A CROWD OF ANGELS

It wasn’t long ago a father reached out to me in grief.  He asked, “Do you believe in angels?” 

 This was my response:

 “Yes, I do believe in angels and that they walk among us [sight] unseen. Sometimes, if we're quiet and listening, we can feel their presence.

 Sometimes.

 We had some pretty profound moments with Mitch after he passed away. As Mitch was in the process of dying he slept a lot. Natalie and I were in a state of deep despair and couldn't feel as easily what others felt. Some people, not knowing what was happening at our home the last few days, dropped some gifts or notes at our door. They would leave our house and send us a text saying things like, "I'm not sure what's happening at your home, but I felt something I've never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a crowd of angels.”

 I’ve had some spiritual experiences in my life, but few as sacred as this night.  I’ve written about the night Mitch passed in earlier posts from the viewpoint of everything going dark, and how only when my spiritual eyes adjusted to the darkness did I begin to see the stars.  The stars were a metaphor for little blessings in my son’s life that were always there, but I didn’t have the eyes to see them.  Not until everything went pitch black.  An experience that is simultaneously as beautiful as it was terrifying.

 Tonight, I want to share something about that same experience but from a different viewpoint.

 As Mitch lay in his bed, unable to move his body or open his eyes – he could scarcely squeeze our hands in answer to questions.  His weary heart was about to flutter to a stop.  The time was drawing near, and Natalie and I were so very afraid. 

 At various times throughout the night, people came to our door and left gifts for little Mitch in the hopes of lifting his spirits during this sacred transition.  I can almost hear the quiet shuffling of feet in the snow as visitors came reverently to our door to leave a token of love and care.   

 Mitch would never see those gifts in mortality.  They weren’t in vain, however, for they were tokens of love and compassion that would lift our weary hearts after Mitch had gone.

 In a strange way, my home started to feel different … like it was transforming into a busy train station.  I sensed a sacred gathering of others.  Others I couldn’t see.  I don’t pretend to know who was with us or what was happening … I only knew something was put in motion and that other souls were drawing near.  I could feel it in the marrow of my soul and it brought me a measure of peace and calm.  I was hurting deeply, but I wasn’t drowning.

 Looking back, I can see that even in our agony, we were supported by spirits unseen.

 Today, as I face hardships and the unknown, I try to remember this dark night.  And I am reminded that we are never really alone.

WHO CARRIES WHOM?

It was mid-November and we were enjoying a mild evening at a park just across the street from the apartments where we temporarily lived.  Like many times before, Mitch sat on my shoulders and tried to twist my hat as though it were a steering wheel.  He would laugh and laugh as I walked in whatever direction he tried to turn my head.  He thought pulling a tuft of my hair was like hoking a horn because I would yell “Ouch!” every time.  It hurt, but I didn’t mind because I loved to hear him laugh. 

Looking back, I was never carrying Mitch – I think heaven sent Mitch to carry me. This little boy was a tattered angel who was marked for a short life – heaven knew it long before he was born. And I sensed it the moment I first laid eyes on him. Perhaps, among other things, his mission was to save me from me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As Mitch sat on my shoulders, he didn’t understand the terrible future that awaited him.  Tiny Mitch didn’t know we had just sold our home because of him – so we could find a place that would accommodate his future needs.  He didn’t know that we would have sold all that we owned to keep him safe and healthy.  Mitch didn’t know much, for he was young; he just knew we loved him – and that was all he needed to know.   

For almost 11 years, we carried Mitch on our shoulders and backs and always in our hearts.  One might think it was a terrible burden to have a child with a fatal disease … a disease that would not only kill him, but would slowly take every part of him away.  Certainly, carrying a muscle-wasting, fatal disease on our shoulders was a burden.  But carrying our child with that hardship was also filled with blessings – and the blessings far outweighed the burdens; for when it comes to our children, no burden is too great. 

The night Mitch passed away he couldn’t open his eyes, but he could squeeze our hands to tell us he was listening.  I wonder what crossed his mind that night.  I remember whispering to him as I wet his pillow with my tears … I whispered memories I had with him and told him how grateful I was to be his daddy.  I hope memories like this photo crossed his mind and gave his weary soul comfort.  I hope he found peace knowing we loved him and were proud of the young boy that he had become.

I did my best to carry Mitch on my shoulders.  Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.  In strictly mortal terms, he was younger than me. Though spiritually, I began to sense his soul was much older than mine.  I thought I was on earth to carry him and help him learn and grow – but as heavenly paradoxes go, the opposite was true.  He was teaching and shaping me.  Looking back, I was never carrying Mitch – I think heaven sent Mitch to carry me.  This little boy was a tattered angel who was marked for a short life – heaven knew it long before he was born.  And I sensed it the moment I first laid eyes on him.  Perhaps, among other things, his mission was to save me from me.

Though he is gone now and my heart aches deeply because of it, I sense him from time-to-time.  Not through butterflies and rainbows, but a distinct spiritual impression his soul is near and that he is doing the work of angels … guiding me quietly through whispers that are felt more than heard.  I sense that he is tending to my broken soul – and I hope I am listening. 

Thanksgiving is near and I have a great many things to be thankful for: faith and family are chief among them. I am also grateful that hidden somewhere deep beneath life’s burdens are also blessings – blessings that are earned by-and-through struggle. And whenever I get confused and wonder what to do, I think about my Father and my son ... and I ask myself, "Who's carrying who?"

IN TIME

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.

IT’S OKAY MOMMY

It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. ‘I’ll be okay, Mommy.’
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Natalie had wept for a few hours. Exhausted from grief, she curled around her young boy’s head as if to comfort him – even though she was in the depths of hell and very much in need of comfort herself. 

There, in the quiet of a winter night, the world had fallen away into oblivion … and all that remained was our son whom we fought valiantly to save, but could not. As the warmth of his body drew cold, darkness gathered round us. How pitch black that darkness felt, I have not words to describe.

Just then, in that moment of profound agony, when hell seemed to open its mouth wide open … as if to swallow us whole, something sacred happened. Natalie felt a distinct impression that Mitch lingered … that he was with her in Spirit and she felt as if he whispered, “It’s okay, Mommy.” 

Comfort was his parting gift to his mother’s weary and broken soul. Comfort, and a knowledge that he still lives and loves her and that, at times in her life, he will be near to help. 

“It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. “I’ll be okay, Mommy.” 

I don’t know why such heavy things were placed on his tender shoulders, for he was an innocent boy of deep faith and enduring goodness. He was honest, faithful and true. At 10 years old, he was everything I have ever hoped to be. Yet, he died. 

Some might say God is cruel or indifferent by letting such hardships happen to children. What they forget is that nobody makes it out of here alive. What’s more, the purpose of life is not to build homes and garnish them with material things. We are here to struggle and walk by the dim light of faith … and in our struggle, we will be made strong. That is an immutable law of nature that not only applies to our bodies and minds, but our souls. Struggle makes us stronger.

I have always appreciated the words of the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who once observed, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Those are words to remember, especially when our bodies fail us and those we love.

I don’t know the meaning of all things, for I am yet a child who is learning to hear the voice of his Father. While I have much to learn, I have discovered a few things as I have stumbled in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to know things I cannot deny: I know we are loved by a Father in ways we cannot yet comprehend, but I have felt a portion of that love and it has changed me from the inside out. I know that our spirits live on, for my dear wife and I have felt the presence of our son. I know that those who go before us can visit and offer us comfort in times of trouble.

As ancient Elisha once observed, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” I hope that my spiritual eyes will be opened so that I may see what is often hid from sight while living in mortality. I will always remember this dark winter night when my wife sensed our son’s presence, just beyond mortal sight. “It’s okay, Mommy” … a comfort and plea … whispered from a sweet little boy who wanted his mommy to see. 

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NOTE: I gave this to Natalie on Mother’s Day. We both wept as we reflected on this sacred evening where there was both the darkness of grief and the light of God. This art will be part of a book I plan to release later this fall.

WINGS UNKNOWN

It had only been a few short hours from the time little Mitch passed away. I felt like I had been thrown overboard into a vast sea of grief – how deep and violent that sea would become I never imagined. I had clung to a little raft of hope for so long – and in a moment, that hope for one more day … one more moment with my son was suddenly submerged in terrible waves of sorrow. 

It was that realization he was gone (I mean really, really gone) that was terrifying. My soul experienced a new, darker form of grief as what little hope I had was dashed and absolute. Like wading in the ocean; one moment surrounded in warm water then suddenly the water went cold, then warm again … our emotions were no different. One moment we felt peace, the next moment unimaginable horror. The nightmare I was terrified to imagine became a suffocating reality.

My dear wife sat on the edge of our bed quietly weeping when my oldest sister came into our room and began to console her, mother-to-mother. This is the same sister who knew Natalie and I sat in the hall outside Mitchell’s bedroom and wept while he slept and brought us cushions to sit on just days earlier. I made mention in a post how hard the ground felt and this good woman offered the only relief she could.

As a father, the death of my son stripped me of everything. I was no longer the protector of my children but instead a helpless, terrified bystander to the implacable force of death. I loved my son and wanted to save him – but I failed. My wife and I were terrorized by feelings of doubt, frustrated that medical interventions presented themselves too late, and panicked by an endless list of “what if’s.” Although the morning sun had risen, night had scarcely begun.

Then entered my sister, an angel made mortal. Like heavenly wings of comfort, she wrapped her arms around my broken wife and wept with her. I wept at this very sight – grateful for compassionate souls. Today, when I look at this image of my sister mourning with my wife, my heart is softened and my soul soothed. I don’t know much, but I have come to know we are comforted, as if by a whisper, by those who have gone before us. Though they want for our happiness, they mourn with us … not out of pity or disappointment that we are sad, but empathy. They understand that we hurt and they hurt with us. Sorrow over loss is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an evidence of love. I can see Mitch holding my wife, sight unseen, whispering to her soul, “I know mommy, I miss you too. I am sorry that you hurt so much. I understand.” 

I recently had lunch with a good man and colleague. He is an ecclesiastical leader and a man of great faith. He asked the question, “Why do some people really suffer by the loss of a loved one while others seem to accept it as a fact of life and mortality and move on?” I was a little surprised by his question and didn’t quite know how to answer it at the moment – I only said when my father passed away, that was hard. But when my young son died, it was life altering and soul shattering. 

Grief is hard. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Ever. 

Sometimes grief comes barging into my heart at the most unexpected moments. I was on a business trip last Friday and everything went better than expected. I was excited about the future and my heart was filled with hope and anticipation. Then at about 10:30 PM, on the flight home, I dozed off. I began to dream of my dear son and somewhere between sleep and consciousness I realized Mitch was gone and my soul panicked. I awoke in a terror and my heart was pounding. I felt the pains of loss anew – with the same intensity as this very morning when I lost my son.

So, what is the point to all this suffering? The answer lives deep within - where secrets of the soul are ours to win. They do not come easy - in fact they often come at a cost ... sometimes at the hand of a terrible loss. But when we learn to look and see, our hearts will be healed by a most heavenly scene. Perhaps, after all, when we felt most alone, we were comforted by arms unseen and wings unknown. 

NIGHTFALL*

Night had fallen, and so had our hopes for one more day. My weary, tattered son lay in his bed unable to move and barely breathing. Within the last 12 hours his heart had greatly enlarged which caused his chest to protrude; he looked deformed and it was disturbing to see. The candle of life was dim and flickering by the winds of change. I could feel the coldness of death lapping at my feet and I was terrified. Even though night had long since fallen, more than the sky was dark. 

I had dozed off on the floor of Mitchell's room, next to my wife. Fatigue had taken hold of me ... I was so very tired. As I was beginning to drift into a deep sleep I awoke with a distinct impression to tuck my son in - something he asked me to do every night. "Hey Mitch ..." I said in a soft whisper, "I'm tucking you in, just as you like it. I love you son, so very much. Don't be afraid; remember what we taught you. Everything is going to be okay." 

I'm told that hearing is the last thing to go for those who are dying. For reasons I have earlier posted I know my son heard me. Those were the last words Mitch heard in mortality. Within 30 minutes of that gentle whisper and kiss on his face, my precious little boy passed away. I hope he wasn't scared. I hope.

We've also been told that children who are about to pass away often wait for their parents to leave the room or they linger for permission to go because they don't want to hurt or disappoint. Knowing this, I wanted my weary son who so fought valiantly to live; this little boy of ours … who always wanted to make us happy … I wanted him to know that we loved him and that all would be well. No sooner had I drifted back to sleep Natalie had got up from the floor to administer Mitchell's medicine, which he was now receiving every two hours. 

I'll never forget the sound of Natalie's voice. Her words pierced the silence of the room like a samurai sword through paper: .... "Chris." Suddenly, with the thunder of 1 million exploding suns, I awoke that instant only to see a mother's face that looked confused, scared and deeply bereft. I got up from the floor by Mitchell's bed and placed my hand on his chest. Nothing. Our precious son, our broken baby, was gone. 

We could scarcely believe our eyes. Lying on Mitchell's bed was the form of a little boy we raised since birth and loved with all of our hearts. His body was still warm and it seemed as if we could just shake him a little as if to wake him from a deep sleep and that all would be well. But Mitch had fallen into a sleep from whence there is no return.

As each hour passed we could feel his arms and legs get colder. Soon, only the center of his chest was warm and it was cooling quickly. Then his body started to change. At about 3:45 AM I called the funeral home to pick him up and they were at our home within an hour. I asked them to hurry because I wasn't sure I could watch my son's body continue down the path it was heading.

Processing the death of your child is something of a bi-polar experience taken to the greatest extremes. One moment you feel peace then suddenly you confront feelings of horror – the likes of which you've never known.

With all the lip service we give our religious beliefs, there is nothing so exacting as to see your child die and then to peer into the dark abyss of death. I have been taught that: "Faith, to be faith, must go into the unknown ... must walk to the edge of the light, then a few steps into the darkness." My son's journey, Mitchell's Journey, has forced my wife and I to step into the darkness … a darkness that is as heavy as it is pitch.

Yet, I've discovered something in all this darkness. Once I allowed my spiritual eyes to adjust and look upward, I started to see the stars. Against the backdrop of all that is black and frightening I can see little flecks of light, tender mercies that were always there but I didn't have eyes to see them. And the accumulation of these tender mercies present themselves like heavenly constellations so I can find my way. If I look down or to the side, all I see is darkness. Like ancient navigators who looked to the heavens for bearing I can see the fingerprint of God in all that has happened and I now have a sense of direction. I know we're not alone.

To be clear, it is still nightfall and my heart is heavy with a sinking sorrow. There are days that are blacker than black and the waves of grief threaten to pull me under. But when I look to the heavens I can see. 

I can see


A LAMP, A STRING & A THOUSAND POINTS OF LIGHT

At about 8:15 last night we had a special visitor at our door. This was the woman from Alaska I spoke of in my funeral address. We were excited to meet her in person, for she played an unexpected but important role during our darkest hours. Once a lamp unto our feet, as the path we tread was dark and treacherous, this compassionate woman was now a light to our weary hearts.

After we spoke for while we showed her Mitchell’s room which has been relatively untouched since the time of his passing. I stood in deep reverence of these two mothers who loved and lost their boys. While my heart cries out in agony over the loss of my son, I recognize that a mother’s pain is different and deeper than that of a father’s. For they gave their child life and carried them in ways only a mother knows. 

A little over a year ago I sat at the foot of this very bed, trembling and in tears as my son was sick and dying. It was in this very place we received emails from this inspired woman who offered insight and council that came from her own experience. 

It seemed rather poetic that this woman, once a stranger to us; a woman who spoke peace to our hearts during the darkest time in our lives was finally in that same room. The thought of such a reunion had never entered my heart or crossed my mind. Yet there she was, once again, like a gift from heaven. 

Why do we suffer? Why do we stumble and fall? So we can learn the deeper meaning of love, compassion and service. For without such, we wouldn't know much at all.

My heavy heart once hung by a single tattered thread. Now it hangs by a thousand threads of light. A thousand tender mercies … a thousand things that give me sight.