O'Malley: A happy life, so fast and fragile

Julia O'Malley

I was at my cousin's 40th birthday party last weekend when I ran into a family friend. She's 10 years older than me, more than five years out from a serious bout with cancer. Her children are almost grown.

"So," she asked, "are you happy?"

"I guess," I said, though I hadn't really considered it. Between a full-time job, our huge extended families and our 2-year-old, life felt full to the brim, I told her. It's all birthday parties and school snacks, lawns to mow and column ideas to come up with, cabin trips to pack for and unpack from. There's not a lot of time to reflect.

"I know what you mean," she told me. "It took me a while to figure out that's what happy is."

We tried to count the number of years we'd known each other and quit at 30.

"Everything goes so fast," she told me. "You forget, but it's all so fragile."

I went home later that night to find my Uncle Tommy in our living room folding laundry. He'd been baby-sitting. We shared a little whiskey and talked about kids. His are grown-ups, ours was sleeping in the crib in the other room. There's so much to worry about, we concluded, and so many things you can't control.

"But they're all doing just fine today," I said.

"They're all doing just fine today," he repeated.

He got up to go. It was close to midnight. He was staying at a place a mile away. He insisted on walking. The conversation from the party was still in my head, especially the last part about all of us being fragile. I didn't want Tommy to walk by himself. I wanted to stretch the moment, there in the living room with the conversation and the laundry and the mess of toys on the floor. A warm summer night with everybody we loved doing just fine.

"Don't go," I said. "What if something happens?"

Tommy put on his worn-out, wide-brimmed hat. He wasn't concerned.

"I'm the baddest thing out there," he told me.

The week started with its rising tide of tasks. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Empty dishwasher. Fill dishwasher. Bath. Diapers. Pajamas. Lullaby. Pack lunches. Grind coffee. Water garden. Fall into bed.

Wednesday morning, we woke to the news that the Supreme Court had overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. It meant that I was probably entitled to health-care benefits, but that wasn't what made us stand with our cups of coffee in front of the television. It was one of those moments when you feel like the world is changing right before your eyes and you're amazed by it. We don't give much thought to the weight of the politics that hang over our family, but that morning we could feel a lightness. Maybe our son wouldn't remember a time when his parents were treated differently than anybody else's parents. Maybe we'd have to tell him about it. I left for work that morning smiling, with my son singing in the back seat. Sara left for a fishing trip on the Copper River.

That night friends came over and we ate salmon outside and toasted the day's news. After they left, I put my son to bed. The house was hot and he kept waking up. He didn't settle until sometime early in the morning.

I hadn't been asleep long when my phone buzzed. It was Sara's sister, her voice was full of tears. Panic shot through me at the sound. Had something happened to Sara on the river? No. But, Sara's Uncle Ray, another indestructible uncle in a worn-out, wide-brimmed hat, had been killed in an accident working at his property in Homer.

I heard the news, but my brain couldn't process it. We'd just seen him two weeks before. It had been a quick trip to Homer and I'd almost stayed home. It was a bright, breezy day when we all went out to the Homer golf course, which isn't much more than a field of grass laid out against the backdrop of Kachemak Bay, dotted with flags and a few trees.

Uncle Ray was a quiet, gentle character, a mustachioed carpenter and Cajun musician who could play most any instrument, from accordion to fiddle. He lived with Sara's Aunt Fancy in a half-finished house in the hills above Homer, with a big garden and a million-dollar view. When we visited, he put out a spread on the picnic table that rivaled a restaurant. Duck pastries. Local salami. Homer Brew.

Ray strolled the course with Sara, a family friend and Sara's dad, holding a cigar in his teeth. Our son followed him to each hole, waited for him to swing and clapped when his ball disappeared down the green. I took some pictures of Ray teaching him to putt. He positioned his hands on the club, tapped the ball into the hole, and pointed out the satisfying noise it made as it rolled around inside the cup.

I remember when I was taking those pictures, my mind was filled with details. I was worried about whether my son had enough sunscreen on, and if he was being eaten by bugs. I was also thinking about dinner and planning everything I needed to do before the 9 p.m. flight back to Anchorage and calculating how much laundry could be done in the next 24 hours before work started again. It was like a thousand other moments on a thousand weekends when life is full and moving fast and everybody that you love is safe and doing just fine. And though I wasn't thinking about it at the time, I was happy.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

Julia O'Malley
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