If you’ve ever listened to my show or perused my website you probably know my story, but I’ll sum it up just in case. I’m the youngest of nine in a blue collar family. We always had what we needed but not much of what we wanted. My parents loved us, worked hard, blah blah blah, but I wanted stuff and I dedicated my whole existence to getting out of my parents’ house and having all the things I needed and wanted: a dry towel after a shower, a whole half a bed, name-brand ice cream–you know, the finer things in life. In pursuit of these dreams, I worked like a dog waitressing six nights a week while going to community college, transferring to Harvard on a full scholarship and ultimately getting a JD-MBA from Stanford. In the course of these pursuits, I accumulated mass quantities of debt and found the man of my dreams (or at least the raw material out of which that man could be crafted). I became an investment banker to pay the debts off–and to start racking up the towels and ice cream–and in thinking I could have it all, I moved to Dallas from Money-Making Manhattan to accommodate my husband’s career, maintain my own and even start a family.
Unfortunately, shortly after the wedding and the move to Dallas, the tech bubble burst and many satellite investment banking offices closed, including the one where I worked in Dallas. I lost my job, but that was okay because my husband had his and we wanted a family anyway. We got to work and soon I was pregnant and blissful. Then the baby came. Not so much bliss. He had Down syndrome. It was devastating. As if anything could have been worse than that, going to Luke’s special therapies gutted me every day. I would go in with my baby (who was like a bag of sugar the first few months) and break down in my car afterwards, not in self-pity, but out of unbearable sadness for all the families I saw there with children who were very ill or severely handicapped. Seeing my baby Luke was no more gut-wrenching than seeing a newborn kitten, but these other kids–blue lips and fingers, twisted limbs, touch-and-go prognoses for life itself–I would literally sit in my car and weep coming out of some of those encounters. I remember telling my husband that it was that constant sadness that ended up being the worst part about having Luke. He said, “Don’t feel bad for those people; they love their kids, they have their joys, who are you to pity them? Besides, that’s what your friends feel when they see you.” Whoa. Did he really think that? No way.
A little more than a year had passed and I was pregnant again. We had moved into a beautiful house with four bedrooms (high hopes for more kids) and were getting used to life with Luke. Unfortunately, my husband, who worked for the Dallas Stars at the time, lost his job when the NHL players went on strike. At that point we realized we had overreached on the big house so we put it back on the market and my husband began to look high and low for another job. Time passed and fortunately we sold the house, but still no job. We moved into a small rental and waited for the new baby.
Right before the baby came, I had a friend over for lunch. She too was expecting a little girl that summer. She had had difficulty conceiving so she was overjoyed at the prospect of her first baby. I told her it was quite auspicious that we were having our babies that year, if one is to subscribe to Eastern superstitions. It was the Year of the Monkey, the luckiest year to be born. “As a matter of fact,” I told my friend, “with the one child policy in China, I have heard that some people wait until the Year of the Monkey to have their child so he could have the best chance for a lucky life.” I had no idea if it was true, but I had heard it. Then I remembered, “Hey! It must be true! I was born in the Year of the Monkey, and look how lucky I am!” Well this sweet woman couldn’t mask her confusion–I could see a look of shock and pity and really a touch of horror flash across her face as she tried to make sense of my words. Since I first met her upon moving to Dallas, I had lost a great job, had to trade in my dream house for a crappy rental, had a child with Down syndrome and had a husband who lost his job, and all this was countered with exactly zero good luck. My poor friend had no idea what I was talking about, and obviously felt sorry for me for being such an idiot.
But I wasn’t being an idiot. I knew all the troubles I had, but I also knew how bad things could be. Simply having gotten past the initial shock of Luke’s diagnosis was a reason for joy, but I also knew all the horrors of drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, helplessness and despair that I had witnessed as a child in the suburbs of New York, and still witnessed went I went back home. I knew that having escaped what seemed to be a trap of self-destruction to which so many of the bright but wayward people I knew had succumbed, I was on easy street. I knew that compared with the vast majority of the 125 billion people who had ever been born, I was one of the very luckiest. I knew that being able to say and think and do what I wanted was something to be grateful for, and I knew especially that having the ability to get up in the morning and take care of myself and my responsibilities made me very lucky indeed. Still, my friend thought me a fool; yet it’s that very foolishness for which I am most grateful: I am most grateful for being more aware of what I have than what I’m missing.
I often look back at this encounter to remind myself that even amidst life’s difficulties there can be joy, and that the heart of that joy may simply be a sincere appreciation for one’s share of God’s gifts whatever that may be at the moment.