THE SEARCH FOR PEACE

Little Mitch was tucked in for the night.  We had just celebrated an early birthday, at his request and he was tired and in need of rest.  No sooner had he closed his eyes than Natalie softly kissed him on the cheek, one more time.   Death was coming fast and we had reached a time when we didn’t know if any moment would be our last moment. 

If I search for meaning first, peace and understanding follow.  If I search for peace without meaning, what I find is fleeting and hollow.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

In the shadow of her kiss was baby Marlie, anxious to cuddle and keep Mitch company as he slept.  Sensing something was wrong, Mitch had become afraid of the dark so he asked his mom to keep the light outside his room on and his door opened a crack.  A little light and his puppy was all he needed.

Though we were going through hell at the time, we also experienced moments of supernal peace.  As death came closer, so did Heaven and unseen angels – bearing up our broken souls.  Several months prior, I could feel the sun setting on Mitchell’s life … and though there was a great sorrow in my heart, there was a certain beauty and peace, too.  A peace that doesn’t come from this place.  It is as real as anything I know – and it tells me there is more to life than my eyes behold.    

In my experience, the search for peace is coupled with the search for meaning.  If I search for meaning first, peace and understanding follow.  If I search for peace without meaning, what I find is fleeting and hollow.

 

PEACE COMES FROM WHAT WE SEE

I knew time was short and midnight was near. Death was coming, and all I had was the moments that remained. How many moments left was impossible to know.

The ice upon which Mitch tread was terribly thin. His cardiologist said he was at risk of sudden death; so not a moment passed that I didn’t worry that very second might be my last. When I peered into my tender son’s eyes, all I could hear was the cracking of the ice beneath him.

“Dad, will you watch a movie with me?” Mitch said softly. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I replied, “I would love to, son.” Mitch grabbed his tiny puppy and whispered, “We can put Marlie between us and both cuddle with her.”

I believe one of our purposes in life isn’t to avoid pain and sorrow, but to grow stronger because of it. It would seem that life’s greatest virtues are born of struggle – not leisure. So, at least for me, I have learned to focus less on the pain and more on the purpose.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Oh, we cuddled that night. We cuddled like we were the last two people on earth, bracing for a meteor to wipe us out. As Mitch snuggled into my chest, Marlie rested between us, ever faithful to her sick friend. Little Mitch was soon caught up in the movie … and as much as I wanted to enjoy the movie, I could not. All I could think about was the cracking ice and the deep, dark waters below. Tears streamed down my face, and my heart ached in ways I never imagined. I had never known such sorrow.

I remember saying a prayer in my heart in search of comfort, “Father, where is your hand in all of this suffering? Please, give me eyes to see. I have faith in you. I believe.” I learned years ago that “As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part.” And that, “Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship.” The moment I discovered that truth, my prayers became more personal. More genuine. More effective.

The answers I was looking for didn’t come all at once. Peace would come and go like the ocean tide – and I was not spared from sorrow, neither was Mitch spared from death. But peace would come and give us a measure of rest. And when it came to having eyes to see, my eyes were opened, but slowly. Like mortal eyes, my spiritual eyes needed time to adjust – but soon I began to see tender mercies that I was previously blind to see.

I am no fanatic or a zealot, but there are some things I know, and I know them for sure. I know that despite our suffering in this life, we are never left alone … though we may be tempted to feel that way from time-to-time. God is never surprised or caught off-guard by the events that unfold in our lives. In fact, I’m convinced that Heaven walks before us and paves the way for tender mercies – so that we might find comfort in our hardships. But hardships are essential to our spiritual growth.

I believe one of our purposes in life isn’t to avoid pain and sorrow, but to grow stronger because of it. It would seem that life’s greatest virtues are born of struggle – not leisure. So, at least for me, I have learned to focus less on the pain and more on the purpose.

I miss this little boy. Though I would have done anything to keep Mitch with me, I have discovered things I did not previously see. The gift of sight, to see things right, is something I don’t take lightly. Peace, it seems, doesn’t come from things … it comes from what we see.

I WILL WALK BESIDE YOU

Everything was falling apart. Mitchell’s vitals were on a steady and quick decline and all he wanted to be was a kid.

Death was clawing at our door and would soon find its way in. We had reached a point where we began to administer powerful drugs to mask the pain of organ failure. He was already on medication that erased from the mind oxygen hunger; else he would have felt out of breath, as though he were vaguely suffocating. With each dose of these new drugs, Mitch became more and more sleepy.

I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We were in the middle of a dilemma: we wanted every minute we could have with Mitch, but we didn’t want him to suffer. To withhold medication so he would remain awake would have been selfish on our part, and would have caused our little boy pain. In order to spare Mitch unimaginable agony, we had to let go of what we wanted so that he wouldn’t suffer.

Mitch began to realize his medicine was making him sleepy, so he started to resist each dose because he wanted to be awake. He wanted to live his life – for he was glad to be alive. With tears running down our faces, we would explain to Mitch that the medicine would keep him from hurting. “But I just want to be awake. I just want to live,” Mitch would say in a soft, breathless tone. Then, not wanting to suffer, he would then take his next dose of pain medication and fall into a deeper sleep than the time before.

I can’t count the number of times I knelt, with bruised knees, at the side of Mitchell’s bed pleading with our Father to spare my son. And if he would not be spared, I begged that He would help my little boy to not feel scared or alone … that he would be given a measure of peace and understanding beyond his young years.

I also prayed that my Father would strengthen my feeble back so that I might learn to carry what I must. A weaker man he could not have chosen to bear this burden … for I was then, and remain today, imperfect and flawed. I didn’t feel capable of carrying such things.

So as I sat across Mitchell’s room, I witnessed two tender mercies that served as an answer to my prayers. Just after his dose of medicine, baby Marlie placed her head on Mitchell’s lap, ever offering tender affections. Natalie, my dear wife, sat softly next to Mitch and comforted him with a love only a mother can give. With her every gesture, it was as if she said, “Sweet boy, don’t be afraid, I will walk beside you.” I marveled at how she became a pillar of strength for my son and family. When I was a jellyfish, she was made of carbyne.

In this very moment, I suddenly saw life through heaven’s eyes. Though I witnessed my little boy suffering the effects of being mortal, I also saw two angels who walked beside my son … tender mercies from a Heavenly Father who loved and cared about Mitch. In that moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and understanding.

Losing my son has forced me to dig deep. Yet, this hardship didn’t weaken my faith, it strengthened it and rooted out the stuff that got in the way. Despite the darkness of death and the weight of grief … which has been soul-crushing … I am a personal witness to tender mercies. They exist. They are as real as anything I know.

Though I am still blind and weak, I have a Father who patiently walks beside me … ever generous with tender mercies. I pray every day that I will have eyes to see. For if He was there for Mitch, it might very well be that He is doing the same for you and for me.

EARS TO HEAR & EYES TO SEE

“Dad … can I sit by you?” Mitch said softly. It was mid-January and I was working from home that day. “Sure Mitch! I love it when you’re near me.” I then patted my hand on an extra chair, inviting him to sit with me. Mitch sat down holding his baby puppy close to his chest. Marlie looked at me as she snuggled deep into his arms. Mitch thought himself blessed to have a furry friend like Marlie. 

I turned my camera toward Mitch and he just stared into the lens. He didn’t try to posture himself for a photo – he did exactly what I always wanted … absolutely nothing. You see, Mitchie knew I wanted to capture moments unrehearsed … I wanted to capture life, not the imitation of it. So, Mitch gave me the moment. 

His almond eyes and soft expression my heart melted. In this same moment he gave me a curious look as if to say, “Dad, something’s wrong.” He didn’t need to say any words – I sensed it, too. Like a cold wind from the north, I felt a brooding sense that we were on the edge of a great and terrible change and my soul began to shiver. At the time, I didn’t know what was about to happen, I just knew something hard was coming. How hard, I knew not. For almost 2 years this feeling was growing. Looking back, I believe heaven warned me and helped me make the most of time I might have otherwise squandered.

As death drew closer, Mitch would begin to ask me deep questions about the purpose of life, death and what happens when we die. At the tender age of 10, an age that he should have been playing with toys, he faced the stuff of philosophers and theologians. He wanted to understand what too many adults often dismiss for cheaper thrills. 

In less than 6 weeks from this photo, Mitch would lay on his bed unable to open his eyes or speak as his body was shutting down. It is frightening to think how quickly our worlds can be turned upside down and inside out.

This same puppy who was at first frightened to be away from her mother, received great comfort from Mitch, and would soon return the favor with honor. The night he was slipping away, she would use her nose to lift his hand and nestle under his palm as if she knew he needed to touch her. Though he couldn’t open his beautiful eyes, he could move his fingers slightly. So, there on the side of this sacred bed, I filmed Mitchell’s tender fingers running softly through her baby coat. Eventually, when the end was upon Mitch, this little puppy curled around his head on his pillow. Then, within an hour, my baby boy slipped away.

I am a simple, flawed man and I don’t know much; but I know a few things for sure. One thing I know is, we are not alone. I know it all the way to the marrow of my bones. The moment I first laid eyes on newborn Mitch, my Father warned me with a distinct impression something was wrong. That impression persisted for three years until his diagnosis. Then, almost 2 years before he passed away, my Father returned and began to stir my soul with a great uneasiness. I didn’t know all that He was trying to tell me, I only knew He was preparing me for a spiritual winter. A time where darkness would become my home. Then, as my spiritual eyes began to adjust to the darkness of grief, I began to see little flecks of light … little tender mercies. Though I was in hell, I saw evidence of heaven and a Father who cared.

Yes, my heart is still broken and my soul is weary with grief. I long to find my son so that my mind might find some relief. My soul searches as if he were lost in some great wilderness. But alas, it is not he that is lost, but me. So I journey through the wilderness in search of heaven. I pray for ears to hear and eyes to see. Somewhere, out there, my little son waits for me.

GOLIATH AND THE LITTLE GIANT

Tiny Marlie stood bravely before Dragon, a much larger puppy. In Marlie’s mind, she was just as strong as her furry friend and always held her ground with a flurry of high-pitched barks and excited prancing. With one soft nudge of Dragon’s nose, tiny Marlie would topple over and roll into summersaults. Physically, she was no match. The moment she tumbled, she would jump to her feet and begin to bark as though nothing ever happened. In fact, she would bark like she was winning. Mitch smiled and giggled as he watched these two puppies play.

As I took this photo, the words crossed my mind, “Goliath and the little giant.” I couldn’t help but notice tiny Marlie as she stood bravely before her much larger friend, playful and strong. Marlie was a little giant – undaunted by what stood before her. In this same moment, I saw Mitch much like his puppy: a little giant of a different sort … a kind of giant you don’t see with your eyes, but sense with your soul. My mind then shifted to the ancient account of David and Goliath and what it meant to take fresh courage in the face of implacable odds.

I often wonder what crossed David’s mind as he stood in the long shadow of Goliath. I’ve heard so many variations of this quote that I don’t know who to attribute, but it has been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to act in spite of it. Did David’s soul shiver just a little bit at the sight of Goliath? Perhaps. Though small in stature as compared to his 9-foot opponent, David clearly possessed an inner strength and courage that cannot be forged by human hands or feigned by mortal hearts.

I did my best to teach Mitch that he was the son of a King and that he could call on Him for courage when the shadows of doubt grew especially dark or when his Goliaths seemed especially frightening. Mitch battled many Goliaths in his short life: he overcame fear, self-doubt, and a multitude of big and small battles – some so small they might seem insignificant to the casual observer, but to him, they were towering and he faced them bravely.

I sometimes wonder if mortals have life a little backward. We seem to measure so much by the accomplishment of big, visible things … the job promotion, the new car, or any number of accolades. Surely the big battles matter, but I’m persuaded that the little battles matter even more. Sometimes the big battles we face come because we ignored the little battles along the way. In like manner, victory is almost never achieved overnight but instead by little victories won over many days and nights. None of this is new thinking, and it has been said a million times by a million people. But we are human, and we are prone to forget. Perhaps, when we finally see with heaven’s eyes, we will discover to our great surprise that the little battles were really the big battles.

When confronted by his personal Goliaths, Mitch eventually won every battle with dignity and grace. Notice, I used the word "eventually". He didn’t always win at first, but he kept trying until he ultimately won. The one battle, however, he couldn’t win was that with death. As Mitchell’s final Goliath towered over him and stretched its long shadow, a shadow black as a moonless midnight, I admit I trembled with fear and anguish for my son. I cried out to the heavens, “Take me! Take me!” as though I could distract the Goliath of death and persuade it to come for me instead.

Like David, Mitch faced his ultimate Goliath with a kind of courage that cannot be forged by human hands or conjured up by mortal minds. Instead, he was strengthened by his knowledge of who he was and to whom he really belonged. Though Goliath was huge, David was filled with faith and a certain knowledge … which made him even huger. Mitch, too, was a little giant.

As I examine the past to learn and focus on my present to do, I have discovered one thing, maybe two. If Mitch could stand before his Goliaths, victorious, I know that I can, too. From the Goliath of grief to the quest for peace, I know this one thing is true: the little battles matter both for me and for you.

LEST WE FORGET

I will never forget when Mitch sat at the bottom of our steps, struggling to catch his breath after playing one of his last Nerf gun battles. He said to me, “Dad, why can’t I be like a regular kid? I know I will not get better. I know I will die.” In that very moment, keeping my composure consumed what little strength I had left. I was a broken father, stumbling over pebbles and powerless to rescue my son. Still, I hid away a river of tears so that I might comfort my little boy and not frighten him. Though the prospect of losing Mitch frightened me deeply. “Mitch, my son, I don’t know why we have to do hard things. I only know that our Father loves us and that we are on this earth to learn and grow.”

I don’t know how much those words comforted my son in that moment of childhood grief – but I do know he thought deeply about life and death and what happens on the other side. As his father, I did my best to teach him – not to believe my words, but rather I tried to give him the tools so that he might learn for himself … so that he didn’t need to simply believe on my words, but that he might have a knowledge of things for himself. After all, that is the greatest gift we can give our kids … “Don’t believe me. Let me show you how to find out for yourself.” As he neared the end, Mitch came to know (in sacred and undeniable ways) there was more to life than what we saw with our mortal eyes.

So many of the experiences my tender wife and I had leading up to (and during) our son’s death are the kind of life traumas that you never get over. They are not the stuff of nightmares … they are the stuff beyond nightmares. I have discovered that you don't set it aside and move on. That is impossible. Instead, we have to learn to live with those memories and decide what meaning they have for us. 

Though I often write of hard things in this place, I don’t live in a constant state of grief. I have grief moments, but thankfully they don’t last as long as they used to. In a manner of speaking, I no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel – for I believe I have passed through the tunnel. That doesn’t mean all is well and that things are as they used to be. I am forever changed over the loss of Mitch. I will miss him the remainder of my mortal days and I have learned to live with chronic grief. 

At least for me, Mitchell's Journey is like cleaning a deep wound. It's not for everybody. What's more, because my wound is deep, I tend to go deep and it hurts a lot. But that deep cleanse is necessary so as to not allow sorrow to infect my soul.

As I continue down this path of reflection over my son’s journey, I don’t write to wallow. I write to examine. To think deeply. To discover the meaning of suffering and other things. I write because I don’t ever want to be that person who forgets the lesson. I think that’s a universal human struggle: to remember and to see clearly. For when pain passes, we tend to forget and go to what’s easy. Mitchell’s Journey, at least for me, is a place to remember and a place to see. 

I write so that I might remember what I’ve learned at such a terrible price. I write lest I forget and become what I used to be. For where I was yesteryear is no place for me.

 

MICROSCOPIC MOMENTS

Mitch was home on hospice for a few days and was anxious to play a new video game that had just been released. We wanted him to enjoy what little time he had left, so we paved the way for him to play. The thunder of crashing sounds and music filled the air. Mitch was audibly in awe of the game’s graphics and I could hear him down the hall saying, “Oooooh, that is so cool!” 

Suddenly there was silence.

“Oh … no. Not now. Please, not now.” I cried inside.

Panicked, I ran down the hall with the speed of an Olympian to see if Mitch was okay – after all, his cardiologist said he was at risk of instant death. He was sitting strangely quiet on the couch when I said in a worried tone, “Mitch, are you okay?” 

Mitch smiled softly and whispered, looking toward his hand, “Dad, look.” I then saw baby Marlie who had rested her head softly on his hand and began to sleep. Mitch didn’t move a muscle. 

In this very moment my heart burst with love and gratitude. I loved my son with all of my heart and was grateful he was entrusted to me. I loved this puppy for what she did for my dying boy’s heart and soul. I loved my father-in-law for becoming an instrument of love and mercy – for finding this puppy for my sick child before he passed away. And most of all, I loved my Father for the many tender mercies that were in my life – however undeserving I may have been. 

Though we were hurting deeply, we were also being helped by an influence unseen – and that is no small thing. Yes, Mitchell’s Journey is a story of love for a sick child … but it is also a story of Heavenly love. Somewhere in all my heartbreak, deep in the shadows of sorrow, I have discovered that Heavenly love anew. 

I lost track of the many winter nights when I wept and pled for my son – that somehow Heaven would make things right. Eventually an insight, like a flash of light, broke through; “Be patient, my child, death is not the end, and there is something I want you to learn about you.”

Slowly time passed – and I found myself in agony over moments lost. Days turned into weeks and months turned into years. Over time I have learned to walk again and see far past my tears.

It’s microscopic moments like this, between a baby dog and a sick little Mitch, that change the way I see. Instead of focusing on grief and hardship I’ve learned to appreciate our many, many tender mercies. If we’re not watchful, we could complain about the pain and sorrow all day – blinded by grief, unaware of the blessings and heavenly helps along the way. 

I look for microscopic moments to be grateful, because they all add up. And before I know it, those little blessings fill my empty cup.