CAN’T I STAY A LITTLE LONGER?

You know those magic moments where time slows, and you wish you could stay there forever?  This was one of those evenings.  It was ordinary by all accounts.  The Saturday chores were long done, our kids were bathed and getting ready for bed, and the sun was making its slow descent behind the hills.  The summer breeze wrapped your skin like a warm blanket, and you could hear crickets begin to sing their soothing songs. 

Come as often as you like.  Take what helps, heal what hurts, and find gratitude for all that ever was and is yet to be.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I had just stepped outside to take the garbage out when I noticed my two youngest.  I smiled as I watched Mitch hum a song as he scooted about, while Wyatt had an imaginary conversation, tromping about the driveway in his tiny shoes.  I can almost smell Wyatt’s freshly shampooed hair and feel the warm cotton of his pajamas, just out of the dryer.  I miss those days.  As I pulled out my phone to take a photo of life in motion, tiny Wyatt ran to his brother’s side, eager to make sure he was in the shot.  Wyatt reached for the handlebar and pressed his baby index finger onto Mitchell’s hand as if to give him a tiny hand-hug and say, “That’s my big brother, and we’re buddies.”  

 As I look closely at this image, I can see the breadcrumbs of an extraordinary life hiding in plain sight.  Mitch held a purple pencil in his hand and a teddy bear between his legs … evidence that children treasure the little things.  Mitchell’s smile bore a fading milk mustache from lunch a few hours earlier.  Wyatt wore his favorite Spiderman t-shirt and bore a similar mustache – except he also had crumbs from a cookie he’d recently gobbled down with a feverish giggle.   There stood my two youngest kids … tiny, cute, perfectly imperfect, little messes.   At this moment I was overwhelmed with gratitude; I was so glad to be a dad.

 I was so swept up with this moment, I didn’t want it to end.  I’m reminded of the phrase, “Can’t I stay a little longer?  I’m so happy here.”   That’s how I felt … and I wanted to live there forever. 

 Today, my heart says something similar.  When I think back on my Camelot years, my heart whispers, “I was so happy then.  If only it could have lasted.  Can’t I just visit for a moment or two?”  There is a part of me that wishes to go back in time because I’d relish moments in ways only a grieving heart can fully know. 

 In a way, I do go back in time.  Only the events are fixed and, I am as a ghost visiting old times and familiar places in my mind.  That’s what writing is to me: a time machine.  These days 95% of my life is concerned with now and the future – but I will always reserve a little space to visit my past with a tender heart and pencil and paper.

 I go back in time for at least 4 reasons:

  1.  So that I won’t forget the little things. 

  2. To make meaning of love, life, loss, and suffering.

  3. To clean and dress my wounds.

  4. To foster gratitude for what was and to better appreciate what I have today.

Going back in time can be tricky.  If we’re not mindful, we can irritate our wounds in such a way they won’t ever heal.  And sometimes, they’ll get infected.  At least for me, intention has a lot to do with how I choose to heal.  When I go back in time, I am always looking to understand the past, to mend what’s broken and strengthen my feeble knees.  Sure, I cry -- but they are cleansing tears … the kind that keep the soil of my soul soft, fertile, and growth promoting.

 The inevitable consequence of going back in time is my heart cries, “Can’t I stay a little longer?”  But then the less broken part of me says, “Come as often as you like.  Take what helps, heal what hurts, and find gratitude for all that ever was and is yet to be.”  Those are the words that resonate deep inside of me.

A LITTLE BIT BROKEN

I’m often asked how my children are doing with their grief journey. The answer is one part private, three parts complicated, and 100% unique. Each of my children has struggled with grief in very individual ways.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As a father, I found that my heart not only broke over losing my son, it broke over seeing my children in pain. It broke seeing my wife hurt in ways only a mother can know. In so many ways, trying to keep a family together after the loss of a child is like trying to prevent others from drowning when you, yourself are drowning. After having experienced the emotional toll of death, I now understand how families can disintegrate.

Last weekend my daughter wanted our family to take some photos in some nearby woods. I wanted to support her impulse to take pictures – and this is one I snapped at the end. Laura-Ashley is the consummate young adult: she is spontaneous, borderline responsible ;), continually discovering how the world works, and full of life. I remember being her age – in so many ways, it feels like yesterday – but then again, so far away. When I was her age, it had never entered my heart how beautiful, yet cruel life can be. But life is more beautiful than it is cruel.

Our home life is filled with ordinary moments. We do chores. We get frustrated with each other. We laugh at each other’s jokes. We talk about life and try to support each other’s dreams. Laura-Ashley has one more semester in college before she goes into nursing school, Ethan has dreams of becoming a filmmaker/storyteller, and he is continually developing his craft, and Wyatt is almost 13 and is into kickboxing, wrestling, piano, and Fortite. And Mitch … he’s still ten years old, to me. For the remainder of my days, he’ll always be tender 10.

I think about Mitch every single day – but I don’t always talk about him to my family. That is one of the great difficulties parents who’ve lost children face – we want to talk about our memories or our hurt, not realizing the people around us need a sense of new normalcy. So, each day, I take deliberate steps to be self-aware and aware of others … and try to focus on my kids, so they know they matter to me just as much as sweet Mitch did. Learning to put grief on the shelf and focus on the now is part of the grueling grief journey. And when grief calls, it knows where to find me.

Even still, my sweet daughter and other kids voluntarily talk about Mitch. Almost daily. The difference is, they bring him up in ways that are meaningful to them. Always, my kids talk about little Mitch with great love and adoration. I think we’ve found a beautiful balance of honoring what was and embracing what is.

My daughter loved Mitch a great deal – and he adored her. It warms my heart when she talks about him in the way she talks about him because those conversations are healing.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.

TO HURT & TO HEAL

When Mitch was tiny, he injured his hand and began to cry.  He was more frightened than hurt, but he was hurt just the same.  After a moment of sorry, Mitch realized his hand was going to be okay his mother picked him up and held him as only a mother knows to hold her child. To a young one, there is a certain comfort that comes from blankets and Sippy Cups, but then there’s the comfort that comes from a mother; and no blanket on earth can replace the warm embrace of a loving mother.

Though not an envious man, I am sometimes sorely tempted, when I see the tender bond between mother and child. Though my heart loves deeply, I recognize there is a sacred place for a mother’s love. I wish I had a piece of that because it is beautiful beyond measure. Instead, I’ll take what I can get while sitting on the sidelines and consider myself blessed. 

So there I stood, in my dorky way, trying to comfort my son. I didn't stand a chance against the blanket and Sippy Cup, let alone his mommy’s embrace. I made funny faces and danced like a fool for him, and he started to chuckle. His smile, this very smile you see here, and eyes shrunk-wrapped in tears melted my heart. Though I offered a little sideshow entertainment for my boy, the real performance was already underway by his mother.

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I think, on some level, I’m beginning to understand Kate Bush’s lyrics “I stand outside this woman’s work … this woman’s world. Ooh, its hard on the man, now his part is over, now starts the craft of the Father.” There is a sacredness to motherhood, something far beyond my reach. Though I do my best to be a good dad and husband, I am beginning to realize I am a small player on a much grander stage. Though I do my best to do my part, however important, it is minor in comparison.

Neal Maxwell wrote, “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses? When the surf of the centuries has made the great pyramids so much sand, the everlasting family will still be standing…” 

When we started our family, we had no idea what we were doing. We still don’t on some level because each phase of child-rearing, at least for us, is an undiscovered country. Yet we’re learning things each day that we try to apply in the things we do and say. I wish I could wield the parenting power my wife seems to shoulder so gracefully. Such is the power of motherhood, I suppose. I’m just an ordinary dad with more weaknesses than most. So I’ll try to pave the way, moving obstacles where I can and make life a little easier for her each day. 

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 

Though I’m still hurting, I’m also healing … and that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

 

---

Originally Posted in 2014

A PROMISE MADE, A PROMISE KEPT


Tonight, Natalie and I went on a walk around a nearby reservoir. During summer months, Mitch loved to visit the sandy beach here and splash in the shallows. Sometimes his older sister or brother would take him to the deep while he sat in the safety of a little raft. Mitch would say, ‘Whoa, it’s deep out here” and then he’d cling tightly to the side of the inflatable boat.

Natalie comes here often to keep a promise she made Mitch when he was home on hospice. I'll never forget how softly he asked her, "Mom, will you be sure to take Marlie out on adventures?" Though he never used the words, "When I'm gone," that was the meaning behind his words. He knew his time was short, yet he loved his puppy and wanted her to enjoy the world.

Natalie, ever the faithful mother in life and in death, has kept that sacred promise to her sweet little boy.

When I think back on the tender mercies along my son’s journey through life, and beyond, this little dog is a bright star among a sometimes-darkened sky. She played such a unique role comforting Mitch in his darkest hours – and I have stories I’ll share in March about that. Some of the photos and stories will be hard to process – but they are necessary because they are true. Often, life’s most profound discoveries are buried deep in our greatest struggles.

To this day, little Marlie provides a great deal of comfort to our family. I adore the special love Marlie seems to have for Natalie – and I know that would make my little boy smile.

When I took this photo of my darling wife tonight, little Mitch and these words crossed my mind, “A promise made, a promise kept.” Though I missed my son, I smiled inside instead of wept.

WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY

Little Mitch exited church in an outfit in which he could barely fit.  As his father, I adored watching my tiny boy try to keep his shirt tucked in and his tie straight.  Though Mitch was small in stature, he was always big in spirit.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
— Unknown

I had just sat in my car, turned on the air conditioning, and began taking this series of photos through my partially open window.  Mitch had no idea I was watching him.  As my son waddled behind his grandfather, an enlightened and thoughtful man, he turned to my little boy and said, “Now Mitch, we’re going to my place to have lunch.  You can come with me, or you can go with your mom and dad.  Either choice is fine – it is up to you to decide.”

Mitch furrowed his brow and began to think carefully about the choice before him.  I always admired my grandfather’s unique way of teaching my children; often, he’d present options and encourage them to make informed decisions.  Natalie takes after her father’s style of teaching by introducing a choice, then encouraging them to consider their inevitable consequences: positive, harmful, or benign. 

My heart melted as I saw my boy sort through his options and decide to go with Grandpa.  I was so proud of him that day.  As we followed them in our car, I saw Mitch look through the rear window to make sure we were following them.  He smiled and waved his tiny hand, then turned around to talk to his grandpa.  My heart was singing a song of joy the likes of which no human words can express.

I was grateful for my father-in-law who turned an otherwise mundane experience into a teaching moment.  As far as I can tell, that is how he’s always been.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  In today’s world of mistaken attributions and loose plagiarism, the origin of that quote is unclear to me – but the truth of it is sound.  I have spent the last 20 years of my life in training, education, and leadership development – and if there is one thing I’ve seen time and again, it is this: if a student isn’t ready to learn – no learning will take place, no matter how great the teacher.  The moment we’re ready, however, everything can become our teacher.

When I lost my son, I found myself at an emotional and spiritual crossroad: I had the freedom to choose a path of inconsolable anguish … forever circling my hurt; or a path of growth, searching for meaning and purpose.  To be clear, both paths were treacherous – laden with the pains of loss and the weight of grief.  The struggle with grief is an inescapable part of being human, yet one path spirals downward, the other circles, up, and out.

For every grief moment, I’ve experienced, which are too many to number, I have sought meaning and purpose.  I asked myself, “What am I to learn from this hardship?  What is my Father trying to teach me?” 

I believe life is filled with hard things, by design.  They aren’t doled out by an uncaring God – but rather a master teacher, who knows that struggle begets growth.  If we’re to become stronger, better, and more compassionate, we must walk through valleys of tears and in the shadow of death – among other hard things. 

In many ways, this image serves as a metaphor for my own life – and if I’m listening to that still, small voice, I can almost hear my Father tutor me in matters of the soul.  In truth, I feel like my little son – in an outfit I’m too small to occupy … ever trying to keep my shirt tucked and my tie straight.

In my heart, I always hope to be a ready student – for there are teachers who are plenty, and I have lessons yet to learn, which are many.

I DON’T KNOW HOW TO HELP, BUT I KNOW HOW TO BE A FRIEND

Every-so-often we’d take our kids bowling for family night. In my culture, that’s a long-held tradition of dedicating one night a week to spend as a family. On these bowling adventures, we always enjoyed getting a plate of nachos, a chili dog, and a basket of french fries. The food was never good. In fact, it was awful. But, to spend time with family always seemed to make up for terrible food. Mediocre nachos just taste better when you're giggling.

Heaven is never so close as when we’re with loving family and friends.  And when someone is going through hell, we can bring a little piece of heaven into their lives by simply being a loving friend.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Surrounded by bad food and good company, we’d spend the next hour or two cheering each other on while competing for the highest score.

By this point in his life, Mitch wasn’t strong enough to hold a bowling ball, so family members helped by positioning the ball on an adaptive bowling ramp.  Mitch smiled as he squinted his eyes and slightly moved the ramp at just the right angle.  Then, softly, he’d push the ball down the ramp, and it would hurl down the lane.  When he’d get a strike, Mitch would chuckle as I’d blend sports terminology.   “Great!  You got a goal!” or, “Nice touchdown, son.”  Mitch and I shared a pocket full of inside jokes that always made us smile.

On this occasion, Natalie’s sister and her family joined our bowling adventure.  Mitchell’s closest cousin, Hunter, was always by his side, cheering him on – both bowling and in life.  At one point, Wyatt placed his hand on Mitchell’s back and said, “Nice job, Mitch!”  At this moment, I thanked my Father for the gift of family and friends.  I was especially thankful Mitch had a loving circle of his own.  Mitch was blessed with genuine friends.

Just today I had lunch with a dear friend and colleague.  He’s had a blessed career, and I have admired his desire to serve others with his good fortune.  About two years ago, however, he experienced a tremendous personal hardship that broke his heart and shook his soul.  During his darkest hours, I remember praying fervently that he would find a measure of peace each day as he learned to walk his own journey with grief.  As we were catching up on each other’s lives, he shared something a friend told him during a moment of darkness, and I learned a beautiful lesson.  His friend said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.  I don’t know how to help … but I know how to be a friend.”

When I heard that tender phrase, I was overwhelmed by its power and simplicity.  It’s another way of saying, “I want you to know I care.” 

Those are beautiful, healing words: “I don’t know how to help, but I know how to be a friend.”  It acknowledges the uniquely difficult journey of the sufferer while offering a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, and an understanding heart. 

Heaven is never so close as when we’re with loving family and friends.  And when someone is going through hell, we can bring a little piece of heaven into their lives by simply being a loving friend.

So, when I look back on this tender moment with little Mitch surrounded by kids who didn’t know what to do, but knew how to be a friend, I’m reminded of the supernal goodness of children. 

I cherish this memory. 

When I feel grief cast its shadow on my soul, I scoop into my pocket of cherished memories and pull out little gems, like this moment.  They fill my heart with gratitude, meaning, and purpose – which, combined, serve as a lamp unto my feet when the path grows especially dark.  Today I was reminded of another gem to serve a broken heart: that to be a friend is one of heaven’s healing arts.

HOSPITALS & COUNTRY CLUBS

Time was ticking.  We didn’t know when the biological bomb in my son’s chest would detonate.  We only knew the hour was late and there wasn’t much time left.  Would Mitchie’s heart stop on the drive home?  Or would we have a few precious days with him?  There was no way of knowing whether death would come suddenly or slowly … or whether it would be painful or peaceful.  The only thing we knew for sure was we has that very moment. 

... tender lessons are sometimes taught through hardship.  Losing my son broke me … boy did it break me.  But the new me, at least who I hope to be, is better because of it. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Little Mitch had just received his PICC line that pumped medicine through his arm and directly into his heart.  Within about 30 minutes of this photo we would leave the hospital with heavy hands, anxious hearts.  The blue bed to the side of Mitch (on the right) was where Natalie and I cried ourselves to sleep.  We never really slept.  We drifted somewhere between this world and that world of dreams.  With each beep of the heart monitor, interruption of the nurse, or any noise at all, we’d spring to our feet to see if our son was okay.

If he were to go, we wanted to hold his hand and let him know he wasn’t alone.  We were spared that agony for a few weeks, but soon came to know that hell in the quiet of a winter night.

In this photo, Mitch is looking at a photo I took with my iPhone of the sunset a few hours earlier.  Mitch said in a soft, breathless tone, “Is that from tonight?”  He paused a moment then said, “I wish I could have seen it with my own eyes.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll see something like it.”  I kissed the top of his head and said, “Son, I want to see a million more with you.”  My throat began to tighten and I struggled to find my breath – I was about to lose it.  Somehow, I gathered my wits and kept from weeping until later that night.

As we packed our things so Mitch could live out his final days at home, I struggled to reconcile with reality.  Mitch didn’t look sick and part of me kept thinking the doctors had it all wrong.  I also kept saying to myself, “Is this a dream?  When will I wake from this nightmare?”  But then I’d see the pump on his lap which gave his weary heart a steady drip of medicine and I was reminded of my son’s unforgiving truth.

As Natalie pushed our son in a wheelchair, Mitch looked up at me and smiled softly as if to say, “Dad, I’m so glad I’m going home.”  My eyes were bloodshot from a week of unending, salty tears.  I smiled back and once again fought the urge to weep.

The thought occurred to me that though Mitchell’s body was broken, he wasn’t broken where it mattered most.  I was grateful that hospitals weren’t like country clubs.  We had fantastic doctors and (mostly) amazing nurses who fought valiantly to save our son.  I remember the moment we were told Mitch likely had days to live – the chief cardiologist fought back tears as the father in him was pained over such hard truths.  When he saw the look of devastation on my wife’s face, he struggled to keep it together even more.  Opinions are divided as to whether doctors should be strictly clinical – but as a father, I prefer a human over a robot.  Compassion is a form of medicine, too.

What would the world be like if we traded country clubs with hospitals?  When I say hospitals, I’m not referring only to medical institutions … but places that have the potential to fix broken things.  The last time I checked, everyone has broken stuff.   Humanity could use more mending and less isolating.

I've seen people turn the very places meant to help and heal into places that hurt others. Whether at school, church, support communities, and other groups, sometimes people hurt others when they shouldn't. I then try to remember that hurt people, hurt people.

In our race to save my son’s life, I’ve come to understand that sometimes we are broken so that we might be set straight. I wish it weren’t so – but it seems the order of Heaven; tender lessons are sometimes taught through hardship. Losing my son broke me … boy did it break me. But the new me, at least who I hope to be, is better because of it. If everyone on earth is broken to one degree or another, perhaps we could all learn the healer’s art and help each other mend broken things.

 

The heavenly paradox is in helping others heal, we heal a little, too. That's a good thing.