What Michael Gave Us
April 1976

“What Michael Gave Us,” Ensign, Apr. 1976, 20

What Michael Gave Us

Almost daily for the eleven years Michael had been in school, his teachers, the university students, and passersby had paused to watch with affectionate amusement as this eager boy, with his own unintelligible jargon and gestures, had tried to convince his mother that it was not yet time to go home. But today was the last day of school and Michael’s nineteenth birthday, and to celebrate, all the classes were going on a picnic. They had practiced “Happy Birthday” the day before, and a last-minute check had been made to be sure that everyone knew what he should bring. The bus waited. But Michael did not come. He had quietly passed away at eight o’clock that morning.

The outing wouldn’t be the same. Not just because Michael was going to bring the popsicles and cupcakes (on each of which he had placed a candle), but because he was our friend. We loved him. And Michael had loved picnics. Not because of the food, for he had abnormalities of the digestive tract that made it impossible for him to eat solid foods, and he had difficulty swallowing, but because he could be with his friends.

During the first few months of Michael’s life he was fed through a tube. It would be impossible to estimate the hours his mother and others spent patiently spooning enough nourishment into him for survival. Even after five major operations and a great deal of persistence, patience, and prayer, he was unable to manage solid food. So instead of sandwiches, potato chips, apples, and cookies in his lunch sack, he carried yogurt or ice cream.

When the children were served regular school lunches, Michael would take his tray, arrange his soft foods on it, and join the others at the lunch table. Because everyone wanted to help him learn to eat solid food, he would try desperately to please them. If soft biscuits were served, he would sometimes take one and hold a small bit in his mouth until it became very soft, and then swallow it. On these days one of his teachers would write a note which read, “Today Michael took a bite of a sandwich,” and Michael would proudly carry it home to his mother.

Many days, long after the other children were finished eating and had gone out to play, Michael could still be seen at the table struggling with each mouthful of food. Everyone who passed by offered encouragement and asked how he was doing. Each received the same cheerful smile and an animated description of his progress.

During the last years “Grandpa,” foster grandparent for the class and Michael’s special friend and helper, admitted that occasionally he fed Michael his lunch. “But only so that he can get to seminary on time,” he explained to Michael’s mother. She confessed that sometimes she did the same thing.

Seminary was his favorite activity of the day. All of the students were given seminary folders where study materials and pictures to be colored were kept. Michael’s folder was one of his proudest possessions.

During the years Michael attended school he learned to read on a second-grade level, to practice simple number combinations, spelling, woodworking, and cooking. But his special talent was “writing,” or printing, and no one in the class did as well. Whenever a special project called for printing, it was Michael who did the job. He worked slowly and carefully at all he did.

This meticulousness was a part of his life. When he went swimming, each sock and other piece of clothing had to be carefully folded in a pile on the bench and then placed in the locker. Even though it took time and effort, he was particularly pleased to put his valuables, wallet, watch, and other treasures carefully into the regulation envelope that was provided for that purpose.

He insisted on putting everything at school neatly back in place after being used. Even his napkin at lunch was carefully folded, and his straw placed on it to be saved, though for what purpose was not clear. At home his room was always in perfect order. When cousins or other children came to visit they were not allowed in the room to muss things up. Michael, always generous, would go to the room and bring the toys and books out for them to use, but no one was permitted to play inside.

Michael enjoyed church as much as he did school, and it was only an extraordinary circumstance that kept him away. The Sunday School officers suggested Michael be asked to stand at the door of the chapel and pass out the bulletins on Sunday morning. The task needed someone who was pleasant, courteous, and dependable. Michael proved a good choice. It was explained to him that each Sunday he must be at the door on time or see that someone else was there, and he never failed. One morning his father suggested that perhaps it would be best for him to stay home, that someone else could take charge of the bulletins. He was adamant in insisting that he must go and argued vigorously, shaking his head and holding up his right hand. He understood that people who were called to serve in the Church were sustained by the members and were expected to fulfill their duties. It was difficult for him to stand, using one hand to hold the bulletins and the other hand to pass them out, so a typewriter table was obtained from the library to hold the bulletins. Each Sunday after his task was finished, Michael pushed the table back to the library, put away his chair and extra bulletins, then joined his father in Sunday School. He allowed no one to help him with these chores.

He understood too that it takes money to run a ward, that paper costs money, and therefore must not be wasted. Each family got only one bulletin. If Sister Smith came in first but Brother Smith stopped to talk to the bishop and followed some time later, he was firmly given to understand that his wife had their bulletin.

And Michael knew that money was collected to run the Church. Two or three times he was at home alone when the deacons came for fast offerings. He made out a check and gave it to them. He would also get a tithing envelope, fill out the form, and put his money in it to give to the ward clerk.

Last summer Michael was baptized. His parents recognized that it was not necessary and were not quite sure he understood the full meaning of it. How much he had absorbed from Junior Sunday School and Primary lessons was hard to tell. But after much prayer, and with the encouragement of his seminary teacher, they approached the bishop. And the bishop interviewed Michael.

“But, bishop,” I asked him, “how could you do that when he was so difficult to understand? How could you tell what he knew?”

“Well,” he replied, “I would ask him questions about the Holy Ghost, for example, and he would launch into an explanation. It was perfectly clear that he knew what he was talking about, even if I could not understand the words.” It was a long interview, and at the conclusion of it the bishop was satisfied. He remarked later that he had a strong feeling about it, almost as if he were interviewing Michael to go on a mission.

So it was decided that Michael should be baptized here while he could do the work for himself. He was confirmed a member of the Church by his father. Because he liked to bear his testimony, his parents would occasionally let him do it. Although those in attendance could understand very little, if anything, that he said, there seemed to be a communication of the spirit, more powerful than words, that translated it, just as when the bishop interviewed him for baptism.

Michael had friends everywhere. “He knew more people than I do,” his mother said. “Every place we went there was someone that he remembered and greeted with a handshake.” Those friends included neighbors, ward members, university students, student observers, trainees from the Industrial Education Department who helped with the woodworking class, school lunch attendants, volunteers who helped with the swimming program, teachers, and school friends.

When the bishop was asked how he got the ward members to respond so well to Michael, he looked surprised. “I didn’t do anything. We were the ones who felt hurt and rejected if Michael did not stop to give us a greeting and shake our hands.”

“He gave us far more than we did him,” his parents insist. Many others feel the same way. Michael did what he came here to do, calmly, cheerfully, and faithfully. Then he was ready for other things. As the bishop told his mother, “We send all our nineteen-year-old boys on missions.”

  • Marguerite I. Wilson, a retired teacher, serves on a Church writing committee. She lives in Douglas Ward, Salt Lake Central Stake.

Illustrated by Michael Nelson