THE ECHOES WE MAKE

It was summer and the color of the evening sun had poured into the room like a glass of warm orange juice. Grandpa hiked his pant legs a little as he sat down to tell my small children some tall tales. My little ones sat around him (Mitch on the right), captivated and smiling as their grandfather lovingly wove a story of fiction, magic, and a little bit of nonsense.

Mitch tugged softly at my arm as he pointed to the glowing lint floating in the air as it crossed paths with the window. He said in a whisper, “Dad, it looks like space.” I put my arm around him as he began to lay his head into my chest. Time slowed to a near halt as we had one of those perfect moments you wish could last forever. There were no digital screens to look at, no earbuds drowning out the world, no text messages, RSS feeds and other suffocating distractions … nothing but each other, love and the lost art of storytelling.

I remember admiring my father-in-law [a man who is as kind-hearted as he is good] connect with my children in his own, unique way. I was grateful for this soft moment. As my children were swept away in story, my mind drifted to other things. I couldn't help but think of my son, a little boy who had done the world no harm yet was a victim to a deadly disease from which there was no escape. Although he appeared healthy, I knew that he was dying faster than the rest of us. And that broke my heart.

When I leaned down to kiss Mitchell’s forehead, he put his hand on the side of my face as if to keep me there and whispered, “I love you, dad.” My eyes welled as I whispered back, “I love you more.”

I then lifted my head and looked at a wise grandfather investing his time and loving attention with my children. I began to think about the passage of time and the natural order of life. It occurred to me that before we know it, age will catch up to this wonderful man and he will soon pass away. Whatever material possessions he may have accumulated will matter not one bit. Neither will popularity or prestige. The only thing he will take with him is what he has become. And the echo of his influence and choices will be the only lasting inheritance he will pass on to the generations that follow.

As I sat in this room surrounded by a family that I love deeply, I began to contemplate the echoes we make, the ripples our choices have on ourselves and others. They can build or destroy. They can be loud as thunder or soft as whispers. They can last generations or be silenced in less than one.

Author Peggy O’Mara said, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I found this to be true, at least for me. I hope that any inpatient or unkind word I may have ever said to my son was drowned out by how much and how often I tried to love him. And I hope that when my son was passing that he found comfort in his inner voice – that he looked forward with faith, not fear. That he knew he was loved by those of us here ... and the many that are over there.

As I peer into the abyss of death, unable to see with mortal eyes what exactly lies within, I can hear the echo of my son; his goodness, his love, his obedience, and faith. I hope that I carry his echo forward.

Losing my son (or anyone) is a painful reminder that suns set, seasons change, leaves fall, and so do our bodies. And if that's the case, I do well to remember that I only have a few minutes on this planet and I had better make the most of it. Of all the things we give and take, perhaps nothing is so important as the echoes we make.

USUALLY MORE THAN ONE*

When I close my eyes and think back on this moment, I can still smell that faint, earthy whisper of fallen leaves as my boys wrestled in a freshly gathered pile. The ruffles and crunches, blended with the giggles of my boys still play in my ears as though it just happened. “Hey, Effie, let’s throw leaves in the air again”, Mitch prodded his older brother. “We can pretend we’re in Lord of the Rings or something.” Ethan, not knowing what little Mitch meant, reached down and began to gather leaves in his arms. Mitch, eager to make believe, already had his armful.

I laid on the ground quietly and took photos from the perspective of a field mouse, looking up at my little boys who had a giant imagination. I loved this moment and the moment immediately after this photo was taken when the sky was filled with golden snowflakes made high by little boys who loved to play.

I recently stumbled across this quote: “Isn’t it strange how autumn is beautiful, yet everything is dying?” I love this quote, not just for the arrangement of words, but for the meaning it conveys. I have discovered that beauty can be found in almost anything if we look for it.

To be clear, seeing my son slowly die was not beautiful – in fact, it was a horror show that broke my heart and soul. Yet, when I look back on the tender mercies we received during that time from a loving Father, I know we are we are not alone. I know that heaven walks before us and prepares the way for all that we experience. The truth is, we are rarely spared suffering, but we can be given comfort in times of need … and there is a certain beauty in that.

For every difficult thing I’ve experienced, I’ve learned something about its counterpart. Poverty has taught me the value of a penny; suffering the splendor of peace. Death has taught me to appreciate life; grief has shown me the value of time.

When the skies darken and I'm tempted to give up, I stop and count my blessings ... I name them one-by-one. For every negative, I have discovered a positive – and usually more than one. It is humbling to see all that God has done - not just for me, but my precious little son.

 

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.  

iStock-474944786 (1).jpg

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

IN TIME

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.

ON GRATITUDE

We had just parked in front of my in-laws for a Thanksgiving dinner. My not-so-little Mitch, always asserting his independence, began to walk awkwardly down the slight slope of their front yard to the front door. Walking can seem like such an easy thing to those of us who have muscle strength. But to Mitch, walking was difficult ... as evidenced by his awkward gait and increasingly visible struggle to lift his legs high enough to put one foot in front of another. Despite his independence, he would need help up the stairs. 

Mitch was so interesting; whenever life seemed to take things away from him, his gratitude for what remained only grew stronger.

He shared his gratitude for life on many occasions and in many different ways. Each time he expressed his gratitude for life, his words were simple and profound. One day I will post the audio from a one-on-one interview with Mitch where he said "I'm grateful for life." 

I think he sensed early in his life that he would only be here a short time. He knew it, in a way, just like I knew it; except I think he knew it without knowing it.

I wonder if one of the reasons he valued life so much was precisely because Mitch sensed something was seriously wrong. 
Whatever the reason, because this young boy was so grateful for life, he lived and loved deeply - never taking a minute or moment for granted.

He gathered gratitude like a wise traveler might store up oil for their lamps ... in preparation for those long, dark times when the only light we might ever see will come from the light within.

Gratitude not only strengthens the heart and soul, it also serves as a light to shine ... not on what was lost, but what remains.

BRUISED KNEES & BROKEN HEARTS

As the winter sky drew dark Mitch began to fade. He didn’t need to say anything, his tired eyes said a million things at once. Natalie tenderly scooped him up in her arms and carried little Mitch to his room. My heart sank as I saw my little boy listless and drifting away. I could almost hear death violently gashing at our door … about to barge in like a terrifying home invasion to steal my son away. 

Later that night I prayed to my Father, knees bruised from prayer. I prayed the words of a broken son and terrified dad in need of comfort and council, “Oh Father, how am I to do this difficult thing? I’m so afraid. My hands and soul tremble. I love my son and don’t want to see him suffer. I will take his place, if you will allow me. Please … not my son. If there is any other way … please …”

I often hear people speak of God’s grace when their children are spared suffering or sorrow. Some will say, almost in a tone of victory, “God is good. All the time.” But what happens when our children are not spared? What then? What happens when things go from bad to terribly, horribly, unimaginably wrong? Has God forsaken us? Has he left us abandoned in a wasteland of grief and sorrow? My experience tells me no. In fact, I have come to see there is a purpose to all things … and when I quiet my mind and focus my spiritual eyes, however blinded by tears, I begin to see things as they really are. That gives me hope.

The death of a child is uniquely and exquisitely painful, whatever the age. At least for me, my son’s passing at the age of 10 was a scene from my worst nightmare. As his father, Mitch saw me as the ultimate problem solver, his protector and soul mate. He was so innocent and believing and good. Yet, despite all that we tried to do, I was unable to save my son. With that harsh reality comes unavoidable feelings of failure and regret, despite what I already know. Such is the burden of grief. And a terrible burden it is.

Though the path that lay before us was dark and frightening, I also know my Father put a dim lamp before our feet so we could find our way. We knew we were not alone. Despite our journey through the dark wilderness of grief, we have come to realize were not abandoned. Not once. To the contrary, in our moments of greatest darkness we were carried, sight unseen. I can see that now. I can see it plain as noon day.

I don’t know the secrets of heaven, however much I wish to see and understand them. I don’t know why innocent children are made to suffer. But they are … and they do. God could stop it, but He doesn’t. Clearly suffering is allowed to happen. So, rather than shake my fists at the heavens – as though my puny protests could change the grand design … I have learned to listen with my soul and see where I was once blind. 

I have learned that bruised knees and broken hearts are important keys to building our spiritual parts. Being human we would avoid pain and sorrow … but that is where growth starts: bruised knees and broken hearts.

SO EMPTY, YET SO FULL*

It was an especially hot summer day when two mothers and 4 children walked into Pioneer Park, each with an arm full of gifts they were about to give away. Quietly they began placing all manner of toys throughout the playground. Each toy had a sticker attached to it with an invitation to play with and keep, signed Mitchell’s Journey. 

Cathy O’Grady, a follower-turned-friend from Boston, was in Salt Lake City and wanted to do something in memory of little Mitch. So, she purchased two carts of toys that included baseball bats, footballs, bubbles, chalk, soccer balls and other things kids used to play with before the advent of technology … before the age of digital isolation and endless distraction. 

She was kind enough to let me follow her and a friend, Tracey Langston, so I could take photos of their random act of love and kindness in memory of Mitch. Each of them wore a Miles for Mitchell shirt because they wanted to take my son with them. 

“Watch how parents will put their phones down and suddenly start playing with their children when they’re given a toy.” Cathy said. Sure enough, exactly as she described, I saw it with my own eyes. Parents who moments earlier were busy scrolling through never ending streams of Pinterest posts, social feeds, texts, emails and other things suddenly set their devices down and began to play with their children. 

I saw adorable little kids stumble into a lonely soccer ball, pick it up with curiosity and then show it to their parents as though they won a lottery. I marveled at how these small, inexpensive toys changed how people interacted with one another. As these anonymous gifts were discovered, the playground went from friendly to an excited frolic.

After these good Samaritans were done placing toys … when parents and children alike were playing with one another, I told Cathy how humbled I was by her act of kindness. As my eyes filled with tears … fighting back a wave of grief … I told Cathy something about little Mitch just before he passed away. As Mitch was facing the realities of his own death he wept and wept as he told me how much he wished he could be like regular kids. My soul unraveled and my heart fell to the floor as I heard my son describe what he wanted to do in “real life” but could not. “Dad, I don’t want to ride a skate board in a video game, I want to do it for reals.” Mitch sobbed in ways only a dying child can know. And my soul writhed. 

I told Cathy how grateful I was for the gifts she gave others. She didn’t just give toys, you see. These little gifts were a means to a much greater end. Cathy gave the gift of play. The gift of relationships.

So, on this hot summer day, never a swing set looked so empty, yet felt so full. I wanted my little boy to be seated there and was pained that he was not. I wished with all of my heart I could push him back and forth, long after the sun set. I wanted to play with Mitch and see his face and hear him laugh, yet he was forever gone. Instead, I saw other children and parents enjoy what I no longer had – and yet my heart swelled with gratitude for their happiness.

I am so grateful for people like Cathy and Tracey … who seek to build others up and serve with love. I wonder how the world would change if everyone gave freely and not want anything in exchange. Something divine happens when we love and lift … for the very act of giving is itself a supernal gift.

You can see more photos of this experience at the park on instagram.com/mitchells_journey/

You can also learn more about Cathy and the many other good works she is doing here: http://sofiasangelsfoundation.org/