I WILL WALK BESIDE YOU

Everything was falling apart. Mitchell’s vitals were on a steady and quick decline and all he wanted to be was a kid.

Death was clawing at our door and would soon find its way in. We had reached a point where we began to administer powerful drugs to mask the pain of organ failure. He was already on medication that erased from the mind oxygen hunger; else he would have felt out of breath, as though he were vaguely suffocating. With each dose of these new drugs, Mitch became more and more sleepy.

I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We were in the middle of a dilemma: we wanted every minute we could have with Mitch, but we didn’t want him to suffer. To withhold medication so he would remain awake would have been selfish on our part, and would have caused our little boy pain. In order to spare Mitch unimaginable agony, we had to let go of what we wanted so that he wouldn’t suffer.

Mitch began to realize his medicine was making him sleepy, so he started to resist each dose because he wanted to be awake. He wanted to live his life – for he was glad to be alive. With tears running down our faces, we would explain to Mitch that the medicine would keep him from hurting. “But I just want to be awake. I just want to live,” Mitch would say in a soft, breathless tone. Then, not wanting to suffer, he would then take his next dose of pain medication and fall into a deeper sleep than the time before.

I can’t count the number of times I knelt, with bruised knees, at the side of Mitchell’s bed pleading with our Father to spare my son. And if he would not be spared, I begged that He would help my little boy to not feel scared or alone … that he would be given a measure of peace and understanding beyond his young years.

I also prayed that my Father would strengthen my feeble back so that I might learn to carry what I must. A weaker man he could not have chosen to bear this burden … for I was then, and remain today, imperfect and flawed. I didn’t feel capable of carrying such things.

So as I sat across Mitchell’s room, I witnessed two tender mercies that served as an answer to my prayers. Just after his dose of medicine, baby Marlie placed her head on Mitchell’s lap, ever offering tender affections. Natalie, my dear wife, sat softly next to Mitch and comforted him with a love only a mother can give. With her every gesture, it was as if she said, “Sweet boy, don’t be afraid, I will walk beside you.” I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.

In this very moment, I suddenly saw life through heaven’s eyes. Though I witnessed my little boy suffering the effects of being mortal, I also saw two angels who walked beside my son … tender mercies from a Heavenly Father who loved and cared about Mitch. In that moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and understanding.

Losing my son has forced me to dig deep. Yet, this hardship didn’t weaken my faith, it strengthened it and rooted out the stuff that got in the way. Despite the darkness of death and the weight of grief … which has been soul-crushing … I am a personal witness to tender mercies. They exist. They are as real as anything I know.

Though I am still blind and weak, I have a Father who patiently walks beside me … ever generous with tender mercies. I pray every day that I will have eyes to see. For if He was there for Mitch, it might very well be that He is doing the same for you and for me.

IN TIME

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.

GOLIATH AND THE LITTLE GIANT

Tiny Marlie stood bravely before Dragon, a much larger puppy. In Marlie’s mind, she was just as strong as her furry friend and always held her ground with a flurry of high-pitched barks and excited prancing. With one soft nudge of Dragon’s nose, tiny Marlie would topple over and roll into summersaults. Physically, she was no match. The moment she tumbled, she would jump to her feet and begin to bark as though nothing ever happened. In fact, she would bark like she was winning. Mitch smiled and giggled as he watched these two puppies play.

As I took this photo, the words crossed my mind, “Goliath and the little giant.” I couldn’t help but notice tiny Marlie as she stood bravely before her much larger friend, playful and strong. Marlie was a little giant – undaunted by what stood before her. In this same moment, I saw Mitch much like his puppy: a little giant of a different sort … a kind of giant you don’t see with your eyes, but sense with your soul. My mind then shifted to the ancient account of David and Goliath and what it meant to take fresh courage in the face of implacable odds.

I often wonder what crossed David’s mind as he stood in the long shadow of Goliath. I’ve heard so many variations of this quote that I don’t know who to attribute, but it has been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to act in spite of it. Did David’s soul shiver just a little bit at the sight of Goliath? Perhaps. Though small in stature as compared to his 9-foot opponent, David clearly possessed an inner strength and courage that cannot be forged by human hands or feigned by mortal hearts.

I did my best to teach Mitch that he was the son of a King and that he could call on Him for courage when the shadows of doubt grew especially dark or when his Goliaths seemed especially frightening. Mitch battled many Goliaths in his short life: he overcame fear, self-doubt, and a multitude of big and small battles – some so small they might seem insignificant to the casual observer, but to him, they were towering and he faced them bravely.

I sometimes wonder if mortals have life a little backward. We seem to measure so much by the accomplishment of big, visible things … the job promotion, the new car, or any number of accolades. Surely the big battles matter, but I’m persuaded that the little battles matter even more. Sometimes the big battles we face come because we ignored the little battles along the way. In like manner, victory is almost never achieved overnight but instead by little victories won over many days and nights. None of this is new thinking, and it has been said a million times by a million people. But we are human, and we are prone to forget. Perhaps, when we finally see with heaven’s eyes, we will discover to our great surprise that the little battles were really the big battles.

When confronted by his personal Goliaths, Mitch eventually won every battle with dignity and grace. Notice, I used the word "eventually". He didn’t always win at first, but he kept trying until he ultimately won. The one battle, however, he couldn’t win was that with death. As Mitchell’s final Goliath towered over him and stretched its long shadow, a shadow black as a moonless midnight, I admit I trembled with fear and anguish for my son. I cried out to the heavens, “Take me! Take me!” as though I could distract the Goliath of death and persuade it to come for me instead.

Like David, Mitch faced his ultimate Goliath with a kind of courage that cannot be forged by human hands or conjured up by mortal minds. Instead, he was strengthened by his knowledge of who he was and to whom he really belonged. Though Goliath was huge, David was filled with faith and a certain knowledge … which made him even huger. Mitch, too, was a little giant.

As I examine the past to learn and focus on my present to do, I have discovered one thing, maybe two. If Mitch could stand before his Goliaths, victorious, I know that I can, too. From the Goliath of grief to the quest for peace, I know this one thing is true: the little battles matter both for me and for you.

A SPECK IN THE UNIVERSE

And in the pitch of night, as I looked heavenward I saw a heavenly sight … forever, it seemed, I could see tender mercy upon tender mercy. In that dim light, I learned to see far beyond the veil of mortality.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It was a punishingly hot summer day. Evening was almost upon us when we stopped by our home which was under construction. We sold our previous home because it had too many stairs and we wanted to have something that would accommodate Mitchell’s growing physical needs.

When we arrived, our kids bounced out of our van and ran around the home to see what had changed. They were freshly bathed and smelled vaguely of soap and shampoo and were dressed in their jammies in preparation for a den party back at our apartment. Mitch and Ethan ran into what would soon be their room. Like little children do, they began making plans about where their beds would go, the forts they would make and where they would store their favorite toys. The little boy in me wanted to join them in their youthful adventures – but this was their time, and I loved watching a little of me in them.

Mitch, wearing his cute yellow t-shirt, ran to the corner of their room and said, “Effie, this is where we’ll sleep!” Ethan smiled, “Sweet, dude” and began to share his excitement about their brotherly plans.

It never occurred to me the hell I would experience in this very corner just a few years later. This spot where you see Mitch standing is exactly where he would die.

This was the same place I fell to my knees a thousand times and pleaded heavenward for my son’s deliverance from death. This is where I bartered with my Father and asked that He might take my life instead. The same place my wife bowed her head, broken and defeated in grief when Mitch would awaken long enough to tell his mom he would be okay. This is the exact same place, to the very inch, she would sense his soul linger after he passed away … where she heard a whisper to her soul, It’s okay, Mommy.

In this unremarkable corner of suburban America, this infinitely tiny speck the universe is hallowed ground. This is where I peered into the abyss, which is death, and found myself gasping for air as I was swallowed up in the darkness of grief. Yet, as my spiritual eyes began to adjust … as my soul began to search heavenward, I started to discern the many tender mercies heaven put in our path so we might bear our burdens more easily. The recognition of these invisible blessings were like little flecks of light – and the accumulation of these blessings presented themselves like a heavenly constellation so I could find my way in the pitch of night. Oh, what night grief can be. So dark … so heavy, one cannot see or scarcely breathe.

Yet, there, in this corner where I wished to die so that I might escape the grief of losing my child, I was given eyes to see Heaven’s tender hand and many loving mercies. Even still, I was required to walk the dark path of grief and was greatly pained therewith; for I wanted my son to be with me. 

This insignificant space, this speck in the universe … this is where I knelt with bruised knees: a plain, ordinary, and flawed man, begging for relief. And in the pitch of night, as I looked heavenward I saw a heavenly sight … forever, it seemed, I could see tender mercy upon tender mercy. In that dim light, I learned to see far beyond the veil of mortality.

IT’S OKAY MOMMY

It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. ‘I’ll be okay, Mommy.’
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Natalie had wept for a few hours. Exhausted from grief, she curled around her young boy’s head as if to comfort him – even though she was in the depths of hell and very much in need of comfort herself. 

There, in the quiet of a winter night, the world had fallen away into oblivion … and all that remained was our son whom we fought valiantly to save, but could not. As the warmth of his body drew cold, darkness gathered round us. How pitch black that darkness felt, I have not words to describe.

Just then, in that moment of profound agony, when hell seemed to open its mouth wide open … as if to swallow us whole, something sacred happened. Natalie felt a distinct impression that Mitch lingered … that he was with her in Spirit and she felt as if he whispered, “It’s okay, Mommy.” 

Comfort was his parting gift to his mother’s weary and broken soul. Comfort, and a knowledge that he still lives and loves her and that, at times in her life, he will be near to help. 

“It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. “I’ll be okay, Mommy.” 

I don’t know why such heavy things were placed on his tender shoulders, for he was an innocent boy of deep faith and enduring goodness. He was honest, faithful and true. At 10 years old, he was everything I have ever hoped to be. Yet, he died. 

Some might say God is cruel or indifferent by letting such hardships happen to children. What they forget is that nobody makes it out of here alive. What’s more, the purpose of life is not to build homes and garnish them with material things. We are here to struggle and walk by the dim light of faith … and in our struggle, we will be made strong. That is an immutable law of nature that not only applies to our bodies and minds, but our souls. Struggle makes us stronger.

I have always appreciated the words of the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who once observed, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Those are words to remember, especially when our bodies fail us and those we love.

I don’t know the meaning of all things, for I am yet a child who is learning to hear the voice of his Father. While I have much to learn, I have discovered a few things as I have stumbled in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to know things I cannot deny: I know we are loved by a Father in ways we cannot yet comprehend, but I have felt a portion of that love and it has changed me from the inside out. I know that our spirits live on, for my dear wife and I have felt the presence of our son. I know that those who go before us can visit and offer us comfort in times of trouble.

As ancient Elisha once observed, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” I hope that my spiritual eyes will be opened so that I may see what is often hid from sight while living in mortality. I will always remember this dark winter night when my wife sensed our son’s presence, just beyond mortal sight. “It’s okay, Mommy” … a comfort and plea … whispered from a sweet little boy who wanted his mommy to see. 

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NOTE: I gave this to Natalie on Mother’s Day. We both wept as we reflected on this sacred evening where there was both the darkness of grief and the light of God. This art will be part of a book I plan to release later this fall.

TO BE HUMAN

Mitchell’s Journey isn’t only about what happened to my son, but what is now happening because of him.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Over the last 3 years, I’ve written much on grief because that was my overwhelming reality. I have discovered that, when it comes to the death of a child (which is different than any death I’ve ever experienced), you don’t get over grief … you don’t move past it … you just learn to live with it. You learn to live with chronic pain. Because of that reality, I will still write of grief and my personal journey of healing – but I have much more to say than my personal songs of sorrow.

Mitchell’s Journey isn’t only about what happened to my son, but what is now happening because of him. So, not only will I write more stories of his life and struggle, I’m going to expand my musings by writing more about peace, family and all of the good things in life; a kind of potpourri of perspectives that have come because of little Mitch. Some stories will be funny, others will be filled with textures of peace and love.

Today I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude, and I have my Father to thank for that. When I look at this photo of Mitch, one warm summer day, I feel a deep sense of joy because he was happy. 

This journey has been the hardest experience of my life, but also the most fulfilling. If I had my way in life, being human, I would have avoided pain at all cost. After all, I am human. Yet, in avoiding everything that hurts, I would have ignored the part of me you cannot see … the thing that makes me, me. For comfort, I would have forfeit the opportunity to struggle and grow. That is something my Father knows. I have learned that because of my pain, I have changed. And I think that change is good. 

I am grateful to be happy. I am grateful to be human. I am grateful for this little boy, no matter the cost.

 

HANDLE WITH CARE

I’m convinced the only label that should be applied to people is, “Handle with Care.” For we’re all sons and daughters of somebody ... loved beyond compare. After all, without love, what else is there? I’ll tell you: a life filled with shiny things, yet empty and bare.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Mitch sat quietly on the edge of his bed as his mother carefully opened care packages from all across the world. His little heart was weary and about to fail; so we learned to appreciate not just moments, but the moments between moments. Every second counted. Time was worth more than all the riches of earth … for soon this little boy would leave our home on a journey from which he would never return. Soon our hearts would break in ways we couldn’t imagine.

We no longer had heart monitors, respiratory readings, blood oxygen reports and the million other hospital things that reminded us he was dying. Instead, we had our little boy back. He was home. For a short time, we enjoyed the illusion everything was okay. But things were not okay. Not one bit.

Young Mitch was always touched by care packages from others; many of which bore labels on them, “Handle with Care.” It was such a tender time for our son and those words “Handle with Care” always seemed to soothe my troubled soul. Yet my son’s countenance bore a heavy burden – for I could see he knew his time was limited – which made every act of caring more special to him.

Elementary school teachers from far-off places, hearing of our son’s fate, had their classes write notes to Mitch with loving words of encouragement. Other young children taped quarters, nickels and dimes to paper and wrote with their tender hands, “Hi Mitch, here is my allowance. I hope it helps.” I wept every time I saw such letters to Mitch and I prayed that those little souls, and their caring families, would be blessed 100-fold for their kindness.

Young Mitch was confused that people he didn’t know would care so much about him. He would read letters from others and say with shallow breaths, “They are so nice to me.” 

While Mitch slept, I would kneel outside his door and thank my Father for the tender mercies in our life. I knew we would not be spared from sorrow [no one ever is], so I learned to be grateful for the comforts that were found in our sorrows.

One man from New Jersey sent Mitch a Halo book which arrived the night he passed away. When we opened the package and told Mitch what it was, he squeezed his mother’s hand as if he wanted to wake up and see it. Oh, how he wanted to see it. His profusion was so low he was unable to open his eyes or sit up – but he could signal us, and that broke our hearts. For inside his broken little body was a spirit of a little boy who was very much alive and wanting to enjoy all the world had to offer. 

Handle with care. I can’t get those words out of my soul, and I don’t want to. I saw what it did for my son and what it did to my family - and I am forever grateful for the loving kindness of others. I will spend the rest of my life paying it forward. 

I’m convinced the only label that should be applied to people is, "Handle with Care." For we're all sons and daughters of somebody ... loved beyond compare. After all, without love, what else is there? I'll tell you: a life filled with shiny things, yet empty and bare.

Perhaps that's what little Mitch has left behind ... messages of love that he wants me to find.