I’m sure there are happier people in the world than our son Matthew, but I have not known many. Matt smiled at the world, and most days it smiled back.
Happy kids are a dime a dozen, which is a blessing to us all, and is part of the reason some of our good friends choose to teach the tiny humans class at their church: sometimes you just need to be around some folks who are less concerned about politics and work and celebrity scandals than they are about where the green crayon went (Timmy ate it) or why Amber’s backpack appears to be leaking something orange onto the floor. Even on the kids’ scale, Matt was an unusually jolly child, despite the fact that he could not walk.
Physically, Matt drew the short straw. Instead of being as hard as concrete, his bones were more like sticks of chalk, which meant that they broke for no real reason. Imagine slapping your hand down on the table and cracking your lower arm, or bending too far forward and breaking your femur. Matt endured more surgeries than I can remember and we quit counting fractures when he was very young. After one major surgery, Matt’s doctor described tightening a wire around one of his vertebra and watching the wire literally cut through the bone. Matt’s journey was anything but typical.
Matt’s condition was physically painful, and each fracture required weeks of recovery. It also meant he could not do many of the things kids want to do, and it sometimes meant that scheduled events didn’t happen, pre-empted by a new cast or a trip to Dallas for another surgery. Sometimes even well-meaning people were part of the problem, like the kind man who leaned down and vigorously patted Matt on his recently fractured arm, or me, when I stood up quickly without realizing Matt was behind me, bumping into him and earning him a ride in an ambulance as well as the pleasure of wearing a neck brace for a couple of hours (his neck turned out to be fine and the ambulance ride was a new adventure for him).
I think people were drawn to Matt because his “ebullient” personality (as he put it) seemed to contrast so starkly with his circumstances. He also brought grins because his advanced vocabulary (words like “ebullient”) seemed so comical coming from the physically small body his condition created, like the reaction you might have to a toddler spouting philosophy (think “E*TRADE baby” and you will get the idea). The picture at the top of this post is Matt, casted up yet again, hanging out with his service dog Hali.
Here are some things I learned from Matt about happiness.
- Part of it is built in (genetic). We all have a happiness ‘set point’ and while we can take steps to become happier, some people are just wired for more joy. We joked that Matt’s brain contained a waterfall of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with happiness. More than once I envied Matt’s joy, and given the option to trade my health for his happiness I would have seriously considered it.
- It’s not about your circumstances. I will grant you the fact that hungry people are less happy (Laura assures me that I make everyone around me less happy when I am hungry), but by most objective measures Matt’s life was indescribably hard, yet he thrived. Americans who visit the developing world for the first time see this first-hand: happiness is only loosely linked to your life’s details. There’s just more to it than that.
- It is infectious. Do you want to be around more happy people? Then be what you want the world to be–people will be drawn to you and will become more like you—and love you for it. I could write for the rest of my life and I’m not sure I would bring as many smiles to as many faces as Matt did.
- A smile can bridge gaps of many kinds. Many people are unsure how to interact with disabled individuals, but with Matt they knew at first glance that they could talk to him and not fear saying the wrong thing. A genuine smile closes many divides and disarms many people.
I don’t know what your legacy is, or what you want it to be. I think I could do a whole lot worse than to say I helped a lot of people smile more.
Matt’s 21st birthday is this week. Four days after that we will mark the fifth anniversary of his death. On Friday I’ll share my journey toward becoming happy again, when I wasn’t sure I ever would.
Here is Matt on ESPN with Mike & Mike. If you don’t have time for the whole thing just jump to 2:10 for a laugh that will make your whole day better.
Some of the amazing people who made Matt’s life easier:
- The Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation (you can read about his condition here)
- Canine Companions for Independence (trained his constant companion who could turn off his room lights, put his clothes in the laundry, and communicate with just a glance that it was past meal time and she was being neglected)
- Texas Scottish Rite Hospital
- Riley Hospital for Children
- Hundreds and hundreds of people who made sure Matt was included, even in events that were tough for someone in a wheelchair. Thank you all.
And here is the E*TRADE baby, keepin it cool.