When T first came to live with me, he would preface a lot of his actions by asking, “Will that make you happy, Amy?”
If I told him to brush his teeth he’d ask, “Will that make you happy, Amy?” Or if I said it was time to pick up his toys he’d wonder, “Will that make you happy, Amy?” And if he did something unprovoked, like clear his own dishes from the table, he’d add, “Wow, Amy—I bet that made you happy.”
At first, I didn’t know how to respond. But within a week I knew I needed to address his refrain. So I started to repeat the question back to him, “Will it make you happy?” He mechanically answered, “Yes!” every time. But he eventually found ways to dodge my question and put it back on me.
“I’m just wondering, Amy: will this make you happy?”
So I decided to be more direct. “I don’t really like letting other people’s actions decide if I’m going to be happy,” I explained. “I’d rather choose for myself. It’s up to me! I choose if I’m going to be happy. My happiness doesn’t change based on what you do.”
I said that enough times that he started to get the idea. Whenever he would ask if his actions would make me happy, I’d just say, “T, what makes me happy?”
And in a ho-hum-I-get-the-point kind of tone he’d say, “You choose if you want to be happy.”
Within a few months, his question stopped.
The fact that he asked the question at all was heartbreaking. And I’m under no illusion that my explanation actually helped. As he gained comfort and security in my home, he worried less about how his actions impacted me.
Plus, let’s be honest: as nice of an idea as it is, and as much as it’s an ideal I strive for, I often fall short. T’s actions often make me the very opposite of happy. In fact, I often choose to let his actions make me very upset.
But then there are the times he makes me so deeply thankful for his presence in my life that my heart aches in the best kind of way.
Like when I recently had a string of bad days. T could tell I was not myself, and he readily offered extra hugs and kind words. One day he walked into the room and just handed me this note:
He even told me about a time he was feeling sad. “Well, Amy,” he said, “I sure didn’t like how that felt. So I hope you feel better soon, because I bet you don’t like how it feels, either.” The hugs and notes and stories were intentional. In those moments I try to soak up his compassion, and I stand in awe of his ability to empathize, despite his own trauma. He truly is an amazing kid.
And as much as I love those intentional moments, a few days later it was just his very being that helped me choose joy.
I was in tears, talking to my mom on the phone as I pulled up to his daycare at the end of a long day. I took a few minutes to compose myself before I went inside.
After checking in with T’s teacher, we walked back out together, and T was taking frantically about his day. This is common for him. He talks wildly and says my name frequently. I’ve learned to tune a lot of this chatter out.
“And, Amy! I had a good day! It was a great day! And, Amy! I was pumping water at the water table, and I got to ride the city bus! Did you see that kid in there, Amy? I don’t remember his name. But, Amy! He and I are best friends. Really! Best friends! And, Amy! I got to play on the iPad today. I earned it. And, Amy! Did you know I found a rock and a stick? I’m not supposed to pick up sticks. That’s because sometimes I hit people with them, you know? Which is a bad choice. But I didn’t do that today. And, Amy…”
The non-stop commentary halted. T stopped in his tracks, looked at me, and said, “Let’s stand right here and smell these flowers, okay, Amy? It’s good to stop and smell the flowers, don’t you think?”
He asked if I would like to smell the yellow ones and decided he would like to smell the white ones. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and then went right back into his non-stop narrative as I stood there fighting back more tears.
“You’re right, buddy,” I interrupted him. “That is a really good thing to do. Stopping to smell flowers is good. It’s good to notice things like flowers. It makes me happy. Thanks.”