DISCOVERING SIGNIFICANCE IN SORROW

Mitchell’s casket had been removed and all that was left was his scooter, gently adorned with his little shoes, a bottle of water he loved to drink, and a few memorial gifts and flowers.  My cousin-in-law, a professional photographer, took this photo just after my family was escorted into the chapel where my tender-hearted wife and I would give the most painful address of our lives. 

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The last thing on my mind was this scooter that was left behind – so, weeks later, when I stumbled into this photo, I wept.  Then, I caught my breath and wept some more.  Vacant and alone, this ordinary image of my son’s abandoned scooter stood as a stark reminder of what really matters in life.  This was a moment of significance for me.   

I remember kneeling at Mitchell’s bedside just a few days before he passed away.  I remember almost everything, in fact, with vivid clarity.  To carry such vivid memories has been both a blessing and a burden.  With great sorrow I watched my little baby made of sand slip through my fingers and into the abyss.  As I sat by my little boy, who was struggling to breathe, and I ran my fingers softly through his hair and tickled his arms as we just talked about stuff that was on his mind.  My sweet ten-year-old only wanted to run, play and be like all the other young children he knew.  At one point during our conversation at the side of his bed Mitch lamented, with great feeling, how much he wished he could be like “regular kids.”  My soul, already broken, broke some more.     

With tears in my eyes and love pouring out of my soul, I said, “Oh, little Mitch, you are so much more than a mere mortal.  If only you could see who you really are and what you may one day become.  Just remember: our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.  You, my little boy, are so much more than you know.”  Mitch smiled softly, closed his tear-filled eyes and drifted to sleep.  I kissed his face and then prayed to my Father that my back might be strengthened so I could carry such a burden as grief.  How heavy it would soon become, I knew not.  Soon, my legs would buckle and my hands tremble from the weight of grief.  The hell I knew was just a foretaste of what was to come.

A few days later my little boy was gone and I journeyed through the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul.  All that I thought I knew of sorrow … all my mental and emotional preparations for his death failed me.  I thought I was prepared, but I was not.  The grief I felt prior to my son’s death was merely a whisper.  A faint shadow.  A feather … as compared to the heavy and harsh realities of death.  New to this form of grief, I had to remember what I told my son, “Our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.”  Though I know that the soul lives on, that knowledge doesn’t take the sting of death away.  It provides context and meaning, but it offers no insulation from sorrow.   Though I have also experienced a comfort and peace that defies my human understanding, those moments of heavenly peace come and go just like the tides of grief.   

I’ve heard it said, “Those who mistake success for significance, will lead a deeply unfulfilled existence.”  

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.

LIFTING HEAVY HANDS *

Photo Credit: Scott Winterton

Mitch was barely home on hospice. The hourglass that counted down our precious days and hours was all but invisible, and we didn’t know if his little heart would give out in 5 days or 5 minutes. So we clung to each moment like a weary traveler might hang to a flask of water in a desert.

I love that heavenly paradox: when we lift others, we too are lifted.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

During this time, Candice Madsen, a producer with a local news agency (KSL), had been telling our son’s story on the news. She was professional and courteous … and most importantly, she was deeply compassionate. At one point, she sent me a message asking if a former BYU football player, Andrew Rich, might come over to wish Mitch well. During the height of his athletic career Andrew thought football was the most important thing in his life, but then he had a baby and, like me, his world turned upside down and right side up. When he learned of our little boy’s struggle, his heart turned to our son with compassion.

So, on this cold February night, Andrew brought the warmth of humanity into our home. He sat on the edge of our couch, next to Mitch, and shared a few photos of his little baby who also had heart complications as an infant. Then Andrew did what great humans do, he turned attention away from himself and encouraged a person in need. He told little Mitch how strong he was and that he cared. I sat on the couch and fought back a river of tears as I knew Mitch needed every ounce of courage and strength he could get. In truth, so did we.

After a while of conversation, Mitchell’s energy began to fade, and he asked to lay down. Natalie rushed over and scooped our little boy in her arms; his hands seemed so heavy. Just then, Andrew reached out and held Mitchell’s hand and squeezed it – as if to give him a hug. I saw a look of compassion and love in his countenance that warmed my heart.

Mitch was touched by his kindness and wondered why anyone, especially a stranger to him, would even care. He often said things like, “I’m just a kid,” struggling to understand. Later that night I sat on the edge of his bed as Mitch asked me why so many strangers took an interest in him. My eyes filled with tears as I explained that people care because they know how precious children are. Then, I could barely utter the words as Mitchell’s eyes filled with tears, “You, my son, are the very best part of me and I want to be good, just like you.” Mitch reached out his tired arms gesturing for a hug. We both wept, father and son, as we held each other – trying to lift each other’s heavy hands.

Mitch would have another good week ahead of him. He played with friends, spent time with family, and got to do many things he loved. I put my entire world on pause and tried to love this little boy with everything I had. It was a tender and fragile time: both beautiful and heartbreaking.

After that magical week, death came clawing at our door. Another week would pass, and Mitchell’s vitals would deteriorate as we felt death’s coldness breeze seeping into our home. Saying goodbye was terrifying beyond all description and broke every single part of me. Then came grief – a journey that would break my broken pieces.

I have spent the better part of 3 years processing the death of my child. I still grieve deeply, though writing has become my therapy and helped me process the meaning of things. Yet, in moments of deep grief, when my hands (and heart) feel especially heavy, I have learned to turn my attention to others, and I try to lift heavy hands, just like Andrew Rich. I love that heavenly paradox: when we lift others, we too are lifted.

May we spend this year in the service of others, lifting heavy hands; for we are all weary travelers and we are meant to help each other along the way.


PEACE COMES FROM WHAT WE SEE

I knew time was short and midnight was near. Death was coming, and all I had was the moments that remained. How many moments left was impossible to know.

The ice upon which Mitch tread was terribly thin. His cardiologist said he was at risk of sudden death; so not a moment passed that I didn’t worry that very second might be my last. When I peered into my tender son’s eyes, all I could hear was the cracking of the ice beneath him.

“Dad, will you watch a movie with me?” Mitch said softly. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I replied, “I would love to, son.” Mitch grabbed his tiny puppy and whispered, “We can put Marlie between us and both cuddle with her.”

I believe one of our purposes in life isn’t to avoid pain and sorrow, but to grow stronger because of it. It would seem that life’s greatest virtues are born of struggle – not leisure. So, at least for me, I have learned to focus less on the pain and more on the purpose.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Oh, we cuddled that night. We cuddled like we were the last two people on earth, bracing for a meteor to wipe us out. As Mitch snuggled into my chest, Marlie rested between us, ever faithful to her sick friend. Little Mitch was soon caught up in the movie … and as much as I wanted to enjoy the movie, I could not. All I could think about was the cracking ice and the deep, dark waters below. Tears streamed down my face, and my heart ached in ways I never imagined. I had never known such sorrow.

I remember saying a prayer in my heart in search of comfort, “Father, where is your hand in all of this suffering? Please, give me eyes to see. I have faith in you. I believe.” I learned years ago that “As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part.” And that, “Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship.” The moment I discovered that truth, my prayers became more personal. More genuine. More effective.

The answers I was looking for didn’t come all at once. Peace would come and go like the ocean tide – and I was not spared from sorrow, neither was Mitch spared from death. But peace would come and give us a measure of rest. And when it came to having eyes to see, my eyes were opened, but slowly. Like mortal eyes, my spiritual eyes needed time to adjust – but soon I began to see tender mercies that I was previously blind to see.

I am no fanatic or a zealot, but there are some things I know, and I know them for sure. I know that despite our suffering in this life, we are never left alone … though we may be tempted to feel that way from time-to-time. God is never surprised or caught off-guard by the events that unfold in our lives. In fact, I’m convinced that Heaven walks before us and paves the way for tender mercies – so that we might find comfort in our hardships. But hardships are essential to our spiritual growth.

I believe one of our purposes in life isn’t to avoid pain and sorrow, but to grow stronger because of it. It would seem that life’s greatest virtues are born of struggle – not leisure. So, at least for me, I have learned to focus less on the pain and more on the purpose.

I miss this little boy. Though I would have done anything to keep Mitch with me, I have discovered things I did not previously see. The gift of sight, to see things right, is something I don’t take lightly. Peace, it seems, doesn’t come from things … it comes from what we see.

WHEN TIME RUNS OUT

I don’t think children understand how often we worry over their wellbeing, how much we pray for their safety, and how we want of their happiness. For over a decade, I knelt by my son’s bed every single night and prayed while he slept. I prayed that Mitch might somehow escape DMD, that his life might be spared. For a season, my prayers felt answered to some degree, because he often seemed healthier and more mobile than he should have been. I am thankful to my Father for that.

On this night, I sat at the head of Mitchell’s bed as my young son leaned into my chest, struggling to breathe. I put my arms around him and held him close so he would feel safe. But Mitch was not safe. He was scared and I was, too. But I knew Mitch enough to know that if I held him, he would feel comforted. Sometimes, in life’s storms, all we can do is comfort each other.

Neither of us knew he had 48 hours left.

Like a baby made of sand, he would slip through my fingers and pass away – and my soul would break into unfathomable pieces.

I’m not sure why people wait to make important changes until time runs out – but it seems to be more common, than not. Mitch taught me to never take for granted the time we have – because it is always later than we think. Even though I did all that I knew to do, when it came to making moments, I wish I would have done better. I don’t live in regret because my mistakes and missed opportunities only motivate to do better and try harder. I am satisfied that I did my best while remembering I can always do better.

Lately, as many have noticed, I haven’t posted many new stories of Mitch; that is because I’ve had to turn my attention to something I helped put in motion before he passed away … something I risked everything to make happen, because of him. Now, I do it in honor of him. About a year before Mitch passed I was asked to help develop an idea that would help people live what they valued and make the most of their life. I didn’t know I was about to lose my son, and my plate was already filled to overflowing; I wasn’t looking for anything new. But when I saw what this new idea could do for people, I sensed it was part of my life mission. 

Aside from my faith and family, I care deeply about two things in life: Mitchell’s Journey and helping people live their core values so they can lead a meaningful life. That is who I am. Because of Mitch, that is who I have become – and I cannot put it down. 

Many have asked what I do for a living, and to those I haven’t been able to respond to … I run a company whose mission is to help people close the gap between what they value and what they do. It’s about making our lives matter before time runs out. 

You can visit www.mycore.com to learn more about that effort … an effort that is designed to help people. Period. It is a software tool that helps people organize their lives and stay focused on their core values. When Mitch was alive, he would sometimes come to the office with me when we were just starting this company. He even said what we were building was “really cool.” In a strange way, maybe part of this company is a legacy of my son. He often asked questions about how it would help people, and each time I would share something he would say, “I’m glad it will help others.” I wish he could see how far it has come – and what it has the potential to do for others.

At the end of the day, it is later than we think. Whether our children are about to grow up and grow out of our homes, or if we’re going to lose them to sickness and death … we don’t have much time. Everything changes quickly and what matters most is making the most of what time we have – and that is what I try to do at Mitchell’s Journey and mycore. Both are deeply woven into my life mission – I do both because of Mitch.

 

NOT THE LIFE I WANTED, BUT EVERYTHING I NEED

Just before a painful procedure, Mitch grabbed my arm and squeezed my hand as if to hug me. Although I was trying to love and comfort my dying son, he seemed to find greater comfort loving me. I loved how he loved.

Looking back, I have not had the life I wanted … but it has been everything I’ve needed.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It was a strange thing to watch the hospice nurse keep our son healthy, just long enough to die. She did a marvelous job managing our son’s pain, guiding my broken wife and me through the process of death and dying, and offering insights on how to cope with grief. She warned us that everything we were experiencing at the time was the easy stuff – and that much harder, darker days were ahead. She was right.

As Mitch and I were hugging hands, it took every ounce of strength to hold back my tears – for I wanted to bury my head in the couch and weep like a child. I thought to myself, “This is not the life I wanted. How can I possibly save him?” My bright dreams of becoming a father had turned into a nightmare of the blackest velvet pitch.

My son would soon die and I would experience a grief so great, there are simply no words to describe it. Then, my professional world turned upside down. Good people, who might have been mentors, turned dark and twisted. Life went from bad to worse. When I thought things couldn’t get worse, life became darker still. Grief would soon take a toll on my surviving children – which as a parent was heartbreaking. I don’t write about their grief journey because I respect their privacy. But I will say that sibling grief is real and my wife and I do all that we can to help our children the best we can.

Looking back, I have not had the life I wanted … but it has been everything I’ve needed. I didn’t want to lose little Mitch – but his life and death have changed me for the better. I am not mad at God. But I am sad … and that’s okay. I don’t allow other life challenges, disappointments, and failures to make me bitter – I’m trying to figure out how they can help make me a little better. I have a long, long way to go. I am still learning to live with disappointment and grief -- but I am also learning to live in harmony and peace.

I know when I die, I will go to that place beyond the hills and see my boy again. And if there are no tears in heaven, I will be the first to make them – and the stars will bathe in them. Perhaps we will hold hands like this again – where I try to comfort Mitch and he comforts me. I have a feeling that we’ll look back on our lives and say “Well, it wasn’t the life we wanted but it taught us everything we needed.”

When I see life through that lens, I understand things differently, indeed. For we are souls eternal; gathering light and knowledge, even to infinity.

I WILL WALK BESIDE YOU

Everything was falling apart. Mitchell’s vitals were on a steady and quick decline and all he wanted to be was a kid.

Death was clawing at our door and would soon find its way in. We had reached a point where we began to administer powerful drugs to mask the pain of organ failure. He was already on medication that erased from the mind oxygen hunger; else he would have felt out of breath, as though he were vaguely suffocating. With each dose of these new drugs, Mitch became more and more sleepy.

I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We were in the middle of a dilemma: we wanted every minute we could have with Mitch, but we didn’t want him to suffer. To withhold medication so he would remain awake would have been selfish on our part, and would have caused our little boy pain. In order to spare Mitch unimaginable agony, we had to let go of what we wanted so that he wouldn’t suffer.

Mitch began to realize his medicine was making him sleepy, so he started to resist each dose because he wanted to be awake. He wanted to live his life – for he was glad to be alive. With tears running down our faces, we would explain to Mitch that the medicine would keep him from hurting. “But I just want to be awake. I just want to live,” Mitch would say in a soft, breathless tone. Then, not wanting to suffer, he would then take his next dose of pain medication and fall into a deeper sleep than the time before.

I can’t count the number of times I knelt, with bruised knees, at the side of Mitchell’s bed pleading with our Father to spare my son. And if he would not be spared, I begged that He would help my little boy to not feel scared or alone … that he would be given a measure of peace and understanding beyond his young years.

I also prayed that my Father would strengthen my feeble back so that I might learn to carry what I must. A weaker man he could not have chosen to bear this burden … for I was then, and remain today, imperfect and flawed. I didn’t feel capable of carrying such things.

So as I sat across Mitchell’s room, I witnessed two tender mercies that served as an answer to my prayers. Just after his dose of medicine, baby Marlie placed her head on Mitchell’s lap, ever offering tender affections. Natalie, my dear wife, sat softly next to Mitch and comforted him with a love only a mother can give. With her every gesture, it was as if she said, “Sweet boy, don’t be afraid, I will walk beside you.” I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.

In this very moment, I suddenly saw life through heaven’s eyes. Though I witnessed my little boy suffering the effects of being mortal, I also saw two angels who walked beside my son … tender mercies from a Heavenly Father who loved and cared about Mitch. In that moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and understanding.

Losing my son has forced me to dig deep. Yet, this hardship didn’t weaken my faith, it strengthened it and rooted out the stuff that got in the way. Despite the darkness of death and the weight of grief … which has been soul-crushing … I am a personal witness to tender mercies. They exist. They are as real as anything I know.

Though I am still blind and weak, I have a Father who patiently walks beside me … ever generous with tender mercies. I pray every day that I will have eyes to see. For if He was there for Mitch, it might very well be that He is doing the same for you and for me.

IN TIME

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.