IF I LOOK FOR BEAUTY ...

The year after Mitch passed away my aunt and mother came to visit our home. We love having visitors – and enjoying their company that day was a treat. In many ways, my aunt is like a second mother to me and I love her dearly. She is currently in the final stage of her battle with cancer. I pray for her every single night and count myself blessed to be part of her family. 

When I was much younger I remember my aunt visiting our home. At one point we started playing some word game around the kitchen table; a moment that I treasure to this day. It wasn’t long ago she shared her memory of that night some 27 years ago … when I conjured up a funny definition to a word. While playing the game, she presented an obscure word for which I then had to come up with a definition. I didn’t know what the word meant so I said “the irresistible urge to saddle a horse.” My family comes from strong cowboy stock, so she laughed and laughed at my silly definition. When she reminded me of that moment we both laughed again, all these years later. 

It’s the little things. It’s always the little things.

So on this beautiful spring afternoon their visit may have seemed little to them, but it was big to me. I was at an especially tender time in my life – learning to live without my son – and their company and smiles seemed to lighten the weight of grief. How I needed that relief. 

My heart was full that day – because I was able to reflect on some good moments from a time long gone. I also gained a deeper appreciation for all that I had in the moment. 

As my mother and aunt began to walk down my driveway, I took a photo of these two beautiful souls, sisters joined in arms. As they carefully made their descent my mind flooded with memories of Mitch on this same slope. In my mind, I could almost see visions of Mitch laughing as he drove his scooter down at reckless speeds … or the snow blowing across the way as he slid down the snow-packed concrete. 

One place, so many memories … and here, for good measure, was yet another memory to keep and treasure.

Raising little Mitch taught me that if I look for beauty, I will find it. Well, I found something beautiful that day and my heart was overflowing with love and gratitude for these two good souls who helped shape me in their own special ways.

Today I will look for beauty. When I find beauty my grief turns into gratitude … and that is a good thing. 

SHOWING UP

When our kids were younger, Laura-Ashley would hold make-shift classes on Saturday morning. Instead of playing with toys or calling friends to hang out, she would gather up old stools and turn them into ad hoc desks. Within minutes she would transform her bedroom into a classroom. My sweet daughter would spend an hour writing up some form of curriculum, drafting handouts and preparing homework assignments for her younger brothers. And when class started, she would teach the boys about math, science, english and other topics. At the time, Wyatt was a tiny toddler and had no idea what was going on; he just sat patiently in his chair because his brothers were there. 

Ethan and Mitch, being older, would always walk away with a homework assignment in hand, only to return later and have it graded. Most of the time Ethan and Wyatt attended her class - but Mitch always showed up. Always. 

This is a photo of Mitch showing up. In truth, he didn't need to be there. He had already finished his chores, completed his real homework and was entitled to play time. But because showing up was important to his sister, it was important to him. I love that about him.

When I stumbled upon this photo series recently I was reminded of the power of showing up. He never had an agenda for personal gain – he simply offered his love and support. And that is a powerful thing.

So, when I look at this photo of an ordinary Saturday morning, when Mitch decided to show up, I feel a deeper resolve to be there for my wife and kids in every way I know how. I am flawed. I struggle to do the very things of which I write – but I try. God knows that I try. I am getting a little better at it each day.

Sometimes for those who wrestle with grief or struggle in other ways, just showing up and offering love and support is all that is needed. I receive thousands of private messages from people asking for advice, so they might help their friend or family member who is struggling. They almost always worry about saying the right thing in the right way – carefully treading an invisible minefield of words and unknowable emotions. 

In my experience words of consolation, while comforting at times, do very little in the end. My advice to those who seek to comfort another is to worry less about the words you use and think more about how you cause the other person to feel. Sometimes showing up and saying, “I want you to know I care” is enough … and more. 

I remember when my neighbor, Nate Copling, came to the hospital when Mitch was in the cardiac intensive care unit, on the verge of dying. He simply showed up, just like little Mitch did for his sister, and offered love and support. That meant a lot to me. But it was what he didn’t say … what he didn’t need to say … that made all the difference. 

After this gentle, good man said goodbye to Mitch I walked him out of the CICU into a darkened hospital hallway. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and said nothing. He didn’t need to. I felt that he cared deeply. I knew that he mourned with me – which was more powerful and consoling than any arrangement of words.

Mitch and my friend Nate taught me how to show up in body, heart and soul. And when we do that, everybody grows.

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For those interested, I just posted a few extra photos of this moment on instagram.com/mitchells_journey

MITCHELL'S SISTER

I get a lot of private inquiries about how our family is doing; these kind people recognize Mitchell's Journey has become a place of reflection on grief and healing, yet gently ask how my other children are doing. 

Just last night Laura-Ashley went to her first Prom. She always asks me to take her photos and I love doing them for her because she is my precious daughter and I love her so.

Portraiture is not my thing for many reasons - perhaps because, any more, everything has already been done before. Despite my tendency to steer away from portraits, I enjoy trying them from time-to-time.

Last night, before my daughter's dinner date, I took their Prom photos. It was fun. 

My daughter has grown quite a bit since Mitchell passed away. She really, really loved him and grieves in ways only a sister knows. We talk about him often in loving, happy ways. 

As a father and parent, I am pained daily by my son's absence, yet I never loose sight of the beautiful gift of family and the wonderfully loving children I still have. 

My cup, while broken, runneth over. And I am grateful.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT A SISTER

I remember gently waking my daughter, who was deep asleep, to let her know her little brother passed away. You know those rare moments in life that you remember with vivid detail? The smells, the color of light, the layout of a room, and exactly what you were doing at that very moment something big happened … those details of life that seem to crystallize in your mind. Forever. I remember, as a young boy, exactly where I was when I heard the space shuttle Challenger exploded. I don’t remember anything else that happened that year … not like I remember that moment. I just remember crying as a young boy because I knew people were hurting over such a loss. 

Well, this night was one of those moments I will never forget. “Ash” I said with a whisper. She arose instantly, as if her body and soul knew something terrible had happened, “I’m so sorry, but Mitch passed away.” No sooner had I uttered those words than her eyes gushed with tears as she fell back to her pillow and wept. 

Laura-Ashley faithfully loved and served her little brother and they had developed a deep bond between them. I marveled how she balanced softness with strength – a testament that we, being human, are quite capable of being both. On the one hand she would speak ever-so tenderly with Mitch and you could tell she listened with her heart as much as her ears. At the same time she would carry her not-so-little brother on her back with ease. She was strong, yet tender … a beautiful blend of attributes I long to possess.

I took this photo on the California coast while on our last summer adventure with Mitch. He loved the ocean and was fascinated by the power of waves. At this time in his life Mitch couldn't play in the ocean by himself because even the smallest wave would knock him helplessly over. Where smaller children could play in the splash and froth of the ocean’s edge, those same waters were more punishing for him. Even the smallest wave threatened to knock him over. Any prolonged exposure to even moderately deep water, causing him to adapt to the ebb and flow of the current, would tire his muscles quickly and he would most certainly drown if left to his own strength.

Laura-Ashley, this beautifully kind sister, sensing little Mitch wanted to experience the ocean again, heaped her brother on her back and began walking into the water. Mitch laughed and squealed as the waves rolled by and tickled his feet. It occurred to me at this moment, in ways it hadn't before, that there’s something very special about a sister. 

As I photographed them playing I remember being washed over by waves of love and gratitude for my daughter and my son. Of all the world’s greatest riches, none compared to the treasure of this moment with my children. They were a gift to each other, and their love was awesome to see. Love, after all, is the substance of life and the fabric of eternity. 

When I look at my own life experience, it seems to me that sisters and mothers seem to balance out fathers and brothers.

I don’t know what it is, exactly. I only know the world is richer because it is filled with loving sisters.

ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME (part 2)

Laura-Ashley really loved little Mitch. She cared for him on a deeply personal level, and Mitch felt it. Mitch really loved her, too. I would often find him hanging out with Laura-Ashley just to talk. She always offered him her time and most importantly her attention. Nothing shows love like caring attention.

I took this photo late March, 2012. Sunday the 25th, to be exact. Winter’s bitter chill was retreating and the first real glimpse of spring had arrived. Natalie and the kids were excited to go outside and get some fresh air, so we went to a small park just down the street. 

When I think back on this time in my life, things were especially hectic and my mind was weighed by a million things pulling for my attention. I had just returned from a trip to Honduras and had a lot of catching up to do and I could have told Natalie I was too busy to go with them. I am afraid, as much as I’ve tried to be with my family, I may have said that more than my broken heart wants to admit. Surely it isn't reasonable to be everywhere, all of the time; but if I’m honest with myself, I know I could have done better. I wish I would have done better … and from now on, I will try to do better. Looking back on our lives is always a tricky thing … and it seems everyone’s a genius in retrospect. Hindsight displays everything so clearly: how much time we didn't have, the better path or smarter choices and the times I should have recorded my children’s voices. Like an old film in the attic, I replay my memories, my loves, my joys, my heartaches and regrets. I must be careful to not feed my regrets – for they can devour me if I'm not careful.

I believe regret should hurt just enough so we know not to do [whatever] again; almost like touching a hot stove … heat enough to teach, but not enough to scar or debilitate.

I’m glad I went with my family this day because I was able to take some once-in-a-lifetime photos of our kids playing, Natalie nurturing and Mitch smiling. Had my priorities been on important but lesser things, I would have missed out on life’s most beautiful things. My reward for time well spent are warm memories and photos like this ... which make my heart sing. These two children taught me something about love this day.

Two months from this photo, almost to the day, we would learn Mitchell's heart was broken and he was in trouble. I made this video that very night: vimeo.com/42931543 

In less than a year, everything I knew and loved would be turned upside down and my son would pass away. Ask me now the value of this day ...

I wonder how often I have been suckered into believing only the big, rare things are once-in-a-lifetime. Mitch taught me, in the most painful way, every moment of every day is once-in-a-lifetime. I don’t get to go back and do this, or any time over. Time passed is time past. All I have to take with me into the future are the memories I made ... and they can soothe like silk or draw out like the sharpest of blades.

When I see this photo I feel more love than sorrow … and like the hot stove, I hurt for a moment, forever reminded there’s no promise of tomorrow. My wife, children and fallen son are once-in-a-lifetime blessings that I won't squander, not a single one. 

Mitch taught me to drink life in like a thirsty traveler: for when the journey’s done, it’s done. And that sounds like once-in-a-lifetime thing, if I ever heard one.

LOVE IS A VERB, GET BUSY (revised)

A few years ago we took our kids to the park on a sunny autumn afternoon. The heat of summer was behind us, the days were getting colder and we could feel the hint of winter’s breath on our faces. 

At the time Mitchell had strength to walk short distances and his valiant mother made every opportunity for him to enjoy his childhood with what strength he had. On this day, however, Mitchell’s appetite for adventure got the best of him when, in a moment of quiet panic, he realized he walked so far that he couldn't possibly make it back. 

Not fully aware the trouble Mitch found himself in, we saw in the distance two familiar forms run to him with eager arms and legs; two children racing to rescue their little brother and bring him home. To the naked eye this scene was too far away to see or appreciate, but through my 400mm lens this is what I saw. It didn't take long for my viewfinder to fill with tears as I witnessed unraveling before me the most beautiful, unrehearsed portrait of love. 

Here were 3 little giants finding a way to make the best of their situation: a broken boy who found himself in trouble because his zest for life was greater than his body would allow; and two siblings who abandoned their own youthful adventures to serve their little brother with tender care. 

In this moment I realized with clarity love is more than an emotional state: love is a verb.

I have always appreciated the saying “It’s not the load that breaks you; it’s the way you carry it.” Since I have lost my son this photo has taken on a new layer of meaning and I can’t help but think about how I carry my own burdens. The weight of grief is so great at times I find myself stumbling over pebbles, worried I might break. But then I look at this photo, this accidental sermon of sacrifice and love, I am determined to follow my children’s example – to carry whatever loads are heaped upon me with love in my heart and a smile in my countenance. 

Carry on and carry others … that is how we keep from breaking.

I have since printed and framed this photo with the saying: “Love is a verb. Get busy.” These are words to remember. Words to live by.