94912_000_008It was the seeming lack of meaningful activities in his life that most distressed my father after his stroke—until he found renewed purpose.
The empty cultural hall in the meetinghouse echoed with the sound of the basketball as my father tirelessly explained the art of the game to me. He taught me how to shoot, dribble, and pass. He pointed out where to aim on the backboard and explained that jumping on the opposite leg would give me more height. All the time he was helping me, he kept his eye on Damon, my eight-year-old brother, who was playing on the stage.
I appreciated this time with my father. As a bishop and a devoted father, his days were full. But I was just entering my teenage years, that gawky, awkward time of life. I was big for my age, uncoordinated, and uncomfortable. Dad had sensed that and encouraged me to find something I could excel in. We had tried gymnastics, dance, and violin lessons; now we were trying basketball. As a girl, I hadn’t spent a lot of time playing the game, but Dad was eager to help his daughter find her niche.
Dad showed me how to do a layup. I watched him dribble the ball smoothly and confidently, much like he did everything else. Desperately trying to follow his instructions, I took my turn. Dad sensed my frustration and took the ball for another demonstration. This time his steps were erratic and unsure. He tried to dribble, but kicked the ball and stumbled awkwardly over to the stage, where he lay down on his back. I thought he was trying to make me laugh. Then the most eerie feeling came over me. Damon felt it too.
We both ran over to Dad. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it was serious. My heart started pounding, and I couldn’t stand still. My first instinct was to run. I ran out of the gym and tried all the other doors in the building. They were locked.
I had to get to a phone. I ran outside, but the nearest house was a half mile down the road. I went back inside. When I entered the gym, I saw Damon’s blond head resting on Dad’s chest and his little body draped over Dad’s. He was sobbing quietly. “Don’t die, Daddy. Please, don’t die.”
I reached in Dad’s pocket to get his keys and hurried to his office. He had so many keys. It felt like forever before I found the right one. I was fine until I heard my mother’s calm voice answer the phone. I was speechless. I didn’t know what had happened, and I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that something had happened to Dad and she’d better hurry over. I sat with Damon and Dad until the ambulance came. I don’t remember anything else about the day except that that was the last day I spent with the dad I had grown up with.
My father had always been my hero. He and Mother had waited eight long years for children, so when we seven children finally came along, they were ready. We read scriptures daily and had regular family home evenings. We had enough family members to form two small teams, and football, soccer, and baseball were often on the agenda. Dad was coach, cheerleader, and player. Enthusiastic and optimistic, he gathered us together often for family activities, and we loved every minute of it.
Now his enthusiasm and optimism seemed to fail him. For months after the stroke, we visited him in the hospital. But we were strangers to him, and he was a stranger to us. His eyes were glazed, and he always looked like he was somewhere far away. His body looked fake, almost plastic. His hands, once strong and reassuring, dangled lifelessly at his sides. He could no longer walk or talk. The man who did everything with ease and confidence was now trapped inside a helpless body.
Our family was devastated. My mother was now left to take care of and provide for seven children, ranging from five to fifteen years of age. She had always been like the stagehand in the background of our home, always making sure the details were taken care of while Dad was in the spotlight directing and coaching. Now Mom was in charge and alone, and her sweetheart, her best friend, seemed like a child in a disabled adult body.
Yet, slowly, my father dealt with his disabilities. It was a difficult time for all of us. Our whole family felt lost and confused, but no one struggled as much as my father. For six months after his stroke, all he could say was “Weeka meeka meeka.” His brain was sending messages, but his mouth wouldn’t accurately relay those messages.
The only way Dad could communicate was with his eyes. I could see the pleading in his eyes when he tried to say what he was feeling. As he tried to express something, his whole body tensed up. He was fighting so badly to get the words out, and when all that came out was meaningless sounds, his whole countenance would change to despair and hopelessness. Time and time again, I watched him pull back inside and the light in his eyes go out. He seemed to feel worthless and useless, tired of fighting and losing.
Eventually he came home from the hospital, stumbling and fumbling at small tasks that took hours to complete. Every morning we would hear him sobbing in the shower. No one could understand him, and he felt there was nothing meaningful he could do. He felt like a heavy, cumbersome burden.
We were not alone during these years. Ward members and good friends spent innumerable hours with Dad in therapy, trying to bring back the use of the muscles in his legs, arms, and neck. We all pitched in to do what we could.
It wasn’t easy. He was like a child, relearning everything. But while children are often cute and endearing, Dad was a grown man with endless expectations. His patience and ours often grew thin. Because he had mastered only a few words, his sentences were short and unclear. It took a long time for him to express a need or feeling, and it usually took even longer for us to try to understand what he actually meant. Sometimes we didn’t even try to make sense of his jumbled, labored speech.
But as time passed, each of us came to terms with the difference between the father we grew up with and the father we now had. There had always been a commitment to help Dad recover as much as possible, and we all admired and respected him for the progress he made. Eventually we all began to accept him for who he now was. And with that acceptance came a new love for Dad.
Dad, too, came to accept his limitations, and he let go of many expectations he had of himself. He had always been stubborn, and now that stubborn streak proved to be advantageous as he began concentrating on what he was capable of doing. Although he was able to do many things for himself, he despaired that he could really no longer do anything for others. His capability to serve, to contribute anything worthwhile to life, he felt, was gone.
Sometimes his despair and hopelessness at this aspect of his life seemed overwhelming. One time, he had been battling thoughts of uselessness for almost two weeks. Without telling anyone where he was going, he took an hour bus ride to visit a dear friend, a busy dentist who canceled his afternoon appointments to spend some time with Dad.
The day after the afternoon excursion, our home teachers called and invited Dad to go to the temple. The invitation was not unusual. The Swains had been calling Dad every month for six years. And every month for six years, Dad, who had been a temple worker before the stroke, had declined.
This time, however, Dad accepted.
That temple trip was a turning point for my father. Having been a temple worker for so many years, he was fully aware of what went on behind those sacred doors, and he was frightened. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to speak clearly and that he would make others feel uncomfortable. That fear had kept him away from a powerful source of comfort, strength, and guidance.
It wasn’t an easy trip. Simple things that he had done effortlessly before his stroke proved to be monumental tasks. He struggled to understand the words and comprehend the meaning of the temple ceremony. Finally he bowed his head, closed his eyes, and focused on the feeling rather than the meaning of the words.
The temple workers were patient, and the Spirit was strong. Exhausted but victorious, Dad eventually entered the celestial room. He had discovered that even though he now had disabilities and inabilities, the temple was still a peaceful, wonderful place to be, a place he had neglected to visit for six years because he was afraid. Now he realized that his fears were unfounded.
Dad sat there for an hour and a half, pondering, thinking, feeling, and praying. As he sat there, a tremendous load was lifted away. He began to cry as he felt pain, bitterness, anger, regret, and deep, deep hurt washed away by the sweetness of the Spirit. Dad’s heart was filled with peace, and he felt as if the Savior had wrapped his arms around him and accepted him.
Dad finally totally accepted himself, his disabilities, and his situation. On that day in September, he dedicated his life to helping those who could not help themselves. And so, three times a week, my father gets on a bus at 8:45 A.M. and travels to the Jordan River Temple, where he spends his day in the house of the Lord, serving others in a work that has eternal value. He has memorized the temple ceremony, and those who sit in the temple with him can look over and see his lips moving as he repeats the words silently in his mind as they are spoken aloud.
This work has given him a renewed confidence and enthusiasm. The sparkle in his eyes has returned, and he interacts with others in a way that we never dreamed possible. The peace and love that he extends to others is a tangible presence in our home.
Dad’s life is an example that God has a purpose for everything. My testimony has been strengthened as I’ve watched my father recover. Dad is a walking, breathing, living example that if we will put our trust in Heavenly Father and accept our challenges, we can live in faith and joy rather than in fear and doubt. My testimony of temple work has especially grown. I have no doubt that the temple is the reason Dad is doing as well as he is.
The words Dad had spoken to a lifelong friend some twenty-three years earlier have come to pass. Speaking of his temple work, he said, “I wish that the Lord would relieve me of all my worldly duties of earning a living and worrying over trivial concerns and let me do his work full-time.”