Hope Is the First Dose
Where on Earth Is Hope?
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. —Jesus, John 10:10, esv On Tuesday, August 20, 2013, my nineteen-year-old son Mitchell died of multiple stab wounds to his neck. His best friend also died in the same way that night but with only one wound. Whether the knife that was used to kill Mitch was in his hand or someone else’s, whether he was at fault or a victim, we will never know. It’s impossible for us to know. The official story is so far removed from what we know our gentle son to have been capable of, we cannot believe it.
North Platte, Nebraska
“How many kids do you have?” you ask.
I grit my teeth—a little carefully because I’ve cracked two molars in the eight years since my son Mitchell died.
It’s the worst question you can ask bereaved parents because we immediately go into a private conversation with ourselves. I ask myself, Five? Or four?
If I say four, it’s with an asterisk, but at least I don’t have to go down the waterslide this question is going to take me on if I answer truthfully.
You didn’t mean for the question to hurt me, obviously, but there we are.
Here’s how this plays out: If I say four, then the whole time we’re talking I’m emotionally flogging myself for ignoring the entire life of my beautiful son, just for the sake of sparing myself your inevitable apologies and your prying questions into what happened. I’m Peter at the foot of the cross, in shame about not owning up to who I really am.
If I say five, I’m doing so in hopes that you’ll be like most people; you’ll nod and say, “That’s great! We have three.” But it never works out that way for me. There is a 367 percent chance that you’re going to respond by saying, “Wow! Tell me about them!”
This is where I deploy tactics. I’ll go into great detail about Josh and his wife, Amber, and our amazing new grandson, Ryker. I’ll gush over Caity and Nate and their perfect angels, Scarlett and George. Then I’ll overshare about Kimber and her special-forces husband, Bryce, and their brilliant son, Jase, and about Kalyn in graduate school and-did-I-tell-you-about-her-research? And, oh boy, our grandkids are destined to be a bunch of world-class athletes and future CEOs, I tell ya!
I’ll then try to change the subject, but of course, you’re an actuary or a CPA or some sort of math genius, and you stop me.
“Wait, that’s only four.”
So then it’s go time. Let’s do this. “We lost Mitch in 2013.”
And you never ever just say “I’m so sorry” and move on with the conversation.
Nope. You have to say it.
I want to lie. “He died saving seventeen nuns, two kittens, and six puppies from a house fire. But he got them all out!”
Unfortunately, my brain stops me. The internet is forever. It’s too easy for you to look it up, and for some reason people always do.
So I tell the truth, at least as far as I understand it. “He was stabbed in the neck.”
And that’s when, every single time, I realize that everyone else in the room has stopped talking, so my words hit every ear like I am speaking directly into them.
Great way to bring a party to a screeching halt.
And then I can’t stop myself. I tell you that he and his best friend both died. There were three knives. Multiple stab wounds and blood everywhere. The police in this small Deep South town spent a nanosecond in the house and said Mitch killed his friend and then himself. However, the other boy had only one wound and Mitch had eight. Mitch had a cast on his arm, and all the knives had blood on them, yet the police didn’t even check for fingerprints or call for detectives to investigate. It was an open-and-shut case for them—nothing to see here; clean up the scene, put it in the papers as fact, and move on.
But it was not so for us. Mitch was not a fighter. His drug-and-alcohol screen was negative. He loved this other boy. And he hated violence, so the idea of him killing someone and then himself is impossible for me to even contemplate.
Knowing another family was also devastated that night, and being unable to ever know what actually happened, is unbearable. It’s impossible. Choose which is more palatable: Your son killed his best friend and then himself, or the two lifelong buddies fought and both died, or some unknown third person got away with murder. None of those provide answers, clarity, or any hope of healing.
By now your mouth is open, you’re kicking yourself for asking, and you’re trying to find an excuse to go talk to someone else.
Make a mental note to not invite me next time.
So I’m sitting in the dark by the fire, with my two seven-month-old German shorthaired pointers, Harvey and Louis, at my side, trying to find the words to tell you what happened between the Phone Call—the moment life pulled the yellow handle on us—and now, and how we managed to not die but to actually live again. My wife, Lisa, is sleeping down the hall, and I’m battling with myself, deciding whether I love you enough to tell you this story or whether I should just have another cup of coffee and look at funny memes on Instagram until she wakes up. Because giving you the story isn’t going to be easy, but I keep hearing a voice—God’s, I believe—saying you need my story and that the telling will help more than it hurts.
If you’ve read my last book, I’ve Seen the End of You,
then you already knew about Mitch and about how, as a neurosurgeon, I work with a lot of people who are dealing with hard things: brain tumors, head injuries, cancer. I told you in that book that the three things that saved me were: (1) realizing that hopelessness is deadlier than cancer or anything else that can happen to us, (2) that God’s promises are all true, and (3) that you can’t change your life until you change your mind.
What I didn’t tell you was that losing a son made me infinitely sad, hopeless, tormented, lost, and faithless for a while. Your massive thing will likely do the same to you.
Lisa and I had sat on a bench of misery and talked about what needed to happen next: Would we live in the darkness, or would we find a way to walk toward the light again? Then some well-meaning friend asked me to read a book by Dan Harris with the minimally optimistic title 10% Happier.
I did, but it just made me realize that 10 percent happier than infinitely miserable would not move my misery needle enough to help me at all.
So this is the story of the most painful surgery I’ve ever had: the self–brain surgery I learned how to perform when I needed to transplant into my own head Jesus’s promise in John 10:10—that he came here so we could have abundant life—because I felt dead inside.
I don’t need to tell you the whole story of losing my son since this is not a book about grief and I’ve told you a lot already, both here and in I’ve Seen the End of You.
But I’m blessed/cursed with writing books that are about multiple things at once: a war memoir (No Place to Hide
), which was really about control, PTSD, and God’s faithfulness, and a book about brain tumors and loss (I’ve Seen the End of You
), which was really about doubt, faith, and hope. So here we go again: a book about pain that’s really about happiness.
If the human nervous system obeyed classical physics, then an infinitely crushed, sad, or hopeless person could reach emotional equipoise only by obtaining an infinite amount of happiness. But it doesn’t work like that. Grief and pain put us into a paradoxical world in which Jesus told us that we will have trouble but also that he came to give us abundant life1—and you can
But just like the line from the old Sinatra song “Love and Marriage”: “You can’t have one without the other.”
Losing a son made me infinitely sad, hopeless, tormented, lost, and faithless for a while. Your massive thing will likely do the same to you.