LAST NIGHT

When my kids were younger we used to play a game when I made down my bed for the evening. They would each stand in the corner of the room as I chucked our decorative pillows at them ... a kind of domestic dodge ball. 

I would always sail the pillows at Ethan as hard as I could because he was so nimble and fast. To Mitch, I would pretend to throw them hard but would then softly lob them so he could either dodge or get brushed by a pillow as it flew by. Mitch would laugh so hard - I can still hear his giggles in my mind. Wyatt, he would sometimes want to throw pillows with me and other times have me throw them at him. Last night, in memory of Mitch and the good times, Ethan and I took up this old tradition and we laughed.

I took this photo with my iPhone as I threw pillows at my son. Although the image quality is poor, it is the substance that counts.

A POCKET FULL OF ROCKS

Summer, at least in my part of the world, is coming to an end. I can feel the whisper of winter on the back of my neck and the sweet smell of fall is almost in the air. While I sit on the verge of a change in seasons, I can’t help but remember a warmer time - a time before hell – when I had my son with me and we went on an adventure. 

We set camp in the west desert, far enough from city lights that you could see deep into the starry night. The heavens were almost close enough to touch. I remember talking to Mitch after we were tucked in for the night and looking through the net of the tent into the heavens, I asked, “Mitch, don’t you wish we could scoop up those beautiful stars and put them in our pockets like little glowing rocks?” Mitch smiled and said, “That way, when it is dark we could always see.” Mitch then burrowed into me and closed his eyes. He was the best at cuddling. I miss that.

Mitchell’s love of atmosphere and moods was one of the reasons he loved sunsets so much. On this evening the atmosphere was particularly beautiful because of some deep contrasts in color and light because of a passing storm. In every direction, save where the sun was setting, we found ourselves surrounded by towering clouds that stood like floating giants. They cast deep shadows beneath them and the contrast of light and color was thrilling to see. Each tower was also flashing with sheet lightening. In almost every direction these beautiful clouds stretched far into the horizon.

I remember wanting to take photos of the amazing sky and thought to myself, “I’ll take photos of the storm in a few minutes.” Before I knew it, it was dark and the beautiful sky that entranced us was forever gone. I regretted not taking that photo in the moment. Lesson learned.

With Mitch and my other sons cuddled next to me, we drifted to sleep. The next morning I awoke in tremendous pain - it felt like an elephant had stepped on my chest and broke my ribs. I had difficulty breathing and wondered if I had been stung by a scorpion (we caught one later that morning) or something else. As we broke our tent down I discovered I was sleeping on a jagged rock – which explained my sore ribs. I realized at that moment I should pay closer attention to where I set our tent. Another lesson learned.

After we arrived home, covered in desert dust and dry skin, I remember finding a pocket full of rocks in Mitchell’s pants. He had quietly collected little stones form the desert as souvenirs. I still have those little rocks in a special place. When I look at them I can’t help but wonder what he saw in each of them. I will forever wonder.

When I think back on moments like these, camping with my kids, I have the fondest of memories. Not all of them were wrapped in majestic sunsets and perfect moments cushioned in comfort. In fact, many of our camping trips were rather hard. We have camped in the bitter cold, high in the winter mountains; we've weathered torrential rainstorms, worried we would be swept away by a river of rain; and we have awoken to inches of new snow and many other surprises. Each was an adventure punctuated by difficulty and discomfort … yet is each a memory I am so grateful to have. 

I have noticed something interesting with Mitch and my other children. Often they would draw pictures of memories they had; and with their little hands they would sketch out our campsites and recreate the most difficult moments while camping … moments that were less fun while in the moment. 

I wondered why they would sketch the struggle and I asked them to tell me about their drawings. Each would say in their own way, “This was my favorite campout.” They would then explain what they loved about it. I was always surprised. These little kids with a pocket full of rocks appreciated the experience, however difficult, more than I gave them credit. I couldn't help but wonder if they were teaching me something important – that in the struggle is also the beauty.

CHASING WAVES

I just returned from a short trip with my oldest son, Ethan, to Southern California so he could learn to surf. He was so excited to spend some one-on-one time and hang out in the ocean. It was a wonderful few days to bond father and son. 

With all that has happened the last year and a half, I was careful to make this trip just about him. I turned my cell phone off, put work aside, and focused on him and him alone. We talked about his dreams and aspirations and what he wanted in life. We ate pizza every night, we laughed and played and set aside the worries of the world. We had a great time together.

Throughout the trip Ethan made comments about how much he missed Mitch and that he wished he were there with us. I knew that Ethan lost his best friend and that his heart grieves, too. We have an open mouth policy in our family and everyone is free to talk about Mitch (or anything) at any time – not to bring undue attention to Mitch nor to suggest that our kids aren't important, but because Mitch was important to all of us in different ways. We believe open and honest communication is a healthy part of healing. So, each time I heard Ethan out as he expressed a little more about what was on his mind and heart. I softly acknowledged his sorrows and his feelings. I then told Ethan I was grateful that he was still with me and that I loved him very much; I told him there is nobody quite like him and that I was so proud of the young man he was becoming. I didn't want my son to just hear my words, I wanted him to feel them. I hope he did.

On our second day of the trip day Ethan took surfing lessons. At first he wanted to take on the waves by himself and he wasn't sure he wanted to be held back by taking lessons. I strongly encouraged him to learn from those who could help him leapfrog the little things. I told him, “The sooner you learn the basics, the sooner you’ll be able to do just want you want to do ... surf. Otherwise you’ll end up chasing waves and wearing yourself out not knowing what to do and how to do it.” Ethan was wise and agreed to lessons. Soon he was riding waves and doing just what he set out to do. Surfing was a major highlight for him.

Afterward, Ethan and I talked about the symbology of surfing. I told him life isn't much different than surfing - that often we can no more control the events in our lives any more than we can control the tide and surf, but if we know what to look for we can learn to ride the waves and not chase them or become overpowered by them. I told my son that trouble comes to everybody and we can use that trouble to move us forward or it can take us under; that the only thing we can really control is how we respond to circumstances. As with surfing, I told Ethan, now that he knows what to look for he no longer needs to chase waves and save his energy - he can put himself in a position to more easily ride them. I could tell by the look in his eyes Ethan got the metaphor.

The journey of grief doesn't seem to be too different from being in the ocean. Sometimes I can see grief coming, other times it hits me by surprise. But I’m learning what to look for, I’m learning to stop chasing waves of grief and how to better ride them out. And I know I’m not the only one in these terrible waters – so are my wife and kids. And I must care for them as while I learn to surf tides of trouble.

DEAR NATALIE, NEVER CHANGE

I posted this image on Instagram last night. We spent some time in front of our home as Natalie drove Ethan's motorcycle for the first time. We all laughed as we saw this sweet woman, who with sweaty palms and a nervous heart, do something she had never done before.

Mitch adored his mother. I believe much of his sense of humor and sweetness came from her. 

I have heard it said couples who lose a child are at higher risk of divorce because, among other things, the very sight of their partner reminds them of their fallen child and that becomes a source of great pain. 

When I look at my wife, I see a wonderful woman who is fearless and kind. I see a soul that I love and admire greatly. I also see echoes of my sweet son. Each day I fall in love all over again.

http://instagram.com/p/rJLRKUy1XC/?modal=true

SECRET FOREST (at night) *

When Mitch was a young boy he thought the little forest in our back yard was a gateway to something magical. It is a small, unremarkable place, but if you take your imagination with you, it’s as big as you want it to be and more amazing than any place on earth. 

Just yesterday I took my older kids up to the woods and together we toiled to build a small pond along the trail. I included them in the design and creation of it because I wanted them to have a sense of ownership and accomplishment. My heart smiled seeing Ethan & Laura-Ashley work together as a team to do something they've always wanted to do and to do it in the memory of their little brother. I have discovered the process of grief is aided greatly by doing something constructive. While Mitch may have left us, his dream for this little forest remains. It has rallied the hearts and minds of my children and become a type of therapy for us all. We still have many plans for this place and we will work on it every weekend as a family.

My daughter purchased some floating lily pads that glow green, purple and blue at night, which makes the secret forest even more magical when the sun hides its face behind the hills. The forest, now home to some artificial fireflies, make for an even more magical experience. The trail, softly lit by glowing mason jars, gives just enough light to see the path before you and not get lost in the mysterious woods. 

So, last night, after having installed our pond, Wyatt set a glowing turtle next to the water to keep watch. I loved the look of wonder on his face. He later asked me, “Dad, can we go up there every night?” I told him, “You bet, son. You bet.” 

Each night this tiny forest gets a little more magical. Each of my children have their fingerprint on this forest – and that makes my heart smile. This little wooded forest has become a place to remember the past and enjoy the magic of now. This night my heart is filled with gratitude and peace. 

Here is a short post on Instagram that matches the magical mood of last night: http://tinyurl.com/qjlk2vj



This is the view from the top of our property and just outside the secret forest. Mitch loved this place. We placed a bench here years ago and Mitch and I would eat Popsicles and talk about life, friends and video games while we watched our part of the world turn away from the sun. 

 

In a manner of speaking, this place has become hallowed ground to me; both because of the memories it keeps and also because it reminds me to try and see above all that would obstruct my view of life. I hope to always see the forest through the trees … and the world for what it is and what it isn't. I hope to always have perspective.

INVISIBLE THINGS THAT SHAPE OUR SOULS

It was only a few years ago we were in Wyoming to spend time with family. My father-in-law was born in Wyoming but lived much of his life in Utah. As his retirement neared he decided to purchase a small cabin deep in the vaguely flat fields of Wyoming. At first I thought it a strange move and often wondered why he purchased a place out there. Then it occurred to me how, at some point in our lives, most everybody yearns to go home. Suddenly I understood.

So on this mid-Saturday morning, sitting in this small cabin filled with all manner of children, grandchildren and in-laws I saw something that swept my heart to the heavens and back. I had just sat on the couch for a bit to write in my journal when I noticed through the chaos of people and things a tender conversation between Mitch and his grandfather. This was the same grandfather who, just a few years later, would give Mitch a puppy to call his own, just weeks before he died. You can watch that sweet exchange here: vimeo.com/58228257

Mitch had just painted a hat and was showing his loving grandfather what he had worked so hard to do. I could tell by the tender look on Mitchell’s face he appreciated how much grandpa cared. Though I was surrounded by the noise of 15 people scuttling about the activities of the day, time slowed down for me and I watched this quiet exchange with tears in my eyes. I hid my face behind my camera, so as not to be noticed or draw attention. I was so grateful for the love and quiet attention my son received – for this moment, among many others, shaped him. 

My father-in-law has no idea this picture exists and I am quite certain he doesn't remember this ordinary, but beautiful exchange. But I remember this and many more like them – and I have photos of them, too. These moments remembered are like bandages that bind up my broken heart. They remind me that my son had a good life and that he was surrounded by people who loved him – and Mitch felt it. These happy moments give my heart, stricken with grief, a moment of peace and sweet release.

As I look upon this nearly invisible exchange, a conversation that lasted no more than 2 minutes, I am reminded why we are here in the first place. I can’t help but wonder if the Father of our souls lovingly looks at our own messy efforts, despite how critical we might be of ourselves, and is pleased to see we did the best we knew how. Mitch did the best he knew how, and it was perfect. Nothing more could have been asked of him – I was so proud of Mitch.

The older I get the less I fixate on perfection and the more I am satisfied with growth – however fast or slow. I know many perfectionists whose greatest weakness is perfectionism. They are tyrannized by order, symmetry, and technical flawlessness – so much so, their appetite for perfection bleeds into their human exchanges and they often miss the point of things and damage relationships. Oh there’s a time and a place for perfection; I expect a bridge, or a building, or an aircraft be engineered perfectly. But in matters of the soul, we tend to build and rebuild ourselves with materials we cannot see – which makes the struggle of human growth woven with great difficulty.

At least for me, life is an exercise of trial and error, failures and triumphs, stumbling down and getting back on our feet again. In the end, I believe we’ll all come to know the purpose of life is to gain experience and grow. One day, in that place beyond the hills, I believe we will look back on our own struggles and see how, because of them, we were made stronger, more compassionate and more like our Father.

I’ll never forget Mitchell’s messy hat, colored with chaotic splotches from his young, inexperienced hand. It was perfect. Nor will I ever forget this seasoned grandfather, a man who quietly longed to be home, who offered love and attention to my son. Though, mortal and imperfect, in that moment he was perfect.

I hope, at the end of my days, my Father will see far past my weaknesses, which are many, and look upon my heart; for there is love in there, it has been that way from the very start. 

I am grateful for this sweet exchange, and many like them, that remind me to look for perfect moments, not perfect people. Perfection, at least in matters of the soul, has more to do with effort than exactness – the invisible things we do, over time, that shape our heart, minds and souls.