It’s a Long Time Till Wednesday

Wednesday

Dear Will:

I’m not getting any better at this stuff.

When my daughter Bryn was barely 19, she boarded a plane for New Zealand where she lived and worked for the next two years. Putting her on that Air New Zealand flight was traumatizing, especially as we faced hours and hours of radio silence awaiting word of her arrival. As fatherhood memories go, it is not one I treasure. (Fortunately, it all worked out.) Nevertheless, a year later I found myself once again standing in an airport about to send my daughter halfway round the world. And once again, it was tearful and traumatizing.

So you’d think that I might be building up a tolerance for such things. Alas, it is not so.

Last week my wife Dana and I drove to Utah to deliver Seth (our youngest) to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. On Wednesday, July 26, he began his formal preparations to serve full-time in the Argentina Posadas Mission, which straddles the Paraná River as it runs between Argentina and Paraguay. He will be gone for about two years, during which time we will communicate with him principally through once-a-week emails. No big deal, I thought. I’ve known this day was coming his entire life. We can do this.

But on Wednesday at 2:15 pm, he disappeared into the MTC with his two ginormous suitcases filled with white shirts and other missionary essentials. And at 2:16 pm it really hit me: Wait a second. I have to wait till next Wednesday for word from Seth? But I want to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That thought has come back to me again and again every day since we said our good-byes. I’m not worried about his welfare (not yet, anyway—he’s in Provo, Utah, after all), but I hate being out of the loop. How does he like his teachers? What about the other missionaries he will be training with for six weeks before they fly to South America? How’s the food? What’s the routine? Has he thought about his over-invested and hyper-agitated father even once since we dropped him off? HOW IS HE DOING?!!?

We will get over it, I suppose; parents always do. But for us first-timers, our previous experiences with Bryn have proved wholly inadequate. Anxious doesn’t even begin to describe our state of distress. Our plight is exacerbated by the fact that Seth’s departure leaves us as empty-nesters for the first time, with no one but Barnum, the Moron Dog, to comfort us. So far it isn’t working.

What does comfort me is this: I know Seth’s cause and I know his heart. And I see firsthand the impact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has on the lives of those who embrace it. Faithless cynics might assert that the Church should keep its beliefs to itself, that traveling the world in search of new members is somehow inappropriate. But I see these things from a very different perspective. As bishop, I have the unique privilege of seeing the lives of new (and longtime) members of the LDS Church from behind the scenes. I see darkness dissipate as people accept the teachings of Jesus and allow His Atonement to lift their spirits and heal their broken hearts. And when that darkness lifts, I see their lives transformed by light as hope, faith and truth inform their choices and fill their beings. It’s glorious.

Seth will offer all of that to the people of Paraguay and Argentina. Most will have no interest. But those who listen earnestly and embrace his message will bless his name forever. If my wife and I have to suffer a little separation anxiety in the interim, it’s a small price to pay.

But do we really have to wait till Wednesday?

PW

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She Who Loses Her Life Shall Find It

Mom Hand

Dear Will:

I’m sorry that I have not written for a while. Truth be told, I’ve started down this path a half a dozen times and have been unable to find my footing. So tonight I’m simply going to start walking and see where it leads.

On the Friday entering Memorial Day weekend my mother, Becky, passed away. She was 91. Having lived a full and blessed life, she was ready to move on to “what’s next.” The last year of her life wasn’t easy, given the gradual decline of her body, and she admitted that she would just as soon be done with it all. She told me, in fact, that she was curious to see what’s it’s like on the other side. (Me too.) So now she knows, and you and I are left to wonder.

I said she lived a blessed life, and I think it would be fair to say that she died a blessed death as well. She pretty much stayed away from the hospital, and since my father left her with sufficient savings she could afford to stay in her home where we could sit and visit and hold hands until the very end. We found a saintly woman to look after her most days, and when she couldn’t, my brother, sister, and equally saintly sister-in-law filled in the rest. On the day she passed away, my mother’s home was filled with laughter and love and many of the people she cared about most.

Just before she died, those of us who were with her circled her bed for a family prayer. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes later that she slipped away, so quietly that, even though we were right there beside her, we didn’t even notice at first. There was no drama. No trauma. She simply stopped breathing. It was very sweet.

If you had been at the funeral, you would have heard this recurring thought: My mother was the most unselfish person imaginable. Her life reflected an unwavering commitment to doing what would make other people happy—because that’s what made her happy as well. I think that’s what the Savior had in mind when He taught that she who loses her life shall find it (Matthew 10:39). She gave and gave until she had nothing left to give. And yet, as I think I have mentioned before (for example here and here and here), I continue to benefit from her many, many gifts.

The death of a loved one is one of those moments in which we are all forced to confront one of the central questions of all existence: Is that all? In that instant when her heart stopped pumping, did Becky Watkins cease to be? Or does life continue in some other form? Even for those of us who faithfully show up for Sunday School (and occasionally dash off letters like this one), we must consider whether or not we actually believe what we say.

So for the record: I do believe. I believe Jesus, who said: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). I believe Paul, who wrote: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). And I believe my mother, who taught me these things when I was a small boy and continued to reinforce them throughout my life. I have no doubt that my mother lives on and that we shall be reunited some day.

And so I do not mourn her passing. But do I miss her? Every single day.

PW

Did This One with My Eyes Closed

 

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Dear Will:

I hope you will not think me especially loutish when I admit that sometimes I have a hard time staying awake at the ballet. And at the symphony. And pretty much in any meeting that involves sitting and listening passively. As long as I stay locked into the subject at hand, I’m fine. But should my mind wander, even briefly, I turn into Captain Nod, that sag-eyed, bobble-headed drooper at the back of the conference room (or at the front of the chapel). Years ago I started taking notes during church services simply to keep myself from fading. It works. Most of the time.

I don’t buy tickets in the orchestra section hoping to get in a good nap, mind you. It’s just that sometimes the body takes over no matter what efforts the mind might undertake to remain in control—especially if the room is dark and stuffy and the guy with the pointer is a little (how shall I put this?) soporific. In desperate moments I’ll occasionally stand and walk around during someone else’s presentation in order fend off an eye-fluttering face-plant, but sometimes even that doesn’t work: I once nodded off while standing in a dimly-lit conference room in Bordeaux when jetlag, PowerPoint, and a languid Frenchman teamed up to carry me off to Monde Somnolent in spite of my best efforts to remain alerte—which I believe is French for not keeling over mid-snore. (It could be worse: I have a friend who has been known to doze off during a one-on-one conversation . . . in the middle of his own sentence. We keep such friends around so that we can feel better about ourselves. It works. Most of the time.)

It takes only one snorer during Act II of Sleeping Beauty (a moment of irony lost on no one at the ballet) to know that you are not alone in your inability to stay awake on command. Even so, I find my greatest reassurance in scripture: No doubt you’ll recall that even Peter, James, and John—Jesus’s most trusted friends—could not keep their eyes open on what was the Most Important Night in the History of the World. As Jesus prayed the most sacred of prayers—to which they had been invited as especial witnesses—His senior apostles, in spite of themselves, drifted off to sleep. Disappointed though He must have been, Jesus showed that He understood well the limitations of the mortals around Him when He said: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

The compassion and love Jesus showed in that moment shows that that He gets me. He understands that sometimes my shortcomings are too much for even my very best intentions. The flesh is weak. When elsewhere He promises that his “grace is sufficient,” He means that He’s got my back, that He can make up for all of the lapses that really matter—and then some.

That’s why I take particular solace from this verse of scripture: “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind” (D&C 64:34). Flawless execution would be an unreasonable standard. But willingness and effort? That I can do. It might not get me through those adagios that seem always to show up in the second movement, yet it fills me with enough hope to get me through this life and into the next.

But just in case: If you could wake me for the resurrection, I would really appreciate it.

PW

 

Illustration: Pat Bagley