TO MY GREAT SURPRISE

I remember how playful my children were at this moment and how much they loved their mother.  We were at a reunion and every family was back in their hotel rooms to rest a little.  As a Dad, my heart swelled when I saw our kids laugh and kiss Natalie’s cheeks to let her know how much they loved her.  This was an emotional payday for my sweet wife and best friend – and my soul smiled, glad to see her cash in a little on all the long nights and thankless days.  I was glad to capture this sweet exchange because this was one of those perfect moments that can slip through your fingers like the finest sand.  On the darker days, these good times remind me that not all of life is bad.

Somehow, some way, if we’re patient, and if we seek to find meaning before we seek peace … we’ll heal faster and hurt a little less.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As far as I can tell, I believe one of the hard truths about life is this: things don’t always turn out well.  And sometimes, things can go terribly, horribly wrong.  Bad things can, and probably will happen to us.  If we live long enough, our hearts may be broken many times and we might suffer a great deal over the years.  But between all those hurts we’re going to experience many, many happy times. 

I still miss my little boy and I’m still grieving – but I think I’m entering a new stage of grief – that is the stage of deep acceptance.  When I think of the stages of grief, I don’t think I ever experienced anger – only great sadness.  Maybe I did experience anger … but I don’t ever remember being mad at God – only very, very sad.  I could have filled an ocean with my tears.

On my grief journey, I often wondered what acceptance would mean to me.  I think I’m beginning to understand.  At least for me, I’ve learned to accept I will forever miss little Mitch.  I accept there will always be an empty chair at the table of my heart – and I’ll long to see it occupied.  I accept that I now live with chronic [emotional] pain.  Yet, pain, like every emotion, has its time and place.  The emptiness is always, but the pain comes and goes – as does joy and peace.  As time progresses, the peaks and valleys are less intense.

I think about Mitch daily – sometimes I cry, other times I smile, and increasingly, I giggle over the cute things he used to do. 

I’m beginning to discover something about what can happen to the wounds that cut us so deeply.  Somehow, some way, if we’re patient, and if we seek to find meaning before we seek peace … we’ll heal faster and hurt a little less.  To my great surprise, these terrible wounds are turning into soft, peaceful memories – and fewer tears fill my eyes.

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.  

 

 
 
 
 

ARTICLE ON MITCHELL'S JOURNEY

As Father's Day approaches, I can't help but thank my Father in Heaven for sending me Mitch. It is through that journey of love and pain that I have come to appreciate family and what it means to be a father and a son. 

Until my dying day, I promise to be nice to others and be glad I'm alive; because as Mitch taught me, nothing else matters.

WHEN THERE IS NONE TO TAKE

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.

SOMETIMES WE LEAVE THE BEST PARTS OF US BEHIND

I’ve experienced a lot of hard things in life – but nothing so hard as being a parent. 

On this night I took my kids to a restaurant; Natalie was at another function so I was blessed with some one-on-one time with my kids. At one point I said something that hurt my son’s feelings. I don’t remember exactly what happened – I only remember he was sad. When I realized I hurt his feelings my heart broke and I immediately fell to my knees, put my forehead against his and said, “Oh, Mitchie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Sometimes Daddy’s make mistakes – and they don’t mean to. I love you, son. How I love you…” 

Perhaps nothing quite shows the nobility of children as their readiness to forgive and forget. The irony of adulthood is that some hold grudges and try to inflict hurt on others. But children … they are endlessly good. No wonder it is said of them, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Sadly, it is adults who bring hell on earth. If only we could love and forgive like children do. If only we could see the best in each other and forgive with loving hearts - oh, how the world might change.

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So there I knelt at my son’s feet; a painful fatherly confession was made and a tender plea for his love and forgiveness was shared. Mitch put his arms around my neck and I hugged him tightly. “I love you, little boy. With all of my heart.” Mitch whispered, “I love you too, Dad.” 

Mitch was smiling again – and all was right with the world. Later that night, Mitch and my other kids would snuggle in my arms on the couch as I read stories before bedtime – a tradition Natalie has upheld since our kids were infants. Heaven seldom felt as close as it did that night.

I know I’m not the first parent to upset their child … and I certainly won’t be the last. What I do know, is every time I stumbled I immediately tried to make it right. 

I suppose the point of this post isn’t that I made mistakes and tried to recover; instead, I can’t help but think of the utter goodness of children and how much I have yet to learn from them. I saw in my son this night a most pure and loving heart – something I will carry with me and forever try to be.

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 

 

LITTLE MERCIES

Baby Marlie waddled up to Mitch and begin to kiss his face. The chief cardiologist allowed her to be smuggled past security so she could perform some puppy therapy. It worked every time.

This little boy and puppy had only met about two weeks prior and were already the best of friends. To look at video footage of these two reveals something that was hiding in plain sight; though she was a baby pup herself, she seemed to recognize something was different with Mitch. She treated him with a tenderness and care that was unique and startlingly obvious. Almost maternal. The circumstances of adopting this puppy were heaven-sent, and I’ll write of that another day. But one thing was clear: this little dog was on a mission of mercy … and not a day passes that I don’t thank my Father for it.

Until that sacred evening of my son’s passing, this little dog played an important role in comforting my son. This little puppy was a tender mercy to our boy. Today, Marlie serves my dear wife, who has a broken heart of a different kind. When Natalie is especially sad, Marlie seems to notice, just like she did with Mitch, and makes a visible effort to comfort her. Often, I can’t help but cry tears of gratitude when I see the little mercies in my life and in the lives of those I love.

Tonight, as I lay my head to sleep, I will greet the night unafraid ... my heart overflowing with gratitude. Gratitude for the little mercies and the big ones, too. For we have a Father who cares about the little things - evidence He loves me and you.