“While My Father Was Dying,” Ensign, July 1999, 52
Soon after I learned about my dad’s cancer, I was released from my Church position so I could spend more time helping out at home. Dad’s cancer operation was long and hard, but it seemed everything would work out well. He came home from the hospital and spent the next few months recovering from the surgery. During the summer he became stronger, and I felt I could go west to attend Brigham Young University. Dad agreed that it would be best for me to go, so I left for school.
Summer turned to fall, and I settled into college life. Mom and Dad went to Europe as part of Dad’s recovery program, but when autumn leaves turned in October, so did my father’s health. A new tumor the size of a golf ball had developed. My mother tearfully told me that radiation therapy was the next step. This news was hard to take. The radiation was expected to shrink the tumor so the doctors would be able to remove it with little difficulty. My schoolwork suffered as the reports from home became more vague and far too infrequent for a concerned son 2,000 miles away.
Christmas vacation finally arrived, and I went home. My sisters and mother never looked so good; everyone was bright-eyed despite my 5:00 A.M. arrival at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. The drive home to McLean, Virginia, was cool and long. My older sister, Christine, who had come from her home in Memphis, Tennessee, made mention of the usual subjects. Jane, my younger sister, sat too quietly for a 15-year-old. Mom sat in simple delight to see her son returning from the West. My six months away seemed like a decade.
“The radiation has caused some slight deviations in Dad’s appearance,” Mom warned. She told me this so I wouldn’t be too alarmed.
I was greeted in the driveway by a tail-wagging Irish setter and my older brother, Bob. Dad was resting inside. I brought my bags in for what I thought was going to be a short three-week stay; it turned into a three-month ordeal. I missed the winter semester at school but witnessed a priceless lesson in service and charity.
Dad’s cancer had worsened, and the doctors felt there wasn’t any use in more surgery. Yet Dad kept to his strong-willed style and reserved all his strength for our family’s gathering that Christmas. His stamina and zest for life became a citadel of inspiration for the entire family.
When I told the bishop of my home ward what was going on, he sensed the urgency of the situation and offered the services of our ward. I was the only member of the Church in my family, and Mom was reluctant to receive outsiders at first, afraid these people would expect something in return, but she soon found otherwise.
Under the direction of the Relief Society president, home-cooked meals were brought to our family. At first they came every other night, then every night; we ate like kings and queens. Our family was not accustomed to intimate service from strangers. My older brother and sister were especially surprised to see real charity in action. There was some confusion at first.
“Why would such love be extended to us?” my brother asked somewhat skeptically. I tried to explain but quickly learned to let the actions of the Relief Society sisters speak for themselves. Bob’s skepticism soon passed into genuine gratitude and humility for being on the receiving side of service. Since Mom didn’t have to worry about cooking meals, she spent those hours tending to Dad’s every need.
All this time the bishop continued to offer help. Our stake president also took a personal interest in seeing to our needs. The continuous outpouring of love seemed to overwhelm my mother and the rest of the family. Sometimes my father’s humor would break the tension in the air at just the right moment. When told what the Mormons brought for dinner, he often lightly asked, “What did the Lutherans bring for dessert?”
The doctors told us Dad only had until the early or middle part of January. So we were all pleased when the first part of February went by and Dad was still able to walk into the clinic for checkups.
By mid-February we knew Dad’s time was short, but since he had outlived the doctors’ prognosis we couldn’t tell how much longer this would continue. Mom and I had become a close-knit nursing team, but it became increasingly difficult for me to maintain the house my roommates and I rented in Provo and continue to stay in the East. Then it seemed as if Mom’s whole world fell in after Christine went back home to Memphis. I was afraid to tell Mom I needed to leave too. Though hard for me to go, I tried to put Mom at ease, assuring her the ward was ready and willing to help.
The Relief Society sisters seemed almost hurt as Mom repeatedly declined their offers to help with the cleaning, mending, washing, driving, or anything else that needed to be done. But when Mom and I decided I should head back to Provo for college, she called Sister Knudsen, the Relief Society president, and asked for some help. The daily dinner deliveries blossomed into a house full of loving, caring women. They turned up in such numbers that Mom and Sister Knudsen organized a schedule for the sisters.
The visiting nurse from the county health department was impressed with the quality of care Dad received and said it exceeded anything offered in any hospital. Classes teaching basic skills of home health care were even set up to help the new sisters get involved.
After I left, Mrs. Paisley, a neighbor not of our faith, came by our home. She had noticed that each day someone would bring a bowl or plate of food into our house and return to their car empty-handed. So Mrs. Paisley came over to find out what was going on. Mom and Mrs. Paisley talked about Dad’s cancer and the outpouring of help that arrived from Church members. Mom explained that even though only one person in her family was a member of the ward, the volunteers embraced everyone in the family.
Mom had talked with many of the missionaries I had brought into the house, and she understood a good deal about the Church and its principles. One night she and Mrs. Paisley talked about the gospel for nearly three hours. Mrs. Paisley was touched and decided to take a closer look at these people who would give so freely and ask for nothing in return. When she was invited to Relief Society by some of the sisters who came each day tending to the needs of my family, she accepted. She was impressed by their sincerity and became excited to know more about these Latter-day Saints, so she started listening to the missionary discussions.
My father died in March, and his passing brought us great sorrow. But out of that sorrow came joy, too, because we came to love those who had served us so well. When I returned to attend my father’s funeral, I was delighted to find that Mrs. Paisley was now a member of the Church, beaming with the light and love of the gospel. She has since shared its message with her children and grandchildren.
My mother continues to share these experiences with her friends, and though she is not a member, she frequently tells of her love for the wonderful people who came into her home and heart.