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.
This May: Featured Essays on the Making the Most of Time
For many reasons, this is a tender time of year for Natalie and me. Earlier this morning, Facebook showed me this photo 4 years ago today. Mitch was fading and time was more valuable than all the riches of earth. While his heart was failing, ours was breaking.
4 years on, the deep sadness I once felt has been replaced with a clear sobriety about life. The truth is, I experience greater joy than ever before, I love my family more than ever, and I appreciate moments more than any time in my life. I feel more peace than pain and more gratitude than grief.
The great irony of hardships is they have the power to make our joys sweeter, if we listen to the tender lessons of pain. It doesn't happen all at once, in fact ... at first it seems to take forever ... but peace comes eventually.
I remember nervously asking Natalie to join me at a family reunion in Nevada. I was a college student, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was just a goofy guy – a geek on every level. She worked in a law office and always intimidated me. In her mind, she quietly felt as though she lost her glass slipper, an intruder at the ball, and that she wasn’t anything special. To me, she was a princess, unaware – more beautiful and remarkable than she had eyes to see. How often I tried to say, “If you don’t believe your eyes, please believe me.”
So when she said yes to my invitation, I almost couldn’t believe it.
I remember the long six-hour drive to Mesquite, Nevada. I worried about boring her. I worried that if she discovered the real me … you know, the ordinary, flawed me … perhaps she would lose interest. On so many levels, I felt like an impostor; for I felt far less than what I might have seemed. But I set those self-doubts aside and trusted where my heart was leading me. All I could do was be me and hope for the best.
I’ll never forget that long drive. We talked and laughed and before we knew it, the 6-hour drive felt like 30 minutes. At one point, our arms were resting on the center console and they almost touched … my heart nearly exploded. It was on this same trip Natalie and I sat at the edge of a swimming pool under a moonlit sky when I asked her if she would marry me. I didn’t have a ring in my pocket – I just had a lot of love in my heart and I wanted to give it all to her.
Somehow this extraordinary woman said yes to a most ordinary boy.
We started our lives together in humble circumstances. We lived in a dark, spider-ridden basement apartment. We had old furniture and used dishes, hand-me-down books, and thrift-store decorations. We were poor in things of the world – but we were rich in the things that mattered most. As I’ve grown up a little, I’ve discovered the material things we think we want in life often take us away from the things we need.
It wasn’t long before we started our family. Each child was a remarkable gift. Laura-Ashley, our first, was a precious little girl who was smart and sassy. She is almost 18 years old now, and she is still smart and sassy. Ethan soon followed; a loving and sincere boy who was as funny as he was creative. Then came Mitch, a quiet and docile child whose love was transcendent. He would capture our hearts, break them and put our faith to the test. Wyatt soon followed … an alert, passionate and loving boy who would become a ray of light during life’s darkest moments.
I had no idea that the girl who swept me off my feet and made my voice tremble and hands shake as a college student would soon become my soul mate and that our life journey would take us down such unexpected, soul-stretching paths. I wish I could say life went according to plan. To the contrary, our greatest nightmare became our waking reality. We’ve had wins and losses. We’ve endured famine and weathered terrible storms. During times of trouble, we clung to each other and held on the best we knew how.
Nineteen years have passed and this humble princess who felt like a peasant has become, at least to me, the most beautiful and courageous person on earth. I remain, and will ever be, deep in her shadow. For her light shines brightly, so often helping me to see. Me, the true peasant, and she, royalty.
When we’ve reached our golden age, when our lives are nearly done, I’ll look back and count my blessings and know that Natalie was the biggest one.
I don’t have many photos of Mitch with me – which makes the precious few I have all the more special. Most of them aren’t in focus – but I don’t care. I’ll take anything I can get.
Whenever he was close to me, Mitch would lean his head into my arm, shoulder or chest as if to cuddle any way he could. I know he felt comfort around me – but I don’t think my son had any idea the comfort I found in him. I still long for that comfort.
By the time this photo was taken, we were informed Mitch had days to live. I was so sad about losing my son that I cried everywhere but in front of him. My eyes always seemed to sting, as if I were swimming in chlorine. Every waking moment, my chest felt like it was covered in a lead blanket, my lungs felt shallow and breathing seemed vaguely sharp and painful – for the hours-upon-hours of weeping took its toll on my weary body. Sleeping was impossible. And when I finally found sleep, I wasn't sleeping; I was just passing out.
I remember teaching little Mitch how to walk as a toddler. It was hard for him because his legs were already weak – but he would hold my fingers with his baby hands and he gave it all he had. I remember listening to his tender voice as he read children’s books to his sweet mother. He tried so hard to be a good student. With vivid detail, I remember watching his chubby little hands grip crayons and work so carefully to color within the lines. As he grew a little older, we tried to teach him that one’s beliefs don’t make them a good person, but their behavior does. Mitch embraced that philosophy. Before he died, we asked him what advice he would give the world. He said this exact phrase, “Be nice to each other and be glad you’re alive. Nothing else matters.” In a tender moment, this small child became a giant; the student became the teacher. I will spend the rest of my life trying to live up to those tender words from a little boy who did just that.
We spent almost 11 years trying to teach our son how to live. Suddenly, we had to teach our son how to die. Nobody ever taught us how to do that and we were terrified beyond measure. As this little boy came to know his fate, the real giant emerged. Though small in stature, he was towering in spirit.
I have seen a lot of material over the last few years about grief, death, and healing. Some say death is nothing at all – as if to suggest we needn’t trouble ourselves with sorrow over the death of a loved one. Others say our child is just around the corner, as though we might suddenly find peace in such a notion.
The loss of a child isn’t nothing. To the contrary, it is everything. What’s more, around what corner can I walk? What room can I enter to see my child and hold his hand once more? There is no such room, no such visiting hours. Though I have had spiritual experiences that show me my son still lives and that there is life after life, I still miss my son. I miss the way I used to have him. I miss his voice and his tender ways. I miss the ordinary days.
Though I understand what those writers were trying to say, I believe some of that prose can cause the sufferer, especially those new to grief and even those who have suffered long with grief, to wonder if something is wrong with them; that because they still hurt, perhaps they’re not grieving right.
Death is no small thing. It is the biggest thing. We spend our lives avoiding it; we invest in medicine to stop it, and we make laws to preserve it. Death, it is the loss of everything. Grief, the terrible sting over the very thing our hearts most want to cling.
Grief is a long, long road. As far as I can tell, I will live with grief the remainder of my days. Through that sorrow, I am learning Heaven’s strange and mysterious ways. And with each tender lesson from my Father, I am beginning to make peace with my pain. I accept that somewhere deep inside me, there will always be a little rain. That is making peace with pain.
Natalie had wept for a few hours. Exhausted from grief, she curled around her young boy’s head as if to comfort him – even though she was in the depths of hell and very much in need of comfort herself.
There, in the quiet of a winter night, the world had fallen away into oblivion … and all that remained was our son whom we fought valiantly to save, but could not. As the warmth of his body drew cold, darkness gathered round us. How pitch black that darkness felt, I have not words to describe.
Just then, in that moment of profound agony, when hell seemed to open its mouth wide open … as if to swallow us whole, something sacred happened. Natalie felt a distinct impression that Mitch lingered … that he was with her in Spirit and she felt as if he whispered, “It’s okay, Mommy.”
Comfort was his parting gift to his mother’s weary and broken soul. Comfort, and a knowledge that he still lives and loves her and that, at times in her life, he will be near to help.
“It’s okay, Mommy.” He said those same words just a few days prior when he told my wife and me that he didn’t think he could survive. In his moment of realization … when he knew he wouldn’t survive, he didn’t seek comfort from his mother … instead, he handed it to her selflessly. “I’ll be okay, Mommy.”
I don’t know why such heavy things were placed on his tender shoulders, for he was an innocent boy of deep faith and enduring goodness. He was honest, faithful and true. At 10 years old, he was everything I have ever hoped to be. Yet, he died.
Some might say God is cruel or indifferent by letting such hardships happen to children. What they forget is that nobody makes it out of here alive. What’s more, the purpose of life is not to build homes and garnish them with material things. We are here to struggle and walk by the dim light of faith … and in our struggle, we will be made strong. That is an immutable law of nature that not only applies to our bodies and minds, but our souls. Struggle makes us stronger.
I have always appreciated the words of the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who once observed, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Those are words to remember, especially when our bodies fail us and those we love.
I don’t know the meaning of all things, for I am yet a child who is learning to hear the voice of his Father. While I have much to learn, I have discovered a few things as I have stumbled in the valley of the shadow of death. I have come to know things I cannot deny: I know we are loved by a Father in ways we cannot yet comprehend, but I have felt a portion of that love and it has changed me from the inside out. I know that our spirits live on, for my dear wife and I have felt the presence of our son. I know that those who go before us can visit and offer us comfort in times of trouble.
As ancient Elisha once observed, “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” I hope that my spiritual eyes will be opened so that I may see what is often hid from sight while living in mortality. I will always remember this dark winter night when my wife sensed our son’s presence, just beyond mortal sight. “It’s okay, Mommy” … a comfort and plea … whispered from a sweet little boy who wanted his mommy to see.
NOTE: I gave this to Natalie on Mother’s Day. We both wept as we reflected on this sacred evening where there was both the darkness of grief and the light of God. This art will be part of a book I plan to release later this fall.
"Dad, will you hold my hand?" Mitch asked softly. My heart melted as I reached down to grab his hand.
Mitch and I never simply held hands, we hugged hands. That simple exchange between us was both playful and deeply felt. Sometimes we had a contest to see who could give the biggest hand hug. Those are some of my favorite memories.
While holding hands, we often didn't say much. We didn't need to, for we had a conversation through our hands. All the love in our hearts was expressed by gentle squeezes that said, "I love you more than words can say."
I didn't want Mitch to go anywhere that he didn't know he was loved beyond words. I wanted him to know his mom and dad would catch him when he fell. Always. If I couldn't heal his body, I at least wanted to heal his worried soul, and I knew that love heals.
I miss that voiceless exchange; that unspoken love which was often felt more than heard. That's what children do: they show us a kind of love where words, at times, are inadequate. Even barren.
Although I was blessed to hold Mitchell's hand for a season, he now holds my heart forever. He was worth every piece of my broken heart. Even if I cried a million years, he would be worth every tear.
As Mitch lay on his bed, about to pass away, I know he felt me squeeze his hand like I used to. I know it because he squeezed mine back, only this time, his squeeze was weak, like a candle about to flicker out by the winds of change. I hope, when his tender heart was worried and afraid, that he felt my unspoken love. I hope his soul felt, in a most tender and loving way, "I love you more than words can say."
I took this photo a few weeks ago while on a long drive home from a business trip deep in the heart of Nevada. I was teaching a group of business leaders about how to close the gap between what they value and what they do. I remember telling these grown, battle-hardened men, a little about my experience with Mitch and how the decision to live my values early in my life has been a particular blessing. I told them whether they experience the death of a loved one, or their daughter simply graduates from college, meets the love of her life and starts a family of her own ... everything they know today ... everything they may be tempted to take for granted will change. Tomorrow will always be different from today.
I looked these men in the eye and told them when they look back on their life, a year from now or a lifetime from now, if they live what they value they'll be able to look back and be glad they lived the life they lived. At the end of the day, isn't that what everyone wants? I think so.
On my drive home, as the sun was about to disappear behind the lonely desert mountains, I couldn't help but think of little Mitch and how much he would have loved to see what I saw. I longed for him to be sitting next to me, holding my hand, telling me about everything on his mind. Even more, I longed to love and comfort him and show him his daddy was there for him, always. The passenger seat felt especially empty that day.
So swept up by the beautiful array of light that was sinking into the darkness, I pulled my car over to take this photo I thought to myself, "Good night little Mitch. Sweet dreams. I really miss you."
As I returned to my car and drove into the night sky the words of Michael Faudet came to mind over and over again: "Good night. May you fall asleep in the arms of a dream, so beautiful, you'll cry when you awake."
I had tears in my eyes the rest of the drive home because that was exactly what I wanted. I prayed in my heart I would have just such a dream that night. I did not.
I haven't had many dreams of Mitch since he passed away … only two, in fact. Both of them were deeply emotional and lovely.
I hope to dream of him in future days. I yearn to see him in some distant field where I will run at reckless speed to hug him and hold him and I will wet his neck with my tears. A dream so beautiful I will cry long before I wake.
Yet, when I stop to think about it, I have already lived a life equal to my most beautiful dream. I have a wife and four wonderful children who are in every way a miracle of life and love and heaven above. When I think of that, my soul awakens with gratitude. And I cry.