Once upon a time, I believed in my happily ever after. Or, at the very least, I believed that because I had to work for a place in this life that I loved dearly, that I’d overcome obstacles and heartbreak to get that life, it was now mine forever, and happily ever after was guaranteed. I believed I could will my way into a happily ever after.
Maybe that was naive from the beginning. Maybe I should have known that life could never be a fairy tale—that fairy tales were too neat for the chaos and messiness that is real life. But I didn’t.
I didn’t know even when my healthy husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor and I didn’t even entertain the thought that he wouldn’t be okay in the end. I didn’t know when the standard of care failed him, or the drug that was touted as a miracle devastated him, or when he looked at me and I couldn’t see him anymore. I didn’t know until when, instead of beating the tumor and defying the odds, he died. And suddenly, then I did. And it wasn’t just the idea of happily ever after that ceased to exist, but the very idea that universe was a safe place to live ceased to exist.
The moment my husband died, I learned with complete certainty that there was no order, no chaos, no fairness. The other shoe might drop at any moment, the thing that should never happen might happen. Because it’s happened once before.
It’s hard to live in this place of hyper-vigilance. It means always being on alert, searching out the weaknesses in any step forward. It means never quite taking a feel deep breath, because you have to hold back just a little in case you need it for the fall.
As a result, every decision is made in the tension between what if this is the last time and what if this is the last time. That tension between any moment may be your last and it needs to be lived and every moment may be your last and it needs to be protected. The tension between living as fully and brightly as possible and not living at all because the more you live, the more you have to lose.
To know that at any given moment, the rug can be ripped out from under me, any tentative triumphs I’ve made could be erased, any happiness I’ve found could be fleeting, means I’m constantly on guard. It’s exhausting in a regular year. In 2020, it’s excruciating.
You can’t escape heartache and grief in 2020. People are dying by the thousands from a virus some refuse to take seriously. The country is as divided as it’s ever been and the voices urging hate and violence are too loud, too persistent. At the same time, the chaos of life, the unfairness that ripped the rug out from underneath me once before, is still present. In just the last two weeks, an acquaintance’s husband was diagnosed with cancer. Another’s wife was hospitalized. A teenage boy’s tumor returned. A little girl was newly diagnosed with a vicious illness. Friends’ parents have died. Marriages are falling apart. Friendships are hurting. All in my small corner of the universe.
As a result, I am at once wildly flailing to nail down anything safe and retreating from everything because nothing is safe.
Recently, in a new and budding relationship, I found myself grasping for reasons to push the relationship into a place of seriousness I wasn’t ready for it to be in, just to recapture the security I felt in my marriage back when happily ever after was a certainty. At the same time, at any hint of turmoil, of unpredictability or uncertainty in the relationship, I found myself pulling away too fast and too suddenly as a preventive measure for self-protection because I know happily ever after isn’t real. Neither approach made the universe feel safer. In fact, in the search to find some safety, some order in the universe, I created even more instability. It wasn’t until I gave up control, when I accepted that trying to force happily ever after would lead to losing happily ever after, and trying to hide from risking, and potentially losing, happily ever after would mean I’d definitely never achieve happily ever, that I realized the universe might not be safe, but that the other shoe will drop whether I rush blindly forward or hide from it all.
And maybe that’s all to say that once upon a times and happily ever afters were always overrated. Maybe the truth is, living in that tension between what if it all goes wrong and what if it all goes so right means that you live, not with naïve blinders and not with paralyzing fear, but with eyes wide open. Maybe recognizing that the universe isn’t safe, but that it’s also limitless, means finding grace for yourself and compassion for others, and letting yourself take that deep breath without holding anything back…even if just one time.