11/17/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The Secret to Well-Being


For much of my hurried and hectic life, I searched for the secret to well-being. I read hundreds of books and studied all of the great gurus of the day. But somehow, the secret alluded me; until my life took an unexpected turn and the secret was revealed to me by the most unlikely of teachers.

I was 38 years old when I had my third child, Ben. My other two, Kaitlyn and Donovan, I had when I was in my twenties and still blissfully unaware of all the things that could possibly go wrong. But by my late thirties, I had worked for more than a decade as an Educational Psychologist, and much of my work involved working with kids who have special needs. I was aware that about one in 10 children have a diagnosis of some kind, such as learning disabilities, autism or ADHD. That made me worry that maybe this baby would not be born, "perfect" like his brother and sister. I prayed, "Dear God, if it is your will that I have a child with special needs, then let your will be done. But I beg of you, please do NOT give me a child with autism. Those kids are so cold and unfeeling." And God replied, "Florence, do I have a lesson in store for you!"

When Ben was born, I was over the moon with happiness! Eight pounds of beautiful, healthy baby perfection. I know you are not supposed to compare your kids, but I couldn't help but to sneak a peek into Kaitlyn's and Donovan's baby books, just to see how Ben measured up. On all the important things, like rolling over and taking his first steps, he was right on par I remember for Ben's first Christmas I gave him this little doctor's kit. I secretly hoped that he would grow up to be a doctor, like his dad. But by Ben's second Christmas, I started to notice some peculiar behaviors. Rather than put his trucks on the floor, and go "vroom, vroom", like most little boys do, he would turn them over and just spin the wheels, over and over. He had not spoken a single word at 2 years old, but what concerned me most was how distant and withdrawn he was. Ben never came to me looking for attention. He seemed to prefer to be on his own and do his own thing. In many ways, Ben really did appear to be "in a world of his own."

So when Ben was diagnosed with autism just days before his third birthday, it didn't come as a shocker to me. But still, it was devastating news. In some ways, it felt like a death. Although Ben was still physically with me, all the hopes and dreams that I had for his future were suddenly gone. I was no longer concerned with whether or not Ben might grow up to be a doctor I had more pressing concerns now! Like, would he ever talk? Would he ever be toilet trained? Would he ever have a friend?

For the next three years, I devoted myself to Ben. I was determined to fix his autism! I learned how to administer his various therapies, and I started to view nearly every moment that we spent together as an opportunity for therapy. We weren't just throwing rocks in the water, we were working on his motor skills. We weren't just blowing soap bubbles, we were developing his oral-motor skills. I wasn't just giving Ben a bat. I was teaching him important self-help skills. In some ways, my hard work paid off. Ben's skills were slowly developing, but I couldn't shake that feeling that if I suddenly just disappeared off the face of the planet, that Ben wouldn't even notice.

Then, three years ago, something happened that completely turned our worlds upside down. I was 44 and Ben was 6 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As you can imagine, "fixing" Ben's autism, was no longer at the top of my list of priorities. I was in survival mode! Over the next year, as I underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I did not have the time nor the energy to devote to Ben's therapy. We would still go for walks on the beach and throw rocks in the water, but we did it just for the sake of seeing the splash. Rather than force Ben to blow soap bubbles, I just let him enjoy the bubbles that I blew. And I started to see bath time as an opportunity for play, not therapy. I can honestly say, that for the first time since Ben was diagnosed with autism, I was truly and completely... present... with him. No hidden agendas, not trying to fix him, just present. And that is when Ben started to come out of his world, and into mine.

Although Ben could not talk at 6 years old, he could read and use a computer. While I was going through cancer treatments, he would type up notes and bring them to me; notes with messages like "mom is sick" or "mom is hurt." I was completely blown away! I really did not think this kid was even capable of understanding how sick I was. Other times he would bring me notes with messages like, "Dear mom, you are nice," or "Dear mom, I love you." Those notes let me know that not only did he understand, but he cared. Although Ben still appeared in many ways to be in a world of his own, these little gestures let me know that he was very much aware of what was happening in my world. I realized that if I suddenly did disappear, he would care!

I learned many valuable life lessons the year I was battling cancer, but the greatest lesson was taught to me by Ben. When I stopped worrying about Ben's future and trying to fix his autism, and simply enjoyed being present with my little boy, it brought both of us a sense of peace and well-being. When I let go of worry about my future with cancer, and focused on healing in the present moment, this also brought peace. Finally, the lesson I longed for was made clear to me by a little boy: the secret to well-being lies in being present!