THE LAST BUTTON

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Some moments in life burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bare, they change the shape of your soul. This was one such moment that broke me and reshaped me in ways I'm still learning to understand.

My dear wife was dressing Mitch at the funeral home. Our mothers were with us as well as our oldest sisters; each of whom played a precious and sacred role in Mitchell’s life, and we wanted them to participate. Also, we were afraid of doing this alone.

Our once-little-baby had grown into a beautiful, funny, thoughtful, and caring young boy; yet there he was laying quietly on a table – motionless and frighteningly cold to the touch. My sweet wife, along with these other good women, reverently dressed Mitch in preparation for his funeral - where we would honor the good little boy that he was. Natalie was doing okay until she got to the last button – then grief washed over her like a title wave, thrashing her about on the inside. This was the last button she would ever fasten for our son – and that broke her heart. It broke mine, too.

I was a wreck that day. In fact, I was a wreck on the inside for many months afterward. Years, in fact. It took years to learn how to put my broken pieces back together again. Even still, I carry a father’s grief, and it is a terrible burden. Yet as much as I hurt on the inside, I know my wife hurts in ways I cannot imagine - for I am a simple man. She carried him, gave birth to him and made sacrifices in ways only a mother can - and with that pain and sacrifice comes a love unique to that service and surrender. So, I consider her grief hallowed ground. I silence my own tears so that I might wipe hers and scoop up her shattered pieces for safe keeping. And when I can, I try to gather mine.

Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

All too often I hear people suggest “there is nothing like a mother's love” – in a manner that seems to subordinate or dismiss the love of a father. In like manner, I hear less often the same of a father’s love as being more than anything else. It's almost as if they claim one love is greater than the other. Nothing could be further yet closer to the truth at the same time. They are correct in saying there is nothing like a mother’s love; in the same way, there is nothing like a father's love. Both are different, both are beautiful and sacred in their own right. But to suggest one is more significant or weightier than another ignores one immutable truth ... they are both parents and hurt deeply for the one they loved and lost. Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.

So when I look at this photo, I set aside my own sorrows and I reverence my wife’s. Her pain is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. Her love was beautiful, vast, and deep.

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the final lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or just looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.

Neal Maxwell, a man whose intellectual and spiritual insight I’ve long admired once wrote, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” I love that statement because it reminds me of the importance of putting our blessings to good use - otherwise, we are throwing our gifts away.

Among the many blessings I have received in this life, Mitch ranks my sweetest blessings. Every day when I button my own shirt as I get ready for work, I vow to remember the blessing Mitch was in my life. And most importantly, to make that blessing count … to allow this experience to become an agent of change, for the better. This image, burned in my mind and heart, reminds me to make Mitchell’s last button count – if not for anyone else, myself.


A LITTLE BIT BROKEN

I’m often asked how my children are doing with their grief journey. The answer is one part private, three parts complicated, and 100% unique. Each of my children has struggled with grief in very individual ways.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As a father, I found that my heart not only broke over losing my son, it broke over seeing my children in pain. It broke seeing my wife hurt in ways only a mother can know. In so many ways, trying to keep a family together after the loss of a child is like trying to prevent others from drowning when you, yourself are drowning. After having experienced the emotional toll of death, I now understand how families can disintegrate.

Last weekend my daughter wanted our family to take some photos in some nearby woods. I wanted to support her impulse to take pictures – and this is one I snapped at the end. Laura-Ashley is the consummate young adult: she is spontaneous, borderline responsible ;), continually discovering how the world works, and full of life. I remember being her age – in so many ways, it feels like yesterday – but then again, so far away. When I was her age, it had never entered my heart how beautiful, yet cruel life can be. But life is more beautiful than it is cruel.

Our home life is filled with ordinary moments. We do chores. We get frustrated with each other. We laugh at each other’s jokes. We talk about life and try to support each other’s dreams. Laura-Ashley has one more semester in college before she goes into nursing school, Ethan has dreams of becoming a filmmaker/storyteller, and he is continually developing his craft, and Wyatt is almost 13 and is into kickboxing, wrestling, piano, and Fortite. And Mitch … he’s still ten years old, to me. For the remainder of my days, he’ll always be tender 10.

I think about Mitch every single day – but I don’t always talk about him to my family. That is one of the great difficulties parents who’ve lost children face – we want to talk about our memories or our hurt, not realizing the people around us need a sense of new normalcy. So, each day, I take deliberate steps to be self-aware and aware of others … and try to focus on my kids, so they know they matter to me just as much as sweet Mitch did. Learning to put grief on the shelf and focus on the now is part of the grueling grief journey. And when grief calls, it knows where to find me.

Even still, my sweet daughter and other kids voluntarily talk about Mitch. Almost daily. The difference is, they bring him up in ways that are meaningful to them. Always, my kids talk about little Mitch with great love and adoration. I think we’ve found a beautiful balance of honoring what was and embracing what is.

My daughter loved Mitch a great deal – and he adored her. It warms my heart when she talks about him in the way she talks about him because those conversations are healing.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.

ONE STEP AT A TIME, A MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB*

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A few weeks ago, my brother and I agreed to summit Mount Timpanogos.  I was excited for the adventure because I’d never climbed a mountain before.  Even more, I remember Mitch tugging softly at my arm, deep in the evening shadow of Aspen Grove, as he pointed to this mountain and said, “Dad, I wonder what it’s like up there.  I guess I’ll never know because my legs are so weak.”  I hugged him softly and said, “Son, one day I’ll climb it and take pictures for you.”  My sweet boy smiled and tucked his head into my arms.

The next year Mitch was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and in less than a year he died.  I forgot about my promise to Mitch because my heart broke and I was trying to keep him alive.  Then, after he passed, I was just trying to survive grief.  I’m still trying.

It wasn’t until my brother and I decided to climb it that I remembered what I told Mitch.  I didn’t say anything to anyone, because it was a promise I made my son.  I quietly printed a painting of Mitch and slipped it inside my backpack. 

On our first night, we camped at Emerald Lake and I took a photo of little Mitch and said a prayer in my heart, “Hey Mitch, it’s Dad.  I’m sorry I’m late … but I’m going to take photos for you. I hope you can see what I see.”

I learned a lot on this hike.  Firstly, I learned that I can do hard things.  I learned that I don’t like heights and I especially don’t enjoy standing on the edge of nearly thousand-foot cliffs.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to train for hard hikes – whereas I jumped in before I was physically ready.  An indiscretion I’d pay for on the way down the mountain.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Despite the difficulties of the hike, I was inspired by the majestic beauty of earth.  I loved the fresh air, mountain flowers, vast glacial valleys, and wildlife.  Had Mitch he been with me physically, he would have been in awe of everything. 

On day two, my brother and I reached the mountain summit.  The view was breathtaking.  

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At the summit was also a small fiberglass storm shelter with autograph laden walls – I added the signature Mitchell’s Journey 2018.  In my heart, I said, “It took me seven years to get here son, but we did it, Mitch.”

A few hours later, we were back at basecamp.  My knee was starting to swell from a surgery years ago, and I knew I was going to be slow.  I didn’t say anything about it but told my brother to head down the mountain ahead of me because I was not going to be as fast as him.  As I started my slow descent, I began to walk strangely to compensate for my injury.  Doing that made my legs incredibly weak.  It was a struggle.  What should have taken me three hours, took nine.

There were times I wondered how I could go on.  I looked down the vast mountain valley, 4 thousand feet below and got discouraged.  “Oh, Mitch, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”  But I remembered what my sweet wife taught me, “Just take the next best step.”  So that’s what I did.  I had to stop looking at the vast distance ahead of me and just concentrate on the next step.  It made all the difference.  Though I started to walk like a drunken toddler, I looked at the ground and said to myself, “Okay, I have the strength for one more step.”  One step turned into two steps, and before I knew it 2,000 steps had passed – then I’d turn around, startled by the distance I covered.  If ever there were a metaphor for grief, this is it.  We can look across the vast valleys of sorrow and wonder how we’ll ever make it.  That’s how I survive grief – one step at a time.

There was a point that my legs were so weak that I was sure I’d collapse at any moment – and I almost did a thousand times.  My brother kept tabs on me via text.  “How are you doing?”  “Call me when you get to your truck.”  “Are you okay?”  There was a brief moment I tried to take a shortcut through some tall bushes, only to meet a 500-foot cliff.  I wasted precious energy and water trying to climb up the mountain to find my way back to the trail – I made the same loop three times.  I learned that uninformed shortcuts in rugged terrain are not a good idea.  I texted my brother about my misadventure, and he became especially worried.  I assured him I was okay.

By the time the sun was setting, my phone was almost dead, and I had to turn it off to conserve what little battery I had left – should a real emergency arise.  Every step was a huge struggle.  My awkward walk to preserve my knee obliterated my leg strength.  I was literally stumbling over pebbles.  I began to think about Mitch and other boys with DMD.  There I was, looking at a simple dirt path, struggling to put one foot in front of another.  Though I don’t pretend to know their struggle first-hand, my struggle with leg weakness helped me empathize in new ways.  To a young boy with DMD, a simple staircase may as well be Mt. Everest. 

As I found myself finally near the bottom of the trail, I turned my phone on to check my position on the trail.  I then saw a text from my brother, “I’m on my way.”  I texted him back, “I promise I’m fine.  My legs are just really weak … I have less than a mile to go.”

At long last, with the mountain’s night breeze pressing on my skin, I looked down a dimly lit corridor of trees that led to the parking lot.  My legs were jelly and getting to the parking lot was going to be a struggle.  As I slowly exited the canopy of trees, there was a small grassy field separating the forest from the parking lot; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother running at breakneck speed toward me.  I said, “Oh, Doug, you didn’t need to come back.  I was fine … my legs were just weak, that’s all.”  He insisted on carrying my pack to my truck.  Though I was exhausted, I noticed his eyes carefully studying me – looking for signs of trouble.  Even when my 40-pound backpack was relieved, I found it difficult to take a step without the help of my walking sticks.

In truth, I became emotional at the sight of my brother running toward me with a look of deep concern.  I was emotional not because I needed to be rescued – but because he cared enough to try. 

A lot happened on this hike.  I kept a sacred promise to Mitch.  I learned I can do hard things – even when I’m not prepared for them.  I was reminded that any difficult journey, including those of grief, is best traveled one step at a time.  I experienced a new level of empathy for children with muscle wasting diseases like DMD.  I learned that naive shortcuts can be dangerous.  And perhaps, most tenderly, I witnessed what brotherly loved looked like when I saw my brother running toward me at the trails end.

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Though in this photo I’m standing on the summit of a mountain … in a way, I’m also standing on a different summit – one that can’t be seen with mortal eyes.  From there, I see life differently; and in the haze of the distant horizon, I see taller mountains yet to climb.  I can reach their summits, however slowly, one step at a time.

 

 

TO MY GREAT SURPRISE

I remember how playful my children were at this moment and how much they loved their mother.  We were at a reunion and every family was back in their hotel rooms to rest a little.  As a Dad, my heart swelled when I saw our kids laugh and kiss Natalie’s cheeks to let her know how much they loved her.  This was an emotional payday for my sweet wife and best friend – and my soul smiled, glad to see her cash in a little on all the long nights and thankless days.  I was glad to capture this sweet exchange because this was one of those perfect moments that can slip through your fingers like the finest sand.  On the darker days, these good times remind me that not all of life is bad.

Somehow, some way, if we’re patient, and if we seek to find meaning before we seek peace … we’ll heal faster and hurt a little less.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As far as I can tell, I believe one of the hard truths about life is this: things don’t always turn out well.  And sometimes, things can go terribly, horribly wrong.  Bad things can, and probably will happen to us.  If we live long enough, our hearts may be broken many times and we might suffer a great deal over the years.  But between all those hurts we’re going to experience many, many happy times. 

I still miss my little boy and I’m still grieving – but I think I’m entering a new stage of grief – that is the stage of deep acceptance.  When I think of the stages of grief, I don’t think I ever experienced anger – only great sadness.  Maybe I did experience anger … but I don’t ever remember being mad at God – only very, very sad.  I could have filled an ocean with my tears.

On my grief journey, I often wondered what acceptance would mean to me.  I think I’m beginning to understand.  At least for me, I’ve learned to accept I will forever miss little Mitch.  I accept there will always be an empty chair at the table of my heart – and I’ll long to see it occupied.  I accept that I now live with chronic [emotional] pain.  Yet, pain, like every emotion, has its time and place.  The emptiness is always, but the pain comes and goes – as does joy and peace.  As time progresses, the peaks and valleys are less intense.

I think about Mitch daily – sometimes I cry, other times I smile, and increasingly, I giggle over the cute things he used to do. 

I’m beginning to discover something about what can happen to the wounds that cut us so deeply.  Somehow, some way, if we’re patient, and if we seek to find meaning before we seek peace … we’ll heal faster and hurt a little less.  To my great surprise, these terrible wounds are turning into soft, peaceful memories – and fewer tears fill my eyes.