When I die

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.

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  1. Jim Donaldson says:

    Beautifully put. Very thoughtful, very moving. You are among the best.

  2. Lawrence says:

    This is a fabulous post and takes me back to my service in a single’s ward (4½ years). I was the worst ward clerk in the church, but it was the best calling my wife and I ever had. We experienced many of the same things Rebecca, did, but from the viewpoint of leadership. Our bishop was a saint of a man, much like Rebecca’s bishop. Her line about loving the gospel is so true.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks, RJ. It must be a great thing to have people like that drop into your life. What a blessing.

  4. RJ, that was beautiful. I hope those who knew him, find your words. It makes me think of the many people who have touched my life, and who I ought to have said, “Thank you,” but have not. Thanks for sharing this. It’s making me pause and remember so much.

  5. Thank you, Rebecca, for joining me and others who refuse to speculate about what happens to those whose lives end unexpectedly and in ways we never would have anticipated. When one of my cousins died by his own hand, I was asked to sing at the funeral. His mother had a specific request: “Rest, rest to the weary; peace, peace to the soul…” We never know what burdens those around us are carrying. It’s clear that your former bishop loved you and was willing to rejoice with you in happy moments, and certainly to mourn with you in sad ones. Though I will never predict what happens after the final moment in this life, I do believe that He who has descended below all things and does know the depth of our anguish and the height of our joy will embrace us and welcome us back.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Beautiful, Rebecca.

    (I love church leaders who are self deprecating and humble. They’re the best kind, by far, and they make me want to walk through walls for them.)

  7. Beautiful stuff, Rebecca.

  8. By any chance was that the singles ward in Alexandria, VA?

  9. Thank you for sharing something so tender, so raw, and so honest with us, RJ.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you.

  11. How sad and touching. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

  12. beautiful!

  13. wonderful post

  14. I hope you did write the letter to his wife. She’s probably going to need it. And you may be surprised how you feel after writing it.

  15. Mark B. says:

    We should never underestimate the Lord’s mercy. Never.

  16. A beautiful and touching post. Thank you.

  17. Thank you. I agree with Margaret 100%.

  18. Lovely, thank you.

    I have a feeling the reason he was on your mind is he wants you to write to his wife. He will know how you feel by what you say in the letter. The veil between this life and the next can be very thin at times.

  19. Thanks for the beautiful thoughts. I had the same question as #8–it sounds just like him. I’ve been in this particular gentleman’s ward for the past 3 or 4 years, and its true that there are some people who are uncommonly wonderful. He is one of them.

  20. #8 & #19 – It was not Alexandria.

  21. Incidentally, I have written to his wife.

    I genuinely appreciate all of your comments. Thank you.

  22. Thanks for this post, Rebecca. A remarkable story, and I always enjoy your writing.

  23. Colin C says:

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your thoughts. Having been deeply effected by three suicides of close friends and family in the last three years, the perspective you have given me is greatly appreciated.

  24. amazing.. it made me cry…!

  25. Thank you. This was thought-provoking and touching.

  26. What a beautiful post. I share these sentiments and felt them very keenly two years ago when my father passed away. My brothers and sisters gathered from all over the US and came to Nauvoo for the funeral – my dad was carted to his grave in a horse drawn cart borrowed from the LDS visitor’s center.

    My brother Russ introduced me to a song that we used to try to comfort ourselves, however ineptly, I had never heard this song before and oddly enough it’s written by Tommy Shaw of Styx:

    Dear john I knew you
    About as well as anyone
    We were the wild ones
    So sure those days would never end
    Now they’re only memories my friend

    Dear john I’ll see you
    Some day again

    I swear I saw you
    On a crowded street today
    I almost called your name
    Thinking of all those yesterdays
    Heaven help me
    How I miss my friend

    Dear john I’ll see you
    Some day again

    There’ll be a celebration
    When all will be revealed
    We’ll have a reunion
    High on a hill

    Dear john how are you
    God know it’s heaven where you are
    Find some peace there
    May it never end

    Dear john my heart knows
    We’ll meet again
    Dear john I’ll see you….
    Some day again

  27. Researcher says:

    I’ve been trying to write a comment about the memories and sorrows your post evokes, but cannot find the words to do the subject justice. So I will simply say, thank you for your beautiful words, and hope for the blessings of the Lord to be with you and particularly with the family of your former bishop in this time of mourning.