Since my brother’s sudden passing at the end of March, which has left me feeling very much alone as the last surviving member of my little family in San Gabriel, California, I’ve been wallowing, from time to time, in nostalgia and reminiscence.
Today, on Mothers Day, I called up the tribute that I wrote for, and read very badly at, the funeral of my own mother, Berniece Olive Peterson, who died on 11 April 2005. I had not read it since then.
As a tribute to her — I don’t expect anybody else to read it, or to be interested — I’ve decided to reproduce it on my blog. I may well do the same thing at some point, perhaps on Fathers Day or on his birthday, for my Dad. It seemed to me right and appropriate, whether anybody pays any attention or not, to praise her publicly on this day, and to let it be known how much I still miss her.
Anyway, with my apologies, here it is:
My very earliest memories of my mother, I believe, are of traveling with her to serve others. She worked from early in the morning until she could work no longer, late at night, to serve not only her family but other families. She was fiercely devoted to her family. Not only to her own children and grandchildren, but to her brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. It was appropriate, at the end, and well deserved, that others should step forward to help her. And I thank Virginia, and Meli, and Tom, and Angelina, from the bottom of my heart, for their kindness to my mother when Debbie and I were simply too far away to be able to do any good. I also thank my brother Kenneth, on whom too much of the burden rested.
I could not have asked for better parents. I cannot count the times when doors opened for me, or trust was established, or compliments came raining down, simply because someone realized that I was “Carl and Berniece Peterson’s boy.”
When I was growing up, Mom was always looking for experiences that she could give to me. We visited Mount Palomar Observatory, the observatories and television broadcasting facilities on Mount Wilson, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the nuclear cargo vessel SS Savannah, Vandenberg Air Force Base. She insisted that I go to Hawaii with her and my dad, the first time they ever went. I was the only child in the group. Many years later, on their first Caribbean cruise, she took me along. She sent me to Mexico and, years before she herself was able to go, to Europe. She and Dad resupplied my Boy Scout troop at the midpoint of our fifteen-day backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevadas and were there to pick me up at the end. When, in my early teens, I decided that I wanted to learn how to have “class”—I’m not exactly sure what I meant by that—she saw to it that we went out to a string of nice restaurants for fine meals. The set of World Book encyclopedias that she bought many years ago, when money was tight, may well be responsible for making me into the academic bookworm that I am today. I read them constantly. Voraciously. Every single day. The swimming pool that she had installed in the backyard when I was five gave me a sport that I have loved ever since.
I cannot possibly repay, or even recount, the debt that I owe to my mother.
I also can’t begin to list the pranks and practical jokes she pulled and the stories she told. They were legion. Or the crafts she practiced and mastered. Or the things that she collected. She was always buying things that she thought were cute. Not only for herself, but, very often, in multiple copies, for others. I will never forget vacations at the desert and the beach. Even today, when we’re driving I-15 through the desert separating St. George from Los Angeles, I tell my wife and kids to put their hands over their hearts, just as Mom always jokingly had me do, when we pass the turn-off for the old camping site at Afton Canyon.
In the days immediately before and just after my father died, nearly two years ago, the words of a hymn that had never been among my favorites kept recurring to my mind:
Abide with me! fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me!
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou, who changest not, abide with me!
I was somehow not surprised to hear the melody of that hymn come through the hospital sound system while we watched my mother’s pulse dwindle, more quickly than we had expected, to the thirties, then to the twenties, and, finally, to zero.
More and more of the people who were fixtures in my life have been passing from the scene. Titanic public figures like Ronald Reagan. (I was in his presidential library when word came of his death.) The great recent Pope, who was elected, a vigorous and relatively young man, at about the same time Debbie and I were married. Hugh Nibley, who had such immense impact on my life’s work. My mission president, whose funeral was on Saturday. My parents’ dear friend and one of my favorites, Spencer Smith. My Uncle Clarence. My Uncle Jack. My father. And, now, finally, my mother. I’ve thought of the melancholy passage in Edward Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in which the poet, speaking of God, says that we are
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Checquer-board of Nights and Days
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
But, if the prophets are to be believed, this is not all there is to the story. Where are Mom, and Dad, and so many of their friends and members of their families? As the Book of Mormon prophet Alma said,
Now concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
And then shall it come to pass that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow. (Alma 40:11-12.)
But that, too, is not all of the story. In the vision of the redemption of the dead that was given to President Joseph F. Smith on 3 October 1918, he “saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great,” eagerly anticipating the day when “their sleeping dust” should “be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united, never again to be divided, that they might receive a fullness of joy.” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:11, 17.)
Looking forward to that still-future day, Alma testified that
The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. (Alma 40:23.)
What assurance do we have that this is true? We have the assurance that Jesus Christ himself has already pioneered the path for us. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians not many years after the Savior’s resurrection, reminded them of the multiple witnesses, mostly still living in his day, who could testify to what they had seen:
I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas [Peter], then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James, then of all the apostles. And last of all, he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:3-9.)
And we have modern testimony, as well. Here are Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, speaking of their spectacular vision of the three degrees of glory, received in the Peter Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio, on 16 February 1832:
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father. (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-23.)
My mother was not perfect. She could, for example, be very sharp. She was not always patient. And in her last years of almost constant pain, discomfort, frustration, and (I believe) depression, she was not always at her best. But these were not mortal sins, and surely, like the far more compromised woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and washed them with her hair, “Her sins . . . are forgiven; for she loved much.” (Luke 7:47.)
A few hours after Mom’s death on Monday afternoon, I had some quiet moments in her house to reflect. It was very emotional for me. The house is filled with hundreds of objects that had meaning for her, and that, through her, have meaning to me. Very few of them have much intrinsic value. Separated from the house and from the people (my parents) who gave them meaning—as many of them soon will be, in a yard sale or something of the sort—they are mostly just a clutter of knickknacks. I will inherit a few of them, but what I really want is my mother, and they are at best a fading shadow of her.
It is much the same with respect to her body. Without her personality animating it and giving it meaning, it has little value. We honor her by being here with her casket at her funeral, but she isn’t in it. Someday, however, she will take her body up again—for eternity.
Many years ago, in my early to mid-teens, I was sitting in a car out in the parking lot behind the old Rosemead Ward chapel at the corner of Mission and Walnut Grove. It was a bright Sunday afternoon following church meetings, and I was wondering—worrying, really—about whether there actually was life after death. Suddenly the thought struck me, very clearly and very much as if from outside myself, “Millions and millions of people have died, and it hasn’t hurt them.” I remember thinking immediately how very stupid that thought was, that it didn’t really answer my question. But as I pondered it later, it occurred to me that perhaps it actually did, and profoundly.
In my mother’s case, death has not hurt her. It has liberated her. For years, profoundly deaf, she has lived a life of increasing silence and isolation. As I walked through the house on Monday afternoon, I looked at the hospital bed that, set up near the kitchen table, represented almost her entire world—apart from unwelcome excursions for dialysis and other medical procedures—for the past three years or so. I went upstairs, and realized that she had not been there, so far as I know, for roughly that same length of time. Not even upstairs in her own home. Death has liberated her. She can move, more freely than ever she did here in mortality. She can see clearly. She can hear.
More than that, she is now—and the many hundreds of reports from those who have seen the spirit world all agree on this—in an environment of indescribable beauty, where the flowers are far more colorful and beautiful even than the roses she loved so much here. I hope and believe that she was greeted by her mother, by her brother Jack, and by others she had loved and lost. Among them, of course, would be my Dad. Their last several years were almost unbearably difficult as they sat together, yet apart—he blind, she deaf, both immobilized and incapacitated. Their frailty and disabilities are now behind them forever, “and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17.)
For the past seven years, or thereabouts, since my father’s stroke and the beginning of my mother’s long decline, I have called home every single evening. Almost without fail, unless I was out of North America. And sometimes even then. That comes to roughly twenty-five hundred telephone calls. (I didn’t know what else I could do.) For the last couple of years, because of Mom’s deafness and the mini-strokes she had suffered, those calls stuck pretty strictly to a very limited script. But she would always say “It’s enough just to hear your voice.” Now, frankly, I’m lost. Every evening, I’ve wanted to call, but there’s nobody left to call. It would be enough just to hear her voice.
On Monday night, as I lay awake, unable to sleep, I found some of the words of an old Mormon hymn going through my mind. They speak of another Mother and Father, but, on Monday night, they seemed to apply very much to my own earthly parents, now gone:
In the heavens are parents single?
No; the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal
tells me I’ve a mother there.
When I leave this frail existence,
when I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
in your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
all you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
let me come and dwell with you.
As the years go by more and more swiftly, I realize that it will not be all that long until, for me too,
the night is gone
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
In the meantime, I will miss Mom and Dad every day of my life. I will never stop loving them.