WHEN DOES A JOURNEY BEGIN?

I’ve often wondered when Mitchell’s journey began. Did it start the moment of his diagnosis? I think not. When he was born? No. What about when Natalie and I were married? Or perhaps that magic moment we fell in love? Is it possible my son’s journey began when Natalie and I were born? After all, we were the recipe for his creation. In many ways, I believe our life’s journeys are not only complex but interwoven with generations past.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This is a photo of me and my mother, just before I came into the world. While I don’t remember any of this, I do have vivid memories of her throughout my childhood. When I was a very young child, in Vancouver, Canada, I have flashes that appear in my mind like short video clips; I remember her in the kitchen preparing meals, or the way she rocked me in a velvet chair, and how the summer’s afternoon sun broke through the thinly-laced curtains as she smiled at me. I don’t know why we remember the things we do. I only know I’ve carried certain memories, like a photograph in my mind, since I was a very young child. The images have never changed – and my feelings about them remain the same. I feel peace and gratitude.

So, when did my son’s journey begin? As I examine the circumstances of my life, I am convinced Mitchell’s journey started long before he was born … and long before I was born, too. The more I read about genetics, consciousness, and the soul … I am convinced we pass on much more than green eyes and blonde hair. Somehow, whatever we become, we seem to pass a portion of that along to the next generation. We see evidences of this all around us. Even adopted children who finally meet their biological parents 50 years later discover they have similar interests, personality traits, and more. In so many ways, I marvel over the human and spiritual experience. The closer I look, the more I see both my parents in Mitch and my other children.

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.
— William Penn

Today is my mother’s birthday and I can’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for all that she ever was and is. I love my mother deeply and I’m grateful how she taught me to love and to be strong where it counts. I’m grateful for the way she tickled my back when I was a little boy … and then to see her tickle my young children’s backs in the same loving way. I’m grateful for the times she would listen to me when I was in college – those late nights when she was tired and needed rest, yet she smiled patiently as I yammered on about life and other things. I’m grateful for her unwavering love for me and my family.

I’m grateful for the many chocolate cakes from Costco she had ready for little Mitch when we came to visit her. I loved watching his smile growing ever brighter as neared her home – for he knew he’d be greeted with warm hugs and a soft cake. I’m grateful for her den parties with popcorn and shaved flavored ice & Sprite. I’m grateful for a life of love and learning at her feet.

I once asked my mother what surprised her most about life and she responded with a quiet sobriety, “What surprised me about life?” she paused a moment and said, “The brevity of it.” Indeed, time passes quickly and if I’m not careful I can get caught up in the thick of thin things and one day, to my horror, I might awake to realize I’ve missed out on life’s most important things. Mitch was one of my awakenings – and though I write of grief and death so that I might examine my life more fully, I very much live in the moment and appreciate everything about my life. More today than at any time before.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.

William Penn observed, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” I haven't always been the best at doing it right with time - so I hope to use time more wisely. And for whatever time I have left with my mother, I hope to honor her with my every word and deed. Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.

SWEETER THINGS

mj_8k_ChocolateCake & Grandmas.jpg

It was a cold November night when we arrived at grandma’s house.  Eager to stretch their legs from a 4-hour drive, our kids sprang from the car and ran to the front door only to be received with warm hugs and kisses from loving grandparents.  It was an especially tender time as our petition for a heart transplant was denied.  We were on borrowed time. 

In the marrow of my soul, I knew time was short, and that frightened me.  A few weeks before this photo, I sent a message to family letting them know Mitch was in trouble. 

In part of that letter, I wrote:

“Today Natalie and I sit with Mitch on the edge of an invisible cliff.  He can't see it, but my wife and I can - and the mouth of the abyss is yawned and inching to devour our son.  Yet, Mitchell looks out into the vast horizon unaware and envisions a long, bright future ahead of him.  In his little mind, he is already making big plans.  He wants to build a home next to ours with a tunnel connecting our basements, so he and his dad can watch movies and make popcorn.  He wants to work for his dad when he's older.  He talks about his own kids one day and how he’ll raise them as we raised him.  As he points to his vision of the future with youthful enthusiasm and a zest for life, he doesn't realize that he sits on the outermost edge and the ground from under him has crumbled away into the darkness – and his little body is hanging on by a pebble.  What Mitchell doesn't understand is the beautiful horizon he sees is only a mirage, and in reality, the sun is setting on his own life.

 Mitchell is too young to know what’s happening.  If he knew how close he is to completing this mortal journey, he would be terrified.  And we can’t bring ourselves to let him know the mortal danger he faces.  And we won’t.

 I write you today not to seek pity or sadness – but to alert you to his situation and invite you when you see him next, to give him a little more attention and love than usual.  We don’t know how much time we have with him, but the hour is late and midnight uncertain, so we want him to feel loved and appreciated during whatever time he has left.”

 I was very emotional at the time.  The simplest trigger would send tears streaming down my face.  A pothole while driving, a ray of light, or a fleeting memory that crossed my mind – everything was a trigger.  Though my heart was fragile, I tried to hide my sorrow from my son.  I didn’t want him to be afraid of something he had no control.  Suddenly, I understood like never before, how much a parent wants for their child’s happiness; and to see our children suffer is an agony for which there is no equal.

Suddenly, I understood like never before, how much a parent wants for their child’s happiness; and to see our children suffer is an agony for which there is no equal.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So, when my mother said, “Mitch, I have a surprise for you,” and my little boy smiled, my heart was awash with gratitude.  My mother knew Mitchells’ favorite dessert was chocolate cake from Costco – and Mitch knew it, too.  As our kids gathered in the kitchen and Grandma began to slice into that chocolaty goodness, Mitch had a smile that made my heart sing.  It was a simple thing to remember Mitch and treat him with something he loved – but I’ve learned that the small and simple things are really big things.

As I tucked Mitch in that night, he said in a soft tone, “Dad, Grandma is so nice to remember I like chocolate cake from Costco.”  I paused a moment, and Mitch then asked, “Are you crying?”  I whispered, “Son, sometimes moms and dads cry when special things happen to their kids.  Our hearts explode, and it squirts out of our eyes.”  Mitch giggled a little and snuggled into a deep pillow, ready to visit a place of dreams.

Mitch knew there were sweeter things in life than chocolate cake – and as much as he loved that treat, he loved the sweeter things of life even more.  The loving kindness of a grandparent, a simple act of service, or a friendly hello meant more to Mitch than all the candy on earth.

As I reflect on my son’s journey, though it broke my heart, I am so grateful for my mother and the sweeter things of life.  For when all seemed dark, it was these little moments that broke through the shadows and shed a little light.  I will thank my Father when I kneel before Him tonight.

WHEN KIDS LEAD

Mitchell’s grandfather has always had a gentle, quiet wisdom about him. My father died years ago and I never really had a template to pattern my life after – so I learned to watch. To this day, I watch everyone carefully and take quiet, deep notes. Sometimes I write my notes in pencil, other times I write in pen. This was a day I wrote in pen.

On this occasion, my in-laws came to our family’s ranch in Southern Utah, which aside from our home, was one of Mitchell’s favorite places to be. Mitch was excited to show his grandfather around the ranch on some 4-wheelers. Grandpa asked Mitch to take the lead, and that he would follow. Mitch smiled as he mounted his little 4-wheeler and carefully scootered about. He felt responsible and empowered – and little Mitch grew because of it. I saw a look of leadership in my son’s countenance that day and my heart swelled with love and gratitude. 

To me, this image is a symbol of good parenting, and I have my father-in-law to thank for the reminder.

In the past, I often observed my father-in-law present his grandchildren 2 or 3 options and invite them to make a choice. I don’t know if it is intentional, but he does it often, so I am sure it must be. Over the years I captured several such moments where Dee would ask little Mitch what he wanted to do … and my son would furrow his brow, think deeply and then decide on a thing. What my father-in-law was doing was teaching my son to think for himself and learn to have confidence in his decisions. 

Without realizing it, Natalie has often modeled her parenting style after her mother and father. Like her dad, she nurtured a sense of empowerment in our children. She would often say to our kids things like, “You can always make a choice, but you cannot choose the consequence,” warning them to think carefully before they act. Natalie often took the slower, but more effective method of parenting; always offering loving guidance, but allowing the natural consequences to follow, for better or worse. She did this so they would learn while they were young how much their choices mattered. She gave our kids options, so they could learn wisdom through trial and error and to eventually become confident in themselves. Surely there have been scraped knees and bruised egos, and sometimes things didn’t turn out how we hoped but, on balance, allowing our children to lead and make choices has helped them grow. 

So, when I look back on this beautiful summer morning when Mitch felt like the king of the world, I am reminded of the importance of raising children to feel empowered, not entitled. I’m reminded of the tremendous growth that happens when we take the time to teach our kids, then allow them to lead. 

My little son is leading me now, from a distant place far from view. I am watching and listening … and writing with pen.

 

AN INHERITANCE

We just finished swimming at a local recreation center with a handful of cousins who were summoned by their benevolent grandfather. Like a wise herdsman, this good man knows how to gather his flock and tend for his children and grandchildren. He is keen to pass down to his children and grandchildren experiences, not things. A philosophy I can get behind.

The kids each smelled vaguely of chlorine, the color of their eyes ranged from pink, to red, to bloodshot. And each child was on the verge of needing a nap from playing in the water for hours. After our swimming adventure, Dee (my father-in-law) invited everyone over to Panda Express, one of Mitchell’s favorites. Orders were taken and cousins quickly scattered across the restaurant claiming their tables. Mitch, wanting to sit by me, sat across the table. I loved how Mitch always wanted to sit by my side – because I very much wanted to sit beside him. There was something different about him. Something quite special. 

My father-in-law, seeing Mitch not with the other kids, decided to sit by him and start a conversation. This old man, seasoned by life and experience, leaned toward my young son and wove a fantastical story about some fictional character he created in his mind. A master storyteller, he is. Mitch gazed into the distance, swept away by his story.

I, too, was swept away as I watched these two lovely souls, divided by generations of experience, interact so softly. I thought to myself, “What an inheritance this is ...” I began to think about what we pass on to the next generation … the things they inherit from us. 

My father-in-law seems to model that old proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and he has food for a day. Teach a man to fish and he has food for a lifetime.” In his own special way, he teaches his family how to fish; how to smile at an old pair of shoes and save what we might otherwise spend foolishly. He teaches his grandchildren how to be entertained without electronics and to enjoy the lost art of storytelling. That, and so much more does this good man pass down. The true value of his inheritance is a gift that cannot be counted or measured today.

When my father died, I inherited a little over $2,000. I was young and on my own; a first-year college student who didn’t know his place in the world and would have traded all the treasure of earth to have his father by his side. The world was big and I was small – a pebble in a vast sea of humans who always seemed to be in a hurry, tossed to-and-fro by the tides of culture. I didn’t care about any financial inheritance - instead, as a young man I pondered deeply on the greater inheritance – what my father really passed on to me. I wanted to live up to his good name and great heart.

So when I saw my son and his grandfather I thought how lucky they were to have each other – and I began to think back on the things we inherit. The things that really matter. In this moment I saw my son inheriting one of life’s richest treasures: a loving grandfather passing down an experience of the mind, heart and soul and my little boy drinking in the moment and every word that was told. Though he was young, my son’s soul felt old. 

The longer I live the more I have come to see that age is a mirage … it is simply illusory. How old is our soul, really? One day we will see.

When I was young I imagined living to a ripe old age ... passing down an inheritance for generations yet to be. Now broken-hearted and bereft … I’m finally beginning to see an inheritance my son passed down to me. 

BARE FEET & BROKEN BONES

I think that nightmare scenario crosses every parent’s mind at one point or another and we ask ourselves: “What would I do if I lost my child?” In every way that matters, we are asking ourselves what would happen if we lost part of ourselves – for that is what our children are to us. That’s what our children will never understand until they have children of their own: they become more important to us than we are to ourselves.

Just after we were told Mitch had days to live, Natalie’s mother and father came rushing to the hospital to offer love and support. Over the next few weeks, my wife and I would keep the knowledge of our son’s impending death from Mitch. Peace of mind and childhood was our gift to our son – at least for a little while. You see, we didn’t know if he was going to die in an hour, or a day, or in a month and we wanted to help Mitch make the most of what time remained. 

I know that I cannot take their troubles away. But, like this good father I will walk beside them … even with bare feet and broken bones. Until my dying breath, I will walk beside them and try to lead them home.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Palliative care workers circled our room and visited daily asking for permission to talk to Mitch about his death. Each time we told them no. Knowing our time with Mitch was short weighed heavy on our souls. We hid our broken hearts behind a soft smile and we put away our dashed hopes and shattered dreams under a blanket of hugs and loves. Though we didn’t know how to protect him from death, we could protect him from worry and fear. And that is what we tried to do. That was all we knew to do.

When these good parents arrived, Natalie and her father found an empty room in the cardiac intensive care unit. A curtain was drawn and a tender conversation between a daddy and his little girl ensued. Tears of deep grief and anguish fell to the earth. I wonder if the heavens wept just a little that day – not out of sorrow, but empathy. I don’t know what they talked about. I only know that empty room became hallowed ground between a good father and his little daughter. 

I stayed with Mitch and his grandmother in his CICU room. My mother-in-law is as good a woman as there ever was. Her heart was broken for Mitch and her daughter and our family. I’ll write of her another day.

After some time had passed Mitch asked me to get Natalie. When I went to get her I stumbled into a most tender and beautiful scene. I saw a good father embrace his daughter as she wept. In her trembling hand was a pamphlet about how to talk to your child about death and dying. That impossible scenario we couldn’t imagine living suddenly became a harsh reality.

When I saw my wife and her good father I sensed something similar between our Father. I thought of those times I knelt by my bed with bruised knees pleading for a way out for my son; the nights seemed to stretch out into infinity as I wet my pillow with tears. I felt the words in my heart, “I cannot take your troubles from you, but I will walk with you and lift you when you fall.”

Somewhere out there lives my son. And when I see him next I will drop everything and I will run … boy, will I ever run. The heavens will weep once more – but this time out of joy – for a family will be reunited with their young, fallen boy.

When I think of my own children, two of whom are teenagers and my youngest now ten, I know that I cannot take their troubles away. But, like this good father I will walk beside them … even with bare feet and broken bones. Until my dying breath, I will walk beside them and try to lead them home.

FAMILY: A TREASURE BEYOND MEASURE

Several years ago I was visiting Rio Tinto to discuss a leadership development course I was designing for them. Before I left their mine site, I visited the gift shop and purchased a little souvenir for each of my kids. I knew Mitch loved gold, so I got him a little water vial filled with tiny flakes of a gold-like material. I remember handing it to Mitch only to see his eyes grow big and his smile even bigger. After admiring it for a while, I followed him to his room where he carefully placed it in his nightstand drawer, among his other treasures. His room, untouched since the day of his passing, still contains all the things he held dear, just the way he left them.

It wasn’t many months later Mitch came to my office with a serious look on his face. In his hand was the little vial of gold and a big question, “Dad, how much do you think I could sell this gold for?” My first instinct was to chuckle a little because it was such a cute question. I refrained. I could tell Mitch had something on his mind and when asked, he said he wanted to sell his gold so he could purchase a new Game Boy he had been saving up for. Unaware I purchased the souvenir for around $10, Mitch thought the gold was real and that it might be worth millions. I love the innocence of children.

I told Mitch that my little souvenir was only a symbol of gold, not real gold itself. I apologized that he thought it was worth more than it was. I could tell he felt a little deflated and that his youthful imagination got the best of him. I then got on my knees and looked him in the eyes and said, “Mitch, I have an idea. Why don’t I buy that gold from you, but you keep it safe for me?” As I handed him $50 he smiled and nodded with a faint look of relief that his treasure had at least little value. 

I gave Mitch a big hug and told him how sweet I thought he was. I said, “Mitch, do you know what is worth more than all the gold on earth?” With his innocent, tender eyes, he shook his head as if to say no. “You, my son. You are worth more than all the treasures that have been or ever will be on earth. I would give up everything I own to have you in my life. I would sell the clothes off my back to keep you, and keep you safe.” I then pointed to his vial of fake gold and told him, “Even if that was real gold … even if our home was made of the rarest gold … you are worth infinitely more than that.” 

I knew it wasn’t possible for Mitch to understand the depth of my love; for a child cannot know the love of a parent … they can only feel an infinitesimally small portion of that love. And though he didn’t understand how much I loved him, I know he felt my love in every way a young child can. 

I have never forgotten that exchange with Mitch. Since then I have thought often about life’s greatest treasures. They aren’t the things I can buy with money. In fact, I have discovered, the very things I can buy get in the way of life’s greatest treasures. 

So, as I’ve been contemplating my life treasures this weekend, I stumbled into this photo of my mother and Mitch and just wept. This is my treasure. This is my family. 

It’s my mother’s birthday today and I have a little something to say: thank you, mom for being so good to my son – you always made him feel special, like he was the only one. 

When I think of life’s greatest treasures, a lot can come to mind. The things we work so hard to purchase, and sometimes lose our souls to find. We mine the earth and till the ground, to harvest earth’s great bounty. Some choose spend their lives with drunken eyes in pursuit of things, forever they are counting. If I’m not careful, I too, can lose my mind; forgetting heaven’s promise, “seek and ye shall find.” We can waste our days chasing things of little worth; you know, the things we gather up but cannot leave this earth. Or, we can stop the madness and maybe catch our breath … long enough to awaken and remember things are only things, and to love a soul is best. So when I see this photo of my mother and my son; generations apart, yet full of love and having fun … I remember family is my greatest treasure, worth more than anything I could possibly measure.

CATCH THEM WHILE YOU CAN

There are so many layers to Mitchell’s Journey … so many stories to share. 

I remember taking our young family to the family ranch in southern Utah. I had nicknamed it, “The Other Side of Narnia” because there was something magical about ranch’s relative isolation from the world. At first I used to get frustrated cell signals are spotty at best – most of the time I don’t get one. But then, in a moment of sanity, I realized what a blessing it is to be cut off from the rest of the mad world so I could focus on the things that truly mattered.

One summer afternoon, just before the sun was about to set, I found Mitch, tiny Wyatt and my step-father sitting on a bench by a pond talking as only grandparents and grandchildren know to do. My heart swelled with gratitude to see this good man love my children. There sat a man who didn’t raise me and had every reason to be about other things that day. For that seems to be the work of men … to be busy building, chasing or collecting things. Instead, he choose to stay with my boys and spend time with them. 

In 1931, William Lyon Phelps wrote, “The final test of a gentleman is his attitude toward children. I wonder if all men remember as vividly as I do [how] grown-up people treated us …” I thought of that statement as I watched Garth … I was so grateful to see this good man spend loving time with my boys. He wanted them to know they were important and loved. That he invested time was good, but he invested his love and attention and that was greater. There is a difference.

My mother and Garth drove to our home the night Mitch passed away. I remember them both entering my son’s room, long after the sky became dark. They sat reverently at the foot of my little boy’s bed and seemed to peer upon him with sorrow, reverence and compassion. I don’t know what crossed Garth’s mind that night. Perhaps he thought of his own son he lost a few years prior. A son he loved dearly and misses so. As I looked at my step-father peer upon my dying son, I remembered this photo and tender moment between him and Mitch. To this day, I don’t think Garth knows what this singular moment meant to my son and how often Mitch reflected on it. I will forever be grateful for this moment.

I am just like every man that ever was. I am flawed and sometimes unsure of myself – and perhaps I’m more transparent than I should be. But I believe what you get should be what you see. I am also prone to build, chase and collect things. Any more, I am trying to build my family, chase my children around the couch in laughter and collect moments that matter. For in the end, those are the things that last. Those are the things that shape tomorrow and protect our hearts from a deeper form of grief and sorrow. 

These are the moments that matter most. When I die and see my Father and Son, they won’t care about the cars I drove or the depth and size of my treasure trove. Instead, they’ll care more about things one cannot see … the love in my heart and whether I gave to others in need generously.

No matter how brilliant or carefully our lives are planned, if we don’t give mind to the little things, we will miss life’s magic moments. Best to catch these little moments ... catch them while you can. 

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Note: Mitch loved fishing with all of his heart. This summer, Mitchell’s Journey is sponsoring an MDA Summer Camp activity named after our son. We want to help other young boys go fishing and make memories that matter. If you haven’t signed up for our Miles for Mitchell run, please do. This is the run that will help fund this activity and other things that matter.

Here’s the link to our charity run:
www.raceentry.com/race-reviews/miles-for-mitchell