OKAY, BUT NOT OKAY … AND THAT’S OKAY

The funeral director told us it was time to close the casket and suddenly I gasped for air and tried to hold back my tears - but nothing could stay my sorrow. This was it. I wasn't ready to look upon my son for the last time – to say goodbye to his little body, his sweet face … this little boy I used to cuddle, hug and laugh with. My youngest son, Wyatt stood beside me and watched me in grief and sorrow tuck his older brother one last time. 

I carefully pulled Mitchell’s favorite blanket up to his chin, like I did every night, and said “I love you little boy … my sweet son. Oh, how I love you.” I cried a father’s tears … and until that moment I had tasted no deeper tears. I had never known so great a sorrow as to say goodbye to my child. Sweet Mitch trusted that I could keep him safe from harm. He thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do. When he looked at me he saw superman. When I looked in the mirror I saw a broken man. But I tried. God knows how hard I tried. But I was only human.

Months later, my oldest son, Ethan, came into my office while I was writing an entry for Mitchell’s Journey. I was unprepared for the interruption and my eyes were red and filled with tears. Ethan asked, “Dad, are you okay?” I immediately tried to be superman and put on a brave face, wiping my eyes and said, “Yeah, I’m okay” … as if to suggest all was well and that I was simply rubbing my tired eyes. But Ethan was discerning and knew better … I could tell by his expression he knew I was grieving. 

In that moment I thought to myself, “What good do I do my children when I pretend?” I realized I do him no favors when I am not being real. I paused a moment then looked Ethan in the eye and said, “Actually, I’m not okay. But I’m okay. Do you know what I mean?” Relief washed over his face and I could tell he not only understood but that he was glad I was being real … as if it gave him permission to be real, too. I wanted my son to know that it is okay to hurt … that you can be “okay” but “not okay” and that’s okay.

Ethan and I talked about Mitch for a while and he shared some of his sorrows about losing his younger brother. We both cried together. I hugged Ethan and let him know how much I loved him – every bit as much. We crossed a threshold with grief that day. My son knew it was okay to hurt and that pretending otherwise serves nobody, not even ourselves. To the contrary, we do a great disservice when we pretend. 

I had a moment of truth a few years prior when I read the words of an 18th Century French writer who observed, “We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.” When I read those words I vowed to retire my masks and get real. 

I've tried to have similar exchanges with my other kids. My children, each unique, process their grief differently. And that’s okay, too. In all things I want to be real with them – for it is when we’re real that we become equipped to deal with real life.

I am still walking on Jupiter. The gravity of grief is great. The air is thin and my tears fall as generously as spring rains. Yes, I have moments of sweet relief and happiness is returning – but grief and sorrow linger. I cannot run from sorrow any more than I can run from my shadow on a sunny day. I must learn to live with love and sorrow – there seems no other way. 

I’m okay … but I’m not okay … and that’s okay. That is part of being human.

NEVER A CHORE

Mitch never did a chore in his life. Yes, he had duties like the rest of our children, but they were never a chore for him to do.

It is Saturday morning and I can’t help but remember how quick Mitch was to do his weekend tasks. He always did his duty with a smile on his face and gladness in his heart. He knew whether with homework or household tasks, the sooner he did what was required the sooner he could get on with life and enjoy his day. What’s more, he did his work with a happy attitude … Mitch never did a chore in his life.

I love my son. I am grateful for the little lessons he taught me. Today and every day, I will do the hard stuff first – and I will do it with a smile on my face and gladness in my heart. For little Mitch taught me a glad heart can make heavy things seem light.

 

ON MY HONOR

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Mitch was the quietest of scouts. I took this photo at his last Pack Meeting. It was a cold December night when Mitch received a handful of advancements he had worked hard to earn. As he placed the small pile of awards between his legs, he held on to his rank advancement with a thoughtful look on his face. I wondered what was on his mind. I asked him later that night but he smiled and looked in the other direction, like he often did. 

Something was changing inside him; I couldn't put my finger on it, but I sensed it. A year and a half before his heart failure I told a few people close to me about my growing impressions that Mitchell’s soul was being prepared for a significant change. I knew something was happening.

One of his fellow Cub Scouts pushed Mitch in his wheelchair back with his Pack. While not a Boy Scout, yet, I kept thinking of Mitch and the Scout Oath that begins “On my honor … I will do my best.” 

Mitch was always on his honor, and he always did his best. Because Mitch was a young man of honor I trusted him implicitly. I never once worried he would break his word. I knew he would never lie. To Mitch, honor was everything.

Earlier that fall Mitch was showing me one of his favorite games, The Sims, and described how he was struggling with something. He loved that game because it provided a simulated framework for his imagination. He didn't have the muscle strength to build forts and other things young boys did. In fact, he was reaching a point that picking up a glass of milk at the dinner table became increasingly hard for him - sometimes impossible. So certain video games became a fertile ground for his mind and set his youthful imagination free. On this particular game Mitch had built a beautiful home, had a job, managed his relationships and money wisely … he even had some pets that he cared for. When I learned of his struggle with a part of the game I suggested he search online to find a workaround and he responded, “No …” then paused a moment, “that would take the challenge out of it - and then there would be no point. The game would be no fun.” Those were his exact words.

I was so impressed with Mitchell’s discipline to not take short cuts – but to do the work the game was designed to require. Mitch knew the value of struggle. He understood the struggle was the reason. He knew struggle created an environment for growth and change. I turned to him and said, “Mitchie, you are exactly right. Don’t ever change.”

A few months would pass and my sweet boy would die, and part of me would die also. While my heart cries out and searches for some kind of workaround for grief, to make my way through this hardship more easily, I remember my son’s reverence of the struggle. Mitch taught me that to cheat ourselves from the hard stuff is to cheat ourselves of the good stuff. 

How is it these little children come into our lives and teach us infinitely more that we teach them? True it is, out of small and simple things are great things brought to pass. 

Last night I went to a Young Men’s orientation for youth in my neighborhood and church. My oldest son, Ethan, was recently called to be a youth leader among his peers and he was asked to speak briefly to some parents and younger boys who were coming of age to join Boy Scouts and other church/youth programs. I was so proud of Ethan. In the same room was one of Mitchell’s best neighborhood friends, Derek. Mitch loved Derek like a brother. I cannot look at him and not think of my fallen son. He was one of the boys who played Nerf wars with Mitch (see album Special Ops). I’ll write more of their special relationship another day. But I realized last night that Mitch should have been in this meeting, too. But Mitch was gone … and the world rushed madly on. 

Therein lies another challenge for those who grieve. Our loved ones become a footnote in history. Memories fade as the somber silence is slowly flooded with the noise of now. And that is how it should be, I suppose. We must move on – yet we’re desperate to remember. I long for my son today even more than the day I lost him. 

So last night was sobering for me. I sat in the same room this photo was taken almost a year ago and saw a rising generation of young boys advancing from one phase of life to the next. I sat in the back, near the exit in case emotions overcame me. I saw an empty chair where my son should have been and my heart ached to see his shy smile and hear his quite voice. I could almost see him there … looking back at me to make sure I was there and that he wasn't alone. 

In my mind I remembered once again the Scout Oath “On my honor I will do my best …” and thought of my son. A little boy who was weak and broken … who honored the struggle as both necessary and rewarding. I suppose when we've figured that out we can truly advance. 

Thank you, son. On my honor, I will do my best.