IN THE CLASP OF OUR HANDS

This happened almost 4 years ago. It was the first of November as we went to a local park as a family. The day had drawn to a close, and we could tell winter was just around the corner. The grass was cold to the touch … about to go into its deep, yellow sleep for the winter. As the sun set behind the mountains, the evening air had a familiar, wintery chill. We were excited to go home and make hot chocolate and sit by our fireplace to warm up.

Just moments before I took this photo, Mitch breathed deeply through his nose, as if he tried to smell the entire earth at once. He exhaled and said, “Dad, Fall smells so good.” Mitch loved the earthy smell of fallen leaves and was grateful to be alive. I smiled softly and reached down to hold his hand. At the same time, he reached up to hold mine – it was as though we knew what each other needed at that moment.

Though I didn’t exactly know Mitch was about to die, I sensed death was near in the same way I could sense the season about to change. Mitch didn’t exactly know his time was short, but he sensed it, too. This was an unseen tender mercy, for our loving Father softly nudged us to be in the moment because the hour was later than we knew.

Little Mitch had just watched teenagers perform tricks at a skate park. This night was the first time I ever heard him wish for something he didn’t have. He said, “Dad, I wish I could be like regular kids and do the things they do.” Though Mitch wanted to be a healthy boy, he was just grateful to be alive. And I was grateful to be his father.

I am grateful for warm moments like the one you see here. I store them up in my heart for times of trouble; and when sorrow and disappointment come, as they surely will, I am reminded of life’s good things.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This was one of those moments in life where I deeply appreciated what I had in the clasp of my hands. Not just Mitch, either. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my wife and all of my children. Each of them was so dear to my heart, and my cup was overflowing that night.

Though we would soon sit by a crackling fireplace that night and drink warm things … my soul was already stirred with feelings of love and gratitude. There was no winter that could chill my heart.

I am grateful for warm moments like the one you see here. I store them up in my heart for times of trouble; and when sorrow and disappointment come, as they surely will, I am reminded of life’s good things.

If ever I’ve stumbled in life, I believe it has been because I didn’t fully appreciate what I already had in the clasp of my hands. What we clasp with our hands says a lot about what’s in our heart. If I cling to material things, there is my heart, also. If I hang on to distractions or things that waste time, that has a measure of my heart, too. I wish I could say I clasp on to all the right things … but I am human and I make mistakes. But I've learned to view my mistakes as teachers, not tormentors. When I stumble, I bounce right back, shake it off and keep trying.

For all my mistakes in life, all I know is this night I got it right. There, within the clasp of my hand, was a tender son who needed reassurance. Around me were my wife and other children, each of whom I loved and adored – and though I wasn’t holding their hand at this moment, emotionally they knew I had them in my hand and my heart.

Rose Marie Whiteside wrote, “You will make mistakes, change your mind later on the wisdom of a decision, and hope to find better ways of doing something, but if you outline your values and determine the links to those values, the errors won’t count.”

I love this statement. I believe in it, too. Mistakes matter less if we know we value and try to live true.

INEVITABLE REGRETS

It was a hot summer afternoon at grandma’s house when Mitch reached into his backpack with a subtle, almost mischievous smile, then retrieved my swimsuit. He knew I always forgot to bring my trunks so he went into my bedroom and packed them for me. “Dad, here’s your swimsuit.” Then, with a soft voice, he said, “Will you swim with me?” I chuckled briefly and then, quite unexpectedly, my heart melted as I saw my son’s tender face that seemed to say, “Dad, I don’t have much time.” Then, a lump filled my throat as I thought of the many times he wanted to swim with me and I came unprepared. In the most tender, almost apologetic tone I said, “Mitch, I would love to swim with you.”

We spent the better half of the afternoon playing “Super Shark” and a handful of other games we made up over the years. It was a tender time and a memory I hold dear to my broken heart. 

I didn’t know how to be a dad – and I always felt like I was making things up and stumbling more than making good strides. My youth was complicated and I never had a day-to-day role model to emulate – so I didn’t really know what real fatherhood looked like. My biological father was a good, loving man but I only saw him for a month during the summer. The man I grew up with was angry at the world and especially angry with me, for some reason. My dad taught me how to love, but my drunken step-father (at the time), taught me how it felt to be isolated and despised. I learned to flinch, not flex and grow in confidence.

Because I felt the deep pain of rejection as a child, I never wanted my children to feel any part of what I experienced, so I did my best to give them what I wished I had. Sometimes I wonder if little Mitch wanted to swim with me because he knew I would scoop him up in my arms and hug and kiss him, all the time. 

So there I was splashing around in the pool with my son. By this time, I knew Mitchell’s heart was failing him and it had only been a few months since we learned his heart function was on a steep and unexpected decline. Not a day passed that I didn’t wonder and worry if we were doing enough. We consulted with his doctors and tried medicines that were thought to stabilize his rapid heart decline. Everything failed. We did all that we knew to do and yet we couldn’t save him. When I look back on that labyrinth of decisions with unknowable outcomes, I am tempted to feel regret. 

A few weeks ago, Natalie and I were asked to share some of our thoughts to a group of parents who have children with the same disease Mitch had: Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. One of the panel questions was about making decisions and how to keep from looking back and wondering if they should have done something different. I appreciated that question because I understood it on a very personal level. 

No matter what you do in life, you’re going to make mistakes and regret is inevitable. That is part of being human.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey


My response was “No matter what you do in life, you’re going to make mistakes and regret is inevitable. That is part of being human.” I suggested, “Perhaps we’re better served if we worry less about life’s inevitable regrets and spend our energy doing things that will limit the depth and severity of regret.” I believe if we spend time and energy focusing on the things we truly value, we will stumble, but we won’t stumble far. Our regrets are more likely to feel like bruises, rather than broken legs.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my son’s journey has taught me to turn regret into resolve. I discovered that regret is inevitable, but resolve is a choice. 

Do I have regrets? I have a million of them. But, I have a million more resolves.

As long as I am human I will experience regret; the best way to live with them, as far as I can tell, is to know what I value and always do my best. That is how I've learned to live with inevitable regrets.

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.

GUILT, GRIEF & GRACE

My dear wife and I had just delivered the most difficult public address of our lives. It had never occurred to us that parents don’t typically speak at their child’s funeral because emotions are so very near the surface. For some reason, we did.

After the funeral service we made the somber journey to the cemetery. My little son was in the hearse in front of us and all I could think was, “He must be so cold and scared and lonely.” I had those same nearly schizophrenic feelings when I was 19 years old and drove my father’s casket alone in the back of a pickup truck from Edmonton to southern Alberta. It was snowing outside and I agonized that my dad was cold and I wanted to protect him like he so often tried to protect me. I cried a lot on that long drive – I was young, sad and very much afraid. Although those feelings of wanting to protect my father were strong then, they were so much more intense toward my son. What you see here was the worst commute of my life.

As we followed our little boy I couldn't help but also think back on my life with Mitch. Instantly I had feelings of guilt and grief and a longing to hold him such that I had never before known. I cried on this drive, too – and my soul cried out even harder.

I couldn't imagine it then, but I see it now: death and dying, the funeral and all its preparations, as difficult as they are … that’s the easy part. It is in the quiet of things, long after death has come to steal away that which is most precious … it is when the dust settles and the world spins madly on … that is when the struggle truly begins.

I have heard many who wrestle with grief share feelings of personal guilt over a million-and-one things they wish done differently. I understand those feelings because I have felt them, too. I wrote in a post last December, “That list of “what ifs”, however counterfeit and scattered with lies, remains glossy, persuasive and deceptively wise.”

Though I may be tempted to feel guilt for what might have been, or perhaps even should have been, I know I always had the welfare of my family at heart and I did the very best I knew how. I wasn't perfect, but I was perfect at trying – and that is good enough for me. Grief is hard enough – guilt makes grief more difficult. Guilt is a lot like fire: if it is properly managed it can wield great power and affect change. If mismanaged, or gets out of control, it can burn us and cause deep scars. 

Yet there are so many moments that invite feelings of guilt: from the foolish things people say, to those who suggest we’re grieving wrong … because we’re not doing it their way. To all of that nonsense I say, ignore it. It is easy to critique the grief of others for those who never knew it or bore it.

I don’t feel guilty for having good days or moments of happiness – as though I've betrayed some unspoken rule of grief. To the contrary, I seek after such moments daily. We are made to find joy – and joy is what I seek.

On the other side of the grief spectrum there are some who suggest, “Mitch wouldn't want you to be sad.” Yet, I am sad that he is gone. I don’t feel guilty for grieving or feeling deep sorrow over the loss of my son … for I believe he understands my grief … that grief is the language of the heart and points to unspeakable love and unimaginable loss. Why feel guilty for that? I don’t feel guilt for grieving and I never will.

Mixed in the many layers of grief are the questions “Why me? Why this? Why?” We may never know the answers … at least in this life. But, I can’t help but think there’s a relationship between grief and grace. At least to me, it seems if we endure our struggles well, grief can become our teacher and open our hearts to a deeper compassion toward others. 

Though I wish the death of my son never happened, it did. Shaking my fist at God in anger won’t change that … in fact, that kind of anger would change me … and I don’t want that.

I’ll never turn my fist toward God. Instead, I turn my ear toward Him and do my best to listen. And, when I slow down and give my heart some space, I am convinced grief is a key to grace.

TRADING REGRET FOR RESOLVE

Every-so-often I drive by the mortuary and am reminded of the moment I saw little Mitch for the first time after he passed away. When we first entered the room we saw him lying on a table, lifeless and cold on the far end of a dimly lit room. The scene was something from a nightmare I was afraid to entertain, even in my mind. I struggled to find my breath as I swallowed the lump-turned-basketball in my throat. I stayed back so Natalie could have her time with Mitch – for I knew a mother’s love was sacred and different from mine. 

When it was my turn to be with Mitch my heart tumbled into a deep abyss and it seemed for a moment my soul was certain to drown in the darkest waters. I wished so badly to wake my son that I might hold him and tell him I loved him – but he was gone. Tears streamed down my neck this day, and for many months after. I had just entered a phase of grief where I wept every single day for almost 2 years. I didn't cry. I wept.

So when I drive by that mortuary or simply reflect upon my own experience with loss I am reminded of the fragility of life. Not that we die – for I have seen plenty of death in my life and I don’t need to be reminded that life is perishable. Rather, I think about how easy it is to die a little on the inside, long before our bodies perish. We die from addiction and distraction, grief and anger, and a myriad of other things that would rob us; stuff that will take life away from life. 

I don’t post on Mitchell’s Journey because I’m stuck in grief or that I fixate on death and sorrow. I am just trying to examine my life and discover ways to become truly alive.

I wish I could say I lived a life of no regret – but I haven’t. I don’t think it’s possible to live such a life because we are human and flawed. In fact, I am wary of the man or woman who says they lived a life of no regrets because such a tale is born of fiction and self-deception. 

Regret is an unavoidable human condition. It is the wanting for a different outcome and the pain we cannot make it so. Regret is a measure of grief. It is part of grief. Regret is part of being human. Yet, I don’t believe, being human, the purpose of life is to cling to regret, guilt or self-loathing. Life is hard enough and I have come to believe it is well enough to do your best and forget the rest. 

Do I wish I would have been different when Mitch was with me? Absolutely. Do I have regrets? I have many. But I am learning to forge those regrets in the fiery furnace of sorrow and build a new resolve that is sharper and stronger than I have ever known. 

Each time I meditate and write about grief or an aspect of my son’s life and death, I am learning to trade regret for resolve. 

One day, when I look back from that place beyond the hills, I know I will be glad I lived the life I lived. Not because I didn't make mistakes, but because I learned to turn regret into resolve. A resolve that is teaching me how to truly live. A resolve that is leading me home.

On those days I am especially weary in grief, stumbling over pebbles and struggling to breathe … I can hear a loving whisper, “Rise my son, for your time is not yet done. You aren't learning how to walk, but rather how to run.”

ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME (part 2)

Laura-Ashley really loved little Mitch. She cared for him on a deeply personal level, and Mitch felt it. Mitch really loved her, too. I would often find him hanging out with Laura-Ashley just to talk. She always offered him her time and most importantly her attention. Nothing shows love like caring attention.

I took this photo late March, 2012. Sunday the 25th, to be exact. Winter’s bitter chill was retreating and the first real glimpse of spring had arrived. Natalie and the kids were excited to go outside and get some fresh air, so we went to a small park just down the street. 

When I think back on this time in my life, things were especially hectic and my mind was weighed by a million things pulling for my attention. I had just returned from a trip to Honduras and had a lot of catching up to do and I could have told Natalie I was too busy to go with them. I am afraid, as much as I’ve tried to be with my family, I may have said that more than my broken heart wants to admit. Surely it isn't reasonable to be everywhere, all of the time; but if I’m honest with myself, I know I could have done better. I wish I would have done better … and from now on, I will try to do better. Looking back on our lives is always a tricky thing … and it seems everyone’s a genius in retrospect. Hindsight displays everything so clearly: how much time we didn't have, the better path or smarter choices and the times I should have recorded my children’s voices. Like an old film in the attic, I replay my memories, my loves, my joys, my heartaches and regrets. I must be careful to not feed my regrets – for they can devour me if I'm not careful.

I believe regret should hurt just enough so we know not to do [whatever] again; almost like touching a hot stove … heat enough to teach, but not enough to scar or debilitate.

I’m glad I went with my family this day because I was able to take some once-in-a-lifetime photos of our kids playing, Natalie nurturing and Mitch smiling. Had my priorities been on important but lesser things, I would have missed out on life’s most beautiful things. My reward for time well spent are warm memories and photos like this ... which make my heart sing. These two children taught me something about love this day.

Two months from this photo, almost to the day, we would learn Mitchell's heart was broken and he was in trouble. I made this video that very night: vimeo.com/42931543 

In less than a year, everything I knew and loved would be turned upside down and my son would pass away. Ask me now the value of this day ...

I wonder how often I have been suckered into believing only the big, rare things are once-in-a-lifetime. Mitch taught me, in the most painful way, every moment of every day is once-in-a-lifetime. I don’t get to go back and do this, or any time over. Time passed is time past. All I have to take with me into the future are the memories I made ... and they can soothe like silk or draw out like the sharpest of blades.

When I see this photo I feel more love than sorrow … and like the hot stove, I hurt for a moment, forever reminded there’s no promise of tomorrow. My wife, children and fallen son are once-in-a-lifetime blessings that I won't squander, not a single one. 

Mitch taught me to drink life in like a thirsty traveler: for when the journey’s done, it’s done. And that sounds like once-in-a-lifetime thing, if I ever heard one.

GUILT, GRIEF & GRACE

My dear wife and I had just delivered the most difficult public address of our lives. It had never occurred to us that parents don’t typically speak at their child’s funeral because emotions are so very near the surface. For some reason, we did.

After the funeral service we made the somber journey to the cemetery. My little son was in the hearse in front of us and all I could think was, “He must be so cold and scared and lonely.” I had those same nearly schizophrenic feelings when I was 19 years old and drove my father’s casket alone in the back of a pickup truck from Edmonton to southern Alberta. It was snowing outside and I agonized that my dad was cold and I wanted to protect him like he so often tried to protect me. I cried a lot on that long drive – I was young, sad and very much afraid. Although those feelings of wanting to protect my father were strong then, they were so much more intense toward my son. What you see here was the worst commute of my life.

As we followed our little boy I couldn't help but also think back on my life with Mitch. Instantly I had feelings of guilt and grief and a longing to hold him such that I had never before known. I cried on this drive, too – and my soul cried out even harder.

I couldn't imagine it then, but I see it now: death and dying, the funeral and all its preparations, as difficult as they are … that’s the easy part. It is in the quiet of things, long after death has come to steal away that which is most precious … it is when the dust settles and the world spins madly on … that is when the struggle truly begins.

I have heard many who wrestle with grief share feelings of personal guilt over a million-and-one things they wish done differently. I understand those feelings because I have felt them, too. I wrote in a post last December, “That list of “what ifs”, however counterfeit and scattered with lies, remains glossy, persuasive and deceptively wise.”

Though I may be tempted to feel guilt for what might have been, or perhaps even should have been, I know I always had the welfare of my family at heart and I did the very best I knew how. I wasn't perfect, but I was perfect at trying – and that is good enough for me. Grief is hard enough – guilt makes grief more difficult. Guilt is a lot like fire: if it is properly managed it can wield great power and affect change. If mismanaged, or gets out of control, it can burn us and cause deep scars. 

Yet there are so many moments that invite feelings of guilt: from the foolish things people say, to those who suggest we’re grieving wrong … because we’re not doing it their way. To all of that nonsense I say, ignore it. It is easy to critique the grief of others for those who never knew it or bore it.

I don’t feel guilty for having good days or moments of happiness – as though I've betrayed some unspoken rule of grief. To the contrary, I seek after such moments daily. We are made to find joy – and joy is what I seek.

On the other side of the grief spectrum there are some who suggest, “Mitch wouldn't want you to be sad.” Yet, I am sad that he is gone. I don’t feel guilty for grieving or feeling deep sorrow over the loss of my son … for I believe he understands my grief … that grief is the language of the heart and points to unspeakable love and unimaginable loss. Why feel guilty for that? I don’t feel guilt for grieving and I never will.

Mixed in the many layers of grief are the questions “Why me? Why this? Why?” We may never know the answers … at least in this life. But, I can’t help but think there’s a relationship between grief and grace. At least to me, it seems if we endure our struggles well, grief can become our teacher and open our hearts to a deeper compassion toward others. 

Though I wish the death of my son never happened, it did. Shaking my fist at God in anger won’t change that … in fact, such anger would change me … and I don’t want that.

I’ll never turn my fist toward God. Instead, I turn my ear toward Him and do my best to listen. And, when I slow down and give my heart some space, I am convinced grief is a key to grace.