This August: Featured Essays on the Making the Most of Time
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.
When I close my eyes and think back on this moment, I can still smell that faint, earthy whisper of fallen leaves as my boys wrestled in a freshly gathered pile. The ruffles and crunches, blended with the giggles of my boys still play in my ears as though it just happened. “Hey, Effie, let’s throw leaves in the air again”, Mitch prodded his older brother. “We can pretend we’re in Lord of the Rings or something.” Ethan, not knowing what little Mitch meant, reached down and began to gather leaves in his arms. Mitch, eager to make believe, already had his armful.
I laid on the ground quietly and took photos from the perspective of a field mouse, looking up at my little boys who had a giant imagination. I loved this moment and the moment immediately after this photo was taken when the sky was filled with golden snowflakes made high by little boys who loved to play.
I recently stumbled across this quote: “Isn’t it strange how autumn is beautiful, yet everything is dying?” I love this quote, not just for the arrangement of words, but for the meaning it conveys. I have discovered that beauty can be found in almost anything if we look for it.
To be clear, seeing my son slowly die was not beautiful – in fact, it was a horror show that broke my heart and soul. Yet, when I look back on the tender mercies we received during that time from a loving Father, I know we are we are not alone. I know that heaven walks before us and prepares the way for all that we experience. The truth is, we are rarely spared suffering, but we can be given comfort in times of need … and there is a certain beauty in that.
For every difficult thing I’ve experienced, I’ve learned something about its counterpart. Poverty has taught me the value of a penny; suffering the splendor of peace. Death has taught me to appreciate life; grief has shown me the value of time.
When the skies darken and I'm tempted to give up, I stop and count my blessings ... I name them one-by-one. For every negative, I have discovered a positive – and usually more than one. It is humbling to see all that God has done - not just for me, but my precious little son.
It was mid-November and we were enjoying a mild evening at a park just across the street from the apartments where we temporarily lived. Like many times before, Mitch sat on my shoulders and tried to twist my hat as though it were a steering wheel. He would laugh and laugh as I walked in whatever direction he tried to turn my head. He thought pulling a tuft of my hair was like hoking a horn because I would yell “Ouch!” every time. It hurt, but I didn’t mind because I loved to hear him laugh.
As Mitch sat on my shoulders, he didn’t understand the terrible future that awaited him. Tiny Mitch didn’t know we had just sold our home because of him – so we could find a place that would accommodate his future needs. He didn’t know that we would have sold all that we owned to keep him safe and healthy. Mitch didn’t know much, for he was young; he just knew we loved him – and that was all he needed to know.
For almost 11 years, we carried Mitch on our shoulders and backs and always in our hearts. One might think it was a terrible burden to have a child with a fatal disease … a disease that would not only kill him, but would slowly take every part of him away. Certainly, carrying a muscle-wasting, fatal disease on our shoulders was a burden. But carrying our child with that hardship was also filled with blessings – and the blessings far outweighed the burdens; for when it comes to our children, no burden is too great.
The night Mitch passed away he couldn’t open his eyes, but he could squeeze our hands to tell us he was listening. I wonder what crossed his mind that night. I remember whispering to him as I wet his pillow with my tears … I whispered memories I had with him and told him how grateful I was to be his daddy. I hope memories like this photo crossed his mind and gave his weary soul comfort. I hope he found peace knowing we loved him and were proud of the young boy that he had become.
I did my best to carry Mitch on my shoulders. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. In strictly mortal terms, he was younger than me. Though spiritually, I began to sense his soul was much older than mine. I thought I was on earth to carry him and help him learn and grow – but as heavenly paradoxes go, the opposite was true. He was teaching and shaping me. Looking back, I was never carrying Mitch – I think heaven sent Mitch to carry me. This little boy was a tattered angel who was marked for a short life – heaven knew it long before he was born. And I sensed it the moment I first laid eyes on him. Perhaps, among other things, his mission was to save me from me.
Though he is gone now and my heart aches deeply because of it, I sense him from time-to-time. Not through butterflies and rainbows, but a distinct spiritual impression his soul is near and that he is doing the work of angels … guiding me quietly through whispers that are felt more than heard. I sense that he is tending to my broken soul – and I hope I am listening.
Thanksgiving is near and I have a great many things to be thankful for: faith and family are chief among them. I am also grateful that hidden somewhere deep beneath life’s burdens are also blessings – blessings that are earned by-and-through struggle. And whenever I get confused and wonder what to do, I think about my Father and my son ... and I ask myself, "Who's carrying who?"
We had just parked in front of my in-laws for a Thanksgiving dinner. My not-so-little Mitch, always asserting his independence, began to walk awkwardly down the slight slope of their front yard to the front door. Walking can seem like such an easy thing to those of us who have muscle strength. But to Mitch, walking was difficult ... as evidenced by his awkward gait and increasingly visible struggle to lift his legs high enough to put one foot in front of another. Despite his independence, he would need help up the stairs.
Mitch was so interesting; whenever life seemed to take things away from him, his gratitude for what remained only grew stronger.
He shared his gratitude for life on many occasions and in many different ways. Each time he expressed his gratitude for life, his words were simple and profound. One day I will post the audio from a one-on-one interview with Mitch where he said "I'm grateful for life."
I think he sensed early in his life that he would only be here a short time. He knew it, in a way, just like I knew it; except I think he knew it without knowing it.
I wonder if one of the reasons he valued life so much was precisely because Mitch sensed something was seriously wrong.
Whatever the reason, because this young boy was so grateful for life, he lived and loved deeply - never taking a minute or moment for granted.
He gathered gratitude like a wise traveler might store up oil for their lamps ... in preparation for those long, dark times when the only light we might ever see will come from the light within.
Gratitude not only strengthens the heart and soul, it also serves as a light to shine ... not on what was lost, but what remains.