Having children with special needs doesn’t necessarily turn parents into unhappy people, no more than being a millionaire makes someone a happy person. I wouldn’t turn down the chance to be a millionaire of course, nor would I turn down the chance for my children to have been born without disabilities, but since neither is going to happen, I’m not holding my breath.
In Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” elderly protagonist, Pearl Tull is 85 and dying. Her husband abandoned the family when their three children were young, and she was left to raise them alone.
Pearl wasn’t always the best mother; she got angry, and on one occasion, pulled her daughter’s hair and dumped a plate of peas over her son’s head. She was proud and prideful and put on a stoic face, never talking about her salesman husband who went out to work and never came back.
Her children stuck close by her, though, particularly Ezra who never left home. As her eyesight faded, she would have him look through photographs and describe them, or read from her old diaries. Unbeknownst to Ezra, there was something she was waiting to hear.
And near the end of the book, before Pearl died, she got what she wanted, proof that she’d had at least a moment of happiness as a young girl, of which she’d been aware. Of all things, she was kneeling in the dirt, pulling weeds. Ezra read:
“…was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel, and all at once thought, ‘Why I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy’. The Bedloe girl’s piano scales were floating out her window and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don’t care what else might come about, I have had this moment. It belongs to me.”
Tyler has a way of transforming the ordinary to something larger than life, but she is not alone. In the 2001 movie “Life as a House,” Kevin Kline is George Monroe, a divorced man diagnosed with terminal cancer. He wants to get closer to his rebellious 16-year-old son, Sam, and asks him to stay with him for the summer; George keeps his diagnosis a secret, and as might be expected with a rebellious child, there are plenty of squabbles.
Despite his troubles, George has a happy moment and reveals it to his ex-wife, Robin, and Sam:
“A thought struck me, I’m happy today. And I was trying to remember when the last time was that I felt like this. I remember one time for sure. I was with Sam, saving him from the waves. I could feel his heart pounding against my chest. I remember I kissed his hair, just before it was blue.”
Sam shoots back with, “You haven’t been happy in 10 years?”
Art imitates life. Happiness is fleeting and sometimes it’s looking back on the seemingly uneventful times, the daily routines, that we realize we were happy.