In July of 2013, my two-year-old son was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Ten days later, I delivered twin daughters. Outside Sam’s hospital room, just moments after receiving his fatal diagnosis, my husband, Mike, and I vowed to do everything in our power to make Sam happy.
At first, we sought happiness in the rare, in the extravagant, in the exclusive. We watched whale sharks glide through impossibly large tanks on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Atlanta aquarium, sparred with Captain Hook at a character breakfast in Disney World, roared at the marble lions that stood watch over the opulent pools at the Ritz Carleton in Puerto Rico, and reverently petted the real bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Natural History Museum in New York. We chased experience to numb the pain, to distract ourselves from the insidious truths gnawing away at our insides like pirana: Sam had inoperable cancer; he would likely not live a year. Alcohol became a big part of this strategy. A glass or four of red wine melted our reality into something I could swallow, if only momentarily.
After more than a year of seeking happiness by minimizing pain, by numbing difficult emotions, by distracting ourselves, I found myself nearly incapable of joy. Every smile was feigned, every laugh merely air pushed out of lungs at the moment social convention dictated.
I needed a new strategy for finding happiness. To my surprise, I found one when time, money, and exhaustion limited our ability to seek extravagant experiences. I stopped seeking the rare and starting seeing the little miracles offered in the beautiful monotony of everyday life: Sam watching cartoons with his sisters, making friends with the neighborhood kids, attending preschool, coloring, stacking, climbing, laughing.
Today, on the fifth anniversary of his death, I honor Sam by remembering one day I was able to see, a day that I was present for both immense joy and deep sadness.
I roll the vibrant blue balloon off the rippled, metal edge of the hose — carefully so as not to pierce the delicate rubber — knot the end, and softly squeeze it before placing it in the bucket. I smile proudly, knowing I added the perfect amount of water, stretching the rubber enough to guarantee it will burst with firm impact but not so much that it will explode in your hand. Over the summer, Mike and I became water-balloon-filling experts.