After Dad Died


Those perfect furrows were witness to Dad’s skill as a farmer. So, why the accident? And why wasn’t I comforted by my knowledge of the plan of salvation?

After Dad Died

It had only been two weeks since Dad had died. I hadn’t gone back to school yet. My little brother Jamey and little sister Tammy were attending school again, and Mom encouraged me to go. “It’ll be easier if you stay busy,” she said, but the emptiness I felt made the thought of being among all my cheery friends repulsive.

“Would you talk with a counselor?” she asked. “No,” was all I could answer.

I spent most of the day in my room among the things I knew so well: my poster of the Great Nebula in the constellation Orion, my collection of Louis L’Amour and Ray Bradbury books, my stake softball trophy, a picture of Dad and me heading out for a fishing trip to Molly Lake in the Sawtooths, and next to that the scriptures Dad had given me on my 12th birthday.

On a blank page in the fron Dad had written: “These scriptures are the word of God; they contain the truth. If you will study them and follow what they say you will know what you need to know for salvation and find the peace you seek. … I love you, Your father.”

I loved the scriptures. During the two years since Dad had given me that set I had read the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, the New Testament, and about a third of the Old Testament. Since Dad’s death I had read every scripture I could find on death and the resurrection. I understood as well as any LDS 14-year-old that only Dad’s body had died and that Dad was alive and busy in the spirit world, but the pain and loneliness wouldn’t go away.

During the days after the funeral I prayed to Heavenly Father often for faith and strength, but my sorrow remained. I thought God might be displeased with me for feeling so bad about Dad’s death because I knew the plan of salvation. I asked for forgiveness. I told God that I knew that if I lived right I could be with Dad again in the celestial kingdom, but that I just couldn’t stop missing him so much right now. I privately hoped that Dad would come visit me in a dream or vision and tell me that everything was okay, but it never happened.

I felt a strong need to cry, but I didn’t, not even that first day when the principal got me out of geometry and took me to his office where Mom was waiting to tell me Dad had been killed in a tractor accident. Not during the funeral when everyone was watching to see how I would react. And not when I was alone, because I knew death wasn’t really anything to righteous people, and to cry about it would be weak. I found that not crying took a lot of energy.

It was on a Wednesday night when Mom told me Grandpa Anson was coming to stay for a while. He had been one of the speakers at the funeral. He had told how his son had been a little rebellious when he was young but had turned his life around and gone on a mission, of how wonderful it was to see his son married in the temple, and of the joy it brought him to hear the good things people have to say about Rodney because of the service he had given them. There had been no sorrow in Grandpa’s voice. I guessed that Mom had asked Grandpa to come now because of me. I resented that. I just wanted to be left alone.

Thursday afternoon, when Grandpa was supposed to arrive, I went out for a walk. I wanted to avoid Mom calling me from my room like she always did to formally greet Grandpa. I walked across the back lawn, jumped the cement ditch, and crossed the rows and rows of sugar beets that covered 200 acres. The green leaves were just pushing out of the dirt. I knew I would be spending my afternoons and Saturdays thinning them soon. At the lower southeast corner of the field I came to a pile of large rocks that had been taken from the field years before. This is where Dad’s tractor had turned over. I couldn’t understand it—Dad knew about these rocks. He had warned me not to drive the tractor over them.

“Sometimes it only takes one mistake,” he had said.

I walked out of the field into the sagebrush. Dad said that a lot of people thought sagebrush was ugly and that he couldn’t understand why. He loved the way it smelled.

After about an hour I climbed the fence and began walking up the road that led to my home. When I got closer I could see Grandpa’s car in the driveway. A surge of anger flowed through me. The anger was so strong it scared me. Grandpa was a good man. Mom said he had done nothing but spoil me ever since I was a baby. “You’re his first grandson. He’s proud of you!”

I stopped and tried to get a hold of myself. Why? I thought. Then it came to me. Grandpa is 85 years old. He’s the one who should have died, not Dad. It was a mean thought, but there it was. Forcing my feet to move, I began walking home.

At dinner Grandpa didn’t have much to say to me. He asked Mom about the affairs of the farm, whether Uncle Barney was able to spend enough time here to get things done right. Grandpa had been a farmer and a good one. He had survived two droughts and numerous hail storms. The index finger on his right hand had been cut off at the knuckle by a combine.

After dinner Mom took me aside and asked me not to go straight to my room. I sat in the family room and watched TV with Grandpa for a couple of hours. He held Tammy in his lap and spoke with Jamey, but he pretty much ignored me. I guess that’s what I wanted.

The next morning I slept in until almost eight o’clock, which was unusual. There was a knock on the door and in walked Mom.

“How’re you feeling this morning?”

“Fine.”

“Grandpa would like to go for a walk with you along the river today. That is ‘if he’s feeling up to it,’” she said, trying to imitate Grandpa’s deep voice. Then she smiled.

“Okay,” I said. Mom’s smile faded. She looked long into my eyes, then left. She had cried in the principal’s office when she told me about Dad. She had cried since then too, but she hadn’t neglected the family. She had even made breakfast the day of the funeral.

We drove in Grandpa’s car to the recreation area—a picnic table underneath a shelter amid the sagebrush. The Snake River moved slow and deep in its lava channel, but just downstream a half mile it went over a falls and roared for the next 20 miles though a narrow canyon. We could hear it as we sat and threw rocks into the water. You could see them sink for a ways, but then they disappeared in the murky green. As we walked up the old Oregon Trail he told me some Indian stories that had happened in the area and about the pioneers that had traveled this way “not so long ago.” I already knew the stories, but listened anyway. As we ate the lunch Mom had packed, he told me how to cook biscuits on a stick and how to cook fish over a fire without a pan. Dad had done those things with me on our camping trips.

It wasn’t until we were on our way home that he actually talked about Dad.

“Your dad was a great farmer,” he said looking over the beet field.

“I know,” I said.

“I taught him everything he knows.” I realized too late that he meant that as a joke.

“It’s ironic the accident he had. That kind of avoidable accident seems to happen only to the best farmers. I can name five other good farmers something like that has happened to.”

You’re making me feel a lot better, I thought.

“Shoulda happened to me years ago,” he mumbled.

Suddenly I felt guilty. “No …” I said, but I couldn’t go on.

We drove the rest of the way in silence. Mom looked up hopefully when we came in. I went straight to my room. I lay on the bed and held Dad’s picture to my chest, staring at the ceiling.

After dinner that night Mom told me not to go to my room until at least nine o’clock. I couldn’t bring myself to watch TV so I went outside. The lilacs were in bloom. Their smell was soft and alluring. Dad had planted them when he built the house. They were a Mother’s Day gift for Mom. “They’re a gift that gives every year,” he had said. I sat under them on the far side so no one from the house could see me. The hollow feeling inside me was getting bigger. I wondered how much longer it would be before there was nothing left of me. I was scared, but I didn’t know what to do. I knew that God cared, but why did he let me hurt so much? And why did Dad’s death hurt so much? I believed in the plan of salvation.

I didn’t notice Grandpa until he was sitting down beside me. I pretended not to notice him and watched a robin hop across the lawn, stop to listen, and fly underneath the juniper bush.

“You’re in a lot of pain aren’t you, Jarren?” Grandpa said, abruptly breaking the silence.

I swallowed and nodded.

“Your dad’s death hurt a lot of people,” he said. “I don’t know how your mother is getting along without him. She’s stronger than I thought.”

I didn’t want to speak; I just wanted to curl up and go away, but Grandpa’s presence seemed to draw the pain to the surface. “Dad was a righteous man—we know the plan of salvation—there’s no reason to be sad.” My anger was apparent and my voice shook on sad.

Grandpa stared at me for a long moment while I stared at a dandelion next to me in the grass. Finally he spoke. His voice was old but he had a veteran farmer’s strength and roughness in it.

“Plan of salvation or no plan of salvation, death can hurt.” He reached down and pulled a few blades of grass. “Jarren, you know the scriptures. In the New Testament Heavenly Father mourned for Christ, in 3 Nephi Christ mourned for those who died in the great destruction, and what’s that scripture in Moses? It ‘How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?’” (Moses 7:28).

I thought for a moment how beautiful those words sounded. Then Grandpa spoke. “It seems that feeling sorrow is a part of being like God,” he said.

Still trying to hold onto my anger, I said, “You didn’t sound sad at the funeral!” He stared at me again.

“Jarren, everybody takes death differently, but I think you need to know I bawled like a baby right on the phone when your mom told me.” Then, his voice trailing off almost to a mumble he said, “I never guessed one of my children would die before me.” For an instant I felt Grandpa’s pain.

I knew the answer, but I had to ask him before I could surrender, “Do you miss him, Grandpa?”

“I miss him, Jarren.”

I smelled the lilacs again and I thought about the way Dad had looked when he planted them. I began to cry. Grandpa didn’t move until I put my arm around him, and then he hugged me.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull