ON SHARING HEARTS*

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We were blessed to meet a long-time reader of #mitchellsjourney over the weekend. @tandon23 and her beautiful family are from Melbourne, Australia. She dropped one of her sons off at college in southern California and then made the long drive to Salt Lake City just so she could see Mitchell’s place of rest and say hello to us.

We were humbled by her gesture of love and outreach, but worried we weren’t worth the fuss of such a long journey. We’re just a regular family trying to sort life out, after all. We were grateful to meet her in person, though, because over the years, I recognized her thoughtful comments and words of compassion. So when she said she was coming to Utah, I was excited to finally greet a friend we hadn’t met, yet.

Natalie loved getting to know her, too. She was especially humbled when Tan handed her a stuffed Kangaroo with a little name tag bearing @mi_tchel__ ’s proper spelling. That was was such a thoughtful act of kindness.

So, after a little breakfast and a visit at the cemetery, we asked them to come to our home later that evening for a BBQ. They met Marlie, Mitchell’s (not-so-little-anymore) dog, tiny Bear (Natalie’s pup), and Ethan. It was a beautiful, healing day.

I was deeply moved and reminded how much our lives are made richer when we share our hearts; both in the giving and the receiving. As far as I can tell, somewhere in the sharing of our hearts is the healing we all seek. @ Herriman City Cemetery

 

EMPATHY

When I was a young boy, I remember sprawling across my mother’s lap as she softly tickled my back and arms.  Within seconds of that gentle touch to my skin, I’d fall into a wakeful trance and wouldn’t move a muscle for fear she would stop.  I remember just after Natalie and I were married; I asked her if she might tickle me for a minute.  She paused and gave me a curious look, then started to move her hands toward my armpits and wiggle her fingers as if to make me giggle and squirm.  I laughed and said, “No, no, sweetie, not THAT kind of tickle … this kind …”  I’d then softly run my fingers down her arm, and she said, “Oh! I see.”

Our children inherited my love of soft tickles, especially as little kids.  It was a great way to sooth a sorry heart, distract from the pain of a scraped knee, or help a sleepless baby relax on a hot summer night.  Mitch often asked me to tickle his arms when he was home on hospice.  It soothed his worried heart.

 A few years ago I was talking to my 11-year-old son, Wyatt, about philosophical stuff.  He was naturally drawn to ideas and wanted to discover the meaning and purpose of things.  He asked me, “Dad, what makes a person good at tickling?”  I thought a moment and said, “Well, it seems the softer the touch, the better it feels.”  Searching for a deeper understanding, he said, “Yes, but what makes someone good at it?” 

 “I don’t know, son, what do you think?”

 Wyatt said, “Empathy.”  I was astounded by his insight.  He continued, “You know, Dad, the people that tickle the best are the ones that love it the most.  They really get it.  They understand how it feels, so they know just what to do.”

 Humbled by his deep view of empathy, I began to wonder how Wyatt arrived at such profound insight. Then it occurred to me empathy is one of Wyatt’s gifts – and I think empathy a spiritual gift.   

 I caught a glimpse of Wyatt’s capacity for empathy when he first saw Mitch in the hospital.  Little Mitch sat softly on his bed with a pale smile, tethered by tubes, cables, and monitors.  His breaths, soft as a moth while his heart, a beating rage.  Mitchell’s chest was beating so violently; it looked like a grown man was trying to punch his way out of his rib cage.  With a furrowed brow, Wyatt fought back a river of tears as he saw his brother losing his life to an enemy we could scarcely see.      

 Wyatt, only seven years old at the time, knowing his older brother was about to die, was careful not to say anything that would frighten his older brother.  He was not only sad to see his brother go, but he also put himself in Mitchell’s shoes, at least as much as a 7-year-old could, and felt sorrow over all that Mitch would miss.  Wyatt not only felt sympathy, he felt deep empathy.

 Surviving the death of my child, I have come to understand the greater difference between sympathy and empathy.  While they have similarities, they are not the same.  In many ways, one is more mental while the other almost spiritual.  Sympathy knows the words, but empathy understands the music.  Sympathy, say’s “I’m sorry.”  Empathy feels your pain and cries with you.  Empathy is mourning with those that mourn.

 I remember, just after his funeral, walking behind little Mitch from the chapel to the hearse.  I nearly collapsed to my knees in grief.  I could hardly breathe.  Within moments, I’d follow my son’s body to the cemetery, which drive would be the longest drive of my life.  A friend of mine stood on the curb, and with tears in his eyes hugged me.  He didn’t say a word – he didn’t need to.  We both wept.  At that moment, I knew he cared, and that brought me a measure of healing.

 I’m grateful for the teachers in my life – from my youngest son to dear friends – and to many of you who teach me empathy … not so much by your words, but deeds.  I’m especially grateful for Mitch, my most tender teacher.

 Just before Mitch fell into a sleep from which he’d never wake, he said, “Dad, can I tickle your back?”    Mitch had a heart that wanted to serve – so I said, “Sure, son, as long as I can tickle yours.”  Those precious 2 minutes were the softest, most tender tickles I have ever experienced.  Mitch had empathy, and it showed.  My sweet wife took a photo of that act of love from a dying little boy.  I then turned to Mitch and tickled his arms and face.  I kissed his forehead and said, “I love you, son.” 

 Mitch whispered softly, “I know.”

 

WHEN THE TIME COMES

WHEN THE TIME COMES

Recently, our family went on a short trip to spend time together and heal a little.  On the drive home, we saw a spectacular sunset, and I couldn’t help but think of little Mitch and his love of atmosphere and beautiful evening skies.  At that moment, I was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude, peace and grief.  I wonder if I’ll ever get used to feeling so many things at once.

If you remember only one thing from this post, remember this: our loved ones understand everything we feel.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As Natalie was driving, I took a photo of my two favorite things … sunsets and my sweet wife.  How I love this woman and the goodness that is in her.  Whenever I’m with her, I am a better me.  A heavenly gift I don’t take lightly.

In this same moment, memories of little Mitch wrapped around me like a blanket, woven with feelings of the softest thread.  For a few moments, it felt like I was being smothered in Mitchell’s love.  Tears filled my eyes as I allowed those feelings to wash over me – and that, too, was healing.  I couldn’t tell if Mitchell’s spirit was nearby or if I was simply reveling in the love I have for my son.  Either way, I was grateful for this moment of supernal peace.

After a few minutes, I began to realize night was soon coming, and I wondered if my night terrors would return.  I now recognize that I suffered from a form of PTSD and had no practical support to guide me through the process of healing.  I just learned to write it out, here on Mitchell’s Journey.  Only recently have I not been afraid of the night – those moments between sleep and consciousness; where the rawness of loss would cause me to wake in the middle of the night in a heartbreaking panic, then I’d weep until I could hardly breathe.  I am grateful that no such nightmares visited me that night, as they have so many times before.  I think, for the most part, that part of my grief journey is over.  Even still, those nightmares visit me from time to time – and it is as though I lost my son all over again.

What I’ve discovered on my grief journey is moments of peace will come when I least expect it.  Then, in like manner, the terror of loss will take me to my knees.  Between those opposites, I also experience everything in between. 

At least for me, I’ve discovered something that helps along the journey of grief … and life for that matter.  I’ve learned that when the time comes, I’m better off if I allow whatever feelings I experience to take their course.  When joy comes, I embrace it fully.  I don’t feel guilty for being glad … instead, I’m glad that I’m glad. In many ways, that makes me even more glad.  When I’m sad, I don’t brush it away or pretend those feelings don’t exist.  The suppression or denial of feelings only serves to canker and become strangely malignant.  I suppose the only feeling I don’t entertain is hatred or anger – which, if left unchecked, poison the soul. 

Some people who grieve worry that feeling joy, peace or gladness is a betrayal of their love and loss.  That somehow stepping into a place that isn’t so painful is to step away from the one we lost and suggest no longer care for them.  That is simply not true.  We can grieve and grow at the same time or at separate times – and that’s okay.   Then there are some well-meaning, yet deeply misinformed people on the other side of grief who say foolish things like, “Be happy!  Don’t be sad; your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”  That is blubbering nonsense.  If you remember only one thing from this post, remember this: our loved ones understand everything we feel.  They’re not disappointed in us when we’re sad – they understand how much we love and miss them.  When we’re happy, they don’t feel betrayed – but glad for our own gladness.

This night, as I saw my beautiful wife and the evening sky that brought my heart close to Mitch, I felt a potpourri of feelings and I allowed them, unrestrained, into my heart and soul.  It was both painful and beautiful.  Mitch taught me that when the time comes, face it … whatever it is.  He did that in life and in the face of death.  When he realized he was at his life’s end, he faced hard things with dignity and courage.  Though I stumble drunkenly in his shadow, I try to follow his quiet example … when the time comes, face it and embrace it.   

HOSPITALS & COUNTRY CLUBS

Time was ticking.  We didn’t know when the biological bomb in my son’s chest would detonate.  We only knew the hour was late and there wasn’t much time left.  Would Mitchie’s heart stop on the drive home?  Or would we have a few precious days with him?  There was no way of knowing whether death would come suddenly or slowly … or whether it would be painful or peaceful.  The only thing we knew for sure was we has that very moment. 

... tender lessons are sometimes taught through hardship.  Losing my son broke me … boy did it break me.  But the new me, at least who I hope to be, is better because of it. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Little Mitch had just received his PICC line that pumped medicine through his arm and directly into his heart.  Within about 30 minutes of this photo we would leave the hospital with heavy hands, anxious hearts.  The blue bed to the side of Mitch (on the right) was where Natalie and I cried ourselves to sleep.  We never really slept.  We drifted somewhere between this world and that world of dreams.  With each beep of the heart monitor, interruption of the nurse, or any noise at all, we’d spring to our feet to see if our son was okay.

If he were to go, we wanted to hold his hand and let him know he wasn’t alone.  We were spared that agony for a few weeks, but soon came to know that hell in the quiet of a winter night.

In this photo, Mitch is looking at a photo I took with my iPhone of the sunset a few hours earlier.  Mitch said in a soft, breathless tone, “Is that from tonight?”  He paused a moment then said, “I wish I could have seen it with my own eyes.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll see something like it.”  I kissed the top of his head and said, “Son, I want to see a million more with you.”  My throat began to tighten and I struggled to find my breath – I was about to lose it.  Somehow, I gathered my wits and kept from weeping until later that night.

As we packed our things so Mitch could live out his final days at home, I struggled to reconcile with reality.  Mitch didn’t look sick and part of me kept thinking the doctors had it all wrong.  I also kept saying to myself, “Is this a dream?  When will I wake from this nightmare?”  But then I’d see the pump on his lap which gave his weary heart a steady drip of medicine and I was reminded of my son’s unforgiving truth.

As Natalie pushed our son in a wheelchair, Mitch looked up at me and smiled softly as if to say, “Dad, I’m so glad I’m going home.”  My eyes were bloodshot from a week of unending, salty tears.  I smiled back and once again fought the urge to weep.

The thought occurred to me that though Mitchell’s body was broken, he wasn’t broken where it mattered most.  I was grateful that hospitals weren’t like country clubs.  We had fantastic doctors and (mostly) amazing nurses who fought valiantly to save our son.  I remember the moment we were told Mitch likely had days to live – the chief cardiologist fought back tears as the father in him was pained over such hard truths.  When he saw the look of devastation on my wife’s face, he struggled to keep it together even more.  Opinions are divided as to whether doctors should be strictly clinical – but as a father, I prefer a human over a robot.  Compassion is a form of medicine, too.

What would the world be like if we traded country clubs with hospitals?  When I say hospitals, I’m not referring only to medical institutions … but places that have the potential to fix broken things.  The last time I checked, everyone has broken stuff.   Humanity could use more mending and less isolating.

I've seen people turn the very places meant to help and heal into places that hurt others. Whether at school, church, support communities, and other groups, sometimes people hurt others when they shouldn't. I then try to remember that hurt people, hurt people.

In our race to save my son’s life, I’ve come to understand that sometimes we are broken so that we might be set straight. I wish it weren’t so – but it seems the order of Heaven; tender lessons are sometimes taught through hardship. Losing my son broke me … boy did it break me. But the new me, at least who I hope to be, is better because of it. If everyone on earth is broken to one degree or another, perhaps we could all learn the healer’s art and help each other mend broken things.

 

The heavenly paradox is in helping others heal, we heal a little, too. That's a good thing.

ONLY SOULS

As I watched these beautiful souls talk it occurred to me that while age may divide us, it is our hearts that combine us. And, like little Mitch taught me, when we see with our hearts we see everything that matters. And when we do that, generations crumble to the earth and all that remains are souls.

A SPECIAL VISITOR

This morning we were visited by a woman we met through #mitchellsjourney as Mitch was beginning to die. Her son passed away a few years prior and because of her hardship, she was uniquely prepared to help us navigate the process of death and dying. I spoke of her in my funeral address and described her as a lamp unto our feet as the path before us was dark and very scary. 

In town from her home state of Alaska, she had visited us once before about, a year after Mitchell passed away. That, also, was a tender exchange. 

Today was a reunion just as sweet as these two mothers joined hearts in loss and love. Laurel, this kind stranger-turned-friend gave Natalie a children's book that had a most beautiful message about the love a mother has for her child. The book is entitled, "Mamma, do you love me?" 

As she read the book to Natalie they both cried, and I sat on the couch next to them and cried with them. I will always marvel at the beauty and power of motherhood.