What if Life is Wiser Than You?

Success, failure and trying are the topics for discussion here.  But there’s a deeper issue.

I think it’s time for another story.

Four years before I was born, my oldest sister died of leukemia.   She was eight.

I was born into a family with History.  And a very different perspective than probably most of yours.   Adding to that History and that Perspective,  a year after Patty died, my sister Eileen was born.  She had Down Syndrome.

Now, when you ask just about any expectant parent if they want a boy or a girl, most of them will smile and say “I don’t care, just so long as the baby’s healthy.”  Meaning not just born without a cold, but with all the fingers and toes in the right place, the requisite number of chromosomes and not one more.  Which is as it should be.  We want our children to get the best start in life.  We wouldn’t wish extra challenges or disabilities on anyone.

And yet.

And yet I am the person I am today because I was lucky enough to have Eileen for my sister.  She taught me compassion and joy and the importance of a really great pair of shoes.  I learned different definitions of success and failure from her.  I learned not to hold back my joy or my affection.

She had an ability to focus on the good that still takes my breath away.

Life was not easy for Eileen.  People are not always kind.  But she scolded the people who needed scolding, ignored those who were not worth her time and loved the rest of us fiercely and well.

A child with a disability is not what any parent would choose.  We would avoid that, as we would avoid illness and unemployment.  We plan for our interpretation of the best and call it a success when we get there.

And yet.

And yet it’s the times that life sandbags us that we see what we can truly become.  Or what others can truly become for us.  It’s the wabi-sabi people with their wabi-sabi lives who make this a world worth living in.

I would never choose those moments of crisis and grief.  No one would.  You make plans for happy Christmas dinners and great vacations, not gathering the family in hospital corridors or down at the police station.

And yet.

And yet without these moments we are nothing.  We are merely successes.

It’s not that I don’t make plans, that I don’t try to move my life in directions that seem like a  good idea to me.  I apply for good jobs.  This week alone, I’ve been a job-applying machine.  And if any one of those tantalizing possibilities works out, then yay me!  There are times when I can rock a To Do list with the best of them.

Making plans and getting things done are fine, are great.  They’re what you do to fill the time between the really big adventures.  But life sends you opportunities, moments that strip away your defences and your successes, that leave you wide open and heart-broken and amazed.  And it seems to me the height of arrogance to think that my plans, my ideas for how life should be are wiser than that,  are wise enough to rely on.

Eileen died thirteen years ago.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and miss her.  I’m still learning the lessons that she taught me.  And she is probably why I cannot ever fully get behind any kind of lifestyle design/productivity/reach for the stars stuff.  People say that your life is of your making and I hear Eileen’s gleeful snort of laughter.

Yes, you CAN build your ideal life, but no matter how big your dreams, I think it will still be a small life. You can ask: what do I want my life to be?   But what if life is wiser than you?


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13 Responses to What if Life is Wiser Than You?

  1. heidi says:

    Amen, Barb. The tears are cleansing ones right now. Thanks for your story.

  2. Barb says:

    Thank you, Heidi. I hope the tears bring healing, too.

  3. Alice O'Connor says:


    We have a 17 year old son, Colin, who has Down Syndrome. He is the joy of our family and is thriving in Grade 12 at St. Mike’s. Thank you for sharing your story. Life with Colin is grand and we all go along doing what any family does – then BANG, – some little thing happens – it can be good or bad, and my eyes well (like now). Mostly the things are good and we are very grateful to live in such a wonderful and caring community here in Stratford.

    • Barb says:

      I know how the eyes can well, Alice. It’s an indescribable feeling.

      I’m so glad that Colin is doing so well. And, yes, Stratford is an amazing community to live in.

      Thank you.

  4. Margie says:

    I have never heard about Patty! Isn’t that strange? The most amazing part of this story is the fortitude of Queenie and Cliff. We don’t write our own stories…life does that. Who knew I would have a child with mental illness or that you and Alan would not have children? We can decide to be happy and make the best of what life gives us. We can decide, like Queenie and Cliff to carry on despite challenges and sorrow. (Patty… age 8) Eileen knew how to do it. She had it figured out. So lucky that you had her.

  5. Barb says:

    Absolutely, Margie! Eileen was one of the greats and my parents were truly remarkable people.
    I didn’t know that you have a child with a mental illness, you didn’t know about Patty… the things we learn from blogging!
    Thanks so much.

  6. Douglass says:

    Thich Nhat Hanh taught me to understand that our life is the way we experiment with truth.
    I think that is as wise as we should ever aspire to be, Barb.
    A friends mother posted a photo on FB once, of some kids at a school for challenged kids in a far off place where these kids don’t have many options. My friends mother belongs to a group that raises money to keep this little school running. But it’s the photo.
    I’ll call him Benny, a beautiful boy of maybe 11 or 12 and he’s holding this red balloon. His smile is so large.
    His eyes had this flashing red glow, the sort of thing we see all the time
    in those photos at parties where the effect of the flash gives us all devil eyes. But I kept looking at it because the flash of red didn’t quite look right.
    And the more I looked, the clearer it became: that red flash wasn’t the effect of the camera.
    It was the reflection of the red balloon in this smiling boys so deeply alive and curious eyes.
    There is so much truth and so much wisdom — that is, so much life — in that boys eyes, in the wonder of the balloon.
    Benny — I’ll call him Benny because I love that name — challenges and humbles me.
    Thank you for reminding me to be challenged and humble, Barb.

  7. Barb, I’m so glad you left a comment on my blog. That comment brought me over here to this wonderful post. It truly is the challenging moments and times that give our lives meaning.

  8. Beverley McCormack says:

    Beautiful, Barb – thank you for writing that. Life is what it is and the more we enjoy what is, the happier and better life will be. We can’t know what gifts will come from even the most difficult situations until experience tells us.

    One of my favourite authors, Martha Beck, wrote a book called Expecting Adam about her pregnancy with her Down Syndrome son Adam, a wonderful book. And she frequently writes and talks of the joy and expansion he has brought to her family.

    Being open to life bring us growth and many other wonderful things.

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