THE OTHER SIDE OF SERVICE

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It feels like yesterday when I heard the sound of muffled thumps and giggles in our living room.  I was so intrigued by what I heard that I had to sneak behind our couch to spy on what was happening.  As I quietly crawled within view, I saw Mitch laughing as he would squeeze and twist Ethan’s ear like a squishy toy.  They were both laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Little Mitch never had a mind to hurt his brother – only to wrestle as young boys do. 

Because Ethan knew his little brother was physically weak, he adapted his play-style so Mitch might feel strong and competitive.  Ethan could have easily turned the tables and overpowered his younger brother.  Instead, he set aside his pride, bridled his strength and allowed Mitch to win in ways that were unique to him – and in so doing, they both won. 

There was a point while home on hospice Mitch said to me “Dad, I just wish I could wrestle.  I just want to wrestle...”  By this time Mitch could hardly function – so it broke my heart to see him yearn for something he loved to do but couldn’t.  I wondered if Mitch missed wrestling so much because his older brother helped him feel normal, healthy and strong.   

By surrendering his strength, Ethan did more than serve his brother this day.  He reminded me that on the other side of service is the often invisible act of lifting hearts and minds – and Ethan knew how to do just that for his little brother.   

This image reminds me there is so much more to service than lifting heavy things or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway.  There is a time and place for strong arms - but there is a greater place for gentle hands and soft hearts.  The service of a smile, a kind word or loving encouragement can do so much for the downtrodden soul.   

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we appreciate, service can be seen in handing strength over to someone who is not as strong – and giving them a chance to win.                                                                

I miss the muffled thunder of Ethan and Mitch wrestling in my home.  And while part of my home is empty and heart hurting, my soul is overflowing with gratitude because I was blessed with two little giants who showed me the other side of service.  They showed me a different kind of love – and I am better off because of it. 

PRESIDENT’S VOLUNTEER AWARD

A little over a month ago Natalie and I were invited to Zermatt (Utah) to be given the President’s Volunteer Award, which was awarded to us in 2016, under the Obama Administration.

... when we lose ourselves in the service of others, grief shrinks and we somehow find ourselves … a slightly better version than the one before.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The award is meant to recognize people who make meaningful contributions to the betterment of society through various forms of service.

Lindsay Hadley (the woman on the right of this photo) and Philip Webb (the man on the left) are both more deserving of such an award. They do so much to help others, with no thought of what they’d get in return. They are the epitome of goodness and abundance. In fact, they have both played a special role in helping Mitchell’s Journey grow and develop.

They are both involved in an organization called Thankful™, which is a non-profit focused on helping make the world a happier place by recognizing and celebrating everyday Thankful moments. I love everything about that organization’s philosophy and efforts. I am grateful (Thankful) they took note of what we’re trying to do at Mitchell’s Journey.

So, we were humbled to be recognized for a brief moment that day – but we knew there was still work to do and people to help. This now hangs on our wall with glad hearts – and we’ve since rolled up our sleeves and got back to work.

I miss my son a great deal. I know Natalie does, too. Though we cannot surgically remove grief, like a tumor to the soul, I have learned we can treat it with gratitude and serve to others. It is my observation that when we lose ourselves in the service of others, grief shrinks and we somehow find ourselves … a slightly better version than the one before.

 
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ONE THING OUR CHILDREN TEACH US

I stumbled across this photo the other day and was taken back to the time when all our children were little. On this day we were at grandma’s home for a family dinner.  Little Mitch sat patiently in his chair as his mommy filled his plate with a healthy balance of vegetables and other things.  “Sank you, mommy”, little Mitch said with a soft voice.  Like all young children, he loved his mom and wanted to make her happy.  If only our children knew how much their mother’s loved them.  It is only when children become parents they begin to understand the depth of such love. Then, and only then, can such a splendor be known.

... when we serve, we love.  And when we love, we heal.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I remember this era of our life so well.  It was a time of late nights and exhausting days … sticky fingers, dirty shirts, runny noses and little messes around the house that seemed to spring up out of nowhere.  Sometimes it felt like the days were too long and the nights, too short.  But in all of that struggle, or better said, in all of that service, deep love began to grow. 

How exactly love grows is something the world often forgets. There is so much anger and vitriol in society today, it's a wonder we haven't burned the world in a mindless rage.

One thing my little ones taught me is service begets love and healing.  I can’t think of a time in my life where I served someone (even a stranger) that I didn’t grow to love them.  Even if it was as simple as helping someone with their bag at an airport, or letting someone in a hurry go first in line … when I find ways to serve others, I grow to love them.  Service changes us from the inside out; it turns hate into happiness, jealousy into joy, and grief into gratitude.  If there is a single antidote for much of what ails family and society, it is simply service.  When we serve, we heal.

Do you want to turn a foe into a friend?  Find a way to serve them.  Are you mad at a family member?  Do something for them that shows, despite unsettled feelings, you still care.  In times of trouble the best way out, I’ve learned, is to lay down my weapons of war and serve the person I’m at odds with.  Certainly, it takes two to resolve a conflict … and it doesn’t work all the time … but it works more than it doesn’t.  I can live with those odds.

What’s the one thing our children teach us?  They teach us service is the foundation to love. Service gives meaning to our lives and renews our souls.  Service can be inconvenient at times – as it should be: for nothing of value comes easily.

The night Mitchell passed away, I sat at the foot of his bed and wept as I contemplated our [nearly] 11 years together.  I remembered the times I served him:  when I gave him piggybacks up the stairs because his legs were too weak to climb, or the times I read to him before bedtime or helped him with school projects.  I wanted to keep serving him and my heart was broken that I could not.  My last act of service was to tuck my son in for the last time and whispered in his ear how proud I was of the life he lived.  I told him I would spend the rest of my life trying to live up to his example … that his daddy wanted to be just like him.  I gave him permission to go to the other side and assured him he would be okay.  He heard me, then passed away 30 minutes later.

If ever I needed peace and healing, it was then … in the aftermath of that profound loss.  For the wilderness of grief was dark and deep – a pain so great, I wanted to close my eyes drift away into eternal sleep. 

I have healed a great deal over the last 4 years, and much of that healing (in addition to Heaven’s help) has come from setting aside my own sorrows and finding ways to serve others.

I am grateful for this photo because it reminded me of a simpler time in my life … a time when I was picking up on the supernal lesson children teach us … when we serve, we love.  And when we love, we heal.

THE WAY OUT *

THE WAY OUT
This morning we helped a local DMD family get a new wheelchair ramp installed at their home. They are the sweetest family you'll ever meet and we have grown to love them. This afternoon, when Tyler comes home from school, he will ride this new ramp for the first time.

... the best way to change a negative circumstance is to lose yourself in the service of others.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We will share a video in the next few days that highlights this family and project.

The real heroes of this construction project are AGC of Utah and Jacobsen Construction. They did this. Their commitment to give back to the community inspires me to serve more, to lift heavy hands and to find new ways to help others.

On days like today, when we try to serve other families who will inevitably lose their boys, I tend to get a little weepy. Sometimes a lot weepy. My heart aches for their own burdens and I wish I could take it away from them. My grief has transformed into deep compassion for others - and though I still ache to be with my son, I am learning to channel that energy to help others. Therein lies that sweet heavenly paradox: when we try to lift others, we are also lifted.

As my wife and I left their home we both mentioned how much our hearts were overflowing with love and gratitude. Love and gratitude for this good family and for these good people who were willing to chip in and serve their community.

It is my experience that the best way to change a negative circumstance is to lose yourself in the service of others. I swear on my life this principle is true. It works. It helps. It heals.

• If you're hurting, go serve someone.
• If you're a little lost, help someone else find their way.
• If you're sad, help someone be happy. 
 • If don’t have the strength to stand, try kneeling and asking for help.

The way out of hard stuff is to help others through theirs. It may never take our pain away, but it will strengthen our backs so we can face another day. I hope everyone who read these words will find someone to serve today.


The man on the left of this photo (see below) is Jacobsen Construction's teacher in their apprentice program.  I have watched this man for two years carefully teach and guide his apprentices.  He is a master teacher with a love for his craft.  What inspires me most about him is the other lessons he so authentically teaches ... the value of service and giving back to the community.    

 
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We cannot say enough about good about Rich Thorn, CEO of AGC of Utah and Rich Fullmer, head of apprenticeship and training.  These men, along with their entire company, are committed to make a difference in their industry and serve their community at the same time.  They don't give their core values lip service, they give their values action

 

AGC of Utah has been a wonderful supporter of Mitchell's Journey Foundation.

 
 
 

LIFTING HEAVY HANDS *

Photo Credit: Scott Winterton

Mitch was barely home on hospice. The hourglass that counted down our precious days and hours was all but invisible, and we didn’t know if his little heart would give out in 5 days or 5 minutes. So we clung to each moment like a weary traveler might hang to a flask of water in a desert.

I love that heavenly paradox: when we lift others, we too are lifted.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

During this time, Candice Madsen, a producer with a local news agency (KSL), had been telling our son’s story on the news. She was professional and courteous … and most importantly, she was deeply compassionate. At one point, she sent me a message asking if a former BYU football player, Andrew Rich, might come over to wish Mitch well. During the height of his athletic career Andrew thought football was the most important thing in his life, but then he had a baby and, like me, his world turned upside down and right side up. When he learned of our little boy’s struggle, his heart turned to our son with compassion.

So, on this cold February night, Andrew brought the warmth of humanity into our home. He sat on the edge of our couch, next to Mitch, and shared a few photos of his little baby who also had heart complications as an infant. Then Andrew did what great humans do, he turned attention away from himself and encouraged a person in need. He told little Mitch how strong he was and that he cared. I sat on the couch and fought back a river of tears as I knew Mitch needed every ounce of courage and strength he could get. In truth, so did we.

After a while of conversation, Mitchell’s energy began to fade, and he asked to lay down. Natalie rushed over and scooped our little boy in her arms; his hands seemed so heavy. Just then, Andrew reached out and held Mitchell’s hand and squeezed it – as if to give him a hug. I saw a look of compassion and love in his countenance that warmed my heart.

Mitch was touched by his kindness and wondered why anyone, especially a stranger to him, would even care. He often said things like, “I’m just a kid,” struggling to understand. Later that night I sat on the edge of his bed as Mitch asked me why so many strangers took an interest in him. My eyes filled with tears as I explained that people care because they know how precious children are. Then, I could barely utter the words as Mitchell’s eyes filled with tears, “You, my son, are the very best part of me and I want to be good, just like you.” Mitch reached out his tired arms gesturing for a hug. We both wept, father and son, as we held each other – trying to lift each other’s heavy hands.

Mitch would have another good week ahead of him. He played with friends, spent time with family, and got to do many things he loved. I put my entire world on pause and tried to love this little boy with everything I had. It was a tender and fragile time: both beautiful and heartbreaking.

After that magical week, death came clawing at our door. Another week would pass, and Mitchell’s vitals would deteriorate as we felt death’s coldness breeze seeping into our home. Saying goodbye was terrifying beyond all description and broke every single part of me. Then came grief – a journey that would break my broken pieces.

I have spent the better part of 3 years processing the death of my child. I still grieve deeply, though writing has become my therapy and helped me process the meaning of things. Yet, in moments of deep grief, when my hands (and heart) feel especially heavy, I have learned to turn my attention to others, and I try to lift heavy hands, just like Andrew Rich. I love that heavenly paradox: when we lift others, we too are lifted.

May we spend this year in the service of others, lifting heavy hands; for we are all weary travelers and we are meant to help each other along the way.


THE FLIPSIDE OF SERVICE

We sat in the upper level of Shriners Hospital waiting our turn to visit with the orthotics department. From a distance, I saw Ethan and Mitch whispering in the corner of a vast open space designed to let children play. I could tell by the looks on their faces these young boys were conspiring to have fun. A few moments later I saw Ethan sit on a scooter and Mitch started pushing him with his electric chair. They both laughed and laughed as they scurried about the hardwood floor, sometimes at exhilarating speeds.

Along the wall of this open corridor, I saw a chalkboard where a young child wrote, “I’m sad.” I’ll post that photo in another story about suffering. As I read that simple phrase, clearly written by young hands, I began to cry for that mystery child. My heart broke and I wished I could share a portion of my own health and give it to others in need, including my son. I would have given my life to save my son.

So, when I seem to struggle or get lost and can’t find my way, I stop to catch my breath … then find someone I can serve that day. It doesn’t take much to turn a bad day around – if I can help someone in need and my heart goes from lost, to suddenly found.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As I turned attention back Mitch and Ethan, my eyes began to dry and my heart was filled with gratitude. Though life can seem cruel at times, I saw evidence of heaven’s hand right before me. My eyes began to see the tender mercy these two boys were to each other. In that moment, I knew that while God wouldn’t remove Mitchell’s hardship, He sent Ethan to help ease the way.

Mitch was about to endure a great inconvenience. Within a few hours, he would have both legs placed in cast for a few weeks. These casts were shaped in such a way to stretch his heel cords – which stretching would help keep him walking a little longer. However, just a few short months from this photo Mitch would go into catastrophic heart failure – and all that we tried to do to keep him healthy would become painfully irrelevant.

Ethan, knowing his younger brother’s options in life were limited, knew just how to serve him. He always allowed Mitch to wrestle him to the ground and let him win, even though Ethan was much stronger than his younger brother. He helped Mitch build blanket forts when his arms were weak. Sometimes Mitch would sit in the middle of the room with a smile as Ethan built a big pillowy, blankety fort around him. Mitchell’s smile would always grow in proportion to the size of the fort. Though life was difficult, it was also glorious.

Ethan found ways to serve Mitch so he could feel like a healthy child. Ironically, by allowing his older brother to serve him, Mitch was serving Ethan at the same time. When I think back on my own life, not once have I served someone and regretted the decision. In fact, I have always felt more blessed than the person I was trying to serve. Heaven’s paradoxes are as sweet as they are beautiful.

So, when I seem to struggle or get lost and can’t find my way, I stop to catch my breath … then find someone I can serve that day. It doesn’t take much to turn a bad day around – if I can help someone in need and my heart goes from lost, to suddenly found.

That’s the flipside of service: by allowing people to serve us, we are also serving them. The very act of giving can change or heal a heart … times ten.

WE'RE JUST WALKING EACH OTHER HOME

There is no single photo that encapsulates what happened today at our Miles for Mitchell run. We were humbled by everyone's support and loving encouragement. Though we run in honor of Mitch, we also run in hope for other boys with DMD. Today we had 11 children, each with DMD, attend. Each child left knowing they were loved by a growing community who cares and wants to help.

In this photo, Natalie talks with a dear friend of hers who also has a son with DMD. Our little Mitchell was friends with her son, who is also named Mitchell. Two DMD mothers who love their sons and carry uniquely heavy burdens, yet they set their sorrows aside to love and support each other. 

As I attended the funeral of my beautiful Aunt earlier this week, a woman who loved little Mitch and was there to support him during special times in his life, I discovered that she often said of life, "We're just walking each other home." 

May we walk each other home with helping hands and loving hearts.

Thank you to everyone who supported our event. It was a beautiful day.

 

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