The Small Kindnesses

Brookline Tab, January 2001

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With all due respect to the Count, I completely disagree. Unhappiness may come in many shapes and forms, but happiness does, too, and happy families may not look at all the way one would expect.

When misfortune strikes a family, it alters them forever. Lose a job, and you will never feel as secure on the job as you once were. Lose a spouse, and you spend a lot of time—whether consciously or unconsciously—wondering why it happened and how to prevent such loss from ever happening again. If something is wrong with your child, the same is true: you no longer can take family life for granted. You can’t. The finest illusion a parent can harbor — that of a child’s infinite perfection — is forever shattered the moment your child is diagnosed. A certain innocence is lost, and a new consciousness, gained. You no longer view the world in quite the same way. You begin to develop a heightened sense of protection of that child, and with it, a wariness about the world around you, for you have suddenly become an advocate, an expert, in addition to being a parent. And something else you must learn, though you may not know it then, is how to be happy once again, in spite of it all.

When my son was first diagnosed, eight years ago now, I thought that nothing could be worse. I reeled from the shock, while at the same time, felt soothed by finally understanding. I grieved, while I educated myself. Then I slowly dealt with a more subtle nasty surprise, which was that I could no longer simply trust those in charge. I had to come to grips with a glaring truth in the adult world: everyone has their own agenda. True evil may be rare; but agendas are everywhere. Program administrators may not reveal everything available to your child. Specialists did not always make accurate recommendations. Teachers do not or cannot deal with your child. State government underfunds programs, mismanages them, and then alters the law so that there’s even less protection for those people than before.

Yet, along with the heartwrenching realization that things are not what you expected or hoped for, you begin to develop a greater appreciation for kindness and good when it occurs. It is unexpected and unpredictable. It may come in the shape of a teacher who not only understands your child, but actually enjoys him. It may come in the form of a doctor who runs overtime with you just to make sure you understand what’s going on; or the employer who allows you to work many days from home when things get tough.

During that terrible time last spring, when my son was without a school program, good fortune came in the form of Leslie, our tutor. Our family could have hit rock bottom and broken apart. But we knew that we would have to pull together during this time, and we kept telling ourselves it would not last forever. Leslie gave me back me family life, and what’s more, she helped my son progress again. She set things right within a couple of hours of working with him. She understood the approach he needed and we began to see him settle down and start learning again. “He’s incredibly smart,” she told me, smiling, “Just needs to know who’s boss.” Leslie’s deft touch with my son, with all of us, put us back on firm ground because we could rest, regroup, and function as a family again. And that is all it takes to be happy. Recognizing the lovely, tiny good deeds, knowing your priorities, and being able to go on together: that is what makes life livable, and allows a family who might look pretty war-torn, to actually be happy. Misfortune is inevitable and ubiquitous, but it does not have to define us.