LIVING FEARLESSLY

It was an especially hot summer that year. The desert sun beat down on our skin like an oven set on broil. For some reason, even the shade of summer trees didn't offer much relief. Although we struggled to make ends meet, Natalie and I had just saved up enough money to replace our swamp cooler with an air conditioner. Finally, our family was able to take a break from the summer heat – and we slept much better at night because our small home was comfortably cool. I remember how excited our young kids were to wear their jammies in the summer because our home was no longer hot at night. 

On this occasion, Ethan and little Mitch were in the back yard jumping from our plastic jungle gym into an inflatable pool. We seemed to go through at least three inflatable pools each year because the kids were always experimenting with them and they’d invariably pop them with sticks, lawn furniture, rocks and other things. We didn't mind. While we have tried to teach our kids the importance of taking care of things, we tried to balance that with a spirit of adventure and experimentation. Getting a few cheap pools a year was a small price to pay for the memories they made.

The news of Mitchell’s diagnosis was still fresh on our minds and heavy in our hearts. While in a state of shock, we did our best to live life the best we knew how, no matter how scared we were. Looking back, I’m glad we didn't let our fear of the future overtake us – for that would have robbed us of the moment. And those moments are priceless today.

So, I sat in the shade and watched our boys laugh and play. In my mind, I began to wonder how long this pool would last, and I smiled. Little Mitch dove bravely from the jungle gym into the pool head-first. This tiny little guy never flinched at the unknown and was eager to explore the world far beyond his comfort zone. This photo is so … Mitch.

I remember thinking to myself as I took this photo how much I admired his courage and zest for life. I quietly hoped Mitch would demonstrate that same courage in the years to come as his body dove into much deeper, fatal waters. True to form, over the years, Mitch would face his fears courageously. Whether it was his first day at school, MDA summer camp, or the scare of an unfamiliar rollercoaster. That isn't to say he was never afraid. Everyone is afraid of something. Mitch just faced his fears, however scared he felt, and kept moving on. He drank life in the best he knew how – he took all of it, the good and the bad. I always admired that about him and I often found myself following his quiet example, deep in his shadow. 

Mitchell’s Journey with DMD has been terrifying. Grief, even more so. Yet, I think it’s safe to say I have found a measure of peace. That doesn't mean I don’t grieve. To the contrary, I grieve deeply … so very deeply. But peace, I have discovered, hasn’t come from the absence of grief and sorrow, but in learning to cope with it. I have found the most effective way to grieve is … to simply grieve. Like Mitch in this photo, when grief comes, I just dive in headfirst. Yes, I'm afraid of grief because it hurts. But, I have found the sooner I accept the sorrow, however painful it feels, I emerge from the deep waters of grief much faster. If I resist it, I may postpone it for a season, but in the end, it catches up to me and I only prolong the hurt. 

When I look at this photo I am reminded that courage has nothing to do with physical strength. It’s more a matter of the mind and heart, seeing past the things that might stop us before we even start.

Thank you little Mitch for teaching me, however painfully, to live fearlessly.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE MAKES

A few years ago I attended a Parent/Teacher Conference with Mitch and Natalie. I did my best to attend as many as possible because I wanted my son to know that I loved him and I would always be there for him. Mostly, I wanted Mitch to know I was his biggest fan. 

It was about 7PM on an ordinary evening. The school was filled with young students each eager to show their parents their world. Paper art projects proudly attached to the walls, the smell of glue and crayons brought back vivid memories and feelings from my own childhood. As we entered Mitchell’s class room he shyly pointed to his desk with his name badge. It wasn't spectacular, and it looked like everyone else’s, but it was his and he was proud of it. And I was proud of him.

We were then greeted by his teacher and invited to sit at a tiny elementary school table and sit in even tinier chairs. Mitch quietly giggled seeing his big dad sit on a chair that may as well have been a thimble. I love my son and I miss the sound of his giggles.

Mitch, with eager eyes and a humble disposition, sat between my wife and me as we began to learn about his progress. I’ll never forget his sweet face, still bearing remnants of a milk mustache from his after school snack along with a chapped bottom lip. The very sight of him reminded me what goodness looked like. 

As his teacher began to discuss how he was doing in class I could tell how much it meant to Mitch whenever she was complimentary of him. Sure there were things to work on, but she celebrated his success and helped Mitch feel good about himself – and because of that Mitch believed in himself.

My heart swelled with gratitude for this educator who understood her job wasn't to teach concepts, but to teach people. She knew the difference. Because of that, she knew the most important thing she could do for her students was to help them believe in themselves – that they were each uniquely capable and absolutely awesome. 

I had a pivotal moment many years ago in high school when my teacher (Mrs. Osa) recognized something in me. I wasn't prepared for her observation – but in that moment she helped me believe in me. She lit a spark in my soul and my life was forever changed. Mrs. Osa, wherever you are, thank you. The echo of your belief in me is still felt, even 25 years later. 

So, as I watched my tender son, a little boy who wasn't as strong as the other kids, a little boy who wondered if he would ever amount to much … and suddenly I saw a spark in his eye and a new light in his countenance. Mitch began to grow with confidence. My heart was overflowing with love and gratitude then, and it overflows today. 

I wonder how often I've missed opportunities to lift and build others because I said to myself, “What difference will it make?” This night with my son, and that unexpected moment 25 years ago reminded me what a difference makes. The difference I’m talking about is often so small it can be mistaken for something not worth doing: a little smile in the hall, a compliment, recognition, appreciation for someone on or a simple word of encouragement or love … it makes a difference.

A small difference can make all the difference.