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

LISTENING TO THE HEART

It was a mildly warm summer day, June 12, 2012. As we sat in the examination room, I marveled over how Mitch, a boy barely ten, learned to endure the tedium of doctors visits with a glad heart and cheerful countenance. I knew on the inside he was anxious to be done with it – but he learned at an early age discomfort was a necessary fact of life, misery a choice.

If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how very different our ideals of beauty would be.
— Unknown

While waiting for lab results, I remember Mitch saying, “Dad, I wish I didn’t have to be here.” He would pause a moment to reflect, then say, “But at least I get to play with my friends later.” At that moment, Mitch reminded me of one of his greatest virtues: he didn’t see his cup half empty or half full, he was just glad there was something in it. Therein lies a key to lasting happiness.

Mitchell’s cardiologist placed a stethoscope on his chest to listen to his fumbling heart. Earlier that Spring, we discovered his heart function had experienced a dramatic decline, which put in motion aggressive steps to slow any further muscle wasting to his heart.

I could tell by the look on his doctor’s face that things were getting worse. Natalie could see it, too. It would be a few more months before we learned therapies were utterly failing. It was as though God was calling our son home and no amount of medicine or scientific intervention could save him. Medicines that should have had at least some effect had none whatsoever.

While his cardiologist was listening to the erratic rhythm of his heartbeat, I began listening to the heart of his soul. Mitchell’s soft smile and grateful demeanor bore evidence his spiritual heart was healthy, and for that I was grateful. For I sensed dark storms ahead, and soon Mitch would need to rely on the light within.

... the lessons of life are often quite subtle – until we learn that strength of any kind comes from the struggle.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As I saw my broken boy, I remembered the saying, “If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how very different our ideals of beauty would be.” Mitch taught me to see far beneath the skin – to reverence the soul that lives therein.

There were times I wondered why Heaven gave me a broken child. The answer would eventually come, but it would take a while. I cried at commercials and wept over songs – so why was I given a child with something so terribly wrong? I scoured the internet and read piles of books – I sought after answers. I looked, and I looked.

The answers elusive, like catching a cloud – until the moment I listened with my heart and heard answers not spoken aloud. Hardship’s a teacher, that’s plain to see. No one escapes it; not you, not me. But the lessons of life are often quite subtle – until we learn that strength of any kind comes from the struggle.

Whenever trouble finds me, or when I’m lost or don’t know where to start, I've learned to quiet my mind and listen to my heart.

ONLY SOULS

As I watched these beautiful souls talk it occurred to me that while age may divide us, it is our hearts that combine us. And, like little Mitch taught me, when we see with our hearts we see everything that matters. And when we do that, generations crumble to the earth and all that remains are souls.

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/

FILLED TO INFINITY

Winter was pressing gently on us and the skiffs of snow and crisp air seemed to promise colder, snowier days ahead. With the holidays approaching, Mitch was excited about the season of dad’s famous hot chocolate, sleigh riding, popcorn and movies by the fireplace, Christmas presents and lots of cuddles. The little boy in me was excited, too.

When I die and see my Father and my long lost son, I won’t be asked if I got my work things done. The real question and answer, whether good or bad, will be what I did with the life I had. Did I invest my time and attention in things that mattered most? Or was I swept away in material things, for which the world boasts? 

One is hollow, emptier than empty. The other is rich, filled to infinity.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey


I left a busy day of work so I could meet little Mitch at the University of Utah Hospital where he was to meet with Dr. Flanigan, a specialist who is leading some research with neuromuscular disease and DMD. 

Just 20 minutes prior to taking this photo I was in the hall of the hospital peeking at Mitch through the door of an examination room that was open a crack. I was pretending to sneak around while a nurse was doing some benchmark tests. Mitch kept trying to hold in his giggles as if we were both going to get busted. I remember when I was a young child trying to prevent a giggle at church or in school … it was always the moments you weren’t supposed to laugh that seemed to make giggling the most intense. Mitch was having one of those moments where he was about to lose himself in laughter. The nurse played along and pretended to be stiff and orderly – but in her heart, she was giggling with us. I was so grateful for medical staff who care for the heart and soul as much as they do the body.

At the end of the doctor’s visit, I kissed my wife and kids and said goodbye. As I started to walk to my own car, Mitch turned around and smiled as I said “I wuv you Mitchie!” My heart was overflowing then and it overflows today when I look at this photo and see his smiling face. 

I don’t remember the substance of the business meetings I had that day, but I can tell you the meaning of these moments and what happened with my son. I remember what happened because that’s what matters most to me and I chose to be in the moment. If I wasn’t careful, I could have shown up at the hospital but never really arrived. I know how easy it is to be distracted and disconnected from what is in front of us. From the digital devices that entice us away to preoccupations of work or hobby … or perhaps simply stress; it is easy to be somewhere but nowhere. 

I have discovered the true present of being present. Not only did being fully engaged with my son mean a lot to him then, reflecting back on this moment now is a gift of comfort to my weary heart. It is a reminder to me, when I’m tempted to doubt myself, that perhaps once in a while I got something right. It motivates me to keep getting things right. I miss the mark more often than I want to … but I keep trying.

Just the other day I was visiting with my mother about life. I asked her, “What is the one thing in life that has most surprised you?” She said, “The brevity of it.” I immediately felt the truth of her words. Life is brief … and moments are briefer, still. How easy it is to be swept away in the thick of thin things and be robbed of life’s greatest gifts. This photo is a symbol of the present of being present. 

So, when I think back on this cold winter day, while we were carefully wrapping presents we'd soon give away … I realized that very moment the greatest gift we can give one another is time and attention: love from mom and dad, sister and brother. It’s never toys and things our kids are really after … but love, acceptance, guidance and laughter. Those are gifts of greatest import … for life, after all, is exceedingly short. And when I die and see my Father and my long lost son, I won’t be asked if I got my work things done. The real question and answer, whether good or bad, will be what I did with the life I had. Did I invest my time and attention in things that mattered most? Or was I swept away in material things, for which the world boasts? 

One is hollow, emptier than empty. The other is rich, filled to infinity.

TAKING TIME FOR THINGS THAT MATTER

Mitch had just finished having an annual checkup at Shriners Hospital. I was there with my wife to let Mitch know I loved and supported him. With very few exceptions, I was always there. I never wanted my son to turn around and see and empty chair where his daddy should have been. I wanted him to know I was with him every step of the way. It has always been that way … until his very last day.

As we were leaving the hospital I asked young Mitch if he’d like to go to work with me. He smiled softly and nodded yes. My heart leapt from my chest.

While driving to the office an old friend and colleague who owns a simulation business asked if I could stop by his office to discuss some upcoming projects. I told him I had my son with me but that I’d be glad to. He was not at all bothered to have my little one around – in fact, he welcomed it. This good man was a father, too, and had the same family values I held so dearly. 

We met briefly in his conference room and discussed some matters at hand. Sensing business could wait and that there was more important things to do, Reg leaned forward toward Mitch and said, “Hey Mitch, do you want to drive a real simulator?” Mitch was shy and didn’t want to intrude – but the little gamer in him desperately wanted to drive a real simulator. With that, my colleague and friend escorted Mitch to a warehouse attached to the back of his office. This was where he built prototypes. This good man and successful entrepreneur recognized an opportunity to lift a little boy’s heart and expand his horizons.

To think he took time for Mitch, to let my boy know he mattered enough to take time out for him … that warms my heart and soul. It stirs within me a desire to do more of that for others. He didn’t just give Mitch a gift that day … Reg gave me a gift; a gift that still comforts me to this day. I can still see in my mind the smile on my son’s face as we drove out of his parking lot. Mitch said, “Dad, that was awesome!”

Fast-forward a few years and I received an email from this good man … almost exactly a year after my son had passed. He said he felt prompted to send me a message that might bring comfort to my heart – a heart he knew was weary with grief. 

“Dear Chris,

I hope I am not trespassing on your privacy. I have been thinking of you this month and was prompted to write this that it may offer some comfort to you to know that your well-being is thought of by others …” 

The letter continued to offer compassion and then he recounted some of his own experience with grief and loss.

He described how he was in Heathrow Airport after completing a project in England and was about to begin his journey home. Prior to his flight, Pan Am located him and told him to call home immediately. He then learned his youngest twin daughter, Valerie, had passed away. I wept as I read his words … how he described his feelings of helplessness, guilt, vulnerability and so many other emotional horrors I knew all too well. My tears didn’t spring because of my own loss … I cried because of his. I knew his heartbreak and I was so sorry to hear how much he hurt. My tears were tears of empathy and compassion. Yet, in his very message, he was doing the same for me.

Once again, I experienced the supernal doctrine of mourning with those that mourn. What a powerful principle of hope, healing and a taste of heaven above … to care enough to feel another’s hurt and love.

The more I examine my life, the more I’m convinced everything matters. From trivial pursuits to things of deep importance … everything matters. The key is in knowing and pursuing what matters more. The most trivial of pursuits matter, not because they are important, but because they have the potential to keep us from things that matter more. Even still, when I consider all the things I feel are important, they are not all equal: the fact is, some important things matter more than others. 

I hope to always have discerning eyes – so I can know the difference. I am grateful for good friends, like Reg, who have compassionate hearts and good souls … who remind me to take time for things that really matter. In the end, that is all that really matters.