Growing up in New York, I was raised by wonderful parents who allowed me to think independently and experience great things. When I was in college, they allowed me to go to Bermuda for spring break. And there, on a dismal, rainy day I met Claire. She was from Oregon and was attending college in New York for a year. She had it all, except she wasn’t Jewish, and she didn’t drink or smoke or kiss on the first date. She was a member of a church about which I knew almost nothing—and I had little interest in learning more.
As the school year ended, Claire transferred to UCLA, and we maintained a long-distance relationship. Regardless of our seemingly irreconcilable difference in religion, we eloped three years later and were married in the middle of the night by a justice of the peace in Arizona.
I always felt that when Claire returned to the East with me she would be integrated into my circle of Jewish friends, and a reversal of her religious fervor would take place. I soon realized, however, this would not be the case. That is when my personal “journey to Damascus” began.
My journey began not with a light from heaven but rather a life from heaven—a son we named Richard. When our Ricky was six months old, he began to display abnormal eye movements. Some of the finest doctors in New York diagnosed him as having a brain tumor. The growth had formed in the front of his skull and had encompassed his optic nerves. In order to remove the tumor, they found it necessary to cut these nerves, which left Richard blind. He was given only two years to live because the tumor would surely grow again. Richard recovered well, and except for the fact that he was blind and had a limited life span before him, he was a perfectly normal baby boy.
I don’t think any child has ever been loved more than was our Richard, especially because he needed it. He was happy and bright, friendly and beautiful. He brought a joy into our hearts that was matched only by our fear for his future.
Two years later our son showed signs of intracranial pressure, and we were sure the end was near. Heroic surgery was once again performed, and after a long recuperation—which included chemotherapy and radiation—Richard was able to come home.
Our daughter, Caren, who was born on the very day of Ricky’s second operation, soon became his eyes at play. She helped him avoid trees and guided his hands to the chains on the swing. Our collie dog, Duchess, sensed that Ricky had special needs; she never whined about getting kicked or stumbled over as he ran down the hall. And my wife, in order to better help our son, learned braille and became licensed to teach. I lived with fear every time I received a phone call at work, not knowing when the message would come to go home and return my little boy to the hospital. All of us did what we could to help and love Richard. We knew our time with him would not be long.
Through all of this, Claire’s pain was magnified because of the religious schism in our home. I went to church with her occasionally, was fellowshipped by great people, and wore out ambitious missionaries. One day our home teacher and stake president, George Watkins, was visiting and happened to mention that a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by the name of Elder Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) was coming to New York and that it was his assignment to pick up Elder Lee at the airport. I knew what a healing blessing was, and I asked President Watkins if he might arrange to have Elder Lee give my son a blessing. He felt certain there would be some time available and said he would get back to us.
Sure enough, the following day he called and arrangements were made. We met at the mission home, a beautiful old former residence on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I remember walking up a long spiral staircase and entering a large, formal living room. We sat down, and a few minutes later a striking man in a dark suit entered the room. With his hand extended, he looked me in the eye and said, “Brother Freedman, I know you are not a member of our church. Please tell me a little about yourself.”
We spoke for a short while, and then he asked me, “With what would you like me to bless your son?” I thought for a moment, looked him in the eye, and said, “Elder Lee, I would like you to bless him with the restoration of his eyesight and with a long life.” He and President Watkins then laid their hands on Richard’s head. I remember crying silently and listening very carefully. Elder Lee did not bless Richard with his eyesight, nor did he bless him with a long life. He blessed him that he would live long enough to fulfill the mission he was brought to this earth to perform.
A year passed, and then one morning the thing we dreaded the most happened: Ricky’s speech became slurred, and he showed other familiar signs that the tumor was once again enlarged. We knew that a third operation would probably prove fatal. So before we got into the car to go to the hospital, I took our son for a last walk down the lane where we lived. Not knowing the fate before him, he happily held my hand and described to me the familiar sounds and things that surrounded us. Those were moments I will never forget.
Miraculously he survived the operation, but he developed spinal meningitis, which sent him into a coma. Seven months later, on 30 March, he died at home. He was seven years and three months old. He would have been eight on his next birthday, 21 December—old enough to be baptized.
That date preyed on my mind. As difficult as Richard’s death was for me, it was doubly difficult for Claire because she longed to be with her family for “time and all eternity” and to share with me the opportunity of being with little Ricky again in the presence of our Father in Heaven. Claire did not realize how seriously I began to think about the very same issue. The beautiful principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ touched my heart as I sought answers with a sincere heart and real intent.
I was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the very day that Richard would have been old enough for baptism. A year later, we were sealed as a family in the temple.
I believe Ricky’s most important mission on this earth was to bring us together as a family, sealed together for eternity. My wife and I have been blessed to raise our daughter and three more sons with the gospel in our home. Our children have all been married in the temple and are living productive, good lives. We also now have 11 grandchildren, who bring us great joy. I know that if I live worthily, I will be able to share eternal life with my loved ones. I will once again be with my father and mother, who have passed on, and walk hand in hand with my son Richard.
God works in mysterious ways. I know we may gain “wisdom out of suffering,” as the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote (“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”), but only if we are patient and accepting and willing to cultivate the difficult opportunities the Lord puts before us. Sometimes from the darkest soil, the most beautiful flowers are grown.