This is an unusual video for Mitchell's Journey. Stick with it - because it will take you to an unexpected discovery. In the end, it's about life and family.
This May: Featured Essays on the Making the Most of Time
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When Mitch was tiny, he injured his hand and began to cry. He was more frightened than hurt, but he was hurt just the same. After a moment of sorry, Mitch realized his hand was going to be okay his mother picked him up and held him as only a mother knows to hold her child. To a young one, there is a certain comfort that comes from blankets and Sippy Cups, but then there’s the comfort that comes from a mother; and no blanket on earth can replace the warm embrace of a loving mother.
Though not an envious man, I am sometimes sorely tempted, when I see the tender bond between mother and child. Though my heart loves deeply, I recognize there is a sacred place for a mother’s love. I wish I had a piece of that because it is beautiful beyond measure. Instead, I’ll take what I can get while sitting on the sidelines and consider myself blessed.
So there I stood, in my dorky way, trying to comfort my son. I didn't stand a chance against the blanket and Sippy Cup, let alone his mommy’s embrace. I made funny faces and danced like a fool for him, and he started to chuckle. His smile, this very smile you see here, and eyes shrunk-wrapped in tears melted my heart. Though I offered a little sideshow entertainment for my boy, the real performance was already underway by his mother.
I think, on some level, I’m beginning to understand Kate Bush’s lyrics “I stand outside this woman’s work … this woman’s world. Ooh, its hard on the man, now his part is over, now starts the craft of the Father.” There is a sacredness to motherhood, something far beyond my reach. Though I do my best to be a good dad and husband, I am beginning to realize I am a small player on a much grander stage. Though I do my best to do my part, however important, it is minor in comparison.
Neal Maxwell wrote, “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses? When the surf of the centuries has made the great pyramids so much sand, the everlasting family will still be standing…”
When we started our family, we had no idea what we were doing. We still don’t on some level because each phase of child-rearing, at least for us, is an undiscovered country. Yet we’re learning things each day that we try to apply in the things we do and say. I wish I could wield the parenting power my wife seems to shoulder so gracefully. Such is the power of motherhood, I suppose. I’m just an ordinary dad with more weaknesses than most. So I’ll try to pave the way, moving obstacles where I can and make life a little easier for her each day.
Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts.
Though I’m still hurting, I’m also healing … and that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.
Originally Posted in 2014
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.
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.
On this spring morning, Mitch slid down the stairs on his tummy with a collection of toys in hand. I could never figure out how hands as tiny as his could hold so much stuff – but if it was important to tiny Mitch, he always seemed to find a way. The bus was coming, you could hear its brakes just down the street, so Mitch was in a hurry. Every day before Mitch went to pre-school, he would carefully fill his backpack with his favorite treasures. I love how young children do that. On the top of his bag, his sweet mommy wrote his name with a symbol under each word: a star to let him know he was our shining little boy, and a heart to remind him he was loved beyond measure.
At this time in our young lives, I had a lot on my plate. I was concerned about everything young fathers worry over. I worried whether I had what it took to be a father and husband in the first place. I felt inadequate on every level. On top of that, I worried about how to make ends meet while trying to launch a start-up with a handful of employees. I wasn’t just trying to feed my family, I was trying to feed ten others.
No matter how much I worried about everything on the outside, my mind and heart always turned to things on the inside. As inadequate as I felt, home was my refuge … my family, my tribe. So, before heading to the office each day, I always tried to stop and see what tiny Mitch was going to pack. Each day his collection of treasures was different, each day a unique expression of his lovely heart. I often imagined what treasures he carried with him had to say about his state of mind. One thing is for sure, he was a tender, sweet child. I miss this little boy’s tender soul.
Natalie would often place a secret note for Mitch and our other kids in their backpacks before they went to school. She wanted them to know that she loved them and thought of them always. And perhaps on a day that wasn't quite going right, these little notes would become a lifeline of love for a discouraged heart in a sea of trouble. As her husband, I would occasionally see one of her thoughtful notes in my own bag, too, and it meant so much to me. If that small gesture of love meant so much to me, I could only imagine what it meant to our kids. I love her for that.
At about the same time I took this photo, I had taken Mitch to work with me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:
“I’ve been blessed to take Mitch to work on occasion. Often, he’ll sit with me at the conference room table while I’m meeting with employees & contractors. Sweet Mitch will quietly find himself coloring, playing with toys, and driving cars on my back and across my arms, or playing games by himself. He is such a sweet little boy.
I’m always surprised how considerate Mitch [can be] of his surroundings and how careful he is not to be disruptive. I suppose keeping him at an office for hours at a time is not very fun. But Mitchie asks me if he can come … and he is so enthusiastic about it. Each time he comes to work with me, I’ll bring a sleeping bag and pillow and we’ll make a comfy fort under the table – just like I would make as a young boy, but better. I’ll surround him with toys and things to do and kiss his sweet face as he wiggles himself into his comfy fortress with a smile. I have so much fun with him.
Sometimes I’m tempted to call all my meetings off and spend the entire day making forts and playing with toys. I am not convinced age will diminish my desire to become a kid again.
After my meetings, I always take him to lunch, and we talk about his favorite kitties and the blanket forts we’re going to make when we get home. I worry he’s growing up much too fast.”
Seven years would pass in a flash, and this little boy would no longer be with us. As Mitch was collecting his childhood treasures through the years, as little children do, I was also collecting memories and experiences – for that is all we really carry with us in life, and beyond.
Like my son, I have a backpack of treasures I always carry with me, only it cannot be seen with the eyes and instead it’s felt with the heart. That backpack is filled to the brim with love and treasured memories. Filled to overflowing.
A few weeks ago Natalie secretly arranged a surprise visit from my mother for my Birthday. I was in our basement working on a Mitchell’s Journey video for December when she called and said, “Hey Chris, someone’s at the door, would you mind getting it for me?” When I ran upstairs, opened the door and saw my mother, my heart melted. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a day than with two mothers that I loved with all of my heart.
We sat in our living room and talked for a while. Natalie, ever thoughtful and selfless, seemed so happy to give me the gift of memory – for in that moment we were in the middle of making one and my heart was full. I kept looking at the sweet smile on my wife’s face and took this photo. Behind her was a photo of Mitch which seemed a fitting metaphor for this sweet woman. Wherever she goes, Mitch is never far from her heart.
On this special day, Natalie and my mother arranged to make an old family recipe – something that has been in our family long before anyone seems to remember. We call it Chili Sauce, but it resembles nothing of traditional chili – not in taste, texture, or purpose. It’s not a meal, it’s a condiment. I remember my mother making that sauce when I was a young boy. Once prepared, it would slowly simmer on the stove all day. When I’d step off the bus from school, I could smell it a block away. By the time I entered our home, the air was rich with aroma. Heaven seemed so near. After bottling, our home would smell of this sauce for days.
My mother knew I loved that sauce, and so did Natalie. So, spending time together, making an old family recipe was my gift. Mitch grew to love this sauce, too. In fact, he called it “Grandma Sauce” and always put it on scrambled eggs or toast. For a few years prior to Mitchell’s passing, it became a tradition for my mother to come to town near my birthday to make this great recipe.
You can find this recipe below, for those who want to try it. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t love it. I hope you do, too.
As Thanksgiving nears, my heart fills with gratitude as it turns to my mother and the mother of my children … and all mothers everywhere. I’m so grateful for all you do to make this world a better, more caring place. With all the garbage and scandals we see on the news today, I hope society experiences a renaissance ... a fundamental shift … a return to dignity and respect for women everywhere.
I always admired the way Mitch loved and honored his mother, and I will spend the rest of my days following his tender, noble example.
Click on the image below to open, then print. The boiling of this recipe is my favorite. The aroma is simply amazing.
More photos from this special day:
A letter to my son about his mother. This video contains tender footage of Natalie and Mitch along with meditations on a mother's journey to heal.