ARE YOU THERE?

The summer before Mitch passed away, Natalie and I took our kids on an adventure in southern California. Mitch, tired of using his motorized scooter, wanted to stand and go down the escalator by himself. For a moment, he wanted to feel normal again.

Before he stepped onto the escalator, Mitch said, “Dad, will go with me?” I smiled and said, “I would love to.” Mitch went first, and I immediately followed. A few seconds later, he turned his head to make sure I was with him.

... being there isn’t just about being physically present … it’s about being emotionally and spiritually present with [our] loved ones, too.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Mitch often made glances as if to say, “Are you there?” Though he was brave, he didn’t want to be alone. No child does. So, I always tried to be there for Mitch and my other kids. I was, and continue to be, less-than-perfect. In fact, I wish I could do a lot of moments over. But I tried, and I keep trying.

As a father, I knew it wasn’t practical to be everywhere, all the time, with my kids. I had to learn to do what my brother-in-law taught me years ago … embrace a philosophy of selective neglect. That is to say, when work requires, I have to neglect other aspects of my life so that I can support my family. And when my family needs me, I will set aside work so that I might be there for my wife and kids. It empowered me to say “no” … or “I can’t” … or “I won’t.” It also taught me to say, “I will,” “I can” and “yes.” Selective neglect caused me to be deliberate in saying yes to the most important thing and “no” or “not now” to other things. If I were forced with an ultimatum to choose between work and family, work would lose every time.

Fortunately, life isn’t that dramatic, and most of us can find a healthy balance that works for our own family dynamic.

For every photo I have of Mitch, I have just as many of my other kids – each with a story of love and faith of its own. As I look through those photos, I can see each of my children doing this same thing as Mitch did in this image … possessing a quiet look as if to say, “Are you there?” From school programs to athletic competitions, my kids have always looked into the vast audience of onlookers to see a glimpse of mom and dad and to make sure they weren’t alone. To make sure we were there, supporting them. Loving them, not just in theory, but in practice.

Time and attention, service and sacrifice; those are the ingredients for love. These ingredients come from focus and effort.

For me, being there isn’t just about being physically present … it’s about being emotionally and spiritually present with my loved ones, too. Being present isn’t always easy for me; I worry about payrolls, client deadlines, employees, projects, investors and mountain of other things. At any given moment, I’m managing five catastrophes, 40 brushfires, and 1,000 mosquito bites. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For me, being present takes work. If I’m not careful, I can come home from work, yet never really arrive. Being present requires me to prioritize and remember that some things matter more than others.

So, on this sunny afternoon, I practiced selective neglect; I set aside work things and lesser things so I could give Mitch and my family all of me. They are my everything, and I can’t think of a time in my life I regretted living that core value.

As Mitch turned his head and glanced at me from the corner of his eye, he wanted to know his father was with him … that he wasn’t alone. I knew Mitch was in trouble. I also knew time was short – but how short, I knew not. I only knew I had that moment, so I gave him all of me.


I am guilty of many imperfections, and I wish I were a better human than I am. And while I try to sort out my own personal growth, I will always try to be there for my family, however imperfectly. When my kids turn their head, I want them to see a familiar face smiling back at them, loving them and cheering them on.

A LITTLE ON THE INSIDE

Parenthood has been the most difficult yet rewarding experience of my life. I wish I could say I did it perfectly, but I didn’t … and I don’t. Nobody really does. Anymore, I don’t try to be the perfect parent … I just try to be loving and kind … to be the father and mentor I wish I had growing up. It is difficult at times, because I don’t know what to emulate – so I just try to be what I never had. I try to be what I wish I had and that’s the best know to do.

At the end of my days, when I kneel before my Father and account for my life, I hope He looks upon my efforts in the same way I try to look upon my children … with a heart of compassion, pleased with effort and personal growth over the illusory achievement of perfection.

When Mitch came home with a drawing or school assignment, I was always so proud of how hard he tried. I would hug him and kiss his face and tell him, “Great job, son. I’m so proud of you. Keep trying and you’ll better and better.” Always, there were imperfections in his drawings … but for him, he did it perfectly. Perfection is a relative term; for he was a young child and did the work of a young child. I didn’t care about flawless execution … at his age, I wanted him to be recognized for doing a little better than the time before. I wanted him to believe in himself and be proud of his accomplishments. As far as I can tell, belief-in-self is the bedrock of education and the scaffolding of character. At the same time, I am a strong believer in providing corrective feedback so that we might know where to stretch ourselves the next time. But, always, offering my children earned praise is high on my list of to-do’s as a father.

On this occasion my neighbor and friend, Jeff Winegar, offered to take our family to Snowbird so Mitch could participate in an adaptive sports program for kids with disabilities. Mitch was nervous about it because he knew he wasn’t very strong and that what little strength he did have would dissipate quickly. “What if I fall, Dad?” Mitch would ask me nervously. I assured him he wouldn’t be required to do anything for which he didn’t have strength and that they had something special for him – so that he would be safe and have fun. Mitch sat in a small carriage attached to two skis. Behind him were two purple tethers which allowed an adult to ski behind Mitch and control his speed down the mountain. All Mitch needed to do was to lean right or left as he decided where he wanted to ski down the mountainside.

I asked my friend Jeff to be on tether while I skied backward to take a million photos of my son. I loved looking at Mitchell’s expressions of glee as the cold wind rushed against his rose-colored cheeks. At first, I saw an expression that seemed to say, “This isn’t so bad. I’m not scared anymore.” Then later, his face seemed to say, “I’ve got this! I can do it!” I was so proud of Mitch and overwhelmed with gratitude as I saw my son’s countenance filled with a new form of self-confidence. He couldn’t race down the mountain like an Olympian, nor was he required to; but he could bravely face the steep slopes and do what he could, with the heart of an Olympian. That is winning, too.

I remember kneeling in prayer that night thanking my Father for giving my son such a great experience. I also thanked Him for giving me the blessing of children - a gift for which I'm eternally grateful. Because of Mitch, each day I try to grow a little on the inside, just like he tried. If I color a little outside the lines, I recognize it and try to do better next time.

Maybe that’s the point of it all … to get better a little on the inside each time. Musicians do it, athletes do it, academics do it … nobody achieves greatness in an instant … but through getting a little better each time. And those who have mastered their craft will each say it comes from within. It always comes from within. Each day. A little on the inside.

 

SOMETIMES WE LEAVE THE BEST PARTS OF US BEHIND

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I’ve experienced a lot of hard things in life – but nothing so hard as being a parent.  

On this night I took my kids to a restaurant; Natalie was at another function, so I was blessed with some one-on-one time with my kids.  At one point I said something that hurt my son’s feelings.  I don’t remember exactly what happened – I only remember he was sad.  When I realized I hurt his feelings my heart broke and I immediately fell to my knees, put my forehead against his and said, “Oh, Mitchie, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Sometimes Daddy’s make mistakes – and they don’t mean to.  I love you, son.  How I love you…”

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Perhaps nothing quite shows the nobility of children as their readiness to forgive and forget.  The irony of adulthood is that some hold grudges and try to inflict hurt on others.  But children … they are endlessly good.  No wonder it is said of them, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  Sadly, it is adults who bring hell on earth.  If only we could love and forgive as children do.  If only we could see the best in each other and forgive with loving hearts - oh, how the world might change.

So there I knelt at my son’s feet as; a painful fatherly confession was made, and a tender plea for his love and forgiveness was shared.  Mitch put his arms around my neck, and I hugged him tightly.  “I love you, little boy.  With all of my heart.”  Mitch whispered, “I love you too, Dad.”

Mitch was smiling again – and all was right with the world.  Later that night, Mitch and my other kids would snuggle in my arms on the couch as I read stories before bedtime – a tradition Natalie has upheld since our kids were infants.  Heaven seldom felt as close as it did that night.

I know I’m not the first parent to upset their child … and I certainly won’t be the last.  What I do know, is every time I stumbled I immediately tried to make it right.

I suppose the point of this post isn’t that I made mistakes and tried to recover; instead, I can’t help but think of the utter goodness of children and how much I have yet to learn from them.  I saw in my son this night a most pure and loving heart – something I will carry with me and forever try to be.

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 

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Originally posted in 2015

LETTERS TO MY SON: THE NIGHT YOU LEFT US*

Dear Mitch,

The days leading up to your passing were surreal.  It was cold outside.  Snow everywhere.  As the world spun madly on – everything, as we knew it, was coming to an end.  It’s strange, you know, to live among a crowd of people yet feel like you’re worlds apart.  That’s how it felt when you were slipping away.  Everything on the outside seemed like a dream, oblivious to the hell on earth we were living. There we were, invisible to the world, living in the quiet of our home – and in the depths of our greatest nightmare.

With every dose of medication, you drifted further and further away.  You knew what the medicine was doing to you – and you sometimes resisted it … because you didn’t want to sleep.  You wanted to be awake as long as you could – to live as much life as possible, as long as possible.  I could almost hear it, you know … the crunch of the snow as death circled our home, every once in a while I could almost hear it gnawing and gashing at our door – violently trying to break through.  I knew it was only a matter of time before death would take you away.

Just a few months prior, I wrote a letter to our family about your heart and how your life was nearing its end.  I was careful to never let you see this letter because I didn’t want to frighten your tender heart.  In the letter I wrote:

 

 

Today Natalie and I sit with Mitch on the edge of an invisible cliff.  He can't see it, but my wife and I can - and the mouth of the abyss is yawned and inching to devour our son.  Yet, Mitchell looks out into the vast horizon unaware, and envisions a long, bright future ahead of him.  In his little mind, he is already making big plans.  He wants to build a home next to ours with a tunnel connecting our basements so he and his dad can watch movies and make popcorn.  He wants to work for his dad when he's older.  He talks about his own kids one day and how he’ll raise them like we raised him.  As he points to his vision of the future with youthful enthusiasm and a zest for life, he doesn't realize that he sits on the outermost edge and the ground from under him has crumbled away into the darkness – and his little body is hanging on by a pebble.  What Mitchell doesn't understand is the beautiful horizon he sees is only a mirage and in reality the sun is setting on his own life.

 

It was surreal to be with you on the edge of life and death.  It was different than I imagined.  More beautiful … and at the same time, more horrifying than I had a mind to know.  But your time at home was filled with love and laugher – and for that we are grateful.

Your quiet, tender ways about you made your mortality and eventual death all the more painful to witness.  How often I prayed for heaven to take me, instead of you.

Son, do you remember getting this gift?    Well, there is a profound story behind it … a tender mercy put in motion almost 6 months earlier.  I’ll tell you about that another time.  But what I want you to know is – heaven was at work preparing the way for you.  You were never alone.  Not ever.

The people in your path were meant to be there.  From your best fiend, Luke, to your school teachers and your Bishop … it was as though everything were perfectly timed … just for you.

Your final weeks at home were a mixture of heaven and hell – all rolled into one.  A beautiful agony I cannot to this day find words to describe.

There was a distinct moment I could no longer hear the crunching of the snow … the circling of death pacing around our home.  I no longer heard the pounding and gashing of death clawing at our door.  Death was in our home – and I couldn’t stop it.

Mitch, my precious child, I’ll never forget the time you wanted to be with me and play Legos.  You were too weak to sit up on your own.  You just wanted to be close … to lay on the edge of my lap and play like a little boy.  Your muscles were so weak, and you were so tired, I had to hold your head with my hand to keep it stable.  It was then I knew time had run out and whatever we had left was worth more than all the money on earth.

Time seemed to glitch.  One moment it would stretch out … other moments went by in less than a blink. 

Then, came the night you left us.  The night we said goodbye.  The night you slipped into the abyss and all became dark.  Never had I known such a darkness, borne of grief and heartache.

As your mother and I were swallowed up in sorrow, we wondered how we could live without you. There, in a spiritual pitch of night, something happened I did not expect.  As I prayed for understanding and pondered deeply on the meaning of life – almost as if against the backdrop of a darkened sky, I saw a little fleck of light.  A tender mercy that until that moment I did not have the eyes to see.  Then, the more I looked, the more I began to see – heavenly blessings that were meant for you … and some that were meant for your mom and me.

My eyes began to open.  Over the next few years, what I began to see was beautiful.  Like a heavenly constellation, these tender mercies … as if little points of light, showed that we are not alone – even in the pitch of night.

I’ll write you again, son.  I have so much to share.  I wish you were here – or me over there.

I’ve been traveling the broken road for 5 years now.  Sometimes I travel through the wilderness of grief, other times the desert – where the scorched land burns my feet.  And when I am lost, I have learned to look up and remember these points of light.  For if heaven has played such a role in our past, you see, I can have faith in what is yet to be. 

Sometimes I wonder where you are, exactly, on the far side of the sea.  Maybe you will come to visit me – in the quiet of my dreams.  And if you do, I want to know what you see.

Love,

Dad

THE STRUGGLE OF LOVE

I took this photo of Mitchell's brothers and sister last January. Standing in the frigid snow, I was startled to see 3 of my 4 children suddenly grown up. It seemed like yesterday a much younger version of these kids were gathered around Mitch loving and supporting him when he was home on hospice. Sometimes I forget how fast time passes. On the one hand, it feels like Mitch was with me just yesterday ... but then again, it also feels like a lifetime ago.  

Later that night, I looked at this photo and recognized all three of my children have endured profound and private grief over the loss of their little brother. I don't write of their struggles because I respect their privacy. But they struggle in their own, tender, and very real ways. Because of this, I have spent many nights on my knees praying for their well-being and that heaven will help them weather the storms of life; today, and with whatever storms the future might hold.

Teenage years are hard enough - and having to deal with such a personal loss at such a young age only makes the storm of growing up even more difficult.  Through it all, I can see my kids maturing in certain ways faster than I would have wanted.   

Ethan (center) was Mitchell's closest friend and brother. Today he plays a vital role – a kind of sibling glue that keeps our kids together. He didn't ask for that responsibility, but he fulfills that role well as he's learning to honor the memory of his fallen brother and do his best to make good life choices.

Like all parents, I am constantly worried about their wellbeing.  I’m also learning that the work of parenting will never really be done, it just changes as our children grow older. My heart thrills over their growth and it takes compassion when they hurt – and sometimes the protective father in me becomes a roaring bear. I stay up at night waiting for them to return home safely. I worry about the choices they make and the friends they associate with. I often remind my kids they’ll become the average of the 5 people they hang out with the most - so I encourage them to choose wisely.

Becoming a father has taught me more about the struggle of love than all the books I’ve ever read, more than all the songs that have danced inside my head.  I wouldn’t trade any part of my life, not even grief for glee – for all of it has blessed my life and shaped my soul.  All of it has made me, me.

THE MAGIC OF STORYTELLING

As far back as I can remember, storytelling has been a special part of our children’s lives.  At night, the kids would huddle around me as I played music in the background and narrated stories that came to mind as I listened to the mood of the music.  None of us knew where we would go – we only knew every turn was an adventure.  Sometimes we’d laugh, other times they’d clutch their pillows in anticipation – but every time, we’d make memories in real life and imaginary worlds at once.

The magic of story was something Mitchell held close to his heart.  One day, probably soon, I’ll share a story he wrote with his own handwriting in his special journal.  For Mitch, and my other children, stories were not only a means of escape, they became a window to possibility, and a candle that illuminated strengths I saw in them. 

Over the last year I’ve been slowly assembling some content to help other families enjoy the same thing our children did.  I’ll be posting some of this content here over the next few days.  Some of the videos share tender stories of Mitchell and his love of stories, others give ideas on how you can try this form of storytelling with those you love.

I share this because storytelling was a big part of Mitchell’s life.  Even during his final weeks on hospice, he wanted to get swept away in story so he could take his mind off heavy things.

So, whether you have sick kids or healthy kids, young ones, or old ones … this content is for you and anyone willing to experience the magic of storytelling. 

DIVIDENDS FOR A LIFETIME *

Mitch was at the hospital for a routine checkup with his neurologist. The frequency of visits had gone up because he had reached the age doctors wanted to start benchmarking his muscle wasting. I was always sure to clear off my schedule so I could go to the hospital with Natalie and Mitch. I never wanted Mitch to be scared and see an empty chair where his dad should have been. I never wanted him to feel alone. Until his dying day, I always tried to be there for him.

I have come to learn when I invest in my family, it pays dividends for a lifetime.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As we waited for the neurologist to arrive, Mitch and I sat at the examination table and had a make-believe battle with some toys the hospital gave him. When it came to parenting, I never lost sight of my responsibility to teach him correct principles and encourage him to govern himself. But when it came to playing … I always got on his level and played as though we were childhood peers. Mitch would get swept away in the little stories we would co-create. On this occasion, we imagined the exam table was the top of a snowy mountain … so high in the atmosphere, gravity was light, and you could see the stars at noonday. The fate of the universe was at hand, and the two of us were battling it out.

Mitch giggled as he found a creative way to defeat me and win the universe. I remember this moment like it was yesterday and it will always be close to my heart.

I have never regretted prioritizing my family. Not once. Though I’m an imperfect parent, I have come to learn when I invest in my family, it pays dividends for a lifetime. This moment was just such an investment, and my heart is paid with gratitude and love … and that heals me.

Tonight, I will invest time in my children like I did this day with little Mitch. I will try to give them all of me and let them know how much I love them. For not many years from now, I will look back on today and either pay the price of regret or win the glad dividends of doing the right things at the right time and be glad I lived the life I lived.

 

When it came to his imagination, little Mitch left no detail behind.  His imagination was intricate and full of endless possiblities.