I am sitting in my grandparents' living room. It's December 26 and all 26 members of my mom's side of the family cramp up the bungalow for a Christmas dinner. The lack of real estate encourages a yearly wrestling match, which used to be much more fun for me when my little cousins weren’t six feet tall. I cite my recent knee surgery - and not my fear of getting fed a taste of the medicine I have been dishing out since 2008 - as my reason to sit this year out. In consequence, my cousin Joel takes most of the beating. Sorry man.
Amidst the flailing arms and flying Christmas wrapping paper, I spot my grandfather. He sits at the other side of the room in his usual chair, diverting his attention between the living room's calamity and his usual fix: a cup of coffee and a Budweiser. He rarely drinks in excess, but I would bet that his consistent mixed intake of caffeine and alcohol would make him immune to the stiffest Four Loko by now. He makes eye contact with me, smiles, falls asleep for about seven seconds and denies it when I call him out.
"I'm not sleeping, I'm just taking a break."
When you’re 80 and have been playing off these seven-second slumber sessions for the last ten years, you don’t think much of them anymore. That doesn't stop me from poking fun at him.
"Don't blink again, you'll miss dinner," I said.
"I'm wide awake," he said back, fixing his sitting posture. "Everyone's here... best day of the year."
My growing caffeine addiction and creaky legs notwithstanding, I have little in common with my grandfather. He is not a school guy. At my current age he drove trucks for a living and was about to get married. He doesn't watch sports, let alone play them, and he can skin a live chicken without squirming and chucking it over to my uncle Raymond. When I visit him, I usually talk, and he usually listens (if you’re married to my grandmother, you have to be a good listener). We have always been different, but our thoughts may have never been juxtaposed quite like they are right now.
In the living room, my grandfather is in bliss, having anticipated this familiar moment for weeks. He loves sitting back and watching the life he has created – the life currently trying to kill each other on the carpet with the help of a well timed Half-Nelson. He never fails to comment on which one of us grew, who forgot to shave, and who has a bad haircut. I can’t speak for him (or bother him to write a paragraph) but I think he lives for these gatherings.
While he lives in the moment, I am somewhere else. I enjoy my time at my grandparents’ house too, and I am having fun, but like most other 23-year-olds, my mind wanders. I think about getting back to Windsor, and my trip to Toronto the next week. I think about meeting some friends in Halifax soon, and how much mileage I might be able to run when I visit my parents in Florida in March. I think about finishing school and making something of myself once I break free of academia’s tedium.
My grandfather and I, though for completely different things, find the same happiness in anticipation. Thinking of good times ahead decorates our future with promise and spikes our present with thrill. Feeling anticipation is to know – or at least believe – that we will have something to be happy about in the future, and that is true even if we ever struggle in the present.
In the last six months, I have struggled mentally - more than ever. I lost my ability to run, and it’s not yet back. I cannot anticipate races, workouts, runs with friends, or earned after-parties. I deal with a lot of my struggles quietly. Not because I don’t feel like I can talk about it – I do - but because it is how I am most comfortable overcoming my battle. As we celebrate our ability to talk about our struggles, I want to share a vice with those who, like me, may not feel like talking about internal turmoil every time it arises. That vice is anticipation.
On days that I see no light, I use my short attention span and neuroticism to my advantage by trying to anticipate better times ahead. I make an effort to think of nights with friends that are coming up. I think of a book event I have planned. I think of the next time I can be reunited with my family and hopefully take it to my "little" cousins. I think of the days when I can run again.
My grandfather deals with minor health issues and the insidious loneliness that accompanies old age and restricted motion. I cannot help but think that sometimes he strains physically and mentally. When those times come, perhaps he cheers himself up by looking forward to the next day we come to him, and perhaps that thought brings him momentary peace. In that way, I can relate with my grandfather. In fact, I think I can relate with many people – perhaps we all want to escape the present sometimes.
Focusing on the positive aspects of our lives and thinking about what gets us excited will not get rid of mental illness, but perhaps a bit of introspection can enrich our conversations around mental health. It may at least remind us that things get better when they are not great. Making a mental exercise of identifying great moments I anticipate has helped me take courage in these last months. And if I can anticipate like that until I am 80 and my grandchildren are kicking the crap out of each other in my living room, that is a lot to look forward to.