The afternoon I came home from my mission I paused before the plaster cast goshawk on the buffet in our dining room. Something fierce, unrelenting, in its eyes held me. Exquisitely wrought, the bird looked as if it were alive. I was home seven months early; a medical situation had cropped up, and the doctors thought I should live near Salt Lake for remedial treatments. The decision to cut the mission short was mine. The oncologist in Portland assured me I would not die. He said the chemotherapy should be administered near home where I could rest and be watched over by our family doctor. The situation was, the doctor in Portland insisted, in remission. The specialist at the University of Utah said it would be better in the long run not to step into another missionary experience near home right off, maybe in a few months or more. So the decision to come home early had left me shaken.
Everything in American Fork was the same: the steady whoosh of traffic on the freeway, our unfolding lawn, the orange-covered wicker couch in the sunken TV room—even Mom’s smile and Dad’s sport shirt. Yet the goshawk affronted me with what I thought was contempt. I touched its cold, beaked head.
“He’s about the size of a small Cooper,” said Dad, our resident ornithologist, “yet this bird has to flap his wings all the time. The larger hawks soar. These guys are not well known, but I like this kind of hawk, don’t you?”
“Never heard of one before,” I said.
“These little critters are tough. They’re survivors.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
“There’s not many around. They’re not endangered or anything. Mostly you’ll find these birds up in Canada. Mr. Crafton, the old man, made it for me. Do you like it?”
“Sure, but the eyes don’t let up on you.”
“Don’t you catch a real sense of dignity about it?” Underneath, the goshawk was whitish, its preened wings specked with dashes of blue, green, and white, its ebony eyeballs intense.
In his disarming way, Dad said, “There’s something special about it.”
“Yeah. It’s nice.”
“You know, they have to keep flying all the time.”
“So do I,” I thought.
Two weeks later I sat in the same place I did that afternoon I came home. I sat on the veranda in the white wrought iron chair under the magnificent spreading honey locust tree. At times I would figure I had it made. At other times it was like being in a dark woods without any path out. I had made the tough decision to come home—I knew it was right—but now I had to live with it. When I left the mission, I was a few weeks into leading a zone in Gresham, Oregon. The missionaries in the zone threw a small party: in one of the apartments the elders strung crepe paper streamers and the sisters cut two cherry pies. It was over in 20 minutes. At one point the whole mission had fasted and prayed for me. But under doctor’s orders I couldn’t fast. I did not get tired of sitting under the locust tree and remembering the past months. For days as I passed the goshawk I let it catch my eye, its stare still fierce, wise, penetrating.
One evening Dad and I lounged around in the TV room without much to do. Nothing was on TV. He hadn’t said much since I came home. Lying back in his recliner Dad balanced his ice cream bowl on his lap and watched me. Behind him, in the other room, above him, sat the goshawk in the dim shadows.
“A little over a year, Dad. That’s all I was out. I feel incomplete, unfinished, without direction.” My own half-eaten bowl of ice cream melted beside me.
“You’re at loose ends,” he said.
“There’s no way to make up seven months.”
Spooning his ice cream carefully, he kept an eye on me. “Your mission was—and still is—to save souls, not to spend a certain amount of time.”
“Yeah, I have my whole life ahead of me. Sure. I know.”
“Well, you do, don’t you?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“President Terhune called me, and we talked for quite awhile. He said you were a good missionary and had it in you to see this thing through. You’ll be a lot better off for facing up to it.”
I looked up. The goshawk peered at me. His eye caught me, brought me to attention. His presence became a kind of conscience, reminding me of all that was left undone.
Dad spoke of the missionary experience as if it were a leaf that fell off a tree and was left on the path. I had loved the sense of certainty in living the mission rules. I wanted to do everything the right way. It irked me when a companion came up with ways to make himself comfortable with the rules. I eventually learned to relax and let down on preparation day. But as I became more fatigued, it was hard to be limited and not able to do it all.
Finally the end of my mission had come to a heart-rending session with President Terhune in the Church parking lot at North Vancouver. There I had made my final decision. I had to do it myself. I hadn’t been able to fast, but I had prayed a lot. President Terhune didn’t say anything, for which I was grateful. He had held me a long time in his embrace, then simply said, “You’ll continue on.”
“In life or death,” I thought. There was no running from it. Osteosarcoma. The word sounded like poetry—a lethal poetry of death in my bones. It was okay now, but it could get worse. Why does Father allow dark woods?
Three weeks after my return, my sister Shawna and her daughter came with a cousin from Brigham City to spend a few days. Bob, her husband, drove down in the Lincoln and spent an afternoon. Michele, their five-year-old, said, “You’re a General Authority now, aren’t you, Rick?” I tousled my niece’s blonde hair and smiled. I hadn’t seen Shawna for three years because before my mission she was at the University of Arizona. She and Michele wore designer clothes, and Shawna had her hair swept back, with curls on one side, kind of unnatural. Mother brought out the Harris family histories, and we sat around the living room; but Shawna, who had majored in interior design, daydreamed and looked at Mom’s furnishings and made faces at some of the color arrangements. When Bob came he lounged on the sofa and talked about the demise of the Dallas Cowboys, not my favorite early summer subject. He had played linebacker at BYU. About all he could stop now was a bowl of chocolate pudding. At dinner he ate thirds of both casserole and salad. He was full of good cheer about his younger brother’s prospects in the Deseret News Marathon. Of course Bob didn’t run anymore. After they left I asked Mom what had happened to my sister and her family.
“What do you mean?”
“They seem different.”
“You’re the one who’s changed, Rick.”
“Yes, you’re a lot more serious now.”
Two months now. Michele and Shawna were gone, Dad was in Houston on business, Mom was playing golf in Provo—and I sat under the locust taking in the dance of monarch butterflies along the hedge. So peaceful, so quiet, so dull. I amused myself by considering that the Savior was never a “returned missionary.” I had come to distrust the phrase. His mission was a mere three years, and he never went back home with nothing to do. Returning from a mission was a personal loss. You had to go on from there—become a goshawk and keep flapping your wings. I decided to make myself useful by helping Dad. He wanted the locust limbs trimmed away from the chimney before summer school.
On the roof I caught my breath after tossing off limbs. Gracious, I was thin! Wiping my forehead I saw Sister Hunter, two backyards away, bent over a rototiller—just as I had seen her husband do. Oh—it struck me: Brother Hunter had died of a heart attack a few weeks into my mission. How could I—I hated to even think the word—forget? Certainly he still hoed his beets and flooded his yard. Had he and Sister Hunter made it to the temple? Since my little medical problem I saw the temple as the abode of Deity, the place where, whatever the need, one found solace. Mom and Dad had worked with them after Brother Hunter joined the Church. But I hadn’t heard the results. As I grew up Sister Hunter offered me candy and nursed a bruised knee. She used to give me ice cream bars and a hug.
I climbed down from the roof and walked quickly down the block and into the driveway leading to her fence. After catching my breath, I said, “It’s the carburetor.”
“This pesky machine,” she said, “I want to kick it.” She was not old, only about 65, a small woman with hair the color of a fresh Oregon waterfall. She liked to wear a white cardigan sweater in cooler weather. Her eyes were green. She had a small, doll-like mouth that gave an appearance of youth. She loved to make vegetables and flowers grow.
With a screwdriver I adjusted the carburetor. But the short, frayed cord came taut under my jerked pulls. Nothing happened. I checked the oil—nothing wrong. Sister Hunter hovered above me like a mother eagle, watching first here and then there. Finally I got a spark plug out of our own lawn mower and, after more tinkering, the rototiller started. She said, “You’re a wonder. I never could have done that.”
After tilling her garden, which was deftly situated between the bank of grapes and the gray shed in the back, I helped her hand weed the corn against the side fences. I hadn’t had this much fun with dirt since the preparation day in Salem when I helped Brother Goss tie up his tomatoes. After a few mornings weeding by hand, we stood by her prospering garden as water filled the rows. She smiled and said, “Wouldn’t Henry be proud?”
Several “situations”—she refused to call them problems—plagued Sister Hunter. The grimy red pickup gathered heat in the driveway, and the water pump had quit in her washing machine on the back porch. I asked Mike Nelson, a young acquaintance at church, to help me, and within a few days we had installed a new fuel line in her ancient pickup. We road tested it through town with Jack, Sister Hunter’s faded-blond retriever. He wasn’t much help when I stalled at the Suprette Market. All he did was hang his head and loll his tongue. We ended up at the back of the store giving him water out of a discarded paper cup. Back at Sister Hunter’s we guzzled lemonade while taking breaks from her washing machine. I bought some frozen cans of lemonade to replenish her supply—and threw in a small pot roast for good measure. Mike thought I was nuts, but I wanted to do it. I found out she hadn’t had a special Sunday dinner since her husband died. Sure enough, at church she invited us over, and I graciously declined, not wanting to negate my good deeds. But she insisted. The next Sunday we arrived, and I discovered the table set with stunning china and sparkling silverware, a bouquet of peonies, and the steaming roast. Afterward I teased her about such a nice meal. Then we listened to a tape of a general conference talk by Elder James E. Faust on temple work while Mike fell asleep on the couch.
The next Tuesday I cornered Mike in an aisle of Pay Mart with a brilliant idea.
“Clean every one of her windows?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“Inside and out?”
“Sure. It’s a small house.”
“You’re out of your tree.”
So we armed ourselves with squeegees, clean rags, and spray bottles of glass cleaner and assaulted Sister Hunter’s windows, Mike outside, me inside. Her place sparkled, not a book out of place, not a dog hair on the couch, the islands of throw rugs floating on the polished hardwood floors. I spied on a lamp table a photograph of her husband, taken years ago. It stood behind an opened Bible which had on it a red pencil and glasses and which lay on an intricate doily. A hallowed feeling lingered in the house.
Both Mike and I figured our small act of kindness was finished. But one afternoon as I drowsed under the locust and thought about Sister Hunter, a strong feeling came over me that we hadn’t done enough. Her pickup ran, her washing machine purred, her windows shone, and her garden was a showpiece, the cool upturned earth mellowing in the furrows. What more could we do?
By now summer school was heating up, and I was busy as an instructor in the elders quorum. For diversion I hiked a few miles above Strawberry Reservoir, until I was too tired to go on and had to return. In the solemn hours I picked out lonely love songs on my guitar. Then late one evening as Mom and I endured our brewer’s yeast milk shakes I asked her about the Hunters’ temple sealing. Mom shrugged. “I don’t know what happened. Since her husband died she has stayed pretty much to herself.”
That night, in the privacy of my room, I poured out my heart to the Lord for courage to finish our task.
On a Friday after class at the Y, without Mike, who was shopping for a quick-action .22, I found myself enjoying the pungent aroma of cut apples in Sister Hunter’s blue kitchen.
“I appreciate you and Mike so much,” she said over her apples. “I’m an old sourpuss, I know. I’m too set in my ways. Won’t even talk to Bishop Thompson that much, but the home teachers are a blessing. Those young rascals think I can’t do for myself. But I can.” She glanced up at me. “Since Henry passed away, I’ve had to.” She went back to slicing apples, their whiteness glistening under her knife. Then she stopped and looked up at me again. “I never had a more trying time than when I waited for Henry to join the Church. I thought he never would, and I kind of gave up. But through it all I had to stay true—true to what I felt. You know, you’re the first one to take a real interest. And I don’t know how to say thanks.”
Like the goshawk, Sister Hunter had fierce eyes. They were light like a hawk’s, but green. She had learned to take care of herself—to keep her eyes alive by the spirit of life. She had flown into the cold recesses of fear and come back. She had fought harsh winds and long boreal hours of loneliness. The contempt I had read in the goshawk’s eyes, as in Sister Hunter’s, was a disdain for giving up—for anything vulgar or hurtful—a disdain for anything that kept him from flying freely through his northern forests.
I told her thanks were not necessary, and then I said good-bye, without having asked her about going to the temple. In Grants Pass, Oregon, I had strenuously challenged a hardened truck driver to quit smoking and he did, but I had not yet brought up the matter of the temple with Sister Hunter because I hadn’t found the words. We had talked about the temple, and we had listened to the words of an Apostle, but just what I should say had not come to me, short of simply asking, “Why haven’t you gone to the temple?” Tomorrow I would ask her.
On the back porch she stopped me. “You wait here. I want to show you something.”
She came from the house with a flat, white box, tattered and crushed, but still with its lid. She sat down beside me and opened it. She lifted out a lace veil from the box.
“This was my mother’s temple veil.” The veil, pure and white, held a sacred aura.
Sister Hunter’s eyes were intense, sparkling. For some time we sat on the back porch steps. Quietly, still composing herself, she asked, “Would you—and your folks—come with me to the temple some day? If I am worthy? Would you stand in for Henry?”
“Need you ask?” I replied, in hushed voice. “Of course.”
For days I thought about Sister Hunter’s temple veil. I had spent too much time worrying about myself. I too wanted to attend the temple and consecrate my service. The goshawk, Dad said, had to keep flying, and it too, after long hours, must have wondered about going on, wondered how it might finish what it had started. Sister Hunter had somehow shown me the continuity I sought between my mission and my present life—simply by being available to serve.
A few days later, in the Provo Temple, I experienced an extraordinary event. As I participated in the ordinances of salvation a powerful thought came: covenant, covenant—the word echoed deeply. Covenant grows out of the faith that we can keep on going by serving others. I could fly out of the woods. The sensation I lived with before I spotted Sister Hunter from our roof was one of being lost in a dark woods, with no clear path for certainty, only the shadows of tall trees, and the sunny meadows behind me. I clearly envisioned my father’s goshawk, poised, eager, attentive, ready.
It was a special afternoon. I wanted to share the spirit of the temple with my parents—and especially Sister Hunter.
Outside the temple the air was fresh but warm. A couple, hand in hand, the man carrying a suitcase, strolled into the sunlight from under the white portico. I shouldered my blue canvas pack and walked down the hill. Utah Lake sparkled in the sunlight. The lake was incandescent. The mountains beyond shone faintly, hazed by a lingering mist. All of Provo became a green sea converted for a passage to the holy hills. Looking over this domain, I wished the goshawk might find, in his wanderings, such a place to light.