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.”