I was just about to leave the care center when Dad took my hand and said with a sigh, words hardly audible, “I don’t want to live any longer.” Dad had fought prostate cancer for many years but this last month of his life—March of 2007—was the hardest. In order for him to receive daily radiation treatments, his doctor placed him across the street from the hospital in a care center. The center’s beige, cinder-block walls, dim lighting, and old-people sick smells were depressing. Dad was miserable but stoic. My mother, my sister, and I spent hours visiting him every day, watching television, and talking about mundane affairs. But Dad seemed distant, like he didn’t want to talk about the real issue: that he was dying.
Three weeks into this ordeal, my mother fell, broke her hip, and ended up in the hospital. My sister and I spent the next few days walking back and forth between the hospital and the care center to visit my parents, one after the other, looking forward to the day when we would have both Mom and Dad convalescing together in the same place. The night before Mom was going to be transferred into the room with my father, I was visiting Dad. I was drop-dead exhausted. I had two elderly parents to take care of, classes to teach, papers to grade, and my own family to worry about. The whirlwind of events and all the stress was accumulating. Dad, on the other hand, was unusually present, not chatty but focused, that night.
“You’re a handsome boy, you know that?”
“Well, I know you’re on some kind of hallucinogen if you think this face is handsome,” I responded.
He smiled. I realized how thin and old Dad looked. Moments of crisis can force a clarity of vision.
“Dad, I’m going to go home. We’ll be back first thing in the morning with your new house guest. It’ll be just like home to have you and Mom in the same room, but instead of getting on each others’ nerves you’ll be able to nag the nurses.”
Dad leaned over and took my hand and told me that he didn’t want to live any longer.
I was stunned, but also resolved to the fact that he wasn’t going to make it much longer. So I told him what I would have wanted to hear:
“Well, Dad we were hoping you would be here for Mom while she recovers, but if you can’t make it, you know we’ll take care of her and make sure she gets everything she needs.”
As I walked out of the room, Dad held up his arm, a gesture I didn’t know how to interpret. The next day, he died. I was haunted by that wave, his hand looking so weak and lonely and pathetic. Was he pleading for me to stay a little longer? Was he waving goodnight? Was he saying a last goodbye?
A few weeks after my Father died was Easter Sunday. I don’t remember much about the meeting, but when the Priests began to prepare the sacrament, raising the white linen cloth and uncovering the bread and water an involuntary image came into my head: I saw the funeral director tucking the white linen around my father just before they closed the casket. The last time I ever saw Dad’s face and the sacrament blurred together.
The late Forrest Church, minister of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, used to define religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” The prospect of death causes us to search for answers to what my father-in-law once called “the Terrible Questions”: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? These questions are “terrible” because without religion—without a hope of a hereafter—the answers to those questions are bleak. A belief in Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection not only brings hope of a life after life, but a hope for a better life, one where we can be reunited with our earthly loved ones and with our Heavenly Parents. Easter is the day we celebrate that Hope. For me, however, it also reminds me of my loss.
About twenty years ago when we lived in Maryland, Zina asked our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mary if she knew the meaning of Easter. Mary seemed stumped so Zina backed up and rephrased the question, asking if she remembered what Christmas was about. With a most serious look on her face, Mary thought for a few minutes, and then responded with latest big word she had learned in preschool: “advertising.” Zina then reminded Mary about Jesus’ birth and told her about how at Easter we remember that he died but then came back to life. Mary was flabbergasted.
“He died?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Zina
“But he came back?”
“Jesus one funny guy!”
Mary got it. She understood that Christmas was about both advertising and Jesus birth, and she now understood about the great miracle of Easter that makes the magic of any Easter Bunny seem trite. It struck me at the time that the shopalooza frenzy of Christmas that we all lament so often during that holiday season is hardly noticeable at Easter. That blessing may be a curse because without all the annoying Christmas clamor, it is easy to forget about Easter altogether. We aren’t forced to ask ourselves about the true meaning of Easter and the holiday can come and go without recognition at all. While the great miracle of Christ’s birth we celebrate with a whole season of giving and joy and song and kindness, the great miracle of his death and resurrection and atonement is easily lost.
We Mormons haven’t really known what to do with Easter. We typically have an Easter-themed talk in sacrament meeting and maybe sing “That Easter Morn” or “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” but other than that, Church meetings are typically not much different from others. Most of the Christian world has been looking forward to this day since Ash Wednesday on February 13th, but we might miss the whole thing if we didn’t notice the Peeps being sold in the grocery store. And its only relatively recently that Easter has played much of a role in our tradition at all. Prior to the 1900s, Easter was never mentioned in LDS General Conference, despite the fact that Conference is held on Easter Sunday at least three or four times each decade. This is not all that surprising since holidays like Christmas and Easter were not practiced by many Protestant groups in the United States until the late nineteenth century, after Mormons were ensconced in the Utah valleys.
Easter made its first appearance in General Conference in 1904 when Elder Anthon Lund, First Counselor of the First Presidency, gave an Easter sermon. “I am reminded that this is Easter. We celebrate today the glorious event, of the resurrection of our Savior.” The following day, Elder Seymour Young of the Seventy, referred to Elder Lund’s talk and stated:
“Reference was made yesterday to the life of our Savior, and to the generally accepted idea that yesterday was the anniversary of the day on which He rose from the tomb. However, whether Easter Sunday is the proper day or not, we have no objection to it. The great underlying fact is that He rose from the dead, after having suffered crucifixion for the sins of the world, and that He was the Son of God. . . . Thus to us every Sunday, in a sense, is Easter Sunday, for we worship the Lord on that day, and not only on Sunday, but every day in the week. We do not put off the feeling of worship on the Monday, nor on any other day. If we feel as we should, we regard every day as the Lord’s day, and we feel that we ought to serve Him and keep His commandments continuously, and not have a Sunday religion like a Sunday coat, to be laid aside as soon as the Sabbath day is passed.”
While I appreciate the sentiment expressed by Elder Young—that we should make each day holy by remembering Christ’s atonement, we run the risk not seeing the holy at all. Like the nemesis, Syndrome, says in the Pixar film “The Incredibles,” “when everyone’s super, no one will be” It often takes those “special” moments—a crisis like my father’s death or a teaching moment with a child—to fully experience the sacred.
Fortunately, references to Easter have increased in Conference. The chart below shows the number of references in each decade:
1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s
36 24 16 39 69 84 32 71 87 53
Nevertheless, I think we can still do better, both within our own lives and within our congregations.
Just before Christmas in 2010, we discovered that my mother had cancer. She spent several months going through the agony of chemotherapy, but finally just before Easter we found out the cancer has spread to her blood and she was dying. We brought her home from the hospital and called all our family and friends. That Easter Sunday was one of the most sacred of my life as friends and family members came to the house to say goodbye to my mother. She faded in and out of consciousness, then mostly out, but we sensed she was aware of the presence of the people who loved her. It was a beautiful farewell. She finally passed away the following day. Now when Easter comes, I think of both of my parents and I remember the outpouring of love that I felt in my mother’s final hours. When I think of my Father, I remember Christ’s words that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” and his promise “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). I imagine my Dad going on before the rest of us to prepare a place for my Mom and for the rest of my family, but I also imagine my elder Brother preparing a place for all his siblings. I also remember Christ’s words as found in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon that when he greets us he “will encircle thee in the arms of my love” (D&C 6:20; 2 Ne. 1:15) and I imagine my Dad greeting my Mom, but I also imagine Christ greeting each of them and us. For me, the “Terrible Questions” have beautiful answers and, as much as I miss them, my parents’ deaths been given me a holy day to remember this.