TO BE A SUPERHERO


A few years ago our extended family went on a group vacation.  It was a time of great excitement as distant cousins reunited and family bonds strengthened.  Mitchell always felt awkward and shy around others because his muscles were weak and he didn't have the strength to do what everyone else could.  He often sat in the background as a spectator – never wanting to impose his needs or wants on others – even though he would have done anything to be recognized and to participate.  More often than I want to remember I observed people look over him as if he were invisible. It is for this very reason this photo means so much to me. 

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren’t laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 While at the airport an uncle reached down to invisible Mitch and placed him on his shoulders.  Together they flew down the concourse … arms open and soaring like a bird.  His uncle didn't care that other adults, strangers to him, could see and hear them. He didn't pretend to be so important or busy with adult things that he couldn't break decorum and be bothered with a child.  Only loved mattered.  And that is what he gave Mitch, in abundance.  Mitchie smiled and laughed and my heart exploded into a million pieces of love and appreciation.  For a moment, Mitchell was free … he was powerful.  For a moment Mitchell felt like a superhero.  As I sat back and watched this great man love my boy I shed tears of gratitude.

 Two [almost invisible] years later our little boy would die.  And all that Mitch hoped to do and become died with him. 

As his father I wanted so badly to put my superhero cape on and save my son.  After all, he thought I was a superhero ... but I was only mortal and I agonized that I couldn't save my little boy.  As it turned out, my little son was a superhero to me.  

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren't laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.

Mitchell’s Journey has revealed many superheroes that were hiding in plain sight – all across the world.  Many of you are superheroes to my son (and my family) because you reached out and loved him … and he felt your love and concern when the world became very dark and very lonely.  It’s one thing to love someone you know; but to love a stranger, that’s divine.

In every way that matters my little son … who hardly had the muscle strength to stretch out his arms … is my superhero. Despite his failing body he kept fighting with a smile on his face, hope in his heart and love in his soul. 

Mitchell taught me that to be a superhero has nothing to do with physical strength at all – but everything to do with heart.  While Mitchell lost his mortal battle, he has won the battle of the soul.

Originally Posted April 22, 2013

(Just a few months after Mitch passed away)

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.

LITTLE COMFORTS

It was the last day of November and we were about to head home, for our time at the family ranch had drawn to an end. Little Mitch asked if he could drive a 4-wheeler one more time. I had no idea it would be his last time. Because Mitch didn't have the muscle strength to run or ride a bike like other young boys, he anxiously sought after other ways to feel the rush of wind through his hair and on his face. Riding 4-wheelers helped him do just that … and Mitch felt powerful and strong, even normal, if only for a moment. Had I known this was his last opportunity to do what he loved so much, I would have foregone meals and work and sleep for days-on-end in order to help him drink in as much life as humanly possible. We simply didn't know what little time was left, we just did the best we knew and hoped we passed the test.

As we prepared for what would be Mitchell’s last 4-wheeling adventure, this sweet little boy sat quietly in his grandmother’s garage and put his shoes on. The chair upon which he sat had deep cushions and nearly swallowed him up. Without complaining, Mitch silently struggled to get up from the couch but he couldn't – his muscles were much too weak and the cushions comfortably deep. Ethan noticed his brother quietly struggling and in need of help and quickly ran to his aid. 

This was a simple exchange that was over in the blink of an eye. Had I been outside, impatiently yelling for them to hurry up, I would have missed this silent sermon of love and service between two children. What’s more, had I been outside honking my horn anxious to complete the task of spending time, I would have missed the point of everything … for riding 4-wheelers wasn't the point, even though little Mitch loved it so, it was doing things together with love. That’s all that matters in the end. It is something of a heavenly paradox that while we raise our young children, they are also raising us; for I am a very different person from the young gallivant I once was so many years ago.

As I watched this spontaneous act of brotherly love, it occurred to me in the most profound way Mitchell’s journey was also the journey of our family. Though Mitch walked alone with DMD, because nobody could do it for him, we walked beside him and cheered him on and did our best to clear the path for him. Our lives were inseparably connected, our journey’s intertwined, yet how much pain and sorrow we would come to know had never crossed our minds. 

While Mitch had some best friends in his life, there was none so great as his older brother. These two boys were a match forged in heaven and Mitch loved him deeply. If ever I am tempted to complain about what has gone wrong in my life, I need only look at what has gone right. Ethan was a tender mercy for my son and when I think upon that gift alone, something gone right, I cannot help but weep for gratitude. For I am reminded that I have a Father who cares enough to give little comforts no matter how big our troubles seem. 

Since Mitchell’s passing I have noticed whenever Ethan sees a photo or video of Mitch I see a softness fill his countenance that is distinct and visible. There is a tenderness and admiration in his eyes I don’t normally see in anyone, for any reason. Ethan loves his little brother just as much as Mitch loves him – and that makes my heart sing. As cool a young man Ethan is becoming, I pray he never loses his softness; for softness is the fertile soil upon which relationships grow deep. I also hope he never confuses softness for weakness – they are not the same. Not at all. I think Mitch was just as much a gift to Ethan as Ethan was to him.

Mitchell’s Journey has taught me to take great comfort in the little comforts, for they all add up. When I look at this simple image of two young boys meant to be together, who learned how to lift each other in different ways, I begin to see the bigger picture. I sense we are not left comfortless, neither are we alone. Faintly, as quiet as a whisper can possibly be, I hear something and it is heavenly.

A SPECIAL DELIVERY

It was January. The air was bitter cold and the clouds lay low, thick as London fog. Up the driveway walked loving grandparents to deliver a special gift to lift the heart of a young boy who was very, very sick. We thought we had a little more time with Mitch but the hour was later than we imagined. In retrospect the timing of this little gift was more than a puppy, it was a tender mercy. Over the next few weeks this little girl would perform a very special role in helping calm the heart of my dying son – and would be by his side to comfort him as he passed away. 

After Mitch was denied a heart transplant in November we started searching for a puppy because he always wanted one to call his own. We wanted our son to be happy with whatever time he had left and we felt this was one way to bring comfort to him. My wife and I explored every lead and looked in every corner, each time returning empty-handed. Then, one afternoon we got a call from Natalie’s father who said he found one. We were unaware that he had diligently been searching, too. He also felt moved upon to do something for him. We were so excited for Mitch and we were so very grateful.

Mitch was in our basement playing a video game unaware the gift he would soon receive. I ran outside to greet my in-laws and take photos of everything that would follow. As my father-in-law opened the box to give me a peek my heart leapt from my chest and sprouted wings. I fought back tears because I knew what this would mean to my sweet son. 

I’ll never forget the feelings I had when I first laid eyes on this furry little snowflake. Inside an old cardboard box was timid, sweet and loving little puppy. Carefully placed next to her was a Ziploc bag with handwritten instructions and some puppy food. She was also sent away with a knotted cloth that had her mother’s scent to comfort this sweet little girl as she stepped into a new and unfamiliar world. This old man and this young puppy were on a mission of mercy.

In every way, she was perfect. Just as sweet and shy as our little Mitchie, they felt like familiar souls. It was as if they were meant for each other.

I posted this video of their first meeting: https://vimeo.com/58228257 

Every time I watch that video I feel a spectrum of emotions. One of my favorite parts is seen at 1:40 when you see Mitchell’s grandfather smiling as Mitch loved his new little friend. That image is heavenly to me. It shows the satisfaction one gains from heart-felt service and seeing joy in another. I can only imagine the face of our Father when he sees us being good and kind to each other.

Within minutes of meeting his little friend Mitch would name her Marlie and they went from strangers to soul mates almost instantly. Through her body language Marlie seemed to figure out quickly that Mitch was very, very sick. She seemed to know what we didn't know … couldn't know, at the time. Whenever she wobbled near my son she would lay softly next to him as if to comfort him. She almost never left his side. 

This winter I will sit by my fireplace with my wife and other children with gratitude in my heart. They are all gifts to me and I treasure them. Although I am grateful for them, I will ever long for the warmth of my fallen son. And whenever I’m tempted to think the world as unforgiving and cold, when the fog of sorrow descends upon me and the pains of grief limit my view … I will remember this special delivery … this gift from a loving Heavenly & Earthly Father who worked together to bless the life of my son. And that warms my heart and soul.