Gratitude for Friends, Especially Right Now

I’ve been genuinely moved by the many condolences I’ve received on the death of my brother, Kenneth Walters.  I’m very grateful for them.

I want to express my heartfelt thanks to all who have offered their sympathy.  (I may or may not get a chance to thank each person individually; with, among other things, a lecture on the east coast on Monday evening and my brother’s funeral in California later in the week, I’m a bit overwhelmed.  And, candidly, I’m also slightly dysfunctional right now.)

Some have related remarkable spiritual experiences that have been deeply comforting.  I wish I could share one or two of those, but I don’t believe that I have the right to do so.

It’s painfully clear from many of the notes and comments that I’ve received — and, of course, I already knew it — that everybody has been touched by death.  (If anybody out there hasn’t been, obviously, he or she will be.)

An early Buddhist story poignantly illustrates this:

A mother whose little boy had died came to the Buddha, filled with despair.  Aware of his great knowledge and sanctity, she begged him to perform a miracle that would restore her son to life.  In answer, the Buddha told her to go about the town collecting mustard seeds.  But, he added, she was to do so only from houses in which nobody had ever died.

Hopeful, she set about her task.  Unfortunately though, in house after house, she found only disappointment — because, at some time in the past, each house had seen a death.

Finally, she returned to the Buddha.  She had no mustard seeds.  But she now understood that death was universal, and inescapable.  And, though still sorrowing over the death of her little boy, she had come to accept it.

I’ve been thinking about friends.  I include my brother among them:  He was a very good friend all of my life, since the time of my earliest memories, and, although I know that time will dull this wound as it has dulled all others, right now the thought of going through the rest of my life without his consistent love and support seems a very bleak and desolate one.  Oddly, at my age, I feel truly orphaned.  My parents and my only sibling are gone.  I never knew my grandfathers and scarcely knew my grandmothers.  Nobody remains now from that little house in San Gabriel, California, where my brother and I were raised, and, in fact, even the house itself was demolished a couple of years ago.

Edward Fitzgerald’s melancholy and fatalistic rendition of Omar Khayyam comes to mind:

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest. . . .

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumin’d Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

But I’m not thinking only of my brother or others of my immediate family.  I’m thinking of others who have passed on.  Many of the people who have had the most impact upon me (aunts, uncles, good friends, neighbors, Scout leaders, teachers, Church leaders, beloved role models and mentors at BYU, graduate school professors, even writers and actors and musicians and political leaders whom I admired from a distance) are gone now.  I can still hear their voices; I can still see them in my mind.  But they’re gone.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Still, I think that this is one of the things that will make death easier, and that makes it much easier for the elderly:  When most of those you have loved are on the other side, joining them is a far less fearful and threatening thing.  It can be, in fact, and often is, a joy.

I’m also thinking, though, of living friends, and of the comfort and happiness they offer.  Again, I’m grateful to those who have been supportive to me at this time.

“Thou shalt live together in love,” says the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 42:45, “insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.”

But then, in the very next verse, comes this wonderful promise:   “And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.”
Ultimately, it’s my faith that the gloom and fatalism of Fitzgerald/Khayyam, and even the sadness of that early Buddhist story, mislead and are false.
“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren,” wrote the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.”

In the meantime — in this mean time — my mind has gone back repeatedly to some hymn lyrics by Karen Lynn Davidson, as set to music by A. Laurence Lyon.  (Coincidentally, I mentioned another favorite Karen Lynn Davidson hymn here just a few days ago.)

Each life that touches ours for good
Reflects thine own great mercy, Lord;
Thou sendest blessings from above
Thru words and deeds of those who love.
What greater gift dost thou bestow,
What greater goodness can we know
Than Christlike friends, whose gentle ways
Strengthen our faith, enrich our days.
When such a friend from us departs,
We hold forever in our hearts
A sweet and hallowed memory,
Bringing us nearer, Lord, to thee.

For worthy friends whose lives proclaim
Devotion to the Savior’s name,
Who bless our days with peace and love,
We praise thy goodness, Lord, above.

Decades ago, I read an article about the Hill Cumorah Pageant in one of the Church magazines.  I remember nothing about it except a single line, in which one of the participants in the pageant spoke about the sadness when the cast and crew parted to go their separate ways after so many hours and days of working very closely together:

“Friends in the Gospel,” he or she said, “never meet for the last time.”

I’ve treasured that statement, and believed it, for many, many years now.  I believe it still.  Through the pain and the desolation that I’m feeling now — which, somewhat to my surprise, are far worse than even at the loss of my parents — I believe it.

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