Impermanent Smiles

Sometime around late 2005, my sister Lori and I were over at our parents’ house, minding our own business, when out of nowhere Mom attacked us with pictures from her and Dad’s Carnival cruise. There was no way out. The only choice was to endure; telling ourselves it will all be over soon.

“Here’s us next to our port window,” Mom said. “Did you know it costs extra to get that little window? Anyway, this is us, next to the pool. Did you know the pool is salt water? And this is us in front of the chocolate fountain. And this is us next to an ice sculpture…”

I wanted to stand up and say, “and this is me, leaving to go home”, but I could never do that to Mom. Besides, after a few more pictures, Lori and I both noticed something that left us awestruck:

Dad smiling.

Picture after picture, in every picture, Dad had a genuine, huge smile on his face. I am not exaggerating in any way shape or form when I say neither Lori nor I had ever seen anything like this from him. We could see his teeth!

Dad could be, not to put too fine a point on it, a grumpy asshole. I have entire photo albums of family outings where Dad doesn’t smile in a single picture. “Dad, smile for the camera!” One of us would say. “I am smiling!” would be the response.

Dad “smiling”

“That’s not a smile!”

“I AM SMILING GODDAMMIT, NOW TAKE THE PICTURE!”

I’m not a psychiatrist or therapist, but I know the one thing every human seeks is happiness. It’s the end goal in every single thing we do. You’re looking for it when you buy a cup of coffee–“how much joy will this pumpkin spice latte bring me?” You’re looking for it when you go to the beach–“this will be so fun!”. You’re looking for it when you clean the garage–“I’ll be so happy when this is decluttered and organized!”

Every decision you make is your attempt to steer your life to more happiness. From deciding whether to go to college, or get married, or have kids, to what color cell phone you buy.

And my father…he just couldn’t ever find it. Anywhere. Life was one big ball of misery for him. For example, whenever we would decide to go somewhere, he would be in a hurry to leave the house. I always suspected that he hated his house and homelife, so it was a form of escapism to leave.

But whenever we got to wherever we were going, he would be in a hurry to leave! To go to the next destination. Or back home. It was like he never, ever enjoyed a single moment he was actually living in. He was always in a mindset of, maybe the next place will make me happy. And it seemingly never did.

Except for that cruise. Holy shit, those pictures. I have no idea what it was about that vacation, but it must have worked for him. He looked so happy! Now that he’s gone, I like thinking about him feeling that. Feeling joy. Feeling excitement. Holding hands with Mom and sharing true, genuine happiness for six days and five nights somewhere out in the Caribbean.

When the passengers disembarked the cruise ship, I was the one who picked them up at Channelside in Tampa. I remember both of them speaking excitedly about the entire excursion, almost talking over each other to tell me about it. My father was noticeably more upbeat than usual.

About thirty minutes later, driving down I-75 just south of the I-275 exit, a Florida Highway Patrolman used a laser gun to clock me doing 85 MPH where the speed limit was 70, and pulled me over. After asking for my license, registration, and proof of insurance, he walked back to his motorcycle.

In my rearview mirror, I saw Dad slump back in his seat. “You know, I just got back from a nice vacation, and now that shit has to happen.” He shook his head. The smile was gone from his face.

And just like that, he was back to his old self.

If you enjoyed this and/or my other writing, please consider a free email subscription. You’ll get exclusive subscription-only emails, blog updates, and news about my upcoming book!

  • September 6, 2022
  • 4