LEARNING TO TRUST*

I remember his tiny smile as he sat in a school bus for the first time.  Mitch was about to leave on a new adventure.  He didn’t know where he was going exactly, he only knew his mommy loved him and trusted she knew best.  Natalie kissed Mitch on the forehead and said in a whispered tone, “I love you, little boy.  I’ll see you at school.” 

This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As the big bus drove out of the neighborhood Natalie jumped in our minivan and followed them to the elementary school several miles away.  By the time the bus arrived at school, Natalie was there to help our little boy off the bus and usher him into class.  

To Mitch, the world was a very big place – made even bigger by his declining muscle strength.  A small staircase to you and me may as well be Mt. Everest to a child with DMD.  Mitch could be easily knocked down by a simple bump in a lunchroom.  Hallways made him nervous because a river of preoccupied people, in a rush to get some place, threatened to trample him unaware.

Natalie knew our son needed help, but wanted to stretch his horizons and help him grow.  So, she repeated the inconvenient routine of helping him board the bus each day and then follow him to school – where she would help him on and off the bus.  Natalie wanted our boy to learn independence.  And that he did. 

I loved this day.  I loved seeing my little boy smile at me through the window of the bus.  Mitch had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Look Dad!  I can do hard things.  I’m a big kid now.”  His eyes seemed to say, “I love you.”

I remember walking with Natalie and Mitch into his preschool class for the first time.  There he would meet “Mrs. Nancy.”  She was energetic and kind and had a way about her that brought instant relief to nervous parents and excitement in the minds of her students.  I loved her immediately.  I’ll write more of her another day – but I am grateful she was placed in our son’s path.  She was a tender mercy for our little boy.

In many ways, this image serves as a symbol of another journey.  Only this time Mitch has been shuttled to a place far from sight.  Sometimes I panic because the mortal father in me wants to know he’s alright.  Yet, I know he is fine – and in a heavenly sense, I realize he was never mine.   For Mitch is my brother, the son of my Father … even still, in his death, my mortal heart is still bothered.  For I love and miss him, you see.  And in my agony, I reach deeply for things heavenly.  Could it be that is the reason for suffering?

Somewhere out on the horizon is my son … or rather, my brother. He is at a school of another sort.  I cannot see it with my eyes … but I can feel it with my soul.  Though he may be learning and growing … I also believe he is here, even now, helping and showing. 

Now it is my turn, seated in a big and unfamiliar bus.  Like my son, – I have learned to listen and to trust. I know my Father loves me and believe that He knows best.  The wisest of all parents, He knows the growth that happens when we’re challenged and given tests.  This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.  

 

 
 
 
 

A SPECIAL GOODBYE

About a week ago I was approached by a Mitchell's Journey follower who had something in common with our family. Her Charlie and our Mitchell were both students of a very special preschool teacher who was about to retire. Both of our children had also passed away. 

So, yesterday Natalie and I attended a retirement banquet for this remarkable woman who played in important role in our son's life. She was a tender mercy for our boy as she helped him make a delicate transition to school. Mitch quickly grew in confidence because of the way she encouraged and guided him. We hadn't seen her for about 10 years so this was a special reunion. At her display table was a kind of memorial with photos of all of her students throughout her career - an evidence this woman was a remarkable teacher who loved her students. The best educators are the ones that teach with love of topic and student. 

Next to the collage of former students was a larger panel with tributes to three of her special needs students who passed away, Mitch being one of them. It was a tender reunion filled with a lot of love and gratitude. 

Here Natalie writes a note to "Mrs. Nancy" thanking her for being so kind and loving to our baby. We had never forgotten her and she clearly remembered little Mitch. When we moved from our first home a decade ago we thought we'd never cross paths with this remarkable teacher again. Fate, or providence, would have it otherwise.

It is interesting how at any given moment we might think a person in our lives a solitary, temporary thread ... unaware how woven our lives may become. The people and events in our lives make for a fascinating tapestry we may not appreciate, or even see, until deep in the twilight of our own lives.

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WHAT TEACHERS TEACH US

Mitch had been home about a week and a half and his 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Masina (on the right) came to visit. With her was also a teacher at the same school, Mrs. Edwards, who was a friend to Natalie. I sat in awe of these two women who took time from their personal lives to show Mitch they cared. They were so sweet to him; although they gave Mitch some thoughtful gifts, the greatest gift they gave him was their love. At the end of the day, things break but love lingers. Love lasts.

As Mrs. Masina left she turned to Mitch and asked if he wanted some homework to do. He smiled softly and nodded as if to say “no thanks”. Everyone chuckled but inside I wished he had homework – for that would have meant he was going back to school and that there was hope he would recover. But he was not ever going back to school and the hope he might beat heart failure and DMD was a distant dream far from reach. 

As we left the hospital the senior cardiologist said with tears in his eyes, “Your job is to take him home and love your little boy with all that you've got. You don’t have much time.” And love Mitch we did, the very best we knew how. 

As these two beautiful women left our home I remember feeling overwhelmed with feelings of love and appreciation for the good people in my son’s life. I was grateful for all of the teachers Mitch had, for they were all loving and kind. But his last teacher, Mrs. Masina, was a special tender mercy in more ways than twenty. She will forever be close to our hearts because of the way she lifted our little son’s heart.

I can’t help but be grateful for what the truly great teachers teach us; the ones who beautifully balance intellect with heart, mind with soul. Mrs. Masina is just such a teacher. I saw a spark in Mitch that I hadn't seen before – a deeper belief in himself – and I believe that spark in my son was because of the way she taught him. What good is knowledge, after all, if we forget what it means to be human? To be human is to be vulnerable, real and feeling – it is to accept ourselves and others as we are, broken and imperfect, and then strive to be a little better each day in our own way. That is what the great teachers teach us.

Mrs. Masina did just that. She not only taught Mitch – but she taught me that there is much more to life than academics. I am grateful for the gentle teachers of the soul: Mrs. Masina and Mitch have been my teachers and I am forever in their debt.

One thing I've learned is the death of a child is emotionally catastrophic. I know of no greater pain. Now that Mitch is gone our family has grueling homework of our own: the homework of learning to live with grief – which, as far as I can tell, is the work of a lifetime. There are no shortcuts. There are no opt-out tests. Every day is a lesson on love and loss, healing a little, crying a lot, and learning to move forward however fast or slow our hearts will take us. 

Because love lasts, so does grief. So long as I love my son I will grieve his loss … and what a terrible grief it is. But grief is the price of love and love is worth every tear, every shard of my broken heart, it is worth the agony of loss. The love in my heart hurts me and heals me all at the same time. I am learning that to hurt is to be human and to heal, even if only a little, is heavenly.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE MAKES

A few years ago I attended a Parent/Teacher Conference with Mitch and Natalie. I did my best to attend as many as possible because I wanted my son to know that I loved him and I would always be there for him. Mostly, I wanted Mitch to know I was his biggest fan. 

It was about 7PM on an ordinary evening. The school was filled with young students each eager to show their parents their world. Paper art projects proudly attached to the walls, the smell of glue and crayons brought back vivid memories and feelings from my own childhood. As we entered Mitchell’s class room he shyly pointed to his desk with his name badge. It wasn't spectacular, and it looked like everyone else’s, but it was his and he was proud of it. And I was proud of him.

We were then greeted by his teacher and invited to sit at a tiny elementary school table and sit in even tinier chairs. Mitch quietly giggled seeing his big dad sit on a chair that may as well have been a thimble. I love my son and I miss the sound of his giggles.

Mitch, with eager eyes and a humble disposition, sat between my wife and me as we began to learn about his progress. I’ll never forget his sweet face, still bearing remnants of a milk mustache from his after school snack along with a chapped bottom lip. The very sight of him reminded me what goodness looked like. 

As his teacher began to discuss how he was doing in class I could tell how much it meant to Mitch whenever she was complimentary of him. Sure there were things to work on, but she celebrated his success and helped Mitch feel good about himself – and because of that Mitch believed in himself.

My heart swelled with gratitude for this educator who understood her job wasn't to teach concepts, but to teach people. She knew the difference. Because of that, she knew the most important thing she could do for her students was to help them believe in themselves – that they were each uniquely capable and absolutely awesome. 

I had a pivotal moment many years ago in high school when my teacher (Mrs. Osa) recognized something in me. I wasn't prepared for her observation – but in that moment she helped me believe in me. She lit a spark in my soul and my life was forever changed. Mrs. Osa, wherever you are, thank you. The echo of your belief in me is still felt, even 25 years later. 

So, as I watched my tender son, a little boy who wasn't as strong as the other kids, a little boy who wondered if he would ever amount to much … and suddenly I saw a spark in his eye and a new light in his countenance. Mitch began to grow with confidence. My heart was overflowing with love and gratitude then, and it overflows today. 

I wonder how often I've missed opportunities to lift and build others because I said to myself, “What difference will it make?” This night with my son, and that unexpected moment 25 years ago reminded me what a difference makes. The difference I’m talking about is often so small it can be mistaken for something not worth doing: a little smile in the hall, a compliment, recognition, appreciation for someone on or a simple word of encouragement or love … it makes a difference.

A small difference can make all the difference.

TO BE A STUDENT

This morning my wife and I drove to Mitchell’s elementary school to collect his personal and school belongings. The air was cold and the sky was wrapped in a dull, grey blanket of clouds that seemed to match the mood of things. As we approached the school I reflected on all of the amazing teachers and staff who had done so much to support and love our family and I was overcome with gratitude. There was no coldness in my heart. 

I was doing okay until his teacher reached for a file box that contained everything that was Mitchells. In an instant, I was overcome by strong emotions and I did all that I could to hold back a massive surge of tears. Tears came anyway. My hands trembled and my body quaked as I quietly gasped for air. The pain of this moment was palpable. 

There, in a cardboard box, were items that to a stranger would have no value; but to us, its contents were priceless. A plastic container filled with pencils and crayons that Mitchell collected, a name tag, pieces of paper with his handwriting … a potpourri of elementary school artifacts that to me were more valuable than all the treasures of ancient Egypt.

As Mitchell’s teacher (Mrs. Masina) handed the box to Natalie she gave her a hug. I stood a few feet away fighting back the tears, doing all that I could to keep composed. All I wanted to do was curl up in a corner and sob. This compassionate teacher described how much Mitchell meant to her and that she loved him – it was clear that she was hurting, too. With a broken voice she admitted handing the box over to us was difficult because she loved Mitch and she felt like she was giving part of her heart away.

After Mitchell passed away she had each student write down their memories of him. She carefully laminated and bound the pages into a book. Each page was thoughtfully authored from his peers ... each page personal and authentic. Mitchell was universally referred to by his classmates as kind, deeply caring, fun to be with and humble. Reading through these hand written letters and drawings from 5th Graders, I learned quite a bit about Mitch. I also learned a lot about 5th graders … especially what they notice. I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings: “Oh what a tangled web do parents weave when they think their children are naive.” In reading their observations it was clear these young children were reflective, thoughtful and keen observers. Today these young students were my teacher … and I have been taking notes.

This painful experience was a gentle reminder that education is more than academics – that knowledge without humanity is hollow. The best teachers also teach what it means to be human – not by what they say, but who they are. And Mrs. Masina did this beautifully … and so did her students.

So here we stand on the other side of Mitchell’s education … and suddenly we are students of the hardest lesson life has to teach. Our homework … invisible to the eye - must be worked out in quiet of the mind and heart. I get the impression this homework will take a lifetime to complete. And when I look at this photo of these two beautifully compassionate women, I am reminded that there is a classroom none of us leave alive. Sometimes we are teachers … but we are always students.