Immediately after Mitchell’s diagnosis, he was put on a rigid dose of steroids. For reasons not completely understood by doctors, these steroids are known to keep these young boys ambulatory a little longer. The moment DMD children stop walking, they are introduced to a host of new troubles. So, keeping them on their feet as long as possible is important.
For the first few weeks I remember watching my sweet wife break into tears as little Mitch would spit the medicine out, not wanting to take them. “How do I help my child do this important thing?” she asked. It wouldn’t take long for tiny Mitch to accept his new reality and that taking medicine was part of life for him.
I remember this moment so vividly. It was a warm summer morning and our kids were anxious to play in the back yard. Mitch sat on our kitchen counter and looked at his mommy, wanting only to make her happy. Such is the heart of a child. He swallowed a bitter pill with a smile and then dashed off to some childhood adventure. He didn’t know why he needed to do that unpleasant thing – he trusted his parents that it was helping him.
And that is how things went over the next few years. Little Mitch always trusting and obedient, Natalie ever faithful and true to her baby boy. Never have I witnessed a more beautiful relationship than between these two. Mitch wanted only to make his mommy proud, and Natalie wanted only to keep her child healthy and happy. That is the most beautiful yet agonizing thing about parenthood – the moment we have a child our happiness and fulfillment comes in and through our children. If that is how it works for mortals, I can only imagine how it feels to our Father.
Fast-forward a few short years, in what felt like the blink of an eye, I found myself trembling at the knees as my son was dying. Mitch wanted to live and desperately didn’t want to hurt his mother’s feelings. I remember just as vividly that quiet winter night when he clung to life by a tattered thread. I imagine he, at least in spirit, looked toward his mommy in this same way. Eyes filled with love … wanting only to make her happy. Such a vision in my mind breaks me on the inside.
I remember being awoken by an unseen influence. It was as real to me as anything I have ever known in mortality. I was in a deep sleep on the floor beside his bed – exhausted beyond measure – then suddenly I was wide awake. I had a distinct impression I needed to tuck Mitch in. I rose to my feet, then fell to my knees beside him. With one hand holding his and another on his forehead, I leaned in and whispered to Mitch that I was tucking him in, just as he liked it. I told him to not be afraid. I told him I knew he was tired and in need of rest – that he could go and we would be okay. I told my son how proud his mother and I were of him. I told Mitch that he was all we ever hoped he would be, and so much more.
Thirty minutes later, he was gone. I know he heard me. I know it.
The death of my son has been the most bitter of pills to swallow. I have never known an agony of the soul such as this. Grief is a daily dose of sorrow that is bitter to the taste. Yet grief need not make us bitter, for I believe it has the power to make us better.
Since the passing of my son I have thought often about the bitter pills, we must swallow in life and the bitter cups from which we must sometimes drink. They are awful in the moment. Sometimes they are terrifying. But they are necessary if we are to grow. I have come to learn that bitter pills can be blessings. I can’t think of a hardship in my life that hasn’t been an agent of change and growth. Those bitter pills I’ve had to swallow in the past have helped me – sometimes immediately, but more often over time. I have discovered that with heaven’s help, the things which seemed to hurt me actually helped me.
So, when I have moments of grief … when it seems I am choking on that bitter pill … I will follow my son’s example and trust my Father; I will have faith that my struggles are helping me be something I don’t yet have a mind to see.