My father used to say, “Whatever you do, no matter how hard it is, do it with a smile.”
My sister left her son, Cal, with me on a Saturday night while we were out getting pizza. It was October 2013. Just a week prior, my career had abruptly come to an end. Chris and I were in the middle of renovating our new house. My mom was about to move. Our daycare provider had quit without notice. And everything felt remarkably out of place. Unsettled. Chaotic.
Cal and I had lingered at the pizza shop that night. We rarely had time alone together and I always felt a responsibility to him. To teach him. To guide him. To help him however I could.
So when he expressed interest in learning about how my car worked, I took the time (a long time) to answer his questions. We discussed the function of every button, every vent, every component of my car’s dashboard. At least twice.
When we came home with the pizza, my sister was gone.
And we knew, right then, that was it. She wasn’t coming home.
For most of her life we knew this day would come. Not consciously. But she always had an undertone of defiance. And despite her intellectual disability and despite her then 6-year-old son, she always seemed to be looking for something else. For an escape. For a chance at a different life.
I wanted so badly to fall into the sadness of the moment. Of my lost career. Of the stress of our daycare provider. Of the loss of my sister. Of the concern for her well-being. Of the state of my nephew.
And yet somehow I knew that the best thing – the only thing I could do – was to find the joy. In every possible moment.
And that’s exactly what I did.
The first few months were hard. Our lives were in transition. And everything – home, family, career, relationships – felt like it was in remarkable disorder – especially with Cal. His behavior was difficult, he wasn’t potty trained, he could barely speak. He was six.
Most mornings we built Lego towers before breakfast, then spent a FULL hour just getting dressed and out the door to drop him off at school. It was a struggle. The boys rarely listened. And no matter how early in the day we started to get ready for school, we were always late.
When Cal would play with my 1-year-old son Max, they required constant attention. There were a lot of tears. A lot of fights. And a lot of difficulty sharing and playing together. It was so hard. Immensely challenging. Consuming. Overwhelming. And I worried. A LOT.
But I told myself, “there can be joy here.”
Afternoons were harder. Pickup occurred in the middle of Max’s nap. And play in the afternoon – with two tired, rambunctious boys – was never easy. We couldn’t go anywhere without the boys causing a scene. We couldn’t stay home. And I was so tired, so frustrated, and so overwhelmed at the state of everything that I felt helpless. I kept thinking, “it’s too much; I can’t do this.”
And that’s when I found the phrase. A phrase I would come back to many times that year:
“Find the joy, be the light.”
Our moment of change happened after school one November afternoon. In the cooling weather and the fading light, I took the boys to the park near our house. It was the first dry day after a week of rain and the ground was so saturated that it squished beneath our steps. Without warning, Cal, quickly followed by Max, took off, full-speed running for the baseball diamond. I had barely opened my mouth to utter “STOOOP!” before they were both halfway across the field, laying in the mud. Their shoes were 15 steps behind them, buried and almost impossible to find. They were wet, and visibly unhappy about it.
I stood there, paused in awe at this remarkable mess. Overwhelmed by where to start. And so I laughed. And they laughed. And we joked. And we took off our socks and shoes and played in the mud like it was this amazing gift of a moment.
And it was. Because that moment was joyful. And I knew then that it was possible for us to find it again.
So after school each day, we went to apple farms where we could roam isles of empty trees. We visited petting zoos that were on their last days of the season. We stumbled over uneven ground on abandoned farm rows. And chased crows from pumpkin patches.
And every time it got hard, or overwhelming, or the boys acted out, I told myself, “Find the joy, be the light.”
And with that phrase in mind, I taught the boys how to roll down hills, imagine oceans in place of brittle grass, and play soccer in open fields. We ran and jumped and imagined. We climbed and explored. We rode trains to the city. We adventured to historic places. We experienced every moment in our little corner of the world.
As the months passed, we did a lot of major stuff, too. We had Cal’s disability diagnosed, repaired years of dental negligence, requested and developed his independent learning plan for school, improved his diet, and helped him through major dental surgery. We got him glasses and his tonsils removed. We went to a dozen doctor visits. A dozen specialist visits. We taught him to dress himself, to brush his teeth, and we potty trained. We’ve taught him independence, self-reliance, and empathy. We taught him to speak. To be kind. To listen. And we loved him and cared for him. And we found our joy.
Now, our lives are full of love, family, togetherness, and adventure. And while we still have hard moments, as all families do, in those moments I’m able to refer back to the phrase “find the joy, be the light.” That phrase has helped us through so many difficult days. So many times when things got hard. So many times when I wanted to give up.
It’s our way of starting over. Of beginning again.
I hope this story reaches you at a time when you need it. Because, just like us, you have the ability to change your experience of life’s biggest challenges. You too can find that joy. You too can be that light. Be it.