The Version of Us That I Like Best

Dear Will:

It’s very likely that I’m giving us a little too much credit here, but I believe that my little family is pretty normal. We laugh a lot and squabble too often. We sometimes make a big deal of inconsequential slights and often say things we later regret. We mostly do our best to coexist in peace and harmony, but the fact remains that the parents are too often impatient and the teenagers are too often teenagers.

When we have guests in our home, however, we typically become our better selves—consistently more charming and tolerant and much more fun to be around.  We wag more and bark less, as the saying goes. It’s the version of us that I like best, as you might guess. It makes me wonder why we don’t invite dinner guests into our home every night.

That best-behavior business happens regardless of who has come to visit, but then there are those special friends whose impact on us extends far beyond a single evening at the dinner table. They do not merely move us to behave ourselves when they are around, they inspire us to want to be better all the time. They are in no way preachy or sanctimonious, they merely live life the right way. Something about their character and manner shows us a glimpse of our own potential. Their example alone is a force for good.

Exhibit A: Pat and Kevin and their remarkable children. Every time we get together with them Dana and I have the same post-visit conversation: Why can’t we be more like the Merkleys? (Then after a pause in which we both grasp the impossibility of that prospect): Or why can’t we at least be more like the version of ourselves that shows up when the Merkleys are around?

We were with the Merkleys just last week. And as I felt those familiar, I-need-to-be-a-better-person stirrings, I was reminded of a pledge I made many summers ago when I was working as a teenager at a YMCA camp in the San Bernardino mountains. It’s called the Raggers’ Creed:

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.

I would be friend to all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

I don’t mean to imply that our friends are the embodiment of truth, purity, strength, and bravery. But even without discussing or conspicuously displaying any of those ideals, they somehow make me want more deeply to strive for them. I think that’s what my friend Ron had in mind when he frequently proclaimed that he’d rather be at church gatherings than at any other place: It was an opportunity to be around—and be elevated by—the best people he knew.

Laugh. Love. Lift. That’s what the Merkleys do. Now if we could just figure out how to get them to join us every night for dinner. . . .

PW

Moving Rocks

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on the deck of a cabin next to Bear Lake, near the border of Utah and Idaho on Highway 89. It’s not a bad way to pass a Sunday morning: the air is cool, the sky is blue and painted with lazy, drifting clouds. Inside the cabin, my sister-in-law is making her signature blueberry pancakes, enough to feed three generations worth of descendants who have gathered to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary.

My letter-writing proceeds in disjointed bursts. I am easily distracted by various children, the sons and daughters of my nieces and nephews, mostly—the great grandchildren here at this celebration of posterity. The door from the cabin swings open and (sometimes) shut, over and over, as the kids chase each other to and from and around and through the jungle gym here in the yard. I’m amazed that there is hardly any sign of the contention you might expect to see in a schoolyard—the fun is effortless; the laughter comes easily.

It’s remarkable  to observe that these kids are such good friends, to see how they play for hours and hours as if they are Pals For Life. Of course, many of them are— first cousins who know each other well. Others, however, are new acquaintances, but still they demonstrate that mysterious blood-bond that somehow connects relatives who may see each other only briefly every few years or so. Put strangers together and it will take a while for children to tentatively set themselves to play. But bring together cousins for the first time and comfortable familiarity prevails almost immediately.

Susie arrives and I put down the computer. She holds in her tiny fist a wooden car. As she climbs up into my lap, it occurs to me that I only learned her name yesterday. I believe she is my nephew Randall’s daughter, but I am not certain. Her age? One, maybe? On Friday night my buddy was Ethan, a precocious two-year-old (is there any other kind?) who took me by the hand to show me around. He and I spent a happy half hour moving rocks from that pile over there to this pile over here. Ethan belongs to Rob, a nephew whom I haven’t seen since his wedding seven (or so) years ago.

Ethan and Susie and I are tied together by a seemingly flimsy thread: One is the grandchild of my wife’s sister, the other of her brother. And yet the tug of love and connection I feel for them is undeniable. How can that be? What is it about family ties that generates that sort of spontaneous closeness? Why is it that we can see some people at work or in the neighborhood almost every day and hardly know them, but when we see an uncle or a cousin, even for the first time, we become intimate almost instantaneously?

I think the prophet Malachi has part of the explanation. You’ll recall, perhaps, that Malachi talked of multi-generational bonds as being an essential component of God’s eternal plan. He said that one of the vital roles of Elijah the Prophet was to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Malachi was making reference to an ineffable pull that stirs within us, causing us to look back over generations and feel a bond with those who came before us and a yearning for our children and their children and their children, for generations to come.

After all, God wants it that way. The First Presidency has said that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” and that “the divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave.” When we gather as family—at a cabin in the mountains or simply over a pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, we are doing the will of God. And when we put down the computer to play with a wooden car or move rocks from one pile to another, we are answering a call that comes from afar and resonates throughout the eternities.

PW

God Always Shows His Hand

Dear Will:

It’s been quite an autumn.

It started with the prostate surgery in September. Everything seemed to go well, but about a month later I was in the ER for what turned out to be an “incarcerated bowel” (four feet of my intestines had escaped the stomach cavity and quit working). That required a nine-day stay in a remote hospital, most of it spent living on nothing but IV fluids and ice chips. And then for good measure I returned to the ER last week because I have developed a deep vein thrombosis, which is a fancy way of saying I have a blood clot in my leg.

Not fun. After going over 40 years without hospitalization, I have been in the hospital three times in less than 90 days. It has been painful, boring, frustrating, and (most of all) humbling.

At times, I’m sure, God comes to us when we call for Him in a moment of crisis. I have seen, however, that there are times when He actually goes before us and is waiting there for us when the crisis arrives. I can’t begin to tell you how often and in how many ways He showed His love for me in the midst of my suffering. God always shows His hand in such circumstances, and you don’t have to look very hard to see it.

Most often, His hands were the hands of friends and family, kind nurses and diligent doctors. The light in my hospital room always shone brightly because the love of God was there, expressed by the unexpected visit from a ward member, a note from my Seminary students, a simple act of kindness from a nurse’s aide. It was a profoundly moving experience to see, day after day, that He was watching over me and sending His children to me to let me know.

Do not get me wrong; I would not choose to go through again what I have been through these last few weeks. But having been through it, I remain very grateful. What a blessing to have my life touched in so many ways. How much wiser and more compassionate I will be in the future as I interact with others who likewise find themselves with physical or emotional challenges.

When I returned from the hospital at the end of October and sat down for the first time in 10 days with my family for dinner, I could not hold back the tears of gratitude that we were reunited. It might seem a small thing, but it was profoundly important to me. Consequently, when we were gathered around a Thanksgiving meal just a couple of days ago, I gave added thanks in my heart for the privilege and blessing of being together in that way.  I also feel blessed to have modern medicine, capable doctors and nurses, health insurance and an understanding employer. And above all, I have felt a deep gratitude for my wife who has somehow managed to keep the family operating even though I have been a heavy burden throughout what has proved to be an extended convalescence. Her compassionate service to me has often brought to mind the baptismal invitation that we might “bear one another’s burdens that they might be light.” Thus inspired, I am determined to go and do likewise.

I do not share all this to invite your sympathy. Rather I do it as an affirmation that God loves us and watches over us, and even when times are hard He is there for us and with us, every step of the way.

PW