ON TROUBLE & DISCOURAGEMENT

Fall was almost in full swing when Natalie and I took our kids to a nearby park.  We decided to visit one of the older parks, where the trees were mature, and blankets of earthy leaves covered the ground.   

I can’t do much about trouble, but I can find ways to rise above it and be grateful for life. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Mitch was known to do a funny, signature skip and hop when he was happy.  I’ll share a video of that soon.  Because his muscles were growing weaker each day, his happy skip became more uncoordinated and labored as time went on.  That never stopped him from doing it, however.  In fact, as his body grew weaker, his sense of happiness seemed to grow stronger.  I always enjoyed watching him at the park; sometimes, in the distance, Mitch would have a conversation with himself, then suddenly it was as though he was struck by a bolt of joy and he began skipping out of the blue.

On this occasion, when Mitch tried to skip, his legs gave out, and he fell.  Ethan, his older brother, quickly reached down to see if Mitch was okay and offered to help him up.  My heart swelled with gratitude for my family and the lessons of love and service my children continually taught me.  At that moment, I was overcome with an impression that despite the hardship our family was facing, Heaven was using that experience to help shape us – not just Mitch, but all of us.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched my surviving children cope with grief in their own, unique way.  It has been a difficult and sometimes dark, treacherous journey.  I don’t write about those experiences because I respect my children’s privacy – but I will say, it hasn’t been easy.  Sometimes the grief journey was made more difficult by outsiders meddling, other times our grief was made complicated by inexperienced psychologists, forever shutting the door of a young mind in need of that kind of help.  In my book, which will be completed soon, I share some of the challenges we faced and what we learned because of it.  I hope it helps others who navigate their journey with loss as we share a kind of “if we could do [certain things] over, we’d do this differently” observations.

I wish weren’t so, but our troubles after Mitch passed were just beginning, and we had to navigate a labyrinth of issues that were as complex as they were bewildering.  During that difficult time, I remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald observation on the difference between trouble and discouragement, “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement. Discouragement has a germ of its own, as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.” 

I am certainly not immune to discouragement – and sometimes trouble stirs those feelings up.  But when I remember Mitch, who never let his troubles make him feel discouraged, I’m reminded to step back and recognize that trouble is only temporary.  Discouragement, if not managed, can become a chronic condition.

As I consider this tender moment between little brothers – I’m reminded that no matter my troubles, I can step back and find gratitude for something.  In fact, I can find gratitude for many things.  Anymore, I’m beginning to see that it’s not trouble that weighs us down … it’s discouragement.   

I can’t do much about trouble, but I can find ways to rise above it and be grateful for life. 

FEAR & COURAGE*

The door to my home office burst open with a big waft of air … “Chris, guess what?” Natalie said with a smile.  I was so startled by her sudden entry, I began to worry a pipe broke in our basement apartment and that our few newlywed belongings were being washed away.  “Is everything okay?” I said anxiously.  She paused, “I’m pregnant.” 

In that singular moment, I was overcome with two emotions.  On the one hand, I was excited because I always wanted to be a father.  At the same time, I was frightened and said to myself, “I am so inexperienced with life … am I ready for such a responsibility?”  Ready or not, we were going to have our first baby and it was up to me to rise to the challenge of fatherhood.  We were poor as church mice, trying to fight our way through college and full-time jobs.  I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I was afraid of the future.  I was young and afraid. 

In life or in the face of death, there are moments every human will shudder with fear … and somehow, some way, we must find a way to take up courage to face the things that frighten us. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Soon our little daughter joined our family and my heart was spilling over with love. She was a most precious little girl and I loved seeing her personality emerge.  Over the next few years, I saw her become an independent, feisty and compassionate little girl. Ever since she came into my life, I have tried to fiercely protect her from people who might use or take advantage of her. My greatest desire then and now is to help her see her true worth – for I love her so. Thus began our family – under less-than-perfect circumstances and in many ways under a shadow of self-doubt and fear.

By the time Mitchell was diagnosed with DMD, Natalie was already pregnant with our 4th child, Wyatt. Fearing our newest baby might have DMD, a medical professional suggested we think about aborting our baby. We dismissed the notion wholesale because we valued life more than our inconvenience. What’s more, although Mitch was diagnosed with a fatal disease, his tender life was still worth living. For he found much joy in his life, and so did we.    

We were prepared to accept our baby no matter what physical challenges he might have. As mother and father, we would stand united and love our child with all we had. We were still afraid of the future, but we faced our fear with whatever faith and courage we could muster. That was the best we could do. I suppose that is the best anyone can do.

So on this day, I’ll never forget our newborn sleeping peacefully on the examination table as Natalie took on a most ponderous demeanor. This was the moment we would discover if Wyatt had DMD. She seemed to look upon him as if to say, “Sweet baby of mine, no matter how heavy the burden, I will carry you all the days of my life.” Such is the magic of motherhood.

A blood test would soon reveal Wyatt was perfectly healthy and fear retreated like the evening tide. That night, I knelt at the side of my bed and tearfully thanked my Father for my family. I was grateful Wyatt was healthy. I was also grateful we were blessed with Mitch, broken wings and all. Though I felt inadequate, I promised to do my best to be a dad and asked that He would somehow make up the difference.

Whether I’ve faced professional insecurities or deeply personal self-doubts, I have confronted my fair share of fear, worry, and discouragement. What if I ran from fear? What if I turned my back on fatherhood and abandoned my family when we discovered Mitch was sick? I would have missed one of the most profound blessings of my life. Everything that has ever scared me, when confronted, has made me stronger.

In life or in the face of death, there are moments every human will shudder with fear … and somehow, some way, we must find a way to take up courage and face the things that frighten us.

No matter how much I want to, I cannot know the future. So, when I face fear or the unknown, I try to remember the phrase “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” Then, I do what my sweet wife taught me years ago, I take the next best step.


These are images of Wyatt having blood drawn to screen for DMD.

There is a profound story surrounding little Wyatt: an answer to prayers, his birth and his life.  That story is shared in our Tender Mercies presentation.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

Tomorrow night marks the anniversary of a sacred time in my life. I'll never forget how the weight of grief settled on my shoulders the night my son passed away. The heavens, it seemed, grew dark and all became black. It was only in that moment of pitch darkness that my spiritual eyes began to adjust and I started to recognize what seemed like little flecks of light. Only these flecks were symbolic of tiny blessings. It didn't take long for me recognize how many of those blessings were connected to each other. What I discovered in my moment of darkness was Heaven was always there; guiding and directing our lives to shape us into better beings.

As I reflect on the life and loss of my son, I also recognize the many tender mercies that accompanied his difficult journey. If Mitch was not alone, then I think it's safe to say none of us are either.

I am reminded that when things get especially dark, I must pray for eyes to see things as they truly are. Then, and only then, can we get a glimpse of a much grander design. To our pleasant surprise, we will begin to see Heaven's tender mercies spread across the passage of time.

 
 

KEEP TRYING

By all accounts, it was a perfect day if there ever was one. It was early summer and the colors of nature were lush and vibrant. The temperature was in the Goldilocks zone … not too hot, not too cold … it just right. We were visiting grandma and grandpa at their ranch in Southern Utah.

Mitch had a gentle way about him and earned the trust of animals very quickly. That was one of his spiritual gifts, I believe … a gentle soul who brought peace to others.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Among the reasons he loved to go the ranch, I believe seeing the many animals that lived there chief among them. There were horses and cows, chickens and ducks, alpacas and kittens, and of course a never-ending tribe of rabbits and baby bunnies. There was even a pet turtle. Then there were wild animals: deer, turkeys, snakes of all kind, and the occasional footprints of a mysterious mountain lion on the outskirts of the ranch.

Mitchell’s fascination with animals was matched only by his love for them.

On this occasion, Mitch wanted to visit some of our Alpacas. They’re a most curious animal … intelligent, inquisitive, alert and generally friendly. They also have distinctly unique personalities; some are docile and kind while others are a little insecure and tend to show off. The brown Alpaca (on back right) was named Javier and was especially insecure and liked to show everyone who was king of the hill. Mitch would laugh and laugh as he saw him prance around and act a furry fool.

Mitch had a gentle way about him and earned the trust of animals very quickly. That was one of his spiritual gifts, I believe … a gentle soul who brought peace to others. Though he is gone from this mortal place, Mitch still brings peace to my troubled heart – and I thank my Father for that. Sometimes I think I can feel him nearby tending to my own brokenness, ministering to my soul like an angel. For little Mitch knew what it was like to be broken – therefore, I think he can help those who are broken.

Mitch gently walked up to these alpacas wanting only to love them. At first, they were skittish, but in Mitch fashion, he somehow made them feel at peace and he was able to pet them. Mitchell smiled as he was able to serve these animals with love.

At one point, the alpha alpaca turned away from Mitch probably to see if Mitch was pet another side to him. Suddenly, that alpaca’s instincts took over and he kicked Mitch in the thigh … and hard. Mitch didn’t cry at first but was shocked that animal would do such a thing - especially when all he wanted to do was to help. Then, as the shock wore off, Mitchell’s feelings were hurt and tears began to roll down his sweet face. Natalie lifted the leg of Mitchell’s shorts only to reveal a hoof print on his tender skin.

It didn’t take long before the trauma faded and Mitch wanted to go back and love these animals again. Mitch wasn’t angry at the animal who kicked him … he only wanted to try harder to be Javier’s friend.

In life, others have kicked me when I wasn’t expecting it. Like Mitch, I was shocked and sometimes deeply disappointed in the person. Though I wish those experiences didn’t happen, I have grown because of them. Like Mitch, I didn’t want to retaliate but instead tried to show them I wasn’t their enemy – but in fact their friend, interested in their happiness and success.

Little Mitch taught me to keep trying. Though some people may never figure it out – and they’ll keep kicking at me, I will be at peace knowing I kept trying.

For when I try, I grow. Life's too short to live it angrily, this much I know.

HOLDING BROKEN THINGS TOGETHER

I remember this cold winter night when Natalie tucked our sweet boy in.  Mitch loved to be tucked away before he slept and the closer his tender little life came to the edge of the abyss, he seemed to want that comfort more and more.  I believe part of him, sensing time was short, was afraid of the night – for what if he didn’t wake?  Mitch didn’t want to die; in fact, he very much wanted to live.  Though his muscles were getting weaker and he was able to do less and less, he wanted to hang on to whatever life he could.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, he wasn’t a glass half empty/full person … he was just glad there was something in it.  For Mitch, even the smallest drop in his cup was cause for gratitude.  Oh that I could be a shadow of him.

The heavenly paradox, I’ve discovered, is when we help others through their troubles we somehow find ourselves helped. That is how we hold our broken pieces together.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

After talking for a while, Natalie reached over to Mitch and they gave each other a warm embrace.  My heart swelled as I saw these two remarkable souls hold each other as if to say to each other, “I’ll hold your broken pieces.”  Natalie fought valiantly to keep Mitchell’s broken body together while his sweet soul seemed to hold her broken heart and keep it as one. 

There was never a night that little Mitch didn’t get this same hug from his mother.  She was his greatest comfort in life and he loved her so.  Though I tried to be there for my son in every way I knew how, there is simply no equal for a mother’s love.

This photo was taken January 12th, just a few days after we learned his heart was collapsing and that therapies were not working.  He was denied a heart transplant because he had a fatal disease and all we had left was precious time.  We didn’t know how much time – we just knew the end was coming.  Natalie and I cried every night under what felt like an ever blackening sky – for hope had faded like the evening sun.  In the darkness, fear of losing him loomed heavy like a thick fog and we didn’t know where to go or what to do.  We just knelt and prayed for help.

Two weeks later Mitch would be admitted to the ER for end-stage heart failure … and though we already felt broken, we were about to be broken further than we could imagine as we watched our boy slowly die.  Then came grief, which broke our brokenness even more.

My greatest heartache in life was then, and remains today, knowing that we couldn’t save him.  That is a grief of another sort … a grief added to his death.  A grief twice.

Since Mitchell’s passing, Natalie and I have learned how to hold each other’s broken pieces together.  It isn’t always easy, especially when we feel like we’re falling apart ourselves – but we find a way to set aside our sorrows and be there for each other … and that is what makes the difference.  The heavenly paradox, I’ve discovered, is when we help others through their troubles we somehow find ourselves helped.  That is how we hold our broken pieces together.  Mitch was scared, yet he tried to comfort his mom anyway.  In return, he received great spiritual comfort.

I know that Mitch and my Father are holding some of my broken pieces together, pieces unknown to me.  I can sense heaven’s hand in my life – and for that I am grateful.  Though I carry great grief, I also carry gratitude for feelings of peace. 

 

                                                                                 

LITTLE MERCIES

Baby Marlie waddled up to Mitch and begin to kiss his face. The chief cardiologist allowed her to be smuggled past security so she could perform some puppy therapy. It worked every time.

This little boy and puppy had only met about two weeks prior and were already the best of friends. To look at video footage of these two reveals something that was hiding in plain sight; though she was a baby pup herself, she seemed to recognize something was different with Mitch. She treated him with a tenderness and care that was unique and startlingly obvious. Almost maternal. The circumstances of adopting this puppy were heaven-sent, and I’ll write of that another day. But one thing was clear: this little dog was on a mission of mercy … and not a day passes that I don’t thank my Father for it.

Until that sacred evening of my son’s passing, this little dog played an important role in comforting my son. This little puppy was a tender mercy to our boy. Today, Marlie serves my dear wife, who has a broken heart of a different kind. When Natalie is especially sad, Marlie seems to notice, just like she did with Mitch, and makes a visible effort to comfort her. Often, I can’t help but cry tears of gratitude when I see the little mercies in my life and in the lives of those I love.

Tonight, as I lay my head to sleep, I will greet the night unafraid ... my heart overflowing with gratitude. Gratitude for the little mercies and the big ones, too. For we have a Father who cares about the little things - evidence He loves me and you.

A MEASURE OF PEACE

I’ll never forget the look on her face and the sound of her tearful whisper, lips trembling with sorrow, “Honey, how do we do this? I don’t know how to go on.” My heart, at least what was left of it, broke a little more. I whispered, “I don’t know, but we’ll do this together.” 

Our sweet little boy’s body lay silent just a few feet away from us. Almost overnight we found ourselves living a nightmare from which we could not wake … a soul-crushing pain from which we could not escape.

Next to his casket sat Mitchell’s scooter, which once carried his weakening body, now suddenly carried an emptiness that filled the room. I couldn’t imagine grief becoming any worse than it felt that day. I would soon realize that I had scarcely tasted that bitter cup – for the wages of grief were just beginning. Night had not yet fallen.

Moments later, my dear wife and I would walk into the chapel and give the most painful address of our lives. Yes, heaven felt close that day, but I was also in hell.

A few months after Mitch had passed I went to a doctor to examine my elbow, which had experienced some unusual and intense pain. After a short examination he determined I had tennis elbow. Secretly, I was devastated – for something deep inside me was hoping it was something terminal … something to end the deep pain I felt every waking minute of my life.

Although there were times I wished for death, I also knew I needed to be there for my wife and children. I loved them just as much as Mitch, yet, a part of me yearned for death so I could stop hurting. 

I was terrified of going to sleep or waking up – for that transition between wake and sleep often brought the unfiltered horror of losing my child into my mind and heart. Whatever progress I had made was lost in those moments of transition and it was as if I lost my son all over again. And again. And again. And again. Whenever that happened I would find myself in a state of panic and I would run to my son’s room and weep at the foot of his empty bed. I prayed every night that I could fall asleep and wake up quickly – so I would be spared such horrors of the mind and heart. Despite my pleas for relief, I was often not spared – and I spent many sleepless nights staring into the night sky in search of my Father.

Deep was the forest and dark was the grief; I stumbled over pebbles in search of heaven and peace. And when I was tempted to raise my hands and give up, I heard a loving whisper from my Father to instead look up. Surrounded in darkness, tears clouding the sky, I began to see with my spiritual eyes. What I saw is hard to describe … for I discerned a constellation of blessings to which I was previously blind. 

Each blessing, a dim fleck of light, came into view of my spiritual sight. It didn’t matter however great or small, when I recognized these tender mercies something inside me began to arise and stand tall. I was not abandoned in darkness and grief – instead I was tutored to see heaven’s blessings and in them find a measure of peace.