“… And Please Bless My Fingers”
I stumbled out of bed and made my way across the room to the ringing telephone. The luminous dial of the clock glowed 11:30.
“I’m sorry to wake you up, but I have just received word that my mother has been taken to the hospital and is not expected to live,” said my friend Joanne. She continued, “I am catching a plane first thing in the morning. Would you be able to play the Messiah for me on Friday?”
I was still not quite awake, and my thoughts were jumbled. “I don’t know the music, and that’s less than a week away,” I said. Who did I know that could replace her? No one. Joanne was the professional polish behind all of our church programs. Both soloists and choirs sounded better with her at the keyboard. She played everything flawlessly, without drawing attention to her own performance. How could I possibly step in and do justice to the sixty-voice choir that had been rehearsing for weeks?
But there is only one answer when a mother is dying. “I’ll come right over and pick up the music. Either I’ll do it or I’ll find someone else who can,” I assured her. I quickly dressed and drove to her home.
The night was cold and the streets were deserted, but her warm greeting and gratitude for my presence made up for the discomfort of the hour. Together we paged through the music, noting which numbers were being performed and who the soloists were. All I could see were hundreds of fast black notes I had never played before. But I was sure I could find someone else to play it. We talked for an hour while she put things in order for her departure. Then, with the spiral-bound score stuffed under my arm, we exchanged hugs and good wishes, and I drove home.
Back at home, sleep seemed a waste of time. Learning the Messiah was something I had always planned to do, but not in a five-day crash course! Strains of the music filled my mind, along with lists of other pressing matters as well as the names of all the other organists I knew.
At the earliest respectable hour I called the choir director. We discussed the alternatives, including hiring someone to play. But her expressions of genuine trust and confidence convinced me that it was not an impossible task. Words from my patriarchal blessing crossed my mind: “Be a hundred percent with the Lord, because he expects to be that to you. Through this cooperation as daughter and as Father, great things will be accomplished.” I quickly made several other phone calls, canceling my commitments for the week and arranging to get the keys to the chapel and the organ.
With a diaper bag, a few toys and books, a five-year-old, a baby, and a prayer in my heart, I arrived at the church. The children played quietly with each other between the choir seats. By midweek the preschooler was whistling “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” One afternoon as I returned home to meet my school-age children, a neighbor followed behind me, toting supper. “Thought you might need a little extra help,” she announced. It was the only real dinner we had all week.
“Pray always,” says the scripture. And, “Pray over your flocks and fields.” And fingers, I thought to myself. More quickly than I had ever imagined, the notes began falling in the right places. The results of many, many hours of practice squeezed into a few short days were beginning to show. By Thursday I had made final notation of the registration. I was grateful for the responsive pipe organ with its range of color—from the sonorous “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” to the jubilant “Hallelujah!”
Thursday night was the dress rehearsal and my first opportunity to practice with the choir. The choir members arrived, and many stopped to express a word of encouragement. But I was suddenly overcome with feelings of anxiety. As we rehearsed one song after another, the anxiety turned to nausea. My head throbbed, and my back and shoulders were painfully tight. Most of the notes were there—barely. But the sound was not the sound I had heard at my practice session earlier in the day. The tension continued throughout the night, preventing any kind of decent rest. By Friday the week-long strain had produced nervous and physical exhaustion. I was a wreck.
Hustling the children off to school, I returned for one last practice session, with the hope that I could somehow resurrect the musical excitement of Thursday morning. The baby settled into her morning nap behind the organ bench, and I began to play. The notes were there, but I was still tormented with nervousness. All week I had prayed for help with this difficult assignment. The choir director had prayed in my behalf. And I had had help—with the notes, with the children, and with dinner. But I needed one more thing.
Checking to make sure I was alone in the chapel, I knelt down beside the organ to offer one last plea: “Please, Heavenly Father, help me. I have worked hard to learn this music. I have really given my best effort. I can play this music, but I can’t play it when I feel this way. Many others have rehearsed long hours. Please relieve me of these difficult feelings so that the performance will be a credit to thee.”
Back on the bench, I began to play: “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” and “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates.” Gradually I felt calmer, and my distress was replaced by a peaceful assurance that the performance would go well. The practice time flew by. The baby woke up. It was lunchtime, and my opportunity for practice was over. I turned into a mother again for the afternoon.
That evening I arrived a few minutes early to open up the organ. Flowers banked either side of the pulpit. Extra lights were set up to illuminate the choir. The pews were already beginning to fill. After arranging the music on the rack and pulling the stops for the first number, I joined the choir in another room for some warm-ups and a prayer—again asking for special help in my behalf. As we filed into the chapel for the performance, I was plagued by the usual nervous stomach that I have felt when I have played in recitals ever since I was a child. But I also felt a warm, comforting feeling that I had never felt before. I knew the performance would go well.
The choir sounded marvelous. The organ seemed almost to play itself. All the interludes, the cues, the stop changes—everything happened right. My husband winked at me from the tenor section, as if to say, “All is well.” With the last “Amen” still ringing, the director wound her way through the choir seats to the organ. Tearfully, she embraced me. She and I knew that I had not been alone on that bench.
Now when I hear the closing words of The Messiah—“Blessing and honor, glory and pow’r, be unto him … that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever”—I recall the lesson I learned anew that week. When we couple intense effort with dependence on the Lord, our faith can move mountains … and fingers, and hearts.
We first encountered Brother Ed after our home teacher came by one evening and suggested we call on him. He lived nearby and had been ill for many years. My wife cannot resist a call for help, so a short time later we were knocking on Ed’s door.
Through the thin panel, all we could hear was the blast of a television show and then a faint “Come in.” As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a cluttered, crowded, dismal room. There was a huge davenport piled high with old newspapers, magazines, and books. On the old dining-room table were papers of all descriptions. They spilled over onto the chairs, the floor, and under the table.
We saw yellowed newspapers, old phone books, and numerous cardboard boxes tied with binding twine. There were also shelves loaded with knickknacks—souvenirs, ceramic animals, faded photographs, and wilted flowers stuck in vases too small for them. Evidently Brother Ed never threw anything away.
In the center of this jumble was a place cleared for our host’s armchair and a small TV set. Beside his chair was a card table piled high with carelessly opened mail, pill boxes, and food containers.
One of the first things that caught my eye was the high-topped shoe with the heavy iron brace that extended above Brother Ed’s knee.
He was dressed neatly enough, but I could feel the puffiness of his hand when I shook it. His feet and his legs were also swollen and were covered with bright red splotches.
We told him who we were, but I doubt if he heard. He complained about his doctors, the cost of drugs, and how useless both were. He evidently had an illness that no doctor could satisfactorily diagnose.
He complained about his stomach, and when we asked him about his eating habits, he said that he had one hot meal a day but just “snacked” the rest of the time. He pointed to the table beside him, which held cashew nuts, potato chips, cream-filled cookies, and a soft drink.
When we left I could see the concern on my wife’s face. What if he should fall? How would he get up if he was partially paralyzed on one side? Did he get a regular bath? Where were his relatives?
After that day she stopped by his place daily and cleaned up the house as best she could. She washed dishes, did his laundry, and prepared a hot meal for him. Sometimes he seemed happy to see her; other times he was resentful and sullen. One day he slammed the door in her face and refused to let her in. Later that day, I saw him on the street, hobbling along with his stiff leg, and he asked me if my wife was mad at him. He wondered why she never came around to see him any more.
I talked to our home teacher and our bishop about Ed. They told me they knew very little except that he had moved into the ward about four years before so that he could be near a good orthopedic surgeon. He had had a tumor removed from his brain that had left him partially paralyzed, with an irritable and unstable personality. He had been an engineer for one of the large utility companies and had a good income and adequate disability benefits.
I can’t say that Brother Ed was ever friendly to us, but he was less hostile to us than he was to most people. In fact, he would call us on the phone two or three times a day. Whenever the phone rang, we would say, “I wonder what Brother Ed wants now.” My wife, always patient, would usually hear him out. He somehow got the idea that I was a sports fan, and he would talk to me endlessly about various games. Then he complained to the bishop that all I could talk about was baseball.
I called on the bishop one day and told him, “I’m not only worried about Ed, I’m worried about my wife. He is depending on her more and more. She is torn between her obligations to our family and the assistance she wants to give him. She doesn’t know which way to turn.”
The bishop advised me to encourage her to do what she thought was right, and then support her 100 percent. “I’m sorry to say there is rarely a perfect solution to any problem, but the Lord gives strength to bear any burden he asks us to bear,” he said.
A short time later, Brother Ed passed away peacefully in his sleep. Because I knew him better than anyone else in the ward, the bishop asked me to talk at the funeral.
I contacted his friends and relatives and got the usual statistics—date of birth, names of parents, brothers, sisters, and so on. But what was most interesting to me was the story of his church assignments. He had been a deacons quorum president, a Boy Scout, and a missionary in England. He had been married in the temple, had been an elders quorum counselor, elders quorum president, seventies group leader, stake mission leader, counselor in a bishopric, and a bishop. In addition, he had fulfilled stake assignments and had been a high priests group leader.
Who was Brother Ed? Many in our ward would describe him as an ill, cantankerous old man whom the Lord finally chose to call home. Others who knew him in better days had other things to say.
“Ed? He gave me my first discussion in Liverpool, England. I wouldn’t be in the Church today if it weren’t for him.”
“He was a wonderful father and husband. He was so proud of his family, and we were so proud of him.”
“Brother Ed, sure! I remember he used to take us Cub Scouts swimming every Saturday morning! I’ll never forget him.”
“Sure, I remember Ed. He was the finest bishop we ever had. Everyone loved him.”
Brother Ed was many things to many people. To endure those last years of his life must have been his most difficult calling of all, as he tried to cope with a failing body and brain.
In our brief acquaintance with him, we may have helped him a little, but he helped us far more by giving us the opportunity to know him and serve him.
I had just graduated from college and my new job required that we move to California. For the first time in the twelve years we had been married, we lived near enough to my wife’s family that Rosanne was able to visit regularly and really become close to her parents again.
Shortly after we were settled in our new home, it became necessary for Rosanne’s grandmother to move in with Rosanne’s parents so she could be better cared for. Not long after that, Grandma had a major stroke. While she was in the hospital recovering, her doctor discovered that her diabetes, which was already severe, now would require constant attention and daily blood work to keep it under control.
To make matters worse, the cancer for which she had undergone surgery twice before had now spread throughout her body, and there was nothing more that could be done for her.
The cancer had attached itself to her lower spine and hips, and the bone had been almost entirely eaten away, leaving no support for either sitting or walking.
The doctor could do no more, and Grandma was not in a condition to return home to live with the family. So the hospital found a good nursing home where she would be as comfortable as possible until the end mercifully came. That end, as far as her doctor could determine, would not be more than a few days off, a week at the most.
The family spent as much time with her as possible. My wife, who sensed that Grandma was afraid, asked me to go to the hospital to try to explain what happened when one died.
This would be difficult. Grandma had not accepted the gospel and had refused a number of attempts to teach her in the past. I wondered how she would react to what I would try to tell her.
I did not go to the hospital that day expecting a miraculous conversion, which is just as well, because that is not what happened. I planned to explain with as much detail as possible what she would be going through, hoping that when the time came she would remember that I had known what she would experience. Then, when she was approached on the other side, she might be more open to the gospel message.
To my surprise, Grandma showed a great deal of interest in what I was telling her. She had many questions, most of which I could answer. We talked about death, but mostly we talked about life and God’s plan for her. Then we talked about the priesthood and administration to the sick.
After I had explained, she surprised me again by asking if she could receive a blessing even though she was not a member of the Church. I told her that the priesthood was on the earth to help all who desired its blessings.
I promised to return as soon as I could find someone to help with the blessing. As I turned to leave, I realized I was scared. I was about to administer to a terminally ill woman who was within days of leaving this earth. What would I say?
A lot of contemplation and silent prayer followed as I drove to get the friend who would help with the blessing. My priesthood leaders had taught me to bless the sick as prompted by the Holy Ghost, using the priesthood authoritatively. But with what blessing should we bless her? I had been taught to clear my mind and wait for the influence of the Spirit, and then to bless the person as the Spirit dictates.
Back in Grandma’s hospital room, we felt the Spirit prompt us to rebuke the diseases within her body. We promised that she would remain on the earth until she had found what Heavenly Father had for her and that she would not have to die until she made the choice to leave. Then we left her to rest.
I knew we had really laid it on the line. If she died as the doctors had said she would, how would I reconcile this experience with my faith?
Grandma didn’t die. Her strength returned, and soon she was able to sit up. Eventually she was even able to get out of bed for short periods of time. Her doctors could not understand why she was not in excruciating pain all the time, because her lower spine and hip were virtually gone. In fact, they could not explain why she was even alive.
She was allowed to go home for afternoon visits from time to time and was able to walk with the aid of a walker. She asked for and received all the discussions from the missionaries, and she read the Book of Mormon.
Two years later, during one of her visits home, when all of her children had gathered to celebrate Mother’s Day, she told her daughter, Rosanne’s mother, that she did not want to be here for the next Mother’s Day. Within the week, all was as it had been before the administration, and she passed away.
She had not been baptized, because it had been physically impossible, but there was little doubt that she was ready. She was granted additional time to prepare, and when she had finished her preparations, she left. We did her temple work for her the following summer.
Her funeral was one of the most beautiful services I have ever attended, and I know lives were touched there. Her sister and her niece have since joined the Church and have helped do the temple work for her other family members. I have learned that as the Lord supports us in our faith, he also strengthens us and gives us more.
Comfort from Beyond the Veil
Through the long hours of the night, I kept a lonely vigil by the nursery window. Inside the nursery, a tiny boy struggled for breath. The day before, we had rushed nearly one hundred miles from our ranch to the hospital. The baby was born shortly after our arrival, six weeks premature. He looked like a fine, healthy boy, but the doctor told us that his lungs had been slow in developing and that he was fighting a desperate battle for air.
A few hours before, I had given Matthew his name and a father’s blessing. As I had blessed him, the Spirit had assured me that he would someday be a part of our family.
Little Matthew continued to cling to life until his mother was able to come to the nursery to see him. He was gone before we left the room. It seemed to me that he had only waited for her to have one look before he returned to his heavenly home.
The shock of our son’s death left my wife in such a daze that she could not cry. It was only after the small graveside service, when we had returned home to the ranch, that she was finally able to release her grief. She wept for a long time.
The emptiness of losing a baby after months of expecting him was very hard on her. She wasn’t really happy again until the next baby, a fine healthy boy, arrived.
As the years passed, we were blessed with many children. They grew up feeling that Matthew was as much a part of our family as they were. One of our children, the oldest, has felt an unusual closeness to him and has at times sensed his presence. Once, while traveling to work through a storm, she felt him with her, watching over her. A few years later, she again felt Matthew’s influence—when her sister-in-law lost a baby and needed comfort.
Not long ago, one of our sons was married in the Idaho Falls Temple. We had assembled in the sealing room for the ceremony when the sealer asked me and the bride’s mother to bear our testimonies before he performed the marriage ceremony. As I spoke, I noticed that my oldest daughter was sobbing. Later, outside the temple, she told us that as I stood to speak, a person had entered the room accompanied by so much spiritual power that she could not control her feelings. As she was about to leave the room, lingering behind all the others, she felt something touch her shoulder. A still, small voice whispered, “That was your brother Matthew.”
The peace and joy this beautiful experience brought to us is inexpressible. What comfort there is in knowing that we are important to Matthew and that he cares about what we are doing, and to know that God loves us and has let us feel Matthew’s presence so that we can have that assurance.