The summer sun was about to fade into evening as my kids discovered a hole I was digging in our back yard. The freshly-turned soil was soft and as inviting to a child as a shiny playground or a new puddle on the heels of a summer storm. Like flies to honey, these little ones ran to the dirt pile to see what it was all about. Within minutes Laura-Ashley and Ethan were busy exploring the uncovered earth. Mitch found his way to them and plopped his little bum in the dirt and began to play with them. At one point, Mitch turned back at me and smiled as if to say, “Hey Dad! I’m one of the big kids now.” Mitch then turned toward his siblings and continued to squish handfuls of dirt with his chubby little fingers. 

Natalie and I were poor as church mice, struggling to launch a company and trying to make the most of what little we had. We learned early in our marriage that material things, though nice, never made us truly happy – in fact, we found that the preoccupation with things got in the way of that which we wanted most. So on this day, I found our children huddled around an ordinary pile of dirt having an extraordinary youthful experience, my heart skipped a beat or two.

In the background was an inflatable swimming pool on our trampoline filled with water. That was our inexpensive way of having a watery ruckus with our kids. I loved watching our kids bounce and slosh about in a pool that suddenly became a washing machine. I can still hear their giggles today.

There were many months we worried about how we’d make ends meet; each day was a step into the fog of the unknown. Not sure how we would to pay for the mortgage or even diapers … we agonized over how we’d make it. Although those times were difficult for our family … looking back, I miss the struggle. I miss our life back then. 

Though I thought my life a curious hell – facing an uncertain and turbulent financial future – I now look back on those hard times with fondness and a deep sense of appreciation. We could hardly pay for groceries – yet we had Friday night den parties with popcorn fit for a king. Our sippy cups were filled with a 50/50 blend of water and apple juice because that was all we could afford. Our kids didn't know or care … they were just grateful to have something – and so were we. Though our pockets were almost empty, our hearts were overflowing.

Sometimes I wondered in moments of hardship, “Why am I struggling like this? Father, will you help me?” Relief eventually came. Though we struggled in our wilderness, tender mercies were abundant – we just didn't have the eyes to see them at the time. Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like months, and months felt like years … but I can see now what our Father was doing to our family back then. We learned lessons we would have never gained on an easier road. In my heart and soul, I thank my Father and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Today is Mitchell’s birthday. He would have turned 13. He died just before his 11th birthday – so young and innocent. Though I know his soul lives on, I miss my little boy in my arms. 

When I think back on this beautiful moment with my children, surrounded by worry and struggle, self-doubt and fear, I can see beauty in the struggle. I long for that struggle and the things it taught me and the moments it afforded me with my family.

Today I face a different form of poverty … one borne of grief. At least to me, grief is a form of emotional poverty. Yes, grief is an expression of deep love and longing for what once was … but it also tends to come at the expense of momentary happiness. Grief is not a choice, it is the price we pay for having loved someone deeply.

As poor as my soul feels, I know I’ll look back one day … at today … with fondness. For I will see, like I can see in my early years, what my Father is doing to me – and I will be grateful. 

This evening we’ll be taking our kids to the Olive Garden, Mitchell’s favorite restaurant. I’ll have his favorite Tour of Italy. Together, our family will laugh and remember the good times and cry a little about the hard times. Most importantly, we will be grateful that we had time.

We’ll then visit the cemetery to honor our little boy, who through his death, taught us how to live.

Happy Birthday, little boy. You are my struggle. You are a gift to my heart and soul.