THE OTHER SIDE OF SERVICE

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It feels like yesterday when I heard the sound of muffled thumps and giggles in our living room.  I was so intrigued by what I heard that I had to sneak behind our couch to spy on what was happening.  As I quietly crawled within view, I saw Mitch laughing as he would squeeze and twist Ethan’s ear like a squishy toy.  They were both laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Little Mitch never had a mind to hurt his brother – only to wrestle as young boys do. 

Because Ethan knew his little brother was physically weak, he adapted his play-style so Mitch might feel strong and competitive.  Ethan could have easily turned the tables and overpowered his younger brother.  Instead, he set aside his pride, bridled his strength and allowed Mitch to win in ways that were unique to him – and in so doing, they both won. 

There was a point while home on hospice Mitch said to me “Dad, I just wish I could wrestle.  I just want to wrestle...”  By this time Mitch could hardly function – so it broke my heart to see him yearn for something he loved to do but couldn’t.  I wondered if Mitch missed wrestling so much because his older brother helped him feel normal, healthy and strong.   

By surrendering his strength, Ethan did more than serve his brother this day.  He reminded me that on the other side of service is the often invisible act of lifting hearts and minds – and Ethan knew how to do just that for his little brother.   

This image reminds me there is so much more to service than lifting heavy things or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway.  There is a time and place for strong arms - but there is a greater place for gentle hands and soft hearts.  The service of a smile, a kind word or loving encouragement can do so much for the downtrodden soul.   

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we appreciate, service can be seen in handing strength over to someone who is not as strong – and giving them a chance to win.                                                                

I miss the muffled thunder of Ethan and Mitch wrestling in my home.  And while part of my home is empty and heart hurting, my soul is overflowing with gratitude because I was blessed with two little giants who showed me the other side of service.  They showed me a different kind of love – and I am better off because of it. 

THE BEAUTIFUL, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE OF MOTHERS

Tucked carefully just under Natalie’s pillow is a purple blanket, worn out and threadbare. It was one of Mitchell’s favorite blankets when he was as a toddler. Among the many places she might keep that treasured heirloom, it rests to this day quiet and unassuming, near her head when she sleeps.

When Mitch was a tiny little boy, he found special comfort in soft things. I’ll never forget when Natalie handed Mitch two small fleece blankets – one was purple and the other green. Mitch immediately smiled and pushed the blankets up to his cheeks. His chubby little fingers felt the soft fabric, and he was in love.

Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

For many years, Mitch clung to those two blankets as if were imaginary friends. I didn’t realize how much he treasured them until the day I found him quietly whispering to himself as he was stuffing both blankets in the produce drawer of our fridge, for safe keeping. When I giggled, Mitch turned his head and smiled and said, “Hi, Dad. One second … one second.” He finished securing his treasure in the fridge, then ran up to my leg and hugged me.” I asked him, “You love those blankets, don’t you?” He said softly, “I wuv them. Mommy gave them to me.” At that moment, I began to see the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers anew. To our tiny child, those blankets weren’t just a warm fabric from which to cuddle on a cold winter’s night; they were a symbol and an extension of his mother’s love, and it comforted him so.

As the years passed, Mitchell grew up and out of those two blankets. Because they meant to him as a toddler, we kept them safe knowing one day; they would mean more to us than perhaps they ever meant to him. As Mitch grew older, he discovered other symbols of his mother’s love – and he clung to those in times of comfort and in times of trouble.

Years later, when we discovered Mitchell’s heart was about to stop beating, Natalie instinctively ran to the gift shop at the hospital to find something that might give her baby comfort, once again. After scanning the shelves, Natalie finally saw a soft teddy bear whose broken heart was patched and stitched, with a kind of homemade variety. Most importantly, you could tell that tender heart was being held up with love. Natalie’s eyes filled with tears and said, “Chris, this is it. This is what I want to give Mitchie.”

As we walked back to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Natalie clung to the teddy bear as if to transfer a portion of her love to it so that it might, in turn, transfer that loving care to her sick and dying child. Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

When we returned to his room, Natalie said softly, “Here you go Mitchie – here’s something to cuddle with. I hope you like it.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s really soft. I love it.” By this time, Mitch was beginning to feel sick and said, “Mom, will you tuck me in with this teddy bear?” Mitch fell fast asleep that night – and I can’t help but think it was in part because of his mother’s tender love.

I’ve watched this sweet mother quietly grieve the loss of our child for 1,866 days now. That’s not 1,866 days of wallowing in self-pity – but instead, learning to live a parent’s worst nightmare. The nightmare doesn’t change over time because the inescapable, irreversible facts of death don’t change.

I’m just a brokenhearted father who loves his family and who misses his son deeply … but however much I miss my son, I can tell the space between a mother and her children is a sacred place. Today, like little Mitch did so many years ago, she clings to the symbols of love she had with her son.

Natalie has learned to put her love and pain (which is grief) in an invisible treasure box – for you can’t have one without the other. I'm forever humbled to witness the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

THE INVISIBLE STRING

For Valentines Day, I wanted to share another video of Mitch from the Letters to My Son series. When we took Mitch home from the hospital he wanted to share a message with our family about love - a fitting topic for this time of year.

There was a tender irony in the timing of things. His heart was failing during a holiday that celebrated matters of the heart. Though his physical heart was weak, the heart of his soul was strong. He was the giant, and me ... very much the child.

In this video, you'll see Mitch tenderly listening to a book he asked his mother read. I believe Mitch wanted us to remember its message, long after he would pass away. And in this story is a message within a message.

I'm just a regular dad who struggles to be the best he can be. I have a long way to go - yet, however much I stumble, I can feel an invisible string that connects Mitch and me.   

Here is the transcript of the video:

Dear Mitch,

I had a dream about you last night and I awoke in a panic.  In my efforts to replace my thoughts of anguish with something of peace, I remembered something about you – and it calmed my weary heart.

When it was time for you to leave the hospital, you couldn't get out of there fast enough.  You were anxious to be a little boy again and to put the labor of medicine behind you. Your mother pushed you in a wheelchair to the curb and gently helped you get seated in the car.

As we were about to leave, you said, "Mom, isn't it my turn to teach family night?" Our hearts swelled and broke at the same time – you see, you were less concerned about playing with friends and toys and more about sharing something that was on your mind and heart.

You had a lesson in mind and you wanted to share it us – and it is a lesson we’ll never forget.

Your mother said, "Yes, Mitch, it's your turn.  Do you really want to teach a lesson for family night??"  You nodded your head and said “Yes, mom.  I have it all planned out.”  With that, it was settled – you were going to share a lesson with us and we were excited to learn from you. 

What followed is best described as the longest drive of my life.  We were on a one-way trip.  There would be no more doctors, no more hospital visits to keep you healthy.  Our job was to usher you to the other side of the veil.  I worried whether we did enough to teach you – but it was realizing it was you who was here to teach me.

The next day you awoke, and you began preparations for family night.  You chose a few books to read and prepared some important talking points about what it means to love.

You asked your mother to read the books - which she did ... like she did every night.  I think you would have read them just fine, but I think you wanted her to read them so it would start to feel life was getting back to normal.

The first book you chose was called, The Invisible String … a story about a string of love you cannot see with your eyes, but you can feel with your heart.

Like that beautiful author described, there is an invisible string between you and me.  It tugs at me daily.

The look on your face said all that needed to be said.  You were listening so close to the message of the story – a story about love and the bonds that tie us together.

I couldn’t help but notice you breathing hard because your heart was weak.  A friend of mine observed, after you passed, that it was ironic that a child whose heart was broken could teach so much about love.  You loved that story because it spoke the thoughts and feelings of your heart – that no matter where we go on earth or in heaven, there will always be an invisible string that connects us.

That book will forever be treasured by our family – for as long as we live.  For like the author wrote, there is an invisible string and we will always be connected.  Looking back I wonder if that was one of the messages you wanted us to know before you left us.

You’re gone now … far from view.  But I can still feel that string tug at my heart – and it will always tug at me – for as long as I shall live.  That is the magic children have on their parents.  Now, and forever.

Love,

Dad

 


This video essay is part of a series entitled, Letters to My Son.  You can see other letters from this series by clicking the button below.

THE STRUGGLE OF LOVE

I took this photo of Mitchell's brothers and sister last January. Standing in the frigid snow, I was startled to see 3 of my 4 children suddenly grown up. It seemed like yesterday a much younger version of these kids were gathered around Mitch loving and supporting him when he was home on hospice. Sometimes I forget how fast time passes. On the one hand, it feels like Mitch was with me just yesterday ... but then again, it also feels like a lifetime ago.  

Later that night, I looked at this photo and recognized all three of my children have endured profound and private grief over the loss of their little brother. I don't write of their struggles because I respect their privacy. But they struggle in their own, tender, and very real ways. Because of this, I have spent many nights on my knees praying for their well-being and that heaven will help them weather the storms of life; today, and with whatever storms the future might hold.

Teenage years are hard enough - and having to deal with such a personal loss at such a young age only makes the storm of growing up even more difficult.  Through it all, I can see my kids maturing in certain ways faster than I would have wanted.   

Ethan (center) was Mitchell's closest friend and brother. Today he plays a vital role – a kind of sibling glue that keeps our kids together. He didn't ask for that responsibility, but he fulfills that role well as he's learning to honor the memory of his fallen brother and do his best to make good life choices.

Like all parents, I am constantly worried about their wellbeing.  I’m also learning that the work of parenting will never really be done, it just changes as our children grow older. My heart thrills over their growth and it takes compassion when they hurt – and sometimes the protective father in me becomes a roaring bear. I stay up at night waiting for them to return home safely. I worry about the choices they make and the friends they associate with. I often remind my kids they’ll become the average of the 5 people they hang out with the most - so I encourage them to choose wisely.

Becoming a father has taught me more about the struggle of love than all the books I’ve ever read, more than all the songs that have danced inside my head.  I wouldn’t trade any part of my life, not even grief for glee – for all of it has blessed my life and shaped my soul.  All of it has made me, me.

FROZEN IN TIME

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I’ve heard it said, “Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks.” This is a memory did just that.

It was cold outside, but my heart couldn’t have been warmer at this moment. We took our kids on an adventure to play in the freshly fallen snow. As the kids were putting on their snow clothes, Ethan pointed to his Spiderman hat and said, “Hey Mitch, look at my hat!” Mitch smiled and said, “Dat’s cool. Look at mine; it’s mommies. Its soft and will keep me warm.” Were he given a choice to wear any hat on earth or his mom’s hat, he would have chosen his mother’s every time. To Mitch, wearing her hat was like getting a constant hug from her.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
— Winnie the Pooh

With that, our kids ran outside to prance about in fluffy fields of white. Mitch reached down to gather snow in his tiny hands and threw it up in the air. He laughed as a chunk of snow landed on his brother’s head. Ethan giggled, then reached over to kiss his brother on his cheek.

By this time, the warm tears streaming down my face were turning to ice on my chin. If I could have frozen time like molecules of water in ice and forever live in this moment, I would have. I suppose, in a way, this photo did just that. I am forever grateful for tender memories – however much they might evoke feelings of loss and sorrow.

I think Winnie the Pooh said it best, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

CHRISTMAS GIFTS

I just love Christmas ... I love everything about it. I remember when I first bought this little USB Christmas tree ... Mitch thought it was so cool and he loved to come to the office and see it aglow on my desk. The screen saver (behind the tree) is close to my heart because it reminds me of Mitchell's love of sunsets, cozy atmospheres and his romantic view of the holidays. To him, he looked forward to giving gifts to others then snuggling up in a warm and cozy home with the people he loved. That's all I want to do anymore: give and love.

I thought I lost this tree a year ago, but Natalie recently found it buried under other Christmas decorations. Today, when I look at this little tree I think of Mitch and the beautiful gift he was and remains in my life. Despite the heartache that comes and goes like an evening tide, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Though painful, I wouldn't trade the gift of Mitch for anything.

I just hope one night I can see my son in my dreams so I can tell him how much he mattered to me and how very much I love him.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

This was Mitchell’s last October. We went to a local farmer’s lot to pick out some pumpkins to carve. Autumn had slipped away and we were deep into fall, each day getting colder and colder. Except this day was unusually summer-like and the evening sun warmed our skin as if from a nearby fireplace.

In honor of my son, I will look for those whose bags are a little empty and try to fill them with love and encouragement. Where I can, I will try to carry those who stumble, though I often stumble myself. For the key to happiness, I’ve discovered, is found in giving, not getting.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Because his leg muscles had wasted away, Mitch had trouble walking around the uneven terrain. He tripped and stumbled a few times and he was much slower than the rest of the children. I couldn’t help but notice the look on my son’s face as he saw other kids race past him. He had a look of gratitude and determination. At one point he just smiled and said to me, “Dad, I’m just glad I can still walk.” 

After a lumbering about the pumpkin patch for a while, we each took turns giving our boy a piggyback, so our little boy’s legs could rest. Though he was getting bigger each year, carrying him was never a burden but in fact a great blessing.

Halloween was just around the corner and I wondered what my boy wanted to do. Each year, trick-or-treating became more and more difficult. In the beginning, he used his electric scooter to go from home to home. As each year passed his muscles became weaker and trying to climb up a neighbor’s stairs to knock on their door was exhausting for him. The year prior to his last Halloween, he just parked on each drive way and Luke or Wyatt would take his basket and trick-or-treat for him. That wasn’t much fun for Mitch because, like so many other children’s activities, he sat on the sidelines and watch the party from afar. No matter his disappointment or wanting to do what other children did, Mitch bore his burden with a tender smile - grateful to be alive.

So, as I carried my son on my back this warm October evening in the Pumpkin patch I asked Mitch what he wanted to be for Halloween. He said, “Dad, I just want to stay home and give candy to other kids.”

“Are you sure Mitchie? I will carry you door-to-door if you want.” I replied. 

He responded with a soft whisper, “No, I want to stay home with you. Plus, I like giving to others more.”

True to his word, Mitch stayed home Halloween night and handed candy out to other children. Each time he shut the door he had a big smile on his face. Giving to others brought more joy to little Mitch than getting ever did. Although his Halloween bag was empty that night, his heart was overflowing. So was mine.

To our surprise, later that night, thoughtful friends knowing he was too weak to trick-or-treat brought him some of their candy. 

Though Halloween was different that year, in every way that matters, it was a happy Halloween.

In honor of my son, I will look for those whose bags are a little empty and try to fill them with love and encouragement. Where I can, I will try to carry those who stumble, though I often stumble myself. For the key to happiness, I’ve discovered, is found in giving, not getting.