good life by julie gagen
Part of cultivating a good life is finding your light.
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 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, and he could barely speak. He was six.
Most mornings we built Lego towers before breakfast, then spent an hour getting dressed, getting out the door, and off to school for dropoff. 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 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. And I worried.
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 felt so tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed at the state of everything. I felt helpless. And I kept thinking, “It’s too much; I can’t do this.”
But I kept going. 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. In the cooling weather and the fading light, I used every ounce of my imagination to influence and adjust situations for the boys’ needs. I was determined to find joy. So 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 we 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 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 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. Beginning again.
It is amazing how one phrase, a few words, can transform a moment in a fundamentally profound way.
What’s your phrase?
Julie Gagen is a part of our 2015 Creative Team. She lives in New England with her husband Chris, her son Max, her nephew Caleb, and her two dogs, Cassie & Pepper.