gets mad at me.

His blanket smells like baby powder. But he does not. He smells like…never mind. I wonder if he smells anything. I wonder if he smells the taste of the cherry lollipop the doctor gave me on my tongue, and if he knows it makes my tongue feel sticky. I wonder if his face is not as red anymore. But I’m not going to look to check. I don’t want to look at his face anymore. I’m looking at my mom. She is crying. Big, fat, lumpy tears that slide down her face like the raindrops on the window outside. I think I see a smile, but as I look at it more, it could be a frown too. Why is she crying? Maybe the cabbage flowers are making her sad too. She looks tired. And sick. The white hospital band on her wrist looks too big. Her hair, long and black, hangs around her face like the hospital curtains. Her eyes, still full of tears, look into mine with a feeling I do not understand.

Everyone is looking at me. My aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa, even that lady from my mom’s work. They are all smiling at me – huge smiles that show all their teeth. These smiles scare me a little. They make me press harder into the cabbage flower chair. Each smile seems to be saying to me “Oh, what a good big sister you’ll be,” or “That baby’s lucky to have a sister like you.” As if these smiles can predict the future. How do they know I’ll be a good big sister? What if I forget to teach my brother how to tie his shoes or blow a bubble? What if he never understands how much I love him? They want me to smile back, but how can I?

I look back at my mom. She looks the same, but her face is a little wetter. Seeing my mom like this, how can I smile? Did my brother make her like this? Did I when I was born? But everyone is still looking at me. My dad, with our new silver camera, moves in front of my mom to take my picture. He looks so happy. His smile is so big; it’s holding his glasses up. His face is red, just like my brother’s. But not fire truck red. Cherry lollipop red. Seeing my dad like this, how can I not smile?

It is behind the eyes that all of these thoughts were stowed away, like a treasured letter, waiting to be opened at the right time. Now, after remembering, I understand why it is impossible for me to feel happy when looking at this image. It is because now, like then, I am unable to see only the good in things. Certainly, I am able to see the good, but it is always tangled with a few drops of the bad, like a brilliantly starry night obscured by a few storm clouds. I have carried this quality with me as I have aged over the years. Looking at this photo makes me feel each of these years, not only in my memories, but in every particle of my being. It makes my mouth water for every Thanksgiving dinner, arms tingle with the feeling of every hug, and release a great breath to blow out every birthday candle since this picture was taken. But it also makes me gasp as I feel every bruise and cut, shiver as I hear every scream, and weep for every death since this picture was taken. I am flooded with memories I will cherish forever, and haunted with burdens I will never unload. Looking at this photograph forces me to remember everything, and feel everything, so that eventually, I feel nothing. Nothing but the time that has passed and the burn of my brother’s fire truck red face on my soft cheek.





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