“I’m here.”

That’s how he would answer that fatuous question that I’ve been fielding uncomfortably for over a year now.

Being here

Twenty-some years ago when I’d pause next to his recliner long enough for him to respond, I wasn’t aware of the perfection of his answer. Sometimes the answer was carried on a dim smile, others over a scowl. But either way, it was perfect and it’s a lesson.

He could have slammed his answer against the rails of somewhere else, all the things he had given up. But he didn’t.

“I’m here.”

Maybe some days he was amazed he was here, the miracle of waking another day, of still being here.

Or maybe he was sorely surprised—Here? STILL?—feeling stuck in a body that no longer allowed his delights:

  • cooking and gardening
  • fishing and trawling
  • foraging berries and nuts
  • making huckleberry and pecan pies
  • driving his truck
  • reading the paper

I’m here, for whoever pauses long enough to notice me.

Whenever I paused long enough, he truly was. He would ask about my children, husband, work, or sometimes, with reason, he’d ask “Did you finish school yet?” Even as his body lost interest in doing things, his mind stayed curious and interested. Here.

Being present

My grandfather was here—present—for 93.5 years. His presence was so gentle and kind that you might not notice him sitting in the recliner or stuffing shrimp into a waxed milk carton to freeze for later. You might not know that he was baking a huckleberry pie until the smell of baking berries wafted all the way to the front porch swing where you sat having important conversations.

He was quiet, purposeful, constant, present.

Papa was present for whatever was before him, whether for a house full of grandkids running amok or for Mama [/ˈmômô/] who followed him around in an Alzheimer’s fog for over a decade.


“I’m here,” he would respond patiently.

Those were the most amazing and touching of his I’m here‘s.

Being true

We can’t all be Norman, in the moment, taking care of whatever is before us no matter what.

I try. Truly I do. But sometimes the current of whatever is before me threatens to wash me away. I struggle with being present versus showing up for myself.

When am I being too present for whatever lands in front of me? When should I pull myself out of the current and onto shore?

I don’t want to drown fighting the current, so I go with the flow but cling to my oars.

The balance between embracing what comes and standing firm is tough. Firm means hard, and hard things break. Soft is better, but too soft, and I lose shape, lose center, lose myself.

I can’t be like Norman. But surely there’s a balance between being here for what comes and being here for myself, being true to myself.

How are you?

Back to that fatuous question. I think at least twelve people have asked me that today, even though I never left my house.

I ranted a little, but that flared my frustrations. I complained some and felt small. That’s the thing, when we’re struggling, answering the question honestly sometimes makes the struggle swell.

I’m here.

That should have been my answer.

Color check

I have a friend who shares my aversion to the question. She came up with a convention to check in without requiring wearied answers: color checks.

Her color range is on a scale from green to red, green for great, then yellow and orange to red for in or on her way to the hospital.

The colors allow me to check on her without burdening her for an explanation.

My color scale is blues, which seemed fitting to me, since most of my white waters are around emotion, or lack of it.

Many days, it’s clear sky blue: flat, light, neutral. Not good. Not bad.

Are you really asking?

Don’t sweat it when you ask the question. It’s hard to avoid. Just know some of us struggle with the answer, so make space for what answers may come.

  • I’m a mess because…
  • I’m here.
  • I’m marbled blue.
  • I don’t know…

If you’re pausing in your important day to be polite and the question is just a greeting, try a greeting instead: Hi there! It’s good to see you again.

If the question falls right out any way, no worries. I’m no Norman, but I’ll do my damnedest to place my oars in the water and steady myself in the current as I answer.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2022