NO OTHER WAY

During his final days there were times I couldn't tell whether I was talking to my 10 year old son or a soul that was older than the universe itself. I saw it with my own eyes and felt it in the depths of my soul; something significant was happening. Although my young son was dying, his true identity was emerging and I sensed he was much older than I knew. I realized death wasn't the end ... but it was a painful goodbye, even if for now. Reunion may as well be forever away. For my heart aches and yearns to have him back with me – the way he used to be. That is grief.

As death inched closer the veil between this place and over there became increasingly thin. Those who came to visit said they felt a strong presence in our home. Natalie and I didn't always feel what they felt – we were probably too close to recognize it. Perhaps, also, we were in too much pain. Yet, in our closeness to this sorrow, we saw things others couldn't. Some things I will never share, for they are too sacred. Sometimes I wonder what it would look like were we allowed to see all that is truly happening. Perhaps we might be startled to see all the hands unseen that carry us in ways we do not now appreciate or feel.

There was a point when Mitch asked me, “Dad, is there any other way?” I held my son quietly and I wept. Countless were the nights I begged God for a way out. I pleaded for mercy. I begged for my son. As his father I would have traded places with him without a moment’s thought. I asked God, “Is there any other way?” As I tried to listen to my Father, I was reminded of another One who asked for a bitter cup to pass. Not even He was spared.

There is a saying that reads, “Most people wish to serve God – but only in an advisory capacity.” How oft have I been tempted to think my finite mind knows better than my infinite Father’s? So many times my heart cried out, “Please, not this. Anything but this.” I begged God for another way as though I might devise a better plan. Yet I know I cannot see what He sees … and I am reminded we are not mortal beings having a spiritual experience, but “spiritual beings having a mortal experience.” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) 

I don’t know much. But what I do know is this mortal life is a place to learn and grow under the tutelage of a Divine Teacher; a place where we learn how to see in the dark and hear the voice of God in our own wilderness. I can see that now. I understand there is no other way.

Yet, here I am talking of pain and suffering as a divine tutor … and I find myself on my knees, drenched in tears, begging for relief, scarcely able to bear the weight of this sorrow. Then a whisper, “There is no other way. Be patient, my son, for you will see more tomorrow.”

There is no other way.

TO BE A STUDENT

This morning my wife and I drove to Mitchell’s elementary school to collect his personal and school belongings. The air was cold and the sky was wrapped in a dull, grey blanket of clouds that seemed to match the mood of things. As we approached the school I reflected on all of the amazing teachers and staff who had done so much to support and love our family and I was overcome with gratitude. There was no coldness in my heart. 

I was doing okay until his teacher reached for a file box that contained everything that was Mitchells. In an instant, I was overcome by strong emotions and I did all that I could to hold back a massive surge of tears. Tears came anyway. My hands trembled and my body quaked as I quietly gasped for air. The pain of this moment was palpable. 

There, in a cardboard box, were items that to a stranger would have no value; but to us, its contents were priceless. A plastic container filled with pencils and crayons that Mitchell collected, a name tag, pieces of paper with his handwriting … a potpourri of elementary school artifacts that to me were more valuable than all the treasures of ancient Egypt.

As Mitchell’s teacher (Mrs. Masina) handed the box to Natalie she gave her a hug. I stood a few feet away fighting back the tears, doing all that I could to keep composed. All I wanted to do was curl up in a corner and sob. This compassionate teacher described how much Mitchell meant to her and that she loved him – it was clear that she was hurting, too. With a broken voice she admitted handing the box over to us was difficult because she loved Mitch and she felt like she was giving part of her heart away.

After Mitchell passed away she had each student write down their memories of him. She carefully laminated and bound the pages into a book. Each page was thoughtfully authored from his peers ... each page personal and authentic. Mitchell was universally referred to by his classmates as kind, deeply caring, fun to be with and humble. Reading through these hand written letters and drawings from 5th Graders, I learned quite a bit about Mitch. I also learned a lot about 5th graders … especially what they notice. I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings: “Oh what a tangled web do parents weave when they think their children are naive.” In reading their observations it was clear these young children were reflective, thoughtful and keen observers. Today these young students were my teacher … and I have been taking notes.

This painful experience was a gentle reminder that education is more than academics – that knowledge without humanity is hollow. The best teachers also teach what it means to be human – not by what they say, but who they are. And Mrs. Masina did this beautifully … and so did her students.

So here we stand on the other side of Mitchell’s education … and suddenly we are students of the hardest lesson life has to teach. Our homework … invisible to the eye - must be worked out in quiet of the mind and heart. I get the impression this homework will take a lifetime to complete. And when I look at this photo of these two beautifully compassionate women, I am reminded that there is a classroom none of us leave alive. Sometimes we are teachers … but we are always students.