Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Niece Died This Morning

She was 12 years old, and her death was totally unexpected.

My father called this morning to tell me and my wife that my niece had just died. My sister had taken in three cats very recently, and my niece - a physically healthy young woman - had a severe allergic reaction while playing with them. She passed away before the doctors at the hospital could restart her breathing. (Apparently, I have a nephew and a brother - two different families, as well as one of my own sons - who have had allergic reactions to cats, but they weren’t serious enough to raise concerns among the family.)

My father’s words to us were concise. He is not given to emotional displays, and his natural stoicism was evident in his call. He said two things: “Treasure your children every day of your lives,” and “Keep animals out of your house.” I was struck by how this conversation with my father encapsulated him so perfectly. To understand this, you need to know my father.

My mom has a rare form of schizophrenia. My father was unaware of this, as was everyone else (including my mother), when they got married. He found out after the birth of my sisters (twins), when she was overwhelmed and her mind wouldn’t shut down and allow her to sleep. She had what was termed a nervous breakdown, which led to her clinical diagnosis.

From that moment forward, my dad shielded my mom from every care of the world so her condition would stay in remission, if you will. By all practical measures, he became my father and my mother. My mom wanted more children, so he agreed - knowing that meant his responsibilities would increase accordingly. He shouldered all of the financial, household, emotional, physical, disciplinary, organizational, educational, etc. responsibilities for his family and allowed his wife to be seen by the community as the incredibly spiritual woman we knew as our mother - a modern Mormon saint. People in town admired his work ethic, but they never realized what he was doing behind our doors - because he never once mentioned it in any way to anyone. He didn’t want others to view his wife as anyone other than the sweet angel he had married - to do anything that would lessen her in others’ eyes in a time when mental illness was not understood.

Until her first breakdown, my father served in various leadership positions in the Church. After that, he waited nearly 30 years to serve in another position that required he spend significant time away from home - until his children were gone and my mom could function without the stress associated with raising them. He left an extremely well paying job with incredible advancement opportunities to go back to the small town where my mom was raised, simply to ease her stress and allow her to function normally. He became an elementary school janitor, took a 50% pay cut and focused on loving and serving his kids - both at home and at his school.

Not holding a high profile church position, he came to be known in town as a salt-of-the-earth farm boy - a good man, but certainly not a leader. I bought into that perception until my mother’s second breakdown a few years ago, when her “sleeping pills” stopped working and her whole personality changed. It was only after this experience that I finally saw my father for what he is - as close an example of the Savior’s single-minded dedication to service and family as anyone I have ever known.

Why do I share all of this when it is my niece’s death that rocked our family’s world this morning? It is because my father was able to sum up the situation for his family in such a beautifully concise way. He has a rock-solid testimony of the Plan of Salvation - that he and my sister will see their (grand)daughter again. It is such a given for him that he never even thought to mention it. He knew it; he knew we knew it; it never crossed his mind to address it. Instead, just as he always has, he saw the big picture and acted as both mother and father to his family - giving us two beautifully balanced bits of wisdom - one spiritual that applies to all and one practical that applies directly to his own children. Therefore, I pass them on to you - knowing the second one will have to be adapted to whatever dangers threaten your own children’s well-being - physically or spiritually.

“Treasure your children every day of your life,” and “Keep (serious dangers to your children) out of your house.”

21 comments:

Robert said...

This is very sad news. How are the kids handling it?
Crys

Mama D said...

The kids (us, too) are doing all right, over all. Shook up, since it's so unexpected and due to something one wouldn't really think would be a life-threatening problem. It has given us all pause, and as Dad D said, made us treasure and express gratitude to our family.

However, this puts a whole new spin on Jeff's cat allergies. We're thinking it might be genetic. We have already talked with the kids about being careful around cats. (Sorry, Patty, et al: we won't be visiting your homes any time soon...)

ANTSYLLI said...

I am sooo sorry for your loss. Your thoughts are right on target and touched me deeply. I will remember your family in my prayers. In light of the potential danger, I won't be inviting you over to my house anytime soon either--and that is ok. We love your family soooo much.

Papa D said...

Thanks, antSylli.

Just a clarification: We won't be taking Jeff into a home with cats. We have no reasons at all to suspect that our exposure will have an effect on him.

lou said...

I read your blog to Bari before he left for work tonight. It has had quite a jolt of reality for me. Every day is a gift in this life. I think I forget that sometimes. My sympathies to your family.
I don't think I'll ever forget the clear and moving advise you got from your father. And I'll certainly never forget your story of his great and powerful eternal love and commitment to your mother. It is a true love story.

Patty said...

Wow. That's the first thing I thought of after reading your very moving and revealing post. I had no idea that someone could be that allergic to cats, and to lose someone so suddenly would be so hard (nothwithstanding our gospel knowledge.) I am also astounded at the strength and love your Dad has for your Mom. What an immense blessing that has to be to her, and an awesome example for you. I'll keep you and your family in my prayers.

Leslie said...

I'm so sorry for you loss. I am also so inspired by your parent's love story. Thanks for sharing.

chelle said...

What an amzing story of love and silent, willing, selfless sacrifice. I am not sure too many other people could handle mental illness the same way your father does. A lot of times we nit pick our spouces for silly little insignificant things while others clearly has reason to nag, whine and complain. Somehow they are given that gift of Christ like love and service. Often without anyone else realizing it.
I am sorry for the loss of your neice. That has got to be devistating even with gospel knowledge. You guys are an amazing family. I think you guys do a great job of showing your children that same love Ray's father has shown to his wife. You are examples to us all. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

tdaniels001 said...

That is a terribly sad story about your niece. Most people learn about their allergies long before such a terrible reaction. I had a friend in Germany who developed a terrible reaction to certain foods, and he went into shock at work one day. He was rushed to the hospital and they ended up having to do a tracheotomy so he could breathe. Sometimes these things pop up out of no where, it seems.

I am really sorry about your niece, but be careful about your over-reaction to Jeff's allergy. It is something he will have to learn to live with long after he leaves home. Learning to live with it under your tutelage will help him a lot more than just secluding him from people who have cats.

We have a friend who as soon as he walks through our door asks for a benedryl.

About.com has a pretty good article on dealing with cat allergies, which is apparently very common. Your readers might want to check it out. http://allergies.about.com/od/allergies101/a/catallergy.htm

Mama D said...

Tom, my "over-reaction" to Jeff's allergies isn't really over-reaction -- it's a knee-jerk reaction to an unexpected and shocking death in the family. My reaction hasn't gone further than this. He can be/has been around cats (same room, briefly), he just doesn't really hold/pet them (close proximity). However, until all of the details of our niece's death are known, being a tiny bit more cautious isn't a bad thing.

Considering his diabetes, his cat/grass/tree/pollen/dust mite allergies are pretty tame. Jeff is a responsible, mature, great young man. He already knows how to live, and live well, with his circumstances.

Thanks for the about.com link. Useful info. Good to see you lurking around on Ray's blog...

stephanie said...

wow, I have no other words right now! You have an amazing father, and he is right she will be with them again! :)

You are are really cool person!

thank you!!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a good man your father is. I am speechless, but ache to be so selfless. Tinkerbell

Anonymous said...

Hugs to you, Ray and Michelle. The two of you have become family to me, and my heart aches for you.
We have that in common, Ray, loving a mother who was seriously mentally ill, and loving, admiring and trying to support a father who was left with all the ends and pieces to pick up. My father is my hero as your father is yours. They had the same kind of integrity and loyalty. The similarities are surprising. My mother had a "nervous breakdown" after she gave birth to twin girls--my sister and me. My dad has loved and cared for her in spite of all the nasty things that sometimes accompany mental illness. He is a real trooper.

People are the way they are for a reason! I understand a little better now, Ray, your dislike for emotionalism, and it was natural thing that you would want to follow your father in that respect. It takes a cool head to be both mother and father. And again, I am amazed at how well-adjusted you seem to be. Phoenix rising from ashes. Love, Davidson

Papa D said...

Thanks, Tink and Davidson. I appreciate you taking the time to check out this post.

Amy said...

What a great post. Thanks for sharing it. I think that when the day comes when all of us can view our parents for what they really are we will be filled with gratitude that they made the sacrifices they did for us.

Stephen said...

Ray, I've read this before, but seeing your link to it on Mormon Matters I wanted to tell you that this is a great post and a great tribute to your father.

Anonymous said...

My son is like your father and his wife is like your mother. He did have indications of what their marriage would be like before they married and he made the choice to go ahead. For years I worried that he had made a terrible mistake. His Christlike love and service and the way he makes her look good convince me that they will be exalted together.

Papa D said...

Anonymous,

Have you told him that?

NoSurfGirl said...

I wish this could be a general conference talk.

BHodges said...

Just read this and enjoyed it. Thanks.

Rich Alger said...

Thank you for sharing. It is the salt of the earth type people that have given me faith and hope.