I WISH YOU’D STAY

It was a beautiful late-summer day high in the mountains.  Natalie’s family had a reunion at Aspen Grove, a family-centered resort just a few miles up the road from Sundance, Utah.  The sun had fallen behind the mountain peaks, and you could feel the cool air rushing down the canyon – as if nature had turned on the air conditioning.  It was an almost perfect night.  Almost. 

We just watched a performance in an outdoor amphitheater when Mitch said to me, “Dad, everything is so beautiful.  Do you think this is what heaven is like?”  I smiled and said, “As long as you’re with me, I know I’m close to heaven.”  He smiled softly … and so did I.

The evening was drawing near, and I needed to go soon.  I was leaving for a business trip to Australia the next morning – and although I was excited to visit that country, I wanted very much to stay with my family.  Mitch had an especially soft demeanor about him that night.  He knew I had to go, even though he wished I’d stay and it seemed as if his gentle ways, his stillness, was his way of drinking in the moments.  I was so captured by his spirit; I had to take this photo.  It’s out of focus, but what’s in focus is all that really matters.

As I was about to go, Mitch held my hand and said, “Dad, I wish you’d stay.”  My heart sank, and I felt a lump in my throat begin to grow.  “Oh, Mitchie, I wish I could stay, too.  I’ll be back in a few weeks.”  Mitch squeezed my hand as if to say, “Okay, Dad.”

I decided I’d spend a little more time, so just after this photo, I took Mitch and my kids to an ice cream shop just out of view of this photo, on the left.  The conversation I had with them and the memories we made that night was sweeter than all the ice cream on earth.  While getting ready for my trip was important, the time I spent with my son was significant – both for him and for me.

In many ways, this gentle evening feels like it happened yesterday.  At the same time, it feels a lifetime away.

Mitchell’s birthday is this Sunday, April 29th.  He would have been 16 years old.  That’s hard for me to imagine … sixteen.  For as long as I walk the earth, young Mitch will always be my 10-year-old son. 

I think I’m going to cry more than usual this weekend – tears of grief, gratitude, and a deep resolve to live a life of quiet significance.  The longer I live, and the more I experience cycles of hurt and healing, I’m convinced a life of significance is often invisible to the casual observer.  Instead, significance is found in the quiet, meaningful things we do.  I’ve observed that a life of significance isn’t found in the things we own – for in the end, if we’re not careful, they end up owning us.   Nor is significance found in popularity or prestige – those are only figments of social imaginations.  At least to me, living a life of significance is found in doing things that matter with those who matter most to us. 

When I see this photo, I’m reminded what a life of significance looks like … what it feels like.  Yes, we must all work, pay bills, and manage adult things – that’s important.  But the difference between importance and significance matters; in the same way difference between being productive or simply being busy, or the difference between feeling happy or hollow.

Fast forward a little, in what felt like the blink of an eye; I remember kneeling by my son’s bed as he was softly dying.  I thought back on this perfect moment with Mitch, and I remembered his tender words to me.  I then whispered in a weepy tone, “My sweet son, I wish you’d stay.”  To my heartbreak, he didn’t stay – but I have found other ways to keep him with me – through writing, examination, and prayerful meditation.  It’s not the same as having him actually with me – not by a long shot – but keeping him in my heart is the best I can do.  There isn’t a day I don’t think about him, and I often wonder what kind of young man he’d have become.  I don’t cry like I used to.  But I always think of him.  Always.  And sometimes I cry.

Though I wish he had stayed, there are a few things my son left behind.  Little Mitch taught me about the art of stillness.  He taught me about the gift of gratitude.  He taught me how to slow down and drink in the moments.  He taught me to understand the difference between what’s important and what’s significance. 

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.

FINDING SIGNIFICANCE IN SIMPLE THINGS

Evening was drawing near when Mitch asked if our family could go on a ride around the neighborhood.  His muscles were getting weaker by the day, and walking distances of any length were more than he could bare.   As the world was getting bigger for healthy kids, Mitchell’s world was getting smaller, his options more limited.  But Mitch smiled anyway and was glad to be alive.  

Whenever possible, Mitch wanted to go outside to feel the wind on his face and experience any part of life.  Sometimes I wonder if my grief is magnified because I know how much my son appreciated being alive – and my heart is pained that his life was taken away.  But those are the thoughts of a mere mortal, and I know that there is more to life and death than we imagine.  Even still, death hurts me so.

If it’s the ordinary stuff I long for, then it is the ordinary stuff I should seek after and cultivate.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So, on this peaceful evening, Ethan took point on his bicycle, ensuring the path was clear for his brother while Mitch tugged his sister on skates.  Mitch enjoyed giving others rides because it allowed him to do something nobody else could.  What made him different also made him special. 

Like Mitch, I loved the atmosphere of sunsets and always paused to appreciate the beauty of natural light.  Just as I was admiring the sky, Mitch looked up at me and said, “Dad, isn’t it beautiful tonight?”  I smiled and said, “Yes, Mitch, it is beautiful.  Just like you.”  I leaned down and kissed his head only to catch the faint scent of shampoo; a hint bedtime was near.  I thought to myself, “How I love having children.”

When I think back on my most treasured memories as a father, they’re found in the most ordinary moments – those times and occasions that seem to hide in plain sight.  They’re the things I am tempted to overlook and take for granted.  I don’t know that I’ve ever confused shallow things for significance – but I have sometimes overlooked the simple things, not recognizing how significant they truly were. 

I have written in the past that grief is my teacher – but what does that mean, exactly?  One example, at least for me, is grief has taught me the very things I long to do with those who are gone are the things I should seek after with those who are now living. 

I don’t grieve that I can’t take Mitch to a theme park, I grieve that I can’t sit on the couch and read books to him.  I don’t long to go on vacation with my son, I long to tuck him in and listen to him talk about his day and share his hopes and dreams.  I don’t miss taking him to a fancy restaurant; I just want little Mitch to sit by me at the dinner table again and hold my hand like he used to.  If it’s the ordinary stuff I long for, then it is the ordinary stuff I should seek after and cultivate.

Looking back, I can see how easily one can get swept up in grief and sorrow – so much so, it becomes a paralytic.  Yet, my grief doesn’t paralyze me; it mobilizes me.  You see, the irony of death is it has taught me how to live.  My pain, for example, has led me to my life purpose.  I don’t know that I would have found it otherwise.  I suppose I can thank my Father for that.  It seems to me that pain in life is inevitable, finding purpose is a choice.

If my son’s journey has taught me anything, it’s taught me slow down and find significance in simple things.