I’m sitting quietly under the canopy of night reading my journals. These worn out books cover over 30 years of my life: stories of struggle, despair, breakthroughs and spiritual awakenings. The sound of crickets makes this moment even more nostalgic.
I have over 200 new #mitchellsjourney stories I’ll begin to publish soon. But tonight, I wanted to look further back in time.
In an earlier essay, I made reference to a dream I had that was a foreshadowing of my journey with Mitch. I’ve had two of them, years apart, in fact. They weren’t ordinary dreams - they seemed to come from a much deeper place. It’s interesting to read the details of those dreams in my own handwriting; a kind of forewarning from so many years ago.
I don’t pretend to know what’s really happening in this life, I only know we’re not alone and that something divine walks before us, beside us, and guides our ways ... most often sight unseen. Only in retrospect do things make the most sense, it seems. All the pain, injustice, joy and opportunity I’ve ever known are deeply interconnected.
When I take the time to recognize and document the many points of light in my life, I discover a kind of new, fresh courage when I step into the unknown. Life can be bewildering and hard at times, but it is also sweet and good.
This August: Featured Essays on the Making the Most of Time
This was Mitchell’s last time at his grandmothers – the place, other than home, he loved to be above all others. I’m not sure if it was the chocolate cake from Costco she would get especially for him, or the small 4-wheelers he could ride into the woods, or if it was the escape from life as he knew it, maybe it was the unbridled love he received – but whatever it was, he wanted to be there.
As we stood at the door and said goodbye my mother reached behind Mitch, who is as shy as he is sweet, and kissed his cheek. I could tell Mitch felt so good inside. I think everybody deserves to feel good inside.
I captured this tender moment with my phone. As we left her place there was a certain heaviness in my heart. I didn’t know where my feelings were coming from – I just sensed something was happening. Something significant. As we drove away I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. Had I known this was his last trip there, I would have begged to stay another day or two. My mother said after we left she just sat on the floor and wept. Perhaps her soul, not knowing the end was coming, was being prepared for this loss.
It was the last few days of November and the Christmas holidays were just around the corner. I could tell Mitch was excited to see what Santa would bring –but he was even more excited about the gifts he was going to give everyone else. Mitch always gave to others freely. I think deep inside he felt no matter how much he gave, he always got more in return.
Even when Mitch was home on hospice, he spent his hard-saved money on a collection of Warheads (very sour candy) and gave them away. I remember sitting with him on the edge of his bed as he separated the flavors. He softly pointed to the blue raspberry ones and said almost in a whisper, struggling to breathe, “These ones are rare. They’re my favorite.” He then grabbed my hand and put the precious 3 candies in my palm, then closed my fingers and pushed my hand back to me. I said to him, “Oh, no Mitchie, these are yours. You keep them because I know you love them.” As I reached to give them back he pushed my hand back to me with a gentle smile and said, “No, you keep them. And I want you to eat one right now.” My heart sank a little because I wanted him to have his favorite treats, but I realized in that moment that letting Mitch give was the gift he really wanted.
So, I opened one quickly and put it in my mouth. Mitch began to smile and giggle as I puckered and writhed over the intense sour candy that was destroying my taste buds. Mitch finally burst out in laughter as he saw me cry out “I can’t take it!” For Mitch, giving was a win to him. And seeing me almost gag over the super-sour candy was a second win that paid dividends of giggles and laughter.
I still have those other two candies in a special box that contains treasures from Mitch.
Mitch reminds me daily what it means to win. Sometimes life gives us double-wins when everything turns out as planned. Other times we do our best and appear to fail; but if we are honest and do our best we have already won, regardless of the outcome. What is winning, really? It is doing the right thing – no matter the cost. Mitch always did the right thing. And more often than not, he won twice.
With all his double-wins, my little boy lost his battle with life … yet he won his soul by the way he lived it. And, by the grace of God, while I stumble and fall a million times as I chase after my son, I hope to hold him once more. I hope to look into his innocent eyes and thank him for helping me understand to do good and be good is what it means to truly win.
You know those magic moments where time slows, and you wish you could stay there forever? This was one of those evenings. It was ordinary by all accounts. The Saturday chores were long done, our kids were bathed and getting ready for bed, and the sun was making its slow descent behind the hills. The summer breeze wrapped your skin like a warm blanket, and you could hear crickets begin to sing their soothing songs.
I had just stepped outside to take the garbage out when I noticed my two youngest. I smiled as I watched Mitch hum a song as he scooted about, while Wyatt had an imaginary conversation, tromping about the driveway in his tiny shoes. I can almost smell Wyatt’s freshly shampooed hair and feel the warm cotton of his pajamas, just out of the dryer. I miss those days. As I pulled out my phone to take a photo of life in motion, tiny Wyatt ran to his brother’s side, eager to make sure he was in the shot. Wyatt reached for the handlebar and pressed his baby index finger onto Mitchell’s hand as if to give him a tiny hand-hug and say, “That’s my big brother, and we’re buddies.”
As I look closely at this image, I can see the breadcrumbs of an extraordinary life hiding in plain sight. Mitch held a purple pencil in his hand and a teddy bear between his legs … evidence that children treasure the little things. Mitchell’s smile bore a fading milk mustache from lunch a few hours earlier. Wyatt wore his favorite Spiderman t-shirt and bore a similar mustache – except he also had crumbs from a cookie he’d recently gobbled down with a feverish giggle. There stood my two youngest kids … tiny, cute, perfectly imperfect, little messes. At this moment I was overwhelmed with gratitude; I was so glad to be a dad.
I was so swept up with this moment, I didn’t want it to end. I’m reminded of the phrase, “Can’t I stay a little longer? I’m so happy here.” That’s how I felt … and I wanted to live there forever.
Today, my heart says something similar. When I think back on my Camelot years, my heart whispers, “I was so happy then. If only it could have lasted. Can’t I just visit for a moment or two?” There is a part of me that wishes to go back in time because I’d relish moments in ways only a grieving heart can fully know.
In a way, I do go back in time. Only the events are fixed and, I am as a ghost visiting old times and familiar places in my mind. That’s what writing is to me: a time machine. These days 95% of my life is concerned with now and the future – but I will always reserve a little space to visit my past with a tender heart and pencil and paper.
I go back in time for at least 4 reasons:
So that I won’t forget the little things.
To make meaning of love, life, loss, and suffering.
To clean and dress my wounds.
To foster gratitude for what was and to better appreciate what I have today.
Going back in time can be tricky. If we’re not mindful, we can irritate our wounds in such a way they won’t ever heal. And sometimes, they’ll get infected. At least for me, intention has a lot to do with how I choose to heal. When I go back in time, I am always looking to understand the past, to mend what’s broken and strengthen my feeble knees. Sure, I cry -- but they are cleansing tears … the kind that keep the soil of my soul soft, fertile, and growth promoting.
The inevitable consequence of going back in time is my heart cries, “Can’t I stay a little longer?” But then the less broken part of me says, “Come as often as you like. Take what helps, heal what hurts, and find gratitude for all that ever was and is yet to be.” Those are the words that resonate deep inside of me.
With Halloween tonight, I can’t help but think of Mitchell’s last. In previous years, I the weight of grief was heavy on my soul – to the point, my lungs felt shallow and my chest heavy.
This holiday is different.
Though I miss little Mitch, I feel a great deal of love and gratitude for all that ever was. Yes, I wish I had the power to bring him back – but I am a mere mortal and can only bring his memory to my mind and heart. For now, that will have to do.
I want to re-share something I wrote in 2014 – just a year after having lost him. Lately, I’ve been re-reading my previous journal entries here and I’ve wondered to myself, “What’s changed?” I’ll share some of those observations soon.
Tonight, I’ll share what I posted just a few years ago. It’s a meditation on where the real treats of life can be found; and it’s found in the giving, not the getting.
Here is that earlier post:
Trick-or-Treating was always difficult for him. Because his muscles were wasting away he couldn't go very far … each year his Halloween adventures became shorter and shorter. Even though he had a motorized scooter, getting up and down, climbing a stair or two to reach a neighborhood door was exhausting for him. He usually couldn’t visit more than 6-7 homes before he could hardly walk and wanted to go home.
To help him, Mitchell’s brothers or sister would take his trick-or-treat bag to the door while Mitch sat in his scooter on the sidewalk. Generous neighbors would lovingly place candy in his bag as little Mitch smiled in the darkness. He was always grateful.
There was another aspect to Halloween Mitch loved even more than treasuring candy unto himself. Mitch loved giving candy away at the door. To some of his closest friends who approached the door, Mitch would give them his favorite candy from his own bag.
I took this photo of Mitch on his last Halloween. He wanted to stay home and give out candy instead of trick-or-treating himself. Each time the door would shut he would turn around only to have a big smile on his face.
Mitch learned early in his life that in giving he received so much more than those who got; a life lesson he never forgot.
Later that winter my mother came to visit for a few days. We were cuddled in the basement watching a movie when Mitch struggled to get up from the couch and waddled in his funny way over to his grandmother and offered her some of his favorite cheese popcorn from Popcornopolis. I don’t think my mother realized at the time (or even to this day) the physical struggle he went through to simply get up and share what he loved. I remember that moment so vividly. It wasn't the popcorn that really mattered to Mitch, it was the giving … and it was his struggle to give that made it all the more precious. To Mitch giving was getting.
Tonight is a tender evening for me – for I will remember my little boy who loved to give more than get. I will miss seeing that big smile on his little face and most especially his warm embrace.
Not a day passes I don't think of my son’s quiet example: he gave freely when he had so little to give, and now that is how I want to live. I often marvel and wonder, “How could it be? A little boy, mortally broken, who taught me how to see ...” One day, with a weary and broken heart, I will fall to my knees and thank my Father for sending me Mitchie.
My daughter took these photos the day after Mitchell came home. He was so excited to be surrounded by all that was familiar to him. Most importantly, he was grateful to be with his family – for, above all else, family is what he loved the most.
My wife and I were anxious to hold, hug and kiss him without the spider web of cables, tubes and IV’s. It was a surreal time for us. 48 hours prior to this very moment Mitchell had a team of 12 medical professionals all working vigorously to keep him alive. At home, he had 1 hospice nurse whose job was to help him feel comfortable and usher his body through the painful process of organ failure and death.
For Mitchell, touch was important to him. No blanket that could replace the warmth that came from his parent’s embrace. Ever since he was a baby, he would rub his forehead against mine -sometimes for minutes at a time. He wouldn't say a word and neither would I; we didn't need to. We spoke more in our silence and gestures than could ever be communicated by words alone. This was one of his ways of loving deeply and I never tired of it. I yearn to do it again today, and my heart sinks to the depths of my soul that I cannot.
Within a few days of this photo, Mitchell lost the ability to smell. It never came back. He would tell me later how much he missed smelling the things he loved. He yearned for the scent of his favorite shampoo, the smell of popcorn and his dad’s cologne. He had an appreciation for the little things in life, and I admired that about him greatly. A week before he passed away Mitchell asked if we could go to the store to buy shampoo that had a stronger scent … so that maybe he could smell again. I hugged him and quietly started to cry. Oh, the little things we so often take for granted …
I will never smell things the same again. Never a scent my nose encounters that I don’t thank my God for all that I have.
Over the last 2 years, I would occasionally ask Mitchell what advice he would give people about life. Without fail he would respond “Be nice to each other and be glad you’re alive. Nothing else matters.” With this philosophy, he never varied. I found it fascinating that a child so young was so attuned to the intrinsic value of life. What’s more, he understood the deeply spiritual value of kindness. Most young children seem to worry more about playthings and consumption (perhaps too many adults do, too) – but Mitchell possessed a sobriety about life and relationships that was far beyond his years. It was as if his soul knew what was to come long before his mortal body failed him.
I was raised to accept the fact life is tough, because it is. And at some point, the world tells us we have to suck it up and take it like a “man” or a woman, or a lion or a bear. But I also realized in the privacy of our bedrooms or the quite of our minds there is often an unspoken dimension to us . . . a part of us that is vulnerable and mortal; a part that loves deeply and hurts honestly.
Years ago I stopped pretending to be a lion or a bear. I decided to be human – and that has been liberating.
Three weeks after my daughter took these photos, Mitchell’s weary and scarred heart, after having fought valiantly to survive, fluttered and stopped.
I would give everything I own, or could ever hope to be, to have my little son back with me. His broken heart, a heart that loved deeply and hurt honestly, was more noble and worthy than all the lions and bears on earth. Mitchell reminds me what it means to be human and that the lions and bears we often pretend to be are just a mirage. My son taught me there are no lions or bears, only humans … and to pretend otherwise is to cheat others and ourselves.
One day, when we all have eyes to truly see, we’ll come to know there was so much more to mortality. That to be nice to each other and grateful for life are among the prerequisites to spiritual sight.
Little Mitch was less than 24 hours from being admitted to the ER. We would then learn he only had days left to live. After a rigorous battle in the cardiac intensive care unit, we took Mitch home to live out the remainder of his days where he was comfortable and surrounded by everything and everyone he loved. No time in my life has been more sacred than that time with my son. We were blessed to have him 3 short weeks … which were also the longest weeks of my life. My knees are still bruised.
I’ll never forget how little Mitch leaned into his mother’s embrace in search of comfort. As his parents, we were desperate to rescue him. He was in a great deal of pain as organs in his body reacted violently to his failing heart. It is a tender, terrible irony that a little boy who had such a loving heart would die from heart failure. Natalie held our boy in her arms, also in search of comfort. But there was none to take.
Over the next few weeks we would watch our once vibrant son wither away. I wanted to have that one last conversation with Mitch. I wanted to tell him for the last time how much I loved him and how proud of I was of him. I did tell him such things while he was home … but I wanted just one more. I wanted to tell him that when I grow up, I want to be just like him. I still do.
In 2012, the Thanksgiving prior to Mitchell’s passing we were at my in-laws at a family function. Everyone took a turn to share the one thing they were grateful for. Most parents shared their gratitude for their family and for God. Children shared their gratitude for toys, family and friends. When it came time for Mitch, he simply said, “I’m just thankful to be alive.” I recorded him saying that with my iPhone. I remember that it took a maximum effort to not burst into tears at that very moment.
Another bitter irony that a child who intrinsically valued life would have it taken from him so young.
Comfort and spiritual assurance came and went like a heavenly tide under the dim light of tender mercies. After my son passed away the sky, which was already pitch as night, drew darker still. There were times I sought after heavenly answers and peace … and I received nothing. It would take repeated efforts to reach heavenward before certain answers came. Looking back, I can see that my struggle to find answers and peace [peace, where there was none to take] … that very struggle taught me things I needed to know. I discovered things I would have never learned had answers and peace come at my beck and call, as though God were some kind of cosmic butler. He is no such thing. But He is a parent and a master teacher who understands nothing of value comes easily. Sometimes the answers we seek are discovered in the struggle itself.
I often hear or read statements like “choose happiness” as though it were possible to blithely lay down our troubles like heavy, unnecessary luggage and simply move on. No sentiment could be more naive or insensitive to those who are trying to find their way through the wilderness of grief and trouble.
How are we to find peace where there seems none to take? It isn't choosing happiness, first.
At least for me, I have discovered that when I first seek meaning and purpose, happiness eventually follows. More than happiness, actually; I experience deep joy and a calming sense of understanding. Yet, when I seek happiness first, I forever hunger for that which cannot satisfy.
Little Mitch taught me to first seek meaning and purpose, then peace will follow. Understanding will fill those places that seem so empty and hollow.
As the winter sky drew dark Mitch began to fade. He didn’t need to say anything, his tired eyes said a million things at once. Natalie tenderly scooped him up in her arms and carried little Mitch to his room. My heart sank as I saw my little boy listless and drifting away. I could almost hear death violently gashing at our door … about to barge in like a terrifying home invasion to steal my son away.
Later that night I prayed to my Father, knees bruised from prayer. I prayed the words of a broken son and terrified dad in need of comfort and council, “Oh Father, how am I to do this difficult thing? I’m so afraid. My hands and soul tremble. I love my son and don’t want to see him suffer. I will take his place, if you will allow me. Please … not my son. If there is any other way … please …”
I often hear people speak of God’s grace when their children are spared suffering or sorrow. Some will say, almost in a tone of victory, “God is good. All the time.” But what happens when our children are not spared? What then? What happens when things go from bad to terribly, horribly, unimaginably wrong? Has God forsaken us? Has he left us abandoned in a wasteland of grief and sorrow? My experience tells me no. In fact, I have come to see there is a purpose to all things … and when I quiet my mind and focus my spiritual eyes, however blinded by tears, I begin to see things as they really are. That gives me hope.
The death of a child is uniquely and exquisitely painful, whatever the age. At least for me, my son’s passing at the age of 10 was a scene from my worst nightmare. As his father, Mitch saw me as the ultimate problem solver, his protector and soul mate. He was so innocent and believing and good. Yet, despite all that we tried to do, I was unable to save my son. With that harsh reality comes unavoidable feelings of failure and regret, despite what I already know. Such is the burden of grief. And a terrible burden it is.
Though the path that lay before us was dark and frightening, I also know my Father put a dim lamp before our feet so we could find our way. We knew we were not alone. Despite our journey through the dark wilderness of grief, we have come to realize were not abandoned. Not once. To the contrary, in our moments of greatest darkness we were carried, sight unseen. I can see that now. I can see it plain as noon day.
I don’t know the secrets of heaven, however much I wish to see and understand them. I don’t know why innocent children are made to suffer. But they are … and they do. God could stop it, but He doesn’t. Clearly suffering is allowed to happen. So, rather than shake my fists at the heavens – as though my puny protests could change the grand design … I have learned to listen with my soul and see where I was once blind.
I have learned that bruised knees and broken hearts are important keys to building our spiritual parts. Being human we would avoid pain and sorrow … but that is where growth starts: bruised knees and broken hearts.