It was a cold November night when we arrived at grandma’s house. Eager to stretch their legs from a 4-hour drive, our kids sprang from the car and ran to the front door only to be received with warm hugs and kisses from loving grandparents. It was an especially tender time as our petition for a heart transplant was denied. We were on borrowed time.
In the marrow of my soul, I knew time was short, and that frightened me. A few weeks before this photo, I sent a message to family letting them know Mitch was in trouble.
In part of that letter, I wrote:
“Today Natalie and I sit with Mitch on the edge of an invisible cliff. He can't see it, but my wife and I can - and the mouth of the abyss is yawned and inching to devour our son. Yet, Mitchell looks out into the vast horizon unaware and envisions a long, bright future ahead of him. In his little mind, he is already making big plans. He wants to build a home next to ours with a tunnel connecting our basements, so he and his dad can watch movies and make popcorn. He wants to work for his dad when he's older. He talks about his own kids one day and how he’ll raise them as we raised him. As he points to his vision of the future with youthful enthusiasm and a zest for life, he doesn't realize that he sits on the outermost edge and the ground from under him has crumbled away into the darkness – and his little body is hanging on by a pebble. What Mitchell doesn't understand is the beautiful horizon he sees is only a mirage, and in reality, the sun is setting on his own life.
Mitchell is too young to know what’s happening. If he knew how close he is to completing this mortal journey, he would be terrified. And we can’t bring ourselves to let him know the mortal danger he faces. And we won’t.
I write you today not to seek pity or sadness – but to alert you to his situation and invite you when you see him next, to give him a little more attention and love than usual. We don’t know how much time we have with him, but the hour is late and midnight uncertain, so we want him to feel loved and appreciated during whatever time he has left.”
I was very emotional at the time. The simplest trigger would send tears streaming down my face. A pothole while driving, a ray of light, or a fleeting memory that crossed my mind – everything was a trigger. Though my heart was fragile, I tried to hide my sorrow from my son. I didn’t want him to be afraid of something he had no control. Suddenly, I understood like never before, how much a parent wants for their child’s happiness; and to see our children suffer is an agony for which there is no equal.
So, when my mother said, “Mitch, I have a surprise for you,” and my little boy smiled, my heart was awash with gratitude. My mother knew Mitchells’ favorite dessert was chocolate cake from Costco – and Mitch knew it, too. As our kids gathered in the kitchen and Grandma began to slice into that chocolaty goodness, Mitch had a smile that made my heart sing. It was a simple thing to remember Mitch and treat him with something he loved – but I’ve learned that the small and simple things are really big things.
As I tucked Mitch in that night, he said in a soft tone, “Dad, Grandma is so nice to remember I like chocolate cake from Costco.” I paused a moment, and Mitch then asked, “Are you crying?” I whispered, “Son, sometimes moms and dads cry when special things happen to their kids. Our hearts explode, and it squirts out of our eyes.” Mitch giggled a little and snuggled into a deep pillow, ready to visit a place of dreams.
Mitch knew there were sweeter things in life than chocolate cake – and as much as he loved that treat, he loved the sweeter things of life even more. The loving kindness of a grandparent, a simple act of service, or a friendly hello meant more to Mitch than all the candy on earth.
As I reflect on my son’s journey, though it broke my heart, I am so grateful for my mother and the sweeter things of life. For when all seemed dark, it was these little moments that broke through the shadows and shed a little light. I will thank my Father when I kneel before Him tonight.
I'll always remember how difficult it was for Mitch to bend over and gather leaves. Sometimes he would lose his balance, fall to the ground, then struggle to stand up again. His muscles were wasting away and I was powerless to stop it. As his friends were getting stronger, he was getting weaker. I began to see how often I took for granted what he struggled so hard to enjoy. I never imagined the gentle teacher I discovered in my little boy.
I remember asking, “Mitch, can I help you gather leaves?” Mitch said quietly, “No, it’s okay, Dad. I want to do it myself.” As I sat and watched my boy struggle, I fought back the tears and said a prayer in my heart that heaven might save my son from certain death – for he was a good soul and the world needed more people like him. Heaven saw things differently and took my boy away – for there was work to do, I suppose, in places I cannot say.
The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero once observed, “Gratitude is not only the greatest virtue but it is the parent of all others.” Among this little boy’s virtues, gratitude was chief among them … for he never saw his glass half empty, nor did he see it half full. He was just grateful there was something in it.
Mitch taught me gratitude is always greater.
I stumbled onto a 2011 Thanksgiving photo of Mitch late last night and sent a copy of it to Natalie this morning. Our exchange, a brief yet tender one.
At least for me, grief isn't about being in misery. Instead, it's a state of longing and wanting our loved ones back. It's a longing so deep your knees shake, hands tremble, and eyes suddenly fill with tears. Grief lingers like a silent shadow - ever close, always near ... its weight undiminished by the passing of years.