THE LAST BUTTON

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Some moments in life burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bare, they change the shape of your soul. This was one such moment that broke me and reshaped me in ways I'm still learning to understand.

My dear wife was dressing Mitch at the funeral home. Our mothers were with us as well as our oldest sisters; each of whom played a precious and sacred role in Mitchell’s life, and we wanted them to participate. Also, we were afraid of doing this alone.

Our once-little-baby had grown into a beautiful, funny, thoughtful, and caring young boy; yet there he was laying quietly on a table – motionless and frighteningly cold to the touch. My sweet wife, along with these other good women, reverently dressed Mitch in preparation for his funeral - where we would honor the good little boy that he was. Natalie was doing okay until she got to the last button – then grief washed over her like a title wave, thrashing her about on the inside. This was the last button she would ever fasten for our son – and that broke her heart. It broke mine, too.

I was a wreck that day. In fact, I was a wreck on the inside for many months afterward. Years, in fact. It took years to learn how to put my broken pieces back together again. Even still, I carry a father’s grief, and it is a terrible burden. Yet as much as I hurt on the inside, I know my wife hurts in ways I cannot imagine - for I am a simple man. She carried him, gave birth to him and made sacrifices in ways only a mother can - and with that pain and sacrifice comes a love unique to that service and surrender. So, I consider her grief hallowed ground. I silence my own tears so that I might wipe hers and scoop up her shattered pieces for safe keeping. And when I can, I try to gather mine.

Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

All too often I hear people suggest “there is nothing like a mother's love” – in a manner that seems to subordinate or dismiss the love of a father. In like manner, I hear less often the same of a father’s love as being more than anything else. It's almost as if they claim one love is greater than the other. Nothing could be further yet closer to the truth at the same time. They are correct in saying there is nothing like a mother’s love; in the same way, there is nothing like a father's love. Both are different, both are beautiful and sacred in their own right. But to suggest one is more significant or weightier than another ignores one immutable truth ... they are both parents and hurt deeply for the one they loved and lost. Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.

So when I look at this photo, I set aside my own sorrows and I reverence my wife’s. Her pain is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. Her love was beautiful, vast, and deep.

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the final lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or just looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.

Neal Maxwell, a man whose intellectual and spiritual insight I’ve long admired once wrote, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” I love that statement because it reminds me of the importance of putting our blessings to good use - otherwise, we are throwing our gifts away.

Among the many blessings I have received in this life, Mitch ranks my sweetest blessings. Every day when I button my own shirt as I get ready for work, I vow to remember the blessing Mitch was in my life. And most importantly, to make that blessing count … to allow this experience to become an agent of change, for the better. This image, burned in my mind and heart, reminds me to make Mitchell’s last button count – if not for anyone else, myself.


THE OTHER SIDE OF SERVICE

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It feels like yesterday when I heard the sound of muffled thumps and giggles in our living room.  I was so intrigued by what I heard that I had to sneak behind our couch to spy on what was happening.  As I quietly crawled within view, I saw Mitch laughing as he would squeeze and twist Ethan’s ear like a squishy toy.  They were both laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Little Mitch never had a mind to hurt his brother – only to wrestle as young boys do. 

Because Ethan knew his little brother was physically weak, he adapted his play-style so Mitch might feel strong and competitive.  Ethan could have easily turned the tables and overpowered his younger brother.  Instead, he set aside his pride, bridled his strength and allowed Mitch to win in ways that were unique to him – and in so doing, they both won. 

There was a point while home on hospice Mitch said to me “Dad, I just wish I could wrestle.  I just want to wrestle...”  By this time Mitch could hardly function – so it broke my heart to see him yearn for something he loved to do but couldn’t.  I wondered if Mitch missed wrestling so much because his older brother helped him feel normal, healthy and strong.   

By surrendering his strength, Ethan did more than serve his brother this day.  He reminded me that on the other side of service is the often invisible act of lifting hearts and minds – and Ethan knew how to do just that for his little brother.   

This image reminds me there is so much more to service than lifting heavy things or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway.  There is a time and place for strong arms - but there is a greater place for gentle hands and soft hearts.  The service of a smile, a kind word or loving encouragement can do so much for the downtrodden soul.   

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we appreciate, service can be seen in handing strength over to someone who is not as strong – and giving them a chance to win.                                                                

I miss the muffled thunder of Ethan and Mitch wrestling in my home.  And while part of my home is empty and heart hurting, my soul is overflowing with gratitude because I was blessed with two little giants who showed me the other side of service.  They showed me a different kind of love – and I am better off because of it. 

WHAT THE CASUAL TRAVELER CAN’T SEE

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There’s a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy, so when they grow up, they’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I’ve always loved this saying and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things. Their appreciation often showed up in the language of their prayers; especially when they expressed gratitude for soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. In my few years on this planet, I’ve come to discover things of greatest value have little (if anything) to do with price.

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day, life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect, and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink. A reminder that humans are only transients on this planet … a classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to the ranch, I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the beautiful landscape I was passing. You see, the highway hugs the mountain so close to the base of Kolob Canyon you cannot see it (not even a little bit) - the road is just too close to it. Without perspective, everything around the highway felt ordinary. But, were you to take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you’d see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered the relationship between the highway and this canyon, it began to serve as something of a metaphor to me. It reminded me that sometimes I can’t see the true nature of a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I have traveled the long road of grief, I’ve learned to step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point. I have learned to see beauty. I can also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

This photo reminds me Mitch lived a good life – and in that, I can find joy. If I were asked to find one image that best illustrated my son, I believe this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because his family loved him and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I recently discovered some videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background, unaware he was on camera. He was skipping because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and stepped into appreciation. He saw life from a different vantage point. He stepped back, and he saw the canyon.

While losing my son has been a source of great sorrow, if I’m not mindful … if I hug the mountain of grief too closely for too long, I will miss a kind of beauty that might otherwise enrich and inform me. It isn’t always easy – but I have learned to take my mind and heart down different roads.

Of course, to grieve in healthy ways, we must acknowledge there is pain – a whole lot of it. But healthy grief also requires me to balance the scale and acknowledge the things that brought me joy. Finding joy can take time, especially when grief is new, bewildering, and unfamiliar. I had to be patient and kind to myself. In the beginning, I had to travel the only road I knew. Then there were times I had to leave the comfort of my car and hike the back road, bare feet and all, to see the greater canyon.

At least for me, as I traveled the broken road of grief, I’ve searched for trails of gratitude and explored them. Those trails led me to beautiful panoramas of perspective and have helped heal me – but they have taken effort. Grief has taught me to step back and see the world differently. And when I did, I discovered things the casual traveler can’t see.



THE ECHOES WE MAKE

It was summer and the color of the evening sun had poured into the room like a glass of warm orange juice. Grandpa hiked his pant legs a little as he sat down to tell my small children some tall tales. My little ones sat around him (Mitch on the right), captivated and smiling as their grandfather lovingly wove a story of fiction, magic, and a little bit of nonsense.

Mitch tugged softly at my arm as he pointed to the glowing lint floating in the air as it crossed paths with the window. He said in a whisper, “Dad, it looks like space.” I put my arm around him as he began to lay his head into my chest. Time slowed to a near halt as we had one of those perfect moments you wish could last forever. There were no digital screens to look at, no earbuds drowning out the world, no text messages, RSS feeds and other suffocating distractions … nothing but each other, love and the lost art of storytelling.

I remember admiring my father-in-law [a man who is as kind-hearted as he is good] connect with my children in his own, unique way. I was grateful for this soft moment. As my children were swept away in story, my mind drifted to other things. I couldn't help but think of my son, a little boy who had done the world no harm yet was a victim to a deadly disease from which there was no escape. Although he appeared healthy, I knew that he was dying faster than the rest of us. And that broke my heart.

When I leaned down to kiss Mitchell’s forehead, he put his hand on the side of my face as if to keep me there and whispered, “I love you, dad.” My eyes welled as I whispered back, “I love you more.”

I then lifted my head and looked at a wise grandfather investing his time and loving attention with my children. I began to think about the passage of time and the natural order of life. It occurred to me that before we know it, age will catch up to this wonderful man and he will soon pass away. Whatever material possessions he may have accumulated will matter not one bit. Neither will popularity or prestige. The only thing he will take with him is what he has become. And the echo of his influence and choices will be the only lasting inheritance he will pass on to the generations that follow.

As I sat in this room surrounded by a family that I love deeply, I began to contemplate the echoes we make, the ripples our choices have on ourselves and others. They can build or destroy. They can be loud as thunder or soft as whispers. They can last generations or be silenced in less than one.

Author Peggy O’Mara said, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I found this to be true, at least for me. I hope that any inpatient or unkind word I may have ever said to my son was drowned out by how much and how often I tried to love him. And I hope that when my son was passing that he found comfort in his inner voice – that he looked forward with faith, not fear. That he knew he was loved by those of us here ... and the many that are over there.

As I peer into the abyss of death, unable to see with mortal eyes what exactly lies within, I can hear the echo of my son; his goodness, his love, his obedience, and faith. I hope that I carry his echo forward.

Losing my son (or anyone) is a painful reminder that suns set, seasons change, leaves fall, and so do our bodies. And if that's the case, I do well to remember that I only have a few minutes on this planet and I had better make the most of it. Of all the things we give and take, perhaps nothing is so important as the echoes we make.

WHY WE SUFFER

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As Mitch began to drift away, I would look at him with deep sorrow in my heart. I desperately wanted to scoop him up in my arms and take him to someplace safe. A place like the children’s books we often read to him – a place of hope and happiness, joy and dreams. My little boy once glowing bright with laughter and childhood had become a dim candle about to flicker out. The light in his countenance had been growing dimmer by the day, and I was greatly pained therewith. When I took this photo I had the distinct impression we were no longer counting the days, but the hours.

I remember cuddling next to my son just after I took this photo. I held him gently but firmly and said, “I am so sorry this is happening, son. You are so brave. I think sometimes God sends us the little ones like you to teach us grown-ups what it means to be truly grown up. And Mitch, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.” Mitch squeezed my hand and smiled softly. I kissed his cheek and held him close to my chest as he drifted away, soft as a feather, into an afternoon nap.

While Mitch slept, I wept.

I wept so hard the bed was shaking, and I worried I would wake him. The grief I knew then was but a foretaste of the grief to come. It turns out death was the easy part … for I'd soon experience a kind of bewilderment, emptiness and longing that would become a more painful hell.

I learned long ago it isn't productive to raise my fist to the heavens and wonder why we suffer. Instead, I learned to turn my ear heavenward; to listen for secrets to the soul and learn what I was meant to learn. Too often people get hung up on asking the wrong questions – and therefore get no answers. They ask “why would God do this?” When we hurt, it can be tempting to shake our fists at the Universe and bemoan our circumstance as though we’re being singled out or treated unfairly. But the last time I checked, life isn't fair, and it rains on the just and unjust. Why should we be the only exception? The other day I learned over 150,000 people die each day. Countless others will suffer all manner of afflictions. In the few minutes it might take to shake our fist and complain about our own lives, hundreds of people will have passed from this life to the next, and a great many more will mourn their absence. The world is filled with grief and suffering. Some sorrows we bring upon ourselves. Other suffering just happens, whether from an act of God or simply life in motion.

At least for me, I've come to discover suffering and sorrow are an important part of life’s learnings. Any more I worry less about the origins of my sorrows – for what difference would it make? Surely God isn’t caught off guard or surprised by the events in our lives. Whether He’s the author of some of our sorrows, as a divine teacher, or simply a patient tutor as we struggle with life in motion … He could change the course of our sorrows if He wanted to. The fact He often doesn't sends a compelling message. The question I ask myself is, “Am I listening?”

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So, as I laid next to my dying son, weeping in the deepest of grief, I felt a pain beyond description that left my soul weary, bruised and weak. I didn't want my little boy to go, for he was my tender son and I loved him so. Though I prayed mightily for his safe return, the answer I received was “No, my son, for there are things you must learn.”

Thus began my journey with grief, down a bewildering path in search of relief. And though I still hear the deafening sound of death’s terrible toll, I have come to understand our mortal bodies are but clothing to the soul.

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.

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A CROWD OF ANGELS

It wasn’t long ago a father reached out to me in grief.  He asked, “Do you believe in angels?” 

 This was my response:

 “Yes, I do believe in angels and that they walk among us [sight] unseen. Sometimes, if we're quiet and listening, we can feel their presence.

 Sometimes.

 We had some pretty profound moments with Mitch after he passed away. As Mitch was in the process of dying he slept a lot. Natalie and I were in a state of deep despair and couldn't feel as easily what others felt. Some people, not knowing what was happening at our home the last few days, dropped some gifts or notes at our door. They would leave our house and send us a text saying things like, "I'm not sure what's happening at your home, but I felt something I've never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a crowd of angels.”

 I’ve had some spiritual experiences in my life, but few as sacred as this night.  I’ve written about the night Mitch passed in earlier posts from the viewpoint of everything going dark, and how only when my spiritual eyes adjusted to the darkness did I begin to see the stars.  The stars were a metaphor for little blessings in my son’s life that were always there, but I didn’t have the eyes to see them.  Not until everything went pitch black.  An experience that is simultaneously as beautiful as it was terrifying.

 Tonight, I want to share something about that same experience but from a different viewpoint.

 As Mitch lay in his bed, unable to move his body or open his eyes – he could scarcely squeeze our hands in answer to questions.  His weary heart was about to flutter to a stop.  The time was drawing near, and Natalie and I were so very afraid. 

 At various times throughout the night, people came to our door and left gifts for little Mitch in the hopes of lifting his spirits during this sacred transition.  I can almost hear the quiet shuffling of feet in the snow as visitors came reverently to our door to leave a token of love and care.   

 Mitch would never see those gifts in mortality.  They weren’t in vain, however, for they were tokens of love and compassion that would lift our weary hearts after Mitch had gone.

 In a strange way, my home started to feel different … like it was transforming into a busy train station.  I sensed a sacred gathering of others.  Others I couldn’t see.  I don’t pretend to know who was with us or what was happening … I only knew something was put in motion and that other souls were drawing near.  I could feel it in the marrow of my soul and it brought me a measure of peace and calm.  I was hurting deeply, but I wasn’t drowning.

 Looking back, I can see that even in our agony, we were supported by spirits unseen.

 Today, as I face hardships and the unknown, I try to remember this dark night.  And I am reminded that we are never really alone.

TO BE A SUPERHERO


A few years ago our extended family went on a group vacation.  It was a time of great excitement as distant cousins reunited and family bonds strengthened.  Mitchell always felt awkward and shy around others because his muscles were weak and he didn't have the strength to do what everyone else could.  He often sat in the background as a spectator – never wanting to impose his needs or wants on others – even though he would have done anything to be recognized and to participate.  More often than I want to remember I observed people look over him as if he were invisible. It is for this very reason this photo means so much to me. 

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren’t laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 While at the airport an uncle reached down to invisible Mitch and placed him on his shoulders.  Together they flew down the concourse … arms open and soaring like a bird.  His uncle didn't care that other adults, strangers to him, could see and hear them. He didn't pretend to be so important or busy with adult things that he couldn't break decorum and be bothered with a child.  Only loved mattered.  And that is what he gave Mitch, in abundance.  Mitchie smiled and laughed and my heart exploded into a million pieces of love and appreciation.  For a moment, Mitchell was free … he was powerful.  For a moment Mitchell felt like a superhero.  As I sat back and watched this great man love my boy I shed tears of gratitude.

 Two [almost invisible] years later our little boy would die.  And all that Mitch hoped to do and become died with him. 

As his father I wanted so badly to put my superhero cape on and save my son.  After all, he thought I was a superhero ... but I was only mortal and I agonized that I couldn't save my little boy.  As it turned out, my little son was a superhero to me.  

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren't laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.

Mitchell’s Journey has revealed many superheroes that were hiding in plain sight – all across the world.  Many of you are superheroes to my son (and my family) because you reached out and loved him … and he felt your love and concern when the world became very dark and very lonely.  It’s one thing to love someone you know; but to love a stranger, that’s divine.

In every way that matters my little son … who hardly had the muscle strength to stretch out his arms … is my superhero. Despite his failing body he kept fighting with a smile on his face, hope in his heart and love in his soul. 

Mitchell taught me that to be a superhero has nothing to do with physical strength at all – but everything to do with heart.  While Mitchell lost his mortal battle, he has won the battle of the soul.

Originally Posted April 22, 2013

(Just a few months after Mitch passed away)