PENCILS & ERASERS*

The room was filled with muted sounds of shuffling paper, scissors, and student whispers.  The hallways and classrooms carried that familiar schoolish smell of crayons and glue … and for a moment I was transported to my own elementary school experience.  I remember my young years so clearly; and I especially remember being grateful for kind teachers who slowly, collectively, ushered me into the world.  Mitch was also blessed with kind and thoughtful teachers – and that made my heart glad … for under an educator’s care was my most valued treasure.

My heart began to pound as I peered through the window of the door and saw little Mitch working hard on his class assignment.  I was proud of the good boy that he was. 

We’re all students of life learning lessons at our own pace.  Sometimes we’re teachers – but we’re always students.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As I began to open the door, the handle made a mechanical clank and Mitch immediately turned to see if it was me.  You see, we had a father-son lunch planned, and I had in my hand a paper bag filled with his favorite chicken nuggets.  At the same time, I carried in my heart more love than my soul could contain.

I’ll never forget the look on my son’s face when he saw me walk into his classroom.  I almost burst into tender tears.  “Hi, Dad,” Mitch said with a whisper, “are you still going to go to lunch with me?” 

I kissed his forehead, “Yes, Mitchie.  I have been looking forward to it all week.”  Mitch smiled and said, “Me, too.”  Mitch was designated Student of the Month and was highlighted as both a student and a young boy with interests and hobbies of his own.  It made him feel special to be recognized for who he was. 

Before we went to the cafeteria, Mitch was excited to show me the projects he’d worked so hard to complete.  In his folder, I could see papers with layers of light pencil marks made faint by erasers.  Evidence he was trying to get things right.  My heart was softened to see my child try so hard.  I thought to myself, “Oh, son … you are so sweet.  Dad is trying to do the same thing.”  I was grateful Mitch used pencils and erasers in matters of the soul.  He was so quick to forgive when his father was impatient or made a mistake and disappointed him. 

I’m grateful for pencils and erasers in life. They allow us a chance to re-do things we didn’t quite get right.  As we get older, we seem to give up pencils and erasers for pen and ink.  Some people write in permanent marker and imprison themselves and others with their faulty judgment, borne of pride or narrow insights.     

I admire children for their goodness and their innate ability to see with their hearts – because when they do, they see what really matters.  They see others as good people, just trying to do their best in life.  They write in their hearts with pencil and are quick to use an eraser.

As we left his classroom for the cafeteria, Mitch said, “Thanks for coming, Dad.”  By this time, I had a lump in my throat the size of a basketball.  I could hardly swallow, and my eyes were pooling with tears.  For my little boy reminded me what goodness looked like, what it acted like, and how it sounded.  I wanted to be more like him – and I vowed to set my set aside my pens and markers for pencils and erasers.  Heaven knows I need more pencils than pen, and even more erasers.

We’re all students of life learning lessons at our own pace.  Sometimes we’re teachers – but we’re always students.


A BACKPACK FILLED TO OVERFLOWING     

Every day before Mitch went to pre-school he would carefully fill his backpack with his favorite treasures of the day.  I love how young children do that.  On the top of his bag his sweet mother wrote his name with a symbol under each word: a star to let him know he was our shining little boy and a heart to remind him he was loved beyond measure.

Memories and experience are all we really carry with us in life, and beyond.  And because our experiences are the things no economy or person can take away, they’re worth investing our time and attention.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I always enjoyed seeing what he was going to pack – for each day was different, each day unique.  I often wondered what his treasures said about his state of mind.  One thing is for sure, he was a tender, sweet child … as all children are.     

My sweet wife would often place a secret note for Mitch and our other kids in their bags as they went to school.  She wanted them to know that she loved them and thought of them always.  And perhaps on a day that wasn't quite going right, this little note would be a lifeline of love for a discouraged heart in a sea of trouble.  As her husband, I would occasionally see one of her thoughtful notes in my own bag, too, and it meant so much to me.  If that small gesture of love meant so much to me, I can only imagine what it meant to our kids.  I love her for that. 

I had just taken Mitch to work with me in the spring of 2006, around the same time I took this photo.  Here is an excerpt from my journal:   

“I’ve been blessed to take Mitch to work on occasion. Often he’ll sit with me at the conference room table while I’m meeting with employees & contractors.  Sweet Mitch will quietly find himself coloring, playing with toys, and driving cars on my back and across my arms, or playing games by himself.  He is such a sweet little boy.

I’m always surprised how considerate Mitch is of his surroundings and how careful he is to not be disruptive. I suppose from a distance keeping him at an office for hours at a time is not very fun.  [Even still] Mitchie asks me if he can come … and he is so enthusiastic about it. Each time he comes to work with me I’ll bring a sleeping bag and pillow and we’ll make a comfy fort under the table – just like I would make as a young boy, but better.  I’ll surround him with toys and things to do and kiss his sweet face as he wiggles himself into his comfy fortress with a smile. I have so much fun with him.

Sometimes I’m tempted to call all my meetings off and spend the entire day making forts and playing with toys. I am not convinced age will diminish my desire to become a kid again.

After my meetings, I always take him to lunch and we talk about his favorite kitties and the blanket forts we’re going to make when we get home. I worry he’s growing up much too fast.”
  

Fast indeed. 

Seven years would pass in a flash and this little boy would no longer be with us.  As Mitch was collecting his childhood treasures through the years, as little children do, I was also collecting memories and experiences.  Memories and experience are all we really carry with us in life, and beyond.  And because our experiences are the things no economy or person can take away, they're worth investing our time and attention.

Like my son, I have a backpack of treasures I carry with me, only it cannot be seen … and it is filled to the brim with love and treasured memories.  Filled to overflowing.

 

LEARNING TO TRUST*

I remember his tiny smile as he sat in a school bus for the first time.  Mitch was about to leave on a new adventure.  He didn’t know where he was going exactly, he only knew his mommy loved him and trusted she knew best.  Natalie kissed Mitch on the forehead and said in a whispered tone, “I love you, little boy.  I’ll see you at school.” 

This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As the big bus drove out of the neighborhood Natalie jumped in our minivan and followed them to the elementary school several miles away.  By the time the bus arrived at school, Natalie was there to help our little boy off the bus and usher him into class.  

To Mitch, the world was a very big place – made even bigger by his declining muscle strength.  A small staircase to you and me may as well be Mt. Everest to a child with DMD.  Mitch could be easily knocked down by a simple bump in a lunchroom.  Hallways made him nervous because a river of preoccupied people, in a rush to get some place, threatened to trample him unaware.

Natalie knew our son needed help, but wanted to stretch his horizons and help him grow.  So, she repeated the inconvenient routine of helping him board the bus each day and then follow him to school – where she would help him on and off the bus.  Natalie wanted our boy to learn independence.  And that he did. 

I loved this day.  I loved seeing my little boy smile at me through the window of the bus.  Mitch had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Look Dad!  I can do hard things.  I’m a big kid now.”  His eyes seemed to say, “I love you.”

I remember walking with Natalie and Mitch into his preschool class for the first time.  There he would meet “Mrs. Nancy.”  She was energetic and kind and had a way about her that brought instant relief to nervous parents and excitement in the minds of her students.  I loved her immediately.  I’ll write more of her another day – but I am grateful she was placed in our son’s path.  She was a tender mercy for our little boy.

In many ways, this image serves as a symbol of another journey.  Only this time Mitch has been shuttled to a place far from sight.  Sometimes I panic because the mortal father in me wants to know he’s alright.  Yet, I know he is fine – and in a heavenly sense, I realize he was never mine.   For Mitch is my brother, the son of my Father … even still, in his death, my mortal heart is still bothered.  For I love and miss him, you see.  And in my agony, I reach deeply for things heavenly.  Could it be that is the reason for suffering?

Somewhere out on the horizon is my son … or rather, my brother. He is at a school of another sort.  I cannot see it with my eyes … but I can feel it with my soul.  Though he may be learning and growing … I also believe he is here, even now, helping and showing. 

Now it is my turn, seated in a big and unfamiliar bus.  Like my son, – I have learned to listen and to trust. I know my Father loves me and believe that He knows best.  The wisest of all parents, He knows the growth that happens when we’re challenged and given tests.  This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.  

 

 
 
 
 

BEDROCK BEFORE BOOKS

Summer was over and Mitch was about to start a new year at school. He was nervous for a lot of reasons: would he make new friends? What if he gets lost? Who would help him if he didn’t have the strength to walk anymore? Who would understand that while he looked normal, he had a muscle wasting disease and doesn’t have the strength of healthy children?

I remember being little and having big worries. I would think to myself at a department store, “What if my mom forgets me and never finds me again?” After all, the world was a very big place and I was just getting familiar with my neighborhood – and any place more than a few blocks away felt like a different country. Maybe even a different world. So, as a child, I was worried about being lost and never found. As a father, I see things differently today. Were my child to get lost, I wouldn’t stop searching until I found my precious child. I would sell the clothes on my back, and my very life if required, to save them. But I didn’t know that as a child. My understanding was limited to my life experience – which was crayons, backpacks, and lunchpails.

So when Mitch shared his worries this year, the child in my heart related. I remembered how I felt and I wanted Mitch to know that I cared. Knelt down so I was eye-level with him and said, “Sweet Mitchie, I will never let you get lost. I will always look out for you and never will you be so far that I couldn’t come racing to save you. Okay?” Mitch would nod softly with tears in his eyes. With that, I hugged him and whispered, “I love you, son.”

Little Mitch was still nervous, but he trusted me and he trusted his mother – who is an infinitely better parent than I could ever hope to be. She sets a standard I strive to emulate, however imperfectly. 

Mitch and a handful of other children his age waited patiently for the doors to open. When the bell rang, the kids were summoned to the door only to be greeted by Shelly Davis, the school’s principal at the time. When I think of the tender mercies in my son’s life, I have no doubt Shelly is one of them.

She took little Mitch under her wing, along with other children with special needs, and helped them feel loved and important. Under her kind care, Mitchell grew strong in confidence and self-assurance. Though he was quiet and shy, he was growing a little more each day because of the way she treated him. Although she was the school’s administrator – she was its best teacher, too. She needed no chalkboard or textbooks, no podium or megaphone; she taught by example and helped these young children believe in themselves.

I watched this good woman from afar and each day I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven for placing her in my son’s path. She was exactly what Mitch needed at the time – and I’m sure she was exactly what many other children needed, too.

When I think back on my education, never once were the mean teachers, detached or ready-to-snap principals and overbearing school staff a positive influence. To the contrary, they got in the way of the very thing they were there to do. Instead, the ones who shaped me were the ones who saw me in the hall and said hello with a smile. They were the ones who got to know me and saw what little I had to offer the world, yet they recognized my potential and watered my tiny seeds of potential with encouragement. They were the ones that said, “I see you. You matter. You can do this.”

I love and appreciate good educators; the ones who not only teach concepts, they teach people. The ones who teach us how to be good people. Shelly did this for Mitch and countless other children. I know Mitch loved her because she first loved him, and that gave him permission to believe in himself. 

Though I am no formal educator, I believe the bedrock of education isn’t books, but belief in self. That will do more for the soul than all the books ever written, standing quietly on a shelf.

YOU CAN DO IT

You can do it; the same is true for all of us, each and every one. We have great potential. We are engineered to become.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I dropped little Mitch off at school. He had an electric scooter parked in his classroom so he could keep up with friends at recess or make a journey down the school’s halls, but he could still walk short distances. I was grateful for every step he took – for it could have been worse. Much worse. 

I loved taking Mitch places, even to school. Maybe I loved it because of the conversations we had … or maybe it was just because of the way he held my hand. Though I was his father and wanted to bring him comfort, the truth was, he brought me comfort, too. Sometimes I think he did more for me than I ever did for him. No, I know that’s true.

Mitch began to walk toward the building with a backpack stuffed with homework, a peanut butter & jelly sandwich lovingly made by his mother, and a few treasures he liked to keep near him. At one point, he turned his head slightly to see if I was still there. I unrolled my window and yelled out, “Hi Mitch! You can do it! I love you!” I wanted him to know I was watching out for him; that I had his back, his front, and his sides. I wanted my child to know I believed in him. Natalie taught me how to do that, and I am forever grateful. 

It didn’t take long before little Mitch began talking to a classmate before their teacher came to get them at the first bell. I stayed a while and wondered what my son was talking about. I always listened carefully to what children had to say, for their words were a window to their soul and I couldn’t help but try to look in. Perchance, I might get a glimpse of heaven. For of such, children are.

Little Mitch kept looking at me and smiling, each time my heart melted, and I thought myself the luckiest guy on earth. Without question, being a father has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for all the riches of earth.

No matter where Mitch went, I wanted him to know I was cheering him on. And when he didn’t know how to do a thing, I always tried to show him. 

I think the most important gift we can give our children, and others, is belief-in-self. I don’t mean a grandiose, false bravado; I mean a quiet kind of confidence where they can stumble and get back up again and still believe they can go on. A self-confidence that isn’t attached to social acceptance, material things and looks … but rather a knowledge of who they are and what they have the potential to become.

“You can do it, Mitch.” I said those words often, and I think he started to believe me. I wish I had more of that when I was a kid. I could have used the boost. Now, I try to give my children what I wanted, but in greater abundance. I am not good at it, and I stumble often, but I believe if I keep trying, I’ll get better at it. 

Today, when I face implacable odds and incredible challenges (and I have many), I hear my son’s voice in my mind, “Dad, you can do it.” Then, a quiet confidence stirs within me, not because of who I am today – for I am flawed; but because of what I have the potential to become. Though I stumble, I get back up, and I run. 

You can do it; the same is true for all of us, each and every one. We have great potential. We are engineered to become.

 

THE RECIPE FOR A GOOD LIFE

There are fringe benefits that come with being engaged, industrious and self-sufficient. It may sound ironic, but in many ways, I believe these fringe benefits are the greater benefits. The wood we burn will disappear, but what we become by preparing it will forever endure. That is a recipe for living.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Whenever Mitch went to the public library with his mother, he would always add a cookbook to his checkout. Tucked between a pile of books on amazing facts, science fiction adventures, and other boyish topics … a how-to-cook book was always in his mix.

Natalie would then drive to the grocery store and get whatever ingredients we didn’t have at home so he could create something delicious. Once he had the raw materials, little Mitch would quietly get to work. He was independent and seldom asked for help. DMD had weakened his arms considerably, so he didn’t have the physical strength to lift and pour a gallon of milk, but he could do most of everything else. Had Mitch not died of heart failure 3 years ago, by now he would likely have very limited use of his hands and barely the strength to lift a spoon. That is what DMD does to these beautiful children.

For Mitch, cooking was like assembling culinary Legos; he loved the challenge of following instructions … except when he was done cooking, he got to eat and share his creation. 

I always loved walking into the kitchen to see my little boy whipping up some recipe. He had cooking down to a science; when he needed to microwave something delicate, he knew exactly how many seconds to heat the item and how long it needed to rest. I remember when he told me in his sweet, soft voice exactly how many seconds it took to perfectly melt cheese for nachos, warm a frozen burrito, or melt butter. 

Mitch had an appetite for learning, doing, and becoming. He often reminded me of Henry Ford’s sage wisdom, “Chop your own wood, and it will warm you twice.” There are fringe benefits that come with being engaged, industrious and self-sufficient. It may sound ironic, but in many ways, I believe these fringe benefits are the greater benefits. The wood we burn will disappear, but what we become by preparing it will forever endure. That is a recipe for living.

When I look at this picture of little Mitch, I can’t help but think of the many recipes for a good life. I don’t think the recipe for a good life is much different than any recipe for a good meal … for each is different and the ingredients are unique to the dish. 

The ingredients for someone with a disability will be different than that of an Olympic athlete … for their steps and victories will be different, but the principles the same. Although little Mitch lived a short life, he taught me about some ingredients that I try to use every single day: 

 

Follow instructions, learning from others who have figured something out is always the better path. 
Get busy doing something, nothing gets done when nothing gets done.
Work hard, for whatever you build is also building you.
Be kind, for when you sweeten the life of others, you can’t help but taste of that sweetness, too.
Help others along the way, for the heavenly paradox is when we help others, we help ourselves.
Be patient with others, for they are struggling to change, just like you and me.
Sprinkle gratitude over everything, for gratitude begets more gratitude, and that is a good thing. 
Trust the process, though long and hard our struggles might seem, life’s difficulties will make us stronger, if we’ll allow it.

 

I remember laying by my son in his bed the night before he passed away. He was in a deep sleep and all I wanted to do was wake him up so that I might have more time. I couldn’t wake him, so I just cried and held him in my arms and wet his pillow with my tears. In that moment of quiet agony, I thought of ordinary, yet beautiful moments like this … where Mitch loved life and tried to make the most of everything. I vowed then, and vow again today, to make the most of every moment … so one day I can say, “I followed the recipe and lived a good life.”

A SPECIAL GOODBYE

About a week ago I was approached by a Mitchell's Journey follower who had something in common with our family. Her Charlie and our Mitchell were both students of a very special preschool teacher who was about to retire. Both of our children had also passed away. 

So, yesterday Natalie and I attended a retirement banquet for this remarkable woman who played in important role in our son's life. She was a tender mercy for our boy as she helped him make a delicate transition to school. Mitch quickly grew in confidence because of the way she encouraged and guided him. We hadn't seen her for about 10 years so this was a special reunion. At her display table was a kind of memorial with photos of all of her students throughout her career - an evidence this woman was a remarkable teacher who loved her students. The best educators are the ones that teach with love of topic and student. 

Next to the collage of former students was a larger panel with tributes to three of her special needs students who passed away, Mitch being one of them. It was a tender reunion filled with a lot of love and gratitude. 

Here Natalie writes a note to "Mrs. Nancy" thanking her for being so kind and loving to our baby. We had never forgotten her and she clearly remembered little Mitch. When we moved from our first home a decade ago we thought we'd never cross paths with this remarkable teacher again. Fate, or providence, would have it otherwise.

It is interesting how at any given moment we might think a person in our lives a solitary, temporary thread ... unaware how woven our lives may become. The people and events in our lives make for a fascinating tapestry we may not appreciate, or even see, until deep in the twilight of our own lives.

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