“Si Peterson: A Typical, but Unique Latter-day Saint,” Tambuli, Feb.–Mar. 1986, 23
Frank Siedel (Si) Peterson of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is a typical young Latter-day Saint.
He studies; goes to institute of religion classes; attends his church meetings; does his home teaching; and goes to ball games, concerts, and movies. He is six-foot three-inches tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed, slender, and modest. He is even the coach of the ward softball team. How much more typical can you get?
But although Si may be typical, no one would ever accuse him of being average. He is an acknowledged superstar in the difficult field of lifting spirits and touching hearts. His talent is relating to people, and he does not hide his talent.
“Si definitely has an exceptional effect on people,” says Russ Brailey. “He’s also a most reliable home teaching companion. Mind you, I had to get accustomed to having his mother go with us.”
“Right. I know what Russ means,” states Glen Hudson, captain of the men’s softball team. “When Si first became our coach, it seemed strange to always have his mother there.”
Si is not tied to his mother, but somebody, usually his mother, Anita Begieneman, always accompanies him because he has been almost totally paralyzed since March 1,1975, when he fell from a gymnastics high bar. He can only see, hear, think, mouth words, and smile.
Prior to his accident, Si had been a fairly typical Latter-day Saint teenager. Almost 17, the oldest of six children, he loved all sports; didn’t mind school too much; played the piano; and teased his brothers, his sisters, and his mother. His one big goal was to go on a mission as soon as he turned 19.
In one instant Si went from full healthy activity to total paralysis. He lost all movement. He could not breathe, speak, or eat. He was on a life-supporting respirator 24 hours a day.
Usually when people are suddenly handicapped they experience denial, anger, resentment, and even bitterness before they finally accept their condition. Si’s medical team was amazed because he did not experience anger, depression, or a sense of hopelessness and panic.
He did get pneumonia, however, and his mother called Si’s former bishop and good friend, Robert S. Patterson, to give Si a blessing. Brother Patterson said, “Your accident has a definite and important purpose. You are to become an instrument in Heavenly Father’s hand to help bring many people who do not presently believe in God to a knowledge of him. This is to be your mission. You agreed to it before you came to the earth, and if you fulfill it well, you will thank your Heavenly Father for it every day throughout eternity.”
Si’s mother also received a witness of the Lord’s love. Si remembers, “Mom asked me what I would do if I could never again walk, talk, play the piano, or participate in sports. It was something that I had thought about a lot. I said, ‘It’s okay, Mom, I did those things the best I could when I could do them, and now I’ll learn to do something else.’
“She told me that the day after my accident she had gone down to my room, sat on the bed, and cried, ‘Heavenly Father, why? Why did this happen to my son?’ In answer, thoughts flooded into her mind. She realized that it was the Holy Ghost, so she grabbed a pencil and paper off my desk and recorded what came to her: ‘This life is a training ground for godhood. How we meet the trials that come and how we let them affect our lives are very important. We must see them as instruments of growth. All things can be for our good if we but let them. This life is the time to prepare to live again with our Heavenly Father, to grow in spirit and character and strength to meet the challenges and tremendous responsibilities of the celestial kingdom. This time of Si’s life will be exciting and challenging as new experiences come to him. None of the talents he has developed will be lost. They are just temporarily set aside while he develops others.’”
As the months passed, Si learned that he did not have to live a passive life simply because he could not move. There was still much he could give. He even learned that one way of giving was to accept help from others with love and gratitude. And he has received from many, many people.
To mention a few: His mother visits his hospital room each day and spends many hours with him. Other family members also show their love and support. Doctors and nurses at the hospital provide constant care. The Primary children of his stake raised $2,000 to buy a hydraulic lift to raise his wheelchair into his van. The Edmonton Singles Ward produced a musical comedy, and his four talented stepsisters presented a musical program to raise funds for a personal computer.
Brother Bob Layton, a news reporter for a local radio station, produced a two-part documentary on Si. It is the station’s policy to never play a documentary more than once, but the listener response to the Si Peterson story was so overwhelming, that they had to repeat it many times. Eventually the soundtrack from the documentary was combined with a series of photographic slides to form a sight and sound presentation. Brother Layton has, on request, taken this presentation to firesides, schools, and community organizations many times. The letters of response, many from school children, are evidence that Si has truly been an instrument of bringing people to God. One girl wrote, “Your faith and your acceptance of your accident help me to believe too.”
Some gifts Si has received were not altogether welcome at first. One day in 1977 a young man named Duane Simpson walked into Si’s hospital room, turned off the television set, and demanded, “What are you doing with your life, Si? Why are you wasting your time watching television? There’s nothing wrong with your brain—Why aren’t you using it?”
Si was amazed. His mother was very angry. But Duane continued, “Si, I’m here to help you any way I can.” He explained that he had been assigned to Si as a tutor.
Beginning then, Si’s life changed dramatically. “I guess I needed Duane to help me change my attitude. I wasn’t doing anything because I never really thought there was anything I could do.”
Since then Si has worked toward completing his high school education. He now aims to enroll in a university and obtain a degree in social work.
How does someone in his condition study? He listens to cassette tapes and his tutor. The tutor then reads him the questions. Si gives the answers “orally”. But because Si cannot make any sounds, his tutor has to read his lips, write down the answers, and send them to the correspondence school to be graded. It is a slow, tedious way to study, but Si jokes, “I’m getting better marks than I ever did before.”
While Si has learned to receive graciously, he has also learned to give unselfishly. He has counseled with many depressed and troubled people who are struggling to face their own handicaps and difficulties, and all have gone away lifted in spirit.
His deep empathy for the feelings and problems of others has also helped him reach out and bring people into the Church or back into activity.
One of them, a nurse in the hospital where Si lives remembers, “I first heard about the Church during my 3 A.M. discussions with Si. He gave definition to many basic feelings I’d had all my life. Then he asked me if I’d be willing to listen to the missionaries, and I did. I was baptized in August 1983.”
David McTavish is another of the many whose lives Si has touched. “Coming back from inactivity, at first I felt uncomfortable with Si. But the example of his acceptance of the Church and his faith, plus my many discussions with him, have helped me to handle the obstacles between me and the Church. He has also given me a freedom not to be afraid of the kind of person I am.”
Mrs. G. Von Busse, a tall, blonde grandmother, is Si’s physiotherapist and good friend. “I have watched Si grow from a teenager to the very fine young man he is today. With Si I have a friend. Nobody really knows me at the hospital but Si. We talk about everything—my youth, music, finances, politics, my family—everything. And when I go to Germany to visit my family there, they ask, ‘How is Si?’ And when I come back, Si has my favorite record playing. He is a very good person, highly intelligent and healthy—only that he is paralyzed, that’s all.”
If you were to stop by Si’s room unannounced, you would probably find him working on his computer or with his earphones on, listening to one of his many cassette tapes: the standard works (he’s listened to them all at least four times), conference talks, recorded books, school lessons, or music ranging from the Tabernacle Choir to classics to popular.
Si’s independence was greatly increased by the electronic control unit which the Alberta Rehabilitation Council installed for him in 1978. By touching the control lever with his lower lip, he can turn on or off everything that is connected to the system. He can even call a nurse with it. Now he has a modified personal computer that can be merged with the unit and allows him, for the first time in ten years, to write his own messages. “This opens up lots of things that have been closed to me,” he says. “I can use it to work on my education. Then I’ll write a book about my life. Also, after more training, maybe I’ll compose some music.”
Undoubtably much of Si’s strength comes from the gospel. He has been an elder since November, 1977. And on June 22, 1982, he traveled more than 300 miles to the Alberta Temple to receive his endowments. Temple President Vi A. Wood, who years before had given Si his patriarchal blessing, helped him through the endowment session.
Si calmly accepts his paralysis, but it is not easy to live as he does. Aside from the obvious discomforts and limitations, he also endures the side effects of it all. For example, because he is constantly on the respirator, his blood gasses get out of balance, causing him severe hallucinations. He has had many, many near-fatal moments when his respirator has failed. He has suffered cardiac arrest, pneumonia again and again, kidney stones, stomach ulcers, and strokes. But his faith in his Heavenly Father is unshaken.
So is his sense of humor. There is usually a smile on Si’s face, and he loves a good practical joke. When his mother went to the hospital once for her daily visit, she was in for a shock. Two hospital orderlies with very serious faces were sitting near Si’s room, and his door was closed. She opened the door and went in.
Si’s room was darkened, and he was covered with a white sheet. Anita’s heart faltered. She walked over and pulled back the sheet. Si was laughing! Then the orderlies came in, and they were laughing too.
Si is an inspiration to his whole family. His youngest sister, Barbie, reflects, “I was only five years old when the accident happened, so to me having Si like this is just a part of our way of life. It’s not a burden for us. I guess it would be if Si made a big fuss about it, but he doesn’t, so neither do I. Sometimes I wish I could make him better, but then I think no, because he’s blessed so many people’s lives. I do hope that sometime he’ll be well again. He’s really a great guy.”
Si’s father, Dr. Frank Peterson, concludes, “It’s unfortunate that he’s immobilized, but everything else about this has been positive. I’m proud of him.”
Si has a firm testimony, and he bears it frequently. His mother reads his lips and then gives voice to his feelings to the accompaniment of the rhythmic hum of his respirator.
“One of the main purposes of this earth life is to be tried, to prove ourselves worthy to return to our Heavenly Father, and so trials that come to us are an important part of our lives. Every one of us will be tried in one way or another. The important thing is how we accept our trials and grow from them. They can be stumbling blocks or stepping stones.
“I am grateful for my membership in the true and living Church, and I am grateful for the priesthood that I hold. I am grateful for my family who loves and supports me, and for the many others who help me so much. I know that my Heavenly Father lives and that he hears and answers my prayers. I am grateful for my Savior, Jesus Christ, and for his sacrifice for me. I know that my accident had a special purpose in my Heavenly Father’s plan for me.
“I feel fortunate that the trial I have been given is so obvious that I receive a lot of encouragement and help from many people. Your trials may be just as difficult as mine, but perhaps not as obvious, and so I pray that you will be able to accept them and have the strength to endure and grow from them.”
This thought is typical of Si Peterson. Trapped inside the prison of his own motionless body, with every possible excuse to turn his thoughts bitterly inward, his mind reaches out to others in prayer and service. Even lying flat on his back, he is a giant. Si Peterson—a typical young Latter-day Saint and a unique human being.