It was a beautiful late-summer day high in the mountains. Natalie’s family had a reunion at Aspen Grove, a family-centered resort just a few miles up the road from Sundance, Utah. The sun had fallen behind the mountain peaks, and you could feel the cool air rushing down the canyon – as if nature had turned on the air conditioning. It was an almost perfect night. Almost.
We just watched a performance in an outdoor amphitheater when Mitch said to me, “Dad, everything is so beautiful. Do you think this is what heaven is like?” I smiled and said, “As long as you’re with me, I know I’m close to heaven.” He smiled softly … and so did I.
The evening was drawing near, and I needed to go soon. I was leaving for a business trip to Australia the next morning – and although I was excited to visit that country, I wanted very much to stay with my family. Mitch had an especially soft demeanor about him that night. He knew I had to go, even though he wished I’d stay and it seemed as if his gentle ways, his stillness, was his way of drinking in the moments. I was so captured by his spirit; I had to take this photo. It’s out of focus, but what’s in focus is all that really matters.
As I was about to go, Mitch held my hand and said, “Dad, I wish you’d stay.” My heart sank, and I felt a lump in my throat begin to grow. “Oh, Mitchie, I wish I could stay, too. I’ll be back in a few weeks.” Mitch squeezed my hand as if to say, “Okay, Dad.”
I decided I’d spend a little more time, so just after this photo, I took Mitch and my kids to an ice cream shop just out of view of this photo, on the left. The conversation I had with them and the memories we made that night was sweeter than all the ice cream on earth. While getting ready for my trip was important, the time I spent with my son was significant – both for him and for me.
In many ways, this gentle evening feels like it happened yesterday. At the same time, it feels a lifetime away.
Mitchell’s birthday is this Sunday, April 29th. He would have been 16 years old. That’s hard for me to imagine … sixteen. For as long as I walk the earth, young Mitch will always be my 10-year-old son.
I think I’m going to cry more than usual this weekend – tears of grief, gratitude, and a deep resolve to live a life of quiet significance. The longer I live, and the more I experience cycles of hurt and healing, I’m convinced a life of significance is often invisible to the casual observer. Instead, significance is found in the quiet, meaningful things we do. I’ve observed that a life of significance isn’t found in the things we own – for in the end, if we’re not careful, they end up owning us. Nor is significance found in popularity or prestige – those are only figments of social imaginations. At least to me, living a life of significance is found in doing things that matter with those who matter most to us.
When I see this photo, I’m reminded what a life of significance looks like … what it feels like. Yes, we must all work, pay bills, and manage adult things – that’s important. But the difference between importance and significance matters; in the same way difference between being productive or simply being busy, or the difference between feeling happy or hollow.
Fast forward a little, in what felt like the blink of an eye; I remember kneeling by my son’s bed as he was softly dying. I thought back on this perfect moment with Mitch, and I remembered his tender words to me. I then whispered in a weepy tone, “My sweet son, I wish you’d stay.” To my heartbreak, he didn’t stay – but I have found other ways to keep him with me – through writing, examination, and prayerful meditation. It’s not the same as having him actually with me – not by a long shot – but keeping him in my heart is the best I can do. There isn’t a day I don’t think about him, and I often wonder what kind of young man he’d have become. I don’t cry like I used to. But I always think of him. Always. And sometimes I cry.
Though I wish he had stayed, there are a few things my son left behind. Little Mitch taught me about the art of stillness. He taught me about the gift of gratitude. He taught me how to slow down and drink in the moments. He taught me to understand the difference between what’s important and what’s significance.