When I was a young boy all I ever wanted was my parent’s approval. I wanted them to be proud of me, to show an interest in me and to give me enough time to know they cared. As long as I knew they loved me I felt like I could take on the world.

But the world wasn't always kind. I remember moving to Minnesota as a young child. It was my first winter and I was about 9 or 10. During recess a bunch of kids were sledding down an ice-packed hill in their snow pants. I didn't know anyone so I tried to jump in and do what everyone else was doing – hoping to make some friends. I remember being pushed over at the bottom of the icy hill by some boy who felt I didn't belong. As I tried to stand another boy pushed me back down. Within a minute I was surrounded and being kicked and spat upon by a mob of young men who didn't like me for some reason. I tried to crawl up the hill but kept sliding down the packed ice … back into their relentless kicks and a rainfall of saliva and swearwords. 

I don’t remember who those boys were. Even were I asked to identify them at the time I couldn't because I covered my face so it wouldn't be kicked. Thankfully there was never a repeat of that experience. Those boys had their pound of flesh and I slipped back into anonymity. I remember how I felt on the bus ride home. My jacket and snow pants dirty from countless spits, I felt awkward and inside out. I was confused and ashamed. When I got home I quietly went to our laundry room and washed my jacket and pants with hot water and a rag, without my mom knowing what happened. I vowed that day, and every day thereafter, to be kind to others and to love those who were downtrodden. I wasn't angry or vengeful. I only wanted to love more. 

Over the years I forgot about that experience but it forever changed me … and I tried to be kind to everyone. In the end, when we meet our Maker, nothing really counts if we’re unkind. I think many adults forget this. I know some powerful, successful men who beneath their chest thumping and lion-like roars are just insecure boys who never really grew up. They are worse than schoolyard bullies and have forgotten the life lessons we were taught in kindergarten and our childhood sandboxes. What do we really gain if we heap upon us riches at the cost of being good? What do we gain if we create cultures of fear and gossip? Nothing but a brittle and strenuous life … and that is no life at all.

I never wanted my son or other children to go anywhere without a sure knowledge we loved them – because I remembered how much that meant to me. Sweet Mitch was blessed with kind peers. I was so grateful he was never bullied at school or by neighborhood kids. In fact, he often had a gaggle of kids around him, helping him and cheering him on. And with the exception of one short-lived teacher aide a few years ago, who was unkind to him, he was blessed by some wonderful and loving adults that not only cared after him, but cared for him. My sweet boy really never felt alone. He felt loved, and for that I am so very grateful. 

I loved seeing Mitchie at school. His face radiated love and my heart exploded every time I saw his smile. Mitch was always quick to do his homework – and because of his discipline, his life was a lot easier. While my other kids slogged about [as most kids do] and took hours doing what could have taken 30 minutes, sweet Mitch was done and playing long before anyone else. 

We go to school to learn basic concepts and skills – but more importantly we go to school to learn how to learn. At least that’s how it should be … because learning how to learn is the ultimate knowledge. And once we learn how to learn we are equipped for life. There is no job, no assignment or obstacle, no opportunity or hardship we can’t figure out. It is a silly thing to think our learning stops when we graduate. 

Life offers some hard lessons and we are sometimes given some difficult homework. Losing my son has been the most difficult work of all – and my pages are warped with salt and tears. But I keep working at it. Each day, as I go through the homework of grief I learn a quiet lesson here and a subtle teaching there. Each day is also a test to see if I've learned or grown. If I pass, I move toward the next question or phase of grief. If I fail, I keep working at it.

Life is a fascinating school. I hope I can be like my little son – who had the discipline to not avoid the hard stuff. I have come to learn that while we may not be able to control some events in our lives, we can control how we respond to them … what meaning they have for us. And that is homework, too.

I suspect at the twilight of my own life, when my body is tired, old and grey … when I am anxious to leave and see my long-lost son … I will look back on my own life and see an intricately woven tapestry of hardships, lessons, blessings and tender mercies – all designed to help my spirit grow. A master class. I will realize with new clarity that Mitchell’s Journey started long before he was born and that the events in our lives are more interconnected than we realize. But between now and that final sunset I have homework yet to do and the work of grief, however hard and crushing, I must go through. 

I believe my little boy passed the test. I hope with all of my heart I can, too.