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Joy versus Happiness (Letting Love in)

      This is the happiest I’ve ever been—or ever will be—in my life.

      That December morning I woke up curled under the blankets next to David. My head tucked in his chest, our limbs entangled, the delicious warmth of his body sheltering me from the winter chill. The scent of his skin—what I’d later call the smell of heaven mixed with testosterone—blended with the coffee aroma rising from the kitchen. The bubbling noise of the brewing coffee maker mixed with the gentle sound of wind chimes coming from the neighbor’s back porch.

      I slid closer and, still asleep, he instinctively held me tighter. Not once had I reached for him and not find him there, willing to take me in his arms. My heart soared in gratitude and bliss for that man I loved so much.

      “This is Nirvana,” my soul whispered.

      To which my mind would soon answer, “And, of course, it’s doomed to end horribly.”

      Wait, what?

      Allow me to rewind and return to that night at the beach three months back, when I had my glimpse of certainty—that instant when David said those magical words, “It’s time to let someone take care of you.”

      How did he know that was exactly what I needed to hear? Deep inside me lived a little girl longing to be taken care of. A two-year-old who’s just gotten a new baby sister and internalized the words “Time to grow up; you’re not a baby anymore.” A three-year-old premature kindergartener, learning to read and write while other girls her age still drank from baby bottles and wore diapers at night.

      Inside me lived a fifteen-year-old who gave injections in vaccination campaigns; a sixteen-year-old roaming around the medical school morgue, facing cadavers. An eighteen-year-old delivering babies before she was kissed for the first time. A nineteen-year-old caring for her cancer-stricken mother.

      Yes, I was tired of being a super woman; all I wanted to be was a regular human being. And I was exhausted from taking care of my four children and hundreds of patients. I hadn’t dared to wish for a man who’d take care of me. All I wanted was a man who could take care of himself, so I didn’t have to bend over backward trying to make him happy.

      And, boy, did I find it!

      “Taking care of me” went beyond the delicious dinners David prepared, and his insistence on tucking me in bed early to make me rest. He seemed to know about everything I used to love as a kid. Could he read my mind and extract my best forgotten memories? Had he interrogated my sisters, or sent spies in a time machine to the days of my childhood?

      Bicycle rides in the afternoon, feeling the tropical breeze in my face. Lazy hours in his hammock, the soft rocky motion lulling me to a mild trance. Blissful walks on sandy beaches, collecting seashells. Guitar playing; Christmas lights hanging; stargazing; manufacturing rainbows from beams of light and prism crystals… If someone could die of a joy overdose, I would have.

      My body and soul wanted to sing in bliss.

      My mind wanted to run away screaming.

      “This is too good to last. This is never going to work,” my worrier brain panicked. “If he never settled down and wanted a family in the past forty-plus years, why would he want it now? My four terrible children will chase him away. He won’t be able to handle my kids with special needs. I won’t be able to handle living 24/7 with a man, after the nightmare my former marriage was.”

      The better things got between us, the more I worried. What if that moment of certainty at the beach had been nothing but some form of partial complex seizure? It was easier to have a dull, loveless existence when I didn’t know something like this was available. My mind kept warning me, “When (not if) things end, that’s going to really, really hurt.”

      David deserves a Nobel Prize for patience, and an Oscar for acting skills. Later on he confessed he was just as scared as I was. But no one would’ve suspected it when he faked super-human confidence for months, planning mind-blowing dates and keeping the flow of calls and emails going in between. He didn’t pressure me, but worked on “Letting the flower open by itself, instead of trying to force the petals.”

      “You know, it’s not true that we just met,” he’d say in a matter-of-factly voice on an early date, wearing his coolest expression. “You and I go way back, before this incarnation.” I suspect he used hypnosis to brainwash me.

      He talked about our future like it was the most normal thing in the world—from hints of wanting to meet my children, to dreams of bringing me along on family trips with his siblings. He planted images of hope in my brain, coaxing me to visualize us together for years to come. It was the ultimate wrestling match of the minds between a Cornflakes-white male—raised with the conviction that the pursuit of happiness was his constitutional right—and a Dominican woman—raised with the conviction that the world is out to screw her.

      Here I have to explain something. I am normally a very optimistic person. I’ll never forget a grumpy cardiology attending physician in the bleak mid-winter in Detroit, where I trained in Internal Medicine. I had predicted (and later on was proven right) that a patient would survive his dangerous heart blood clot. “Of course you’re optimistic, Pichardo,” the attending grumbled, rolling his eyes with a suppressed smile. “You grew up in a place where it was sunny all year long.”

      But what that cardiologist didn’t know was that the optimism of growing up in the tropical DR is more complex than it seems. It’s much easier for me to believe in the good luck of others than to believe that I will have good luck. And I can have super-human optimism for very brief periods of time. But there’s a long distance from that to being able to sustain it. Dominicans are great at feeling joy, but we have a hard time believing in happiness.

      Joy and happiness are not the same. I love the way David defined it once. “Joy is being in a desert, dying of thirst, and finding a canister of water. Happiness is living next to a river.”

      Dominicans are the best at milking moments of joy—nobody makes such a big party with so little. Imagine you’ve spent all day hungry, facing oven-like temperatures and sky-high humidity. There’s no air conditioning— and rarely electricity to run a fan—and mosquitoes the size of bats nibble at you constantly. Of course you’d develop a titanic ability to suppress discomfort from the mind. And the moment something good happens, you’re delighted. The lower you’ve been the day before, the higher you feel when you get a break.

      But then, on every street corner you see barefoot, half-naked children begging for money. Everywhere you hear stories of hunger, and death from water-borne illness. And the president and his friends are too busy stealing government funds to do something about it. And the worst part is the conviction that things will never change. Because every promising political candidate transforms into a corrupt clone of the previous one, the minute he is elected. Even the elections get rigged and manipulated—so your vote means nothing in the end.

      There in the D.R. most people are too preoccupied with not starving to worry about such an abstract concept as “happiness.” For those of us who did have our basic needs fulfilled, we just had to look around to confirm that long-term “happiness” didn’t exist—it was a fabrication of fairy tales. And that was okay. Somehow it feels sinful to wish for “happiness” when most people around you are barely surviving. How do you dare to want more than you already have when so many people have nothing?

      Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt guilty when I get a shot of good luck. And any promise of long-lasting improvement in my life felt like a utopia—maybe even a scam. Happiness was so alien that my automatic reflex if I ever saw it would be to do something to get rid of it.

      “Feeling good all the time? That’s too much work. Leave me with what I know: a dreadful existence sprinkled with occasional moments of joy.”

      Happiness might seem a myth, but you have to watch out. Joy can be tricky. Often, it’s too dependent on a low—the hungrier you are, the tastier any food you find seems. That had been my pattern in my previous, unhealthy relationship. You think you are having “good times” that compensate for the bad times; but the truth is that the bad times are so terrible that the “okay times” seem good in comparison. Even a backhanded compliment can feel good after weeks of verbal abuse.

      So here I was, starting to panic about this extra-long moment of joy. If I wasn’t careful, I was doomed to do something to push it all away.

      (A part of me used to fear that when I found my soulmate my life would become boring, because I would no longer have that mind-encompassing goal. I was wrong. The most challenging part is not finding the soulmate: it is making sure you don’t ruin it once you do.)

      One sunny winter day, the joy was too much and I couldn’t hold it inside anymore. My self-sabotage attempt started like a casual conversation while lying in the hammock in his backyard.

      “I wish so much I had a little window to peek at our lives ten years from now,” I said. “If I could only confirm we’ll still be together then, I’d be able to relax and enjoy this moment.”

      “I wouldn’t want that,” David answered without hesitation. “It doesn’t matter if that peek into the future hinted at good or bad news. That couldn’t make me any happier than I am now.”

      “But the doubt is killing me,” I insisted with a morbid obsession. “Studies say that the endorphins keeping a couple in love disappear within two years. Will we still be together when the magic wears off? Will we survive the moment when you meet my children? Will we ever be able to combine our so different lives?” As I said the words I knew all statistics in the world were against us. Rising from the hammock, I sat on the grass, facing him. “It’s going to hurt like hell returning to my normal life after having had a taste of this. Doesn’t it make more sense not to get used to it, and end it now, to save us some time?”

      David processed my words for a while, in silence. Back then I still didn’t know it, but he struggled with fear too. He was sure I’d use him as a rebound guy and then leave him for a rich doctor.

      I never forgot his answer. “Save us time? What for? Even if we were destined to end horribly. Even if tomorrow you left me for another man. Even if you ended up being the biggest heartbreak of my life, I wouldn’t want this time back.” He paused, and his next words slid into my soul like a healing balm. “Right now, right at this instant, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.”

      Slowly, peace re-entered my troubled soul. “I’m sorry. Sometimes this is scary,” I said pointing with my hand between us. “This is too much happiness. And I grew up hearing that happiness can’t last.”

      “And it won’t,” he replied with a shrug and a sad smile. “We will blink and forty years will have gone by. It will all feel like a minute, anyway.”

      He was right. I blinked, and seven years have gone by. We’ve survived more than my terrible children and fusing our households. We’ve survived terrible children growing into sulky teenagers. We’ve survived house demolition and construction, hurricanes, career burnout, and cancer scares. Four or five more blinks and those forty years he talked about will be gone.

      Maybe there’s no reason to feel intimidated by happiness, anyway. It’s not that different from those minutes of joy I know how to handle. Instead of worrying about sustaining happiness, I’ll just focus on dealing with this moment of joy, and then the next one—stringing them all into a chain that will hopefully last for many years from now.

      What have I learned about happiness during these years? Happiness is tricky. It’s like entering a heated room after having been outside in a winter storm. At first, it’s mind-blowingly amazing, but soon you grow accustomed to it and run the risk of not appreciating it anymore. Every day is a new challenge not to take happiness for granted. Don’t wait until you lose it to notice it again— just like we don’t notice the heater until it fails in the middle of the Polar Vortex.

      Today I woke up next to David, like every morning. Half asleep, his arms wrapped around me as ever, and his lips reaching to kiss my head, still bald from my recently completed chemotherapy—boy did he keep his promise to take care of me. I look forward to this weekend with him, finally free from the last of the side effects.

      Who knows where we will be ten years, or even five years from now. But right at this moment, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.


I hope the last paragraphs of this story didn’t scare you. I’m fine now and healthy as a horse (even if a bald horse!). There’s some humor in being an oncologist forced to be on the other side of the stethoscope. 

If my writings were annoyingly positive before, brace yourselves!  After this experience, I enjoy a greater capacity to feel both joy and happiness and have an even greater appreciation for life.

This is not really the end: Sexless in the Boondocks is in process of becoming a full memoir!

I promise it will be more organized and better edited. It will include never-published stories (too personal to be released in the web). Newsletter subscribers will have the chance to get the book for free. If you haven’t yet, sign out to qualify for an e-copy!