YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN

As far back as I can remember, Natalie and I always enjoyed having people at our home; we enjoyed serving those we love with a great meal, and we enjoyed good conversation even more. On this day, we had extended family over for a BBQ. It was a hot, muggy afternoon. The cousins were in the back yard playing on an inflatable water slide. Little Mitch didn’t have a lot of muscle strength to do what the other kids were doing, so he stayed behind and wanted to be near me, which I loved.

On my grief journey, I had to learn I could never go home again … at least to the home I once knew. That time before, with little Mitch, was my old home. Today is now, and that is where I’ve learned to live.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I was busy preparing our meal on the grill. My tripod and camera were on-the-ready to capture any moment that caught my eye. Little Mitch asked if he could wear one of my favorite hats that had artificial gray hair sprouting in every direction from the top. At the time, I didn’t have any gray hair to speak of, and it was one of my favorite hats. Since I’ve lost Mitch, I have grown quite a bit of gray hair; which to me is a visible testament to the price we pay for grief and heartache.

Mitch always wanted to sit next to me when I was at the grill. He’d sit on a stool and quietly talk to me about things that were on his mind. Sometimes he didn’t say anything at all. Mitch just wanted to be – and that’s okay, too. Often, he'd make observations that were both insightful and witty. There wasn't a moment I didn't adore.

I remember this summer afternoon so vividly. I also remember having a distinct impression this day that a terrible life storm was on the horizon and that darkness was near. I didn’t understand that feeling at the time, but looking back, I can see it was my loving Father preparing me … in effect, warning me, to make moments matter.

For almost 2 years following the death of Mitch, certain places in my home evoked the most tender feelings. Whenever I was at my grill, I’d instinctively look to my side hoping to see little Mitch next to me, only to find emptiness. I’d burst into tears, and my heart would break all over again. For a season, all I saw was emptiness, everywhere. I had an aversion to certain rooms in my home – for they reminded me of my absent son and those places became a source of deep pain.

Over time, however, I knew I needed to create new memories in those empty places – to fill those voids with something of joy and happiness. It took time. Step by step, new memory by new memory, I began to replace that sense of profound emptiness with something new.

I think part of my grief was magnified because I wanted to go home … you know, the home I once knew and loved. Yet everything stood as a testament that I was no longer home and that I could never go there again.

Author Thomas Wolfe wrote a book, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), where, among other things, describes how the passing of time prevents us from returning “home again.” On at least one level, it is a brilliant meditation on life and making the most of the time we have.

On my grief journey, I had to learn I could never go home again … at least to the home I once knew. That time before, with little Mitch, was my old home. Today is now, and that is where I’ve learned to live.

I chronicle my journey with Mitch here, not to fixate on yesteryear and on sorrow – but instead, I write my memories as though I were a weary traveler who discovered a treasure, a memory I wish to keep. I put it here for safe keeping.

Pain has been my teacher and has shown me how to appreciate my present. Whether through death or simply the passage of time, all that we have today will be different tomorrow. In a few short years, my children will have graduated from high school, and I will never be able to go back to this home I have now again. So today, I will live in my home … my current reality … and I will love that place and all that dwell therein. For on some tomorrow, I’ll have a new home, and I’ll learn to adjust once again.
 

GOING HOME

Going home, to that place I love to be. 

Yet there is another home ... a place I cannot yet see. I wonder what it's like... a sacred grove, a grassy knoll, or perhaps a place so filled with light we cannot imagine it, not even in our dreams. 

Somewhere out there my little child waits for me.

IN SEARCH OF HOME

Last night I went on a date with my sweet wife. As we were driving we saw a beautiful sunset and pulled over so we could enjoy the canvas of light that was disappearing before our eyes. Mitch was a fan of sunsets, too, and we couldn't help but think of our little boy and how he would have enjoyed seeing what we saw. 

To our left was a most beautiful array of warm colors as the sun was slowly descending; to our right were storm clouds (not seen in this image) that had all manner of deep blues – the contrast was stunning. As my wife walked down a dirt road to take in the sky I couldn't help but think of our journey to find a new normal. Though I didn't see Jupiter with my eyes, I could feel its tug nearby.

Later that evening I posted this photo I took with my phone to Instagram with the caption, “In Search of Home” making a veiled reference to a recent post about our journey from Jupiter, “Should I live out my days marooned in some place between the punishing gravity of grief and the near weightlessness I knew before, I will count myself blessed.”

This image isn't meant to be sad, nor is it a cry for help; rather, it is a symbol of progress, our journey with grief and our search for a new home. It shows we no longer live on Jupiter with its thin air and crushing gravity, though it is close by and the pains of loss shuttle us there often. The point of this image is we don’t live there anymore yet we search for a new home in an unfamiliar place.

For us the world remains unfamiliar on so many levels. The most mundane things remind me the world we once knew is no longer. When we go out to eat or see a movie as a family and we’re asked how many to our party, I often say “six” then quickly correct myself … “Oh, I mean five.” I never knew a simple number could hurt so much. And then there are those who naively say, “It’s been a year, it’s time to move on” … yet they know nothing of such a loss. They remind me that even the people in my life, however well intentioned, live in some other place much different than my own. 

What I've come to understand is the journey of grief is as unique as the individual bearing it. I have known death; I have lost a parent, family and best friends, but nothing has acquainted me with deep grief like the death of my child. That is an altogether different, catastrophic sorrow – there is simply no comparison. Yet, I think I have discovered something about grief: we don’t make a journey through grief … instead we make our journey with grief. Once we appreciate the force of that distinction we realize we never get over the death of a child we just learn to carry it differently. 

I have witnessed how having a child changes one’s life forever. In life there is simply no equal to the experience of having children. As I've noted earlier, 12 years ago Mitch didn't exist and I was quite content without him … but now that I've had him I find myself struggling to find a way to live without him. Because of Mitch, and my other children, my world has forever changed.

In the grand scheme of things, it seems humanity needs our children as much as they need us – for we are both teachers and students to each other. My children have taught me patience, sacrifice and the deepest meaning of love. Had I forgone the opportunity to have children I would have missed out on the greatest miracle in all the universe.

I have so many new stories to tell about Mitch and his journey. I don’t tell these stories to wallow in sorrow and I don’t tell them for fear my son will be forgotten – I tell them because they are what’s in my heart at the time … and if someone else can find their way through their own struggles, it is well with me. 

Though I may speak of grief [often through my grief] know that I do not live in a constant state of sorrow. Let this image become a symbol, not of sadness but of progress … that the journey continues as we search for a new home and a new normal.

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http://instagram.com/christophjones

HOPE

This was Mitchell’s first morning after being released from the hospital to die at home. Though in the comfort of my own home and bed, I didn't sleep well that night – I wept and I prayed for my son to be delivered from the jaws of death. If ever there were a time for hope, this was it.

As I walked into my son’s bedroom I couldn't help but notice how the morning sun shone softly through his window and warmed the color of everything … as if to promise that not all of life is dark and there is cause for hope. 

For if we, being human, can love our children so intensely, how much more might He love us? I can scarcely imagine. I can scarcely take it in.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I asked Mitch how he slept and he said in a soft voice “I slept great, Dad.” He was home – and that is where he loved to be. Until this moment I had never considered it possible to be in both heaven and hell at the same time. Yet there I was, in the middle of both… a beautiful agony.

Mitch was tired and weak so I helped him sit up while Marlie was still in his arms. She looked at him for a moment and then gave him a soft kiss. Mitch smiled and hugged his puppy close to his face. He loved having his own baby dog. Marlie had a mission of mercy to perform and for whatever reason she seemed to forget she was a puppy whenever she was near Mitch. This little dog that was no more than 3 months old gave my son much comfort. 

I’ll never forget, despite my profound sorrow, the feelings of hope and peace I felt this day – and many days thereafter. Reflecting back on our time with my son on hospice I have come to understand those moments of peace weren't a promise of deliverance from hardship, but a faint whisper … a spiritual glimpse that all was as it was meant to be and that there were greater forces at work than I knew. So I learned to put faith in that.

I learned early in my life it is not reasonable to hope for a life free of hardship and sorrow. I cannot hope to be the only human exception, exempt from the sorrows of this life. But I can hope the tempest of sorrow and grief in my heart will one day calm. I can hope to find meaning, to search for understanding and experience growth. Those things are eternal and the things for which we can truly hope.

I also hope to see my son again one day. When I do, I will run at reckless speeds to hug him. I will wet his face and his neck with my tears and I will tell him how much I love him. And perhaps, when I turn around I might see the Father of my soul do the same to me. 

I hope. 

For if we, being human, can love our children so intensely, how much more might He love us? I can scarcely imagine. I can scarcely take it in.

WELCOME HOME

Natalie was on a trip to New York City with some of her girlfriends. I was so glad to see her take a break from all that weighed heavy and enjoy time away with dear friends. For me, being home with my kids was also a treasured opportunity to connect in new ways and spend concentrated time with them. 

The day Natalie came home my kids wanted to write her welcome home notes. We sat in my conference room with a box full of markers, crayons, and pencils and got to work. She had only been gone about 4 days but each of us missed her as if she had been gone 40. And in her absence each of us recognized, in our own way, what a tremendous blessing she was to us individually and as a family; we loved our mom and missed her so.

I remember helping my kids draw and spell and at one point I looked over to see Mitch, who had sat on my table and with tender hands wrote what was on his mind and heart. In his cute handwriting he sketched “I love love love love …. you.” Were you to zoom into this image and look closely, you would see what I’m referring to. I was so moved by what Mitch wrote. He felt that one word “love” wasn't enough to describe how he felt about her. It was such a simple note but a profound gesture of love and affection from a little boy to his mommy.

A dear friend of mine, whose wife also went with Natalie, picked them up from the airport and brought her home. We each came to greet Natalie on the driveway and in the doorway and suddenly our family, which felt incomplete without her, was whole again. With arms stretched we said, “Welcome home.”

When Mitch was diagnosed we sold our home and built a new one with the hope our son could use a wheelchair more easily, when the time came. Between the times we sold our home and moved into our new one, we lived in an apartment for about 2 years and most of what we owned was in storage. I wrote the following in my journal: “Living in an apartment has reminded us of what’s truly important – although I don’t know that we ever lost sight of that. Materialism is a state of mind – not a condition of possessions. We own our stuff - it doesn't own us. And while we have a lot of crap in storage, we aren't itching for it – however, admittedly, it will be like Christmas in the summer when we unpack. Yet, if a tornado or a burglar came sweeping by and it all vanished in a moment – it is only stuff. What is most important is the living, breathing bodies and souls that live in our dwelling.”

My feelings have not changed since I wrote that entry 7 years ago. Home isn't a shelter for things or a place to hoard away the treasures of earth. It is more than a place to eat and sleep. To me, home is a most sacred place – a place to forge the most important relationships we will ever have. 

When I look upon this photo and see my son, whose love for family was overflowing, I can’t help but feel his loss. As my home felt empty without my wife, it feels profoundly empty without my son. I don’t limp about or spend my days licking my wounds or feeling sorry for myself – but I do long for him. I do miss him. And I do cry for him. 

Welcome home. That is what I want to say to my son, but I cannot. And in my heart and mind I write letters to him in the same way he wrote his mom … with the word “love” repeating to infinity. There aren't words in the human language that can express my love for my son and how I yearn for him to be home, with me.

But then again, this isn't really home. Our real home is over there … in that place beyond the hills. And one day I will see my son and he will say to me, “Hi Dad, welcome home.” And I will weep.