By: Cindy (McKinley) Alder
When I was young, my mom read me fairy tales that ended with …”and they all lived happily ever after”. Oh how powerful those words were to a young girl! They seemed to say to me, “Reader, it’s OK to close the book now”. And it was OK, because I knew that, even though things started out rocky, Cinderella and Prince Charming were going to be all right. No more terrible stepsisters. No more wicked stepmother. No more filthy chores and ragged clothes. They had found each other. They would be happy forevermore.
If anyone were to have asked, I would have said that, of course, I knew better than to expect Happily Ever After for myself, though. This is real-life after all, not some fairy tale. No one has a perfect life all the time. And anyone out there waiting for that is in for one big letdown.
However, if I’m totally honest? Maybe, way in the back of my mind, there was a little part of me that did expect that someday– probably when I was “really old”- I’d get to a point where I would look around and finally think, “Ah, yes. This is it. Finally: my Happily Ever After.” I would never have admitted it out loud. though No way. But I did kind of hope it would happen.
And so, I waited.
As I began to raise my own kids, I started to realize just what those Happily Ever Afters in books probably really looked like. Cinderella and Prince Charming probably argued about where to set the thermostat and got frustrated helping their kids with long division. They sometimes went to bed exhausted and woke up to heaping piles of laundry. They had to trick toddlers into eating their vegetables, carpool teenagers to soccer practices, and pay astronomical orthodontist bills each month. Did it feel like Happily Ever After to them?
But shhhhh. Secretly, I still waited for mine.
Fast forward through the raising of my kids to last year. That’s when I stopped waiting. I gave up all hope. When my mom passed away unexpectedly, I started to see a very different version of those three elusive words. My dad’s entire life changed in the blink of an eye. All of my parents’ love, friendship, daily rituals, future plans- they were all gone. Confused, shocked, and sad, I found myself thinking that there really is no Happily Ever After … for anyone. My parents had done everything right and now it seemed all gone. I had a shocking realizations that, odds are, at some point, either my husband or I will likely end up alone. I didn’t see any “happy,” and certainly no “ever after,” in that.
But as the months dulled the sharp edges of grief, I took a good look around my life and realized I’d gotten even that all wrong. Happily Ever After is not some prize given to a select few in “old age”. It isn’t something you magically receive when you fall in love. It is not something to keep hoping for and waiting for. It isn’t out there in the future somewhere, looking some particular way, waiting for us to somehow put all the mysterious pieces together and figure it all out.
The truth is, nothing lasts forever. Nothing is Ever After. So wanting it and hoping for it is only a set-up for disappointment. So, I readjusted my expectations a bit once again: Instead of looking for Happily Ever After, how about I look for just… Happy. Not Happy Forever, or Happy Always, just… Happy.
Happiness- now that is something I can find!
And here’s the thing: a whole lot changes when you let go of an unrealistic ideal and concentrate instead on something tangible and attainable, something that is all around you already.
Along with ditching the idea of Happily Ever After, I have also stopped waiting for my own Prince Charming to- someday- make everything better for me. Spoiler Alert: There is not always a tall, dark and handsome man waiting around the corner on his white horse to come to the rescue.
But do you know what? That doesn’t mean we never get saved. Prince Charming doesn’t always have to look like Cinderella’s guy. For me, yes, sometimes it does come in the form of my husband, sure. But sometimes Prince Charming is my best friend. Sometimes it is my kids. Sometimes it is my work, sometimes my writing. And sometimes, it is just… me.
What a glorious realization that is! I can be my own Prince Charming and make my own Happy!
Now that I have come to realize that many things and many people can contribute to my own particular Happy, I have begun actively looking for it. It is up to me, and only me, to find Happy now, or to make changes and begin to create Happy now, because, really, now is all I have for sure.
So, I walk around my house, thankful for how peaceful it is on a particular evening. I hold the mementos I have collected throughout my life and recall what they mean to me. I breathe in the quiet joy of time alone with a cup of tea and a good book. I close my eyes and appreciate the simple sound of the garage door lifting because it means my husband is home safely. I hug my kids a little longer than I used to. I pour my heart out into my writing. I take care of my dad now, like he used to take care of me. And I cherish memories of my mom every day.
My house. My memories. Peace. My husband. My kids. My writing. My dad. My mom. These are the pieces of my Happy, for however long they last. For now, though, they are here. They are.
Are there some tough times? Of course. My husband clicks up the thermostat and I click it back down. I wake up to dirty dishes and meals to make, bills to pay and kids to get off to school. We sometimes have dirty chores and ragged clothes ourselves. But.
But I have this life and it is mine and it is good and it is happy. I will not wait, anymore, for things to be perfect, or Ever After, or even just to be better. I won’t wait for things to look the way they do in storybooks or how they look at someone else’s house. Who cares about “happily ever after” when my Happy is here, and it doesn’t matter if it would be anyone else’s Happy. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t magical every day. It doesn’t even matter if it looks the way I thought it would look. (BTW: It doesn’t.) It is mine- to keep, to change, to cherish, to notice. It is here. It is now. It has to be now.
When I read those three words at the end of a story to a child these days, they seem to say something a little different to me. They seem to say, “Reader, you have this, too! Look around. Don’t you see it? Don’t you feel it?”
And again, I can close the book happily. Because I do. I have it every day that I am alive and have someone or something to love, some good to do, something to be happy about. And there is so much to be happy about, if we just take the time to look.
Yes, fairy tales end with “…happily ever after”. But here, in the real world, it can be a little more complicated than that. So, I think I will just live the first part, the most important part: Happily.