A HEART OF GOLD

I just visited little Mitchell’s place of rest tonight and discovered a carefully sealed Ziploc bag with a 2-page handwritten letter and this bottle of gold flakes. A sweet woman from Dupont Washington, someone whose name I immediately recognized because of her support of our charity run, shared her thoughts and feelings about little Mitch.

She made reference to a story I had once written when I went to China and Mitch wanted me to bring him a gold dragon. I wasn’t able to find one and instead of being upset, he simply said that he was glad I was home. In honor of Mitch, she found this little bottle of gold flakes with an eagle on top… something reminiscent of things Mitchell loved. She left this as a token of love and respect for a little boy whose broken heart touched hers.

Sandra, if you read this, I want you to know how much your letter and this emblem touched my heart. Thank you for bringing me a measure of peace tonight.

 
 
 

AT THE HEART OF THINGS IS EVERYTHING

Mitchell’s cardiologist placed a stethoscope gently on his chest. Suddenly he closed his eyes and disappeared into a state of deep meditation as he listened closely to the fumbling, tumbling sounds of our little boy’s failing heart. There wasn’t much time left and this doctor knew it. Unaware of his fate, little Mitch just wanted to go home. At the end of the day, I believe that’s where our heart yearns to go. Home. Back to that time and place where we felt safe and surrounded by the ones we love. 

Just a few days prior this same cardiologist, fighting back his tears, told us our son only had days to live. This good man spoke to us as a medical professional first and as a father second. The doctor in him told us the medical truth bravely and unfiltered – which we wanted and desperately needed. The father in him told us what he would do if he were in our situation. As far as I’m concerned, he practiced perfect medicine – for he was professional and human.

I cannot get this image out of my mind. I have many such photos of this doctor performing this same act of listening to my son’s heart – each time with the same degree of intensity. 

In this image is a metaphor that I can’t put away. Little Mitch once said to me while dealing with a hard thing someone had done to him, “Dad, if you see with your heart, you see everything that matters.” Mitch instinctively knew that old adage “hurt people, hurt people.” Someone was mean to him, yet he didn’t see a mean person, he just saw a good person who was broken and hurting on the inside. Listening to the heart and soul sometimes takes just as much focus and intent as this good doctor applied to my son’s physical heart.

I don’t know that I’ve ever shared this, but my son was named after a dear friend of mine who unexpectedly passed away several years ago. One night, over 20 years ago, my friend and I were in the heart of Kentucky. I remember that night like it was yesterday … the sky was clear, the stars were bright and there were fireflies nearby. We were talking about things that changed us from the inside out. We were only 19 and 20 at the time, but we had already experienced a change of heart that was significant and we were sharing our experiences. He shared with me something that changed everything for him. In high school he was rebellious and did everything his parents told him not to. One night, well after midnight, he smashed through the front door drunk, high, and belligerent. He then passed out and fell down the stairs and on to the basement floor. The next thing he remembered was his father holding him at the foot of the steps, weeping and telling his son how much he loved him. It was his father’s act of love and compassion that changed my friend for good. When Mitch told me this story, we both wept and discovered a spiritual truth. 

Over the years, time and circumstance created distance between us. We attended different universities and our lives did as they must … go on. But I never forgot my friend. So, on that fateful day my wife and I had our 3rd child, we named him Mitch because of what this good man taught me about love and compassion. I finally reconnected with my friend a few years before he passed and told him how we named our son after him. He was humble and kind and I was reminded of the kind of person I hope to be.

I wonder how the world might change if everyone started to see and listen with their hearts. That’s not to say we become illogical and foolish, driven to-and-fro solely by emotions; but how might things change in our own lives if we truly listened to the intent of others? I can say with confidence that almost every single conflict I have been a part of stemmed from a misunderstanding of the heart. Most people aren’t bad, they’re just a little broken and don’t know what to do with their jagged pieces. 

It is my experience that people change because they are loved, not because they are shamed. I hope to follow my son’s example and see (and listen) with my heart – for when I do, I see everything that matters. 

That’s what Mitch taught me … at the heart of things is everything. 

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.

NOT THROUGH WORDS, BUT DEEDS

It was cold and snowy outside when we heard a tap on our front door. It was Rodney Thornell, a neighbor and friend who lived just a few blocks away. Standing beside him was his own puppy whose face peered upward with the innocence of a sweet child. Rodney and his family named their dog Dragon. Mitch thought that was neat because he loved dragons … and puppies. Mitch later told me, “Dad, what a cool idea. If I get another dog, I want to do the same thing.”

This good man, knowing our son was home on hospice and running out of time, came to our home to cheer Mitch up and offer a smile or two. Mitch laughed and laughed as he watched his tiny puppy bark and jump about as if she were a credible match to her much larger play friend. In Marlie’s mind, she was as big as or bigger than Dragon. It didn’t matter that Dragon’s head was about as big as Marlie’s entire body – she had made up her mind and that was it. 

Unaware of his size and relative strength, Dragon’s playful paw would knock Marlie over and she would summersault forward a time or two. Like a snowflake or tiny ninja, Marlie would bounce back to her bitty paws as if nothing happened and go at it again with her adorable little bark. She was a fighter. Just like Mitch. 

Mitch loved to watch those dogs play – and so did we. 

I don’t think this good man knows what he did for our family and especially little Mitch. He could have sat on the other side of his computer screen, watching our posts and feeling after us. He might have also offered a prayer or two on our behalf. Instead, this good man, who happened to also be our family dentist and had cared for our son’s teeth in previous years, cared also for his heart and soul. He served our family with love and compassion. It is amazing how a little love can lift a broken heart and soul. 

Rodney was always kind and considerate to our family. He never stayed too long; just enough to lift our son’s spirits, then he was on his way. He came a few times – which really meant a lot to our family - especially Mitch. 

I remember walking him to the door on his last visit before little Mitch passed away. I had a sinking feeling in my heart that would be the last time little Mitch would see them. I swallowed the lump in my throat as my friend walked away. Later that night I prayed that his family would be blessed 1,000-fold for the goodness he showed us.

There is a saying (there are many variations) that goes something like this: “In all things, teach others about [God], and when necessary, use words.” I am grateful for my neighbor, friend and family dentist who taught me heavenly things… not through words, but quiet deeds.

AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU, I’LL CARRY YOU

There was a point where Mitch was on the razors edge of ability and disability. This was the point in his life he began to witness his physical strength slip through his fingers like sand on a windy day. No matter how much he tried to keep his strength, it simply would not stay.

Because he seemed vaguely normal, it was easy for others to dismiss his physical needs. Mitch often grappled with whether or not he should drive his scooter or try to walk. For a while he asked his mom or myself to carry him so he could go distances, then be set down to walk on his own and not stand out from the crowd. He wanted to feel normal as long as possible. Natalie, his tender mother, spared no inconvenience to help him feel normal and empower him to be all that he could be.

On this day I remember hearing Mitch ask in his soft voice, “Mom, will you carry me?” Natalie whispered, “Oh Mitchie, as long as I have you, I’ll carry you.” I’ll never forget how Mitch smiled as he wrapped his arms around his mom and how she carried him down a sidewalk. Mitchie smiled at me as if to say, “Dad, I’m the lucky one.”

I cannot remember a single time Natalie ever complained about caring for Mitch. That’s what love does, you see: it turns burdens into blessings. Sure there were days of exhaustion and discouragement, even moments of grief and fear. But in the end, caring for our little boy meant we still had him - and having him was worth the weight of everything.

Sometimes when I look at all that weighs heavy on my shoulders I can be tempted to think my burdens are my enemy … after all, they hurt and they’re heavy. But when I quiet my heart and try to look at life through heaven’s lens, I know whatever burdens I encounter are not only tender teachers … they are my friends.

Still, when I examine my life honestly, I wonder why my Father even puts up with me – a soul so rebellious and proud as mine. The child in my heart wonders if I’m more work for Him than is worth it. Then, like a whisper, I feel a nudge back to this moment with my wife and son. I remember how much I love my child, no matter how broken he might have seemed; my love for him is infinite and stretches to eternity. 

If I would carry my son gladly … patiently … might my Father do the same to me? Something tells me we’re all being carried in ways we cannot yet see. 

Perhaps, when all is said and done, we’ll look back on our lives ... hardships and all ... and say, just like little Mitch, “I’m the lucky one.”

A LITTLE LOVE CAN DO A LOT

Not long after our son passed away a compassionate follower of Mitchell’s Journey asked me for a sample of Mitchell’s handwriting. She had been following our story and felt compelled to give my dear wife something to comfort her weary heart. This is what she made - exactly as Mitch wrote it on paper just a few months prior. This kind woman, now friend, carefully mailed it to me so we could surprise Natalie for Mother’s Day. I offered to pay her for her kindness but she insisted on giving it to my wife as a gift from her heart. 

When Natalie looked upon this for the first time her eyes filled with tears because she recognized Mitchie’s handwriting.

This little memento is an echo of Mitchell’s love for his mother. I’m forever grateful for this kind woman, this Good Samaritan, who felt after my grief-stricken wife on the edge of a broken road. Katelynne didn't need to do or say anything, but she did anyway … and her little act of love did a lot.

This is her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SugarplumsJewelry

When Natalie wears this necklace, she often looks at it as if to look upon her son, or at least a breadcrumb he left behind … evidence this little boy lived and loved his mommy. 

I’m grateful for this Good Samaritan who took the time to stop; who reached out with a little love and helped my wife a lot.