I Wish You Could Have Known Him

Dear Will:

It is with a combination of sadness and joy that I write to tell you that on April 17 my father passed away. He was 86.

We were fortunate to have him at home and alert for several days prior to his death. On Easter Sunday (just five days before he died, as it turns out), the family gathered at his home, where he was under hospice care. There were nearly 20 of us there, and in spite of his condition it was fun to be together. We took turns sitting around his bed and keeping him posted on the Masters golf tournament.

Earlier that day he had asked me to give him a Priesthood blessing, “releasing him,” as it were, to let go of mortality. So when the meal was over (he ate nothing) he said to me, “Let’s get on with it.” After a family prayer, I placed my hands on his head and pronounced some simple words, blessing him with comfort and peace and the assurance that he was “free to go” whenever he felt ready to do so.

It was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Afterwards, the grief I felt was overwhelming—a physically crushing sensation that all but consumed me. After pronouncing the blessing, each one there took a moment to express their love to him, one at a time. When each person had had a turn, he gathered us around his bed for some final words of counsel: He asked us to take care of my mother, to love one another, and expressed his confidence that God would watch over us after he was gone.

We cried a lot that day. But as I look back on it—now two weeks later—I recall the day with a great sense of joy and gratitude. What a wonderful blessing it was for us all to be together when he was still lucid, for us each to have some time with him to express our love, for the Spirit of God to be there in our midst and bless us in our moment of grief. I realize that often death comes so quickly and unexpectedly that we don’t get the chance to say our most tender goodbyes. Because we had that chance with my father, that Easter Sunday will remain a favorite memory of his dying days.

His funeral was last week. It became a great celebration of the man as we reminisced together about my father’s life: his charm, his idiosyncrasies, his talents, and his many accomplish­ments. Friends and family gathered from across the map, including some elderly lifelong friends of his. I was comforted by their presence there, for I saw it as an affirmation of a life well-lived.

I had the chance to speak at his funeral service, and although it wasn’t easy, I was honored to do so. I told some favorite stories, including this conversation:

Me: “Dad, if you really loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Dad: “Well, now you know.”

I expressed my thanks for all he taught me and all of the ways in which he blessed my life. In conclusion, I echoed the testimony of Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). I know I will see my father again, and when we see each other, we shall embrace and enjoy the richness of eternity together. And until then, he’s in a better place, freed at last from his crumbling mortal body.

I’m sorry you never got the chance to know Jay Watkins. He was a good man. You would have liked him.

PW

Silent Conversations

Dear Will:

My dad is dying.

He has congestive heart failure and a mild form of leukemia (can leukemia be mild?). A damaged rotator cuff in his right shoulder makes his right arm useless. He has had both knees replaced and is recovering from a recently cracked patella. In other words, he can barely use his arms and legs. (Think of all you that have to depend on others to do for you if you can’t raise and lower your arms or bend your legs.) And a week or so ago, pneumonia sent him to the hospital where he “celebrated” his 86th birthday. Whoopee.

His doctor expects him to “recover” and go home, but it won’t surprise you to learn that my father is about out of patience with being a patient. “I wish I could get some dread disease and just be done with it,” he told me. “This business of falling apart bit by bit is nuts” (which shows that his mind is still sharp). Who can blame him for being fed up with life when the life that is left is so difficult to live?

He has put his affairs in order for the most part to simplify things for my mother when he goes. In fact, when we finally got him into the hospital and settled into his room, he insisted that I immediately retrieve his papers to make sure that there is no ambiguity: He does not want life support or resuscitation. If his body finally gives out, that will be that.

The only real remaining question is how effectively the rest of us will be able to entice him to stick around a bit longer. There is time, but who knows how much? Considering his condition, even if he returns home from the hospital, there may be little more that we can do together—and so we are all left to ponder the final conversations of our remaining time together in mortality. What do you say to each other when words become so precious and time so short?

Sometimes nothing. Before he went into the hospital, I went to visit him in his home. He felt so awful (his pneumonia had not yet been officially diagnosed) that mostly he lay silently in bed. But when I offered to leave him alone to rest, he asked me to stay put. “It’s a comfort to have you there,” he said. And so I sat in silence as we shared a moment in which words were not required.

Selfishly, I hope that once his illness is under control his spirits will lift and he’ll begin to fight for more time. I’d like him to see my daughter’s next ballet recital, to listen to my 10-year-old describe his team’s come-from-behind Little League victory, to discuss with my oldest the implications of what he’s learning in his Evolutionary Biology class at UCLA. I want to sit and watch the ballgame with him from time to time, to call him for advice as I so often do, to listen to him argue politics with my wife and tease my children. These are all things that have always brought him joy and that bring me joy to this day. And I’m not ready to give up that joy just yet.

But if, indeed, his time his short, I can tell you this: He is a good man. He has given 86 good years and created a legacy of integrity and honor. Come what may, he has made this world a better place.

PW

Such As I Have

Dear Will:

I think I may have mentioned that I am in my second year of teaching early morning Seminary—the Mormon equivalent of Bible Study. Each school-day morning I gather with 15 or 16 high-schoolers (juniors and seniors this year) for a 50-minute discussion of the New Testament. So here’s a little taste of what I’ve been up to recently while you were at home eating Cocoa Puffs and reading the sports page:

Last week we completed our study of the four gospels. We lingered a bit on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias to consider the Savior’s final recorded conversation with his disciples (John 21). We took interest in the fact that the miracle which took place that day (a prodigious haul of fishes) was essentially identical to the one which occurred the day Jesus called Peter, James, John, and Andrew into the ministry. It was an effective reminder, we thought, that the apostles were supposed to be fishing for men rather than mackerel.

“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” Thus began the awkward, perhaps even a little painful, but finally redemptive conversation between Jesus and his senior apostle. We noted how Jesus lovingly gave Peter three opportunities to confess Him—in fitting recompense for his three denials on the night and early morning before Jesus’ crucifixion. Those confessions were each followed by an admonition to feed the lambs and sheep of the Good Shepherd. We discussed how that admonition applies equally to us—after all, ours are His hands. He must rely on us to do the feeding. We talked about what that might mean—and who it is we might try to feed.

So, what if he asked each of us: “Lovest thou me?” How would He have us show our love for Him? The discussion led us to recall a couple of our Scripture Mastery verses for the year: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40); and “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We also recalled a verse made familiar by a Primary song (which I sang briefly for them just to make them squirm): “By this shall men know ye are my disciples: If ye have love one to another.” There really is no other way to show that you are truly a Christian.

This week, we’ll be talking about the first few chapters of Acts, including one of my favorite stories of all-time: the healing of the lame man at the temple gates (Acts 3 and 4). One thing we will discuss for sure is the profound lesson contained within Peter’s simple declaration: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” All Jesus asks us to give is “such as we have.” That is enough. His grace is sufficient to make up the rest. That even applies to the groggy and halfhearted who nevertheless find a way to stagger into the room and join me each morning at Seminary. And it applies to you and me as well.

I think of that event, from time to time: Of the two apostles—men of simple means—giving such as they had to bless that man’s life. And at such moments, I recommit to giving such as I have, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Perhaps this is just such an opportunity. And this brief note is such as I have.

PW