My friend Buddy loves to tell this story. The first time I heard it, Buddy and I were sitting on the terrace of the Oasis Restaurant in Austin. The Oasis overlooks Lake Travis, and any true Texan, born and bred, transplant or otherwise, knows about this place. It is dubbed “The Sunset Capital of Texas,” owing to its vast and glorious view of magnificent sunsets over the sparkling lake. It was one of those perfectly crisp fall Texas evenings and the sunset was particularly beautiful, painting its orange, red and purple hues across the horizon. It was the kind of beauty that sent a hush over the hundreds of patrons across the terrace. Then Buddy interrupted the silence. “This reminds me of my Aunt Nettie,” he said. I nestled back in my chair to listen.

Buddy and his extended family had taken a camping trip in the Palo Duro Canyon. “The weather,” he said, “was exactly like it is tonight. There was a cool breeze. We had just finished a delicious meal cooked on the grill, and were sitting in our lawn chairs overlooking the canyon, waiting for the sunset. As the brilliant orange disc dipped below the horizon there were ‘oohs and aahs’ throughout the family.”

“Then Aunt Nettie broke the silence,” said Buddy. “She piped up in an incredibly loud voice, ‘I wish I could be here when it’s nice like this!”

I think of this story often although it has been close to 30 years since I first heard it. Those words echo in my head at the oddest times. But I think the occasions that they come most frequently are the times when I am actually conscious of the fact that I am not anywhere near grateful enough. They are a kind of sarcastic admonishment to myself to step up and appreciate the little things. Or sometimes the big things. And most certainly, the things that I tend to take for granted. And shouldn’t. They never fail to make me wonder what it is that makes one person feel washed in gratitude while another just feels washed-up.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying that, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.” So what is this elusive thing called happiness? And who experiences it? Is it something we can will into being? Or is it something we have to practice to improve. What makes the “Aunt Netties” of the world remain dissatisfied in even the most perfect of settings?

I grew up in the sixties in a quite turbulent environment. My mother was a very smart, loving and caring person. My father was brilliant and driven. And a violent alcoholic. Home rarely felt like a safe place to be, regardless of how much my mother tried to make it so. For me it was like living with a rattlesnake….you didn’t know from one minute to the next whether he would be basking contentedly in the sun, or ready to strike and unleash his venom on whoever happened to be in his path. He routinely threatened us all, especially my mother. My older sister, who was twelve at the time, once hit him over the head with a cast iron skillet in self-defense. On another occasion when Dad had a loaded gun pointed at us all, my younger brother somehow managed to call the police. Because there was a totally different mind-set then, the policemen only “talked” to Dad. After he had passed out, the police sat down at the formica table in our kitchen and drank coffee with Mom as if nothing had happened. As if they had only come there to fetch a kitten from a tall tree. The incident was never discussed again in our home. The silence seemed worse than the actual event. I was told many years later by my siblings that I clung to one of the policeman’s legs, and between breathless sobs, begged him to either take my Dad out, or take me with them. I have no memory of that. I was ten years old. In that kind of environment it takes a concerted effort to create your own happiness.

Oft times I would lose myself in the world of books, living vicariously through the many characters I met in those pages, somehow creating an almost parallel universe for myself. I believe I also honed my artistic/creative nature as another form of escape from the harsh reality of the day-to-day chaos in our home. I was afraid to let other people into my world, hiding the secrets inside of our walls from the friends and acquaintances I encountered on the outside. Ultimately I think I was faced with two choices; resign myself to the fear and dread, or make up my mind to be happy. For me it was, and continues to be, a deliberate decision.

I still struggle frequently against the ‘waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop’ mentality. I can create a worst-case-scenario for myself in less than a minute. I can begin in April to obsess about whether or not my air conditioning will go out on one of the hottest days of our blazing Texas summers. I still avoid looking at my bank balance so that I don’t have to actually see how much money I don’t have. That may always be a part of my makeup, regardless of how many years I try to overcome. But I continue to make a concerted effort to keep my own “silver-linings-playbook.”

My friend Buddy? Six years later, he became a Catholic priest. To this day, from time to time, he likes to recount to his parishioners, in a homily, the lesson he learned from Aunt Nettie. It’s the same thing I try to remind myself daily: It’s not enough just to be glad to be here. We have to be grateful to be here. Especially when it’s nice like this! Even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Submitted by Susan Smith, LVN, Nurse Case Manager
Agape Home Care, Inc.