Saying Goodbye to my Mom

I rolled over in bed, grabbed my phone and made my way through a dozen messages that had arrived earlier that morning.

None of the messages were very long, but it was clear something was wrong. Each one was a puzzle piece that taken individually didn’t make a lot of sense.

Mom wasn’t feeling well. 
My dad was taking her to the hospital. 
Should the kids gather at the hospital? 
My dad needs help. 

I leaned over to see if Kim was awake. She wasn’t and I decided to let her sleep. I sat back in bed and thought about my mom. We’d driven up the week before to celebrate her birthday. She was frail but alert. Her spirits were high as they always are when she’s around her children and grandchildren.

Maybe 20 minutes had passed, and I decided to wake Kim. “My mom isn’t doing well. I don’t know what to do.” As I contemplated making the 5-hour trip from St. George to North Ogden, a message from my sister arrived:

“Mom is gone.”

It seems fitting to hear of my mom’s passing by text message. I’ve lived a state or two away from my parents and siblings for the past 20+ years, and I’m accustomed to hearing news about the family via text, email, and phone.

I stayed in bed for another hour trying to make sense of the fact that I will not see my mother again. She lived 69 years which is about 30 years longer than doctors figured she’d live once they diagnosed her with Lupus and a host of other ailments. The Prednisone that gave her energy to raise five children made her bones weak. I would have needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all her medications. Of course, each promised to fix a condition, but at the cost of nasty side-effects.

As I’ve reached middle age, I’ve accepted that family relationships are complicated, sometimes messy, but usually worth the effort. The relationship with my mom was no different. But most of the challenges we’ve had over the years have faded leaving mostly good memories firmly in my mind.

As I wrote her obituary, I reflected on the many times my mom was there to provide advice or encouragement. But mostly my mom was present. She didn’t work outside the home so she was able to attend hundreds of my baseball, basketball and football games. I recall playing a spring baseball game in Bear River in near-freezing temperatures. When I came up to bat, I turned around to see my mom sitting on the aluminum benches behind home place wrapped in a wool blanket. She was the lone fan in the stands on that frigid day.

When I’d return home from dates, I’d find my mom kicking back on the couch reading the Ensign or her Book of Mormon that had seen better days. She’d ask how my evening went, and we’d talk well into the morning. She was always there without being a helicopter parent. My dad bought her a Kindle a few years ago, and we’d send her books on occasion, and then discuss them during visits to her home. My oldest son inherited her Kindle this past week. Before I reset it, I noticed she’d made it 86% through the last book (Educated) we sent her before she passed away.

I inherited a love of listening to music from my mom. When I broke my arm in 7th grade, she was going through a Neil Diamond phase, and I quickly learned every lyric to the Jazz Singer soundtrack. She didn’t like a lot of the music I listened to in high school, especially groups like Ratt, Motley Crue, and Whitesnake. But I did get her into George Winston and attended one of his piano concerts at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake.

The morning after we’d celebrated her birthday, had breakfast with my mom and dad before heading back to St. George. As the hostess seated the 9 of us around a table near the back of the Black Bear Diner, my kids scrambled to sit closest to their grandma and grandpa. Kim and I sat at the opposite end of the table. During breakfast, I wondered why I’d let the kids take the seats closest to my parents.

I’ve thought back to that breakfast many times over the past month. That was the last day I’d see my mom, but I didn’t know it at the time. Why didn’t I take a seat down at the end of the table next to her? Later that morning, I’d say goodbye to her while she sat in a wheelchair at her home. I leaned down and put my arm around her. She kissed my cheek like she has for many years.

This evening, I put some books on my son’s Kindle he inherited from my mom. He loves to read Harry Potter and the Fablehaven series. I noticed the black canvas cover on his Kindle was well-worn and asked if he’d like me to order a new one.

His answer let me know I’d made the right decision at breakfast: “Nope. This one smells like grandma and will remind me of her each time I read.”

Goodbye, mom. I love you.

Is Truth Optional?

A number of events over the past couple of weeks has me contemplating the importance of truth. Specifically, how important is truth when it comes to storytelling, history or religion.

Augustine-Quote

A few weeks ago, Kim and I attended an event where Carol Lynn Pearson discussed her book, Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. I haven’t read the book but was interested in the topic because polygamy was one of the first major issues I had with my church.

I knew Brigham Young married a lot of women, but I was shocked when the church admitted that Joseph Smith married at least 30 women, some as young as 14 and about 10 who were already married.

The bigger question I’ve considered is this: Is it worth investing my time and resources in a church that plays so loose with the truth?

I wish the LDS church had come clean with all the unsavory parts of their history before the internet came along and forced their hand. Put it all out there. And then allow each person to decide if it’s worth the investment the church asks of them.

One of my frustrations since leaving the church is that some friends and family assume I was looking for any reason to leave the church. They assume I lost my testimony or could not resist that Starbucks iced mocha.

But I didn’t lose anything. I gained knowledge and can speak to the history of the church in much greater detail than I could as a young missionary. I was willing to go wherever the truth took me, even if that meant out of the church. I didn’t select my desired destination and then search only for evidence that supported my decision.

That’s what I’d like my friends and family to understand. Truth matters more than feelings. Every member of every religion feels their church is the true one. Good feelings can come from reading a book, watching a movie or listening to music. How some religions tell their followers that feelings substantiate truth is absurd to me.

Especially when you say you are the only church on earth that has all the truth.

Be willing to demand the truth. And let it take you wherever it leads. In the long run you’ll be better for it.

Thoughts About God

From 1987 to 1989 I left my home in Ogden, Utah and served a mission in Germany for the Mormon church. I made a number of friends, visited dozens of lush German towns, and began to question everything I’d been taught about God.

The nature of God has been something I’ve pondered since I was a young boy, leaving grade school and walking a half mile to the church to attend primary. I met up with friends and a few adults who lead us in songs and taught us about Mormon doctrine including Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and Heavenly Father (God).

When I was 10 or 11 years old, one lesson focused on how the Mormon church was the only true church on the face of the earth. She emphasized the “only true” part over and over as if she wanted it ingrained in our young minds.  I was confused and raised my hand, asking how anyone could know for certain that we had the only true church with so many different churches around the world. Did someone attend each church and declare the Mormon church the only true one? I don’t remember the answer, if one was provided, but I would continue asking these questions as I entered the Mission Training Center.

One year into my mission, I wrote my grandfather to inquire about this and few other church doctrines that didn’t make sense to me. He sent back a reply explaining his views pertaining to the topics I inquired about, but gently advised that I’d have to figure things out on my own.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of God, and asking myself a number of questions such as:

1. Why is the God of the Old Testament such a mean, vindictive, jealous God? I can’t relate to a God that commands armies to slaughter every man, woman, and child regardless of the sins they committed.

2.  Why would the Mormon God devise a plan that would result in so few of his children returning to him?

3. Why would the Mormon God deny African Americans the priesthood until 1978?

4. Why would the Mormon God select to restore his church through Joseph Smith, and then watch while he uses his church authority to recruit, groom and marry at least 33 women? Some of Smith’s wives were as young as 14 and eleven of them were already married to other men.

5. Why would the Mormon God command his church to be organized in a manner whereby women are relegated to second class members?

Speaking with friends in and out of the Mormon church, I realize my understanding of God is very different from theirs. I met a number of Pantheists while serving in Germany who told me they believed God lived in nature and could take any form he liked.

Some of my friends don’t believe in a God. Or they aren’t sure there’s a God. I’ve found these people to be the least judgmental of any group. I wonder why?

Others believe in a God to the extent that nearly ever action they take is somehow influenced by him. This God helps them find their car keys, travel from church to home in safety and ensures they perform well on a math test.

If God has so much free time on his hands to help locate your keys why wouldn’t he spend that time helping children who are dying from famine and starvation around the world?

In short, God can be whatever you want him or her to be, and yet that doesn’t feel right to me either. Since nobody has seen God (which is surprising given the billions of camera phones) I’m left to wonder if God is man-made. That’s the conclusion made by Christopher Hitchens in his book titled, “God Is Not Great”. No other book in the last 20 years has rocked my world more than this book. I bought the audiobook and listened to it for the first time as I was traveling from Arizona back to Utah through Nevada. I stopped at the Hoover Dam to take in this amazing man-made structure and pondered what I’d heard.

What I felt was a slap across the face. I’ve listened to it three times already.

Until that time I’d been in a 20+ year religious slumber, going through the motions week after week, but finding myself unhappy at best and depressed at worst.

I’m finally awakening, but finding what I’ve been taught for so many years doesn’t make a lot of sense to me today. I’m still searching, still learning. I feel alone on this journey much of the time, but I suspect that’s normal. My grandfather was right: everyone has to figure this out on their own.

The Age of Ignorance

From the Age of Ignorance by Charles Simic:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe.

I experienced this when I signed up for Obamacare this past year. Many smart, well-educated friends of mine slammed the program without having done any research themselves. Most were spouting outright lies about the program they gleaned from Fox News or other anti-Obama sources.

All any of them would have had to do is actually visit Healthcare.gov and read for themselves. Instead they chose to regurgitate lies because, well, that’s a lot easier to do than form their own opinion.

Recently Learned

Over the past month I’ve discovered a few things about myself.

I do my best work under pressure.

The writing I’m most proud of uncovers pain.

Joy begins with being honest with myself.

Faking it hurts me more than anyone else.

Saying something is true doesn’t make it so.

Question everything. Respect everyone.

Be skeptical of those proclaiming one truth.

Few skills in life are as valuable as being able to say “no”.

If you don’t learn to think critically, others will think for you.

True friends don’t put requirements on the relationship.

Facts speak louder than feelings.

Feelings can be easily manipulated.

Nothing of Consequence

Everyone is dealing with something.

Often it’s something noticeable like eating healthier or quitting a bad habit like smoking. A few years back I decided to exercise each day and eat a healthier diet. Over a few months I dropped nearly 60 lbs. The change I had made to myself was easy to recognize. Friends and coworkers encouraged me. I recall one office gathering where someone ordered pizza for everyone. The office manager knew I was trying to eat better ordered a salad for me instead.

But what if you’re working on something that’s not visible? Maybe not only is it not visible but amorphous and difficult to put into words?

When you’re trying to lose weight or quit smoking it’s not uncommon for a group of supporters to morph into your personal cheering section. They are on the lookout for anyone or anything that might cause a setback. But they have your back and are ready to jump in on your behalf to keep you focused and progressing towards your goal. Sure, you want to meet your goal but you also don’t want to disappoint this group.

We are all dealing with something, and chances are it’s something internal. Maybe you’ve shared it with a spouse or close friend. Or you put out feelers to see if it’s even safe to share. That’s what I do, but it’s not easy to determine if the coast is clear. When you share you open yourself up to scrutiny. You feel vulnerable. You could lose a friend.

With so many outlets like Facebook and Twitter to share ideas or passions or even the mundane, I find myself sharing less about the stuff that really matters to me. I tend to joke around or share a quote from one of my children. Nothing of consequence.

Knowing that others are working on issues provides comfort. I could always tell when a good friend of mine had something on his mind. I’d ask him what was going on and he’d reply that he was working an issue over in his mind. To this day, I have no idea what he was dealing with and never pushed for details.

I need to find one of those friends again. One who doesn’t live 1200 miles away.

Losing a Friend

A German once told me that a person never has more friends than fingers on one hand.  To a 20-year old, that seemed absurdly low.

But today it feels on the high side because I recently lost a friend. Recently, is my interpretation because it’s possible this person checked out a while back, and I just didn’t realize it.

Losing a friend at any age is no fun. Yet this one stings because I have no idea what happened. For the past six months I’ve been trying to recreate the last time we saw each other. Was it something I said that day? Was it something I posted to Facebook or my blog that caused the rift? I’m at a loss.

The worst part is that I lost a good friend. A close second is not knowing why.

I’ve tried to reach out to this person on a number of occasions. I would like know what happened, but maybe that’s selfish. But I’m finished kicking myself over something I may or may not have done.

I’m still bummed about it though. This was my friend I could talk about what it was like going through a divorce and he understood because he’d gone through the same.

I find that the older I get, the more difficult it becomes to make friends. I don’t trust people as quickly, and I don’t get out as much to meet new people.

I suspect that not knowing why may not be the second worst part of losing a friend. That would be running into the friend and realizing he hadn’t given much thought to the situation.

Rehashing the Weather

Find people you can be yourself around. That’s where you’ll find the most happiness.

It sounds so simple. It even sounds trite. But it’s true.

Most people take this to matter most when selecting friendships, but it matters just as much when choosing where to work, attend school or even church.

For two years I decided to morph into another person when dealing with my mission president in Germany. I quickly learned what he wanted to hear and then I regurgitated that each time I had to speak to him. I wasn’t myself. I never told him what was on my mind. By being honest with him I risked getting ripped to shreds so I kept each meeting as short as possible by telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. Then I walked out the doors and did what my heart told me to do.

I recall well the last meeting I had with him. I was unable to contain my joy, and when my mission president asked me why I was grinning I finally had the guts to tell him it was due to never having to speak to him again.

I’ve had a few jobs where the boss only wanted to hear the good news. Good news was always welcome, and if someone had bad news, it was best kept to oneself. I saw what happened to messengers bearing bad news and learned from their mistakes. Bring good news or don’t bring any news at all!

Contrast that with Bill Gates who once said the goal of any CEO was to create an environment where bad news flowed to the top in a hurry so it could be acted upon.

Some of my friends laugh when I tell them my in-laws live next door. That’s usually followed by, “Wow, I could never live that close to mine!”

But what they don’t understand is that my in-laws are some of the most non-judgmental people I’ve ever met. They have had their fair share of trials with their own children. But even before I knew that, they accepted me into their family. I’ve made a number of bone-headed mistakes while married to their daughter, yet I never been lectured or frowned upon. Instead they look for the good in me. No wonder I fell for the youngest daughter they raised.

If you find yourself discussing the weather or rehashing the past each time you hook up with a friend it might be worth asking yourself, why?

Until Proven Otherwise

“I’d have a better chance of finding a boyfriend in church than a bar, but we both know that’s not happening.”

“Well, then, good luck!”

As I stood in line at the grocery story tonight I caught the tail end of a conversation between the checker and the young man bagging my groceries. I finished setting  the last 2-liter of Diet Coke on the counter and pushed my card through the check stand.

When I told the checker I did not have a rewards card she asked if I was from out-of-town. When mentioned I’d recently moved from the Seattle area she began nodding her head and pulled two more tellers into the conversation.

“I’ll bet nobody in Seattle cares about religion, right? I mean, isn’t that how it should be?”

All I could do was smile, collect my receipt, and head for the door as everyone within a 15 foot radius was chiming in with their opinions on the difficulty of finding love in Utah as a non-Mormon.

Although I spent the first 26 years of my life in Utah, I’d forgotten how much Mormon influence is woven into the fabric of everyday life here. When I met my daughter’s middle school counselor for the first time, he asked, “So your daughter must be a beehive?”  And less than two minutes into my haircut, my barber asked, “What ward are you in?”

“What ward are you in?” in Utah is the same as “How are you doing?” anywhere else.

You’re a Mormon until proven otherwise.

Kim and I both understood this well before we decided to move to St. George. Our children made many friends in Seattle, and few of them were Mormon, yet we seldom thought much about it. Sure, there was the occasional birthday party on Sunday that would bring our beliefs to the forefront when our kids explained to their friends that Sundays were time to spend at church and with family.

As Luca would say, “That’s not fair.”

One of our reasons for returning to Utah was to be closer to friends and family. Our children are able to spend a lot of their days with cousins and grandparents and friends who have similar beliefs. I doubt we’ll have to decline many birthday parties or youth sports because they were scheduled on Sunday.

The kids have already made friends who belong to other religions and we’ll continue to encourage them to that end. I don’t know how it will all turn out. The diversity of Seattle was a major reason we decided to stay there for 16 years. It almost feels like the polar opposite of Utah in terms of religious influence on the culture.

Maybe next time I’m at the grocery store I’ll seek out the same checker I had tonight and tell her about the college wards.

Then again, that might guarantee she remains single or flees the state.  

Put Into Words

It took me a moment to realize something was wrong.

I parked our car in the garage,  unfastened the straps that were holding our 2-year old daughter in her car seat and stepped inside our home. I assumed she’d follow me as she had before.

We’d returned home from church, and were hungry and tired from staying up late the night before. It would take a couple of minutes before Kim and I realized Luca had not followed either of us into the house.

I ran to the garage to see if she was still in the car while Kim ran out the front door, thinking she may have wandered into our yard.  When I didn’t find Luca in the garage I ran out through our back door to help Kim search our yard. Still no Luca.

Kim and I met near the entrance to our home and then ran to the street. Several of our neighbors saw us and came to help. We searched up and down our street which connects to a maze of neighborhoods, but could find no sign of our daughter.

I can’t imagine a worse feeling than what I felt at that moment. One minute Luca was in her car seat and the next minute she’s gone. By this time Kim and I were frantic.

More neighbors joined in the search including one man and his two sons. I went back into our home to make sure she hadn’t fallen asleep somewhere we hadn’t searched. When I couldn’t find her I decided to check the backyard again which had plenty of places for her to hide.

As I ran back around to the front of our home, I recall thinking I should call the police.

But when I came around the side of our home, I noticed our neighbor slowing driving his truck towards our home. His two sons were walking behind the truck, and one of them was holding the hand of our daughter, and she was OK.

What I hadn’t initially noticed was our three year old boxer named Elka, walking alongside Luca.

Our neighbor pulled up and mentioned how he’d found Luca a few blocks away walking down the middle of the road in search of who knows what. He explained that Elka walked alongside our daughter and wouldn’t leave her when he and his boys approached. 

Elka_Nightt

As a parent a few lucky breaks here and there are always welcome. I had made a major mistake in not accompanying my daughter into our home, but our boxer had acted as her guardian angel that day.

Elka was loved before this incident, but she endeared herself to our family that day.

Today a tumor took her life two months shy of her 13th birthday. We knew this day was coming, and I thought I’d be prepared for it, but it hurts more than I can put into words tonight.