More Than Eye Can See
Without realizing it, I had fallen into the habit of categorizing people by the way they reacted to my aging mother. In spite of her infirmities, at age eighty-seven Mother still acts and speaks with gentle dignity, and I am always grateful for the people who speak directly to her, hold the door for her, and don’t pull away if she touches them.
When we’ve been out together, I’ve occasionally had to suppress my annoyance at slights from strangers. More than once, for example, a waitress has looked at me and asked, “What’ll she have, honey?” gesturing toward my mother as if she couldn’t possibly order for herself. Perhaps no event has been as vivid, though, as a recent encounter in the shopping mall where we like to walk.
Though my mother can’t do many of the things she once enjoyed, she still loves to go out. One of her favorite diversions is window shopping, and the shopping mall is a light, cheerful place where the temperature is always pleasant, and the floor surfaces are smooth and easy to walk on—even for her shuffling, arthritic feet. Best of all, the mall has wooden benches at intervals along the way, so we can stop and rest whenever Mother gets tired. At times we’ll buy a freshly baked cookie or an ice cream cone and sit together as we eat, amused by the infinite variety of people flowing past.
One afternoon we ventured into a department store at the mall to make a small purchase. By the time we completed our errand, Mother was leaning heavily on my arm, obviously tired and ready to sit down. We walked slowly out of the store, and I noticed a bench directly ahead of us. Unfortunately, a group of eccentric teenagers lolled around it. Through the thick haze of their cigarette smoke, I noticed their jelled hair—spiked and cut strangely, in unnatural colors—their garish earrings, and dark-colored clothing. The noise of their raucous laughter and coarse language told me there was no way we would stop there.
Just then several of the kids jumped up and approached us. Oh, no, what do they want? I wondered. Were we about to encounter more than simple rudeness—perhaps an incident of teasing or confrontation? My body stiffened with a tremor of fear.
“Sit here, we’ll go someplace else,” said one of the girls. “Yeah, it’s okay, you can use this bench,” added a boy whose jeans hung down his legs in a fringe of threads. In a few seconds they swept up their backpacks, drinks, and candy wrappers and disappeared, leaving only the pungent scent of their tobacco lingering in the air.
Grateful but a bit shocked, I settled Mother on the bench and sat down beside her. As I glanced after the darkly clad little band disappearing down the corridor, I found a fragment of scripture passing through my mind: “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7.)
How many other times had I allowed my oversensitive feelings to trap me in a destructive habit of judging others? The teenagers I so quickly labeled had seen a need and had understood, had shown kindness and compassion. Underneath the unsavory outward appearance, there was a heart I never would have suspected. But then I was so busy judging that I hadn’t even looked.
Stranded in a Strange Town
During the Christmas vacation of 1976, I drove back to Ohio to visit my family. I was a high-spirited and optimistic college student, and while I was home, I went to see my high school buddy, Rick, who had just completed his term of service in the air force. I learned that Rick had been sitting at home for two months, listless, with no plans for the future.
I hated to see him so despondent, with no sense of direction. As we visited, many high school memories boosted our spirits. Our enthusiasm grew, and our friendship, which had languished from several years of separation, was rekindled. I talked Rick into coming out west with me, where we could share an apartment while he searched for a job.
In a few days we were on our way. Snowstorms followed us through Indiana. In Illinois, we noticed that the car’s heater was blowing cold air. The windshield kept frosting up, so I checked some auto parts stores for a thermostat, but with no success. We kept driving.
In Galesburg, Illinois, at two o’clock in the morning, the car overheated, quit, and would not start again. We dejectedly pushed it to the side and spent the night in a motel across the street.
The next day, I changed the thermostat and a radiator hose, but the car still would not start in the subzero weather, even when we used jumper cables. It was December 31, and businesses were closing early to prepare for New Year’s Eve.
That afternoon, I called the bishop of the local ward and found that a New Year’s Eve party was scheduled that evening. I went to try to boost my spirits, while Rick preferred to stay in the motel room and watch a movie.
At the party, the second counselor in the bishopric offered to tow my car to his business garage the next day. Perhaps the warmth in the garage would make it easier to start the car. The missionaries said they could make arrangements with their landlady to allow us to stay with them until the car was repaired.
Rick was pleased with the friendly people in the town and impressed with the missionaries. He said it was unusual to see young people so dedicated to their religion. Later that day, the missionaries told me they had given him the first discussion.
I thought the car would be patched up in a day, and we would be on our way. But the next morning, a red puddle of transmission fluid on the floor of the garage deflated my spirits. I could see that extensive repairs were needed.
With an outdoor temperature of about fifteen degrees below zero, the weather was almost too cold for the car to start, even inside the garage. Finally we got the car running, but the engine banged and shook violently. We had to keep the accelerator down to keep it going.
Meanwhile, Rick had received two more discussions. I began to fast and pray for him.
Someone in the ward recommended a good mechanic. As I drove across town, my car jumped and jerked all the way. Finally, I left the car at the recommended garage. It was three days before the mechanics even started work on the car. To our dismay, they discovered that the head had been cracked.
We found a used head in a salvage yard, had it planed at a machine shop, and returned to the mechanic. By that time, Rick had received a challenge to be baptized.
I remember walking with him in the evening, with the snow falling lightly and the wind howling steadily in the trees. We saw stars beyond the misty clouds. I explained to him that the priesthood I held, and which the missionaries held, was the same power that had enabled Christ to create the heavens and the earth. I sensed that the Spirit was working in him.
We were no longer merely stranded in a strange town in the dead of winter. That old lemon of a car had been a blessing. The mechanic promised completion of its repairs the same day Rick was to be baptized—exactly one week after the car had stalled in Galesburg.
I will be forever grateful to the helpful Church members in Galesburg and to those missionaries who recognized an opportunity to preach the gospel.
Patience and Light
As I pushed the old wooden trunk to one side, I spotted something on the floor behind it. In the poorly lighted storage shed, the object appeared to be an empty plant pot. I leaned down to pick it up and discovered the dried remains of a small aloe vera plant, minus almost all of its potting soil. How it got there was a mystery. I carried it to the trash box that contained the other debris from my spring cleaning rampage. During the remainder of the cleaning, I also found a forgotten amaryllis, still in its pre-Christmas package. Certain that it too must be dead, I tossed it in the trash.
Once I had finished cleaning the shed, I carried the box of debris to the dumpster. But just as I was preparing to heave it in, a vague sense of remorse settled over me. Saddened by the thought that two plants had died of neglect, I began to imagine a towering amaryllis, with red flowers clustered at the top; I pictured a succulent, wide-branching aloe vera, with its useful, soothing leaves. What if they weren’t completely dead? I wondered.
Upon closer inspection, the aloe appeared to yet have one leaf that might be alive. The plant had lived for months on the precious gel stored in its fleshy leaves. Perhaps there was still time to revive it. It was worth a try. What did I stand to lose? Just a handful of soil and a little time.
The amaryllis looked hopeless. Sustained by its instinct to survive, it had begun to send out leaves, only to find no light. The leaves were pale and wilted from lack of food and water. Without light, it had been unable to use its chlorophyll cells to produce food. But even so, it had sent out another sprout from the side of the large bulb, attempting to grow another plant, in a desperate search for light somewhere else. The slender sprout was long and unlike the parent plant, but it too was white and wilted from the darkness.
Hopefully, I took both plants to the house and set about repotting them with fertile soil and an ample supply of water. Then I set them on the sill in my bright kitchen window. At first, nothing happened. Several days passed, and there appeared to be no change and no hope that they would survive. In fact, the aloe looked even worse. Evidently, it had sucked all the remaining juices from the faded leaves back into the base, and the leaves died. The amaryllis still looked white and lifeless. Among the other green and blooming plants on the sill, these two were mere ragged remnants that distracted from the beauty. Nevertheless, I had promised myself I would try.
Days passed, and I continued my attempts to revive the plants; after all, they took hardly any time or effort. One day, I picked up the pot with the aloe plant in it and looked for signs of life. I could see a hint of green but still no leaves. The amaryllis, too, was pale and unchanged. Something told me that I must continue to be patient.
After a while, my care of the plants became kind of second nature, and I worried less about seeing immediate results. Surely after so long a time of neglect, I could give time for recovery. Engrossed in other things, I didn’t notice the first small, tender aloe leaf, nor the second. Likewise, I have no idea when the amaryllis finally turned green. I was busy with other things. It was my older son’s amazed gasp one day that made us all turn and look at the two plants.
Once the aloe established a new root system, it was ready to send out leaves to gather more energy. It has since become a spectacular specimen, has produced other new aloe plants, and has soothed several burned fingers.
It seems that the amaryllis is taking longer to react to the sunlight. It had been dormant so long that it remains in stasis—not dying, but not growing or flowering yet, either.
Healing varies; each living thing has its own rate of recovery. As each of us struggles toward the light, our Heavenly Father is much more patient than I have been with these two plants. And his love is much greater, his care much more tender.
The human spirit has a greater will to survive and grow toward the light than the humble aloe or amaryllis plant. As we search out the special wilted or dormant flowers in the Lord’s garden, we must give the kind of care each one needs, allowing them to become what they were meant to be.