Thursday, June 19, 1997

Choose to be happy

"Those who wish to sing always find a song."

I'm not sure who wrote those words, but I like the thought they express. I tend to believe that life is what we make of it, that "destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice", that our circumstances can only control us if we allow them to. And so, I believe with every fiber of my being that happiness is a choice. That's right, you can be happy simply by choosing to be happy. It doesn't matter how deep in debt you are; it doesn't matter how many health problems you have or how serious they are; it doesn't matter what your mother-in-law is like; it just doesn't matter -- period! You can be happy simply by choosing to be happy.

I have philosophically accepted this idea for a long time, but let me tell you how I have recently become absolutely convinced of its undeniable truth. Just over three months ago, my wife and I sat outside the CAT scan room at Children's Medical Center in Dallas at 2:30 on a Sunday morning, and listened with disbelief as a doctor told us that our 9-year-old daughter Ashley had a brain tumor. The sense of shock and horror and numbness and denial that hit us like a ton of bricks when we heard those words, simply defies adequate description. I remember hearing Susan say several times during those first few days, "It's like this is all just a bad dream." The only problem was, we weren't waking up.

In the short time that it took the doctor to utter those words, "Your daughter has a brain tumor," our world was completely, instantly, irreversibly turned upside down. The next few weeks were filled with tests, surgeries, doctors, nurses, medicines, and lots of nights spent sleeping (or trying to sleep) in uncomfortable positions in hospital rooms, with all sorts of gadgets hanging off of the walls and rolling around beeping on poles with wheels. For six weeks, we drove to Dallas every weekday for Ashley to receive radiation treatments. After each of her first two treatments, she became violently ill in reaction to the radiation. We were helpless. We had to just sit there and watch as her body convulsed mercilessly. We wiped her forehead in-between heaves for the duration of the two-hour-long episodes. Finally, her extreme nausea and vomitting were controlled with a relatively new, and quite expensive, drug.

Then her hair fell out. Susan and the kids had traveled down to the Austin area for the weekend to visit grandmothers. A dear friend, who had been Ashley's first grade teacher in Georgetown, french-braided Ashley's hair.

The next night, back at home in Waxahachie, Ashley asked Susan to take her hair down because the braids were bothering her. As Susan worked the braids loose, Ashley's hair began coming out in huge clumps. By the time Susan was through, Ashley had almost no hair left on her head. She was devastated. She went back into her room and cried. I walked back there, my heart aching unbearably. I couldn't think of a word to say that would ease her pain, so I just sat there gently stroking her.

She learned to deal quite remarkably with the hair loss, and with the patch that she still wears over one eye because of the double vision that has troubled her for three months now. She handled the remainder of her radiation treatments beautifully. She is at summer camp this week, and then goes back into the hospital next week to begin the next phase of treatment, where her body will begin to be introduced to four very powerful chemotherapy drugs that will hopefully kill any remaining cancer cells over the next year. The only bad thing is that these drugs also have the potential to cause some rather serious side effects.

So why am I telling you all this? Let me try to explain. I am not seeking your pity. I don't want people feeling sorry for us. Our lives are blessed in so many ways. We have so much for which to be thankful. There is MUCH joy and laughter in our lives. Yes, you read that correctly. We LAUGH a LOT. We are happy! Hey, that reminds me of what I was talking about at first! You see, we are faced with a set of circumstances that we would not have chosen if we had been given the option. But we weren't given the option. The circumstances are here, so we have to deal with them. However, there are certain options that we DO have.

Ashley has cancer. We can be miserable and walk around with a poor-pitiful-us-look-at-what-we-have-to-go-through attitude; or we can be happy and decide to go ahead and laugh and have fun anyway. We simply choose to be happy and laugh and have fun. Did that make the cancer go away? Nope. Did that keep her hair from falling out? Nope. Did that cause her vision to return to normal? Nope. But I'll tell you what our decision does do. It makes the cancer, and the hair loss, and the double vision, and this whole big mess that we are having to go through ... a whole lot EASIER to go through.

Now I'm gonna get religious on you for just a minute (sorry, it's an occupational hazard!). God never promised us that life would be peachy keen and trouble-free if we followed Him. What He did promise us, in Romans 8:28, is that He could take ANYTHING that happens to us, good or bad, and make good stuff come from it.

Is Ashley's cancer a good thing? Nope. Can something good come from it? You better believe it! We have already seen that happen, and are continuing to see it happen on a regular basis.

So, it's your choice. Problems are going to come around and visit you. That's a given. The money will run out before the month does. You will get sick. If you get married, you will have a mother-in-law. (By the way, just in case anyone is wondering, I have a WONDERFUL mother-in-law!) The cat will have fleas, the baby will puke all over your best Sunday clothes, your brand new car will get a ding or scratch right where everyone can see it. And someone you love will probably get cancer. And even when all of those things happen on the same day, you can be happy if you want to be.

It's that simple!

Paul O'Rear is a resident of Waxahachie and serves as youth minister to the College Street Church of Christ. He and his wife Susan have two children, Ashley and Justin.