Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Just as the Sun by Jesse E. Stay

Just as the Sun

Just as the sun
Which blesses us
During the day
With light and warmth--

And in the evening
Drops below the horizon
Leaving us
In the chill dark of night--

Is not extinguished!

But shines still
On distant shores
Blessing with its radiance
Other Souls
Beyond our view

So this dear one
Who warmed our hearts
And lighted our lives
Through the day--

Now gone
Beyond the limited horizon
Of our mortal view.

Leaving us
In dark sorrow
And chill loneliness--

Is not dead!

But sheds warmth and light
On dear souls gone before
--Jesse E. Stay

I know I've used this poem before, but I thought it would be appropriate to post it again today, as it tells, in his own words, what Grandpa believed about where he has now gone. I also believe it, and find comfort in knowing that he is well taken care of.

So Grandpa died this morning at 7:13 am. My uncle Larry says it was very peaceful, one minute he was here, and the next he was gone. His wife and most of his children were there with him, and expressions of love have been pouring in from the grandchildren, several of whom are coming to town for the funeral.

We've known this was coming for several days, and strange as it sounds, I can't bring myself to be especially sad. I'm sad for Grandma, of course, she'll miss him terribly, I'm sure. I'm sad for my extended family -- it's hard when somebody who's loved as much as Grandpa Jesse leaves us. But I'm not sad for him.

Grandpa was a great man, and a good man, which are not the same thing. Nobody has any doubt about where he has gone -- as a stake president, Regional Representative, Mission President, Counsellor in a Temple Presidency, Stake Patriarch, Temple Sealer, etc, etc, etc, he was obviously living a life the Lord approved of, and the words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" were never more appropriate.

I grew up in Michigan and Ohio, thousands of miles from where Grandpa was living in Utah or California. I only saw him every couple of years when we'd drive out on vacation, and then, as often as not, we'd be part of a reunion with a family that was getting closer and closer to the 50 grandkids mark, so I really didn't get a lot of one on one time with him.

I do remember a few things about him from when I was little. Unlike Grandma, who would cheat to let the grandchildren win a board game, Grandpa had a reputation for being cutthroat in a game of Clue or Dominoes. He also loved to go to the beach and fight the big waves (and provide a big anchor for little ones who wanted to do the same), then come back to shore and build a fabulous sandcastle.

A few years ago, in the fall of 2002, I was privileged to live with them for almost a year while I got settled in California. I had lost my teaching job after the budget cuts brought on by the financial bubble bursting after 9-11, and found myself single and unemployed in Cleveland. I looked at my life and thought, "What are you doing here?" Grandma and Grandpa kindly offered to let me live with them and attend the fabulous Pierside Singles Ward that Grandpa had been the High Counsel Representative for for years. I know I'm not the only one who benefited from people recognizing the Stay name, and asking if I'm related to the famous Jesse, but I was certainly thankful for the phenomenon.

When I moved in, I found that both Grandma and grandpa had more personality than I had ever noticed before. I've written about Grandma before, so now I'll tell a few things about Grandpa.

Whenever somebody came to visit, Grandpa would never let anyone else do the dishes, because, he said, nobody else knew the right place to put them in the dishwasher (Grandma had a similar line about the sheets). I think that this was an excuse he cooked up so that he could win the only fight I ever saw him have with anybody -- who can be the nicest and perform the most service. He and Grandma would compete over who could make dinner for the other, or clear the table, or get out the ice cream or things like that.

At dinner, Grandpa would often offer me some tomato or avocado to go with my salad or whatever. He had tomato plants that he lovingly tended, then harvested and feasted on, then cooked down and preserved in the freezer to make tomato soup and gazpacho for the rest of the year (One of my uncles bought him a nifty tool that took the stewed tomato and spat the skin and seeds out one end and the pulp out the other, and Grandpa thought it was the neatest thing in the world). Anyway, he'd offer me tomatoes and avocado every time they were on the table, even though I had told him in no uncertain terms that I was not a fan of either, thank you very much, and they'd simply be wasted on me. The first couple of times, he may have simply forgotten, but later, he said it with such a twinkle in his eye that I knew it was his kind of private joke. I don't remember him telling many jokes, but he had a real sense of humor that would peek out in many little ways, and show me where my Dad and uncles got their love of puns from.

He loved to sit in his chair in the corner, and gaze up at the model airplanes another son gave him, representing the planes he flew in WWII and later. He often spoke of the joy of flying, feeling the airplane respond to the stick in his hand. He didn't often speak of his time in the war -- and didn't watch the PBS miniseries about it, but he did talk about flying, and regretted being too old to do it anymore (people offered to give him rides in old WWII aircraft, but he said that unless he was actually piloting the plane, he'd just get airsick).

I was never in a house that had so many clocks in it. Every room in the house had at least one or two. He was especially fond of his cuckoo clock and the grandfather clock in the front room. The cuckoo clock played Laura's Theme from Dr Zhivago, and Edelweiss. Whenever young grandchildren would come to visit, he obligingly made the cuckoo come out and the people dance, even though it meant that he'd have to reset the clock to get it synchronized again. He got them pretty well adjusted so that the grandfather clock would gain 30 seconds a week, which was exactly the amount of time it had to be stopped when Grandpa wound it. In the past few weeks, I knew something was really wrong when the clocks wound down and he didn't wind them up again.

He and Grandma also loved to do crossword puzzles. Their paper had three puzzles a day, the New York Times, their own daily puzzle, and a little one they got syndicated from somewhere. Grandma and Grandpa would switch off who got what puzzles based on the day of the week. Only after the owner of the puzzle got stumped, could the other person help out or finish the puzzle. They would often ask me questions that they got stuck on, and I could often come up with the answers, so they thought I was some kind of crossword genius. Of course, the questions they couldn't get were often related to computers and current entertainment, which were topics I kept myself informed about, so I kind of had an advantage there. I was often stymied about questions on operas or actors from old movies that they had no problem getting.

Speaking of computers and technology, that's another place where I often helped Grandpa out. I have been very impressed with the way Grandpa has kept up with new technology and tried to use it in his life. He and Grandma did a lot more with computers and the internet than many people their age (and younger). There were still a lot of things that confused him though, and I was glad to be on hand to help out. I showed him how to use the Satellite TV system, writing directions for how to turn everything on and which remote control to use. I made his cell phone play the loudest noise in the lowest register so he could hear it ring -- though almost every week I'd have to show him how to make it switch back from vibrate because he couldn't figure out what to do after he silenced it in church.

I also helped him make the switch to a new computer and get DSL internet. One funny error he got quite frequently happened when he'd be typing up Patriarchal Blessings. Somehow, he'd hit Ctrl-N instead of Shift-N, and Word Perfect would pop up a new document in front of the one he'd been working on. This made him think that he'd lost all his work, and frustrated him to no end. It took a while for him to understand that the old document was still there in hiding, and find a way to bring it up again.

I struggled with depression while I was there, and went on lots of dates that didn't turn into lasting relationships, so I'd often come home feeling sad. Grandpa didn't really understand the depression-as-a-disease theory, but he did his best to provide encouragement and counsel from the scriptures. Even though it didn't solve my immediate problem (and nothing Grandpa could have done would have), it was comforting to know that he loved me, and that he knew that the Lord loved me, and that they both wanted me to be happy and have joy.

It was also to see how he tried to keep himself in shape physically and mentally. He'd ride his bike down to the beach, or for a couple of miles around the streets of Huntington Beach. He and Grandma also went on walks together when it cooled off in the evening, enjoying the fresh air and flowers and feeling the blood pumping through their veins. Along with the crossword puzzles, he and Grandma also watched Telenovelas on Telemundo to keep up their Spanish (With the closed captioning, I could even understand most of what was going on--not that there was much originality in the plots).

I think it's that, most of all, that makes me not too sad about his passing. In the past several months, I've had a painful jolt each time I noticed that he or Grandma has given up something else they used to love. The Crosswords are too hard, His balance went, so he had to give up his bike, and then even walking very far (though he stuck it out with a cane for a long time -- he had two that he liked -- one made my dad, with lots of fancy carving, and one made by an ancestor while in jail for polygamy, with a nice curve, and a tiny face on the end of the handle). He got lost while driving and couldn't find his way home, so I helped him buy and set up a GPS navigation system for his car, but soon, he couldn't even remember the three clicks to tell it he wanted to go home. It's very sad that Grandpa had to die, but really, he hasn't been living the life he enjoyed for several months now.

I also have the comfort of knowing that I did spend time with them and help them while I was able. I lived with them for one year, and I've been going down to visit them weekly for at least the past year. When Grandma got very sick, they decided they needed someone to take care of the finances and make sure the bills got paid. I set up autopay for most of the bills, wrote checks for the others, and made sure the bank statements balanced each month. This gave me an excuse to go visit them on a regular basis, without having to justify to them each time that they weren't being a burden or a bother (something both Grandma and Grandpa have a notorious horror of). I've been very grateful for this opportunity, and I'm even more grateful now that I don't have to say, "if only I'd visited him more when I had the chance."

I'm also thankful that he got to meet Elizabeth. He loved her, and loved to see her when I brought her over. He'd smile and wave and make googly noises, and Elizabeth would give one of her patented heart melting grins, and it really seemed to make both of them happy. When he was in the hospital about a month ago, he called, wanting something from home, just as I was about to leave his house. I convinced Grandma that I could take it over to the hospital on my way home, and stayed for a few minutes to visit him. It was touching to see how excited he was to see me, and how proud he was to have his great granddaughter come to see him as well -- he introduced her to three separate nurses. When I saw him for the last time on Friday, I came into the house, and he was lying in bed, drifting in and out of sleep. I lifted Elizabeth up and had her wave, "Hi Grandpa," and he woke up enough to smile, wave back and say something like, "Hi sweet thing," before drifting back to sleep. Grandma said, "That's the most alive he's seemed all day."

I'm gonna miss my Grandpa, his jokes, his solicitousness, his loving kindness, his testimony and love and devotion to the gospel and the church. Often when I'd say goodbye and see 'ya later, he'd say, "Mi casa, su casa." I know that he really meant it, and I only hope that I can follow his example well enough to make my home as welcoming as his home was.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Little Girl Needs Daddy by Author Unknown

A Little Girl Needs Daddy

A little girl needs Daddy
For many, many things:
Like holding her high off the ground
Where the sunlight sings!
Like being the deep music
That tells her all is right
When she awakens frantic with
The terrors of the night.

Like being the great mountain
That rises in her heart
And shows her how she might get home
When all else falls apart.

Like giving her the love
That is her sea and air,
So diving deep or soaring high
She'll always find him there.
--Author Unknown

I don't remember whether I've shared this with all of you, but I couldn't find it anywhere in my blog, so I thought it would be appropriate to write it up and post it this Father's Day.

A few years ago, I saw a representation of Jesus wearing a white robe in heaven. As I looked at the image with the eye of a costumer, I was dissatisfied. The symbolism of Jesus in heaven wearing white was fine, but the cut of the thing was all wrong. The shoulders were set in funny so His arms looked like they were coming out of the front of His collarbone. The wide, bell shaped sleeves didn't come all the way down to His wrists, so it looked like the thing was simultaneously too big and too small for Him.

I realized at the time, that fashion was hardly the point of the thing, but still, I got to wondering what I would rather see Him wearing. Sure, there's another variation of the white robe, possibly accented by some sort of colored cloth over the shoulder -- you know, the sort of thing you see Him wearing in all the pictures we see every day. But could I imagine Jesus wearing blue jeans? How about swim trunks? An old beat up sheepskin jacket? Hiking boots? A three piece suit and tie? It sounds silly, and you might be sitting there shaking your head, thinking, "No, of course not." But I realized, Yes, I could.

You see, I've seen my Dad, one of the most Christlike people I know, wearing all these clothes. If Jesus was here, wearing his white robe, it would get all stained and torn when he crawled under a car on a winter night to lie on the freezing pavement and fix it so that somebody could have a way to get to work in the morning and feed their family. It would get caught on bushes and get in the way of running if Jesus were to wear the white robe to Scout Camp (it's also totally inappropriate garb for the make-your-own-boat race). It would never do to wear something like that while playing in the waves and sand at the beach in California, or to play a pickup game of football at a family picnic. These days, it would look out of place to wear to the office or out onto the factory floor, but those are places you need to go if you're going to feed a family.

If Jesus was here, He might be able to wave his hand and make all the cars fix themselves, and multiply loaves and fishes so nobody would have to work for food again, but I don't think He would. I also don't think He'd pass up the opportunity to play games, enjoy nature, or be a mentor to boys (or girls) who really need somebody to look up to.

I owe a lot to my Dad. He taught me about Jesus by reading the scriptures, and by telling and acting out the stories, but he taught me more by living a good life, and trying to be kind. I'm sure (because I've spent time with Grandpa Jesse) that Daddy must have learned a lot from his father, and I owe him a gigantic debt of gratitude as well. I know that Grandpa Roly gave his all to his family and his church callings, and my life has been blessed both by observing his example and by having such a great mom (his daughter). My husband Peter is kind and forgiving, and though he may not always be paying attention and noticing things (I love you ^_^), he does see when I really need help, and supports me when I'm sad. He's shaping up to be a great Daddy for Elizabeth, and I'm excited to see that relationship grow.

Let's all tell our fathers how much they mean to us this Father's day. We're being reminded this week, with Grandpa Jesse at death's door that they won't be with us forever here on earth. But we know, through the blessings of the Temple, that we can be together forever -- and I'm so glad for that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Little Bird by Rebecca Lautenbacher

The Little Bird

His wing was wrong, flipped backwards,
His beak was bent and half torn.
And the pedestal he perched upon,
Was wrinkled, creased and worn.

My mother took care as she lifted,
That hideous sight to observe,
And placed up high on our mantle,
My first little paper bird.

There, with my childhood trinkets,
Sat proudly, a wrinkled white dove,
There too, with my makings and memories,
Was my Mother's encouraging love.
--Rebecca Lautenbacher

As a special bonus for my 200th blog post, I give you this poem today as introduction to my Pay it Forward challenge. I kind of like blog games, and this one is more productive than most. Here are the rules:
  1. Leave a comment on my blog that says you want to play. The first three people to comment (and more if you're nice) will get a gift from me. (Make sure I know how to get it to you -- send me your address if I don't know it already)
  2. Do the same thing on your blog. The first three folks who leave a comment and commit to doing this on their blog too, will get a surprise from YOU.
I know people who've offered knitted or baked goods, and I like the idea that it ought to be something handmade. I am offering Origami. Tell me in your comments what you'd like, and I'll make it for you. Pretty much any animal or bird is safe, as are plants and boats. I like to do big modular pieces as well. If you find directions on the internet, I can generally do things that are easy to moderate -- there's some pretty complicated hard and expert stuff out there that I'm just not up to. If you want ideas, look at the pictures below. I'll also post a list on my other website so you know what I have directions for.

As I was looking for a poem about origami, I stumbled across a book called Fold Me a Poem. Though this poem isn't from that book, I really liked the following quote by the author:
I was also struck by the similarity between poetry and origami — how a few spare words, carefully chosen, can bring a scene to life, and how a few small folds, artfully made, can bring a sheet of paper to life.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

laid off by Richard Vargas

laid off

they hold their heads high
say they saw it coming
(they did) and knew
how to take it in stride
(they didn't)
all week whispered conversations
about unemployment benefits
and maybe going back to school
then the planning out loud for all to hear
about meeting at a local bar Friday after work
to get blasted and let it all hang out

if you were one of the lucky ones
you'll pass because after the 3rd round
weird looks will begin to come your way
the comic book bubbles over their
heads where you can read their thoughts
will say the same thing:
"why not him?"

then you'll blink an eye and see it
reflected back at you in their faces
the shotgun someone will clean tomorrow
and come Monday you're sitting at your
desk taking a phone call
whipping around to see what made
the loud metallic click behind you

you'll blink again
now you're back in the bar
Hank Williams is on the jukebox
they're all lifting their glasses
in your direction

you read someone's lips
as he/she says:
"watch out man,
you could be next."
--Richard Vargas

I found this poem in the Writer's Almanac archive. It really captures the feeling of dislocation we had after the news, and many of the specific events (Peter even ended up at a bar with his laid off friends that night -- though he wasn't drinking).

Okay, so now we're on to the really big, scary, exciting, daunting news about Peter's job. On Tuesday morning I was just sitting down to write a tribute to Traci and cry a lot when Peter called and said something like, "I thought I ought to tell you -- They laid off thirty nine people this morning -- including me." He said it was effective immediately and that he'd be coming home as soon as he cleaned out his desk.

Hanging up the phone, I was kind of in shock. I wrote that paragraph I posted yesterday and couldn't think of anything else to say. I figured I had about an hour and a half before Peter got home (ha ha -- they all ended up going over to the IHOP to decompress, so I had to be alone a LOT longer), so I thought I'd just call Mom. Well, she was in the middle of travelling home from Texas (visiting Heather and her new baby) and couldn't answer the phone on the plane. I ended up talking to Heather and Daddy (who kindly, but prematurely offered us a place to stay) but those phone calls lasted about ten minutes each, and I needed a LOT more than that.

After puttering around the house for a bit -- I ate something, I might have taken a shower, I probably fed the baby -- I saw that it was long past when Peter ought to have been home, so I walked over to a friend's house just to be with someone. Peter's mom, Kathey, called while I was walking, and sounded even more upset than I was, and I began to realize I was handling the news pretty well.

I've never really trusted TOKYOPOP as an employer. They strung Peter along as a 39 1/2 hour a week part time employee for far too long. On top of that, there were several incidents where people were fired seemingly at random -- because the company had a bad quarter and they needed to even up the profit and loss sheet by hiring somebody with less experience who would not need as big of a salary. The turnover in editorial also seemed unnaturally high. This really worried me a couple of years ago, especially after I quit my job and got pregnant. I finally decided that I had to accept the fact that one day Peter would go to work, and with no warning find out that he didn't have a job anymore (and that's exactly what happened). I know that if we need the money, I can go to a temp agency and get a job any day of the week because of my experience and skills. I also have old employers who would be happy to take me back. It wasn't an ideal plan, but it let me sit back and enjoy riding the TOKYOPOP train as long as it lasted.

Peter had also expressed some dissatisfaction lately. He was having trouble with office politics and the fact that he wanted the books he edited to be much higher quality than the company was willing to give him resources for, and since his vision of what he could let slide was never exactly the same as the people in charge, he found himself fighting the powers that be over changes in almost every single book. On the other hand, he loved working in publishing, he loved working with manga, and the idea of actually finding another job was daunting to say the least. So anyway, with his morale so low, we had been praying in the last few weeks for Peter's job situation to improve. Tuesday morning I wondered whether this was a case of "be careful what you wish for."

When Peter did finally get home I began to realize the magnitude of the layoff. Previous firings had been of five or ten people at a time. With 39 people being let go out of about 100 total, that's nearly half of the workforce. It's crazy! Peter got online and started reading reactions and posting in some forums and I, looking over his shoulder, saw just how shoddy their treatment of the employees was. Here's a sample:
Comments from somebody's blog
dude looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 9:06 am
Hey guys, love reading your opinions and thoughts on this. I was one of the 40 they tossed. And yes, their PR machine did a fantastic job with the press release. Right after which they also laid off their PR person (of 4 years)… Think of it like this, a sinking ship, the small rats got thrown overboard by the bigger rats who are clinging on to the debris trying to survive.

gia Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 9:14 am
@dude: Tough luck! Having been one of the small rats before, I can commiserate. How much notice did they give you?

also looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 11:14 am
They didn’t give us any notice at all. I was told to go the one of the conference rooms the moment I stepped out of the elevator yesterday morning, and that’s when I found out.

dude looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 4:49 pm
yes, there was no notice. they actually smiled, played nice, and acted as if everything was normal the day before. The graphic design team didn’t even get a chance to get samples of their work for their portfolios (before everyone was locked out of their computers).

another chick who's looking for work Says:
June 4th, 2008 at 5:53 pm
I’m another of those let go by TP. We literally got to work the morning of and were told that we had a meeting in a conference room where we were quickly told we had been laid off so they could move on to the next unsuspecting employee standing outside of the room, confused. Then, we had a few minutes to clean out our desks (but they had the servers, etc. shut down so we couldn’t retrieve computer data) and they handed us a folder and sent us out. We couldn’t even access e-mail, etc. I left an iPod charger and a mug in my stunned shock, but one of our unemployed peers reports that he was treated with almost stunning disrespect when he returned for something he left. Good riddance, I suppose.

And from another blog
I was one of the 39 laid off, to say the least, it was one of the most unprofessional and downright humiliating things I have ever seen a corporation do in my lifetime. Tokyopop has no sense of professional responsibility, fiscal responsibility, or ethics whatsoever. They gave no warning and no support to any of the employees laid off, just a goodbye and good luck, and in some cases after years of dedicated service. Totally unprofessional, knowing the way the company is run I can only imagine that they won't be around for much longer, too bad for all their fans who hold them in such high esteem. Even worse for all of us who had hoped they had more compassion for their employees than they showed us yesterday.
As for why it happened, here is the press release, and here is another blog with some excellent analysis. Essentially, there are three main reasons it happened.

  1. There's just too much manga out there. There isn't enough space on the shelves for all the books that are being published, and with the economy slowing down, kids have less money to spend on manga, so if they're buying one book, they're not buying another. In this respect, cutting back on the number of titles released makes sense because if you choose the right titles, you can sell the same number of books for a lower production cost (if you're not wasting time on the books that don't sell).
  2. TOKYOPOP wasn't publishing the most popular titles. There are three major publishers of manga in Japan, and each has a deal with a US publisher other than TOKYOPOP. At least one of the US publishers is a subsidiary of the Japanese publisher, and poor business practices alienated at least one other Japanese publisher. That means that if TOKYOPOP has access to their titles at all, it's only after the best ones have already been licensed by somebody else.
  3. The head of the company didn't want to be a publisher. He wanted to be at the head of a new trend in pop culture. A few years ago, that meant publishing manga, but now he thinks that the real fun is in making movies and animation. He tends to throw a lot of money at a big new idea, and then not follow through. A few years ago, TOKYOPOP had a major marketing campaign to launch their free "Takuhai" magazine with lots of sample chapters and bonus content. After ONE issue, they changed the name to Manga Magazine, and then only published two or three other issues before letting it peter out. Then there was the whole manga on cellphones or in newspapers thing, and the website that want so much to be a facebook type community, it's nearly impossible to find a simple list of what books are available in each series.
In the week since Peter was laid off, he's made a lot of progress. He applied for unemployment insurance benefits so we'll still have some money coming in. He sent out resumes to at least six companies (maybe more). He's been networking with friends in the publishing industry, and they've been giving him good advice and putting in a good word for him at various places. Somebody arranged for him to do some freelance work this week, which will bring in some more money and also give him a taste for copy editing non fiction so he can see if that's a direction he wants to pursue. He's going to Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in August, where he's on a couple of panels, so he should be able to do some more networking there. His resume is in a lot better shape than it was when he was first trying to get a job in New York several years ago -- he has experience in the field, and a record of being promoted. We really think he'll be able to find work someplace, and that it'll probably be a good move for our family.

But of course the "move" part is another can of worms. Where will we be living in six months? Will he find a job in LA (unlikely)? If we move will we be able to sell our mobile home for what we paid for it? Will we be able to even break even on the deal and write off all the payments we've made so far as rent? Will we be able to sell the mobile home at all??? Should we put it on the market now to give ourselves plenty of time to try for a high price and then lower it if we have to? What if it sells quickly -- before Peter has another job? Where do we move in the meantime? There are family members who have offered to take us in, but the cost of moving all our stuff is a factor -- we don't want to do it more than once. If we're going a long way, it probably isn't worth even taking most of our furniture, but we do have some nice stuff that would need to be stored someplace.

So yeah. We've been on an emotional roller coaster. Feeling strangely liberated from a company that was heading in a different direction than our family needed, yet cast adrift into the chancy world of finding a job in a highly competitive field in the middle of a recession.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Is This Thing That Men Call Death by President Gordon B. Hinckley

What Is This Thing That Men Call Death

What is this thing that men call death,
This quiet passing in the night?
'Tis not the end, but genesis
Of better worlds and greater light.

O God, touch thou my aching heart,
And calm my troubled, haunting fears.
Let hope and faith, transcendent, pure,
Give strength and peace beyond my tears.

There is no death, but only change,
With recompense for vict'ry won.
The gift of him who loved all men,
The Son of God, the Holy One.
--President Gordon B. Hinckley

This poem was written by President Hinckley, and arranged as a song that was sung at his funeral. It's a beautiful statement of faith by a man whose example strengthened the faith of all who knew him.

"Well this is turning out to be a lousy week. Elizabeth, after several days of almost no napping (read no break for Mama), has developed a cold and is thoroughly miserable again with a runny nose and cough. I got a call last night that one of my friends from my Riverside Mental Health support group died when she drove her car into a train. Now Peter just called and told me he's been laid off. I'm running on empty right now. I don't know what to think or feel or do."
I wrote that paragraph more than a week ago on June 3rd. I've finally got time to put my thoughts in order and write about how I really feel.

I'll tackle the easiest first. Elizabeth's cold lasted just two days, and she's much better now thank you. Peter and I seem to be getting the same thing, but it's really just a runny nose that lasts a few days. Her sleeping habits are getting better -- I'm reading Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child, and while I think he has a horrible writing style for a book aimed at frazzled and sleep deprived new mothers, I think he has some good points backed up by solid scientific research. I didn't realize just how much sleep Elizabeth would like to get, and how things I did (like trying to rock her to sleep before laying her down) actually kept her from falling asleep and getting the rest she (and I) needed.

Peter's job situation is not as dire as it sounds, but it is complicated and evolving, so I think I'll put it off for another post.

That leaves Traci. I met Traci a couple of years ago when I was driving to Riverside once a week to visit Miriam and her boys, and get out of my own apartment and my own head. Miriam invited me to go with her to a meeting of their Ward's Mental Health Support Group (a small group Enrichment activity). There were about five of us in the group with mental health issues from Bipolar Disorder, to OCD, to Addictive Personalities, to Major Depression and Anxiety. All the children were taken care of by the group husbands, so we could be totally open and honest about what we were thinking and feeling.

When I say totally honest, I mean TOTALLY HONEST. With mental health issues, people often have thoughts and feelings that are not the sort of thing you'd normally choose to have, and definitely not the sort of thing you want to share with people who don't understand. Take, for instance, my blog post from a few weeks ago talking about my anxiety and how it makes me imagine scary things at night. This symptom has been with me in varying degrees of severity since I was a small child. The images my brain presents me with are very real and upsetting, but I can usually dismiss them like you'd dismiss minor joint pain if you suffer from arthritis. It's an indicator of my general state of mind however, when I can't just dismiss them, and that lets me know it's time to focus on finding ways to reduce my stress level. When I mentioned it on my blog, therefore, I was just trying to show how my general stress level made it more important to make sure I had a good birthday. Many of my friends and family however, were very alarmed, and I had to have several conversations where I assured well meaning loved ones that I wasn't going crazy (if you were one of these loved ones, don't feel bad -- it's nice to know that you care). But if mentioning a minor symptom worries people, who are you gonna talk to when real problems come up? A paid Therapist is helpful, but sometimes it's nice to have real friends who know the real you, and not just the part you show the world so you don't scare them off. That's what this group of women meant to me.

Traci was a member of this group, and since she'd spent so much time with various therapists and group therapy settings, she was often a leader in the conversations -- making sure everybody got a chance to be heard and acknowledged, and that the tone stayed positive. She was a wonderful sounding board for what's normal human emotion, what's a normal symptom of this illness, and what's a serious problem that needs a solution NOW.

Outside the group, she was also a good friend. She lived just a block over from Miriam in Student Family Housing, so they often went to each other for emotional support on a bad day, emergency babysitting, or just a way to get out of their own houses. There were a few times when I simply could not deal with being alone in Anaheim or LA, and would just get in the car and drive and cry for 2 hours till I got to Riverside. Sometimes when I arrived, Miriam wasn't at home. At those times, I knew I could go over to Traci's house and have a caring shoulder to cry on, and a fun friend to make me laugh again.

Traci loved to laugh. She had it rough with Bipolar Disorder and two little girls to care for. Her medications had powerful side effects that ravaged her mentally and physically. She gained a LOT of weight from one of the medicines, and when she could manage to lose it, it threw all the careful balances off and the drugs wouldn't work right anymore. But even with all this, she found it easier to laugh at her troubles, making jokes and trying to find a positive spin.

She loved her two little girls. Autumn had all the Disney Princess and almost always had one (or two) of them on. She wasn't always easy to deal with (what two or three year old is?), but when she was frustrated, Traci would have Autumn or Sarah come over and give her a big kiss to remind them (and herself) that she loved them.

When Miriam moved to the Bay Area, and I moved to Torrance, I lost touch with my Riverside friends. I tried a few times to call Traci, but the messages I left weren't returned. I know she moved in with family for a while to have more help with the girls, and that she occasionally went into the hospital when her Bipolar Disorder got too tough to handle. When I heard that she had died, I (like almost everyone else who heard) assumed that she had finally lost her battle with her illness and committed suicide in a very dramatic way.

Miriam called me on Monday night, June 2, and told me that she had died when she drove her rental car at 50 mph into the side of a moving train. Here is a news story with the details. There's also a video out there with pictures of the mangled remains of the car. The train was only minimally damaged.

I'm not one of those that subscribes to the belief that committing suicide automatically condemns you to hell. I think that such a belief grows logically out of the Catholic notion that you must have a priest perform the last rites and absolve you before you die. It comes from the same sort of thinking that requires babies to be baptized and tells mothers that if their innocent child dies without this ordinance, they're damned for eternity. Modern revelation has firmly put down the second notion, and talks and articles by general authorities like this one address the first. Basically they say that there will probably be some consequence, even serious consequences, for taking one's own life, but for mere mortals to judge, and assign an eternal kingdom to people when we do not know the thoughts and intents of their heart is to deny the atoning power of Christ. I believe that Traci accepted Christ as her personal savior and had hope of a better life in the world to come where she would be free of the constraints of the diseases in her physical body. I know that she was a good person who did her best to follow the commandments and love her family and keep her baptismal covenants by "mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort." I believe that God will judge her, and be merciful, as he will to all of us who trust in Christ, and that more than that we just don't know.

As time went on, more evidence came to light that seems to allow some doubt about whether it was intentional or not. According to this article, she had been feeling happy and making progress with a good outlook for the immediate future. That day she had been late for a doctor's appointment, one of the girls had spilled milk all over the floor, and there wasn't time to clean it up. Flustered, Traci had left home without her wallet. From the direction she was going, it looks like she realized this halfway to the doctor's office, and turned around to go home and get it. It's easy to imagine that she was distracted and just didn't notice the flashing lights in the glare of the sun. On the other hand, I can also easily imagine that she did see the train, and her brain presented her with a flash of an image of the accident that would occur if she just ran into it. This sort of thought is very common among people with mental illness, and if it hit her at just the right moment, she could have simply accepted it without thinking about it. Whatever the circumstances, I don't think it's inappropriate to think of her as being killed by her disease, just like someone can be killed by a sudden heart attack or after a long battle with cancer.

I talked about many of these thoughts with Miriam this week. She came down for the funeral, and to visit with old friends. It was good to be able to have someone to grieve with, and share my feelings about lots of different things in my life. I also enjoyed hearing about her life and offering my own ideas for solutions or just acknowledging that "Yep, that's hard, and it's normal to feel sad about it." In that vein, I offer the following scriptures: Eccl 3:1-8, Mosiah 18:9, 2 Ne 2:11 & 23 (and the song from My Turn on Earth that goes with it). I really miss being close to Miriam. I hope that if we do move somewhere new when Peter finds a new job, that we can be closer to family.

To sum up, I'm sad that my friend died. I'm sad that her little girls will probably not remember much about their mother as they grow up. I'm sad that her death made so many other people sad too. Yet I can find comfort in the plan of salvation that our merciful Father in Heaven provided for his children.