Tiny Mitch hunkered down near a bushel of wild flowers to explore the beauty of nature. Next to him, just out of frame, was his mother tenderly describing a little about the wonders of the earth. Mitch pulled a flower into his hand and touched its soft petals with his baby-like fingers. I knew he was a gentle soul early on, but this moment made everything clear as a crystal spring. Next to my wife, I had never beheld such beauty as I did that day.
At this point we didn't know about Mitchell’s diagnosis of DMD. It would be another year before we would learn his terrifying fate. Mitch was so cute on this little adventure. He kept asking me to walk off the path and into the woods so we could see new things. I loved this day. I wrote in my journal that night, “Go gently, my son, into the future. The world will be brutal and unkind – but you don’t need to be. Your strength will be found in rising above everything that would pull you down. Go gently, my little boy – that you might bend, not break.”
And so it went with my son; he continued his life’s journey gentle and kind, perceptive and wise. Though he was a young child, it seemed as though he saw the world through heaven’s eyes. This little boy who broke my heart, was my teacher and I will ever be his student.
Mitch taught me that one can be strong and gentle at the same time. Too often people confuse kindness for weakness – but they are not the same. Eric Hoffer wisely observed, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” The older I get, the more I know this is true.
I have observed people in my life abuse their strengths – which paradoxically became their saddest weakness; I've seen professionals, once titans of their industry, enter an opportunity like a blind Mongolian warrior swinging at everything and everybody …then turn to his peers and wonder if he got the right people; I've seen ordinarily smart and perceptive people use their gift of candor to criticize where no criticism was merited, and in fact well off the mark; others, I have observed, use their bold personalities to bully people into what they want. None of that is strength. It is the imitation of strength and in truth just the opposite; borne of insecurity and fed by disillusionment.
The last 2 years have been incredibly challenging, not only did I carry the weight of grief, I went through some professional crucibles that were soul-stretching. I don’t know that my troubles are over – in fact, I know they are not. But I am grateful for the hard times because they have opened my eyes, taught me important things and shaped me.
When I look back on my life and consider the things that have had the greatest impact, it was seldom a heavy hand but rather the disappointed eyes of a loving parent. It was a youth leader who, despite my teenage rebellion, reached for my hand while I was unaware I was drowning in poor choices. It was an English teacher who saw something in me I didn't see – whose gentle and kind observation changed the course of my life. It was a religious leader who offered loving encouragement and sound council – and most importantly, loving patience. And a Father who, from time-to-time, gave me just the little nudge I needed to keep going. He has never done the work for me – never robbed me of a chance to struggle and grow … but He has given me a gentle boost here and there. For that, I am grateful.
It is the gentle things that change us – not so much the harsh and terrible things.
On Mitchell’s dying day, I had taken a photo sequence of these same tender little hands, only a few years older, gently caressing his puppy who stayed at his side like a comforting angel. Mitch couldn't open his eyes and the muscles on his face had relaxed to a point he almost looked like a different person. He was slipping away and my heart was tumbling into a deep abyss of grief.
Yet, there he was, at least what was left of him: gentle and kind to the very end. My child was my teacher. He taught me how to see; through tears of grief and sorrow, he has been gently teaching me.