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

Let’s Start with the Obvious

Dear Will:

So the ol’ 401(k) statement arrives in the mail and I think to myself: “Don’t do it.” I hold it there, knowing that what lies within is the grimmest of grim news, a financial plunge of historic proportions in what has generously been called our “portfolio.”

Knowing better,  I open it anyway . . . and it’s horrifying. Stupefyingly so. But as is so often the case, stupefaction leads to a moment of clarity and self-awareness not seen since I acknowledged in the 10th grade that I would always be a lousy golfer. In this golden moment, it occurs to me that I never  had enough in the 401(k) plan to retire anyway. Not even close. Wouldn’t have survived the first winter without begging lumps of coal from the local soup kitchen. So what if that super secure Lehman Brothers bond hadn’t exactly paid off? In times like these, there is comfort in incompetence.

Which sort of begs a question (for our present purposes, anyway): What other “blessings” do we have to be grateful for? Let’s start with the obvious:

Dana took Bryn to see Twilight—while Seth and Peter stayed home and watched the ballgame. If that’s not a blessing, what is?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. He gets to sleep in every day, treat every meal like a buffet, come and go as he pleases, all without the daily scrutiny of his overbearing parents. What could be better?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. More time to focus our daily scrutiny and overbearing parental instincts on making Bryn and Seth miserable instead! What could be better?

What could be better? How about family vacations?

Who doesn’t love a scraped-up minivan with a busted air conditioner?  Well, we don’t, for example. But when you have to make twice daily round-trips to the ballet studio, a buck eighty-seven for gas is pretty nice. You know, considering.

Rat traps. (Don’t ask.)

Almost forgot: Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. Now Seth doesn’t have to share a room and instead can devote precious real estate to the 140-or-so stuffed animals with which he shares his bed. Which doesn’t explain why he continues to squeeze his scrawny nine-year-old frame into the narrow patch not covered by his velveteen menagerie, but at least he now has options.

Then there’s the President-elect. Seems like we ought to say something about him since he got Dana to work the phones and Bryn to wear his shirts and even Seth to stick stuff on his bedroom wall. Luke even worked the polls this year (twice, though he hastens to point out that it was a non-partisan endeavor). Now if we could just get that annoying bumper sticker off of the scraped-up minivan, Peter would be happy too.

There’s other stuff as well. Like a job, for instance. In this environment, that’s a pretty great thing. Food on the table, even if it isn’t served buffet-style as in the dorms. Oh, and Jason Mraz (Bryn wants him in here too). Teachers. Coaches. Friends. Microwave ovens (when you get home from ballet every night at nine, that’s pretty important). Yoga. Belts. Laptops. iPods (unless you put them through the washer). Chocolate (dark especially). Books. Rain (yeah, right). Sports. The Maple Conservatory of Dance. And of course family. Dysfunctional though it may be, it’s the most precious thing of all. You know, considering.

PW

The Miracle of Taylor’s Life

Dear Will:

A couple of weeks back I attended a funeral for the son of a very close friend. It promised to be a very sad day.

Taylor had been born with just a single chamber (as opposed to the usual four) in his heart. He had his first surgery the day he was born. Doctors told his parents, Mark and Tammy Hyer, that Taylor’s life would be a short one—maybe a few days, at most a few years.

Defying the odds, Taylor’s heart held on for several years more than that. It was hardly a normal childhood inasmuch as he had very little stamina and thus could not play as hard (or do all of the same things) as other kids his age. He also had multiple surgeries and took a bunch of medication. But he was in a great family who enabled him to do as much as he could and who filled his life with laughter and love.

About a year ago, Taylor’s heart finally gave out. Somehow he had wrung 13 years of life out of that tiny, misshapen organ. And in doing so, he had finally grown big enough for a heart transplant. Now if you know anything about transplants you know that you can stay on a list for months waiting for a suitable donor. Well, Taylor waited only a few hours—and it’s a good thing, for his heart literally shut down as the donated heart was rushed into the hospital. The surgeon kept him alive just long enough to give him a new, four-chamber heart.

For Taylor, it was a true miracle. For the first time in his life he could breathe. Instead of watching the other kids play basketball, Taylor could join the game himself. He could climb mountains, ride his bike, act like a kid. His body began to take shape, and Taylor was finally just a normal teenager.

How we all celebrated that wonderful, life-changing surgery. His family shed many happy tears as they recounted the unlikely sequence of events that led to the transplant. They offered many, many prayers of thanks for the extension and enhancement to Taylor’s fragile life.

Thus I was stunned when I received the phone call telling me that Taylor had died. Barely 14, he had returned from a backpacking trip, had enjoyed a couple of fun but uneventful days with the family. Everything seemed to be going great. Then on Sunday in the middle of the night, he awoke feeling very ill. His parents attended to him and his father gave him a blessing of comfort. As soon as the blessing was over, Taylor’s dad gave him a hug, and in that instant Taylor died in his arms.

As I spoke to Mark and Tammy about this tragedy, their calm perspective astonished me. Thinking that I had come to their side to give them support and comfort, I found them comforting me instead. “We’re just really grateful that God gave him that bonus year of life to find out what it’s like to be a normal kid,” they told me. “What a blessing for him to get the chance to do the things he had been missing out on for so long.” There was no rancor or self-pity, no bitterness or despair. Rather they expressed gratitude to God for the miracle that was Taylor’s life—a life that by all accounts lasted at least 10 years longer than anyone could have reasonably expected.

I anticipated that the day of the funeral would be very sad indeed. Instead, I found my faith renewed and my love expanded. It made me want to hug my kids (of course), but it also made me want to be a better person. And it made me grateful for my faith in God that helps me to see that beyond the transitory sadness of today there is purpose and promise that extends into eternity.

PW