“Now I’ve done it!” I thought crossly as I heard the metal break. I had backed my car too hurriedly out of a steep driveway, causing the exhaust system to strike the pavement. There was no time to fix it. I had one more family to home teach that evening, and there was just more to do in the busy Christmas season than freeze under a car making repairs.
At thirty-seven, I was finding all aspects of my life in Bowie, Maryland, a bit busy anyway. At a nearby U.S. Department of Defense installation, I managed a unique career development program for thirty military officers. I spent eight hours a day counseling, training, suggesting, and teaching them correct principles so they could govern themselves by becoming knowledgeable generalists in their specialty. I saved administrative responsibilities for the three or four hours I spent afterwards before going home. I also taught an occasional class in expository writing and spent one Saturday a month in an Air Force major’s uniform attending to my reserve duties. But although I was busy, I enjoyed my work and felt that it gave me an excellent opportunity both to teach gospel principles and to apply them myself.
Although demands on my time at the office lessened during the Christmas season, there was quite a bit to fill the void. As Teacher Development director I taught an in-service lesson and held the final session of the Teacher Development class at my home, followed by a class party. I was released from that job only to be called on my second stake mission. All this was sandwiched between Christmas shopping for the ward Christmas party, our traditional family home evening discussion of the true meaning of Christmas, and, of course, the exchange of presents on Christmas Day.
Before Christmas Day was over I hurriedly wrote the last article for our ward newsletter since we were leaving early the next morning on a 350-mile trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, to spend the week with close relatives. As a public communications director I also had to prepare my weekly article for our local papers, so I dashed off one on our Scouts and dropped it by the papers as we left town.
In Greensboro, between the always hurried visits to see relatives and close friends, I learned part of the first discussion and memorized the first three Articles of Faith. By the end of the month I had put in thirty-two of the suggested forty hours and couldn’t help thinking that this second stake mission was going to be even better than the first.
Back in Bowie, one of the elders and I met with a local Protestant congregation at their minister’s request to teach them about the family home evening program. After our coaching, one family in the congregation demonstrated perfectly how to conduct a home evening, and more than twenty families promptly ordered manuals from Salt Lake City.
Within the week we were hit by the flu and by the shocking news that my wife’s grandmother had died suddenly of a heart attack. We left our thirteen- and fifteen-year-old girls to care for our eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter and drove back to Greensboro with our four-year-old and sixteen-month-old sons. The trip lasted a hurried three days, and then it was back to Bowie to face two more children with the flu, a sixty-five- hour missionary month, and even one 4:45 A.M. session at the temple, forty-five minutes from our home.
February came and the frenzied pace never let up. The car was up on blocks sans exhaust system, work was piling up at the office, and the first three days of the week saw me putting in twelve-hour stints to catch up. By 10:00 P.M. Wednesday I was in my work clothes, trouble light and tools in hand, ready to tackle the underside of my car.
With my wife, Ellagene, looking like the Statue of Liberty (I had been so busy lately she decided to hold the trouble light so she could be with me), I raised the garage door and stepped into a night so cold and damp that it took my breath away. As I swung under the car to lift the newly welded parts back in place, the catch in my lungs and chest intensified, making it hard to breathe. I slipped out from under the car and hung myself over the back bumper to approach the target from another angle. The pain increased. By now I was really frustrated, but I was too tired and in too much pain to really care, so I asked Ellagene to pick up my tools and headed for the house. The sixty feet to the house felt like a mile; I thought my lungs would burst from the cold and the effort. But once inside I was in for another surprise. The pain didn’t go away—it got worse.
Then I knew. Calmly I asked one of the children to get my slacks and shirt, and by the time my wife arrived I was almost dressed. “Honey,” I said quietly, “I’m having a heart attack. Please drive me to the clinic, but don’t alarm the children.” Buttoning my shirt, she told our daughters that Daddy didn’t feel well so she was taking him to the clinic.
Five minutes to the clinic. Yes, the EKG shows something. The pain is constant but I can finally get enough air, thanks to the oxygen. Into the rescue squad ambulance, more oxygen, and quickly to the emergency room of the nearest hospital—a fifteen-minute trip with siren, lights, and the beginning of some urgent questions in my pain-filled mind. Ellagene calls home to have our oldest girl call our home teachers. More tests, more pain, more confirmation. Our home teacher is out of town, but someone else is coming. I have no veins!—or so the nurse concludes—but on the fifth try I’m hooked up to a bottle of glucose. My feet are freezing because they’ve taken away my shoes. Both the bishop’s counselors arrive and administer to me, blessing me that the heart attack is mild and my recovery will be without incident or complication. For the first time in three hours, Ellagene stops shaking. Another two hours of whispered I love yous and hand-holding and I am wired in to the six-million-dollar-man equipment of the cardiac care unit. All I see is the oscilloscope, and a “bleep, bleep, bleep” fills my ears. Ellagene heads home, and sleep comes through narcotic pain killers.
My four days in the cardiac care unit passed with dulling slowness. I was spared the fear and anxiety that overcome many such patients because I knew that I had been blessed by the priesthood of God, but I was mentally numb. During the ten-minute visits with Ellagene I rattled off a series of instructions to be relayed to my recently assigned administrative assistant at the office. Ellagene brought in my “Church briefcase” so I could sort the newsletter material for the bishopric to assign to a new editor.
Finally, and slowly, I began to realize: my pace had slowed, but the Church carried on and the office was in good hands. My boss, a wise colonel, visited me and said: “Ed, that place will keep running long after you and I are gone; when you get some age on you, your priorities will change.” I thought to myself, he retires this spring and his priorities have already changed.
I suppose it was during the second week at the hospital, when I was in a semiprivate room and on my fourth Church book (a luxury I hadn’t made time for in years), that his meaning suddenly hit me with full impact. I remembered my sixteen-month-old son, who just five weeks before had hung limp in my arms with a 105° fever: he had suddenly hugged me and said “Da” in a tone that meant “Oh, Daddy, I love you. I need you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I know that you can make it all okay.” Images of my wife and each of my children flashed through my mind. I sobbed the bitter tears of one who wishes he’d learned sooner.
Well, I’m home now and the doctor says that it was a mild heart attack, uncommonly free of complications. Within two months, he says, I can go back to a normal existence. Normal existence? I don’t want that if it means what I had before.
I once read an insight someone had concerning the relationship of the Word of Wisdom to the commandment Thou shalt not kill. The author’s thought was that we shouldn’t kill anyone—not even ourselves—either violently or slowly through disobedience. By placing less emphasis on my professional life and more on my family, by careful attention to my eating and exercise habits, and by proper performance—and even, when appropriate, delegation—of the duties of my Church callings, I will for the first time be able to “run and not be weary, … walk and not faint.” (D&C 89:20.)
Normal existence? I haven’t gotten around to my genealogy in several years; there is much I don’t know of the basic principles of the gospel; my family has all but grown up without me. I have found that this body of mine, a temple, has limitations I had not suspected. Colonel, I’m changing my priorities—and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.