MATTERS OF THE HEART

Without realizing it, my sweet wife often put her hand on Mitchell’s chest as if to somehow read, like fingers tumbling over braille, the fatal secrets his body held. We were waiting to learn the news about Mitchell’s heart and expecting to hear all was well and that the therapies put in place earlier that spring were working. 

A few minutes after this photo Mitchell’s mild-mannered cardiologist entered the examination room and invited our daughter to take Mitch on a stroll down the hall so we could have a conversation. He would then tell us he was gravely concerned Mitch was at risk of sudden death because his heart function was dangerously low. We immediately petitioned the medical board for Mitch to qualify for a heart transplant. A few weeks later he would be denied because it was thought his diagnosis of DMD was a contraindication to transplant. 

It was Halloween that night and Mitch was excited to trick-or-treat. He would only visit a few close neighbors before he became too weary to carry on. Mitch was always careful to ration his candy and never ate it in excess. In my estimation, restraint is a hallmark of maturity – and Mitch had a great deal of restraint and self-discipline. In truth, Mitch was most excited to go home and give candy to kids who came to our door – for he much preferred giving than receiving. To me, that was a beautifully quite measure of this young boy’s heart – for he would rather give than receive. 

When I think of my dear wife and son, both with broken hearts – I change a little on the inside. I care less about things of the world and outward appearances and I ponder deeply on matters of the heart. For matters of the heart are also matters of the soul. In the end, those are the only things that matter.

A few months later, as Mitch began to slip into the abyss while at the hospital, then home on hospice; Tyson Breckenridge an old High School friend, collaborated with another old friend, Tyler Streeter, who has become a talented artist. Together they selected a photograph of my son and Tyler began the labor of love by paining my son’s likeness. Our family was so wrapped up in the calamity of our son’s failing heart and then his death we didn't know they were performing such a kind gesture of love and service. Then, one day, a not long after my son had passed I received a package in the mail with a handwritten letter. Tyler wrote, “It is so ironic to me that a young boy with a malfunctioning heart could fill so many other hearts with so much love.” He continued to describe how painting my son was an emotional experience for him and that he cried many times while painting my boy. 

I wept when I read his letter. I even wept today when I read his words again. This gift from these two great men was more than an original painting … it was a gift from the heart and soul. I will forever be indebted to them for their kindness. The original paining, so artfully crafted by Tyler and lovingly orchestrated by Tyson, now hangs in our home on a very special wall, in a very special room. Tyler entitled the painting, “The Gift.” You can see a beautiful time-lapse video of the painting here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nxsptlwyk8E

A title aptly given … for if none else, Mitchell was at least a gift to me. As a young child I never considered that a gift might hurt. It never entered my mind that a hardship as heavy as losing my son might break me in places I didn't know existed, yet still be a gift. Who would have thought such strange things? Indeed, heavens ways are not our ways … and as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways … His thoughts, than our thoughts.

Heaven’s gifts aren't always easy to see; they hide in plain sight or obscured by our vanity. What’s more, our Father’s gifts aren't always comfortable or easy – sometimes they hurt or bring us to our knees. That’s the gift! That’s what I've learned, you see: sometimes heaven is only as far away as our knees. A gift my son and broken heart would painfully teach me.

MY WILDERNESS

As a young boy I used to get lost in the back woods of Edina, Minnesota. The wilderness was thick with all manner of vegetation, rocks and hills – and because of the very nature of nature you couldn't see very far. And when fog settled, you could see almost nothing. 

Being lost as a young child reminds me of the landscapes of my life. Sometimes I sit upon a vista with clear skies and can see far into the horizon. Other times I am scaling my Everest – afraid I might fall. Still, other times I am traveling through a wilderness of hardship where the fog of the unknown makes seeing what’s ahead almost impossible. 

Regardless of the landscape upon which I journey, I have learned to travel by faith. That doesn't mean to travel blind or dumb, but to learn to see with my other eyes and hear with my other ears. There is a difference, and it is significant.

As Mitch started to slip away, I found myself descending into a dark wilderness wherein I could see very little. The further we traveled into this wilderness of grief and sorrow the more difficult the terrain and the thicker the fog. I would hold my son’s face and tell him how much he meant to me. I would kiss and hug him and try to assure him – but inside I was terrified of losing him. I love him so very much. With each minute, each day, the wilderness became ever dark and perplexing. I have never known a wilderness such as this.

My wife came into my office today with tears in her eyes and said, “I know it’s officially tomorrow night (the morning of March 2nd) that Mitch passed away, but the day was on a Friday last year. Today is Friday.” Tears filled my eyes, too. I realized then I am still navigating the wilderness of grief. And what a wilderness it is… 

The other day I stumbled upon a journal entry I wrote when I was 19 years old. I had all but forgotten about the dream – but somehow I had the presence of mind to write it down over 20 years ago. In my dream I was travelling in a forest heading to some place important, but I couldn't put my finger on where. I also had a wife and children but I couldn't see their faces and I didn't know their numbers, yet I knew they belonged to me and me them. Each of them was carrying picture frames. As we made our journey through the thick forest, at some point I realized someone was missing and I began to desperately search for my child. I was in a panic, and then my dream ended.

As I read my journal entry I lost my breath. I am now beginning to understand the meaning of that dream so many years later - and I can’t help but contemplate what God was trying to tell me about my future. He spoke to me, and I listened … and I wrote it down… but I didn't understand it. If there is one thing I've learned in my own journey; it is one thing to receive a personal revelation (or answer, or warning) but quite another to understand it. 

I have discovered that while navigating my wilderness I must learn to rely on my spiritual hearing, not just spiritual sight. And learning to hear is a delicate and personal thing – borne of personal acquaintance. 

Suppose I told you outside there were 2,000 mothers – one of which was mine. And say I blindfold you and told you to find her. I could describe her to you; I might say she’s 5.5, blonde short hair, a beautiful smile and kind voice. If I sent you out there to find her ---- you couldn't do it. Yet if you were to blindfold me I could find her in minutes. Why? Because I know her voice. So it is with God. 

I am still navigating the wilderness of grief - almost as if blindfolded. But I have ears to hear. And while I may stumble and fall to my bruised knees in sorrow, I will get up and follow that voice that whispers ever so gently. A voice that is so quiet that if I’m preoccupied, I may not hear it at all. 

One day, at the end of my wilderness, when I have learned what I must, I know I will see my son again. Only this time I will hold Mitchell’s face not in sorrow but in deep relief … for I will have closed the loop on that dream I had so many years ago; I will have found my son who was lost from my sight. And I will thank my wilderness for teaching me to hear my Father’s voice … a voice that is leading me home. I hear Him.

THE EXAMINED LIFE

Each year Mitch was invited to go to the mobility lab at Shriners Hospital where technicians would attach sensors to his body and, with the help of sophisticated computers and cameras, model his mobility and muscle decline. I was always there to document the experience. While doctors were capturing his muscle movements, I was there to capture his beautiful, tender soul. Most importantly, I wanted my son to know how much I cared about him. I never wanted him to turn around and see a cold, empty chair where I should have been. I did my best to cheer him on until the very end. Although his body was getting weaker with each visit, I saw his countenance and kindness grow ever stronger. Sometimes the strongest angels have broken wings.

In this photo Mitchell’s Aunt Sonya, a pediatric physical therapist at Shriners, ran with Mitch and turned what might be a scary experience into something fun for him. She was a special tender mercy to our family. She loved little Mitch with all of her heart, and he loved her like a second mother. Sometimes guardian angels blend in with the rest of us.

Mitch smiled as he faithfully completed each task. With each routine doctors had him perform, their computer models of our son began to replay his movements with incredible detail. On their screen was a wireframe of a person walking, jumping, or standing up from the floor exactly as Mitch did moments prior. The same technology to capture body movements for movies and video games was being employed for medical purposes and Mitch thought it was fascinating.

What might have been a trivial set of routines for a healthy child was much more difficult for Mitch and he always left the hospital exhausted. One of the early challenges DMD parents’ face, while their children can still walk, is hearing comments from people who seem dismissive and comment on our child’s large calf muscles. “Look how strong his legs are!” they say with a slap on your back, “You guys are going to be fine” not realizing what looks like muscle is actually scar tissue. The truth is, the stronger (bigger) their legs look, paradoxically, the weaker they are. Thus enters the very real feeling of being misunderstood and further isolated from the world. 

Gathering mobility data from Mitch was not only important for tracking his own health, we felt a responsibility to the DMD community at large, to contribute whatever we could to a much needed body of knowledge. We were just a tiny, invisible family and what little we could offer, we gladly handed over.

As we left the hospital I began to think deeply about our experience that day. I wondered what would happen if we applied as much effort to examine our inner selves as we do our outer selves. It is so much easier to observe and tend to broken bodies, than tend to broken souls. 

So, when I stumbled across this image early this morning, I immediately wept for my son. I saw my little boy who loved his life, and suddenly it was done. I then renewed my promise, to my Father and my son, to live a life examined and to love everyone. 

Yes, there are broken things to mend and I am sure to stumble a million-and-one times … times ten. It won't be easy … in fact, I know it will be hard. And when I reach the finish line, I am sure to have some scars. But all of that will be a small price to pay, including grief and pain, for those are the things worth examining from which we stand to gain.

BROKEN ROADS

Mitch sat patiently at the examination table for one of his regular check-up’s at Schriner’s Hospital. Dr. Kerr, his Neurologist and DMD specialist, would soon arrive to monitor the progress of his muscle wasting. Mitch didn't seem to mind the wait; he was a good, good boy. Dr. Kerr was one of the great doctors. You see, good doctors treat the body, great doctors treat the person. Dr. Kerr was (and remains) one of the great ones because she always gave a thoughtful dose of personal care. And what a medicine that is. To know that someone cares wields great healing power; it can steady a troubled heart and even help put it back together again. Like epinephrine can boost human performance, genuine care can give an emotional boost that rallies strength to fight on. Care is a most powerful thing. Perhaps, among other reasons, it’s powerful because, anymore, it’s so rare.

Having worked with little boys with DMD, Dr. Kerr knew just how broken our son was. Beneath the surface of his soft smile and tender countenance, Mitchell’s was body breaking down on a cellular level. Whatever muscle strength he knew that day would soon fade away like a cloud on a summer’s day, never to return again. Though he looked healthy, my little son was fatally broken. The irony with my son’s journey was our little boy with the tenderest of hearts would die from heart failure. 

As I captured this photo my heart went out to Mitch. I knew a little about the broken road before his feet because I had read some brutally honest books about DMD, what to expect and the catastrophic nature of progressive muscle wasting. Pained by his future, I searched the world over for a detour, a pit stop, or an alternate route. But there are none. There is only one road for these children and that road leads to certain death. 

As a father, I have always tried to pave the way for my children’s future. Despite my efforts, which are often clumsy and weak, I have discovered my wife is a superior parent to me and she often charts the better way with my children. I am grateful to learn from her daily. I take mental notes and try to follow her example. She instinctively knows that the better path is often the inconvenient one. I love and honor her for that.

Yet, no matter how diligently we try to chart the course, sometimes the road ahead is broken. Less often, the road ends abruptly and we see, to our horror, our loved ones tumble into the abyss.

Until the end, Mitch seemed almost normal. He was still walking, though his gait was becoming more pronounced and walking distances shorter. He could still use his arms, though he couldn't pour himself a glass of milk, for even a half gallon had become too heavy. Each day for Mitch was a stretch of road. Some days it was clear and paved, other days were met with tremendous obstacles.

The broken road for our little boy was invisible to most. He just faced day, each broken road, with a smile … grateful for life. 

If ever I was tempted to complain about the difficult road before us, Mitch constantly reminded me of the saying, “There once was a man who cried because he had no shoes, until he met the man who had no feet.” Mitch was just glad to have a body. I was often brought to tears whenever he said, long before his heart was in trouble, how grateful he was for life. If his life had a mantra, that was it. Though grief, at times, has me wish for death, Mitch taught me to be grateful for life. And while I may be tempted to be like the man who cried because he has no shoes, I love someone deeply who has no feet. 

However broken the road may seem, I am grateful to still be traveling, for there are heavenly sights yet to be seen. One day, on the very edge of that place beyond the hills, on the horizon of that place I cannot see ... I will see a form familiar to me. I will run to him with bare and bleeding feet … to that lovely form so familiar, my son I shall meet

DOUBLE WIN’S

This was Mitchell’s last time at his grandmothers – the place, other than home, he loved to be above all others. I’m not sure if it was the chocolate cake from Costco she would get especially for him, or the small 4-wheelers he could ride into the woods, or if it was the escape from life as he knew it, maybe it was the unbridled love he received – but whatever it was, he wanted to be there. 

As we stood at the door and said goodbye my mother reached behind Mitch, who is as shy as he is sweet, and kissed his cheek. I could tell Mitch felt so good inside. I think everybody deserves to feel good inside. 

I captured this tender moment with my phone. As we left her place there was a certain heaviness in my heart. I didn’t know where my feelings were coming from – I just sensed something was happening. Something significant. As we drove away I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. Had I known this was his last trip there, I would have begged to stay another day or two. My mother said after we left she just sat on the floor and wept. Perhaps her soul, not knowing the end was coming, was being prepared for this loss.

It was the last few days of November and the Christmas holidays were just around the corner. I could tell Mitch was excited to see what Santa would bring –but he was even more excited about the gifts he was going to give everyone else. Mitch always gave to others freely. I think deep inside he felt no matter how much he gave, he always got more in return. 

Even when Mitch was home on hospice, he spent his hard-saved money on a collection of Warheads (very sour candy) and gave them away. I remember sitting with him on the edge of his bed as he separated the flavors. He softly pointed to the blue raspberry ones and said almost in a whisper, struggling to breathe, “These ones are rare. They’re my favorite.” He then grabbed my hand and put the precious 3 candies in my palm, then closed my fingers and pushed my hand back to me. I said to him, “Oh, no Mitchie, these are yours. You keep them because I know you love them.” As I reached to give them back he pushed my hand back to me with a gentle smile and said, “No, you keep them. And I want you to eat one right now.” My heart sank a little because I wanted him to have his favorite treats, but I realized in that moment that letting Mitch give was the gift he really wanted. 

So, I opened one quickly and put it in my mouth. Mitch began to smile and giggle as I puckered and writhed over the intense sour candy that was destroying my taste buds. Mitch finally burst out in laughter as he saw me cry out “I can’t take it!” For Mitch, giving was a win to him. And seeing me almost gag over the super-sour candy was a second win that paid dividends of giggles and laughter.

I still have those other two candies in a special box that contains treasures from Mitch. 

Mitch reminds me daily what it means to win. Sometimes life gives us double-wins when everything turns out as planned. Other times we do our best and appear to fail; but if we are honest and do our best we have already won, regardless of the outcome. What is winning, really? It is doing the right thing – no matter the cost. Mitch always did the right thing. And more often than not, he won twice.

With all his double-wins, my little boy lost his battle with life … yet he won his soul by the way he lived it. And, by the grace of God, while I stumble and fall a million times as I chase after my son, I hope to hold him once more. I hope to look into his innocent eyes and thank him for helping me understand to do good and be good is what it means to truly win.

IT MATTERS NOT, PRESS ON

I was blessed with an opportunity to speak at a Women’s Conference this weekend about Mitchell and his Journey. As we are fast approaching the anniversary of his passing my heart has been especially heavy and emotions have been all over the place. Speaking about my son was hard to do, but necessary.

My wife and children came to listen and I was so touched by their love and support. As they sat in the front row I couldn't help but look upon their faces and feel deep love and gratitude for each of them. I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams to have each of them in my life. 

During my talk I shared a few metaphors that to me represented much of Mitchell’s Journey, and now my own. The first was the abyss of which I have so often written about. The second is about my wilderness, an essay I have yet to post. The third was my Everest, some of which I’ve already posted. And fourthly, a heavenly constellation of tender mercies, another essay I have yet to post. I will post those things in due time.

Honestly, I don't know why I keep writing about little Mitch. I can't stop thinking about him - and I don't think I ever will. I don't write to wallow or fixate on my sorrows. I don't do it to draw attention. I suppose I'm trying to cope with the loss of my son by sorting things out and putting my heart back together … and there are pieces everywhere. Often when I sit down to write I say to myself at the end “Well, I didn't see that one coming.” 

For me this journey has been as much about discovery as anything.

I am still learning, and I ever will. While my heart is broken, my faith is stronger still. It matters not how deep the abyss or dark and frightening the wilderness. There are summits to reach and heavens that speak, “Keep going, my child. Press on.”