I bought the plane ticket almost two months ago.
“We’ll miss you this year.”
“I’ve missed the last three years, Mom. It’s not going to be anything new.”
“Dad and I talked, and if Grandma gets worse, we’ll pay to fly you out.”
“She’s doing fine now, right?”
“Then we’re okay.”
“I know. I just wish you could be at Thanksgiving.”
“I do, too. But I’m going to the Orams’ again, at least.”
“That makes me happy. I like the Orams.”
“And Christmas isn’t even that far away, Mom.”
I lied a lot.
In texts: I’m donating blood on December third. If I pretend to be a Calvin student, I get a free pizza.
On Skype: every Sunday afternoon, to my parents in Washington and my brother in Montana.
On Twitter: I’m on a 4-game Settlers of Catan winning streak. @bendeLacy, @NickBalera, @CalvinBulthuIs, and @NickyG. December. #thingsgetreal
Normally, I hate lying. I prefer honesty and the rewards and consequences that come with it. But I was loving this kind of deception. I kept thinking about it—imagining my family’s response; planning and replanning the little details of my airport pick-up; reassuring myself that for once, I would actually fool my mother, who had always somehow seen through my rare and admittedly terrible attempts at lying.
I kept the secret for a month and a half.
A friend picked me up from the airport on November 27th and drove me to @CalvinBulthuIs’ house. The other Settlers-playing friends were there, too, as well as a few non-Settlers-playing friends who I put up with. They knew I was coming.
But they convinced me to let my brother in on the surprise a day early. Now a freshman in college, he drove over to see them; after all our years growing up together, they were his friends, too. I hid while everyone else hugged and laughed and talked. And then I burst out of the bathroom and grabbed my brother, and he hugged me back and spun me in a circle.
“I can’t believe it. I mean—what? You’re here? Is this real?”
My brother played it perfectly. He went home that night and told my parents how much he wished I could be home for Thanksgiving.
“It doesn’t feel right without Josh here, Mom.”
“I know. I miss him, too.”
He did a good enough job that my Dad—who insists his two emotions are hungry and tired—felt sad.
@CalvinBulthuIs lives a mile from my parents’ house. So Thanksgiving afternoon, after my family had already left to gather at my aunt and uncle’s place, I walked to my parents’ house, let myself in with the spare key, swapped those keys for the car keys, and borrowed my parents’ Nissan. I drove to my aunt and uncle’s and parked on the street.
I sent a text: Can you guys Skype now? The Orams are having dinner in about forty-five minutes.
I snuck to the sliding glass door. They were gathered around the computer—parents, brother, grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousin. I knocked. Half of them turned.
Why’s Ben outside? My uncle remembers thinking. No—Ben’s by the computer.
My grandmother assumed I was a neighbor who looked strangely like her grandson.
Then my mother screamed.
She screamed for the next six minutes: “Oh my gosh! You’re here! Oh my gosh!” I counted ten hugs from her before I stopped keeping track.
My grandma cried a little, and everyone kept saying how happy they were, and how none of them had expected it, and I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family—the first Thanksgiving I had spent with them since my freshman year of college.
Several years ago, a friend posed a question: Does happiness exist in a thing itself, in the anticipation of the thing, or in the remembrance of the thing? We decided that it existed in all three, but in varying amounts, depending on the thing in question.
For me, the happiness of this Thanksgiving was in the anticipation. I set it in my calendar like a landmark—it was my hope, the mountain on the horizon that kept me smiling, even when my writing was terrible and my lack of income terrified me. I built it up bigger than any reality could hope to achieve.
And then Thanksgiving happened, and it was a great few hours—but it was not phenomenal. It was not the epic event of my imagination, filled with cheering and perfect lighting and an orchestral soundtrack directed by John Williams.
But now, my family is telling the story to their friends, and I’m telling it here, and I think my mother will still be telling it decades later, to anyone who doesn’t mind hearing it for the nineteenth time.
When my friend first posed that question, it felt wrong. I wanted things to be happy. Anticipation and remembrance felt like crutches, a cheap way to add happiness to something that could not stand on its own.
But now, I appreciate the difference. Some things are happy because they can be anticipated—like New Year’s Eve, which never lives up to the hype and usually ends with stories we regret, or at least don’t particularly want to talk about. Other things are incredibly happy when they occur—winning a close game of Settlers—but they aren’t unique enough to look forward to or talk about the next day. And then there are things that get better with time, like my Thanksgiving appearance—a surprise that my family could not anticipate, but one that they can talk about over and over again until I regret ever coming home and giving them the story in the first place. None of them are equal, but all of them are happy.
We’re now well into the Holiday season, with parties to anticipate, games to enjoy, stories waiting to emerge. I’m expecting and experiencing and remembering a lot of happiness this month, and it’s great.