A Prayer for Uncle Alban


A large red beetle scratched its way down the porch railing and disappeared into a hole in the old wooden porch. Jamon Knighton sat in Uncle Alban’s creaky, timeworn wicker chair, watching the beetle and listening to the early morning sounds that floated out of the valley. Every Saturday morning Jamon and Uncle Alban had watched things—things like the gold leaves that Uncle Alban said “fluttered across his yard like memories”—and had listened to sounds like that of Mr. Sadlier’s yellow dog’s barking in the distance. Jamon remembered how Uncle Alban had talked about the quiet, how he had said that it was a sound, too, and that it sounded like a secret prayer. “And if anything could look like a secret prayer,” he had added, “it would be that light in those thickets, pushing back the night.”

Speaking of prayer, Jamon thought, I need to offer one for Uncle Alban. He stood up, went down the porch steps, and paused in a patch of sunlight that beamed through the trees. It felt as warm and fine as his uncle’s arm around his shoulder as they had walked down the narrow dirt road toward Gooseberry Lake to go fishing.

Earlier this particular Saturday morning, however, when Jamon had left home with his fishing pole and had walked the half-mile down Thistle Road to his uncle’s place, he had been met on the porch by Aunt Eva, who had told him that Uncle Alban wouldn’t be able to take him fishing. “He had a heart attack about two hours ago,” she had faltered, “and a neighbor took him to the hospital in Monroe. I’ve just finished packing a few things, and your mother is going to drive me to Monroe so that I can be near Alban until he—” She’d pulled Jamon close to her, and he’d felt her body tremble as she’d tried to hold back the tears. “We must pray for him, Jamon,” she had finally said, then had hurried back inside.

Jamon left the patch of sunlight and headed toward a big willow that stood a short way down the dirt road. That will be a good place to pray, he decided. It was his and Uncle Alban’s secret place, and no one would see him there. Its thousand slender branches hung all the way to the ground like a leafy veil. Uncle Alban had told him many stories under the old tree, stories about Jesus and the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was there that Jamon had first seen the glow on his uncle’s countenance whenever he talked about such things.

Jamon paused a few feet from the old willow and gazed at the glitter of Gooseberry Lake beyond the trees. He recalled a Saturday morning not many months before when Uncle Alban had immersed him, along with the rest of his family, in the waters of baptism.

When Jamon emerged from the willow’s leafy seclusion, he saw the milk truck parked in front of his aunt and uncle’s house, and he realized that he had been praying for a long time. Brother Wilson never delivered milk before 9:00 A.M., and the pocket watch Uncle Alban had given him on his birthday last year had said 8:30 when he’d gone to the willow to pray. He’d been praying for half an hour!

Jamon stopped short when he saw his mother and the milkman on the front porch. They were comforting his aunt, who was sitting in the old wicker chair, sobbing uncontrollably.

Without having to be told, Jamon knew that Uncle Alban had died. He watched dumbly as Mother helped Aunt Eva into the house and the milkman came down from the porch and walked over to him.

“But I prayed for Uncle Alban, Brother Wilson. I prayed hard!” Jamon protested as he walked along the dirt road with the milkman. “I asked Heavenly Father to make him well again.”

The milkman stopped and pointed at the little circle of hills that surrounded them. “You know, Jamon,” he said, “when I was a small child, I thought that the mountains surrounding the town where I lived were the edge of the world because I couldn’t see beyond them. When I got older, I climbed over the mountains and discovered that the world went far beyond them.”

Jamon squinted up at the milkman. “What are you saying, Brother Wilson?”

“I’m saying, Jamon,” the milkman replied with a gentle smile, “that the Lord is a lot older and wiser than the rest of us. Don’t you think that perhaps He knows something that we don’t? Compared to the Lord, we are like little children. Often we can’t see beyond the little circle of mountains in our lives. But He can. He sees and knows what is difficult for us to understand—the reasons for things. And until we grow enough to climb over those mountains, we must have the faith to accept His good judgment. And remember,” Brother Wilson added, “that sometimes the answer to a prayer is no. And no is every bit as much an answer as yes.”

Jamon blinked back his tears. “Do you think that maybe God needs my uncle more than Aunt Eva and I do?”

Brother Wilson looked at the boy with admiration. Maybe, he considered, Jamon had already climbed some of those hills. Aloud, he said, “From what I hear, there are a lot of people on the other side who need teaching. There’s plenty of work to do, and judging from the way your uncle brought you and your family into the Church”—the milkman’s eyes misted—“as he did me just a year ago, I can’t think of a better person for the job.”

Jamon smiled through his tears. “Me either, Brother Wilson,” he said as they walked back to Uncle Alban’s house. “Me either.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett