WHAT THE CASUAL TRAVELER CAN’T SEE

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There’s a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy, so when they grow up, they’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I’ve always loved this saying and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things. Their appreciation often showed up in the language of their prayers; especially when they expressed gratitude for soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. In my few years on this planet, I’ve come to discover things of greatest value have little (if anything) to do with price.

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day, life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect, and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink. A reminder that humans are only transients on this planet … a classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to the ranch, I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the beautiful landscape I was passing. You see, the highway hugs the mountain so close to the base of Kolob Canyon you cannot see it (not even a little bit) - the road is just too close to it. Without perspective, everything around the highway felt ordinary. But, were you to take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you’d see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered the relationship between the highway and this canyon, it began to serve as something of a metaphor to me. It reminded me that sometimes I can’t see the true nature of a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I have traveled the long road of grief, I’ve learned to step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point. I have learned to see beauty. I can also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

This photo reminds me Mitch lived a good life – and in that, I can find joy. If I were asked to find one image that best illustrated my son, I believe this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because his family loved him and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I recently discovered some videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background, unaware he was on camera. He was skipping because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and stepped into appreciation. He saw life from a different vantage point. He stepped back, and he saw the canyon.

While losing my son has been a source of great sorrow, if I’m not mindful … if I hug the mountain of grief too closely for too long, I will miss a kind of beauty that might otherwise enrich and inform me. It isn’t always easy – but I have learned to take my mind and heart down different roads.

Of course, to grieve in healthy ways, we must acknowledge there is pain – a whole lot of it. But healthy grief also requires me to balance the scale and acknowledge the things that brought me joy. Finding joy can take time, especially when grief is new, bewildering, and unfamiliar. I had to be patient and kind to myself. In the beginning, I had to travel the only road I knew. Then there were times I had to leave the comfort of my car and hike the back road, bare feet and all, to see the greater canyon.

At least for me, as I traveled the broken road of grief, I’ve searched for trails of gratitude and explored them. Those trails led me to beautiful panoramas of perspective and have helped heal me – but they have taken effort. Grief has taught me to step back and see the world differently. And when I did, I discovered things the casual traveler can’t see.



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

GRATITUDE IS GREATER

I'll always remember how difficult it was for Mitch to bend over and gather leaves. Sometimes he would lose his balance, fall to the ground, then struggle to stand up again. His muscles were wasting away and I was powerless to stop it. As his friends were getting stronger, he was getting weaker. I began to see how often I took for granted what he struggled so hard to enjoy. I never imagined the gentle teacher I discovered in my little boy.

Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue but it is the parent of all others.
— Marcus Tullius Cicero

I remember asking, “Mitch, can I help you gather leaves?” Mitch said quietly, “No, it’s okay, Dad. I want to do it myself.” As I sat and watched my boy struggle, I fought back the tears and said a prayer in my heart that heaven might save my son from certain death – for he was a good soul and the world needed more people like him. Heaven saw things differently and took my boy away – for there was work to do, I suppose, in places I cannot say.

The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero once observed, “Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue but it is the parent of all others.” Among this little boy’s virtues, gratitude was chief among them … for he never saw his glass half empty, nor did he see it half full. He was just grateful there was something in it.

Mitch taught me gratitude is always greater.

 

 

SOMETIMES*

A few years ago I took my kids camping high in the Wasatch Mountains on what turned out to be one of the coldest days that winter. The decision to go winter camping was last-minute, so I called my wife and asked her to throw our tent in my truck so we could leave the minute I got home from work. With that, my dear wife quickly gathered sleeping bags, extra blankets, dry clothes and made my famous tinfoil dinner. You can find that recipe below.

I think little Mitch was on to something; that perhaps sometimes the hard times turn out to be our happiest times. Certainly not in the moment … and maybe not all the time. But sometimes.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We raced into the mountains so we could find a camping spot before night came -but before we arrived at our destination, it was already dark and the temperature was falling rapidly. I carried Mitch on my back a few hundred yards because his legs were much too weak to walk through the snow. Within about 15 minutes we had started a roaring campfire so the kids could get warm while I set our tent. Within minutes I discovered Natalie accidentally packed what was essentially a mosquito net for summer picnics. It offered virtually no protection from the bitter cold. I told my boys it isn’t a good idea to quit at the first sign of a struggle … that we can always find a way if we look for a solution. After some discussion, my boys decided they wanted to stay anyway.

That was the longest and most difficult camping trip of my life. I didn’t sleep more than 15 minutes at a time. No sooner would I doze off that I would awake in a panic, spring from my sleeping bag and make sure my boys were covered and warm. I would then lay my head on the frozen floor and peer into the starry sky through the mosquito net thinking to myself, “What on earth are we doing?”

The next morning we awoke and started another roaring fire. A warm cup of hot chocolate was on the way when Mitch came to me and said, “Hey Dad, let’s not ever do that again.”

“Deal,” I said with a chuckle and then kissed his face, “I am sorry you were so cold.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s okay Dad. It was fun … but not that fun.” We drove down the mountainside and I took our kids to the first restaurant we saw and I ordered them each a stack of hot pancakes and scrambled eggs. As I saw my boys dig in and chuckle between themselves over the mosquito net, my heart was overflowing. I thought myself the luckiest man on earth. I was so glad to be a dad.

There have been times, in moments of parental doubt, I wondered if dragging my boys out in the cold, away from our warm home was a good idea when they were so young. But then I would find little folded pieces of paper on my nightstand addressed to me from Mitch. In each piece of childhood origami was a hand drawn picture of adventures past. Not once did he draw pictures of Disney Land or expensive vacations, instead he re-created fire pits and fellowship. He seemed to interpret struggle with a measure of fondness. He would draw pictures of our spring camping adventure when we nearly got flooded out by a torrential downpour. He made drawings of the winter camping trips we vowed to never do again. From the boiling hot deserts to the dirty, muddy hills … the things we disliked in the moment, turned out to be the things he remembered and loved the most.

In like manner, when I think of our early days raising a family … when exhaustion and discouragement nearly broke us … those are some of our sweetest memories. I think little Mitch was on to something; that perhaps sometimes the hard times turn out to be our happiest times. Certainly not in the moment … and maybe not all the time. But sometimes.

 

 

Mitchell's Favorite Recipe

Apply portions according to preference.

 
  • Lay down foil sheets to match the number of meals you want to make.  I recommend using two sheets per meal to ensure a strong seal.

  • Optional: apply a light coat of non-stick spray to one side of the foil

  • Lay a bed of tater tots on each sheet.  Two handfuls is usually sufficient.

  • Pour cream of mushroom on top of the tater tots.  Be generous with these portions as they soak into the tater tots and become like gravy.  One can per meal is usually perfect.

  • Cut chicken breasts to desired size and place on top

  • Add corn

  • Season with salt & pepper and other spices to preference

  • Wrap & freeze

 

 

Freezing foil dinners will ensure your meals stay fresh.  When you’re ready to cook it, you simply place it over hot coals and rotate every 5 minutes for about 20 minutes, or until your meal is thoroughly cooked.

There are alternative ingredients to virtually every item on this recipe, but Mitch (and our family) have found this one especially perfect.


Tip on Cooking Over Fire

Be sure to cook over hot coals, not a roaring bonfire.  

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The best time to place your foil dinners is after the flames have died down and the bed of your fire pit is filled with red hot coals.

You can also cook your foil dinners on a grill, as seen below.  We made these meals for Cousins Camp 2016:

unlike flames from a fire, hot coals create intense,  even heat

Sometimes it takes patience to wait for the fire to die down and coals to appear 

its a good idea to spread coals out evenly so heat is distributed ACROSS your cooking area

THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME

[Last year] we received a package in the mail from a Mitchell’s Journey follower who, over the months, has also become a friend of our family. Because Father’s Day was around the corner my wife wanted to wait and open it on that day in honor of our little boy. I am glad we did.

As we opened the package we discovered a beautiful stained glass ball about the size of abasketball. Carefully placed in the same shipping box were other small tokens of love from their family to my wife and kids. Little pieces of crumpled purple packing paper, like decorations, were scattered about as if to say they cared enough to remember one of our son’s favorite colors. Everything about their gift was a symbol of love. We were deeply touched.

That evening I asked Natalie to help me take a photo of the gift with the sun setting in the backdrop. I was so drawn to the stained glass ball. It was beautiful and reminded me of something Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” 

I hope to always have a light from within – to never let discouragement and pain darken my heart and dampen the light of faith. For true faith is a candle in the darkness and illuminates sights unseen. 

Maybe she was on to something … perhaps our lives aren’t all that different from that of stained glass. Being mortal, we are fragile and break; only, we don’t always get to decide how and where we break. Sometimes that is the craft of the Master Artisan. We can, however, have a hand in how we put ourselves back together again. 

Though I would rather be unbroken, with my son still in my arms, I can’t help but sense what is coming together after all my brokenness may be better off than the person I was once becoming. Each day I slowly, carefully, and sometimes painfully put the pieces of my heart back together the best I know how. Though pained and broken, wanting badly for my son, I can see the hand of God and sense the shape of things to come. 

Don’t get me wrong; the death of my son has broken my soul. My heart is tender and bleeds … it isn't the same as it once was and I’m not sure it will ever be. What I thought a medley of shattered glass and broken dreams is in reality altogether different than what I think I see. Each piece, though agonizingly broken is colored by the deepest hues of love. A beautiful mosaic forged of pain … a heavenly arrangement from my Father above.

Sometimes in our sorrows the child in our heart cries out, “Oh Dad, why did you break me?” Then a loving whisper, if we listen, “I’m not breaking you dear child, I’m shaping you.”

 

LEARNING TO TRUST

I remember his tiny smile as he sat in a school bus for the first time. Mitch was about to leave on a new adventure. He didn’t know where exactly he was going, he only knew his mommy loved him and trusted she knew best. Natalie kissed Mitch on the forehead and said in a whispered tone, “I love you little boy. I’ll see you at school.” 

As the big bus drove out of the neighborhood Natalie jumped in our minivan and followed them to the elementary school several miles away. By the time the bus arrived at school, Natalie was there to help our little boy off the bus and usher him into class. 

This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

To Mitch, the world was a very big place – made even bigger by his declining muscle strength. A small staircase to you and me may as well be Mt. Everest to a child with DMD. Mitch could be easily knocked down by a simple bump in a lunchroom. Hallways made him nervous because a river of preoccupied people, in a rush to get some place, threatened trample him unaware.

Natalie knew our son needed help, but wanted to stretch his horizons and help him grow. So, she repeated the inconvenient routine of helping him board the bus each day and then follow him to school – where she would help him on and off the bus. Natalie wanted our boy to learn independence. And that he did. 

I loved this day. I loved seeing my little boy smile at me through the window of the bus. Mitch had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Look Dad! I can do hard things. I’m a big kid now.” His eyes seemed to say, “I love you.” 

I remember walking with Natalie and Mitch into his preschool class for the first time. There he would meet “Miss Nancy.” She was energetic and kind and had a way about her that brought instant relief to nervous parents and excitement in the minds of her students. I loved her immediately. I’ll write more of her another day – but I am grateful she was placed in our son’s path. She was a tender mercy for our little boy.

In many ways this image serves as a symbol of another journey. Only this time Mitch has been shuttled to a place far from sight. Sometimes I panic because the mortal father in me wants to know he’s alright. Yet, I know he is fine – and in a heavenly sense, I realize he was never mine. For Mitch is my brother, the son of my Father … even still, in his death, my mortal heart is still bothered. For I love and miss him, you see. And in my agony I reach deeply for things heavenly. Could it be that is the reason for suffering?

Somewhere out on the horizon is my son … or rather, my brother. He is at a school of another sort. I cannot see it with my eyes … but I can feel it with my soul. Though he may be learning and growing … I also believe he is here, even now, helping and showing. 

Now it is my turn, seated in a big and unfamiliar bus. Like my son, – I have learned to listen and to trust. I know my Father loves me and believe that He knows best. The wisest of all parents, He knows the growth that happens when we’re challenged and given tests. This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.