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.
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.