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Drew Shannon/The Globe and Mail

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If we don’t suffer some hardship, how can we fully appreciate all of the positives in our lives? This idea has always made sense to me, so I’m open to a little shower on my flowers here and there, and I see the value in an occasional curveball sent my way – lessons to be learned and gratitude to be reaffirmed. Sometimes, though, these showers coalesce into more of a deluge. When this happens, when you feel as if you’re drowning in a monsoon of challenges and sadness, it can be really hard to see the sun.

My family is still recovering from the rainy season of the past couple of years. It began with the untimely death of one of my husband’s best friends, then sprinkled in some major family transitions (including a move across the sea), postpartum anxiety, the loss of two beloved pets and health concerns with aging parents. Not necessarily atypical stuff for people in their 40s to face, and we were dealing. But then the bottom dropped out: My teenaged stepson became critically ill. The autoimmune disease, vasculitis, led to kidney failure and an ongoing need for dialysis.

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As anyone who has cared for a chronically sick child or adolescent knows, the stress doesn’t go away. Medications and diet have to be managed, as well as regular medical appointments (in our case, these trips now include a two-hour ferry ride to the mainland from Vancouver Island), plus the worry. So much worry.

My husband and I were exhausted, and it was like we forgot how to communicate – we couldn’t have a simple conversation without fighting and tears. My stepson was resentful of what he felt was my husband’s “policing” of his health and he frequently retreated into the cyber world. Have I mentioned we also have a much-loved (and extremely strong-willed) preschooler? Every day the air carried the heaviness of an approaching storm; our once-happy home had become grim, tense and smileless.

And then it happened…

In a rare event of communication, my stepson and I were discussing Valentine’s gifts. I recalled that his dad gave me a ukulele for our first Valentine’s Day.

“Well, that’s not actually what I gave you on Valentine’s Day,” my husband interjected.

Ah, yes. He had ordered the ukulele and it wasn’t going to arrive on time. Reluctant to be empty-handed, he grabbed the first instrument he figured I wouldn’t have – a kazoo.

My initial reaction to this gift was bemusement, which quickly turned to frustration and embarrassment when I (a professional saxophone player) couldn’t get it to make a sound. The kazoo eventually got packed away in a case and I hadn’t thought of it for years, until this particular evening.

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My stepson was intrigued. It turned out that someone on his school bus had been playing around with a kazoo that day. He wanted to see it. So, I rummaged around in the music room and found it buried in a box of reeds and tin whistles.

“You couldn’t get a sound?” he asked, incredulously, turning it around in his hands. “What’s so hard about it?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just never worked.”

My husband grabbed the kazoo – “It’s easy! Look, you just do this…” – and blew. Nothing happened. Surprised, he tried again. No sound but the whoosh of his breath. “I swear this was easier before!”

“Try humming at the same time,” I suggested.

His overzealous attempt produced an ear-tingling sound that was akin to an angry bumblebee trapped in the mouth of a bear growling through a distorted megaphone. He tried again, and the same thing happened, except louder, because he was getting frustrated.

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My stepson burst into laughter.

Seeing his face light up like that for the first time in almost a year, well, it was exquisite. And contagious. Our toddler looked from his dad to his older brother and chuckled, too, at first hesitantly and then he emitted a stream of delight-filled squeals. Soon we were all laughing to the point of tears.

It was as if the gloom that had settled over our house, our family, had cracked and let in a ray of sunshine. Eyes met and souls reconnected. My stepson took a turn on the kazoo, in mockery of his dad’s attempt. More laughing. A harmonica was added to the mix, much to the interest of the toddler, who quickly assumed responsibility for billowing in and out, in and out, in counterpoint to the grating braying of the kazoo. All the while our effortless, warm laughter overflowed and long-held tension dissolved.

It was the best 10 minutes in the past couple of years.

The mood stayed light for the rest of the evening. Months later, we still chuckle about “the kazoo." It didn’t solve anything. While my stepson recently underwent a successful kidney transplant, his life will always have challenges. But this experience gave us a moment of reprieve that also proved to be a turning point. It showed us that there are still things to laugh at and enjoy, and that we can still connect as a family. There is always light to lead the way out of the storm. Thanks to a humble kazoo, we remembered it was there.

Kelly McQuillan lives in Comox, B.C.

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