This is going to be the best summer ever.” He said it so gleefully as we were driving to our favorite place to hang out together, Sky Zone.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you’re here,” he said casually, causing me to choke up.
There are moments in this lifetime that touch us, heal us and push us forward. I’ve had a lot of those moments with Micah.
Growing up as an only child, life without siblings was lonely. All of my life I wanted a brother. God graced me with one in August of 2014, in the form of an 8-year-old boy who, like me, was living life without a father.
A great friend once told me, “although we never seem to understand God right at the start, things eventually work out the way they should and you wonder how you could have ever questioned Him in the first place.” So here I am a little over a year later after signing a contract for Walk With Sally, a Big Brothers Big Sisters-esque organization that provides mentors to kids who have someone in their family affected by cancer. And I have to say, I’m shaking my head in awe at the man upstairs.
Micah’s dad died from cancer in June of 2014, shortly before Father’s Day. When I’d hang out with Micah, about once a week or so, he wouldn’t talk much about his dad. But I could tell he missed him. I could feel he missed him. Because I feel the same way. It’s a hole that seems like it can’t be replaced.
When I first met Micah, my heart was in pieces. I felt empty inside. When you’re alone and hurting, it’s easy to think about what you did have and what you don’t have. It’s easy to declare a rainy day dark and doomed. It’s easy to give up. But that’s why God sent me Micah. He didn’t want someone to give me strength, like my dad used to do on a regular basis. No, he wanted me to become strong for someone else.
On another occasion at Sky Zone, I found myself angry with God.
“Where’s your Dad?” a little boy asked him on the trampoline.
“I don’t have one,” he replied. He said it rather comfortably. But it broke me. I lost my dad when I was 23. Micah is only nine years old now. Life just isn’t fair in that regard.
“Then who’s that?” the little boy asked again, pointing to me.
“That my big brother,” Micah replied, confidently. That’s when I truly realized how important I was in Micah’s life.
Micah and I have an intense bond that undoubtedly comes from both our dads bringing us together up in heaven. Before we were “matched,” we both originally had a different assigned mentor and mentee. They had paired me up with a kid who loved sports. And Micah with someone more brainy. That fell through, go figure. And because of the short distance from our homes in Orange County among other reasons, we were matched. The first time I went over to Micah’s house, he was incredibly shy and I remember thinking how challenging this would be. Yet by the second time we hung out, at a Lakers game, he wouldn’t stop talking. By the third time we hung out, it felt like we were best friends. Something just clicked.
We’ve done just about everything together. We’ve gone to Disneyland, Legoland, Chuck E Cheese’s, the aquarium, the OC Fair. We’ve played Laser Tag, paddle boarded, go-karted, bowled, mini golfed, gone to the movies. We’ve gone to loads of sports games (Lakers, Angels, Galaxy and Ducks). And went out to eat at In-N-Out Burger A LOT.
And somehow, we always have amazing things happen to us. My favorite was when we got tickets to a Harlem Globetrotters game in LA. I had explained to Micah what “nosebleed” seats were at Lakers games and that’s where we were sitting again for this game. At halftime, a lady came up with her daughter and said her husband got hung up with work and that they had two extra front row tickets. And let me tell you, the difference was significant between front row and nosebleed at a Globetrotters game, where interaction and amusement is what it’s all about. When stuff like that would happen, I’d tell Micah it was a blessing from God and our dads watching over us.
At a Ducks game, we had nosebleed tickets once again and, sure enough, some guy came up to us and asked if we wanted to trade tickets because his son couldn’t make the game. Ours cost $20 apiece. His cost $260 apiece and were glass seats (so we could see all the fighting). Afterwards, Micah floored me with his reaction to the ticket exchange. “I think our dads are friends up in heaven and forgot to tell us. They keep hooking us up.” I still get chills thinking about that.
The biggest and best way Micah and I have bonded comes with Star Wars. Before I met Micah, I was a closet SW fan. Now I’m as die-hard as it gets. We each love Star Wars for different reasons. He likes the infrastructure of all the unique ships and venues — building them with his legos. I like the characters and their stories. As a whole, we both loved everything about SW, though. And trips in the car always turned into quick trivia games that Micah would destroy me in. We went to the Star Wars Convention in Anaheim, and it was the coolest Nerd Fest in the world. Of course, we watched all seven movies together, including the premiere of The Force Awakens. As Disney ramps up their SW movies, I made a promise to Micah that we’d see every new movie in theaters together. And there will be a bundle of ’em.
One of the many incredible benefits of being a big brother to Micah is that it provided me with a second family out in California. With few close friends out in Cali and all of my family back in Chicago, I was blessed to have Micah’s family embrace me with open arms. Joanne is undoubtedly one of the strongest, most put-together mothers I know and spending time talking to her before and after hanging out with Micah was always a godsend. And Micah’s sister Kaelyn, two years older than him, was always so nice whenever I’d visit. The best part? 4-year old Trevor, who wasn’t old enough to have a mentor with WWS, but definitely loved showing me his toys and fighting for my attention with Micah during house visits.
I realized rather quickly just how strong the Kudo family was. That’s because Joanne and the kids always had help from friends, aunts and uncles and most of the time, from unbelievable grandparents. The family bond and love is so powerful. With Micah’s family, I had a place to go for Thanksgiving and July 4. And I got to join the family on several occasions for a violen recital, school awards and a school play.
Because of the close-knit family dynamic, my role with Micah has always been extremely obvious and easy. It’s been far from straining and given me a chance to fully enjoy my time with him, while healing my own wounds in the process. I’m always seen as the Big Brother, in the true sense of the word. I’m the Big Brother to cheer obnoxiously loud at a Pinewood Derby Boy Scouts race or at his soccer game, the Big Brother to dominate him and all his little friends in the first game of Laser Tag during his 9th Birthday party (I was basically doing back flips). And, I was the Big Brother to hold him on my shoulders so he could see the fireworks better at Disneyland.
Every now and again, when I’d visit, Micah would give me little gifts. Mostly, it was candy. Sometimes, they were drawings. The funniest gift came in the form of a Birthday card. Shortly before I went skydiving for my 26th Birthday, he wrote me a cute little note with a person falling out of a plane that said: “Hope you don’t die.” Anxiety removed, I didn’t.
Recently, I ironically and weirdly found myself watching The Lion King. There’s a scene where Simba is talking to Mufasa (that’s the dad lion for losers who haven’t seen it). The exchange goes:
Simba: Dad we’ll always be together, right?
Mufasa: Simba let me tell you something my father told me. Look at the stars. The great kings of the past look down on us from those stars.
Mufasa: Yes. So whenever you feel alone, just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I.
That movie scene helped me realize just how much our kings are watching over both of us. We’re far from alone.
I’ll close with easily the most profound memory I’ve had with Micah. It came on Halloween of last year. We were at a block party and there was a haunted house for “big kids” only. Micah was hesitant about going in, but I told him I’d go in front of him in case anything scary popped up. I told him I’d protect him. We went through the not-that-scary house where folks who love Halloween too much tried to jump out and spook us. Noticeably frightened, Micah held my hand the whole time. When we got out of the house, he wanted to do it again. The happiness he had, bragging to his sister and friends, about going through, made my night.
And when I think of my last year or so with Micah, this memory seems to encapsulate our relationship and the serious bond we had. Sometimes, going into the unknown on your own can be scary. And I know all too well how scary going into this cruel world without your father can be. I feel blessed and honored, beyond what words can describe, that God picked me to help Micah grow without his Dad. I never filled that void in his heart whatsoever, but I know in some small way I helped protect him from fully feeling the pain that no 8/9-year old boy should ever have to experience. And that’s something I’ll always be grateful for until the day I die.
You sign a one-year commitment with your mentee for Walk With Sally. But this is just the first chapter, the way I see it. No matter what age, how far apart we live from each other, or what we’re doing in our lives moving forward, we’ll always be brothers. We’ll watch every Star Wars movie together. Until they stop making them. It’s a promise.
Both our dads might be gone. No doubt that will always hurt. But since we’ve lost them, we’ve gained each other. That hole doesn’t feel so empty now.
Walk With Sally is a non-profit based in Los Angeles, CA and is committed to providing healing and comfort to children debilitated by the emotional experience of living with or losing a parent or sibling to cancer. This healing is facilitated through free of charge mentoring support programs and services that provide an emotionally safe environment for children to share their difficult experience with someone who has suffered the same.