We had just finished his early birthday. Mitch was grateful to have a few of his close friends over to celebrate his life. To my knowledge, none of the boys knew Mitch was dying, they just knew he was sick and we were celebrating his life a little early. If they did know, they kept it a secret so as not to frighten Mitch. Natalie and I carefully revealed his circumstance over time, but we wanted him to be a little boy just a while longer. That was our present to him.
At this moment, Mitch still had every reason to be discouraged. He knew his heart was failing and that no matter what, his life would change as he knew it. Despite his fears, he set his troubles aside and found joy in that moment. He knew he was in trouble, but he was just happy to be alive. There was so much joy in his heart that night. No longer tethered by a million beeping machines, Mitch was free … save the PICC line that entered his right arm and pumped medicine directly into his heart.
As I tucked him in that night, Mitch whispered, “Dad, I had the best day today.” My heart nearly burst with a mixture of grief and gratitude.
Mitch taught me in this moment that there are still reasons to be glad, no matter what is before us. Though my family, darkness gathered around us, we had moments of sheer, almost heavenly joy. We were afraid but glad for the moments we had.
Mitch reminds me of a saying I stumbled into not long ago: “Don’t be so cool you can’t cry. Don’t be so smart you can’t wonder. Don’t’ be so set on your sunny days that you can’t roll with the thunder.” In so many ways, that saying described Mitch.
Now, there are times for joy – and this was one of them. My heart is glad every time I see this image. But sometimes the thunder rolls so hard it breaks us. There are sacred moments of immense suffering – the likes of which those who do not experience it themselves, can simply not imagine. It wouldn’t be long before the smiles and laughter that once graced the walls of our home turned to ash and a river of tears soaked the floor. There was real suffering in our home – and in truth, there remains a measure of suffering today. Grief is the work of a lifetime, and that’s okay.
Though I must continue this hard work of grieving and healing, I will always be real and acknowledge the sad, then look beyond and find a reason to be glad. That is what a dying boy taught his dad.
A few more thoughts:
One of the defining characteristics of Mitch was his ability to adapt. Though Mitchell's muscles were weak at this time and he couldn't throw a regular ball for very long, he decided in this moment to play dodge ball with balloons. Mitch laughed and laughed as he pounced each balloon toward his opponent.
This night, Mitch wasn't sad he wasn't strong like other kids, he was just glad he had any strength at all.
One more thing ... the shirt he was wearing bore the words, "Watch Me Win." It was given to him as a gift when he returned home from the hospital. Loving friends in our neighborhood wanted to give him a boost of confidence. Mitch loved this shirt - both for the design and the message it conveyed.
Though Mitch lost his life, he won the more important fight. By the very way he lived his life, he won the greater prize.