Mike didn’t know it yet, but his life away from his family was going to start improving steadily (and dramatically) over the next few years. But he still had trials to face. He also didn’t yet know his mother was caught in the grip of a severe depression that was triggered by her struggle to recover from the collapsed lung. It was her second bout. The first came right after he was born. He spent his first 6 months living with an aunt. When he finally joined his family, the youngest of his siblings believed he was adopted. His parents tried to correct that belief after Mikey asked a new neighbor if he looked like him--because he was looking for his dad. Up until the age of 5 Mikey spent a lot of time living with relatives. Most of that time was a blur to him. His earliest memories were from the year before he started school. The year he spent with his mom, helping her. But this time he was going to be home for most of his mother’s struggles.
His mom routinely complained about being sick, about being close to death. If Mike got sick and mentioned it to her, she would reply it was nothing compared to what she was going through, because she “almost died last night!” It became a running joke to him. He learned to take care of himself.
Mike’s mom also frequently wished she didn’t have 6 kids. When he got older he started asking her if she was talking about him. When she’d say no, he would tell her to let him know which one of the others she wanted to get rid of and he would take care of it. That made her mad, because he wasn’t being sympathetic to her suffering. By the age of 11 or 12, Mike reached a point of “sympathy burnout”. He cared about his mom, but he could not bring himself to indulge her anymore. He did offer her encouragement, telling her "it" would pass and she would be fine. But that was all he had left to give her.
In the short-term, Mike’s bad luck continued at school. Within a few weeks he was expelled from the special reading class he enjoyed so much. The teacher grew suspicious about his reading ability and loaned him “Old Yeller”, asking him to read it as quickly as possible so she could loan it to another student. He finished it over the weekend. That convinced the teacher he didn’t belong in the remedial class. No more shelves of books, air conditioning, or special time with his friends. But that was a good thing. Mike didn’t need to hide in there any longer. He was starting the journey towards becoming himself. That included standing by classmates who were being bullied. He knew what it felt like to face bullies alone, he couldn't stand by and let others go through it.