IF THERE IS SUCH A THING

Though I hurt when I see this photo, it is a happy hurt … if there is such a thing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I was working in my home office one night, volunteering my time and energy to help a small start-up find its way. I was under a lot of stress – I was deeply worried about my son’s heart condition while at the same time trying to deal with a myriad of complications at work. Like no time before in my life, I began to search for balance between work and family. I knew time was short and my son didn’t have much time left. 

Mitchell walked softly into my room, pulled up a chair and sat next to me. He said, “Don’t worry, Dad, keep working. I just want to sit by you.” I nearly lost it. Though I was worried over work things, Mitch was all I thought about. I swallowed the lump in my throat and fought back the tears only to see his smiling face and kind eyes. I grabbed my cell phone and took this photo then said, “I love you, son.”

I put work away and Mitch and I just talked about his day. 

Hanging from the bottom of his shirt were cables connected to a pocket-sized heart monitor that he was asked to wear for a few days. His cardiologist wanted to get a better sense of what was happening to our son’s heart and discover a possible cause for its rapid and unexplained decline. The miracle of medicine had no effect. Despite the promise of powerful drugs that might stay his heart’s decline, it was as though heaven itself was calling my son home – and all the medicine of man was but a vapor.

Raising children is hard. Losing them to death is even harder.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Neither Mitch nor myself realized that a few weeks from this photo he would be fighting for his life … that his tender heart would flutter and stop in the quiet of a winter night. We simply didn’t know how quickly things would come to an end. We just had this moment and I tried to love him with all that my heart could offer. 

Raising children is hard. Losing them to death is even harder. 

Tomorrow at midnight will be the 3rd anniversary of my son’s passing. In my mind it seems like a lifetime ago and in my heart it feels like yesterday … and here I am learning to live in the middle of those two. I can say with confidence that I am healing, but I am also hurting. I have come to accept that I will always hurt. Some days the hurt runs deep … into the marrow of my soul. Other days the pain of loss feels like a scrape. But I always hurt for him. I long to talk to him like I used to. I want to cuddle with him and watch the movies he so enjoyed. I miss helping him do what he could not … and I see now that in my efforts to help him, he was actually helping me. My Father knew that – and though this reality of life and loss is painful beyond measure, I am grateful for the things my son is teaching me. 

There are many kind-hearted people who try to soothe those who grieve by suggesting our child is in a better place or just around the corner, perhaps in the next room … or some derivative of that thought. I am always grateful for their compassion and I have learned to listen to their intent more than their words. But let me make it clear, while my child may, indeed be in a better place, he is not in this place. He is not with me like he used to be – and that is why I grieve.

I will never forget this tender exchange with my son. I am glad I didn’t brush him off or ask him to leave because I had other things on my plate. I am glad I didn’t think myself too busy to give my child the time and attention he deserved. As a father, I stumble more than I get it right – but on this occasion, I got it right. Though I hurt when I see this photo, it is a happy hurt … if there is such a thing. 

THE LAST BUTTON

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the last lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or simply looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

There are some moments in life that burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bear, they change the shape of your soul. This was one such moment that broke me and reshaped me in ways I'm still learning to understand. 

My dear wife was dressing Mitch at the funeral home. Our mothers were with us as well as our oldest sisters; each of whom played a precious and sacred role in Mitchell’s life and we wanted them to participate. Also, we were afraid of doing this alone.

Our once-little baby had grown into a beautiful, funny, thoughtful, and caring young boy; yet there he was laying quietly on a table – motionless and frighteningly cold to the touch. My sweet wife, along with these other good women, reverently dressed Mitch in preparation for his funeral - where we would honor the good little boy that he was. Natalie was doing okay until she got to the last button – then grief washed over her like tidal wave, thrashing her about on the inside. This was the last button she would ever fasten for our son – and that broke her heart. It broke mine, too.

I was a wreck that day. In fact, I was a wreck on the inside for many months afterward. Years, in fact. I think I've just begun putting my pieces back together again. Even still, I carry a father’s grief and it is a terrible burden. Yet as much as I hurt on the inside, I know my wife hurts in ways I cannot imagine - for I am a simple man. On the other hand, she carried him, gave birth to him and made sacrifices in ways only a mother can - and with that pain and sacrifice comes a love unique to that service and surrender. So, I consider her grief hallowed ground. I silence my own tears so that I might wipe hers and scoop up her shattered pieces. And when I can, I try to gather mine.

All too often I hear people suggest “there is nothing like a mother's love” – in a manner that seems to subordinate or dismiss the love of a father. In like manner, I hear less often the same of a father’s love as being more than anything else. It's almost as if they claim one love is greater than the other. Nothing could be further, yet at the same time closer, to the truth. They are correct in saying there is nothing like a mother’s love; in the same way there is nothing like a father's love. Both are different, both are beautiful and sacred in their own right. But to suggest one is greater or weightier than another ignores one immutable truth ... they are both parents and hurt deeply for the one they loved and lost. Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.

So when I look at this photo, I set aside my own sorrows and I reverence my wife’s. Her sorrow is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. It was beautiful, vast and deep.

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the last lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or simply looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different. 

Neal A. Maxwell, a man I greatly admire, once wrote, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” I love that statement because it reminds me of the importance of putting our blessings to good use - otherwise we are throwing our gifts away. 

Mitch ranks among the sweetest of the many blessings I have received in this life. I vow every day, when I button my own shirt as I ready for work, to remember the blessing Mitch was in my life. And most importantly, to make that blessing count … to allow this experience to become an agent of change for the better. This image, burned in my mind and heart, reminds me to make Mitchell’s last button count – if not for anyone else, then for myself.

THE TROUBLE WITH ETC.

I’ll never forget the glow of the evening sun reflecting warmly from my snow-covered windowsill. By this time, we knew our son was at risk of sudden death and that each moment was more precious than the one before. Time was running short and we were very much afraid. So very afraid.

Natalie reached down and grabbed Mitchell's face, looked him in the eye, and told him how much she loved him. I don't know what Mitchell thought or felt at that moment, all I know is my heart grew a foot or two that day. However cold it was outside, I know he felt the warmth of his mother’s love – and Mitchell’s soft smile always set my soul on fire. A testament that gentleness can wield great power.

We knew death was circling our home and would soon thrash and claw at our door – so we just clung to each other and braced for death. Doctors at the time told us there was nothing left to do – that they had done their best. In a few short months from this photo, my little boy’s heart would stop and we would experience the deepest form of human grief. A place so dark, not even the light of noon day would light the way. And eventually, when we began to see … the broken road of grief would stretch out to infinity.

Like all who grieve, I wish I could go back in time to this very moment so that I could also grab Mitchell’s face, look him in the eyes and tell him that I loved him and how special he was to my heart. I would beg for him to play with me … to build Legos, draw pictures, cuddle and watch movies. I would have set aside everything I was doing to drink in one more moment. I did all that I knew to do … but I wish I did more. That is a burden of grief, too. Those moments of opportunity have long come and gone … and I’m reminded all we ever really keep are the things that we have done. 

I was in a leadership meeting a few months ago where we were trying to deal with some challenges. A peer observed, speaking of someone who wasn’t stepping up to their responsibilities, “Well, he is really busy you know …” he paused a moment then gestured with his hand, “… busy with et cetera.”

I began to think deeply on that simple phrase … “busy with et cetera.” I thought back on my own life and began to take stock of my own life decisions: was I caught up in the froth of frilly things, or was I doing that mattered most? I’d like to think I always made the right choice – but when I’m honest, I know where I could have done things differently … done things better. 

I’m not suggesting that everything in life be deep and heavy … I’m talking about the conversations I could have had with Mitch or my other kids, yet I was lost in my smartphone. Or that thing for work I chose to do on a Friday night, instead of spending time with my family. I’m talking about being anywhere, but nowhere.

It is so easy to get caught up in et cetera; the kinds of things that keep us from living in the moment and thriving … suddenly we find our souls shrinking … on the inside we’re dying. Et cetera: always pretending to be of substance, yet in truth is the thinnest of things … a deception of the heart that is, in the end, really quite mean. Et cetera has us drowning in information, yet ever thirsty for direction, meaning and truth. We get married to material things and lesser pursuits … unaware our once treasured relationships have become the caboose. 

Now, I know I wasn’t that bad, you see … but seeing et cetera for what it is, I know what I don’t want to be.

When I sit at the foot of my son’s place of rest, I want so badly hug and love little Mitch as his daddy knows best. I would trade every et cetera that swept me away … I would give it all back for just one more day.

THE LAST STORY

About 14 years ago I started a storytelling tradition with my kids that would only require music and one’s imagination and then the universe was at our fingertips.

On my iPod are playlists that contain all manner of movie & video game scores in random order, across every genre. Often, after their teeth were brushed and my kids were tucked snugly in bed, I would turn on a playlist and narrate random stories out of thin air – and my kids were the heroes. Because the music would shape the narrative, none of us knew where we were going. Each night was an untold adventure waiting to be explored and as lights dimmed and the music began to play my children and I would be swept far away in story. Suddenly the bedroom walls crumbled to the floor and the ceiling unzipped and they saw a night sky with strange planets, or suddenly they were crossing a vast field of grass on a journey surrounded by storms that were closing in, or they were atop a glass-covered skyscraper in a mega-city about to launch their jet-pack. Wherever we went it was magical and unexpected. 

Before long this practice no longer soothed my kids to sleep but excited them – instead of getting tired they would sit on the edge of their mattress, with hearts pounding, wondering what was next. Sometimes they would argue “No I want to be that guy!” It wasn't long before they began making plot requests and wanted to help shape the story.

These journeys of the mind are always fun. So much so, I even do this with my employees when we are driving long distances. Each of them take a turn telling a story on the fly in response to a song. They don’t get to practice or rehearse, they only respond to the music in real-time – and as the tempo changes, so must the story. Suddenly 100 miles feels like 5 minutes and that we've read 300 fascinating books in the blink of an eye.

I loved this tradition with my kids. I don’t do it as often as I used to. I tried it again with Ethan about 3 weeks ago. We were driving home from his lacrosse practice and I told him a story against the backdrop of song. He was quiet and inside I wondered if he thought I was being an absolute geek. At the end he looked at me, paused and said, “Dad, that was awesome.”

On the night of this photo Natalie and I had just tucked Mitch in. Faithful Marlie snuggled near his feet and he was set. Then he asked me in a soft voice, “Dad, will you tell me a story?” My eyes instantly filled with tears and my throat swelled. “I would love to tell you a story, Mitch.”

I ran to the next room to get a speaker and iPod and for the next 10 minutes Mitch and I went on adventure together. Once again, the ceiling and walls fell away and we were transported to a magical place. We started in an ancient forest where the trees could whisper secrets of a time long gone; we could see the night sky and a fabled moon that was only visible through the forest trees. We traveled vast distances together and Mitch was the hero. All along I kept thinking how in real life this little boy was an even greater hero to me. In life, Mitch couldn't jump great distances nor did he wield physical strength like he did in my stories, but in every way that mattered he was stronger and nobler than the sum total of every character I could imagine.

As my story concluded I knelt by Mitchell and told him, “Son, even though you were the hero in this story, you are my real-life hero, too. You are the most amazing young boy, Mitch. I love you.” He asked why I was crying and I told him it was because sometimes parents have so much love in their hearts for their children they don’t know how to express it, and they cry. I told Mitch that was the magic of being a parent: you create the most amazing miracle of life and watch it grow, develop and become. Parents cry because they love; and love is the most magical power on earth. Love heals and protects, it renews and forgives, it lifts and defends … love gives meaning to life. To know love is to know God.

This was the last story I told Mitch. Not many days would pass before everything in our world began to unravel and we would experience the most sorrowful story of all. A story that would break my heart. Forever.

I have traveled the universe and back with my children and we have visited every age we could imagine, even the age before time. I have discovered parenthood is the greatest adventure of all. It’s a story that needs no soundtrack to be told; a story that frightens and enlightens us … and a story of love and service that never gets old. 

I pray that at the end of my days, when my story is ended and I take that final journey to that place beyond the hills, that my son will be the first person I see. And I will run to him and give him a father's embrace. For I love him. I miss his kind soul, I long to see his sweet face.