super happy

I am seven years old, sitting squirming not-sitting in a chair in a living room in a house where we lived for one year. Across the room is a brick fireplace with bookshelves on both sides. There are windows to my left, and the day outside is overcast and gray. In my memory the room itself is without color.

Left of the fireplace, in the corner where the bookshelves meet the windows, is an also-colorless television. Seven months later, on a hot night in July, I will watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon on that television, but this day, in January 1969, I am watching the Super Bowl with my dad.

It’s the third Super Bowl ever, but it’s the first for me, and a fortunate first at that. The house is on the side of a mountain, and the television gets one channel. This is the Joe Namath Super Bowl, the one where the Jets upset the Colts, and though I’m not a Jets fan – in fact, I was heartbroken two weeks earlier when they beat the Raiders — this day, maybe because they’re underdogs, maybe because the Colts play on a channel we don’t get and I have no attachment to them, this day I’m a Jets fan. A huge Jets fan, apparently, because forty-six years later I can still tell you that the heroes of that day were the quarterback Namath, a bruising running back named Matt Snell, and a skinny receiver named George Sauer, and that the Jets’ coach looked like a bulldog and was named Weeb Ewbank. And when the game is over, Super Bowl III, on a black-and-white television in a black-and-white living room on a black-and-white day on the side of a mountain, I say to my dad, “This is the happiest day of my life.”

I hope neither of my younger brothers will take offence at my seven-year-old self, the one that placed Super Bowl III ahead of their births. The same goes for my parents, who had surely made great effort to make each of my seven birthdays happy, which no doubt they were, and Santa Claus, who had remembered me eight times already and had brought me a football uniform just a few weeks prior. But the Jets winning the Super Bowl! That was incredible in a way I’d never experienced incredible before. It was the happiest day of my life.

I wish I remembered my father’s response – the look on his face, the words he said, whether he lifted me over his head to celebrate with me — but I do not. One thing seems evident though: he did not quash me with any of the cynical comments or expressions an adult might unthinkingly offer at such a time. At the very least, he let me have the moment, and I’m grateful for that.

Those who know me well sometimes tease me about being prone to superlative. And it is true. I bet I’ve said, “That was the best meal I’ve ever had” and “This is the most beautiful day ever” well over a hundred times each, and I’ve meant it every time. The novel I just finished was the most beautiful book I’ve ever read (Mink River, by Brian Doyle), and a couple days ago, at the end of, for me, an especially grueling 55-minute spinning class, I told the teacher, “That was the longest two hours of my life.” Becky, I meant that, too.

I count it a good thing, being prone to superlative. It is a grace. Something important happens when we experience a moment as the best ever, when we feel thrilled, elated, joyful, grateful, and the like. It opens new space in our hearts. It grows our selves a little bigger. Consider the word “enthusiasm”:  en, meaning “within,” and theos, meaning “god.” Enthusiasm makes room for God, or maybe it’s God making room for us.

I’ve now had so many happiest days of my life — an October night, driving a two-lane road back from the beach, windows down, Springsteen on the stereo, Jeanine’s hand in my hair; a December morning, Jeanine pushing for three hours and suddenly Peyton is with us; an April Fools Day, me missing the exit to the hospital and getting us there 30 minutes before Walton arrives, all 10 pounds 14 ounces of him; a brilliant glorious dazzling October day at Acadia National Park, celebrating our twentieth anniversary, climbing ladders to the pinnacle of the Beehive Trail, the Atlantic 500 feet below, the bluest of skies above, and blueberry pie waiting for us after dinner; a school day, Peyton, in second grade, telling me that she’s Jewish, and when I ask “Why are you Jewish,” she says, “Because I believe what Jewish people believe”; a Tuesday morning after a Monday night Jeanine and I watched football together while I ate a late dinner, and Jeanine, seeing two players celebrate by butting heads, asked in an irked and uncomplimentary tone, “Why do men do that?” and the very next morning at breakfast, Walton, age three, leaning towards me and saying, with no precedent, “Dad, let’s butt heads”; the morning of my first marathon, hitting the wall at mile 21 and fighting to finish and being surprised by tears when I crossed the finish line; an afternoon pulling oars on the Green River through Desolation Canyon in Utah, the ages of the earth marked in stone on both sides, a great blue heron riding currents of air above me.

On every scale of value I can now imagine, the occasions of all those happiest days that followed are of higher rank than the occasion of the first. Falling in love, the birth of a child, being alive and conscious beneath a blue sky – these things all matter more to me than a football game. But actual occasion aside, that first one, that first happiest day of our lives, is important in a way unlike all the others. It’s like our first breath. It makes room for all the ones that follow.

So today they’ll play another Super Bowl, the forty-ninth, the XLIXth, if you will, and some kid will be watching, in a chair in a living room. And it will be the happiest day of his or her life.

And also today, you’ll eat a meal, or take a walk, or encounter a child, or hear a story, or run your fingers through someone’s hair. And maybe it’ll be the happiest day of yours.

4 thoughts on “super happy”

  1. Russell, Thanks for this I am taking the liberty to forward to friends who will also appreciate it. “Keep those cards and letters coming” as the old radio evangelists used to say.

    Ron Wachs LPC-S Pastoral Counseling /Psychotherapy CareNet of the Triad


  2. Thanks Russ for this! I will enjoy today’s game even more as I remember you and the day we met and the 360 night in Carter Findley Stadium. I just wish now that we had butted heads!

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