Posts tagged On Finding Joy
TO BE A SUPERHERO


A few years ago our extended family went on a group vacation.  It was a time of great excitement as distant cousins reunited and family bonds strengthened.  Mitchell always felt awkward and shy around others because his muscles were weak and he didn't have the strength to do what everyone else could.  He often sat in the background as a spectator – never wanting to impose his needs or wants on others – even though he would have done anything to be recognized and to participate.  More often than I want to remember I observed people look over him as if he were invisible. It is for this very reason this photo means so much to me. 

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren’t laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 While at the airport an uncle reached down to invisible Mitch and placed him on his shoulders.  Together they flew down the concourse … arms open and soaring like a bird.  His uncle didn't care that other adults, strangers to him, could see and hear them. He didn't pretend to be so important or busy with adult things that he couldn't break decorum and be bothered with a child.  Only loved mattered.  And that is what he gave Mitch, in abundance.  Mitchie smiled and laughed and my heart exploded into a million pieces of love and appreciation.  For a moment, Mitchell was free … he was powerful.  For a moment Mitchell felt like a superhero.  As I sat back and watched this great man love my boy I shed tears of gratitude.

 Two [almost invisible] years later our little boy would die.  And all that Mitch hoped to do and become died with him. 

As his father I wanted so badly to put my superhero cape on and save my son.  After all, he thought I was a superhero ... but I was only mortal and I agonized that I couldn't save my little boy.  As it turned out, my little son was a superhero to me.  

This summer we will see a lineup of long-awaited superhero movies.  Each story selling the idea superhuman strength, epic battles, men (and women) dripping of brawn and testosterone are heroes.  But the real heroes of life aren't laden with technology or smothered in dirt from far-off fields.  Real heroes are almost invisible to the eye and most often discerned by the heart.  They are among us living the lives of ordinary people.  They are the ones who take the time to love and serve others: to give a stranger a friendly smile or a compliment, a compassionate ear, or some anonymous act of service.  They are people who love and give freely with no thought of remuneration … whose only payment is the internal satisfaction they did good by being good.

Mitchell’s Journey has revealed many superheroes that were hiding in plain sight – all across the world.  Many of you are superheroes to my son (and my family) because you reached out and loved him … and he felt your love and concern when the world became very dark and very lonely.  It’s one thing to love someone you know; but to love a stranger, that’s divine.

In every way that matters my little son … who hardly had the muscle strength to stretch out his arms … is my superhero. Despite his failing body he kept fighting with a smile on his face, hope in his heart and love in his soul. 

Mitchell taught me that to be a superhero has nothing to do with physical strength at all – but everything to do with heart.  While Mitchell lost his mortal battle, he has won the battle of the soul.

Originally Posted April 22, 2013

(Just a few months after Mitch passed away)

SOME THINGS ARE FOREVER

I had lunch with an old friend recently and he shared a sacred moment he had during a time of deep personal struggle. I grabbed a napkin and quickly wrote his words down. He said, “I wept because I knew it wouldn’t last.” I was struck by the haunting truth of those words. Indeed, moments never last. Health and youthful beauty fade, over time. Even life doesn’t last. If my son’s journey through life and death has taught me anything, it’s that virtually everything ends, in the end. At the same time, I’ve discovered some things are forever.

... life doesn’t need to be perfect to be beautiful - and even in our sorrow, we can find deep joy.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This photo was taken during my Camelot years. Life was kind and my cup was running over in so many ways. Even still, I was a conscientious photo-taker because in my heart, I knew deep down nothing would last – that everything was changing. I realized early that photos would become my time machine. My journal. My compass.

On this day, young Mitch and Ethan were walking out of a movie theater giggling about the movie they just saw. I couldn’t help but capture this brotherly moment. I loved listening to their young minds at work. They were so funny, and they reminded me the world can still be innocent and kind. At this point in his life, Mitch had enough muscle strength to walk to the car, which was parked nearby, but he couldn’t go much further than that.

The way Mitch walked seemed almost ordinary to the layperson; but to those who knew DMD, his way of walking was unmistakable … a kind of flashing neon sign signaling the biological catastrophe that was slowly unfolding in his body.

When I look at this image, I can almost hear my boys giggling. I’m grateful for photos like this because I get to go back in time … to moments like this. I get to say to myself, “I’m grateful my children happened.”

About a month ago I had a heartfelt conversation with Ethan, who is almost 19 years old. He looks nothing like does in this photo; his boyish features have all but faded and given way to the likeness of a grown man. Over the last few years, Ethan has grown into a stalwart soul who is deep, insightful, talented, kind-hearted, and in search of meaning and purpose. I am so proud of him – not because of what appears on the outside, but for what lives inside.

As we sat on the couch, he began opening his heart to me. I could tell he wanted to talk. I sensed grief was just beneath the surface of his soft smile. I asked him, “What’s on your mind, son?” Then, his eyes welled, his voice cracked – and the flood gates opened. He told me how much he missed Mitch – even after all these years. I was reminded of the tender bond these brothers shared. They were the best of friends – and that is a space I hold sacred and with a reverent heart.

While part of Ethan ached to have some do-overs with Mitch– more importantly, he wanted his life and future to matter. Deep down, he wanted to honor his brother’s short life by the way he lived his. Ethan’s emotions were a mixture of looking back, being present, and thinking about his future. Just as it should be.

As I listened to Ethan’s searching heart, I was reminded that some things are forever. The love between siblings can be one of them. I am sure during Ethan’s final hours, many years from now, long after I’m gone ... when old age has taken its toll, he will look back on his life and still remember his brother with fondness.

That is one thing I admire about Ethan; he’s not bitter that his brother was taken from him – but instead, he’s grateful their lives were woven together – even if only for a short season. He's discovered life doesn't need to be perfect to be beautiful - and even in our sorrow, we can find deep joy.

CAN’T I STAY A LITTLE LONGER?

You know those magic moments where time slows, and you wish you could stay there forever?  This was one of those evenings.  It was ordinary by all accounts.  The Saturday chores were long done, our kids were bathed and getting ready for bed, and the sun was making its slow descent behind the hills.  The summer breeze wrapped your skin like a warm blanket, and you could hear crickets begin to sing their soothing songs. 

Come as often as you like.  Take what helps, heal what hurts, and find gratitude for all that ever was and is yet to be.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I had just stepped outside to take the garbage out when I noticed my two youngest.  I smiled as I watched Mitch hum a song as he scooted about, while Wyatt had an imaginary conversation, tromping about the driveway in his tiny shoes.  I can almost smell Wyatt’s freshly shampooed hair and feel the warm cotton of his pajamas, just out of the dryer.  I miss those days.  As I pulled out my phone to take a photo of life in motion, tiny Wyatt ran to his brother’s side, eager to make sure he was in the shot.  Wyatt reached for the handlebar and pressed his baby index finger onto Mitchell’s hand as if to give him a tiny hand-hug and say, “That’s my big brother, and we’re buddies.”  

 As I look closely at this image, I can see the breadcrumbs of an extraordinary life hiding in plain sight.  Mitch held a purple pencil in his hand and a teddy bear between his legs … evidence that children treasure the little things.  Mitchell’s smile bore a fading milk mustache from lunch a few hours earlier.  Wyatt wore his favorite Spiderman t-shirt and bore a similar mustache – except he also had crumbs from a cookie he’d recently gobbled down with a feverish giggle.   There stood my two youngest kids … tiny, cute, perfectly imperfect, little messes.   At this moment I was overwhelmed with gratitude; I was so glad to be a dad.

 I was so swept up with this moment, I didn’t want it to end.  I’m reminded of the phrase, “Can’t I stay a little longer?  I’m so happy here.”   That’s how I felt … and I wanted to live there forever. 

 Today, my heart says something similar.  When I think back on my Camelot years, my heart whispers, “I was so happy then.  If only it could have lasted.  Can’t I just visit for a moment or two?”  There is a part of me that wishes to go back in time because I’d relish moments in ways only a grieving heart can fully know. 

 In a way, I do go back in time.  Only the events are fixed and, I am as a ghost visiting old times and familiar places in my mind.  That’s what writing is to me: a time machine.  These days 95% of my life is concerned with now and the future – but I will always reserve a little space to visit my past with a tender heart and pencil and paper.

 I go back in time for at least 4 reasons:

  1.  So that I won’t forget the little things. 

  2. To make meaning of love, life, loss, and suffering.

  3. To clean and dress my wounds.

  4. To foster gratitude for what was and to better appreciate what I have today.

Going back in time can be tricky.  If we’re not mindful, we can irritate our wounds in such a way they won’t ever heal.  And sometimes, they’ll get infected.  At least for me, intention has a lot to do with how I choose to heal.  When I go back in time, I am always looking to understand the past, to mend what’s broken and strengthen my feeble knees.  Sure, I cry -- but they are cleansing tears … the kind that keep the soil of my soul soft, fertile, and growth promoting.

 The inevitable consequence of going back in time is my heart cries, “Can’t I stay a little longer?”  But then the less broken part of me says, “Come as often as you like.  Take what helps, heal what hurts, and find gratitude for all that ever was and is yet to be.”  Those are the words that resonate deep inside of me.

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAUMA

When the funeral home employees rolled my son out our front door, I nearly collapsed with grief.  This was the same door my son stood gleefully by on Halloween to hand candy to children.  He was a giver of the sweetest sort – and he found more joy in giving candy to kids than getting candy for himself.  This was the door Mitchell’s best friend would knock and ask to play.  This was the door our hospice nurse told us Mitch was about to die … and in that same moment, heaven sent an angel to bear up our broken hearts.

Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.
— William Shakespeare

When I first became a father, I wasn’t prepared to be a parent.  Who is, really?  I quickly discovered that when you have a child, your life changes.  Forever.  It doesn’t simply change because you’re responsible for the well-being of a baby, it changes because your soul multiplies.  Once someone has a child, they stop belonging to themselves.  It’s as if part of our soul is cloned and whatever happens to our child may as well happen to us.  We’re pained when they hurt, overjoyed when they’re happy, and when they die … our very souls shatter.  Though we may put our pieces back together, eventually, we’re never the same.

 I was terrified of this moment.  I knew this time was near, so I tried to put it out of my mind and live in fragile moments that remained.  We didn’t know if we had 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days with our son, we just knew that he was on the thinnest of ice and it was about to break.

 Suddenly, in a blink, I found myself watching two strangers roll my sweet son into the bitter winter’s air.  I was mortified.  Incredulous.  I was just talking to Mitch the day before, and he was very much alive … so sweet, tender, and innocent.  As they loaded my boy into the back of the vehicle and drove away, panic shot through my body, tears rolled down my cheeks and began to freeze.  I physically gasped for air as though I was watching my child in the act of being kidnapped. 

As they drove away, every part of me wanted to run down the street and stop them.  I wanted to say, “Please, let me get in the back with my boy.  He must be so scared, cold, and lonely.  I need to comfort him during this difficult time.”

I cannot conjure the words to describe the trauma I experienced at this moment – and the subsequent traumas of grief I felt, a million times thereafter.  I wept so hard that morning I threw up. Then, I wept even harder, and I thought I broke a rib.  Although the sun was rising, the long night of grief was only just beginning.  Over the next few years, I began to learn some painful truths about grief.  I learned some truths about trauma.

 You learn to live with fear.

Grief and fear feel identical in many respects.  C.S. Lewis said it best, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”  Looking back on the early years of my grief journey, I was living in a deep, emotionally traumatic state that felt like fear.  And when the night came, I felt feelings of terror.  Every. Single. Day.

Deep grief is prolonged trauma.

If ever you get impatient, wondering when your friend or family member who grieves will get over their sorrow, if you’re ever tempted to think its time for them to move on, remember that grief is trauma in slow motion.  Everyone on this planet would do well to remember Shakespeare’s observation, “Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.”

Others will move on, but you will not.

Another brutal truth about trauma is that for spectators of sorrow, empathy has a comparatively short shelf-life.  Others will move on, as they should.  But you will not.  At least not for a very long time. 

 Perhaps the best counsel to those who suffer is this: don’t expect others to understand your sorrow or to linger as long as your sorrow will.  They cannot – for after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one. 

 To the spectators of sorrow, don’t expect the one who suffers to move on at your leisure or burden-free pace.  Remember that it is they who carry the weight of sorrow – a weight you cannot imagine, not even in your nightmares.  If you’re to serve them, you can lift their weary hearts with words of compassion.  I’ve found that saying, “I’m sorry that you hurt.  I care” is enough, and more.

 It Gets Worse, Sometimes Much Worse, Before It Gets Better

I’ve said this often: death is the easy part, it’s the aftermath that’s hardest.  So, when you see someone who's lost someone – know that they’ll need your love, compassion, and empathy gently at the funeral and the months to come – but more profoundly in the lonely years that follow. 

 I’ll repeat the last part: they’ll need your love more profoundly in the lonely years that follow.

 Time & Healing

When it comes to the trauma of grief, time doesn’t heal.  Instead, time creates space for us to heal if we tend to our wounds with care.  I think of trauma like the adrenaline one might feel just after a ride on a terrifying rollercoaster.  It takes time for fear to leave your body.  The first 15 minutes we feel the trauma course through our veins – but over time, we go back to our regular state of serenity.  The mistake we sometimes make is thinking the death of a loved is the rollercoaster.  It is not.  It is only the beginning.  The rollercoaster of trauma comes from feelings of self-doubt, regret, endless what-ifs, and longing to see our loved one again.  That trauma is a ride that takes many, many years to fade away.  

 Trauma Shatters You

Trauma doesn’t just break a part of you; it shatters many parts of you.  Sometimes all of you.  Yet, somehow, some way, we gather our broken pieces and slowly reassemble ourselves. Depending on the nature of loss, it can take many, many years.  We are never the same person on the other side of trauma – instead, we become a mosaic of our former self.  Sometimes jagged and fragile as our pieces begin to set into their new arrangement.  But always, we emerge a new kind of beautiful.   

The truth about trauma is that until we experience it first-hand, it isn’t just harder than we imagine, it's harder than we are capable of imagining.  Yet, another hopeful truth about trauma is that it lessens over time – how fast and how much is determined by a multitude of factors, most of which are under our control.  

 At first, I wondered if the sun would ever rise and that I might live out my days in the dark shadow of grief.  There was a time I used to look at this photo and weep.  Today, I look at this moment and say reverently, “I remember you, son.  And I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to honor yours.”