A LIVING EULOGY

Why do we wait for people to die to say nice things about them? What if that kind word spoken at a eulogy might have made a difference to them when they were living? Whenever possible & appropriate, I try to speak the words I might say at someone’s eulogy, were I asked to speak, so that person might absolutely know how I feel about them and why I look up to him/her. My greatest hope is that those shared thoughts and feelings might help them while they’re living, for a compliment at a funeral does far less good than a compliment in life. 

So, because I don’t wait for birthdays, anniversaries or funerals to say kind things … I am not as keen on anniversaries as every day is a celebration of who and what I love. Strangely, my heart weighs heavy this day, the 3rd anniversary of my son’s funeral. I remember how difficult it was to speak … I almost threw up that morning and I, a grown man, wept like a small child just before the funeral director closed my son’s casket for the last time. 

Months later I remember watching my dear wife, who knelt reverently by our son’s place of rest, lean over to touch his headstone – almost in disbelief. Natalie tried so hard to love and nurture Mitch while he was alive. Like me, she thought we had more time. As hard as everything was up to that point, we didn’t realize the hardest parts of grief were yet to come. How exquisitely hard we couldn’t imagine.

At least to me, Mitchell’s Journey is as much about the examined life as it is musings on love and grief. I have endured deep suffering over the loss of my child and have come to understand not one of us will be spared hardship and sorrow. At some point in our lives, we will all suffer and drink from bitter cups; we will all weep and gather up our broken pieces … and sometimes we might wonder why the heavens suddenly seem so dark. Only then will we begin to see the stars: tender mercies that can only be discerned in and through the darkness – whose subtle light will eventually illuminate the path and lead our souls out of the dark. Perhaps we would all be fortunate as to have great suffering happen earlier in our lives rather than later … for then we might love strangers more readily, empathize with those who hurt more freely, and help our neighbors with glad hearts. The world needs a lot more of that stuff.

I am still learning how to grieve, yet I marvel at those who are fortunate enough to have not lost a child; they who sit comfortably, incredulously, from the comfort of their observation deck and suggest it is time to stop hurting, because they themselves don’t hurt. Such an assertion is as silly and insensitive as if I were to tell a parent to abandon their love for their living child, simply because I don’t share their personal attachment. Sometimes it is the lack of empathy from others that can make the grief journey seem so long and lonely.

It is not my place, nor any of my business, to know where people are in their grief journey. I have learned to respect the empty space between a parent and lost child as hallowed ground. To observe a sufferer in grief is to watch someone in their own Gethsemane and we would do well to reverence our criticisms and thank God we are not suffering in the same way. And if we are fortunate to have suffered such a loss, we might reach out and lift those heavy hands with love and understanding – for empathy has the power to heal.

At least for me, I measure my own healing by a few examinations:
1) What have I learned from my sorrows?
2) How have I changed?
3) What meaning has this experience had in my life?
4) Have I drawn closer to my Father?

If my answers shed light in the darkness, then I know I’m growing. If I don’t know the answer, then I need to search more.

I promise to not always write about sad things, but for now I still feel sad things … and this is my therapy.

Yet, despite my sorrows today, my heart is glad in knowing my sweet wife always built our son up with kind words, loving encouragement and sound council. She offered our son a living eulogy; Mitch didn’t need to die before nice things were said to and about him. Our little boy never went a day where Natalie didn’t help him feel good about himself. ... where he didn’t know he was loved by a mother who was an angel made mortal. 

A LABOR OF LOVE

Last week, on the 3rd anniversary of our son's passing (the very day, in fact) we received a package at our door. With trembling hands, we opened it only to discover a cross stitch of our son patterned after one of our very favorite images of Mitch. Meticulously woven by different colored threads, it looked like a photograph.

A compassionate follower-turned-friend gave this to us as a labor of love and a token of her affection. I remember first becoming aware of her when I saw her post photos of her family wearing#milesformitchell t-shirts as they participated in our virtual runs. They would make hand-drawn posters and gather as a family to take pictures, expressing their love and support. I was so humbled by her love made visible.

So, when Natalie and I had the pleasure of finally meeting Vanessa Bryson and her son in South Carolina when we gave a keynote at a conference a few weeks ago, I felt like I was seeing a long-lost family member. She was just as loving and kind in person and she seemed online. 

A day prior to this package arriving we received a smaller package that contained a loving hand-written note, a few first place ribbons she won at a competition along with the proceeds of her winnings to be used for flowers at Mitchell's headstone. My wife and I wept over her incredible gesture of love.

This beautiful work of art ... this love made visible ... will hang in our home as both a reminder of our son whom we miss so much and the amazing people that live on this planet; people who care enough to reach out and love complete strangers. Thank you Vanessa, for your love and friendship and for being such a tender part of our healing journey.

EVERYBODY MATTERS

I stopped by the cemetery to see Mitch this evening and noticed somebody left this on his headstone. I wonder who it was and what that person was thinking and feeling. I couldn't help but think how much people matter to each other. Everybody matters, everybody mean something to somebody.

LEARNING TO TRUST

I remember his tiny smile as he sat in a school bus for the first time. Mitch was about to leave on a new adventure. He didn’t know where exactly he was going, he only knew his mommy loved him and trusted she knew best. Natalie kissed Mitch on the forehead and said in a whispered tone, “I love you little boy. I’ll see you at school.” 

As the big bus drove out of the neighborhood Natalie jumped in our minivan and followed them to the elementary school several miles away. By the time the bus arrived at school, Natalie was there to help our little boy off the bus and usher him into class. 

This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

To Mitch, the world was a very big place – made even bigger by his declining muscle strength. A small staircase to you and me may as well be Mt. Everest to a child with DMD. Mitch could be easily knocked down by a simple bump in a lunchroom. Hallways made him nervous because a river of preoccupied people, in a rush to get some place, threatened trample him unaware.

Natalie knew our son needed help, but wanted to stretch his horizons and help him grow. So, she repeated the inconvenient routine of helping him board the bus each day and then follow him to school – where she would help him on and off the bus. Natalie wanted our boy to learn independence. And that he did. 

I loved this day. I loved seeing my little boy smile at me through the window of the bus. Mitch had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Look Dad! I can do hard things. I’m a big kid now.” His eyes seemed to say, “I love you.” 

I remember walking with Natalie and Mitch into his preschool class for the first time. There he would meet “Miss Nancy.” She was energetic and kind and had a way about her that brought instant relief to nervous parents and excitement in the minds of her students. I loved her immediately. I’ll write more of her another day – but I am grateful she was placed in our son’s path. She was a tender mercy for our little boy.

In many ways this image serves as a symbol of another journey. Only this time Mitch has been shuttled to a place far from sight. Sometimes I panic because the mortal father in me wants to know he’s alright. Yet, I know he is fine – and in a heavenly sense, I realize he was never mine. For Mitch is my brother, the son of my Father … even still, in his death, my mortal heart is still bothered. For I love and miss him, you see. And in my agony I reach deeply for things heavenly. Could it be that is the reason for suffering?

Somewhere out on the horizon is my son … or rather, my brother. He is at a school of another sort. I cannot see it with my eyes … but I can feel it with my soul. Though he may be learning and growing … I also believe he is here, even now, helping and showing. 

Now it is my turn, seated in a big and unfamiliar bus. Like my son, – I have learned to listen and to trust. I know my Father loves me and believe that He knows best. The wisest of all parents, He knows the growth that happens when we’re challenged and given tests. This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there. 

TO MOVE & BE MOVED

Last September I received a message from someone out of San Diego who was following Mitchell’s Journey. She gave me permission to share an excerpt from her message. She wrote: 

“I discovered Mitchell's Journey just a few weeks before Mitchell passed away and I have been following closely ever since. I think initially I followed in awe, moved so deeply by the bravery of one small boy and the power of a family's love. I thought to myself over and over again that your family must be woven of a fabric much stronger than my own constitution for I couldn't imagine walking a moment, much less a day, in your shoes. And yet, your family presses on and continues the journey with such grace. A true example for us all.

Overtime my following of Mitchell's Journey changed from being that of a passive spectator to that of someone who became inspired to take a journey of my own. To live life differently. To love more deeply and to be more present in every moment. To reach out to those in need and to allow myself to accept help when I need it and when it is offered to me.”

Caryn Glass, this kind, compassionate woman was teaching an intensive for a ballet studio and was to choreograph a piece for their end-of-summer showcase. As she worked with these young dancers, she did what all true artists do … dig deep. She inspired conversation among these teenagers to talk about ways they could be more present each day, find gratitude for the gifts of life and to share some of their favorite moments. They discussed moments they wished they could experience again and others they wish they could do over. At some point during this exploration with her students, this kind dance instructor shared a little about Mitchell’s Journey and what it meant to her and how it has affected her life. 

The following video is her choreography dedicated to little Mitchell and anyone who (in Caryn’s words) “inspires us to be the best versions of ourselves, to be grateful for our gifts, to be kind to one another and to simply be glad we're alive. For nothing else matters.”

I still cry every time I read her beautiful letter.

Her dance company, [the] movement initiative, wanted to help raise awareness for DMD by producing this video of their dance: vimeo.com/118058086

I’m not sure which was more beautiful; Caryn’s gesture of love and remembrance, the choreography … or the fact she took the time to inspire her students to find purpose and meaning in their own lives. Each was beautiful, but the combination of what she did even more so. Though I am touched by Caryn’s remembrance of my fallen son, I am even more touched how she inspired tomorrow’s generation to connect to things that matter most to them. Each of these young dancers walked away with something different – a meaning unique to them and their own life experience. At the end of the day, that is all I hope for Mitchell’s Journey.

Caryn Glass, you are simply remarkable. These young dancers were not only taught how move but how to be moved. You inspired them. You encouraged them to discover ways they might truly live. This world is blessed with you in it.

This is a link to her page: www.facebook.com/pages/the-movement-initiative/113639455358007?sk=timeline
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instagram.com/mitchells_journey

TRUE STRENGTH

The incomparable Marco Simmons, an undefeated MMA fighter who competes with purpose. Each fight he honors little Mitch (notice #mitchellsjourneyon his shorts) and helps the general public know about this fatal muscle wasting disease. While I'll share more stories of little Mitch, I have thousands yet to share, I'll also be sharing more of what Mitchell's Journey has put in motion all across the world. 

Marco and his remarkable family have put their arms around other young boys afflicted with DMD, like Caden Gibbs - who you'll hear more about in the coming months. I had the blessing of finally meeting Marco and his sister at our Miles for Mitchell fundraiser last month. He was humble and kind and incredibly caring. 

Marco seems to typify many of the most noble of human characteristics. His personal story is both encouraging and inspiring ... and I am grateful to call him friend.

Marco reminds me that having strength is good, but giving it away in the service of others is divine. 

A real hero in my book.

instagram.com/mitchells_journey

www.facebook.com/marcosimmonsMMA?fref=nf

A SPECIAL GOODBYE

About a week ago I was approached by a Mitchell's Journey follower who had something in common with our family. Her Charlie and our Mitchell were both students of a very special preschool teacher who was about to retire. Both of our children had also passed away. 

So, yesterday Natalie and I attended a retirement banquet for this remarkable woman who played in important role in our son's life. She was a tender mercy for our boy as she helped him make a delicate transition to school. Mitch quickly grew in confidence because of the way she encouraged and guided him. We hadn't seen her for about 10 years so this was a special reunion. At her display table was a kind of memorial with photos of all of her students throughout her career - an evidence this woman was a remarkable teacher who loved her students. The best educators are the ones that teach with love of topic and student. 

Next to the collage of former students was a larger panel with tributes to three of her special needs students who passed away, Mitch being one of them. It was a tender reunion filled with a lot of love and gratitude. 

Here Natalie writes a note to "Mrs. Nancy" thanking her for being so kind and loving to our baby. We had never forgotten her and she clearly remembered little Mitch. When we moved from our first home a decade ago we thought we'd never cross paths with this remarkable teacher again. Fate, or providence, would have it otherwise.

It is interesting how at any given moment we might think a person in our lives a solitary, temporary thread ... unaware how woven our lives may become. The people and events in our lives make for a fascinating tapestry we may not appreciate, or even see, until deep in the twilight of our own lives.

instagram.com/mitchells_journey/