Posts tagged Adversity
ONE STEP AT A TIME, A MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB*
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A few weeks ago, my brother and I agreed to summit Mount Timpanogos.  I was excited for the adventure because I’d never climbed a mountain before.  Even more, I remember Mitch tugging softly at my arm, deep in the evening shadow of Aspen Grove, as he pointed to this mountain and said, “Dad, I wonder what it’s like up there.  I guess I’ll never know because my legs are so weak.”  I hugged him softly and said, “Son, one day I’ll climb it and take pictures for you.”  My sweet boy smiled and tucked his head into my arms.

The next year Mitch was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and in less than a year he died.  I forgot about my promise to Mitch because my heart broke and I was trying to keep him alive.  Then, after he passed, I was just trying to survive grief.  I’m still trying.

It wasn’t until my brother and I decided to climb it that I remembered what I told Mitch.  I didn’t say anything to anyone, because it was a promise I made my son.  I quietly printed a painting of Mitch and slipped it inside my backpack. 

On our first night, we camped at Emerald Lake and I took a photo of little Mitch and said a prayer in my heart, “Hey Mitch, it’s Dad.  I’m sorry I’m late … but I’m going to take photos for you. I hope you can see what I see.”

I learned a lot on this hike.  Firstly, I learned that I can do hard things.  I learned that I don’t like heights and I especially don’t enjoy standing on the edge of nearly thousand-foot cliffs.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to train for hard hikes – whereas I jumped in before I was physically ready.  An indiscretion I’d pay for on the way down the mountain.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Despite the difficulties of the hike, I was inspired by the majestic beauty of earth.  I loved the fresh air, mountain flowers, vast glacial valleys, and wildlife.  Had Mitch he been with me physically, he would have been in awe of everything. 

On day two, my brother and I reached the mountain summit.  The view was breathtaking.  

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At the summit was also a small fiberglass storm shelter with autograph laden walls – I added the signature Mitchell’s Journey 2018.  In my heart, I said, “It took me seven years to get here son, but we did it, Mitch.”

A few hours later, we were back at basecamp.  My knee was starting to swell from a surgery years ago, and I knew I was going to be slow.  I didn’t say anything about it but told my brother to head down the mountain ahead of me because I was not going to be as fast as him.  As I started my slow descent, I began to walk strangely to compensate for my injury.  Doing that made my legs incredibly weak.  It was a struggle.  What should have taken me three hours, took nine.

There were times I wondered how I could go on.  I looked down the vast mountain valley, 4 thousand feet below and got discouraged.  “Oh, Mitch, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”  But I remembered what my sweet wife taught me, “Just take the next best step.”  So that’s what I did.  I had to stop looking at the vast distance ahead of me and just concentrate on the next step.  It made all the difference.  Though I started to walk like a drunken toddler, I looked at the ground and said to myself, “Okay, I have the strength for one more step.”  One step turned into two steps, and before I knew it 2,000 steps had passed – then I’d turn around, startled by the distance I covered.  If ever there were a metaphor for grief, this is it.  We can look across the vast valleys of sorrow and wonder how we’ll ever make it.  That’s how I survive grief – one step at a time.

There was a point that my legs were so weak that I was sure I’d collapse at any moment – and I almost did a thousand times.  My brother kept tabs on me via text.  “How are you doing?”  “Call me when you get to your truck.”  “Are you okay?”  There was a brief moment I tried to take a shortcut through some tall bushes, only to meet a 500-foot cliff.  I wasted precious energy and water trying to climb up the mountain to find my way back to the trail – I made the same loop three times.  I learned that uninformed shortcuts in rugged terrain are not a good idea.  I texted my brother about my misadventure, and he became especially worried.  I assured him I was okay.

By the time the sun was setting, my phone was almost dead, and I had to turn it off to conserve what little battery I had left – should a real emergency arise.  Every step was a huge struggle.  My awkward walk to preserve my knee obliterated my leg strength.  I was literally stumbling over pebbles.  I began to think about Mitch and other boys with DMD.  There I was, looking at a simple dirt path, struggling to put one foot in front of another.  Though I don’t pretend to know their struggle first-hand, my struggle with leg weakness helped me empathize in new ways.  To a young boy with DMD, a simple staircase may as well be Mt. Everest. 

As I found myself finally near the bottom of the trail, I turned my phone on to check my position on the trail.  I then saw a text from my brother, “I’m on my way.”  I texted him back, “I promise I’m fine.  My legs are just really weak … I have less than a mile to go.”

At long last, with the mountain’s night breeze pressing on my skin, I looked down a dimly lit corridor of trees that led to the parking lot.  My legs were jelly and getting to the parking lot was going to be a struggle.  As I slowly exited the canopy of trees, there was a small grassy field separating the forest from the parking lot; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother running at breakneck speed toward me.  I said, “Oh, Doug, you didn’t need to come back.  I was fine … my legs were just weak, that’s all.”  He insisted on carrying my pack to my truck.  Though I was exhausted, I noticed his eyes carefully studying me – looking for signs of trouble.  Even when my 40-pound backpack was relieved, I found it difficult to take a step without the help of my walking sticks.

In truth, I became emotional at the sight of my brother running toward me with a look of deep concern.  I was emotional not because I needed to be rescued – but because he cared enough to try. 

A lot happened on this hike.  I kept a sacred promise to Mitch.  I learned I can do hard things – even when I’m not prepared for them.  I was reminded that any difficult journey, including those of grief, is best traveled one step at a time.  I experienced a new level of empathy for children with muscle wasting diseases like DMD.  I learned that naive shortcuts can be dangerous.  And perhaps, most tenderly, I witnessed what brotherly loved looked like when I saw my brother running toward me at the trails end.

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Though in this photo I’m standing on the summit of a mountain … in a way, I’m also standing on a different summit – one that can’t be seen with mortal eyes.  From there, I see life differently; and in the haze of the distant horizon, I see taller mountains yet to climb.  I can reach their summits, however slowly, one step at a time.

 

 

THE SWEETEST LEMONADE

Without warning, an enormous clap of thunder exploded, and my boys and I jumped with fear.  A dark storm was brewing, and the afternoon sky had become almost dark as night.  The campfire we were just about to start would have to wait until the downpour passed.  From the looks of it, it seemed the storm was going to linger a while as the cool mountain wind almost ushered us into our tent for protection. 

Mitch squirmed into his sleeping back and wiggled around as if to snuggle deeply into the mound of soft things that surrounded him.  I chuckled a little because I did the same thing when I was a boy, and in that moment, I remembered how fun it was to be young.  I looked upon my boys with a touch of envy. Mitch pulled his hands behind his head, his face bearing a light mustache from chocolate milk, and began to smile softly.  “We’re safe and sound, right Dad?” Mitch said with a mixture of confidence and concern.  “You bet, Mitch.  This is going to be a crazy camping adventure.”  Mitch smiled and said, “I know you’ll keep us from floating away.”

Within minutes, we could hear the intermittent pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent.  A few minutes later, a burst of raindrops assaulted the side of the tent as the wind began to pick up speed.  Soon, we were in the middle of a torrential downpour.  I worried if our tent was rated for an hurricane-like storm.  Mitch nudged my arm and said, “Doesn’t this remind you of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day?”  Mitch giggled as I peered nervously out the window, keeping an eye out for a flash flood. 

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We knew there might be bad weather, so our backup plan was to have a den party in the tent.  So, I pulled out a portable DVD player, broke out some snacks and pulled up our covers as the boys and I watched a movie under the thinly veiled safety of our tent. 

I didn’t sleep well that night.  Aside from a few breaks in the early evening, the rain never really let up.  So, I laid in the tent in a trance-like state – somewhere between sleep and wakefulness … sitting up every hour to make sure the boys were dry.  By morning the kids were rested, and I was hammered.

Of all the moments in life, the ones I remember with great fondness and nostalgia, aren’t the times things went perfectly. Instead, the moments I treasure most are when we struggled and found our way through a hard time.  Don’t get me wrong, perfect times are just that … perfect.  I love and appreciate them for what they are; honey is honey.  But the taste of lemonade is never so sweet as when you must work to make it so.  Perhaps that’s why hard times often end up becoming our best times, in the end. 

This photo of Mitch reminds me that even in our difficulties, we can make the best of what we’ve got – and somehow, some way, we’ll look back and be glad we lived the life we lived.  In every struggle, there’s a price to be paid; but in the end, that’s what makes the sweetest lemonade.

 

LIONS AND BEARS 


My daughter took these photos the day after Mitchell came home. He was so excited to be surrounded by all that was familiar to him. Most importantly, he was grateful to be with his family – for, above all else, family is what he loved the most.

Within a few days of this photo, Mitchell lost the ability to smell. It never came back. He would tell me later how much he missed smelling the things he loved. He yearned for the scent of his favorite shampoo, the smell of popcorn and his dad’s cologne.

A week before he passed away Mitchell asked if we could go to the store to buy shampoo that had a stronger scent … so that maybe he could smell again. I hugged him and quietly started to cry. Oh, the little things we so often take for granted … 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

My wife and I were anxious to hold, hug and kiss him without the spider web of cables, tubes and IV’s. It was a surreal time for us. 48 hours prior to this very moment Mitchell had a team of 12 medical professionals all working vigorously to keep him alive. At home, he had 1 hospice nurse whose job was to help him feel comfortable and usher his body through the painful process of organ failure and death. 

For Mitchell, touch was important to him. No blanket that could replace the warmth that came from his parent’s embrace. Ever since he was a baby, he would rub his forehead against mine -sometimes for minutes at a time. He wouldn't say a word and neither would I; we didn't need to. We spoke more in our silence and gestures than could ever be communicated by words alone. This was one of his ways of loving deeply and I never tired of it. I yearn to do it again today, and my heart sinks to the depths of my soul that I cannot.

Within a few days of this photo, Mitchell lost the ability to smell. It never came back. He would tell me later how much he missed smelling the things he loved. He yearned for the scent of his favorite shampoo, the smell of popcorn and his dad’s cologne. He had an appreciation for the little things in life, and I admired that about him greatly. A week before he passed away Mitchell asked if we could go to the store to buy shampoo that had a stronger scent … so that maybe he could smell again. I hugged him and quietly started to cry. Oh, the little things we so often take for granted … 

I will never smell things the same again. Never a scent my nose encounters that I don’t thank my God for all that I have.

Over the last 2 years, I would occasionally ask Mitchell what advice he would give people about life. Without fail he would respond “Be nice to each other and be glad you’re alive. Nothing else matters.” With this philosophy, he never varied. I found it fascinating that a child so young was so attuned to the intrinsic value of life. What’s more, he understood the deeply spiritual value of kindness. Most young children seem to worry more about playthings and consumption (perhaps too many adults do, too) – but Mitchell possessed a sobriety about life and relationships that was far beyond his years. It was as if his soul knew what was to come long before his mortal body failed him.

I was raised to accept the fact life is tough, because it is. And at some point, the world tells us we have to suck it up and take it like a “man” or a woman, or a lion or a bear. But I also realized in the privacy of our bedrooms or the quite of our minds there is often an unspoken dimension to us . . . a part of us that is vulnerable and mortal; a part that loves deeply and hurts honestly. 

Years ago I stopped pretending to be a lion or a bear. I decided to be human – and that has been liberating. 

Three weeks after my daughter took these photos, Mitchell’s weary and scarred heart, after having fought valiantly to survive, fluttered and stopped. 

I would give everything I own, or could ever hope to be, to have my little son back with me. His broken heart, a heart that loved deeply and hurt honestly, was more noble and worthy than all the lions and bears on earth. Mitchell reminds me what it means to be human and that the lions and bears we often pretend to be are just a mirage. My son taught me there are no lions or bears, only humans … and to pretend otherwise is to cheat others and ourselves.

One day, when we all have eyes to truly see, we’ll come to know there was so much more to mortality.  That to be nice to each other and grateful for life are among the prerequisites to spiritual sight.

THE COLLATERAL OF LOSS

It had only been a few short months since Mitchell passed away.  Summer was behind us, and the air was getting colder each day.  In many ways, our grief journey was just beginning, and we’d walk many miles in deep in the shadow of death before we’d find any measure of rest.

As a father, my heart was broken and my soul weary with grief over the loss of my son.  Every single day, for over two years, my lungs felt shallow due to chronic weeping. 

I’ve come to understand sometimes I must allow my children to struggle so that they might learn and grow.  ... For all of us, the seeds in need of growth are ones not found on the surface, but deep inside the soul.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Though my wife and I were suffering, it was never lost on us that our children were hurting, too.  As Natalie and I searched for ways to help our children process their own grief, she discovered Intermountain Health Care (IHC) just established a grief workshop for siblings surviving the loss of a family member.  In the previous winter months, I was grateful for the way in which they cared for Mitch in the hospital, and I again admired their desire to help families on the other side of medicine.  Their motto, “The child, first and always” was not only true of their practice of medicine, but their compassion for other children left behind when medicine failed.

As we arrived at an unfamiliar park to drop our youngest son off, we noticed balloons surrounding their gathering point.  “It must be them,” Natalie said with a comforting tone.  Wyatt, unsure he wanted to be there, looked out the window and didn’t say a thing.  None of us wanted to be there.  We just wanted things the way they used to be.

Wyatt stood on the perimeter of the park, unsure of strangers and what to expect.  Suddenly, one of the staff members said, “Hey catch this!”  A Frisbee was hurled toward Wyatt, who then crouched and caught the flying disc as he smiled.  Within moments, other staff members gathered around Wyatt and began playing with him.  They went from being strangers to friends in a matter of minutes.

I had a hard time keeping my emotions at bay as I saw my tender son hurting in his own way and I felt a deep measure of gratitude for these professionals who understood that there is more to medicine than biology and chemistry … that we must also care for the mind and heart, too. Wyatt began to heal that day – and my heart was grateful.

I have learned the collateral of loss goes far beyond a mother and father’s sorrow.  Children suffer in their own way and in their own time – which makes parental grief even more complicated.  We not only grieve over the loss of a fallen child, but we also grieve over the pain our surviving children experience.  I won’t detail such complications in this post – but I will say that even six months after the death of a child, the hell of such grief is only just beginning. 

Despite the collateral damage of loss – which damage, on the surface, can seem significant; there are also collateral gains – if we soften our hearts and seek to understand the meaning of things.  I believe hard things happen because God not only wants us to be strong, He wants us to become compassionate. The collateral of loss is emotional pain … but there is also spiritual gain. 

C.S. Lewis once observed, “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love."  When I think of my own parenting experience, I’ve come to understand sometimes I must allow my children to struggle so that they might learn and grow.  That, too, is love.  For all of us, the seeds in need of growth are ones not found on the surface, but deep inside the soul.