“I must not have raised you right. Life is hard. The point of life is not to have fun, but to survive.” And then she hung up.

I was 22, recently graduated from college, and in the first few months of my first public school teaching job. It was so hard. I was determined to provide stimulating, interesting learning experiences for each of the twenty-six children in my third grade classroom in rural North Carolina. I stayed late after school preparing for the next day. I researched, I created sample craft projects, I made instruction sheets for activity centers. I listened to children cry, hurt by real or perceived slights. I noticed bruises and bandaged boo boos. I listened to praise (rarely) and complaints (often) from parents. One night I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of it all. I called my Mom, in tears, saying I just hadn’t realized how hard it would be. Her response? “I must not have raised you right. Life is hard. The point of life is not to have fun, but to survive.” And then she hung up. My roommates were standing nearby, wide-eyed, wondering why I had chosen to call my Mom, of all people. 

I think about that call a lot, Mom. I try so hard to cultivate moments of joy. And I believe you want those moments of joy, too, regardless of what you once told me. 

Joy has taken different forms over the past year. At first, it was:

  • Long walks in the park, commenting on the birds, and the flowers, and the sky
  • Then, walking much shorter distances at the mall, sometimes stopping to purchase something bright and shiny
  • Then, going out to eat, chicken fingers and fries on Saturday, and pizza on Sunday, asking to sit in the same waitress’ sections because they know how you like your hot tea prepared
  • Now, going for drives, without you having the will to eat or the energy to walk

You stare straight forward, eyes half-closed, not seeing. I drive, left hand on the steering wheel, right hand holding yours, our fingers intertwined resting on the corduroy wales of your pants. You absentmindedly trace my fingers, up and down, up and down, not looking, back and forth, back and forth. Every so often I glance to my right, seeing if you’re still awake (you are), seeing if there’s any glimmer of recognition (there isn’t). I play the same playlist every time we get into the car. Occasionally, your fingers will play out the notes on my hand as if you’re playing the piano, or your toes will tap along to the rhythm. After You Are My Sunshine, Amazing Grace, and Take Me Home, Country Roads, you’ll say, “that one, good.” I press the rewind button so that we can hear your favorites again. Sometimes I’ll hear you humming along, or even singing one or two words, small and tinny. I smile and choke back tears.

We have a few routes we drive on, all on windy roads where the maximum speed is 35 mph. You want to be outside, not inside. It doesn’t matter if we talk (we rarely do), or if we drive the same route (we often do). You seem content to simply be. 

It turns out, you were right after all. Life can be hard.