Emerald Hills and Western Skies

I wrote this back in May, after Jon and I visited his family in Utah for Memorial Day Weekend. Turns out it was kind of important to the decisions we had to make in the week following David’s death. It first appeared at By Common Consent.


For the dozen odd years since I joined the church, I’ve been sort of an outlier. All of my experiences with the organized church and with my church community have been through the lens of being an adult convert. Nothing about that is unique, of course— there are adult converts everywhere, and in probably every faith— but joining a church that revolves in a potent way around an idealized family makes those coming in poignantly aware of our shortcomings. (Yes yes yes, I know there is no such thing as a perfect Mormon family, and I know everyone wears their best faces on Sunday, and every family has problems and struggles and challenges. I get all that. But bear with me.)

When I first joined the church, I experienced church as a woman with a non-member husband. Then, I experienced church as a woman with a husband who had joined, but to whom she was not sealed. I experienced having three babies “not born in the covenant”. Only one of my children was blessed as a baby. I didn’t understand what that meant, until I was suddenly experiencing church as a divorced mother and two of my children were not listed on the records of the church anywhere. I experienced church as a single mother. I experienced church where I had to find someone to baptize my children, because there was no family to whom the responsibility could be given. I experienced church as a single woman dating, while juggling three children and full-time college. I had never sat in a sacrament meeting with pews of people related to me. I had been a member of the church for almost ten years before I heard someone give thanks for me over the pulpit, and I remember it stunningly, because only in that moment did I realize it was a first. I burst into tears.

There have been tremendous kindnesses and generosity along the way. I have experienced the very best my church community can offer in love and support. My children have been valued, wonderful friends have cared for us, and included us in their families and in their holidays. Loving friends walked with my children into the baptism font, and countless hands have tenderly and richly blessed us. I attended the temple with friends I count as family, and with whom I have shared profound spiritual experiences. It has been a rich and complex journey, and I wouldn’t trade the perspective and joy for anything.

Because of the lens through which I experienced church, I have been guilty of being cynical at times. It’s hard being a convert. It’s hard being in an unsealed marriage, hearing constantly about the pinnacle of Mormon life, temple marriage. It’s hard being divorced. It’s hard being all these complicated things, hearing constantly about the importance of family, and feeling like no matter what, you fall short. I have been, at times, critical of our myopic focus on one type of family. It’s particularly painful for children, for singles, for divorced people, and for the myriad of folks who, for one reason or another, who fall outside the idealized family structure.

The family I come from is wonderful. I enjoy close relationships with all my siblings and extended family, and while my parents do not understand my Mormon conversion, or my raising my children in the church, they love us tremendously. Because being Mormon is a large part of my identity, my family simply cannot relate to some of my life. The warp and weave of a Mormon life is understandably foreign to them. They do not understand our vernacular, our idiosyncrasies, our vocabulary, our shorthand, or our rhythms. The Mormon rhetoric of the family is even more alienating to families outside Mormonism- Imagine how parents who have spent decades loving and building their family would feel at some of our expressions. My mother is already worried about her grandchildren’s weddings- and I can’t blame her. In many ways, I have straddled two worlds. My children are also going to have to manage that tension. It’s made me, at times, raw and kind of prickly. I’m aware of my faults, probably never moreso than now.

This last weekend, I experienced something I had previously only seen with my nose pressed to the glass on the outside. I experienced belonging to a Mormon family.

My husband and I flew to Utah for a family baby blessing. It was a slingshot trip for us from the Metropolitan DC area to Salt Lake City, but it was important for him to be there for his sister. The weekend was happy and boisterous and full of the commotion and laughter found in any big family— my husband is one of seven children— it was lovely and welcoming and wonderful. But I want to focus on two experiences that tectonically shifted my sprit and my perception.

The first was early Sunday morning, Memorial Day weekend.

Out in the vast yard of the homestead near Cache Valley, one of my sisters-in-law was gathering fresh cut flowers into white buckets from the Aggie Creamery. There were mums and irises and hydrangea and wildflowers overflowing the buckets onto the kitchen counters, as they were sorted into bouquets. There were siblings and children and dogs bouncing around the enormous kitchen, and the air of a holiday. Some had already headed off to different cemeteries; siblings talked about who was going where, and what time to meet at the main family memorial. All of the dead would be visited this day.

I had never… This was an utterly foreign land to me. My family are cremated. My beloved grandma had her ashes scattered at sea, and the Golden Gate Bridge, where we stood on the day she left, is her memorial in my heart. I can count the funerals I have attended on two fingers.

Heading up Cache Valley towards Old Main, we pass the Logan Temple, where several of Jon’s siblings were married, and where we are considering our own sealing. We turn into the Logan City Cemetery, where there is a sea of flowers, peppered with laughing children, balloons, visiting family and more flowers. Fresh, vibrant flowers are everywhere. The cemetery is full of cars and families, and people are working on their loved ones headstones. We park the car, and Jon takes my hand and walks towards “our people”. At the family plot, I meet more family members, and there is an air of celebration with contemplation. There are children, and mothers nursing while sitting on familiar markers. The kids know the stories of the lives marked here; they are nearly as familiar as anyone living. I am suddenly choked up. Jon walks me around, introducing me to folks living and dead, and quietly shows me the swath of rich emerald grass close to the rest of the family that bears no marker. It’s for us, hopefully far in the future, but there it is, bright and shining in the May sunlight, overlooking Cache Valley on the northern end of the Wasatch Front. This is where I will someday lay. There is, literally, a place for me.

Tears constrict my throat; there is something deeply meaningful and comforting in this beautiful certainty. It was like finding something I didn’t know I was missing. Whatever shape life may take, whatever happens between now and…then… there is this place. And there are the stories that will be told, the flowers that will be brought, and the children that will go on laughing and playing above the beautiful green lawn and beneath the splendid May skies.

We rejoined the family and gathered our armfuls of flowers and went in search of the family members to whom they belonged. No one was forgotten.

And I understood a little bit more about what family means.

Later that afternoon, washed and spiffed and in our Sunday best, we entered a chapel in Brigham City. Half the congregation was family. Row after row of family— smiling, happy faces greeting each other, leaning over the pews and chatting quietly, happy to see one another, and warmly welcoming me, the newest spouse. I found my sister-in-law, and helped her tie the booties I had knitted on her son’s tiny wiggling feet. The baby would be held in his father’s tartan Plaid, dressed in a beautiful outfit his grandmother had made him, and in booties my hands had knit.

The service was no different than any Mormon Sunday in any chapel anywhere. When it was time to bless the baby, seven brothers and their fathers stood up, buttoned their jackets, and formed a circle. My breath again caught in my chest and my eyes stung. This baby, so precious, so loved— all babies are, or should be, of course— but the men who will mentor, care for and raise him up were literally holding this baby in a circle of love. It was a visible proclamation and manifestation of the child’s relationship to the world.

What a profound blessing. And it had nothing to do with the words (though they were beautiful) spoken of actual blessing by his earthly father.

And I understood yet a little bit more about what family means.

Several years ago, I wrote:

We talk about our congregations being our ward-families. I hang onto this, out of necessity. It’s mostly true. Sort of. But family isn’t supposed to all disappear when some lines are redrawn on a map- and when your ward is your only family, that’s exactly what happens. Imperfections, it seems, are the norm both inside and outside the church. And those Sundays when a lesson is particularly painful or difficult or handled ham-fistedly by a hopefully well-meaning person and hurts me or my children, I wonder which imperfections are harder, and if I chose the better part.

Then I remember where the light comes from, and why I can even make it… Here is where I found my long-sought answers, and there is no reasoning or rationale or hurt feelings that will change that fact.

I am keenly aware of the imperfectness, and the flaws inherent in systems—all systems, including the church— and of course I haven’t forgotten the tensions, issues and problems that accompany so much of that family focus. But for today, I am grateful for the additional facets given to my vision, the additional nuance that broadens my compassion not in only one direction, but in all ways and places.

I am grateful to these magnificent families— both of my earthly families, and the family of the church— for folding me and mine in, for showing us with their actions what they mean by love, and for the healing they are working on my hurt soul. I did choose the better part.

I think I am just starting to understand.

Looking Up

In retrospect, I’ve tried to accurately portray the events that visited our family this summer. My inability to write was something I hadn’t experienced before, and the extended silence speaks volumes. But life goes on, as it will.

I’m a little numb when trying to recall details, but what I do know is that we were deeply cared for. The kids and I were supported, and given room to just feel whatever we needed to feel. The love and grace granted to us is a credit to Jon and his entire family. Siblings stopped by with treats, I was joined on the porch and just sat with in silence more than once, and we bumbled through those hard hours somehow.

When I was younger, long before we got married, David sat with me. I had just been through a terribly painful experience—one of those where you imagine you won’t survive and you can’t remember how to breathe. He was present with me. He gently told me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and it would be okay. He walked with me. He bore witness to my sorrow, and was just there. That time ended up being formative to my sense of self. I could live through things that hurt like hell, and that taking those steps, even when you don’t know where you will land, is vital to a meaningful life.

It was Jon’s family who walked with us on those first tender days, and I am certain David saw the poetic beauty, and was grateful with me.

One evening, Jon’s baby sister Mookie and her husband Dave came over—they have two young boys and a golden retriever, and are about the cutest family ever. Dave had been thinking of my kids, and wanted to give them something lighthearted and fun to focus on for a while. He’d spent the day fashioning a hydraulic rocket launcher from PVC piping and empty pop bottles. Setting up in Grandma and Grandpa’s driveway, the kids were excited to hook up the hose and the air compressor to his crazy contraption and blast water rockets out over the pasture. There was laughter and joy, and much searching for spent rockets, to refill and re-launch. I think a few landed on the roof…


Dave also builds mini-drones. He brought one his aircraft, fitted with a camera, and let the kids wear the visor so they could experience flying over the family land, see themselves from the air, and buzz grandpa’s flagpole. Grandma and grandpa joined us outside, while the chickens hid from the chaos, and the sheep named Maverick was baffled by the plastic pop bottles that kept dropping from the sky.

My children were looking up, and they were smiling.

Had you sampled the tears on my cheeks, you’d have found a kalidescope—grief, gratitude, laughter, and relief that life would, in fact, go on. We are in the very best hands, in every direction… including up.

(Bean now, and probably forever after, calls Dave Uncle Rocket.)



Jon and his father with Jeffrey under the Northern Utah sky on July 24, 2015

A few weeks before David died, he and I were on the phone talking about summer plans. He knew we would be out west, but since he was planning on visiting us this fall, he said he’d just wait to see the kids in October.

I had called him with some good news- Jon and I had just received our clearance to be sealed. We’d been anxiously awaiting the letter; the process had been drawn out and challenging, and when it came, we both dissolved into tears of relief and joy.

(For those unfamiliar with Mormon ceremony, while we had already been civilly married for more than a year, our marriage was only “till death do you part”, and not given the church blessing to be binding beyond death. In practical law, it means nothing, but spiritually, it matters to Mormons. The letter meant that the top three leaders of the church had considered our request, and agreed that our marriage could be sealed in the temple, and that my children could be ritually adopted into Jon’s family, in a sealing believed to transcend death. It’s a big deal to Mormon families, and is why so many Mormons want their kids to get married in the temple.)

David fully understood the importance of sealing, and he enthusiastically encouraged me to seek the clearance. He liked Jon, and he was so grateful for the stability and family the kids would have with him- and said so openly. He told me he wanted the kids to have what he couldn’t provide, and he knew their sealing didn’t in any way effect his relationship as their father. It simply meant more people who would love and support them. His generous heart made my calling him with the good news a joyful occasion.

While we were on the phone, he asked how to give his permission for the sealings to take place. The temple had sent me a form for him to sign, and he asked me to email it to him immediately- I did, and while we were still talking, he printed it. Twenty-four hours later, it was on my doorstep. I had suggested he just mail it to Jon’s family in Utah, where were going to be, but he said he wanted it to be in my hands.

Thank God for his kindness and generosity.

Thank God for both of our willingness to forgive, and to put our kids first. Neither of us had any idea how short the time remaining was; I have never been so grateful for our decision to take the high road with each other, no matter how hard it was.

So when I got the call in the pre-dawn of July 24th, David had done everything in his power to provide for his children in the only way he could- he gave his blessing for them to be adopted in and loved by Jon’s entire family. Jon’s family encircled us, and loved us and held us up during those dark hours and days following that morning.

Amid the devastating loss, we were also left with awe-inspiring hope. We had not just my family, but a whole new family who was holding us tightly, and who had embraced us with loving, willing and open arms. And my children knew they could accept this love, this family, with their father’s blessing, and without reservation. The ultimate gift.



This piece was originally posted at By Common Consent, on Sept 2, 2015.

The call came in the dim, grey light before dawn. She fumbled for her phone in the dark, and saw the number; her stomach dropped and adrenaline and dread flooded her body, suddenly both wide awake and numb. The aging voice was fragile over the line, as she tried to make sense of the confusing jumble of words. Hospital. Collapse. David. Ambulance. Intubated. Heart failure. Non-responsive. Half-formed questions bubbled to her lips, interrupted by shock-formed half-answers from the other end. “Wait…? what…? how…? is there a nurse…someone I can talk to…?” she pleaded into the phone.

She was in Utah for the summer, nestled near Cache Valley and the northern peaks of the breathtaking Wasatch Mountains. Her children were all still asleep in various beds around her new in-laws’ house. They’d been playing outside the night before, getting to know cousins and grandparents again, and overjoyed with the deep azure sky, the pasture, the chickens, the enormous dog, and the sheep named Maverick.

She motioned for her husband to close the door- she didn’t want the children to hear any part of this phone call. Six years before, they had seen their father overdose. They had seen him, during the divorce, seizing and convulsing on the floor of his mother’s house, where she had taken the kids for a supervised visitation. She had screamed for her mother-in-law to keep the kids in the front room, to not let them see, as she rushed to call 911, but they saw anyway. They had seen the paramedics pounding on his chest, had seen the firemen rushing into their grandmother’s genteel living room, had seen the mad, brutal rush to save his life. They were too young, but she could not protect them from it.

He survived that day. She had gone in the ambulance at the paramedics’ insistence, while protesting that she wasn’t his wife anymore. She couldn’t make any decisions for him. Her head swam as she tried to answer the doctor’s questions in the ER. How many times? How much? Of what? He’d been in and out of rehab half a dozen times in the previous three years, before she finally filed for divorce. “If he does this again, he will die.” Yes. She knew.

He knew it, too. And over the next few years, he got help. He followed a program. He stayed sober. It was hard. Every day. There is a reason 12-step plans use the phrase “One day at a time”. For an addict, it’s often broken down into one hour, or one minute at a time. A day seems to large a hurdle. But a minute? A minute can be done. Until someday, for some reason, it cannot.

Less than a year earlier, she had had him fly out to stay with them on the east coast. She had invited him many times, but he was finally feeling strong enough, and he came for almost two weeks. He stayed in their home, met her new husband and her step-children, and immersed himself in his own children. It had been a singular joy watching the harmony between loved ones, and see the kids bask in that light. It had been a beautiful visit, and they had spoken about repeating it again this coming fall.

They talked frequently. She valued him- not only as the father of her children, but as a constant for more than twenty-five years. They had met when she was still a girl. He was her ex-husband, but prior to, and after that, he was also her friend.

Now the phone call she had feared for years had come. Waiting on a call-back from a nurse, her heart was leaden. He had been doing so well… But she knew the frailty of that protest. She knew how it could go, and how fast it could go.

Her husband joined her outside in the gathering dawn. His parents, out for their morning walk, were silhouetted against the rising sun as they approached. The cat had joined them and their giant dog on their walk- they made a peculiar and oddly beautiful quartet. Strange, the things you remember when the world is shifting.

It was Pioneer Day in Utah. July. It would be hot, and the roses were opening in ridiculous color and bloom, despite the early hour. She remembers noticing that, too, along with a stray chicken wandering in and out of the roses. The phone rang.

He was gone.

There are moments in life that transcend time, where everything stops, the birds hold their song, and the enormity of the silence is deafening in it’s vastness. There are moments where a person can, ever so briefly, see the curving arc of the horizon and can feel the curling crest of the wave of time under their feet. Thank God those moments are fleeting, because our earthly hearts really cannot breathe in that paralyzing enormity for long. In that moment, she understood why people fall to their knees before angels.

Before her lies the task of waking her children this beautiful summer morning, and telling them their father is dead. She cannot protect them from the paralyzing unfairness of life, or from the unforgiving hardness of the devastating reality of addiction. She wants to cry out for someone to shield them, someone more adequately prepared than her, someone who knows better than she how to shepherd children through a valley no child should walk. But there is no answer. So she will do it.

She can see the house over her husband’s shoulder, backlit by the rising sun, where her children are asleep, safe and happy, surrounded by family, summer roses, giant dogs, chickens, cousins and a sheep named Maverick.

She takes a deep breath, and tries to rub away her endless tears, and moves towards the sunrise and what she must do.


It’s National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. It takes extraordinary courage and strength to seek help, both for the addict and for the families and friends of those who love them. There are many who triumph over their demons; recovery and finding a way to a happy and healthy life is possible. When faced with addiction, it is not just the addict who needs support, but the families as well.

Please be respectful when discussing addiction. Understand there are times when a person or a family truly cannot have done more. Sometimes, life is just unfair, pain gets the better of people and the world loses what might have been.

For the sake of this discussion, please refrain from comparing non-physiologically addictive habits to alcohol and drugs. For families who have dealt with real addiction, who have lost someone to the battle, comparing substances or actions that may be compulsive or simply unhealthy diminishes the devastating reality of their lived lives and their tragic losses.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has addiction recovery programs all over the world. Click here for information.

The Church has also just launched an excellent series of videos on the Twelve Steps. They’re raw and hard to watch if this is effecting you or someone you love. But they are very good.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are both established organizations that do a lot of good in the world. They are free, anonymous, and they work.

If you are a family member or loved one of an addict, please consider your own support. Al-Anon is 12-step AA affiliated support and provides tools and support for families and friends. I have personally used this program and can testify to the tremendous good it can do in healing and helping.