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

A BACKPACK FILLED TO OVERFLOWING 


On this spring morning, Mitch slid down the stairs on his tummy with a collection of toys in hand. I could never figure out how hands as tiny as his could hold so much stuff – but if it was important to tiny Mitch, he always seemed to find a way. The bus was coming, you could hear its brakes just down the street, so Mitch was in a hurry. Every day before Mitch went to pre-school, he would carefully fill his backpack with his favorite treasures. I love how young children do that. On the top of his bag, his sweet mommy wrote his name with a symbol under each word: a star to let him know he was our shining little boy, and a heart to remind him he was loved beyond measure.

At this time in our young lives, I had a lot on my plate. I was concerned about everything young fathers worry over. I worried whether I had what it took to be a father and husband in the first place. I felt inadequate on every level. On top of that, I worried about how to make ends meet while trying to launch a start-up with a handful of employees. I wasn’t just trying to feed my family, I was trying to feed ten others.

No matter how much I worried about everything on the outside, my mind and heart always turned to things on the inside. As inadequate as I felt, home was my refuge … my family, my tribe. So, before heading to the office each day, I always tried to stop and see what tiny Mitch was going to pack. Each day his collection of treasures was different, each day a unique expression of his lovely heart. I often imagined what treasures he carried with him had to say about his state of mind. One thing is for sure, he was a tender, sweet child. I miss this little boy’s tender soul.

Natalie would often place a secret note for Mitch and our other kids in their backpacks before they went to school. She wanted them to know that she loved them and thought of them always. And perhaps on a day that wasn't quite going right, these little notes would become a lifeline of love for a discouraged heart in a sea of trouble. As her husband, I would occasionally see one of her thoughtful notes in my own bag, too, and it meant so much to me. If that small gesture of love meant so much to me, I could only imagine what it meant to our kids. I love her for that.

At about the same time I took this photo, I had taken Mitch to work with me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

“I’ve been blessed to take Mitch to work on occasion. Often, he’ll sit with me at the conference room table while I’m meeting with employees & contractors. Sweet Mitch will quietly find himself coloring, playing with toys, and driving cars on my back and across my arms, or playing games by himself. He is such a sweet little boy.

I’m always surprised how considerate Mitch [can be] of his surroundings and how careful he is not to be disruptive. I suppose keeping him at an office for hours at a time is not very fun. But Mitchie asks me if he can come … and he is so enthusiastic about it. Each time he comes to work with me, I’ll bring a sleeping bag and pillow and we’ll make a comfy fort under the table – just like I would make as a young boy, but better. I’ll surround him with toys and things to do and kiss his sweet face as he wiggles himself into his comfy fortress with a smile. I have so much fun with him.

Sometimes I’m tempted to call all my meetings off and spend the entire day making forts and playing with toys. I am not convinced age will diminish my desire to become a kid again.

After my meetings, I always take him to lunch, and we talk about his favorite kitties and the blanket forts we’re going to make when we get home. I worry he’s growing up much too fast.”


Fast indeed.

Seven years would pass in a flash, and this little boy would no longer be with us. As Mitch was collecting his childhood treasures through the years, as little children do, I was also collecting memories and experiences – for that is all we really carry with us in life, and beyond.

Like my son, I have a backpack of treasures I always carry with me, only it cannot be seen with the eyes and instead it’s felt with the heart. That backpack is filled to the brim with love and treasured memories. Filled to overflowing.

MENDING BROKEN THINGS*

It was late spring, Mitchell’s headstone hadn’t yet arrived and each day was getting a little warmer than the day before. It had only been a few months since I lost my son and my soul was still dizzy with grief. Quietly, I was grateful for warmer days because the cold winter air carried with it vivid memories of the cold morning my dear son was rolled away from our home, never to return.

At this moment I realized my responsibility as a father wasn’t to keep my son from hurting, for that is impossible. Instead, it was to teach my son how to mend broken things. I wanted Wyatt to understand real strength isn’t found in pretending to be unbreakable but in having the courage to admit our brokenness, then make broken things strong.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

On this spring afternoon, Wyatt asked if I would drive him to the cemetery so he could visit Mitch. I told him I'd be glad to. “Okay, just a second,” Wyatt said as he dashed into Mitchell's room. A few second passed, and he returned with one of Mitchell’s favorite Halo characters and said, "Okay, let's go." As we arrived at the cemetery, I was curious what Wyatt had in mind, so I gave him some space and said, "Take your time son, I'll be nearby."

With that, he handed me Mitchell's Halo figure and gave me a soft grin, a confident nod, then sat on the grass and started talking to his older brother. I sat several yards from him but had one of my larger lenses so I could take photos without interrupting my son. I could faintly hear Wyatt’s young voice as he told his missing brother summer was around the corner, school was quickly coming to an end and a little about the movies he knew Mitch wanted to see. Wyatt told Mitch about some of the new friends he made throughout the year and how his teacher was so kind to him when he cried in class because he missed him. Wyatt continued to tell his brother about the tree Mitchell's school, and City Council planted in his honor.

It was a tender thing to see my youngest son struggling to sort things out. I sat in the distance and cried as I overheard Wyatt tell Mitch how much he loved and missed him.

The protective father in me was tempted to sweep Wyatt away – to try and rescue or insulate him from hardship. Part of me wanted to distract Wyatt from the harsh realities of life or to soothe him with artificial comforts. But I knew better. I knew that in trying to insulate my son from pain, I would cause more harm than the original pain itself. Instead, I wanted to help Wyatt learn how to deal with hard things – for life is full of hard things. If I was to pass something on, I wanted it to be a knowledge of how to survive the storms of life. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it's we’ll all come to know hardship, and we’re all going to get broken in one way or another.

At this moment I realized my responsibility as a father wasn’t to keep my son from hurting, for that is impossible. Instead, it was to teach my son how to mend broken things. I wanted Wyatt to understand real strength isn’t found in pretending to be unbreakable but in having the courage to admit our brokenness, then make broken things strong.

If there’s one thing I pray most to teach my son – it is there's always broken things to mend, and if he’s wise, he’ll seek Heaven’s help and therein find the strength of a million men.

 
 
 

THE INVISIBLE STRING

For Valentines Day, I wanted to share another video of Mitch from the Letters to My Son series. When we took Mitch home from the hospital he wanted to share a message with our family about love - a fitting topic for this time of year.

There was a tender irony in the timing of things. His heart was failing during a holiday that celebrated matters of the heart. Though his physical heart was weak, the heart of his soul was strong. He was the giant, and me ... very much the child.

In this video, you'll see Mitch tenderly listening to a book he asked his mother read. I believe Mitch wanted us to remember its message, long after he would pass away. And in this story is a message within a message.

I'm just a regular dad who struggles to be the best he can be. I have a long way to go - yet, however much I stumble, I can feel an invisible string that connects Mitch and me.   

Here is the transcript of the video:

Dear Mitch,

I had a dream about you last night and I awoke in a panic.  In my efforts to replace my thoughts of anguish with something of peace, I remembered something about you – and it calmed my weary heart.

When it was time for you to leave the hospital, you couldn't get out of there fast enough.  You were anxious to be a little boy again and to put the labor of medicine behind you. Your mother pushed you in a wheelchair to the curb and gently helped you get seated in the car.

As we were about to leave, you said, "Mom, isn't it my turn to teach family night?" Our hearts swelled and broke at the same time – you see, you were less concerned about playing with friends and toys and more about sharing something that was on your mind and heart.

You had a lesson in mind and you wanted to share it us – and it is a lesson we’ll never forget.

Your mother said, "Yes, Mitch, it's your turn.  Do you really want to teach a lesson for family night??"  You nodded your head and said “Yes, mom.  I have it all planned out.”  With that, it was settled – you were going to share a lesson with us and we were excited to learn from you. 

What followed is best described as the longest drive of my life.  We were on a one-way trip.  There would be no more doctors, no more hospital visits to keep you healthy.  Our job was to usher you to the other side of the veil.  I worried whether we did enough to teach you – but it was realizing it was you who was here to teach me.

The next day you awoke, and you began preparations for family night.  You chose a few books to read and prepared some important talking points about what it means to love.

You asked your mother to read the books - which she did ... like she did every night.  I think you would have read them just fine, but I think you wanted her to read them so it would start to feel life was getting back to normal.

The first book you chose was called, The Invisible String … a story about a string of love you cannot see with your eyes, but you can feel with your heart.

Like that beautiful author described, there is an invisible string between you and me.  It tugs at me daily.

The look on your face said all that needed to be said.  You were listening so close to the message of the story – a story about love and the bonds that tie us together.

I couldn’t help but notice you breathing hard because your heart was weak.  A friend of mine observed, after you passed, that it was ironic that a child whose heart was broken could teach so much about love.  You loved that story because it spoke the thoughts and feelings of your heart – that no matter where we go on earth or in heaven, there will always be an invisible string that connects us.

That book will forever be treasured by our family – for as long as we live.  For like the author wrote, there is an invisible string and we will always be connected.  Looking back I wonder if that was one of the messages you wanted us to know before you left us.

You’re gone now … far from view.  But I can still feel that string tug at my heart – and it will always tug at me – for as long as I shall live.  That is the magic children have on their parents.  Now, and forever.

Love,

Dad

 


This video essay is part of a series entitled, Letters to My Son.  You can see other letters from this series by clicking the button below.