A punch in the stomach. That’s what I felt like when I got that dreaded invitation to my high school reunion last month. A 1991 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, I’m grateful for the many amazing teachers I had along the way, and for the ability to walk to school—even if it was uphill both ways. But admittedly, those years were not a cake walk.
I was a shy and socially awkward teen, and while I had a small group of good friends, I didn’t talk to many people outside my friend group. However, when my 25th high school reunion was approaching a few years ago, I put my anxieties aside and made the leap to not just attend, but to help plan the darn thing.
It was then that I became aware of a classmate who had recently passed away. When I learned his story, I journeyed back into those high school hallways all over again. His story is touching, and with his family’s permission, I’ll share with you a summary of what his mother shared with me in her living room one Thursday afternoon, as I was planning for our reunion.
Jackie and Gary Cohen lived every parent’s worst nightmare when their son, Matt, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 7. Matt underwent radiation and was completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. They feared the tumor would take his life eventually.
Jackie told me that Matt didn’t have many friends growing up. She said, “We were Matt’s friends. My husband and I were his friends. We did things with him.” She said she often had to call parents and ask them to tell their kids to leave Matt alone. She said she wasn’t asking for anyone to be his friend; she just wanted the other children to leave him alone. She told me about a kid who threw snowballs at Matt and how afraid she was that a stone or pebble would hit Matt in his good eye.
After high school, Matt went to college and made several good friends. He met a woman, got married and welcomed a daughter into the world. His mom said his wedding day and the day his daughter was born were the two happiest days of his life. He later divorced and wasn’t able to drive, but he would take his daughter on the bus to various places. Jackie said they would go everywhere together on the bus. Matt’s daughter was his pride and joy.
Matt’s health declined when doctors found a new tumor. He received more radiation and while it worked to shrink the tumor, it took his life in the process. Matt died in May, 2016.
As I listened to Jackie’s words, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I wondered if my being there was selfish. After all, I was there asking a mom for pictures of her deceased son to put up at my high school reunion.
Then I wondered if I was ever mean to Matt and felt a little better knowing that I don’t ever recall being mean to anyone. But did I ever go out of my way to be nice to him? That I couldn’t remember. I walked out of Matt’s childhood home with a few framed pictures in my hand, mascara down my face and a gut-wrenching sadness in my heart.
A few weeks later, I attended my 25th high school reunion. The reunion was surprisingly fun, and I talked to many classmates who I’m pretty sure I had never spoken to before that night. I set up a table displaying Matt’s pictures and a brief story about his life and passing that I had written. Some people opened up and shared some fond memories of Matt. Others shared they were unaware of the hardships he faced. Most of us just looked backed realizing the things we wished we would have done differently.
I know we can’t change the past, but as a mom of two soon-to-be high-schoolers, I can try to make things better today. And I believe the best thing we can do in Matt’s honor, the best thing we could do for Matt’s parents, and especially the best thing we could do for Matt’s daughter, is to teach our children kindness, empathy and acceptance.
We don’t really ever know what anyone else is going through. We can’t see the struggles that many people face. But we can teach our children how to insert kindness into everyday actions to all kids, even the ones who may look or act differently. Hold a door. Say hello. Pay a compliment. Smile.
I cannot imagine how many nights Jackie stayed awake praying for her son, for his health and for him to simply “be left alone.” It’s my prayer that all kids like Matt are accepted, not avoided, when they walk though those high school hallways. And it’s my prayer that years from now when future graduates receive that invite to their high school reunion, they all remember being treated–and treating others–with kindness.