Upon reaching the cashier in the check-out lane . . .
Cashier: Hi! How are you today?
Response: I’m just happy to be here.
This has been M’s default reply for more than a decade now. He’s always been jovial when he said it, and it rarely fails to elicit a laugh. It’s a solid and friendly segue to other quick and polite topics of conversation. And after hearing it over and over again, it started to make me cringe.
I hated it for being a non-answer. A deflection. An automatic, glib response to a standard question I always struggled to answer.
“How are you?” is rarely an earnest question when uttered on the street or in the process of a business transaction. The questioner may be sincere in this greeting of welcome, but typically nobody wants an honest response in that moment. No one wants to hear about how your head hurts, that your dog is dying, or how bad the insomnia was last night. It’s not the time to open up about the fight you had with your partner or about the dysfunctional politics in your place of work. Most people expect the call and response of “Fine, thanks. How are you?” instead of a point-by-point breakdown of your latest medical tests and how badly the seasonal pollen is exacerbating your chronic conditions.
You get the idea.
But the expected reply — some variation on “I’m okay, how about yourself?” — rarely sat well with me, especially because “I’m okay” hasn’t often been true. When you’re in pain and having real trouble, “I’m okay” is a blatant lie, if even a small and polite one. Because I don’t like to be disingenuous, I never really knew how to respond in a manner that was both appropriate and sincere.
So I finally adopted M’s strategy. I started replying with, “I’m just happy to be here.”
And it’s perfect, because it’s open to many different interpretations, and it’s always true. Even if I’m feeling like absolute crap — with a pounding migraine and raging IBS and inflamed knees and cycling syncope and vertigo — I can say, “I’m just happy to be here” with a straight face. Because in those moments it means that I’m happy to be alive and not to be fully bed-ridden. On better days, of course, I’m just happy to be out and about and getting things done. I might even be honestly happy to be talking to that particular person in that specific location, as when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic and I’m running my weekly library errands.
Today, there’s a lot that’s frightening and maddening and straight-up outrageous in the world. It’s perfectly normal to be afraid and angry and flummoxed. Some of us are sick. Most of us are afraid of getting sick, and of having a poor outcome and of dying. Many of us are frustrated and even furious with our elected officials for their handling of the novel coronavirus crisis, and maybe also with our neighbors for their handling of the same. Too many people are sick. Too many people have died. Too many people are out of work and grappling with legitimate and very real worries about what the future will hold. These are tense and strange times, and we’re going to be in this shit a good while longer.
So how am I doing? I’m scared and angry and adrift, too. I’m in pain and dealing with seasonal allergies that are worse than usual and taking my temperature every morning and every night, just in case, because my partner is an essential worker and every time he comes back home again increases my exposure risk as well as his. I’m not an essential worker and have lost my income, and my higher risk for a bad outcome if I do become infected with SARS-CoV-2 means that I may be in lockdown for a year or more. Our dog is in stable but bad shape. I’m struggling just like everyone else is. And it’s hard.
But you know what? I’m just happy to be here. That’s the truth.