BEING SEEN

“Mom, will you go with me?” Mitch said softly as he pointed toward a towering set of stairs leading to a waterslide.  Mitch loved his mom and always felt safe when she was near.  Natalie lifted Mitch in her arms and began to make the long upward journey.  It was unseasonably hot for that time of year – so any chance at getting in the water was welcome.

As Natalie rounded the stairs, Mitch saw me in the distance and waved with his fingers.  My heart melted as I saw a boy whose muscles were made weak from disease and a mother who was made strong through the struggle.  Those two made a beautiful symphony whose songs I still hear in my heart.

... being seen wasn’t about vanity, it was about validation
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As I look at this photo, I can’t help but think of the thousands of photos where my kids looked over to see if mom and I were watching them.  Not only do I have photos of them looking over at us, but I also captured their expressions of relief, appreciation, and fresh courage when they knew they mattered.  Growing up, I remember how often being seen by an adult mattered to me.  At least for me, being seen wasn’t about vanity, it was about validation.  And it didn’t take many moments of validation to make a profound difference in my life.  Being seen was as simple as having a parent ask me how my day went, a scout leader taking a moment to make a personal observation about me, or my high school English teacher who saw something in me I did not.  To those adults, those encounters may have seemed insignificant – but to me, they were pivotal moments … shaping moments.  I’ll never forget those good people for their positive contribution to my life.

Mitch also had great school teachers who saw him – and when they saw him, he felt empowered to be the best version of himself.  His principal, Shelly Davis, always took the time to let Mitch know she cared.  She had mastered the art of seeing the children in her school – and every single one of them felt noticed and special.  I am forever grateful for Mitchell’s Principal and teachers who made my little boy, who was unsure of his place in the universe, feel that he mattered and that he had an important role to play.  That is, in my experience, the best education of all; to learn that no matter how big or small, each of us has something to contribute.  Everybody has value.

As the school year starts, I think about my 3 remaining children.  Laura-Ashley is in college forging her way through young adulthood with plans to pursue nursing.  Ethan is a Junior and already taking college-level classes in film and cinematography.  Wyatt is now in 6th grade – showing signs of a bright and promising future.  Though I have many things on my mind and work tugging for my attention, I will not forget the lessons I learned in my youth and those same lessons I saw play out in Mitchell’s life.  Today, tomorrow, and for as long as I live, I’ll make sure I take the time to see my kids and recognize the good in them. 

Although both are vital for healthy relationships, it’s my experience giving your attention has a greater impact than giving someone your time.  With technology at our fingertips, it is so easy to spend time with someone – but never really show up.  Twenty minutes of sincere connection has more influence than 20 hours of being somewhere but nowhere.  Those pivotal moments in my youth were short conversations – but they were focused and sincere.  These good people gave me their attention – and that made all the difference.

I hope as Mitchell’s life was coming to an end, that his mind was filled with moments like this photo – where he was seen, loved and validated.  Of all the gifts we can give each other, those are chief among them.


This Essay is part of the September Seasonal Content.  Visit each month to get more.

August  -  September  -  October  -  November  -  December

ON SILENCE & SUFFERING

It had only been a few hours since I knelt at this very bed and whispered into my son’s ear how proud I was to be his daddy and that he didn’t need to hold on any longer.  I knew he was tired yet didn’t want to leave for fear of hurting us.  I also believe part of him didn’t want to leave because he loved to be alive – I mean, he truly appreciated life.  I told my little boy how much I would miss him but that he would be okay and he didn’t need to be afraid. 

This sacred room had become a spiritual train station and my little son had departed on a one-way trip.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I often hear parents agonize over saying goodbye to their children at the airport as they go to college, serve missions, or move to some other place.  Though I understand the sorrow of saying goodbye, temporarily, to a loved one … I’ve come to know a deeper, inescapable, nearly suffocating sorrow when you must say goodbye to a child for life. 

The morning sun had broken and I was still in a state of shock.  Incredulous, I went back to Mitchell’s room, wanting to see if it was all a bad dream hoping to discover my little boy was still with us.  My heart broke as I saw my dear wife sitting where Mitch once giggled just a few days prior. 

Natalie was surrounded by everything that gave Mitch comfort in hopes of feeling close to him.  I knew how much she loved her son and how devastated she was to lose him.  Little Marlie, sensing Natalie’s suffering, jumped on her lap in the same way she tried to comfort Mitch when he was dying.  Natalie closed her eyes and wept.  She had a profound spiritual experience earlier that morning, under the cover of a winter’s night sky – but that didn’t take away the pain of losing him.

This sacred room had become a spiritual train station and my little son had departed on a one-way trip.  Though I said goodbye, I remained unsettled that I didn’t say everything my heart wanted to say.

Our journey with grief was just beginning and things would get worse … much worse … before they would start to get better.  This photo was taken a little over 4 years ago.  We have healed a great deal since, but we still mourn the profound loss of Mitch.  Not a day passes we don’t think of him a thousand times.  However, behind our smiles and cheerful dispositions are hearts that are still tender … still mending.

There comes a point where observers no longer feel sad with that person, and they begin to feel sad for that person. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It wasn’t long after the passing of Mitch from heart failure, a neighbor/friend down the street received a heart transplant.  I remember visiting him at the hospital while he was in recovery, with some of our neighbors.  At one point, I had to step into the hall to weep a little.  I was sincerely grateful this good man had a second chance at life – in fact, I wept for his family and prayed fervently he’d survive his own struggle with heart failure.  So, watching him smile softly in his recovery room brought me great joy.  But, without warning, the pain of my son’s loss to heart failure overcame me and I struggled to catch my breath.  In that moment, I felt like a young child who missed the bus as I saw it drive into the distance … that overwhelming sense of doom and panic that maybe I didn’t do enough to fight the system that denied my son a transplant.  Agony coursed through my veins like a drug and I was in emotional hell.  As my friends and I left the hospital, they were oblivious to my silent suffering – and it was then that I realized after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one.

At what point does grieving the loss of a child become decidedly sad, improper, or morose?  On the surface, such a question seems unconscionable.  Except, the hard truth is there is often an underlying expectation that those who grieve move on at some point.  There comes a point where observers no longer feel sad with that person, and they begin to feel sad for that person. 

So, what does moving on mean?  I know what moving on looks like for observers … at first, they feel deeply for a season but then their mind and attention shifts to other matters in their own life.  That is as it should be.  Everyone has their own set of struggles and in time, those issues take center stage in their lives – especially as time passes.  Moving on for the sufferer is not so easy – particularly when it comes to the loss of a child.  When someone becomes a parent, they are changed forever in ways that are difficult to describe.  That little soul we ushered to life becomes a deep part of our identity and whatever happens to them, happens to us.  When we lose them, we lose a part of us we can’t get back.

Observing how others respond has been interesting:

  • As time passes, some of those closest to us avoid conversations about our fallen child for fear it would make us sad.  (Don’t worry, we’re already sad.) 
  • Some are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or how to say it. (I’ve found the most helpful thing to say is, “I want you to know I care.”) 
  • Others worry they’ll say something wrong and offend.  (Perhaps the most powerful thing you’ll ever say is, “I’m listening.”)
  • Still others avoid talking about pain because of their own struggles with pain. 
  • On the other side of the spectrum are those who think they have all the answers … they say things like, “Don’t be sad.  Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad.” 
  • Some, foolishly, will square their shoulders, look you in the eye, and tell you they think it’s time to move on – as if their bold, armchair counsel can do in a moment what psychologists can’t do for their patients in months or years.  

Whether people pull back or lean in, it seems to me all those things serve to further alienate the sufferer.  They silence their pain and take it to a deeper place, far from view or criticism from others – often not knowing what to do or where to go.  Sometimes that hidden pain becomes emotionally cancerous, other times it leads to deep depression, anxiety, or unspecified anger.  This can be a dangerous state of being.

Because memories are subject to fade ... some parents want to talk about their loved one(s) – not so much that you won’t forget … but so they won’t. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I have discovered that for many who have lost a child, talking about them is a form of therapy.  In part, it helps because we don’t get to make new memories with them – we only have yesterday's.  Because memories are subject to fade, I’ve observed some parents want to talk about their loved one(s) – not so much that you won’t forget … but so they won’t.  We cling to details because that’s all we’ve got and they are treasures beyond price. 

Suffering is hard enough.  Suffering in silence, harder still. 

If you have a friend who suffers, lend an ear, a caring heart, and a soft shoulder to lean on.  Even if their loss was years ago – no matter how well they hide their hurt, it is there.  Letting them know they’re safe with you and that you care can help those who hurt work through their struggle.  With your love and heaven’s help, perhaps they can put a few pieces back together.

[This photo was taken on March 2, 2013.  7:50 AM]

ECLIPSE

Last week, Natalie and I set out to do what millions of people did ... we took our kids, along with a friend, Jonathan Gardner, who we met through #mitchellsjourney to Madras Oregon to witness the total eclipse.

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We rented a van (almost a small bus) and went on a long drive to the coast of Oregon at first, then journeyed inland to an arid town (Madras) in hopes of clear skies and a glimpse of an astronomical wonder.

Along the way, we stopped to take photos of the Oregon landscape.

Our First Adventure, A Waterfall & the Ocean

Preparing for the Eclipse

We camped at SolarFest (local fairgrounds in the town of Madras) but then went to Solar Town (a plot of farm land just outside Madras) to see the actual eclipse.

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Great shot, Jonathan!

Great shot, Jonathan!

Wyatt enjoying a pineapple smoothie

Wyatt enjoying a pineapple smoothie

Another great shot by Jonathan of the campgrounds a the fairgrounds

Another great shot by Jonathan of the campgrounds a the fairgrounds

Solar Town - The Place We Photographed the Eclipse

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As the Eclipse Began

As the sun began to hide behind the moon, I was overwhelmed with a sense of humankind's utter nothingness against the backdrop of an infinite universe. It was a humbling to witness the majesty of two celestial bodies interact. As small as I felt, my feelings about Mitch loomed enormous.

A Moment for Mitch

As the Sky darkened I thought to myself how much Mitch would've loved to see what I saw. I know there are people who will say, "he was there with you" ... but he wasn't ... not in the way I wanted him with me.

So, before I began to take in the eclipse, I dedicated a small prayer in my heart so I might always remember my little boy and re-commit to be nice to others and be grateful for life.

The Eclipse Closing In

Here are a few photos of our experience and what we captured. Admittedly, our photos of the eclipse itself are unremarkable, inasmuch as they look like everyone else's photos. But these were our pictures and we were excited to take them.

The Moment of Totality, a 360° Sunset

At the moment of totality, we were surrounded by a 360° sunset. Mitch, having loved sunsets the way he did, would've been fascinated. I'm putting together a little video of the experience that I'll post shortly.

Unfortunately, this panoramic photo is blurry - but it still serves to show how dark the sky became during the 2+ minutes of totality.


The Sun's Corona


Our Favorite Photo of The Eclipse

The last photo in this series is my favorite. I took a burst of photos as the sun began to break over the edge of the moon and that photo represents one of them. Captured in that series show multiple sun flares. It was amazing to witness.


Hi Marlie!

The morning we returned home, Natalie and I went to our cousin's home whose family was watching Marlie for us.  THis was the look on her face after our being gone for 5 days.  It was as if she were saying, "Dad, is that you?  Where have you been?"  

This little pup who gave Mitch great comfort now serves our family in a similar way.


It was a fun adventure and I am so glad we saw it through. Wyatt and Ethan were anxious to photograph the journey so they could make videos and photo journals of their own. Jonathan (our family friend) and Natalie both took photos like a paparazzi.

I think it's safe to say, if nobody else on this planet shot the eclipse save our family, we'd have had it covered. 

For those who are following our Everyday Photography tutorial, this series can serve as an example of our photojournalistic style.  

WHILE THE SUN IS SHINING

The day had drawn long, as summer nights often do, and we could hear the early chirps of evening crickets.  For some reason, I was especially tired that evening and was tempted to disappear into the shade of a nearby tree to rest while the kids finished their BBQ at the foot of our secret woods.

... the best way to prepare for life’s storms is to make a mansion of memories, while the sun is shining.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I had a lot on my mind that day and I suppose wanting time for myself was justified.  For reasons I couldn't explain, I felt like I needed to stick around and give Mitch my time and attention.  So I set aside my fatigue and gave my son more of my time and attention.  I have never regretted that decision.

I smiled when Mitch said, "Dad, don't you just love corn on the cob?  I think that guy on Nacho Libre was right.  It's the best."  Then he dug into his third corn on the cob.  When he was done eating, we went to a nearby park and played on the swing.  At first glance, it was an ordinary moment spending time as father and son - but looking back, I see that exchange differently.  

I had always heard the saying: "The best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining."   I've discovered that same principle holds when it comes to preparing for life's hardships.  To be clear, I don't think it's possible to truly prepare for the death of a child, for that is bewildering beyond imagination.  But we can prepare for difficult times in other ways.  

At least for me, special memories that I created with Mitch and my other children now serve as buoys when I'm tempted to drown in a sea of grief.  Though I may be treading the unavoidable waves of grief - those little moments of joy serve to lift my sinking heart and keep my head above water.

At the same time, I don't think the decision to spend time with loved ones should be motivated by the fear of loss.  If one really thinks about it, we are losing everything we know to time, anyway. Tomorrow things may seem the same, but it will be slightly different.  And so time goes.  A year from now, our lives will be more different, still.  How often do we look back on our lives and say with a gasp, "Where did the time go?"  As far as I can tell, whether we're losing our loved ones to death or time, the net effect is the same - tomorrow will be different ... you will never have now again.

Spending time and making moments matter, on the other hand, is sweetest when it's motivated by love. And the best way to prepare for life's storms is to make a mansion of memories, while the sun is shining.  

Whenever I'm especially sad, I tap into that reserve of good memories which then serve as a healing agent, a means of getting centered and most importantly, a way to stay grateful.  Then, the sun will shine a little, even if it rains.  

LITTLE MITCH & THE BIG UNIVERSE

It wasn't many years ago I took my boys camping high in the Uinta Mountains, far away from city lights.  It had been a long day, filled with adventures and exploration.  As we lay in our tent, tired from a long day of play, we gazed through the window of the tent into the starry expanse of the heavens.  

Mitch said softly, "Dad, how big is space?"  I remembered wondering that same thing when I was his age.

... one thing I know, I am in heaven right here with you
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 "Well," I said, "scientists have learned a lot about space since I was a kid.  So far, we can't see the end of space.  In fact, they say the universe is so big, it isn't possible for humans to comprehend it."

Mitch thought for a moment and then said, "Wow, that's amazing."  

A few minutes passed, soothed by the melodic song of crickets, then Mitch said, "So, Dad, is heaven up there?"  I paused a moment and said, "I think heaven will surprise us.  But one thing I know, I am in heaven right here with you."  Mitch smiled and snuggled up to me.  I put my arms around him as we fell asleep.

There, in my arms, was little Mitch frail and curious.  Above me, a universe so vast, my finite mind couldn't comprehend something so infinite.  Mitch and I lay on the ground, high in the mountains, less than a speck in the cosmos.  Somewhere in the middle of the finite and infinite I held the universe in my arms, grateful to be alive. 


 

Be sure to learn more about the full solar eclipse.  

It's happening in 1 week and it will never happen again.  At least in your lifetime.

 

We hope you take a moment on Monday, August 21, 2017, to experience any portion of the eclipse and look upon the sky with a child-like sense of awe.

 

DISCOVERING SIGNIFICANCE IN SORROW

Mitchell’s casket had been removed and all that was left was his scooter, gently adorned with his little shoes, a bottle of water he loved to drink, and a few memorial gifts and flowers.  My cousin-in-law, a professional photographer, took this photo just after my family was escorted into the chapel where my tender-hearted wife and I would give the most painful address of our lives. 

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The last thing on my mind was this scooter that was left behind – so, weeks later, when I stumbled into this photo, I wept.  Then, I caught my breath and wept some more.  Vacant and alone, this ordinary image of my son’s abandoned scooter stood as a stark reminder of what really matters in life.  This was a moment of significance for me.   

I remember kneeling at Mitchell’s bedside just a few days before he passed away.  I remember almost everything, in fact, with vivid clarity.  To carry such vivid memories has been both a blessing and a burden.  With great sorrow I watched my little baby made of sand slip through my fingers and into the abyss.  As I sat by my little boy, who was struggling to breathe, and I ran my fingers softly through his hair and tickled his arms as we just talked about stuff that was on his mind.  My sweet ten-year-old only wanted to run, play and be like all the other young children he knew.  At one point during our conversation at the side of his bed Mitch lamented, with great feeling, how much he wished he could be like “regular kids.”  My soul, already broken, broke some more.     

With tears in my eyes and love pouring out of my soul, I said, “Oh, little Mitch, you are so much more than a mere mortal.  If only you could see who you really are and what you may one day become.  Just remember: our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.  You, my little boy, are so much more than you know.”  Mitch smiled softly, closed his tear-filled eyes and drifted to sleep.  I kissed his face and then prayed to my Father that my back might be strengthened so I could carry such a burden as grief.  How heavy it would soon become, I knew not.  Soon, my legs would buckle and my hands tremble from the weight of grief.  The hell I knew was just a foretaste of what was to come.

A few days later my little boy was gone and I journeyed through the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul.  All that I thought I knew of sorrow … all my mental and emotional preparations for his death failed me.  I thought I was prepared, but I was not.  The grief I felt prior to my son’s death was merely a whisper.  A faint shadow.  A feather … as compared to the heavy and harsh realities of death.  New to this form of grief, I had to remember what I told my son, “Our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.”  Though I know that the soul lives on, that knowledge doesn’t take the sting of death away.  It provides context and meaning, but it offers no insulation from sorrow.   Though I have also experienced a comfort and peace that defies my human understanding, those moments of heavenly peace come and go just like the tides of grief.   

I’ve heard it said, “Those who mistake success for significance, will lead a deeply unfulfilled existence.”  

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.

YOU ARE ENOUGH

A few years ago an employee of mine was getting married, and many of the people with whom we worked came to his wedding reception. Bruce Newbold, a dear friend, and colleague of many years came to the celebration. He no longer worked with our team but because we were all friends, he came not out of social obligation but of love and friendship.

Heaven’s hand, although invisible at the time, was deep in the tapestry of our lives.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The summer sun was about to set, and the wedding reception was nestled in a beautiful garden, deep in the shadow of a tree-covered hill. The air was comfortably warm, and it was another one of those perfect summer evenings you wish you could bottle up and save. I took a deep breath and drank in the moment, grateful for all that was – seen and unseen.

As friends and family of the newly wedded couple arrived, I began to see some of our colleagues and friends arrive, too. When Bruce and his lovely wife showed up, he was quick to say hello and offer his love to our family. Bruce had a tender place in his heart for Mitch, and I remember being so moved when I saw my friend give Mitch a loving hug. I could tell by the look on my son’s face that he felt special. Immediately I fought back the tears because my heart was filled with gratitude. I think everybody deserves to feel important and valued – and on this day Mitch felt all of that and so much more.

Bruce has a special gift of making people feel valued – but more importantly, he causes them to feel they are enough, just the way they are. Mitch sometimes wondered if he was enough … after all, he couldn't run and jump like other boys. In his little mind and heart, he sometimes wondered if he was worth less than others who could do things he couldn't. Mitch yearned to be like “regular kids.” On those occasions, I remember telling my son, with tears in my eyes, that I loved him no matter what. I reminded him that we are all mortal and flawed … and though imperfect I loved him perfectly. I didn't use the words, “you are enough” because I didn't know them at the time – but he knew my meaning, and it was the same.

I wonder how often people live out their lives wondering if they are enough … whether they measure up to some arbitrary or unreasonable set of ever-changing standards. Sometimes it helps to be reminded we are so much more than our mortal bodies and that we are just visitors in this place.

Without uttering a sound, Bruce speaks in ways more powerful than words … saying again and again, “You are enough.” Bruce has the gift of lift- and that’s just what he did for little Mitch on this day and many days before and after.

At the moment of this photo, my son’s fatal diagnosis was far from my mind. Mitch was healthy and seemed to be doing better than anyone expected. It was always the quiet prayer of my heart that somehow, some way, he would be spared. To my great sorrow and without mercy, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy stripped my son of strength and eventually life.

I cannot look at this image and not sense a strong impression that there was so much more happening than I realized. Heaven’s hand, although invisible at the time, was deep in the tapestry of our lives. You see, this man was more than a friend to our family, he also played an important role in Mitchell’s Journey and became an instrument of God in ways I may never share publicly – for some things are too sacred to share. It will suffice to say, this good man and this little broken boy … my little boy … have some heavenly ties that both break my heart and sew it back together again.

I am grateful for those who, like Bruce, have the gift of lift. For they lend a helping hand to heavy hearts and souls that are lonely or sick. And on dark days when I'm discouraged and want to give up, when I struggle and wonder if I measure up, I think of my son, and then my Father and I hear a heavenly whisper, “You are enough.”