Recently I got an e-mail from a friend informing me that the bishop of our old singles ward had passed away. Being a thousand miles away, I was unable to attend his funeral, but I wish that I could have. This man was very dear to me.
It just happens that I was thinking of him a few days before receiving this news. I don’t remember why. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
At 23 I was quite content to attend my parents’ ward. During college I’d attended and served in a family ward (one in semi-rural Virginia, with no eligible Mormon bachelors in sight) and was perfectly happy and fulfilled, so I didn’t see the need to attend a ghetto ward for unmarried youngsters just because the option was available. However, the stake had just called a new bishop for their singles ward, and this bishop called me at home to say that his ward desperately needed someone who could play the piano and asked if I’d be willing to help them out. That’s how he tricked me into moving my records over there.
I started out playing the piano, but soon they called me to the Relief Society presidency, which didn’t suit me at all initially, since I wasn’t much of a leader, and wasn’t that into church in the first place, but within a few months I found myself loving the calling, loving the sisters in the ward, loving the ward in general, and for the first time in my life, truly loving the gospel.
I got the sense that my bishop was not a natural leader, either. He was self-deprecating, always making jokes about being slow on the uptake and needing all the help he could get. But none of this obscured his enthusiasm for serving the young single adults in the stake, and being in a leadership position, I saw for myself how seriously he took this responsibility.
He helped me through a difficult period of my life. I was depressed, uncertain about my future, and my mother was dying. I remember being very reticent to go to him for counsel or discuss anything personal with him. That just wasn’t my way. I don’t remember how it happened. I think I was in his office for some ward-related business, and I just started crying. I won’t forget how warmly he received me and how soothing his words were. I don’t remember what he actually said, but in my mind I can hear his voice saying, “Of course, of course I’ll do that, of course I’ll help you,” because I distinctly needed to feel that I was not a burden to anybody.
I don’t think my own father was more pleased to learn of my engagement. I can still see the love in my bishop’s eyes when he took my hand with both of his hands and congratulated me.
After I got married, I only saw him sporadically, by coincidence. The last time was a few years ago. I was on vacation with my family, visiting my dad, and we all went to church at my old stake center. I happened to spy my old bishop, long since released, carrying some things to his car in the parking lot. He looked tired. I walked over to greet him, and his face lit up. I introduced him to my kids–I think I had three by then. He took one look at my older son–the spitting image of my husband–and turned to me and said, “Well, this one’s right on the money, isn’t he?” We laughed, and he noted that my daughter looked just like me.
Later that evening, he called me at my dad’s house. He said he was embarrassed that he couldn’t remember my husband’s name. He just wanted to tell me how much he’d enjoyed seeing me again, and my beautiful family. That was all.
The same friend who sent the e-mail about the bishop’s death called the following day to give me some news she felt was too sensitive to put in an e-mail. This man was about my father’s age. He wasn’t sick. He did not have an accident. She said she’d debated whether or not to say anything, but decided that I would probably want to know. I thanked her for telling me and made an excuse to get off the phone.
That was an overscheduled morning, at least by my standards. My youngest was sick, and I was supposed to meet some relatives at my cousin’s house, and I had to bring food so I had to make food or buy food, and there were all these other things I needed to do, but I found myself just sitting on my couch, unable to do anything but think about how I was just thinking of him the other day, for no reason I can recall, and now he was gone. Gone. I planned to send a letter to his wife, telling her what her husband had meant to me personally, but what I really wish is that I could go back in time and tell him instead. Not because I think it would make any difference. Just so I could have done it.
What I’m feeling is not loss. What was left of my relationship with this person has not been lost. What I feel is regret. Not regret born of guilt, just regret. Just sadness. Sadness that I can’t shake, and don’t particularly want to. It is just another change, a change that lasts forever.
At times like this I’m reminded of why I won’t–why I can’t–participate in discussions about the fate of certain souls, of suicides, of stillborn babies, about who’s going to end up sealed to whom in the hereafter or what happens if the proper ordinances haven’t been carried out. I just keep thinking of Lucy Mack Smith’s words at an early meeting of the Relief Society: “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.” That’s the phrase that keeps echoing through my mind–”that we may all sit down in heaven together.” I imagine, when I die, meeting my old friend and that he will come up to me and give me a big hug like he used to do sometimes. I will tell him how good it is to see him again, and he will chuckle and say, “Boy, that was something, wasn’t it?” and I will laugh too, and we will make small talk while we are waiting for what comes next.