Sunday, February 24, 2019

Excerpts from Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary



As I mentioned in my last post, BCC Press has recently released a rather unusual mission memoir by yours truly, in both print and ebook formats (available on Amazon). Of course, they want me to promote it in any way possible, but since I’m really bad at self-promotion, I guess I’ll just let the book mostly speak for itself. I’ll trot out a few excerpts here, which should give you some idea of what sort of book this is, with minimal connective text from me. So, here goes.

From the Vorwort (foreword):

I need to confess up front that this story didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would. About thirty years ago, when I first had the idea of writing an MMM (Mormon Missionary Memoir, a genre that has become as common as crabgrass in the LDS literary lawn), I pictured this narrative as a triumphant, majestic, remarkable retelling of the most glorious two years of my life. But that was thirty years ago. I was incredibly naïve. I hadn’t had enough time to let the mission experience percolate for a few decades. I hadn’t lived long enough to see it through the long lens of real life. Oh, I knew the plotline all right. And I could remember the cast of characters much better than I do now. But I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see it in any sort of context. I couldn’t comprehend the broader implications of the experience. It has now been forty years since that distant summer day when the Salt Lake Mission Home swallowed me whole. . . . I think those forty years have given me enough perspective to finally make a semiserious attempt at this admittedly atypical MMM. . . .
I can honestly say that my life is still being shaped by Bruder Terry and what he experienced all those years ago. Little did he know how complicated some of those innocuous experiences he had would turn out to be.
So this is his story. I will tell it as best I can, but you must realize that I am not the person who stepped onto that America-bound plane in Hamburg, Germany, thirty-eight years ago. And that is why I will refer to that person in the third person. He is gone. Has been for a long time now. But wisps of his memories still float by at times, like bubbles on the breeze. I can see them for a moment, but they are both distorted and impossible to grasp and to hold.
One thing you need to know is that in spite of the stultifying sameness of dress imposed upon male Mormon missionaries (females get cut a little slack in this department), no two missionaries are alike. Beyond this, there is another level of diversity: between missions—all 406 of them. My youngest son recently returned from serving in Ukraine. At the same time, his cousin was serving in Florida. Reading their weekly emails was an exercise in head scratching. You never would have known they were doing anything remotely similar. Their experiences were as different as a root canal and a birthday party. And when the cousin’s brother was sent to Uruguay, the sense of disconnect seemed to triple. So any mission memoir is going to be a very, very, very idiosyncratic narrative. Of course, any memoir is only as mesmerizing as the mind and writing facility of its author, but I am just arrogant enough to believe that I can turn virtually anything into a fascinating read. So, what better challenge than the rigors and tedium and conformity of a Mormon mission?. . .
Also, please forgive me if I don’t keep this story completely in the 1970s or in Germany. There were many things Bruder Terry didn’t understand then that I do now. He had no historical or cultural context for some of the things he experienced. He also had a very simple understanding of LDS theology and history. Some commentary is therefore inevitable. Actually, a lot of commentary is inevitable. But remember, I’m trying to understand him and his experiences just as you are. So please allow me to mind-wander. And if I were to write this story ten years from now, it might be far different than it is today. But this is how I remember it now.
And why, you ask, would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? First, because what Bruder Terry experienced in Germany all those years ago has a lot to do with many of the issues facing Latter-day Saints today. And second, because it’s a pretty good story, disjointed and introspective as I present it, and everybody likes a good story.

From chapter 3, “Old World, New World”:

“Right now I think I’m more tired than scared,” Bruder Terry lied. “I’ll save scared for tomorrow.” He was tired. Jet lag was creeping up on him, but cold fingers of fear gripped him through the curtain of weariness that dulled his mind.
What would tomorrow bring, though, after he had slept the jet lag off? Today he had his fourteen traveling companions with him. He had spent two months with them and felt comfortable if not exactly confident in their company. But tomorrow, tomorrow would come too fast. Today had come fast. Flying toward morning out of Chicago, he had seen the sun rise over Ireland just four hours after nightfall. He had slept fitfully, crumpled up in a plane seat like a heap of new clothes. On waking he felt wrinkled, rumpled, and a bit stale. And now Ireland was far behind.
His mind wandered back briefly to an encounter they had had in Chicago. During their layover, a strikingly handsome man in a Lufthansa pilot’s uniform approached them.
“Where are you going?” he asked in a foreign accent.
“Germany,” they had answered.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m a German, and I’m a Mormon. Are you flying on my plane? It’s a Lufthansa 747 that’s only about half full.”
“No,” they had told him. “We’re on a Pan Am 707.” And, as it turned out, the plane was full. No elbow room in sight.
“Too bad,” he said. “Well, good luck, elders.”
Years later, I would realize this German Lufthansa pilot was none other than Dieter Uchtdorf, who would become a Mormon Apostle and would go on to serve as second counselor in the LDS First Presidency. He left a very positive impression, but remembering that encounter, Terry squirmed in his seat. He was tired of sitting. The Lufthansa pilot, he thought, would probably have invited them into the cockpit to show them around. This was, after all, 1975. But on the Pan Am plane, they were just ordinary pieces of human cargo. Uncomfortable cargo at that.
The crowded 707 circled now above Frankfurt, slowly passing through thick banks of clouds. Bruder Terry was fortunate to have a window seat and sat pensively, watching the passing shrouds of grey mist. What would Germany be like? He had wanted to see that enchanted land for years. Now he was directly above it, and clouds heavy with rain concealed the countryside from view. Would he be disappointed? Suddenly the wing dipped, the tattered edges of a rain cloud passed swiftly upward, and there it was—patch-work fields and dark green forests. “This is really Germany,” he thought, mentally pinching himself to see if it was real. An apprehensive thrill shot through him. “What will the people be like? Will I be able to convert anyone? Maybe myself?” It was more than an idle question.

From chapter 9, “Going to the Gynecologist”:

Like a painful zit, their troubles came to a head at zone conference on February 20. It was an eventful day in more ways than one. They took the U-bahn out to Pinneberg to meet with all the missionaries in the northern portion of Hamburg. At one point during the conference, one of President Scharneman’s assistants made a rather audacious promise. He even introduced this promise by saying that the Spirit had authorized it. Now, this was a promise that I’m sure no General Authority would sanction. In fact, there are all sorts of doctrinal and logical problems with this promise. It was completely out of order. But Bruder Bradford made it nonetheless. With his hand raised to the square, he declared, “I promise you in the name of Jesus Christ that if you will work fifty-five hours each week in the month of March, someone you are teaching will be baptized.”
“Now wait just a minute!” I still want to yell after all these years. “You can’t make a promise like that. It cuts against the grain of free will (or ‘agency,’ as Mormons call it) and a whole host of other gospel principles. You simply can’t make that promise. Can’t, can’t, can’t! Especially in Germany, where baptisms are about as common as palm trees.” But when Bradford spoke this promise, an odd thing happened: what Terry assumed was the Holy Ghost hit him like sucker punch and confirmed to him, in what he felt was an unmistakable way, that Bradford did indeed have authorization to make this promise. Terry knew it was true. KNEW. As improbable as it seemed, he knew that if he and Carlson worked fifty-five hours each week for the next month, one of their investigators would be baptized. How, he had no idea. They didn’t have any likely candidates. But he figured he could leave those little details up to the Lord. Apparently almost everyone else felt the same thing Terry did, because when Bradford asked them to raise their right hands to the square and promise to work those fifty-five-hour weeks, everyone in the zone quickly raised his or her hand. Everyone, that is, except Bruder Carlson.
Terry couldn’t believe it. The wind went out of his sails as quickly as if he had floated into the Doldrums. How could he? Terry thought. Terry hadn’t seen a baptism yet on his mission, but here was a guarantee, a 100-percent sure-as-sheep-dip guarantee. All they had to do was work fifty-five hours. Heavens, they were already doing that. This was like promising to brush your teeth before going to bed. But his companion wouldn’t promise. Terry was so angry he could have strangled Carlson.

To make a long story short, Carlson did eventually make the promise, and he and Terry did work those fifty-five hours each week. But nobody got baptized. Of course, no time limit was specified. That baptism might have happened twenty years later. But that’s not the way Terry understood the promise. It should have happened while he was there, or at least soon, which is a relative term. Just in case, though, I checked with the Church membership department when I worked at Church magazines. They didn’t have a record for any of Bruder Terry’s investigators. Bruder Terry also knew a young man from a different ward who later became stake president in that area. I contacted him, and he sent me a list of all the members in area where Terry was assigned. No names matched the ones in Bruder Terry’s appointment book. I guess it’s possible that someone he and Carlson taught once or twice moved away and joined the Church, but I’m quite sure that none of their real investigators were baptized. Certainly none joined during Bruder Terry’s mission. So what can I conclude? Well, . . .

Maybe something else was going on that day at zone conference. Maybe in the enthusiasm of the moment, Terry felt something powerful and interpreted it wrong. That’s certainly possible. My experience over the years is that spiritual feelings are devilishly hard to decipher. I’ve been certain about what I felt were spiritual communications from time to time, but time and experience have proved me wrong as often as right. So at this point, I have no idea what to make of Bruder Terry’s experience that day.

By the way, the rest of this chapter, which explains why two male missionaries would visit a gynecologist, is pretty good, just too long to include here.

From chapter 22, “Leaving the Mortuary”:

If life were more like an adolescent fantasy novel, Bruder Terry would have been scheduled to go home the day after the amazing evening at Ortmanns’. Unfortunately, life is more like, well, life. Serendipity is the huge exception, not the rule. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be serendipity. So instead of going out on a high note, Terry slipped back into the harsh reality of missionary work in Berlin. In spite of how difficult things were, though, he felt like he was on a greased slippery slide. The end was coming too fast, but he felt like he still had years of work to do.
The final month of Terry’s mission was filled with all sorts of conflicting emotions and experiences. Now, as I read through his journal, it strikes me that he was feeling pretty high levels of anxiety on several fronts. The Work was hard. Some days they had no success finding people to teach, and often their appointments fell through, but they did find several possibly promising investigators. Again and again after a Discussion Terry would write, “He could be good” or “She could be good”—even Frau Herschel, who answered the door one day without any pants on and another day was wearing a see-through blouse with no bra, which made it rather hard for the missionaries to concentrate on the Discussion. “She needs to repent a lot,” Terry observed, but he also wrote in a fit of complete irrationality that “she could be good.” Unfortunately, this hopeful assessment was seldom true. In some ways, he sounded like a Golden [the Hamburg mission’s term for Greenies], jumping to overly optimistic conclusions about people instead of seeing the long and more realistic view. Perhaps this was because he had no long view anymore. He was slated to leave on July 7, just over a month after the glorious Discussion with Ortmanns. So he viewed everyone as through a pair of near-sighted spectacles. This undoubtedly distorted his vision. . . .
Speaking of emotional states, Terry was apparently struggling more than I recall from this safe distance. Frankly, after the mission was over, I think I developed a good case of selective memory (which my wife claims never went into remission). I remember, of course, that the end of Bruder Terry’s mission was no triumphant exit that would make a fitting end to a Church-produced missionary video, but his journal sort of surprises me. It repeatedly recorded heartfelt laments about how hard it was to stay enthused, how much energy he expended trying to force a spiritual experience that never came, and how inadequate he felt. A follow-up Discussion with the Ortmanns was emblematic of his frustrations. He wanted so much to duplicate the magical experience he and Holmes had had—both for the Ortmanns and for his struggling companion—but the Discussion fell flat. He tried too hard, and when no Spirit came, he was exhausted and depressed for a couple of days.
Two factors probably came into play here regarding his frustration. First, over the past two years, he had actually had a handful of rather mind-boggling spiritual experiences. He probably assumed he should be having these sorts of happenings on a weekly or even daily basis. But he was young and had very little life experience. How could he know that the Spirit was capricious and came only occasionally and unannounced? Jesus even admitted as much to Nicodemus. Second, although he worshiped the ground President Randall walked on, I believe the standard this young president set was so high that when Terry understood he wasn’t even within the same zip code of that ideal, he felt he was a failure. Repeatedly, his journal bemoans the fact that he had so little faith. In his mind, the proof of faith was success. He remembered the baptism goal he had set the year before, the one encouraged by President Randall, who tied faith directly to results, baptisms. And what did Terry have to show for his faith? An elderly lady and a young Donny groupie. He supposed he could also count half of a lonely middle-aged man. Terry had found Alfred Kraft, but someone else had baptized him. And that was it. He had come nowhere near the thirty baptisms he had idealistically plucked from the air as a goal under the spell of President Randall’s magic. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t endure away from his presence. And since Bruder Terry had had so little measurable success, he translated that into the conclusion that he had no faith. The fact that he was still a mere district leader while several of his good friends in the mission were already zone leaders or assistants made him believe he had underachieved, an inevitable and sad conclusion in the palpable mission (and LDS) environment where leadership positions were seen as evidence of righteousness and faith. Rather than focusing on the few true high points, Bruder Terry wallowed in the troughs. And this pattern persisted right up to his last week. As the end drew nearer and he realized he would not see another baptism, he focused on leaving Bruder Williams with a pool of potential converts, hence the repeated naïve exclamations “He could be good” and “She could be good.” In the end, he left Williams nobody within a light-year of baptism.

Well, that’s a small taste of what Bruder is all about. There’s a lot more, of course, and the Nachwort (Afterword) delves pretty deeply into what I think now about both Bruder Terry and the Church he represented. But, as I asked earlier, why would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? I’ll let Steve Walker, emeritus professor of English at BYU, give another answer: “Bruder may be the best missionary memoir ever. I’ve read every one I could find, and this compelling volume is the best I’ve found. I like the vividness with which Terry lays out the day-to-day realities of missionary experience like a smorgasbord for those who haven’t yet tasted it, and even more appetizingly for those of us who thought we already had.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Mission Memoir, Ultimate Tourney, and Other Random Stuff


It’s been a while since I posted anything. I’ll explain that in a minute, but first a couple of significant events.
First, BCC Press has just released the ebook version of my mission memoir, Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary. It’s available on Amazon, and for a short time is priced at $0.99. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you ought to check out the memoir. The print version will be released Tuesday. BCC will probably run a guest post this week with a few excerpts from the book.
Second, a shout out to the BYU ultimate frisbee team, CHI Ultimate. Our youngest son plays for this club team (meaning the university gives them no financial support), so we decided to follow them to Tampa for the big Florida Warm Up tournament. Most of the tournaments have a Sunday championship bracket, which BYU does not participate in, so they often accommodate CHI Ultimate by giving them a few extra preliminary games. In Florida, that meant the other teams played three games Friday and three Saturday to determine the seeding for the Sunday brackets. BYU was given four games each day. And they went 7-1, beating number 2, number 5, and a couple of other ranked opponents, and losing by one point to number 6, Wisconsin. BYU entered the tournament ranked 9th in the country and jumped to 4th afterward. So congratulations to BYU’s ultimate team. If you’ve never watched college-level ultimate, it’s pretty incredible. Lots of action, and the skill level in throwing and catching the disc is impressive. Much more fun than watching soccer (yawn). BYU plays next on March 1 and 2 at the Stanford Invite in California. It was fun to watch all eight games in Tampa, and especially nice to enjoy some 80-degree weather in the middle of February. We left a snowstorm in Utah.
Finally, an explanation for my infrequent posts of late. Life here at home has been rather chaotic lately. In June, our daughter and her family moved from Houston to Utah. Our son-in-law left Exxon after eight demanding years and took a job with an energy consulting firm in Utah County. The housing market here was crazy, though, so they finally decided to buy our nephew’s home. He’s a contractor and had decided to build himself a new house. This means that instead of having the grandkids in Houston, they’ve been living with us during construction. The nephew just finished his new house last week, though, so our daughter and family will be moving into his old house soon, after a little refurbishing. But it’s been fun having three grandkids running (around) the house for about eight months. They are seven, five, and two. Still, it has been crazy at times, and I’ve found that it’s much easier to write blog posts in a quiet house than in one ruled by a two-year-old. We’ll be sad to see them move—all the way to Lehi this time—but maybe I’ll have more time to blog.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Moth and Rust and Pulmonary Hypertension


I’m a big fan of book reviews. We publish them in each issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, and I read them in Dialogue and Journal of Mormon History. I like book reviews for three reasons. First, I love books. I want to know what’s being published, especially in the area of Mormon studies, where I work. Second, book reviews most often tell me enough about a book that I decide not to buy it and read it. Third, every now and then a review convinces me that I do want to read the book being evaluated. This is often how I narrow my reading list. Recently, I read a review that convinced me to buy the book. It is Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death, published by Signature Books and edited by Sunstone editor Stephen Carter.
Carter recruited forty-six different authors (including himself) to write about their encounters with death. This may sound morbid, but the stories, essays, and poetry in the book present fascinating views of a topic we all face up close and personal at times but usually avoid. Some of the authors raise provocative questions. I have not finished the book yet, but I’m far enough in to be hooked. This is a thought-provoking collection of reminiscences and ruminations. Carter has divided the book into five sections: Passages (thoughts on a loved one’s death), Piercing the Veil (ideas on the condition of the soul after death), Fleeting (on the death of children), A Wider View (death in other contexts), and A Single Soul (how death has affected the author personally). My purpose here is not to review the book. My purpose is to tell you about my mother, because Moth and Rust has made me think more deeply about the only person I have ever seen pass from mortality to the great beyond.
When I was a teenager, Mom told me she wouldn’t make it to sixty. She suffered from fibromyalgia and felt so awful that she couldn’t imagine living to old age. This was before anyone knew what fibromyalgia was. Her doctor couldn’t find a cause for her pain, so he told her it was all in her head. That was helpful. But she knew it wasn’t in her head. It was in her chest and arms. I also knew it wasn’t in her head. My bedroom was across the hall from my parents’ bedroom, and I remember hearing her crying in the night because she hurt so much. She never knew I was listening until I was older and mentioned it to her. She also had a damaged mitral valve in her heart from the rheumatic fever she contracted when I was eighteen months old. Her health issues were not life-threatening, but they were life-hampering and made her miserable. In her fifties, she added peripheral neuropathy to her list of ailments. This made her feet ache and limited her mobility. I know something about this one, because I inherited it from her. Later, after she had passed the sixty-year mark she thought she’d never reach, she was diagnosed with hypoglycemia, which eventually morphed into diabetes. She took so many medications (some to counter the side-effects of other medications) that we joked with her that when she died the EPA would have to dispose of her body.
In Mom’s late seventies, she needed bypass surgery, but she didn’t seem to recover as we expected. She seemed to tire easily and huff and puff with minor physical exertion. After a couple of years, just after she turned eighty, she was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery). Finally, after all the merely annoying health issues, this one was fatal.
She dealt with it like she had everything else to this point. You need to understand one thing about my mom. She was an angel. She wasn’t perfect, but she came awfully close. She was served faithfully in the Church, loved her family in quiet but impressive ways, and even worked consistently on her genealogy. She made a decision early on that no matter how awful she felt, she would try to be pleasant. This wasn’t something that just came naturally, and I’m sure it was tremendously difficult, but she succeeded marvelously. This was a conscious decision, and she wrote about it in her personal history. No matter how much she hurt, when you talked with her on the phone or even in person, you would never know anything was wrong. The only time I remember her complaining was when she broke her ankle and had to be confined to a wheelchair for a few weeks. All she said was “This is so hard.” This was near the end, and her oxygen needs were significant, so the broken ankle was a difficult complication in an already unraveling life.
She lasted almost four years from the fatal diagnosis. We watched as her oxygen setting went from two liters to four to six to eight to ten and finally to twelve. Since the oxygen concentrator could produce only ten liters, they combined two machines and ran them together. She also took a medication that cost $15,000 a month. Yes, that’s not a misprint. Fortunately, her insurance and a charity paid for almost all of it. And my dad took such good care of her. It almost killed him near the end. He was exhausted from not sleeping. He’s a worrier, and he would lie awake listening to her breathe, wondering at each breath if it would be her last.
But her last breath came in the hospital, and it will trouble me till the day when I take my last breath. At the end, her oxygen concentrators could not satisfy the needs of her ossifying lungs. She needed fifteen liters, and even the combined concentrators could not supply enough oxygen. In the hospital, she had a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. But she held on long enough for her family to gather. She did not have a big family. She was able to have only two children, and my sister’s only child died of cancer at age eight. But finally, after my daughter and her two-year-old son—my mom’s only great-grandchild at the time—had arrived from Houston, Mom agreed to have the oxygen mask removed.
The pulmonologist told us they would give her morphine to make her comfortable and Ativan to relax her. Then they would take away her supplemental oxygen. They assured us that she would go to sleep and peacefully slip away. It didn’t happen that way. It was a difficult struggle. My dad and I held her hands and tried to calm her as she fought for breath. The stroke took from her the control of her facial muscles, and the pain distorted her face into a mask of agony that we had never seen before. After she was gone, my dad looked at her and said, “That’s not what I married.” I understood. She had always managed to be pleasant, to deal with the pain without letting anyone know how much discomfort she felt. But even the morticians were unable to restore the peaceful countenance we had always known, and I still feel bad about that.
My mom’s death will haunt me with questions until somewhere on the other side of the veil someone can give me answers that are unavailable here in mortality. I didn’t cry when she died. She did, after all, live almost twenty-four years longer than she told me she would, so I considered all those extra years an unexpected and blessed bonus. But the manner of her death was also very disturbing. If anyone deserved to slip away peacefully, it was my mom. The way she died was so incompatible with the way she lived. A revelation given to Joseph Smith states, “Those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them” (D&C 42:46). Since my mother’s death, I have had to consider this statement a platitude rather than a blanket truth. And since this is the only death I have ever witnessed, it definitely colors my view of the transition from mortality to whatever awaits us. I can only hope that the place Mom has gone to is worth the price she paid to be admitted.