He had curious brown eyes, chubby cheeks, and dark hair. He was probably about seven or eight years old. I will call this boy Nate. This little boy changed my outlook on life today. He did not intend to, of course, but he did in the best of ways.
Nate is autistic--or something along those lines. He lives in a bubble that no person can seem to get inside of, and somehow he is still happy. Starting in 2017, I volunteered at a Therapeutic Horseback Riding Center for a few hours. At the riding center, we helped riders with either emotional, mental, or physical ailments they needed to work through, using horses. Often times, it takes a lot of emotional energy, especially with the non-verbal children. There is always a volunteer who monitors the child while riding (a sidewalker) and another volunteer monitors the horse (lead). During the summer of 2017 I was Nate’s sidewalker every Tuesday at three o’clock.
Every week, before the hard work began, Nate’s physical therapist would play a song by Pharrell Williams: “Happy.” This song had been played on the radio far too often, to the point that it was annoying. I hated this song, but Nate loved it. As the first few notes played, his face would light up like a Christmas tree. He would sit up straighter and laugh, then beat his chest repeatedly. The first time I saw him do this, I was worried he was going to fall straight out of the saddle by spooking the horse, Thor, but Thor seemed to carry Nate with a different tenderness than some of the other children. Seeing this unfold weekly, left me awestruck. Nate could not use words to speak, but somehow we all understood his joy… it radiated off of him and affected the rest of us to the point that we would all laugh and sing along with him.
At the time I was Nate’s sidewalker, I knew happiness to the extent that most of us do. I knew it was a good feeling that was sought after, but was not always attainable. I believed healing was a choice and happiness was a gift.
I often found myself wondering: did Nate know what the song lyrics said? Did he understand the music, or did he just like the beat? In my mind, his life was so sad. I thought his autism would get in the way of his future, robbing him of a normal life. How could he love a song that preached that “happiness is a truth” (Williams)? How could he believe that about his life? Yet here this child was, dancing atop his horse, giggling and beaming.
It was hard to imagine Nate being anything but joyous. Even though volunteers are not supposed to get attached to clients, I grew to love Nate. I began to see that happiness was as much of a choice as waking up in the morning, and that the Autism would not ruin Nate’s future. He was normal, Nate normal.
On the last day of the summer session, I told Nate’s father that he was the sweetest little boy I had ever met. His father looked down at his son, nodded, and then smiled. “He’s a happy kid,” he said quietly.
I haven't seen Nate since, but every once in a while a certain song will begin to play and I will know that somewhere a little boy is laughing. Instead of changing the station, I turn it up as high as I can (without breaking the speakers). The song reminds me every day to see life through Nate’s eyes: to choose happiness even when my skies are bleak. After all, “Happiness is a truth”(Williams).