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. 

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.   

IN TIME

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.

SO EMPTY, YET SO FULL*

It was an especially hot summer day when two mothers and 4 children walked into Pioneer Park, each with an arm full of gifts they were about to give away. Quietly they began placing all manner of toys throughout the playground. Each toy had a sticker attached to it with an invitation to play with and keep, signed Mitchell’s Journey. 

Cathy O’Grady, a follower-turned-friend from Boston, was in Salt Lake City and wanted to do something in memory of little Mitch. So, she purchased two carts of toys that included baseball bats, footballs, bubbles, chalk, soccer balls and other things kids used to play with before the advent of technology … before the age of digital isolation and endless distraction. 

She was kind enough to let me follow her and a friend, Tracey Langston, so I could take photos of their random act of love and kindness in memory of Mitch. Each of them wore a Miles for Mitchell shirt because they wanted to take my son with them. 

“Watch how parents will put their phones down and suddenly start playing with their children when they’re given a toy.” Cathy said. Sure enough, exactly as she described, I saw it with my own eyes. Parents who moments earlier were busy scrolling through never ending streams of Pinterest posts, social feeds, texts, emails and other things suddenly set their devices down and began to play with their children. 

I saw adorable little kids stumble into a lonely soccer ball, pick it up with curiosity and then show it to their parents as though they won a lottery. I marveled at how these small, inexpensive toys changed how people interacted with one another. As these anonymous gifts were discovered, the playground went from friendly to an excited frolic.

After these good Samaritans were done placing toys … when parents and children alike were playing with one another, I told Cathy how humbled I was by her act of kindness. As my eyes filled with tears … fighting back a wave of grief … I told Cathy something about little Mitch just before he passed away. As Mitch was facing the realities of his own death he wept and wept as he told me how much he wished he could be like regular kids. My soul unraveled and my heart fell to the floor as I heard my son describe what he wanted to do in “real life” but could not. “Dad, I don’t want to ride a skate board in a video game, I want to do it for reals.” Mitch sobbed in ways only a dying child can know. And my soul writhed. 

I told Cathy how grateful I was for the gifts she gave others. She didn’t just give toys, you see. These little gifts were a means to a much greater end. Cathy gave the gift of play. The gift of relationships.

So, on this hot summer day, never a swing set looked so empty, yet felt so full. I wanted my little boy to be seated there and was pained that he was not. I wished with all of my heart I could push him back and forth, long after the sun set. I wanted to play with Mitch and see his face and hear him laugh, yet he was forever gone. Instead, I saw other children and parents enjoy what I no longer had – and yet my heart swelled with gratitude for their happiness.

I am so grateful for people like Cathy and Tracey … who seek to build others up and serve with love. I wonder how the world would change if everyone gave freely and not want anything in exchange. Something divine happens when we love and lift … for the very act of giving is itself a supernal gift.

You can see more photos of this experience at the park on instagram.com/mitchells_journey/

You can also learn more about Cathy and the many other good works she is doing here: http://sofiasangelsfoundation.org/

SUPER BROTHER TURNED SUPERHERO

Last summer Ethan got a little motorcycle to tool around on. He loved the sport and his thoughtful mother arranged to surprise Ethan for his birthday. We did a great job selling Ethan that he’d never get one because it was too dangerous, etc. He had given up asking for one – which made the surprise all the sweeter. With the help of some amazing neighbors who helped source and assemble the motorcycle (thank you Seth Lloyd), Ethan had the surprise of his life.

Little Wyatt, who is now fast approaching the age of Mitch when he passed away, was so excited for his brother. Though he was anxious to enjoy a gift he never thought he’d get, Ethan looked at Wyatt’s big eyes and said, “Do you want a ride?” Wyatt smiled with delight as his older brother handed him his helmet. Carefully they drove down our cul-de-sac and as Wyatt carried with him an enormous grin. These are the kind of days parents live for. To see your child find joy is one thing, but to see your child give joy to another is altogether different. That is a satisfaction of a deeper sort. If I find deep joy in watching my own children love and lift another, how might our Father feel about us doing the same to each other?

Ethan has told me on several occasions that he wants to use the lessons he’s learned from his fallen brother to help others. At 14 years of age, he reads Mitchell’s Journey all the time and comes back to me with ideas, insights and self-discoveries. Sometimes I cry when I reflect on the things he says – for tender mercies abound. 

Ethan has learned to put his arm around Wyatt like he did Mitch. Every day he is shaping his little brother through kindness and brotherly mentorship. Oh, they’re not perfect. They’re just like any young brothers who tease and fight – they take things too far and their arguments sometimes seem to go on too long. They both have their strengths and growth opportunities, like all of us do. But the point isn’t that they stumble, but rather how they get back up again. Their forgiveness isn’t conditional. I love that.

To young Wyatt, on this warm summer afternoon, his older brother was a super brother-turned superhero. He inspired me just as much as his little brother.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LITTLE BOY

The summer sun was about to fade into evening as my kids discovered a hole I was digging in our back yard. The freshly-turned soil was soft and as inviting to a child as a shiny playground or a new puddle on the heels of a summer storm. Like flies to honey, these little ones ran to the dirt pile to see what it was all about. Within minutes Laura-Ashley and Ethan were busy exploring the uncovered earth. Mitch found his way to them and plopped his little bum in the dirt and began to play with them. At one point, Mitch turned back at me and smiled as if to say, “Hey Dad! I’m one of the big kids now.” Mitch then turned toward his siblings and continued to squish handfuls of dirt with his chubby little fingers. 

Natalie and I were poor as church mice, struggling to launch a company and trying to make the most of what little we had. We learned early in our marriage that material things, though nice, never made us truly happy – in fact, we found that the preoccupation with things got in the way of that which we wanted most. So on this day, I found our children huddled around an ordinary pile of dirt having an extraordinary youthful experience, my heart skipped a beat or two.

In the background was an inflatable swimming pool on our trampoline filled with water. That was our inexpensive way of having a watery ruckus with our kids. I loved watching our kids bounce and slosh about in a pool that suddenly became a washing machine. I can still hear their giggles today.

There were many months we worried about how we’d make ends meet; each day was a step into the fog of the unknown. Not sure how we would to pay for the mortgage or even diapers … we agonized over how we’d make it. Although those times were difficult for our family … looking back, I miss the struggle. I miss our life back then. 

Though I thought my life a curious hell – facing an uncertain and turbulent financial future – I now look back on those hard times with fondness and a deep sense of appreciation. We could hardly pay for groceries – yet we had Friday night den parties with popcorn fit for a king. Our sippy cups were filled with a 50/50 blend of water and apple juice because that was all we could afford. Our kids didn't know or care … they were just grateful to have something – and so were we. Though our pockets were almost empty, our hearts were overflowing.

Sometimes I wondered in moments of hardship, “Why am I struggling like this? Father, will you help me?” Relief eventually came. Though we struggled in our wilderness, tender mercies were abundant – we just didn't have the eyes to see them at the time. Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like months, and months felt like years … but I can see now what our Father was doing to our family back then. We learned lessons we would have never gained on an easier road. In my heart and soul, I thank my Father and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Today is Mitchell’s birthday. He would have turned 13. He died just before his 11th birthday – so young and innocent. Though I know his soul lives on, I miss my little boy in my arms. 

When I think back on this beautiful moment with my children, surrounded by worry and struggle, self-doubt and fear, I can see beauty in the struggle. I long for that struggle and the things it taught me and the moments it afforded me with my family.

Today I face a different form of poverty … one borne of grief. At least to me, grief is a form of emotional poverty. Yes, grief is an expression of deep love and longing for what once was … but it also tends to come at the expense of momentary happiness. Grief is not a choice, it is the price we pay for having loved someone deeply.

As poor as my soul feels, I know I’ll look back one day … at today … with fondness. For I will see, like I can see in my early years, what my Father is doing to me – and I will be grateful. 

This evening we’ll be taking our kids to the Olive Garden, Mitchell’s favorite restaurant. I’ll have his favorite Tour of Italy. Together, our family will laugh and remember the good times and cry a little about the hard times. Most importantly, we will be grateful that we had time.

We’ll then visit the cemetery to honor our little boy, who through his death, taught us how to live.

Happy Birthday, little boy. You are my struggle. You are a gift to my heart and soul.