As a child, I loved books, and characters looked and felt as you imagined them to be. Television and
movies were different. They established the world’s real rules on looks: Heroes were strong and
rugged, heroines slim and lovely. On television, little girls watched young women compete to
become beauty queens.

Few important characters in films or on television were plain, let alone what my mother would have
called homely, and they never had big parts or romantic relationships. No one my parents’ age or
older seemed to do anything interesting; they certainly never fell in love or had adventures.

I was stunned as an adult when I joined other parents at a children’s film described as a quirky fairy
tale, Shrek.  The heroine, Princess Fiona, was a willowy redhead by day and a heavyset ogre at
night. Her curse would be lifted when she shared true love’s first kiss. Nothing dramatically
remarkable until her true love proved to be the grumpy, gassy ogre named Shrek. He didn’t turn into
a handsome prince when they finally kissed. She remained an ogre, for that was, for her, “love’s
true form.”

As children, all of us dreamed of our life’s true shape. Although dreams differed, most of ours
included good health, love of family and friends, if not also a life partner and children, pets that
loved us unconditionally, and a comfortable life style. Many of us had a dream job.

I had lots of dreams and plans, and many came true. I wanted to become a doctor, and I pressed
my way through an elite college in three years to get to medical school faster.  My best friend in
college became my boyfriend and then my husband.

My life dream died quite suddenly, when a speeding car kicked a chunk of jackhammered-up paving
into my head several months after I received my medical degree.  I lost five years before I got an
accurate diagnosis of post-traumatic brain injury and epilepsy, started medication, and functioned
well enough to hold a professional position again, this time in medical publishing.

Yet, like Shrek in the sequel movie I saw tonight, “Shrek forever after,” I missed what I had lost and
didn’t appreciate what I had. In his case, he lost a life of solitude and ability to intimidate simply
by existing, but he gained a wife who adored him, three small triplets (OK, I can sympathize there),
and friends who never wanted to be far from him.

In my case, I had a husband who loved me even when I couldn’t easily love myself, the ability to
write, both to express what I had to say and to find what I had to say, the desire to make a
difference by helping people, and a mind sufficiently well that I could pursue new dreams.

Our only child was two when he was diagnosed with autism and the first of other medical problems.
Someone told me I shouldn’t want to trade my life for someone else’s because I didn’t know what
tragedies theirs held. I bitterly thought theirs (whoever they were) couldn’t be much worse than

How foolish. I shouldn’t trade my life for someone else’s or for what I once wanted mine to be, not
because there might be something worse, but because I might lose the wondrous things I actually

I have a 28-year marriage to my first (and last) boyfriend, who still shares mint chocolate chip ice
cream in the tub on splurge nights, who loved cats because I did and then accepted multiple dogs
when we got one to make him happy and I discovered their addictive power. He doesn’t share my
second-half life dream of purebred dogs and dog shows, but he goes when I go and holds down a
stressful home and high-demand parenthood when I take trips to dog friends.

We have a wonderful, sunny tempered son, who loves us, loves life, and wiggles his way into the
hearts of almost everyone who works with him. He does think we are made of money, but
fortunately he is happy at discount stores and second-hand shops as long as he gets to give the
money to the cashier.

Over the years, I have learned to help people get better health care and find a way to live life that
includes but is not defined by illness, whether in themselves or in children or other loved ones.
This powerful gift, the ability to serve, did not develop despite my sum of life experiences, but
because of them.

Don’t spend too much time on wishes to trade your life for someone else’s. Every life has darkness.
The lesson of Shrek is that you have to have seen darkness to appreciate light. It is in how we
balance the dark and the light, disappointment and joy, that helps us find our life’s true form.