11. Joy

By the time I was 32 years old, I’d spent four years behind the walls at Annapolis, completed three tours in a war zone, moved a dozen times, finished business school, cared for my mother who was dying of ALS and had three children with my wife in three and a half years. I felt like I’d been ground to the nub. And I was ready for the part of life that was supposed to be fun. That’s when my son was diagnosed. Tolstoy was right about families. The happy ones may all be the same. But the unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way.

My family wasn’t unhappy because of any of the laundry list of hard things we’d gone through. My wife was too strong to let it beat her. And my kids were kids; inherently happy. My family was unhappy for a much simpler reason. I was in it. I really only knew one way to get through hard things. I put my head down, grit my teeth and gutted it out. I told myself that one day we’d get through this. That the train would pull into the station. And all would be well. Until then though, I was going to be a miserable son of a bitch. And that’s just the way it was going to be.

I didn’t realize one of the great iron truths about life. There is no station. Just tracks; tracks as far as you’ll ever see. The cold reality of my son’s diagnosis and the increasingly clear and permanent burden of special needs parenting actually helped a bit. My son’s diagnosis destroyed the idea of a station. I had no choice but to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that that we would never pull in. And that this may never get easy. With that truth came a reckoning. And a lesson about the nature of joy.

For most of my life, I’d mistaken a few things. I thought relaxation came from easy things. I thought peace came from quiet. And I confused joy for fun. With a lot of patience from a wife that never quit on me, friends who knew better from their own hard walks and the towering strength of faith, I learned a few things:

Peace comes from knowing God, or whatever version of higher power applies. Relaxation comes from aligning your internal expectations with your external realities. And joy comes from purpose. For me, that purpose was serving my family. Once you make your peace with all that, you’re pretty hard to beat.

One of the great regrets that I have is what I missed during the years when I faced the hard things in life by keeping my head down and my powder dry. The birth of my kids. The joy seeing my wife for the first time in months. The beauty of the simple things in life. I’ll never get any of it back. So do yourself a favor and start where I ended. I’ve learned the lesson for you. And you get no points for rework.

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