While I was in church one Sunday morning in 2013, I turned off my phone because I didn’t want it to interrupt sacrament meeting. When the meeting ended, I turned my phone back on and saw that my wife, Tanya, had called me. I tried to call her back, but she didn’t answer.
During that meeting, the van she was riding in on the way to an annual family gathering rolled somewhere on the New York Thruway. My daughter and two of my grandchildren were severely injured, and Tanya was instantly killed. After 44 years of marriage, my wife was suddenly gone.
Four years later, Katie, one of my daughters-in-law, underwent an emergency C-section to deliver twin baby girls at 25 weeks of gestation, too close to the threshold of infant viability for comfort. When the girls were just eight weeks old, Katie was returning home late at night from her daily visit with them in the neonatal intensive care unit of the hospital and was hit and killed by a drunk driver, leaving my son a widower with six children.
My wife was everything to me, and my son’s wife was everything to him. Those were tough times for our family.
Clinging to the Promises
I didn’t fully appreciate how great Tanya was and how much I depended on her until she was gone. But we had knelt at an altar in a holy temple, and someone having the sealing power had pronounced blessings upon us. I have clung to the promise of those blessings. I trust in those promised blessings.
Tanya’s death was a crisis of faith for me. I had to decide, “Do I really believe?” Faith is called a gift of God, but it’s also a choice we make—a choice to believe. I chose to believe, and I found out that Moroni was correct when he wrote that we receive no witness until after the trial of our faith (see Ether 12:6). After the trial, the witness did come. My faith was rewarded with a confirming peace of mind. That’s what has enabled me to go forward.
For a time, I struggled to figure out what was faith and what was hope. Alma describes faith as a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Because of my faith in Jesus Christ, I have hope that if I remain faithful and true to my covenants, I can share eternal life with Tanya. I am also grateful for the assurance I have that the Savior is there for each of us. There’s a difference between thinking, “He’s there” and realizing, “He’s there for me.”
My two grandchildren have lasting ill effects from their car accident, and I still grieve Tanya’s absence in my life. I’ll never stop missing her, and the love I have for her is not diminished by the love I have for my second wife. The love has just multiplied.
My son has also remarried. His new wife is Becky’s first cousin once removed. We both married into the same family. What are the odds of that? It’s an amazing coincidence, or maybe it’s not.
Challenges and Blessings
Our family has had its share of challenges, but we have also experienced blessings. My son has become one of my heroes. He forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife, and he told her he hoped she would straighten out her life. His two little girls recently celebrated their fifth birthday. They are real miracle babies.
For the past 17 years, I have had the privilege of serving as a patriarch. At first, I was afraid I couldn’t fulfill the calling, but I have learned that the blessings come from the Lord, not the patriarch. There are common themes in patriarchal blessings because our Heavenly Father wants many of the same things for all His children, but each blessing is different, individual, and personal.
One of the purposes of a patriarchal blessing is to help individuals see who they are as children of God and to discern how much their Heavenly Father loves them. As a patriarch, whenever I lay my hands on someone’s head to give them a patriarchal blessing, for just a few precious moments, Heavenly Father allows me to feel the love He has for that individual. It is an overpowering feeling. When I feel how much He loves each blessing recipient, I can feel that He loves me too.
Today, Becky and I focus on the temple. One of the reasons our Lord has given us the temple is to give us a glimpse of Zion. In addition to being a patriarch, I was invited some years ago to serve as a sealer in the temple. That has been another great joy of my life. It is a calling of all happy occasions. Nothing brings me greater joy than the promises of the temple, which give me hope that through Christ, I can overcome all trials.
Photographs by Leslie Nilsson