ONE STEP AT A TIME, A MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB*

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A few weeks ago, my brother and I agreed to summit Mount Timpanogos.  I was excited for the adventure because I’d never climbed a mountain before.  Even more, I remember Mitch tugging softly at my arm, deep in the evening shadow of Aspen Grove, as he pointed to this mountain and said, “Dad, I wonder what it’s like up there.  I guess I’ll never know because my legs are so weak.”  I hugged him softly and said, “Son, one day I’ll climb it and take pictures for you.”  My sweet boy smiled and tucked his head into my arms.

The next year Mitch was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and in less than a year he died.  I forgot about my promise to Mitch because my heart broke and I was trying to keep him alive.  Then, after he passed, I was just trying to survive grief.  I’m still trying.

It wasn’t until my brother and I decided to climb it that I remembered what I told Mitch.  I didn’t say anything to anyone, because it was a promise I made my son.  I quietly printed a painting of Mitch and slipped it inside my backpack. 

On our first night, we camped at Emerald Lake and I took a photo of little Mitch and said a prayer in my heart, “Hey Mitch, it’s Dad.  I’m sorry I’m late … but I’m going to take photos for you. I hope you can see what I see.”

I learned a lot on this hike.  Firstly, I learned that I can do hard things.  I learned that I don’t like heights and I especially don’t enjoy standing on the edge of nearly thousand-foot cliffs.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to train for hard hikes – whereas I jumped in before I was physically ready.  An indiscretion I’d pay for on the way down the mountain.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Despite the difficulties of the hike, I was inspired by the majestic beauty of earth.  I loved the fresh air, mountain flowers, vast glacial valleys, and wildlife.  Had Mitch he been with me physically, he would have been in awe of everything. 

On day two, my brother and I reached the mountain summit.  The view was breathtaking.  

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At the summit was also a small fiberglass storm shelter with autograph laden walls – I added the signature Mitchell’s Journey 2018.  In my heart, I said, “It took me seven years to get here son, but we did it, Mitch.”

A few hours later, we were back at basecamp.  My knee was starting to swell from a surgery years ago, and I knew I was going to be slow.  I didn’t say anything about it but told my brother to head down the mountain ahead of me because I was not going to be as fast as him.  As I started my slow descent, I began to walk strangely to compensate for my injury.  Doing that made my legs incredibly weak.  It was a struggle.  What should have taken me three hours, took nine.

There were times I wondered how I could go on.  I looked down the vast mountain valley, 4 thousand feet below and got discouraged.  “Oh, Mitch, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”  But I remembered what my sweet wife taught me, “Just take the next best step.”  So that’s what I did.  I had to stop looking at the vast distance ahead of me and just concentrate on the next step.  It made all the difference.  Though I started to walk like a drunken toddler, I looked at the ground and said to myself, “Okay, I have the strength for one more step.”  One step turned into two steps, and before I knew it 2,000 steps had passed – then I’d turn around, startled by the distance I covered.  If ever there were a metaphor for grief, this is it.  We can look across the vast valleys of sorrow and wonder how we’ll ever make it.  That’s how I survive grief – one step at a time.

There was a point that my legs were so weak that I was sure I’d collapse at any moment – and I almost did a thousand times.  My brother kept tabs on me via text.  “How are you doing?”  “Call me when you get to your truck.”  “Are you okay?”  There was a brief moment I tried to take a shortcut through some tall bushes, only to meet a 500-foot cliff.  I wasted precious energy and water trying to climb up the mountain to find my way back to the trail – I made the same loop three times.  I learned that uninformed shortcuts in rugged terrain are not a good idea.  I texted my brother about my misadventure, and he became especially worried.  I assured him I was okay.

By the time the sun was setting, my phone was almost dead, and I had to turn it off to conserve what little battery I had left – should a real emergency arise.  Every step was a huge struggle.  My awkward walk to preserve my knee obliterated my leg strength.  I was literally stumbling over pebbles.  I began to think about Mitch and other boys with DMD.  There I was, looking at a simple dirt path, struggling to put one foot in front of another.  Though I don’t pretend to know their struggle first-hand, my struggle with leg weakness helped me empathize in new ways.  To a young boy with DMD, a simple staircase may as well be Mt. Everest. 

As I found myself finally near the bottom of the trail, I turned my phone on to check my position on the trail.  I then saw a text from my brother, “I’m on my way.”  I texted him back, “I promise I’m fine.  My legs are just really weak … I have less than a mile to go.”

At long last, with the mountain’s night breeze pressing on my skin, I looked down a dimly lit corridor of trees that led to the parking lot.  My legs were jelly and getting to the parking lot was going to be a struggle.  As I slowly exited the canopy of trees, there was a small grassy field separating the forest from the parking lot; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother running at breakneck speed toward me.  I said, “Oh, Doug, you didn’t need to come back.  I was fine … my legs were just weak, that’s all.”  He insisted on carrying my pack to my truck.  Though I was exhausted, I noticed his eyes carefully studying me – looking for signs of trouble.  Even when my 40-pound backpack was relieved, I found it difficult to take a step without the help of my walking sticks.

In truth, I became emotional at the sight of my brother running toward me with a look of deep concern.  I was emotional not because I needed to be rescued – but because he cared enough to try. 

A lot happened on this hike.  I kept a sacred promise to Mitch.  I learned I can do hard things – even when I’m not prepared for them.  I was reminded that any difficult journey, including those of grief, is best traveled one step at a time.  I experienced a new level of empathy for children with muscle wasting diseases like DMD.  I learned that naive shortcuts can be dangerous.  And perhaps, most tenderly, I witnessed what brotherly loved looked like when I saw my brother running toward me at the trails end.

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Though in this photo I’m standing on the summit of a mountain … in a way, I’m also standing on a different summit – one that can’t be seen with mortal eyes.  From there, I see life differently; and in the haze of the distant horizon, I see taller mountains yet to climb.  I can reach their summits, however slowly, one step at a time.

 

 

THE SWEETEST LEMONADE

Without warning, an enormous clap of thunder exploded, and my boys and I jumped with fear.  A dark storm was brewing, and the afternoon sky had become almost dark as night.  The campfire we were just about to start would have to wait until the downpour passed.  From the looks of it, it seemed the storm was going to linger a while as the cool mountain wind almost ushered us into our tent for protection. 

Mitch squirmed into his sleeping back and wiggled around as if to snuggle deeply into the mound of soft things that surrounded him.  I chuckled a little because I did the same thing when I was a boy, and in that moment, I remembered how fun it was to be young.  I looked upon my boys with a touch of envy. Mitch pulled his hands behind his head, his face bearing a light mustache from chocolate milk, and began to smile softly.  “We’re safe and sound, right Dad?” Mitch said with a mixture of confidence and concern.  “You bet, Mitch.  This is going to be a crazy camping adventure.”  Mitch smiled and said, “I know you’ll keep us from floating away.”

Within minutes, we could hear the intermittent pitter-patter of raindrops on the tent.  A few minutes later, a burst of raindrops assaulted the side of the tent as the wind began to pick up speed.  Soon, we were in the middle of a torrential downpour.  I worried if our tent was rated for an hurricane-like storm.  Mitch nudged my arm and said, “Doesn’t this remind you of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day?”  Mitch giggled as I peered nervously out the window, keeping an eye out for a flash flood. 

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We knew there might be bad weather, so our backup plan was to have a den party in the tent.  So, I pulled out a portable DVD player, broke out some snacks and pulled up our covers as the boys and I watched a movie under the thinly veiled safety of our tent. 

I didn’t sleep well that night.  Aside from a few breaks in the early evening, the rain never really let up.  So, I laid in the tent in a trance-like state – somewhere between sleep and wakefulness … sitting up every hour to make sure the boys were dry.  By morning the kids were rested, and I was hammered.

Of all the moments in life, the ones I remember with great fondness and nostalgia, aren’t the times things went perfectly. Instead, the moments I treasure most are when we struggled and found our way through a hard time.  Don’t get me wrong, perfect times are just that … perfect.  I love and appreciate them for what they are; honey is honey.  But the taste of lemonade is never so sweet as when you must work to make it so.  Perhaps that’s why hard times often end up becoming our best times, in the end. 

This photo of Mitch reminds me that even in our difficulties, we can make the best of what we’ve got – and somehow, some way, we’ll look back and be glad we lived the life we lived.  In every struggle, there’s a price to be paid; but in the end, that’s what makes the sweetest lemonade.

 

I WISH YOU’D STAY

It was a beautiful late-summer day high in the mountains.  Natalie’s family had a reunion at Aspen Grove, a family-centered resort just a few miles up the road from Sundance, Utah.  The sun had fallen behind the mountain peaks, and you could feel the cool air rushing down the canyon – as if nature had turned on the air conditioning.  It was an almost perfect night.  Almost. 

We just watched a performance in an outdoor amphitheater when Mitch said to me, “Dad, everything is so beautiful.  Do you think this is what heaven is like?”  I smiled and said, “As long as you’re with me, I know I’m close to heaven.”  He smiled softly … and so did I.

The evening was drawing near, and I needed to go soon.  I was leaving for a business trip to Australia the next morning – and although I was excited to visit that country, I wanted very much to stay with my family.  Mitch had an especially soft demeanor about him that night.  He knew I had to go, even though he wished I’d stay and it seemed as if his gentle ways, his stillness, was his way of drinking in the moments.  I was so captured by his spirit; I had to take this photo.  It’s out of focus, but what’s in focus is all that really matters.

As I was about to go, Mitch held my hand and said, “Dad, I wish you’d stay.”  My heart sank, and I felt a lump in my throat begin to grow.  “Oh, Mitchie, I wish I could stay, too.  I’ll be back in a few weeks.”  Mitch squeezed my hand as if to say, “Okay, Dad.”

I decided I’d spend a little more time, so just after this photo, I took Mitch and my kids to an ice cream shop just out of view of this photo, on the left.  The conversation I had with them and the memories we made that night was sweeter than all the ice cream on earth.  While getting ready for my trip was important, the time I spent with my son was significant – both for him and for me.

In many ways, this gentle evening feels like it happened yesterday.  At the same time, it feels a lifetime away.

Mitchell’s birthday is this Sunday, April 29th.  He would have been 16 years old.  That’s hard for me to imagine … sixteen.  For as long as I walk the earth, young Mitch will always be my 10-year-old son. 

I think I’m going to cry more than usual this weekend – tears of grief, gratitude, and a deep resolve to live a life of quiet significance.  The longer I live, and the more I experience cycles of hurt and healing, I’m convinced a life of significance is often invisible to the casual observer.  Instead, significance is found in the quiet, meaningful things we do.  I’ve observed that a life of significance isn’t found in the things we own – for in the end, if we’re not careful, they end up owning us.   Nor is significance found in popularity or prestige – those are only figments of social imaginations.  At least to me, living a life of significance is found in doing things that matter with those who matter most to us. 

When I see this photo, I’m reminded what a life of significance looks like … what it feels like.  Yes, we must all work, pay bills, and manage adult things – that’s important.  But the difference between importance and significance matters; in the same way difference between being productive or simply being busy, or the difference between feeling happy or hollow.

Fast forward a little, in what felt like the blink of an eye; I remember kneeling by my son’s bed as he was softly dying.  I thought back on this perfect moment with Mitch, and I remembered his tender words to me.  I then whispered in a weepy tone, “My sweet son, I wish you’d stay.”  To my heartbreak, he didn’t stay – but I have found other ways to keep him with me – through writing, examination, and prayerful meditation.  It’s not the same as having him actually with me – not by a long shot – but keeping him in my heart is the best I can do.  There isn’t a day I don’t think about him, and I often wonder what kind of young man he’d have become.  I don’t cry like I used to.  But I always think of him.  Always.  And sometimes I cry.

Though I wish he had stayed, there are a few things my son left behind.  Little Mitch taught me about the art of stillness.  He taught me about the gift of gratitude.  He taught me how to slow down and drink in the moments.  He taught me to understand the difference between what’s important and what’s significance. 

ALL THAT REALLY MATTERS

I was asked by a mother from Colorado if she could make a t-shirt with Mitchell’s saying, “Be nice to each other and be glad you’re alive.  Nothing else matters.”  Their local school district dedicated today to promote kindness, respect, and peace – and this sweet family wanted to offer Mitchell’s message to the conversation. Their focus today is to have a day without hate.  A beautiful, hopeful, and timely message Mitchell’s Journey can get behind.

This sweet girl, Isabella, has known of little Mitchell’s story for more than half her life now and she’s grown attached to his messages of love, courage, and kindness.  I remember her mother sending me a video shortly after Mitchell passed away.   A much younger Isabella pointed to a beautiful array of colors in a dimly lit sky and said in the tenderest of voices, “It’s Mitchell.”  She knew Mitch loved sunrises and sunsets and wondered if he was there, somewhere in the beautiful horizon.

So, when Isabella’s mother sent me these photos last night, my eyes welled with tears of gratitude.  She even used purple and gold, Mitchell’s two favorite colors.  I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for good people like the Lozano family – who we’ve come to know and love. I also felt grateful for the many people on this earth who share goodness and love – for in the end, as little Mitch taught me, that’s all that really matters. 

Perhaps all of us, wherever we live, can do something today that promotes kindness, respect and peace – in memory of little Mitch and in hope for a better world.

#D3DayWithoutHate

 

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A much younger Isabella who grew up learning Mitchell's message of hope and love.

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Another Image of Isabella - promoting awareness of DMD, the disease that took our son's life.

Another Image of Isabella - promoting awareness of DMD, the disease that took our son's life.

 
 

WHEN DOES A JOURNEY BEGIN?

I’ve often wondered when Mitchell’s journey began. Did it start the moment of his diagnosis? I think not. When he was born? No. What about when Natalie and I were married? Or perhaps that magic moment we fell in love? Is it possible my son’s journey began when Natalie and I were born? After all, we were the recipe for his creation. In many ways, I believe our life’s journeys are not only complex but interwoven with generations past.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This is a photo of me and my mother, just before I came into the world. While I don’t remember any of this, I do have vivid memories of her throughout my childhood. When I was a very young child, in Vancouver, Canada, I have flashes that appear in my mind like short video clips; I remember her in the kitchen preparing meals, or the way she rocked me in a velvet chair, and how the summer’s afternoon sun broke through the thinly-laced curtains as she smiled at me. I don’t know why we remember the things we do. I only know I’ve carried certain memories, like a photograph in my mind, since I was a very young child. The images have never changed – and my feelings about them remain the same. I feel peace and gratitude.

So, when did my son’s journey begin? As I examine the circumstances of my life, I am convinced Mitchell’s journey started long before he was born … and long before I was born, too. The more I read about genetics, consciousness, and the soul … I am convinced we pass on much more than green eyes and blonde hair. Somehow, whatever we become, we seem to pass a portion of that along to the next generation. We see evidences of this all around us. Even adopted children who finally meet their biological parents 50 years later discover they have similar interests, personality traits, and more. In so many ways, I marvel over the human and spiritual experience. The closer I look, the more I see both my parents in Mitch and my other children.

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.
— William Penn

Today is my mother’s birthday and I can’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for all that she ever was and is. I love my mother deeply and I’m grateful how she taught me to love and to be strong where it counts. I’m grateful for the way she tickled my back when I was a little boy … and then to see her tickle my young children’s backs in the same loving way. I’m grateful for the times she would listen to me when I was in college – those late nights when she was tired and needed rest, yet she smiled patiently as I yammered on about life and other things. I’m grateful for her unwavering love for me and my family.

I’m grateful for the many chocolate cakes from Costco she had ready for little Mitch when we came to visit her. I loved watching his smile growing ever brighter as neared her home – for he knew he’d be greeted with warm hugs and a soft cake. I’m grateful for her den parties with popcorn and shaved flavored ice & Sprite. I’m grateful for a life of love and learning at her feet.

I once asked my mother what surprised her most about life and she responded with a quiet sobriety, “What surprised me about life?” she paused a moment and said, “The brevity of it.” Indeed, time passes quickly and if I’m not careful I can get caught up in the thick of thin things and one day, to my horror, I might awake to realize I’ve missed out on life’s most important things. Mitch was one of my awakenings – and though I write of grief and death so that I might examine my life more fully, I very much live in the moment and appreciate everything about my life. More today than at any time before.

I can’t help but think our journey’s weave like a tapestry of threads that don’t really have a clear beginning or end – but instead, at least spiritually, seem to meld together and blend. Therein lies the answers, I believe, to when our journeys truly begin.

William Penn observed, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” I haven't always been the best at doing it right with time - so I hope to use time more wisely. And for whatever time I have left with my mother, I hope to honor her with my every word and deed. Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.

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.

 
 
 

MENDING BROKEN THINGS*

It was late spring, Mitchell’s headstone hadn’t yet arrived and each day was getting a little warmer than the day before. It had only been a few months since I lost my son and my soul was still dizzy with grief. Quietly, I was grateful for warmer days because the cold winter air carried with it vivid memories of the cold morning my dear son was rolled away from our home, never to return.

At this moment I realized my responsibility as a father wasn’t to keep my son from hurting, for that is impossible. Instead, it was to teach my son how to mend broken things. I wanted Wyatt to understand real strength isn’t found in pretending to be unbreakable but in having the courage to admit our brokenness, then make broken things strong.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

On this spring afternoon, Wyatt asked if I would drive him to the cemetery so he could visit Mitch. I told him I'd be glad to. “Okay, just a second,” Wyatt said as he dashed into Mitchell's room. A few second passed, and he returned with one of Mitchell’s favorite Halo characters and said, "Okay, let's go." As we arrived at the cemetery, I was curious what Wyatt had in mind, so I gave him some space and said, "Take your time son, I'll be nearby."

With that, he handed me Mitchell's Halo figure and gave me a soft grin, a confident nod, then sat on the grass and started talking to his older brother. I sat several yards from him but had one of my larger lenses so I could take photos without interrupting my son. I could faintly hear Wyatt’s young voice as he told his missing brother summer was around the corner, school was quickly coming to an end and a little about the movies he knew Mitch wanted to see. Wyatt told Mitch about some of the new friends he made throughout the year and how his teacher was so kind to him when he cried in class because he missed him. Wyatt continued to tell his brother about the tree Mitchell's school, and City Council planted in his honor.

It was a tender thing to see my youngest son struggling to sort things out. I sat in the distance and cried as I overheard Wyatt tell Mitch how much he loved and missed him.

The protective father in me was tempted to sweep Wyatt away – to try and rescue or insulate him from hardship. Part of me wanted to distract Wyatt from the harsh realities of life or to soothe him with artificial comforts. But I knew better. I knew that in trying to insulate my son from pain, I would cause more harm than the original pain itself. Instead, I wanted to help Wyatt learn how to deal with hard things – for life is full of hard things. If I was to pass something on, I wanted it to be a knowledge of how to survive the storms of life. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it's we’ll all come to know hardship, and we’re all going to get broken in one way or another.

At this moment I realized my responsibility as a father wasn’t to keep my son from hurting, for that is impossible. Instead, it was to teach my son how to mend broken things. I wanted Wyatt to understand real strength isn’t found in pretending to be unbreakable but in having the courage to admit our brokenness, then make broken things strong.

If there’s one thing I pray most to teach my son – it is there's always broken things to mend, and if he’s wise, he’ll seek Heaven’s help and therein find the strength of a million men.