Somehow he knew. It was in his countenance. You know, that place on the face that has no real space. That thing that is felt more than seen. Without realizing it, Mitch seemed to sense his time was coming to an end.

A few days after Mitch was home on hospice he asked his mother if he could have an early birthday. “My real birthday feels so far away. It just feels so far away…” he said in shallow breaths to his mother. That request was so out of character for Mitch. He was a boy of routine and rigor; he followed rules carefully, always took his turn and never asked for more than he had. However small his cup may have seemed compared to others, to Mitch, his cup was always running over. So for Mitch to ask for such a thing told us our son was listening to promptings – that his soul was being prepared for the great transition from this life to the next.

Natalie rallied a group of his friends and had a most amazing birthday just two days later. My sister, Diane, a tender and loving soul, came over and filled the room with balloons which hugged the ceiling and made everything seem light. I had never thought much about balloons until this day. The moment I saw the joy it brought my son changed all of that. To this day, I look upon balloons with a child’s eye.

Tiny Marlie sat faithfully on Mitchell’s lap and was a great comfort to him. I thank my Father that He cared enough about my son (His son) provide little tender mercies such as that. Experiencing the death of my son has been utter hell, yet I can see a lot of heaven’s hand during that difficult time. I know we weren't alone.

So, on this special day I sat against the wall while all the neighborhood boys gathered round our son and played games. An old friend of mine from years past took compassion and arranged to have a local sports mascot surprise Mitch. He didn't need to do that, yet he did; and his act of love and compassion was a gift within a gift. Mitch laughed and smiled and for a moment it felt like everything was normal again.

Almost like shifting temperatures in the ocean, I could see in Mitchell’s countenance a constant shift from being a little boy in the moment with his friends to some place a great way off. A place that was unfamiliar to him … a place not as warm as the world he had grown to know. Mitch sensed things were changing, but he didn't know what.

Knowing Mitchell’s tendency to worry, we would wait a little longer to tell our son. That was our gift to Mitch: to be a child for just one more day. Soon, he would confront the coldest of all realities and face his impending death with courage and more care for his mother’s broken heart than his own. 

Not many days from the moment of this photo he would lay in his bed, struggling to breathe, and say “I don’t think I can survive.” No sooner had he said those words than Mitch closed his eyes and drifted to sleep. Natalie wept silently and would wet our son’s hands with her kisses and tears. Then, in a moment of profound triumph, this little child became more a man than I could ever hope to be when he awoke and told his mom he would be okay.

Looking back, perhaps Mitch wasn't so interested in getting gifts after all. Maybe that birthday was his gift to us. One last celebration of all that was our son. One last chance to tell him how much we cared.

I love my son. Of all the gifts I tried to give him, none compared to the gift he was to me. The gift he still is to me. Though this gift is heavy to carry, each day it is making me stronger. Though my wounds are still tender to the touch, I am learning how to tend to wounds that medicine cannot entrust. Each day, as I contemplate the meaning of life, suffering and this mortal experience I draw ever closer to my Father. I am learning to talk to Him like a son might talk to his dad. 

The more I contemplate my son’s difficult journey, the more I am learning to recognize gifts within gifts. As a thoughtful person wrote on my post yesterday: “it is less important what happens to us than what happens within us.” That is the gift within the gift. 

One day, when we finally see what lies beyond death’s great abyss, we may be surprised to understand pain and struggle was in fact a gift within a gift. For nothing of value comes easy. No, not a thing. It is as true on earth as it is of heavenly things.