Sunstone is an organization that brings together traditional and non-traditional Latter-day Saints, promoting an atmosphere that values faith, intellectual and experiential integrity. This is a longer version of an address I gave at the Sunstone Symposium July 30, 2015.
Since we’re all here at Sunstone, and specifically in this session, I’m going to make an assumption that you have all, at some point, felt that you were not Mormon enough — whatever that means. Today I’m going to share a story about a time when I was sure I was not Mormon enough.
On my daughter’s 8th birthday, almost two years ago, she waited impatiently for the family to come together to celebrate. You can tell from the picture how excited she was, but what you can’t see is the dread I was feeling on the other side of the camera.
When I took this picture, I had just ignored a call from an unfamiliar number in the Dominican Republic, where my parents were serving their fourth mission for the Church.
It was late, and my parents never called. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew it couldn’t be good news. But I also knew my daughter deserved my full attention for at least the next few minutes, so I put the phone back in my pocket and kept taking pictures.
Five minutes later, with the kids enjoying cake in the next room, I found out my dad had suffered a major stroke and was in surgery. As is her way, my mom was mellow. She didn’t feel alone — she was surrounded by other missionaries. She had received a blessing from a General Authority, she said, the area president whose office was adjacent to the temple, and he hadn’t seemed concerned. So why should she be? There was no reason for anyone to fly down.
As it happened, the area president hadn’t seemed concerned because he had spent his career in hospitals and was used to seeing people die. The next morning, when he explained more clearly, my mom sent a more urgent message. He might not survive the day. She did feel alone. How quickly could someone be there?
I am the youngest of seven kids (one of two apostates) and I had the flexibility to leave on short notice. So did two of my sisters (both delightful, neither apostate) and so the three of us were on airplanes a few hours later.
There was no consultation room in the hospital’s intensive care unit, so they led us to a small office, with too many chairs and not enough tissues, where a doctor explained that the stroke had been too severe to survive. There was no reflex response, no respiration impulse, no brain activity. The only words I understood without translation were, “I’m so sorry.”
We went in to say goodbye. There were tubes and bandages. His chest moved to an unnatural rhythm set by the machine that was filling his lungs with air. His body was there, but my father was not.
Always prepared, my dad had a living will. When we told the doctor he would want us to remove life support, she looked surprised. “Oh no,” she said. “In the Dominican Republic, only God decides when to end a life.” His kidneys seemed to be failing, she told us, so it wouldn’t be long.
I wish I could explain what it was like to be in that room with a dead man breathing artificial breaths, but none of us was eager to return for a visit the next day. Instead, we waited in their apartment for the inevitable call from the hospital.
That night, I had a troubling dream. I was in a crowded hospital hallway. It was maze-like, twisting and turning, and I had no idea if I was taking the right course, but I wasn’t worried about it — I just kept walking. Following me, sometimes at a great distance and sometimes taking the wrong hallway, was my dad.
Eventually I found myself alone in a huge room — apparently, the place I had been trying to reach — and my dad was behind a sliding glass door that wouldn’t open. He wasn’t upset by the door; he was just standing there at an angle to the corner between the wall and the glass, noticing a crowd of people as they walked the hallway. I tried to get his attention so I could show him how to open the door, then realized I didn’t know how.
He was a few feet from me, but he never acknowledged me through the glass. His face was untroubled — inquisitive, maybe, marginally interested in the crowd of people and the door, but not frustrated by any of it. I was alone in the big room trying to figure out the door, wondering why I hadn’t kept him closer, feeling like I missed some crucial detail that would let him come with me.
When the call finally came, we learned his kidneys had rebounded. We went back to the hospital, and over the coming days, we would realize he faced exactly what his living will had hoped to avoid: weeks, months, or years in a coma.
The church’s medical office told us there was a problem with my parents’ insurance: they didn’t have any until he was back in the United States. They also told us my dad had neglected to sign a medical evacuation policy that would have let us charter a jet home for almost nothing. Instead, we were facing months in a foreign health care system or an $80,000 flight home.
None of us knew anything about medical evacuation or foreign health insurance, and we knew even less about how to inspire the hierarchy of the Church to offer their help. I talked for two weeks with Church employees, temple presidents, MTC presidents, and General Authorities, and every one of them wanted to help. Some even offered suggestions on how to approach others in the hierarchy. But nobody was willing to speak definitively about anything. Even at high levels, the Church’s top-down structure creates paralysis by fear; nobody wants to be seen speaking out of turn, promising more than their station allows, or contradicting what those above them might say. We were stuck.
If you ever find yourself in a situation like this, with a lot of time on your hands, missing a loved one, you’ll probably do what I did: Go through old emails and wish they had more substance.
I had to wade through a lot of trivial conversations: The printer was broken. The wi-fi was too slow. Had I seen the scary things our liberal media wants to do to America? When at last I found that last real conversion with my dad, he ended it like this:
“I love you, and I am proud of your talent. I just hope you remember who you are while you still have time to make a difference.”
My dad meant well, I know, but what he was saying was that I wasn’t Mormon enough. My beard was rebellious. My faith lacking. My example disappointing. My talent for words squandered because I wasn’t using it to bring people to the Church.
I remembered the email, of course, but re-reading it that night, I realized he was right. I had forgotten who I was. Since we arrived on the temple grounds, I had become compliant and passive, yielding to priesthood authority and assuming they were right when they said there was nothing I could do. I had become my 12-year-old self.
So the next morning I quit suppressing my natural skepticism and started trusting myself to question again. I discovered in no time at all there was nothing wrong with my parents’ insurance, and that medical evacuations could be had for a mere $50,000. (Still a huge number.) I asked impertinent questions of every church authority I could talk to (a very small number) and learned that “the brethren” were aware of the situation and were “talking about it.”
While they were talking about it, I was having variations of the same dream almost every night. Sometimes I would walk after my dad, who was going the wrong way and was always around the next corner just before I could see him. Sometimes I would sprint through the halls. Several times, I awoke on my feet in the bedroom or kitchen of the apartment. Every time, the dream culminated with me in the huge room and my dad behind a glass door, watching peacefully, wearing the same work clothes, never acknowledging me.
It seemed possible, but not probable, that the Church would eventually step up and fly him home. More likely, based on conversations with leaders, it seemed they would offer assistance by giving my mom support and a place to live while my dad continued to receive passable care in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t about to leave my mom on an island to watch her husband die in slow motion, so I built a website to fund an air ambulance ride with donations from friends and family.
The next two days was humbling. Donations from $1 to $3,000 came in from friends, family and strangers. My employer arranged to fund the balance so we could just get him home and sort out the money later, and we scheduled the air ambulance.
That afternoon the Church temple department called and said they had received permission to arrange a flight home. They seemed a little relieved, and a little annoyed, when I told them we had already made arrangements. But I was so grateful that the church my dad served so well hadn’t forgotten about him.
So, two weeks after his stroke, we packed our bags, crossed our fingers, and loaded my dad onto a tiny jet. The hospital in Utah confirmed what we already knew, and they honored his living will by disconnecting life support. We played his favorite hymn, and we cried, and we said goodbye again — the whole family, this time.
And he didn’t die.
My brother repeated the priesthood blessing the General Authority had given my dad in the Dominican Republic to release him from life.
And he didn’t die.
After a couple of nights, my mom asked my brother to repeat the blessing one more time, in case my dad, always the type to wait for permission, was in there somewhere and hadn’t realized he had been released.
My brother hesitated. And I stood up, and I surprised everyone in the room, certainly myself, when I said, “Hey, do you mind if I do it?”
So even though I didn’t believe what my father believed — even though I was sure I wasn’t Mormon enough — I put my hands on my dad’s head and gave him a blessing and told him it was time to go.
And he died.
Not like right then — that would be too Hollywood. But when he died that night, my mom said he had been waiting for me to give him that blessing so he felt he could let go.
But I don’t think so. Instead, I like to think he hung around long enough to help me realize that I may not be Mormon enough to match his ideal image, or Mormon enough to believe what he believed, or maybe not even Mormon enough to keep my stake president off my back, but I am Mormon enough to participate in my Mormon family and our shared Mormon culture in a meaningful way.
My dad was right: I am a lousy Mormon. Bring up any point of Mormon doctrine, and I probably don’t believe it. But the things about my personality he always hoped I would change are the same things that brought him home to let his family say goodbye. I know I am Mormon enough — whatever that means.
And if I am Mormon enough, certainly the rest of you are, too.
If you enjoyed reading this, you may enjoy The Long Letter: An Introduction to the Things I Wish I Didn’t Have to Explain to My Mormon Son. You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.