WHEN DOES A JOURNEY BEGIN?

I’ve often wondered when Mitchell’s journey began. Did it start the moment of his diagnosis? I think not. When he was born? No. What about when Natalie and I were married? Or perhaps that magic moment we fell in love? Is it possible my son’s journey began when Natalie and I were born? After all, we were the recipe for his creation. In many ways, I believe our life’s journeys are not only complex but interwoven with generations past.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This is a photo of me and my mother, just before I came into the world. While I don’t remember any of this, I do have vivid memories of her throughout my childhood. When I was a very young child, in Vancouver, Canada, I have flashes that appear in my mind like short video clips; I remember her in the kitchen preparing meals, or the way she rocked me in a velvet chair, and how the summer’s afternoon sun broke through the thinly-laced curtains as she smiled at me. I don’t know why we remember the things we do. I only know I’ve carried certain memories, like a photograph in my mind, since I was a very young child. The images have never changed – and my feelings about them remain the same. I feel peace and gratitude.

So, when did my son’s journey begin? As I examine the circumstances of my life, I am convinced Mitchell’s journey started long before he was born … and long before I was born, too. The more I read about genetics, consciousness, and the soul … I am convinced we pass on much more than green eyes and blonde hair. Somehow, whatever we become, we seem to pass a portion of that along to the next generation. We see evidences of this all around us. Even adopted children who finally meet their biological parents 50 years later discover they have similar interests, personality traits, and more. In so many ways, I marvel over the human and spiritual experience. The closer I look, the more I see both my parents in Mitch and my other children.

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.
— William Penn

Today is my mother’s birthday and I can’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for all that she ever was and is. I love my mother deeply and I’m grateful how she taught me to love and to be strong where it counts. I’m grateful for the way she tickled my back when I was a little boy … and then to see her tickle my young children’s backs in the same loving way. I’m grateful for the times she would listen to me when I was in college – those late nights when she was tired and needed rest, yet she smiled patiently as I yammered on about life and other things. I’m grateful for her unwavering love for me and my family.

I’m grateful for the many chocolate cakes from Costco she had ready for little Mitch when we came to visit her. I loved watching his smile growing ever brighter as neared her home – for he knew he’d be greeted with warm hugs and a soft cake. I’m grateful for her den parties with popcorn and shaved flavored ice & Sprite. I’m grateful for a life of love and learning at her feet.

I once asked my mother what surprised her most about life and she responded with a quiet sobriety, “What surprised me about life?” she paused a moment and said, “The brevity of it.” Indeed, time passes quickly and if I’m not careful I can get caught up in the thick of thin things and one day, to my horror, I might awake to realize I’ve missed out on life’s most important things. Mitch was one of my awakenings – and though I write of grief and death so that I might examine my life more fully, I very much live in the moment and appreciate everything about my life. More today than at any time before.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.

William Penn observed, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” I haven't always been the best at doing it right with time - so I hope to use time more wisely. And for whatever time I have left with my mother, I hope to honor her with my every word and deed. Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.

THE BEAUTIFUL, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE OF MOTHERS

Tucked carefully just under Natalie’s pillow is a purple blanket, worn out and threadbare. It was one of Mitchell’s favorite blankets when he was as a toddler. Among the many places she might keep that treasured heirloom, it rests to this day quiet and unassuming, near her head when she sleeps.

When Mitch was a tiny little boy, he found special comfort in soft things. I’ll never forget when Natalie handed Mitch two small fleece blankets – one was purple and the other green. Mitch immediately smiled and pushed the blankets up to his cheeks. His chubby little fingers felt the soft fabric, and he was in love.

Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

For many years, Mitch clung to those two blankets as if were imaginary friends. I didn’t realize how much he treasured them until the day I found him quietly whispering to himself as he was stuffing both blankets in the produce drawer of our fridge, for safe keeping. When I giggled, Mitch turned his head and smiled and said, “Hi, Dad. One second … one second.” He finished securing his treasure in the fridge, then ran up to my leg and hugged me.” I asked him, “You love those blankets, don’t you?” He said softly, “I wuv them. Mommy gave them to me.” At that moment, I began to see the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers anew. To our tiny child, those blankets weren’t just a warm fabric from which to cuddle on a cold winter’s night; they were a symbol and an extension of his mother’s love, and it comforted him so.

As the years passed, Mitchell grew up and out of those two blankets. Because they meant to him as a toddler, we kept them safe knowing one day; they would mean more to us than perhaps they ever meant to him. As Mitch grew older, he discovered other symbols of his mother’s love – and he clung to those in times of comfort and in times of trouble.

Years later, when we discovered Mitchell’s heart was about to stop beating, Natalie instinctively ran to the gift shop at the hospital to find something that might give her baby comfort, once again. After scanning the shelves, Natalie finally saw a soft teddy bear whose broken heart was patched and stitched, with a kind of homemade variety. Most importantly, you could tell that tender heart was being held up with love. Natalie’s eyes filled with tears and said, “Chris, this is it. This is what I want to give Mitchie.”

As we walked back to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Natalie clung to the teddy bear as if to transfer a portion of her love to it so that it might, in turn, transfer that loving care to her sick and dying child. Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

When we returned to his room, Natalie said softly, “Here you go Mitchie – here’s something to cuddle with. I hope you like it.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s really soft. I love it.” By this time, Mitch was beginning to feel sick and said, “Mom, will you tuck me in with this teddy bear?” Mitch fell fast asleep that night – and I can’t help but think it was in part because of his mother’s tender love.

I’ve watched this sweet mother quietly grieve the loss of our child for 1,866 days now. That’s not 1,866 days of wallowing in self-pity – but instead, learning to live a parent’s worst nightmare. The nightmare doesn’t change over time because the inescapable, irreversible facts of death don’t change.

I’m just a brokenhearted father who loves his family and who misses his son deeply … but however much I miss my son, I can tell the space between a mother and her children is a sacred place. Today, like little Mitch did so many years ago, she clings to the symbols of love she had with her son.

Natalie has learned to put her love and pain (which is grief) in an invisible treasure box – for you can’t have one without the other. I'm forever humbled to witness the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

A HEART OF GOLD

I just visited little Mitchell’s place of rest tonight and discovered a carefully sealed Ziploc bag with a 2-page handwritten letter and this bottle of gold flakes. A sweet woman from Dupont Washington, someone whose name I immediately recognized because of her support of our charity run, shared her thoughts and feelings about little Mitch.

She made reference to a story I had once written when I went to China and Mitch wanted me to bring him a gold dragon. I wasn’t able to find one and instead of being upset, he simply said that he was glad I was home. In honor of Mitch, she found this little bottle of gold flakes with an eagle on top… something reminiscent of things Mitchell loved. She left this as a token of love and respect for a little boy whose broken heart touched hers.

Sandra, if you read this, I want you to know how much your letter and this emblem touched my heart. Thank you for bringing me a measure of peace tonight.

 
 
 

A BACKPACK FILLED TO OVERFLOWING 


On this spring morning, Mitch slid down the stairs on his tummy with a collection of toys in hand. I could never figure out how hands as tiny as his could hold so much stuff – but if it was important to tiny Mitch, he always seemed to find a way. The bus was coming, you could hear its brakes just down the street, so Mitch was in a hurry. Every day before Mitch went to pre-school, he would carefully fill his backpack with his favorite treasures. I love how young children do that. On the top of his bag, his sweet mommy wrote his name with a symbol under each word: a star to let him know he was our shining little boy, and a heart to remind him he was loved beyond measure.

At this time in our young lives, I had a lot on my plate. I was concerned about everything young fathers worry over. I worried whether I had what it took to be a father and husband in the first place. I felt inadequate on every level. On top of that, I worried about how to make ends meet while trying to launch a start-up with a handful of employees. I wasn’t just trying to feed my family, I was trying to feed ten others.

No matter how much I worried about everything on the outside, my mind and heart always turned to things on the inside. As inadequate as I felt, home was my refuge … my family, my tribe. So, before heading to the office each day, I always tried to stop and see what tiny Mitch was going to pack. Each day his collection of treasures was different, each day a unique expression of his lovely heart. I often imagined what treasures he carried with him had to say about his state of mind. One thing is for sure, he was a tender, sweet child. I miss this little boy’s tender soul.

Natalie would often place a secret note for Mitch and our other kids in their backpacks before they went to school. She wanted them to know that she loved them and thought of them always. And perhaps on a day that wasn't quite going right, these little notes would become a lifeline of love for a discouraged heart in a sea of trouble. As her husband, I would occasionally see one of her thoughtful notes in my own bag, too, and it meant so much to me. If that small gesture of love meant so much to me, I could only imagine what it meant to our kids. I love her for that.

At about the same time I took this photo, I had taken Mitch to work with me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

“I’ve been blessed to take Mitch to work on occasion. Often, he’ll sit with me at the conference room table while I’m meeting with employees & contractors. Sweet Mitch will quietly find himself coloring, playing with toys, and driving cars on my back and across my arms, or playing games by himself. He is such a sweet little boy.

I’m always surprised how considerate Mitch [can be] of his surroundings and how careful he is not to be disruptive. I suppose keeping him at an office for hours at a time is not very fun. But Mitchie asks me if he can come … and he is so enthusiastic about it. Each time he comes to work with me, I’ll bring a sleeping bag and pillow and we’ll make a comfy fort under the table – just like I would make as a young boy, but better. I’ll surround him with toys and things to do and kiss his sweet face as he wiggles himself into his comfy fortress with a smile. I have so much fun with him.

Sometimes I’m tempted to call all my meetings off and spend the entire day making forts and playing with toys. I am not convinced age will diminish my desire to become a kid again.

After my meetings, I always take him to lunch, and we talk about his favorite kitties and the blanket forts we’re going to make when we get home. I worry he’s growing up much too fast.”


Fast indeed.

Seven years would pass in a flash, and this little boy would no longer be with us. As Mitch was collecting his childhood treasures through the years, as little children do, I was also collecting memories and experiences – for that is all we really carry with us in life, and beyond.

Like my son, I have a backpack of treasures I always carry with me, only it cannot be seen with the eyes and instead it’s felt with the heart. That backpack is filled to the brim with love and treasured memories. Filled to overflowing.

MAGIC MOMENTS

The fall Mitchell’s heart was failing we took our kids to a local skate park so they could watch budding athletes perform their craft. Natalie, sensing Mitchell’s longing to be healthy and strong like the other children, said in a sweet tone, “Hey Mitchie, I have an idea.” Mitch was on the verge of being sad, but smiled a little because he knew his mom loved him.

Moments later, our broken boy was giggling with a kind of glee only children know as he started playing his favorite game: “run your brothers over with your wheelchair.” This was a magic moment.

During this time of trouble and worry, Natalie turned a sad time upside down ... a hardship into a measure happiness. I love her for that. I love her for so many things - but tonight, I love her for being a light in the darkness.

This weekend, I’m going to follow my wife’s quiet and loving example. I’m going to create moments that bring a measure of happiness to my family. Sometimes those magic moments just happen spontaneously, but more often they are a function of choice. The most ordinary moments can become magic. And as far as I can tell, even the most ordinary moments aren’t that ordinary after all ... for a moment well-spent pays dividends of joy and gratitude for a lifetime. This image ... this moment remembered, brings my heart hope and healing. Heaven knows I need that now and I’ll need it in the future.

A THOUSAND POINTS

What you see here is a small sampling of tender mercies I’ve observed along Mitchell's Journey. As you read what follows, you’ll be able to see a visual illustration in this image. I hope that in sharing things through this lens, it can help others examine their own life and start to see little points of light and the connections between them.

It starts [on the left] with tiny Mitchell, less than an hour after he was born. I was just about to give Mitch his very first bath and took this photo before a nurse placed my sweet son in my arms. As I held my little baby in my hands, I felt a lump in my throat and tears filled my eyes. In this very moment, my heart multiplied. I consider Mitchell's birth, and his very existence, a tremendous blessing in my life. One of Heaven's tender ironies is that sometimes our greatest blessings can become our greatest challenges ... and our greatest challenges can end up becoming our greatest blessings.

You’ll notice a subtle red glow behind the photo of newborn Mitch. That symbolizes the distinct impression I had the moment I first laid eyes on him. Though he appeared healthy and showed no signs whatsoever anything was amiss, I knew something was seriously wrong with him. For the next 3 years, I had a recurring impression Mitch would have a short life. I’d talk to those closest to me and it was always dismissed by others as if to say, “you worry too much.” But I knew something was wrong, and heaven wanted me to prepare. That is a tender mercy.

In the months and years that followed, I witnessed a tender relationship between Mitchell and his mother. I loved to see those two souls together. As time passed I had the feeling these two were meant to be joined as mother and son - that they both had an important mission in each other's lives. I would watch in wonder as these two beautiful souls served and helped each other in unique ways.

On the top left, you’ll see a photo of Natalie and Mitch just seconds after Mitchell was diagnosed, at the age of three. I consider Mitchell's early diagnosis another tender mercy. There, you’ll see a point of light is red because it symbolizes a hardship. Hardships can turn into blessings, too. You see, that hard news put in motion early medical intervention and a support system that would play a vital role in the health and well-being of our son. The circle of stars that surrounds little Mitch wearing leg braces depicts various people and organizations that surrounded our son on his medical journey. Each a tender mercy. Each a treasured point of light.

What followed Mitchell’s early diagnosis is a line of stars that signify a thousand, thousand points of light. So many blessings, I could write volumes of books about them. One day, I might.

As Mitchell’s life was coming to an end, the points of light we encountered became more tender and revealing of a Father in Heaven that cares very much about us. A Father who cares even about a little boy who was very sick and in need of comfort.

That line of lights from Mitchell’s early diagnosis led to an image that summarizes the life we had with Mitch, while he was with us. We did our best to make the most of the time we had. As painful as knowing death was certain, it was a tender mercy to know time was short and we needed to make the most of it.

An offshoot from that line of lights is a symbolic photo that means a great deal to me. Just a few months before Mitchell passed away, I was on a photoshoot with a friend who was growing his hair and beard for an Old Testament film. We wanted to take a series of photos of him depicting the life of the Savior. At one point, I asked if we could take a photo of Mitch leaving his wheelchair - which would serve to symbolize so much about my faith and son’s circumstance. We had no idea the comforting and symbolic role this image would soon play in our lives after Mitchell passed.

The red star, signaling Mitchell’s end-stage heart failure put in motion many, many points of light that I will begin to share, here on Mitchell’s Journey, in the coming weeks and months. For now, what you see shows only three. The green stars are symbolic of inspired acts of others that became tender mercies for our family and son.

One of those was points of light was a tiny puppy. Mitchell’s grandfather felt compelled, or better said inspired, to find a tiny companion for Mitch. None of us know what little time actually was left – but for some reason, his grandfather was in a hurry about it. Mitch had a few beautiful weeks with this puppy before he was admitted to the hospital for end-stage heart failure. When Mitch came home to die, this little puppy brought Mitch comfort, companionship, and love – all the way to the moment he took his last breath. You’ll notice in essay entitled, Nightfall, baby Marlie had curled around Mitchell’s head just before he passed away – providing comfort to a little boy who was in need of tender mercy. The blessing of that puppy came exactly at the right time.

The center image shows Mitch getting out of bed - which at first glance seems like nothing much to write about. The story behind this image, however, is one that I’ll forever treasure as a profound example of our Father’s love and concern. The story is called Meatloaf - which details how a neighbor who recently moved into our area, knowing little of our circumstances other than we had a sick child, volunteered to bring our family a meal. Mitch had stopped eating and he was wasting away. Natalie and I were praying and pleading for more time. This woman (a stranger to us at the time) went to the grocery store to get ingredients for a meal she had mastered and found everyone enjoyed. Yet, while she was shopping, she received a recurring impression … “meatloaf.” The more she ignored it, the stronger the impression became. She nervously followed that impression but worried, “Who likes meatloaf anymore?” With a timid knock on our door, she almost apologetically handed over a lovely dinner of with meatloaf as its centerpiece. When Mitch discovered someone brought meatloaf, he said, “I love meatloaf.” With his mother’s help, he got out of bed and ate a full meal. Mitch received much-needed nourishment to his beleaguered body. Our Father cared enough about the cries of two terrified parents and the desire of a sick little boy to live just a little longer, that He would inspire a stranger to do just what was needed. I cannot thank Him enough.

Below that image is a photo of little Mitch home on hospice surrounded by over 100 heart-shaped, hand-written notes from concerned neighbors. Mitchell’s heart was broken and failing but was lifted by the kind hearts of loving souls that surrounded him. An inspired husband and wife, who live in our neighborhood, felt compelled to serve little Mitch and put this labor of love in motion. Mitch would then say, “Why do people care so much? I’m just a regular kid.” With tears in our eyes, we told him, “You matter because you are you – and these people want you to know you are special. They want you to know they care.” Mitch carefully read every single note – and those notes meant a great deal to him. With a legion of people who loved and supported him, Mitch faced a certain and final fate with a new kind of courage borne of love and unending support.

This illustration is a tiny glimpse of a million blessings my sweet little boy received on a very difficult journey. When life feels especially dark, I come back to this and I’m reminded that we are never alone in our suffering. Sometimes it feels like we’re all alone, in the dark. What I have learned on Mitchell’s Journey is that things are always happening in the background, things we cannot now see. Points of light that will one day appear as blessings tailor-made, just for you and just for me. If only we have eyes to see.

 

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NOTE: This essay is part of a 10 part series exploring some of the tender mercies we've discovered along Mitchell's Journey. My hope is that as you read these stories of little Mitch, you might discover points of light in your own life journey. What's more, I hope the discovery of your own points of light might bring you an increase of faith, gratitude, and courage to face your own dark times.