My parents were Amish. Got married young, had five kids by the time my mom had turned 31. They were farmers, with cows to milk, fields to sow, gardens to grow.
My oldest brother, Daniel, was born healthy. By his first birthday, he was walking and talking and laughing like any normal one-year old. One day, he was running a fever. The next moment, he was paralyzed and could no longer talk. My parents took him to the doctor, wondering what in the world was happening to their firstborn son. The doctor told my parents that they couldn’t tell what had happened. Take him home and see if he gets better, he said.
They did, but he never got better. He was permanently paralyzed, bound to a wheelchair and unable to talk. I can’t imagine how I would feel if that happened to my one-year-old son. I can’t imagine the stress it would put on my marriage. My mom remembers the days when I was a baby, crying my lungs out, and she couldn’t do anything about it. Daniel would be in severe pain, and she would have to tend to him. All the while, there were cows to milk, fields to sow, gardens to grow. I have no idea how my parents managed it all.
That’s not all. When Daniel was ten, my parents left the Amish, and according to Amish tradition, my parents were shunned from their families. When we lived on the Amish farm, my brother Sam and I would go to the beginning of our lane, where my grandparents lived. They watched us a lot, what with my mom having to take care of Daniel and Dad having to manage the farm. Uncles and aunts and cousins would help out a lot, too. That’s what you do when you’re Amish.
Suddenly, all that family support was gone. We went from a spacious farmhouse to a tiny trailer. Yes, we made new friends, who were amazingly supportive of our family. But still, that’s a lot of stress on a marriage.
There was even more. About a year after we moved, Daniel died unexpectedly. Then, my parents were told that my youngest biological brother, Matthew, just a baby, had the same disease that Daniel had, and could become paralyzed any day, just like Daniel had. I remember several all-nighters when baby Matthew was sick, and my parents knew that at any moment he could become paralyzed, just like what had happened to Daniel when he was sick.
But my parents were like a rock. They prayed for Matthew like you have never seen someone pray. I’m sure they argued, but the memory of them raising their voices at each other is just not there. Instead, I remember the warmth of a close-knit family, with lots of smiles and good times. Through all of those unhappy circumstances, the idea that they would divorce was as likely as the idea that my Amish grandparents would get a Facebook account: it wasn’t happening. You could call that nostalgia if you want. I just remember it as my childhood.
I’m not sure there was ever a time that my parents said this to me and my siblings, but what I know now is that they may not have always felt happy, but they had something that neither death nor sickness nor shunning could take away: joy. That joy didn’t just come to them, like a happy feeling comes to you when you hear your favorite song. That joy was cultivated, over time and through repeated choices and their reliance on God. They were looking for a happiness more lasting than happy feelings; they were in pursuit of the happiness that isn’t dependent on circumstances.
At any moment, either my mom or dad could have said, “You’ve only got one life to live, and you’ve got to make it a happy one. This is not a happy life, and I’m outta here.” But that’s not at all what they thought. They were focused on cultivating joy, through good times and bad.
I’m glad my parents thought like this. Their joy through trying times gave me a deep security through my childhood—a sense of trust and lasting-ness that I think every child wants. Their joy gave me joy. I remember the night Daniel died in our living room, my mom telling my brother and me that Daniel was now in heaven, dancing and singing like he couldn’t here on earth. And at that thought, I had joy—a deep gladness that leaped even death.
A happy marriage is fine, but I think happy feelings are way overrated. Through a loving for-better-or-worse marriage, I want to give my children the joy and security and love I felt the night my brother died.