THE ECHOES WE MAKE

It was summer and the color of the evening sun had poured into the room like a glass of warm orange juice. Grandpa hiked his pant legs a little as he sat down to tell my small children some tall tales. My little ones sat around him (Mitch on the right), captivated and smiling as their grandfather lovingly wove a story of fiction, magic, and a little bit of nonsense.

Mitch tugged softly at my arm as he pointed to the glowing lint floating in the air as it crossed paths with the window. He said in a whisper, “Dad, it looks like space.” I put my arm around him as he began to lay his head into my chest. Time slowed to a near halt as we had one of those perfect moments you wish could last forever. There were no digital screens to look at, no earbuds drowning out the world, no text messages, RSS feeds and other suffocating distractions … nothing but each other, love and the lost art of storytelling.

I remember admiring my father-in-law [a man who is as kind-hearted as he is good] connect with my children in his own, unique way. I was grateful for this soft moment. As my children were swept away in story, my mind drifted to other things. I couldn't help but think of my son, a little boy who had done the world no harm yet was a victim to a deadly disease from which there was no escape. Although he appeared healthy, I knew that he was dying faster than the rest of us. And that broke my heart.

When I leaned down to kiss Mitchell’s forehead, he put his hand on the side of my face as if to keep me there and whispered, “I love you, dad.” My eyes welled as I whispered back, “I love you more.”

I then lifted my head and looked at a wise grandfather investing his time and loving attention with my children. I began to think about the passage of time and the natural order of life. It occurred to me that before we know it, age will catch up to this wonderful man and he will soon pass away. Whatever material possessions he may have accumulated will matter not one bit. Neither will popularity or prestige. The only thing he will take with him is what he has become. And the echo of his influence and choices will be the only lasting inheritance he will pass on to the generations that follow.

As I sat in this room surrounded by a family that I love deeply, I began to contemplate the echoes we make, the ripples our choices have on ourselves and others. They can build or destroy. They can be loud as thunder or soft as whispers. They can last generations or be silenced in less than one.

Author Peggy O’Mara said, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” I found this to be true, at least for me. I hope that any inpatient or unkind word I may have ever said to my son was drowned out by how much and how often I tried to love him. And I hope that when my son was passing that he found comfort in his inner voice – that he looked forward with faith, not fear. That he knew he was loved by those of us here ... and the many that are over there.

As I peer into the abyss of death, unable to see with mortal eyes what exactly lies within, I can hear the echo of my son; his goodness, his love, his obedience, and faith. I hope that I carry his echo forward.

Losing my son (or anyone) is a painful reminder that suns set, seasons change, leaves fall, and so do our bodies. And if that's the case, I do well to remember that I only have a few minutes on this planet and I had better make the most of it. Of all the things we give and take, perhaps nothing is so important as the echoes we make.

THE MAGIC OF STORYTELLING

As far back as I can remember, storytelling has been a special part of our children’s lives.  At night, the kids would huddle around me as I played music in the background and narrated stories that came to mind as I listened to the mood of the music.  None of us knew where we would go – we only knew every turn was an adventure.  Sometimes we’d laugh, other times they’d clutch their pillows in anticipation – but every time, we’d make memories in real life and imaginary worlds at once.

The magic of story was something Mitchell held close to his heart.  One day, probably soon, I’ll share a story he wrote with his own handwriting in his special journal.  For Mitch, and my other children, stories were not only a means of escape, they became a window to possibility, and a candle that illuminated strengths I saw in them. 

Over the last year I’ve been slowly assembling some content to help other families enjoy the same thing our children did.  I’ll be posting some of this content here over the next few days.  Some of the videos share tender stories of Mitchell and his love of stories, others give ideas on how you can try this form of storytelling with those you love.

I share this because storytelling was a big part of Mitchell’s life.  Even during his final weeks on hospice, he wanted to get swept away in story so he could take his mind off heavy things.

So, whether you have sick kids or healthy kids, young ones, or old ones … this content is for you and anyone willing to experience the magic of storytelling. 

SECRET FOREST (at night) *

When Mitch was a young boy he thought the little forest in our back yard was a gateway to something magical. It is a small, unremarkable place, but if you take your imagination with you, it’s as big as you want it to be and more amazing than any place on earth. 

Just yesterday I took my older kids up to the woods and together we toiled to build a small pond along the trail. I included them in the design and creation of it because I wanted them to have a sense of ownership and accomplishment. My heart smiled seeing Ethan & Laura-Ashley work together as a team to do something they've always wanted to do and to do it in the memory of their little brother. I have discovered the process of grief is aided greatly by doing something constructive. While Mitch may have left us, his dream for this little forest remains. It has rallied the hearts and minds of my children and become a type of therapy for us all. We still have many plans for this place and we will work on it every weekend as a family.

My daughter purchased some floating lily pads that glow green, purple and blue at night, which makes the secret forest even more magical when the sun hides its face behind the hills. The forest, now home to some artificial fireflies, make for an even more magical experience. The trail, softly lit by glowing mason jars, gives just enough light to see the path before you and not get lost in the mysterious woods. 

So, last night, after having installed our pond, Wyatt set a glowing turtle next to the water to keep watch. I loved the look of wonder on his face. He later asked me, “Dad, can we go up there every night?” I told him, “You bet, son. You bet.” 

Each night this tiny forest gets a little more magical. Each of my children have their fingerprint on this forest – and that makes my heart smile. This little wooded forest has become a place to remember the past and enjoy the magic of now. This night my heart is filled with gratitude and peace. 

Here is a short post on Instagram that matches the magical mood of last night: http://tinyurl.com/qjlk2vj



This is the view from the top of our property and just outside the secret forest. Mitch loved this place. We placed a bench here years ago and Mitch and I would eat Popsicles and talk about life, friends and video games while we watched our part of the world turn away from the sun. 

 

In a manner of speaking, this place has become hallowed ground to me; both because of the memories it keeps and also because it reminds me to try and see above all that would obstruct my view of life. I hope to always see the forest through the trees … and the world for what it is and what it isn't. I hope to always have perspective.

THE LAST STORY

About 14 years ago I started a storytelling tradition with my kids that would only require music and one’s imagination and then the universe was at our fingertips.

On my iPod are playlists that contain all manner of movie & video game scores in random order, across every genre. Often, after their teeth were brushed and my kids were tucked snugly in bed, I would turn on a playlist and narrate random stories out of thin air – and my kids were the heroes. Because the music would shape the narrative, none of us knew where we were going. Each night was an untold adventure waiting to be explored and as lights dimmed and the music began to play my children and I would be swept far away in story. Suddenly the bedroom walls crumbled to the floor and the ceiling unzipped and they saw a night sky with strange planets, or suddenly they were crossing a vast field of grass on a journey surrounded by storms that were closing in, or they were atop a glass-covered skyscraper in a mega-city about to launch their jet-pack. Wherever we went it was magical and unexpected. 

Before long this practice no longer soothed my kids to sleep but excited them – instead of getting tired they would sit on the edge of their mattress, with hearts pounding, wondering what was next. Sometimes they would argue “No I want to be that guy!” It wasn't long before they began making plot requests and wanted to help shape the story.

These journeys of the mind are always fun. So much so, I even do this with my employees when we are driving long distances. Each of them take a turn telling a story on the fly in response to a song. They don’t get to practice or rehearse, they only respond to the music in real-time – and as the tempo changes, so must the story. Suddenly 100 miles feels like 5 minutes and that we've read 300 fascinating books in the blink of an eye.

I loved this tradition with my kids. I don’t do it as often as I used to. I tried it again with Ethan about 3 weeks ago. We were driving home from his lacrosse practice and I told him a story against the backdrop of song. He was quiet and inside I wondered if he thought I was being an absolute geek. At the end he looked at me, paused and said, “Dad, that was awesome.”

On the night of this photo Natalie and I had just tucked Mitch in. Faithful Marlie snuggled near his feet and he was set. Then he asked me in a soft voice, “Dad, will you tell me a story?” My eyes instantly filled with tears and my throat swelled. “I would love to tell you a story, Mitch.”

I ran to the next room to get a speaker and iPod and for the next 10 minutes Mitch and I went on adventure together. Once again, the ceiling and walls fell away and we were transported to a magical place. We started in an ancient forest where the trees could whisper secrets of a time long gone; we could see the night sky and a fabled moon that was only visible through the forest trees. We traveled vast distances together and Mitch was the hero. All along I kept thinking how in real life this little boy was an even greater hero to me. In life, Mitch couldn't jump great distances nor did he wield physical strength like he did in my stories, but in every way that mattered he was stronger and nobler than the sum total of every character I could imagine.

As my story concluded I knelt by Mitchell and told him, “Son, even though you were the hero in this story, you are my real-life hero, too. You are the most amazing young boy, Mitch. I love you.” He asked why I was crying and I told him it was because sometimes parents have so much love in their hearts for their children they don’t know how to express it, and they cry. I told Mitch that was the magic of being a parent: you create the most amazing miracle of life and watch it grow, develop and become. Parents cry because they love; and love is the most magical power on earth. Love heals and protects, it renews and forgives, it lifts and defends … love gives meaning to life. To know love is to know God.

This was the last story I told Mitch. Not many days would pass before everything in our world began to unravel and we would experience the most sorrowful story of all. A story that would break my heart. Forever.

I have traveled the universe and back with my children and we have visited every age we could imagine, even the age before time. I have discovered parenthood is the greatest adventure of all. It’s a story that needs no soundtrack to be told; a story that frightens and enlightens us … and a story of love and service that never gets old. 

I pray that at the end of my days, when my story is ended and I take that final journey to that place beyond the hills, that my son will be the first person I see. And I will run to him and give him a father's embrace. For I love him. I miss his kind soul, I long to see his sweet face.