Category Archives: Sandy

8:59

Our last good-bye to Graham wasn’t on his death bed, it was 9 months and 2 days earlier – the early morning of March 14th at which time he left our home and went north to Minnesota. The memory sits like yesterday. US Airways flight #1822 out of Atlanta at 8:59 a.m., connecting in Charlotte, arriving in Minneapolis just after one o’clock in the afternoon, central time.

You saw this snapshot earlier, but I’ll post it again. It’s a grainy, shadowy reminder of that morning, the ‘didn’t-know-at-the-time’ appendix to our story with this fabulous young man to our right and your left. Say hello to the Mitchell family.

For the last time.

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As I post this exactly a year later, this morning marks the first anniversary of that semi-sweet occasion.

An empathic friend sent this to Sandy and me yesterday, a Facebook post from Kay Warren. She and her husband, Rick, buried their son almost a year ago, also under horrifically tragic and unexpected circumstances. Obviously, being vastly more public figures, their grief has been exposed and commented on more openly. For the record, thankfully, we’ve not endured even a smidgen of what they’ve faced – not even close – but, then again, our season of mourning is not over.

Closure? Is there ever such a thing?

Healing. Yes. Certainly.

In Jesus’ burden-bearing Name.

But closure?

I share it, in part, not the whole (the entire post is difficult, at times biting, especially for those who haven’t ‘been there’) because it’s a reminder of those who’ve gone before us on this same stubbly road and who are coming through it, not perfectly, not according to some script or calendar, not even suitably, but are coming…

…through…

…it…

differently.

Kay has to see a mountain before her, we a foothill. Her pain is blistering, ours a soft injury. We don’t voice her same complaints, don’t feel the depths of her sadness, haven’t felt her sense of betrayal. But a few of the miles she’s traveled are vaguely familiar to us.

Read, beloved, and pray for our sister and brother, the Warrens.

And for us. Yes. We’re still not through it.

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.”

The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing…for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013.

In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.

You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad.

I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me…We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well…True friends…love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB).

The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient…They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.”

Thank you, Kay. You have eloquently expressed the heart of a griever’s innermost vocabulary, when they are honest with themselves. Thankfully though, because Christ is a Healer and His compassions never fail, we need never sorrow hopelessly.

The day following our son’s passing, this was my own post on Facebook:

God blessed Sandy and me with the gift of a lifetime, our son Graham. We were blessed to have our baby boy (our only) for twenty-four fun-filled, amazing, tragic, adventurous, never-a-dull-moment, heart-wrenching, miraculous, painful, sweet, cuddly, hard, eye-opening, jaw-dropping, hand-clapping, sweet-as-pie, soft-as-silk, abrasive-as-sandpaper, thrilling, magical, wonderful years.

Yesterday, he went Home. He’s with Jesus. The war is over. The struggle has ended. Devil, you scoundrel, you wanted to destroy him but God promoted him. You can’t touch him anymore. Can’t. You lose. Gra-Gra is with God now. Praise Jesus, his chains are gone. Amazing, amazing grace.

Hallelujah. Selah.

Psalm 85:2

All THAT makes all THIS worth it.

Remind me to tell you about my recent dream. It’s bona-fide Graham.

Gone…But Not Forever…

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Graham, sharing with the millennials group in 2012. He was in a recovery program in Atlanta and in a ‘good place’

It’s fitting that before I could post this, my 9th (and presumably last) installment since our son passed, I needed to sit by Graham’s graveside and read it out loud to him. I’m not intending to sound melodramatic, but, somehow, I feel I owed him that. Anyway, you, dear reader, have graced me more than you know for following along. Processing this way has helped ferret out many of the emotions tremendously. Thank you. Oh, and since I’ll still be blogging, come back and visit from time to time. I’ll probably need an ear or a comfy shoulder again soon.

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(Continued from previous post, “Gone…But Not Homeless…”)

It was March, in the year of our Lord, 2003. Our church family was challenged to believe Jehovah-rapha for my healing, to press in, intercede, and see if God wouldn’t take my body and raise it from the prison of paralysis, and grant the healing so many cried out for. Graham, then 13, was out front, emotionally leading the charge.

Before we left for church that morning, this conversation ensued:

“Dad, let’s put the regular van driver’s seat in today.”

“The regular chair?” I asked.

“Yes sir. You’re not going to need your wheelchair after the service. You’re getting healed this morning,” he answered with unhinged exuberance.

I knew that “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ” so I used the moment to teach my boy a little something about how God operates, as best I understood it.

“Has God told you I would be healed today, Graham?” I pressed.

“I just know you will be, Dad!”

“Graham, buddy, I haven’t heard that He will. Only that we are to ask together as a church family and see what God might do,” I tenderly explained.

He could not be deterred. He even held a stiff hand out to stop me.

“I know you’ll be healed today, Dad!”

And that’s when I sensed something dangerous afoot. I had to do something, say something, to help my son see that just because it’s a strong wish doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.

“Graham, what if I’m not healed today?” I pleaded.

He shook his head sternly. He wasn’t hearing that. No way. I was getting healed that morning. End of story. The matter, as far as Graham was concerned, was dropped.

The rest of that morning, I didn’t pray with the couple hundred who gathered around me, pressed shoulder to shoulder, groaning and pleading and crying out for my healing. Instead, I was praying for a boy whose young faith was almost certainly going to take the hardest of hits. I felt Graham at my right shoulder, dying by degrees the longer the prayers went “unanswered”, and knew in my spirit he’d be fully deflated by the end of the morning.

We left that service and I rode the lift up into the van and locked my wheelchair into its place behind the steering wheel. Just like always. Graham, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair, was quiet. Nothing changed. The hopes he’d pinned to my full healing were lying in shattered pieces at his feet.

Later, in the gloom, Graham confessed to something else occurring while all the praying was going on. It confused him greatly.

“Dad, everyone had their eyes closed, but I just watched. I watched you for awhile, but nothing was happening, so I just started watching people.”

There was an unsettled expression on his face that prompted me to ask: “Did you see something?”

“I saw Jesus,” he said.

I didn’t say a word. I trusted my son. If he said he saw Jesus, I believed him. Whatever it was he saw confounded him, clearly.

“He just kinda appeared in the back of the church. Then He passed through all the people and came right up to you.”

“To me?” I prodded.

“Yes sir. He just knelt in front of you.”

“Did you see His face?” I asked, masking excitement.

“Not really. That was a blur. But I remember He put His hands on your legs and I could tell – even though I couldn’t see His face – that He was looking at me.”

I thanked God that night for graciously revealing Himself – in whatever way it was – to the most devastated soul in the room. That experience puzzled, more than moved, our son. He wasn’t making up a story to appear spiritual. No, he was already mad. He didn’t want anything to do with God. But he couldn’t deny…something happened. And was flummoxed.

A common prayer of mine became,

For Graham, I pray that a great and mighty olive tree would grow from his tender shoot and that future generations would be blessed through him. May he not “settle among the Philistines” but always pitch his tent in spiritual places, leaving altars to You everywhere he goes, and may he constantly be seeking to build new altars to You! May the fire never go out. May faith be his walking stick, and obedience his shoes, and may Your provision always fill his backpack every mile of his journey with You…

The pull of darkness, however, was irrefutable and our gorgeous son, in spite of God’s tender overtures, lacked the intent to refuse its draw. He was defiantly pitching his tent toward Philistia.

There was no lack of warnings, mind you. One of Graham’s strongest champions, his school administrator who loved him unconditionally, once looked into his eyes and said, rather brokenly,

“Graham, you have had so many chances to repent – more than most. Just remember, young man, GRACE REFUSED IS GRACE REMOVED.”

Dark storm-clouds began to move across his countenance. His sweet face turned sullen and hard. In short order, he was devolving into a slave of darkness, feeding himself the opiates of satan’s kingdom to compensate the emptiness within. He hated God, hated me, hated church, hated ministry, hated…yes, I’m very certain, even himself.

Many have commented on his tattoos and have seen it as a positive expression of his artistic side. I’m sure there’s s o m e of that but I also have an altogether different take on it. While I was so proud of his script (handwriting was never his specialty!) and how beautifully his drawing was evolving, many of his own tattoos were also ugly and dark. I sensed for some time that the way he inked his body reflected how he intrinsically felt about himself, deep down, minus the masks.

I know others will take issue with me on this front, but I know my son better than anyone except his mother, plus I know a thing or two about the nature of evil and how it manifests. It eats from the inside out.

I also know that 24-year old Graham was tired of his rebellion. Living in opposition to the higher plan of God does that to you.

It exhausts you.

It leaves you empty and unfulfilled, running on putrid fumes.

In the fullness of Graham’s shortened time on earth, God intervened and mercifully rescued our boy and received him home. God’s grace does that. It takes what the enemy means for evil, turns it upright, and creates something beautiful from the wreckage of our choices. Something praiseworthy.

This GLORIOUS REVERSAL first became evident to us when Dr. Venugopal, the attending cardiac ICU doctor at the Univ of MN hospital, called me at 5:30 p.m. on December 16th. I had been expecting her call for several hours so I had my pen and little notebook handy to write down everything she said. The last word we got was that Gra-Gra was found alone in a car, unresponsive at the scene, likely an overdose, but that he was on some sort of “blood warming” machine and that the next 24-48 hours were critical to his survival.

That’s all we knew.

So I’m driving Sandy to the airport so she can catch a flight to Minnesota to be with her baby boy and we’re scared and we don’t know details and we just want someoneanyonetocall
andletusknowthateverything’sgoingtobeokaywithourGraGra
andwhyisn’tthedoctorcalling…?

We pull up to a Zaxby’s because Sandy hasn’t had a thing on her tummy all day. The drive-thru lane is wrapped around the building for the supper-time rush, so my lovely goes inside, discovers she has no appetite, orders a drink, then visits the ladies’ room.

And.

You guessed it.

While I’m waiting in the van, Dr. V calls.

I pull out my pen and moleskin notebook. I need to write it all down, word for word, can’t miss a detail because I’m not, by nature, very detail-oriented (except in my writing) and I’ll need for Sandy to be completely in the loop.

“Mr. Mitchell?” the female voice responds when I say hello.

“Yes?” (Pretty sure my voice cracked)

“Mr. Mitchell, I’m the doctor in the cardiac ICU here at the hospital. You can call me Dr. V because my name is pretty long…”

My heart is in my throat.

“Mr. Mitchell, what do you know at this point?” she asked kindly, like a gentle counselor, not professionally.

I told her.

“Mr. Mitchell, I understand your situation is that you’re in Georgia?” Her voice lilts on the end.

“That’s right.”

Dr. V sighs. And pauses.

“Mr. Mitchell…”

I’m ready, pen in hand. Can’t miss anything she says.

“…If only there was some other way to do this…”

I thought she meant having to give all the medical jargon over the phone rather than face-to-face.

I thought…

Rather, she said ten plain words: “Mr. Mitchell, I’m so sorry, but your son is…”

Oh God

“…GONE.”

My hand, holding the pen, was shaking. A blast of sorrow came through my insides and exploded out my mouth. I don’t usually cry hard. My eyes get watery and leak, sure. My voice cracks, yeah. I pause to collect myself, certainly. But this was so sudden, so unexpected, a dam inside released and oceans of sorrow – years of pain and pent-up sadnesses – broke out and through.

I heard Dr. V saying other words but I, for whatever reason, put down my moleskin notebook and picked up a white piece of paper in the cupholder. Who knows why? It was a receipt from an earlier stop. I turned it over and wrote a single word:

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I’m almost finished, you’ve been so patient to make it this far, but I beg you to stay with me because the next paragraphs are the most critical. They put the “amen” to this epic story. Read on, I beg you. You won’t regret it.

Earlier that same afternoon, as Sandy raced home from an early shift, to pack and race again to catch a flight out of Atlanta, a myriad of thoughts whirled through her mind. At the forefront was her son’s soul. She cried. She prayed. She veered through traffic. She stormed heaven.

God, who was already cradling our boy, prompted Sandy, through the chaos, to play her worship CD. He always seems to speak to her through music. Her finger touched play and the disc responded with the song, “Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting at the dining room table, waiting for Sandy to get home and I’m crying out for my son’s soul at the exact same time. I’m thinking the next day-to-two-days is crucial, so I’m praying that God will intervene. I honestly was thinking this will be Graham’s ‘wake-up call’, that he’ll somehow survive, and I’m asking God to run ahead and use it to redeem him from his broken path.

And turn his heart toward home.

Little did I know he was already there.

Once upon a time I’d been given a word for Graham: “as long as you’re looking for a way out instead of the way HOME, you’ll always remain a prodigal.”

Recalling that truth, I prayed this scary turn of events would turn our prodigal son home.

So I prayed. And, just as Sandy was prompted to push play to hear from heaven for herself, the Father of mercies niggled at me to open the Bible app on my ipad and read the “verse of the day.” And this is what it was:

Psalms 85:2-3
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you covered all their sin.
Selah
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.

Maybe my theology is askew here, maybe my imagination is running awry, but you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise of what I believe my son’s dying moments were like in the realm of the Spirit.

I believe the adversary – satan – was fully convinced Graham Scott Mitchell would be his. As our baby man was expiring in that back seat, the accuser was posturing for his claim, talons snicked, breath hot and visage contorted with hellish glee. He had won. He was sure of it.

But in those last milliseconds, as our son’s breathing slowed to a final heave, a Voice thundered in the heavenlies. As his last gasp pushed through the natural realm and into the unseen, I can almost hear what the Almighty commanded as He dispatched His guardian escorts:

Psalms 87:4-6
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush —
“This one was born there,” they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there
.”
Selah

The great deceiver was himself deceived in the end.

HALLELUJAH!

Dear reader, if you’ve journeyed with me in these few posts, you’ll agree that these truths buttress and serve as soluble bookends to our boy’s life and are our unarguable and unchanging testaments to this God-story:

The LORD gave…miraculously
The LORD has taken away…mercifully

Thank you, merciful God, for setting Your affection on Graham, and seeing him Home before the darkness swallowed him up. I know You ran to meet him, because You never disowned him, and that’s how You treat Your own. Thank you for letting us have those very last words with our boy: “I’m so glad your mine” (Sandy) and “I’m so proud of you” (Me). Now he’s safe, he’s gleaming and he’s free.

Amazing Grace, his chains are…GONE.

Gone…But Not Homeless…

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My apologies as this final entry is so long I’ve had to break it into two separate parts. It’s a lot to consume and I don’t wish to make you needlessly labor. The more I’ve written, the more I’m needing to write! How can one sum up a life like our Graham’s in only a few blog entries? Once again, thank you, dear reader, for indulging me.
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In the last weeks our precious Graham was in our care, almost a year before He died – sorry, still trying to adjust to those words – my Father spoke very directly to me, saying that from that point on, whenever our son called asking for a place to crash, we were to open our home to him, and if ever he needed money, we were to open our pockets and wallets and give him whatever we had. No questions asked. No judgments. No strings.

“You’ve had to show tough love, but now it is time to be tender and love your son unconditionally, to the point that he knows he’s forgiven for everything and there is no uncrossable gulf between you.”

Our Father knew.

And His timing couldn’t have been better.

The picture above, our final family photo, was taken during this season of healing in our home. It’s the morning of the day he left us and moved to Minnesota to live with his birth family. He desperately needed to get away from all his deadly triggers, influencers and memories, he reasoned.

“Why can’t you be happy for me, Dad?” he asked, noting my silence upon finding out the way was paved for him to venture from home. I didn’t tell him then, but I feared I would never see my boy again.

“I’m just sad, buddy,” I replied.

“I’ll see you again,” he promised. “It’s not like I’m leaving for good. I just need a new start. If I don’t leave I don’t think I’ll survive.”

I nodded, trying hard to understand and taking care to measure my next words. When I told him I didn’t think he’d find the answers he was looking for in Minnesota, but that we’d support him still, I only made him angry.

“I know, Graham. You need to do this. It’s just that I still believe you can overcome your problems here. Remember Peter? He denied Jesus publicly in the streets of Jerusalem, but when his testimony was wrecked, the Lord restored him in those same streets, the very place he failed.”

His mind was made up. And as I bawl while recapturing these final moments with my son, I know that his journey north was most certainly necessary and in the plan of God. Sandy and I agree together on this.

This particular morning was bittersweet and this photograph captures the very last time the three of us were together. We’d never hug our boy again. Never kiss his cheek. Never hear him play his guitar long into the night. That aside, we’re forever grateful the wisdom and mercies of our Heavenly Parent enabled us to have this treasured peg to hold on to.

These postings are not an exercise to process my selective memories of a troubled kid who had the audacity to flout a perfect home with a perfect father. Hardly. It will always be with me, a red-hot poker of accusation, that my son felt more like a member of my church than a son during his über-impressionable years.

Frankly, I’m broken to bits that I allowed the grind and struggle of ministry – and the occasional cast of, shall we say, colorful characters (believe me, my first draft was less forgiving) – to drive a wedge in my home; that I occasionally carried the burdens of my work to my domicile, affecting the atmosphere with fits of brooding, shortness and impatience. Not always. It wasn’t the rule, but it was surely enough to affect a kid.

Believe me, the fault is my own, no one else’s, and I have rued the day.

My journals contain a litany of ministry hardships – and, yes, stunning triumphs – and I’ve spent enough time in them of late to conclude that I walk that razor-sharp edge of never wanting to trade those ministry years for anything but never, ever, ever desiring to relive them. Ever again. Ever.

You heard me say ever right?

My shelves are lined with used-up journals, each volume an honest exposé of everything that made me tick, all my dreams, prayers, desires and failures. Every wart and pimple. Nothing hidden. My journey of faith.

And I was leaving them all to Graham because I wanted him to know his daddy, and, whether he would be proud of him or despise the ground he walked on, well, I was leaving that up to him.

The Father was wise (again!) to move me to keep journals during Gra-Gra’s growing-up years, for if I relied on memory alone, I’d tend to recall mostly my failures and gloss over the really good times. Those journals are bulging with cherished stories of our home, our closeness, our laughter and traditions.

Satan is a liar, and we can be, too – about ourselves and about others.

One of my favorite entries, dated the summer of 1999 when Graham was only nine – probably the highlight of my shared life with that unique soul – reads like this:

Christian Overcomers Camp (camp for disabled) wrapped up around 2:15pm…Debbie (ministry director and beautiful friend) got us to (Newark, NJ) airport drop-off at 4:00…flight was 6:45. Graham and I grabbed some supper at Taco Bell stand since we had such a long time. It was going to be longer because flight before ours was delayed – our ETA of departure was now 8:00. When we got back to Gate 23, we got in line, as it was 6:30 or so. While in line, I heard guy in front say “You’ve got to be kidding! Cancelled?!?” I was sick when I learned that our flight, indeed, had been cancelled — poor weather all around us…we had to re-book for flights Saturday morning! And because it wasn’t airline’s fault they wouldn’t put us up in hotels. I told Graham it’d be okay, but I wasn’t so sure myself.

We re-booked for 8:45am flight – good, but where would we sleep? I called Debbie several times but couldn’t reach her. We went to baggage claim to get bags, but ours never materialized on the carousel! We learned that an earlier flight carried them on to Atlanta!!! As we walked away — no where to go, bags gone, only clothes on our backs, I was sick in my soul. Graham looked up at me and said, almost whimpering, “Dad, I feel homeless.”

What do you say? I feel God gave me the word at the right moment. I said enthusiastically (almost believing it myself!): “Hey! This is going to be an Adventure! Let’s just pretend we’re camping out!” He also heartened, especially when I bought him junk food and surprises (he always called gifts “surprises”) at a gift shop.

We roamed the halls, rode trams, napped in Terminal A until we got kicked out at 2:00am because the last flight had departed and security was removed…we were sent to Terminal C where we found very comfortable settings…we found a bench and plopped down. A 15-year old from Lake Havasu City, NM stopped by and talked to us awhile — there were 50-60 people stranded with us. I got an hour of sleep, Graham got two. At 5:30 we made our way back to Terminal A and checked in at the gate – agent gave us front-row seats!!!

I have to say, as I said to Graham: “a month from now, you’ll think this is the coolest story.” I really believe its one of the best experiences of our lives together. We’ll never forget it. In the hour of greatest disappointment, fear and abandonment, He delivered us!!! Praise to Him! Hey satan: if you can read, then digest this: God is faithful and you’re the liar from the beginning! You think you can get (us) to curse God? Go to hell!!!

Thank you, God, for showing my son again and again how real You are. That You are faithful. That your compassions never fail. Thank You for coming through for him time and again. Bless You for coming to save lost, helpless, homeless sinners. I shout for the mercies of God that never run out for Your own. Thank You, thank You, thank You for overcoming grace!

Graham was a preacher’s kid. He didn’t ask to be.

His dad was disabled. He didn’t choose that.

He was adopted. He never had a vote.

That’s a lot for any child to be exposed to.

These didn’t cause his addictions but they were contributing factors. Graham started using at 14, which led to years in and out of rehab, recovery programs and incarceration.

I won’t spend much time here as his journey is both private and painful. Suffice to say, he took the hardest of paths.

His rehab journals reflect those Sundays he “couldn’t wait to get out of church instead of paying attention so [he] could get high.” He lamented that his most heartbreaking loss was “the trust of my parents” because “I love them, they’re my main familio” and that, instead of stopping, he kept using since he was “ashamed of [himself]“, adding with devastating finality, “I was addicted.”

Oh, dear God, how I wish I had understood the menacing demon of addiction! I saw it only as a behavior to be managed, to “suck it up, get over it, be done with it.” C’mon, son! What in the name of all that’s holy are you thinking????

Only the Almighty knows for sure, so it’s senseless to Sherlock our way through the evidence of our only child’s life, asking why he chose the prodigal path, but there is a telling anecdote that seems to cry out for consideration (in next post). Could it be that this archived event may have taken an already primed and poised boy with licking lips and racing heart, and pushed him over the edge…?

(Continued in Part Two as “Gone…But Not Forever…”)

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