Tod und Verklarung und Priestertum

My dad was a troubled man. If he had lived in the time of Christ, I think he might have undergone an exorcism of the melancholy devil that short-circuited his attempts to be good and prevented his participation in meaningful relationships. Since he was born in the baby boom of the 1940s, he was instead diagnosed with manic depression and a personality disorder. We are all of us inclined to embellish in retrospect, to amplify faults in our cloudy memory—my father had moments of love and kindness that blessed the lives of the people around him. But his mind was broken, and his broken mind generally seemed to keep his soul hostage. As a boy, I resented his failings and his occasional emotional brutality to my mother, a resentment that finally resulted in our utter estrangement early in my teenage years. Though memory is hazy now, I think it likely that I did not speak to my father more than once from the age of 14 until Christmas break during my freshman year of college.

Shortly after my eighteenth birthday I experienced a conversion that broke my heart and began the process of remaking it in the image of Christ. I went to college in the Northeast, embracing a new academic and spiritual life with great enthusiasm. Though I periodically felt nostalgia for the Uinta Mountains and my high school friends, I did not stop to think about my father. Until an afternoon in November, yellow leaves drooping from trees to lawns in the crisp and exciting air of a Boston fall. There was a letter that day, with a return address at LDS Hospital. Not sure what it would contain, I opened it on my doorstep to discover a handwritten letter from my father. He expressed his pride at my accomplishments (I had secured a scholarship and got good grades) in simple, almost tedious language. He explained in a bare sentence that lately he was living at LDS Hospital as his liver failed. There was none of his usual attempts at grandiloquence, just the simple words of a life-weary man hoping to attract his son’s attention. I felt at that moment an ineffable surge of Christian love, the awareness that my father was beloved of God, that I had forgiven his trespasses against me and against my mother. My eyes moistened at the flow of spiritual power I experienced, reminiscent of the experience that had converted me a few months earlier.

I wrote a letter that day explaining how sorry I was for taking myself from him, how I had forgiven his trespasses against me, how I loved him and wished that we could become acquainted again.

When I arrived home for Christmas, he was still in his room at LDS Hospital. My grandfather explained that his condition was slowly worsening and he may not survive to come home again. I took my siblings to the hospital to talk with him. Some of his wittiness remained, but he mostly lay sallow, his belly distended by gallons of fluid that his liver could no longer clear, the scraggly wisps of hair that defined his attempt at a moustache drooping over his upper lip. We spoke a few words and embraced. Tears—those tears we euphemize as joyful but which are both more and less than joyful, the troubling and elevating throbs of emotion that occur when we approach the divine—crossed our shared cheeks in his hospital room. In those tears were the sanctity of a father’s yearning for a son, the tragedy of a fatherhood lost to the ravages of mental illness, the overwhelming majesty of God’s presence. After a little more than an hour, we left, walking through Temple Square, trying to process what was happening. When we got home, we played and sang “A Poor Wayfaring Many of Grief” together, weeping at the illness of our father, at his absence from so much of our lives.

My father died the morning after I returned to college. My family couldn’t afford airfare for me to attend the funeral; we had been poor so long that it didn’t occur to us to problem-solve a way for me to make it back to Utah. Instead I waited three weeks for an audiocassette of the talks, prayers, and songs lovingly captured by my grandfather on his tape recorder. “O Divine Redeemer” beautifully rendered by a gifted sister, moving prayer from a brother, and two eulogies, one from his best friend and one from my grandfather. I did not know this friend well, but his voice was familiar as he explained that he had blessed my father almost weekly over the course of his long illness, blessing him each time that he would be free of his illness, hepatitis he contracted from a kidney transplant. Finally, his voice wracked with emotion, this friend explained that one day he had felt impressed to bless my father with reconciliation with his family before he died. As I heard the words on the gravelly recording, I struggled to catch my breath, realizing that the tender miracle of that November afternoon had come as a result of a priesthood blessing. I felt with absolute clarity that God had wanted me to come to LDS Hospital that night, had guided my response to my father’s clumsy letter, had called me to weep in his arms and forgive and be forgiven.

I had felt comforted by priesthood blessings in the past but I had never before experienced them as an expression of God’s direct involvement in my life. Pulling in this friend, inspiring him to stop promising a cure, that awkward letter, me on a fall afternoon in a wooded college yard, a sacred light around Christmas time at the Salt Lake hospital named for our faith. These formed the elements of God’s expression of love and concern for me. I probably deserved to spend the rest of my life regretting how poorly I treated my mentally ill father when I was a teenager. Nothing about me forced God to allow me to have closure, to have loved my dad however briefly before he passed. But in spite of my churlishness, my petty self-absorption, God blessed me through an administration of the priesthood, with the healing that can come from a holy deathbed. For that tender mercy I have been forever grateful.

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This is drawn from a devotional book of essays under preparation. The title is a pretentious reference to Strauss’s beautiful tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” with “and Priesthood” attached to the end.

Comments

  1. Sam, this is beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Echoing WVS remarks, Sam. I look forward to the complete edition.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Sam, thank you for this Sabbath gift.

  4. This is beautiful, Sam. Touchingly beautiful.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Gorgeously written, Sam. Thanks.

  6. Very very touching. Thank you for sharing this sacred and personal memory with us.

  7. Margaret Young says:

    So beautiful. Thank you.

  8. Mostimportantly says:

    Amazing. Thank you.

  9. Thank you, Sam. Just this weekend a friend and I were discussing priesthood blessings administered to the terminally ill. As friends and family members we so often channel our faith toward the physical healing of the afflicted, yet we might overlook the very real gift of the faith to be healed that is available to all of us in such terrible moments. We have the opportunity to be healed from the pain of distant hearts as well as have our hearts be made whole in the face of and aftermath of loss. Healing of the body is miraculous and not an unworthy desire, but we might focus so much on that desired outcome that we miss the offering of a deep and lasting healing that bridges eternity and brings a peace that even physical healing alone cannot.

    Thank you again for sharing this. As someone who was distant in body and spirit at the time of a parent’s death, I find your story deeply relevant and touching. Let me add that while I think the healing of relationships is most desirable in this life, it is not too late to reconcile our hearts to those who have gone on if we so desire. The atonement bridges death in this way as well.

  10. Sunny, you are absolutely correct. Some of my family have spent time working out these issues with my dad “through the veil,” and I do not mean to discourage those faced with such a prospect.

  11. Oh, I didn’t think you had at all, Sam. The spirit of your story was beautiful.

  12. I felt what Mark expressed: This is a beautiful Sabbath gift.

    A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief sounds like the perfect hymn to sing after visiting your father. Happens to be my favourite hymn.

    Mental illness in a parent is exhausting and heart-ravaging, I know too well. Estrangement is often necessary to prevent a flooding of emotions, and to allow yourself to grow rather than getting stuck in repeating patterns, having to forgive and forgive new offenses.

    Thank you, Sam.

  13. Thank you, Sam.

  14. Beautiful, Sam. Simply beautiful.

    “I had felt comforted by priesthood blessings in the past but I had never before experienced them as an expression of God’s direct involvement in my life.”

    I have felt what you describe in those words (God condescending to be involved directly in my life through a Priesthood blessing) three times in differing ways – and I wouldn’t trade those three experiences for anything.

  15. Researcher says:

    I have not been able to attend a number of funerals of close family members, but this past week was able to attend a funeral all the way across the country, and have consequently been thinking many thoughts about how we process deaths and relationships with deceased family members and how a funeral can help process the death, whether sudden or expected.

    Thank you for your beautiful words.

  16. Thank you for sharing that.

  17. Sam, thank you for speaking peace to my soul by sharing. God bless you.

  18. Thank you for this story. It comes as a blessing to me right now.

  19. Sam,

    Wow.
    This was very meaningful to me. Its depth reaches all the way down. Thank you for sharing it.

  20. Thank you for sharing this very personal story. I feel I am a better person today for having experienced a small portion of this journey with you through your words.

    I agree that deathbeds can be holy. Often the veil is very thin–an unexpected gift at what might otherwise be the darkest hour.

  21. Thank you for sharing the deep wisdom of a broken heart and the great mystery of God’s love.

  22. Oh, Sam. This just aches, even in it’s beauty. I remember the very moment I forgave my father for the depression he couldn’t control . . . even though I didn’t know I needed to forgive and wasn’t particularly attempting to. I was lucky enough to be given a few more years with him before his passing. I love him and miss him dearly.

    But that crystal moment 15 years ago — returning from Christmas from MY freshman year in Boston — is closest I’ve come to understanding that nebulous concept of atonement.

  23. Touched me to the core. Got me thinking about somewhat similar situations in my extended family. Thank you. Beautiful writing by the way.

  24. Thank you, Sam, for your moving story so beautifully recorded.

    I was particularly struck by this sentence:

    “Tears—those tears we euphemize as joyful but which are both more and less than joyful, the troubling and elevating throbs of emotion that occur when we approach the divine—crossed our shared cheeks in his hospital room.”

    I think for some of us, when we are overcome with the spirit deeply in an uncontrollable way, we get very emotional. I’ve had conversations with some that say this is just me (and others) conflating feeling the spirit with crying. I oh so disagree with this sentiment.

    For me, my water table is always fairly high, and when I feel rushes of the spirit, especially during painful times in my life, my emotions are overcome and spill out in the form of tears. I loved your statement that “the troubling and elevating throbs of emotion that occur when we approach the divine”. I find during deepening trials in my life, this is exactly how I feel when I approach my God, completely overcome with the challenges of my life, yearning for Him to take my burdens away, and longing for the completeness of peace that only comes through Him. It’s a incredibly humbling experience, and I sometimes find it hard to submit myself to it because of how overcome with tears and emotion my soul is in that moment.

    Thank you for putting this into words for me.

  25. Beautiful post, Sam. Thanks for sharing it.

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