CAN’T I STAY A LITTLE LONGER?

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. 

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.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

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:

  1.  So that I won’t forget the little things. 

  2. To make meaning of love, life, loss, and suffering.

  3. To clean and dress my wounds.

  4. 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.

A REASON FOR GLEE

There is a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy. So when he grows up, he’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I always loved this saying for many reasons and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things: soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. After all, true value has little (if anything) to do with price –and the things of greatest value cannot be purchased with money. Not at any price.

Once I discovered this, the relationship between the highway and this canyon began to serve as something of a metaphor to me – a reminder that sometimes I can’t see a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink and humans are only transients on this planet … this classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to her ranch I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the true beauty of the landscape I was passing. The highway hugs the mountain range and base of Kolob Canyon in such a way you cannot see it (not even a little bit) because the road is too close to it. Without the proper perspective, everything feels ordinary. But, if you take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you will see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered this, the relationship between the highway and this canyon began to serve as something of a metaphor to me – a reminder that sometimes I can’t see a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I travel the long road of grief, when I step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point, I see beauty. I also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

I love this photo because it reminds me Mitch lived a good life. If there were one image that best illustrated my son, this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because he was loved by his family and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I have recently discovered many videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background (unaware he was on camera) because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and appreciated life from a different vantage point. He saw the canyon.

While having lost my son has been a source of great sorrow, he is also a great source of inspiration to me. And though I walk imperfectly, I will learn from my little boy. Like Mitch, I will find a reason for glee. For indeed, as I step away and look upon my life differently, I can clearly see there is beauty all around me.

Thank you, Mitchie, for teaching me to be happy – to always find a reason for glee.

LIONS AND BEARS 


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.

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.

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 … 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

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.

WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY

Little Mitch exited church in an outfit in which he could barely fit.  As his father, I adored watching my tiny boy try to keep his shirt tucked in and his tie straight.  Though Mitch was small in stature, he was always big in spirit.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
— Unknown

I had just sat in my car, turned on the air conditioning, and began taking this series of photos through my partially open window.  Mitch had no idea I was watching him.  As my son waddled behind his grandfather, an enlightened and thoughtful man, he turned to my little boy and said, “Now Mitch, we’re going to my place to have lunch.  You can come with me, or you can go with your mom and dad.  Either choice is fine – it is up to you to decide.”

Mitch furrowed his brow and began to think carefully about the choice before him.  I always admired my grandfather’s unique way of teaching my children; often, he’d present options and encourage them to make informed decisions.  Natalie takes after her father’s style of teaching by introducing a choice, then encouraging them to consider their inevitable consequences: positive, harmful, or benign. 

My heart melted as I saw my boy sort through his options and decide to go with Grandpa.  I was so proud of him that day.  As we followed them in our car, I saw Mitch look through the rear window to make sure we were following them.  He smiled and waved his tiny hand, then turned around to talk to his grandpa.  My heart was singing a song of joy the likes of which no human words can express.

I was grateful for my father-in-law who turned an otherwise mundane experience into a teaching moment.  As far as I can tell, that is how he’s always been.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  In today’s world of mistaken attributions and loose plagiarism, the origin of that quote is unclear to me – but the truth of it is sound.  I have spent the last 20 years of my life in training, education, and leadership development – and if there is one thing I’ve seen time and again, it is this: if a student isn’t ready to learn – no learning will take place, no matter how great the teacher.  The moment we’re ready, however, everything can become our teacher.

When I lost my son, I found myself at an emotional and spiritual crossroad: I had the freedom to choose a path of inconsolable anguish … forever circling my hurt; or a path of growth, searching for meaning and purpose.  To be clear, both paths were treacherous – laden with the pains of loss and the weight of grief.  The struggle with grief is an inescapable part of being human, yet one path spirals downward, the other circles, up, and out.

For every grief moment, I’ve experienced, which are too many to number, I have sought meaning and purpose.  I asked myself, “What am I to learn from this hardship?  What is my Father trying to teach me?” 

I believe life is filled with hard things, by design.  They aren’t doled out by an uncaring God – but rather a master teacher, who knows that struggle begets growth.  If we’re to become stronger, better, and more compassionate, we must walk through valleys of tears and in the shadow of death – among other hard things. 

In many ways, this image serves as a metaphor for my own life – and if I’m listening to that still, small voice, I can almost hear my Father tutor me in matters of the soul.  In truth, I feel like my little son – in an outfit I’m too small to occupy … ever trying to keep my shirt tucked and my tie straight.

In my heart, I always hope to be a ready student – for there are teachers who are plenty, and I have lessons yet to learn, which are many.