Unity Against All Odds

Unity can be found where we least expect it and scars removed from wounds that we ignored.

One of the wonderful women I knew in Michigan once spoke about her father and learning what it meant to “honor thy parents” even when you don’t think that parent deserves much honor. We naturally assume that honoring our parents involves obeying them, so what do you do if your father is an alcoholic and you have no respect for him? That was her situation, and so she thought the commandment didn’t fully apply in her case—until she reconciled with her father. If I remember right, he was still an alcoholic at the time of their reconciliation, and she was a woman with children of her own, but with the age of wisdom she was able to see him differently, as a child of God with pain and hurt, who had hurt others, and was still in need of love and honor. She didn’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly she had learned from the Spirit, but she did say repeatedly that she learned how to honor her father.

Her situation was so similar to mine, I began to yearn for what she had learned. I, too, wanted to honor my father. I had always thought of myself as having no father. To me, that commandment was easily applied to my mother, my Heavenly Father, and later my step-father but never to my biological father because he barely existed. 

I have seen pictures of him holding me when I was a baby, but because I don’t remember those times, I say that I met my father once when I was seven years old, spent one day with him, and never saw him again. He took me to an amusement park. I remember being very excited to meet him because I had a picture of him in my room—that was all he was to me, a picture—and he was going to come to life. We rode a lot of rides, he let me pick and choose, he showed me a picture of my half-sister. I wanted a sister more than anything. I asked him if I could keep the picture and meet her one day. He said he would find a way for us to visit him at the same time and get me my own picture, but I couldn’t keep that one because it was his only one. He got mad at me at dinner because he asked me if I liked a present that he had sent to me. I hadn’t realized the present was from him and he was angry at my mom for taking credit for it. I knew my mother would never do something like that, it was more likely that she told me but that I didn’t notice or realize—he was a picture, pictures don’t send presents. I still firmly believe that she told me he sent the present but to my seven-year-old self it was like she was saying it was from Santa Clause. But he was mad, and, being a child, I blamed myself. A magical day that left me feeling a bit empty. I think on some level, even at seven years old, I realized that he could only offer me temporary shiny things. When it was something important, it was withheld, as if he couldn’t quite find it in himself to give it to me. And even at that young of an age, I was very protective of my mother, so he scared me. On another level, I wanted him to keep his promise, I wanted him to keep arranging visits, let me meet my sister, give me more presents and this time I would know they were from him, because now he was real. But as time went on, and nothing else ever came, that part died. 

When I asked my mother, why they divorced she said, “I thought he was an alcoholic, but he disagreed.” That was essentially how she handled the whole situation. If I asked a question, she would answer it honestly with no judgement. She didn’t say he was an alcoholic, only that she thought he was. She didn’t say he was dangerous, only that he disagreed with her. I now don’t think he was ever abusive towards her, but when I was younger, I remained unsure. She wanted me to make up my own mind, but because I didn’t know him that was very hard to do. She also didn’t offer much information, other than “he loved lima beans,” and “his favorite game was backgammon.” She told me later that she didn’t know what to share or when, so she was waiting for me to ask the questions, but I didn’t always know what questions to ask or I started to get old enough to realize the answers were awkward.

At about 14 years old, I wanted to meet him again, but my mom couldn’t find him. She found a phone number for his parents, but they didn’t know where he was either. I asked her about my half-sister. “Did you know that I have a half-sister? Did you ever meet her?”

“Yes, I knew you had a half-sister, but I never met her,” she answered. Her face was turned down towards the kitchen sink and she didn’t look up at me as she washed the dishes. “How did you know you about her?”

“My dad showed me a picture of her that one time he took me to the amusement park. I can’t remember her name, do you know? I also can’t remember if she’s older or younger than me.”

“I don’t remember her name, I’m sorry, but I think she’s right about your same age.” She turned away from the sink and started wiping the kitchen counter. I knew enough not to touch that last comment, though it was confusing.

“I just thought maybe she or her mom would know where he was, but I guess since we don’t know her name…”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know her name.”

There are some questions that are just too hard to ask.

When I was 19, after my mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer and right before she medically retired from the Navy, she tried one more time to use some Naval resources to find my father. She found an address in Bountiful, Utah.

“You should try it,” she said. “It’s a year old, so he might not be there anymore, but it’s still worth a try.” 

She always believed it was important for a child to think well of his/her parents and to know them as much as they could. She would never say anything bad about him, even if that meant not talking about him much, and she wanted me to know him. But by that time, I didn’t want the risk. I was less desperate for the escape he offered. I was already so broken from her diagnosis; I didn’t want to feel anymore hurt. If he was at this address, we would probably have a nice conversation, go out to dinner, and then what? Another shiny thing that left me empty. The potential reward seemed too small when compared to the near certain pain that would follow. I never tried that address.

Another decade later, and I’m in Michigan listening to a story with similarities to mine but with a happy ending. It didn’t matter that this other father didn’t turn into a model parent. I wanted the peace this other daughter found. I pushed it down, thinking it would never happen because I had no idea how to find my father and attempt a reconciliation. Oh well, not that big of a deal anyway, I reasoned. I’ve moved on.

About three years after this, my half-sister found me on Facebook. 

Her private message had my mother’s name and my birthday and asked if I was the right Christen. I was surprised she knew that much about me and I had no idea who she was. When she told me she was my half-sister, I was excited and curious how she knew those details. She had spent more time with our father than I had, though he still was gone for long stretches of time. She was able to find him, however, when he was living in Alaska and went to visit him there. When she realized how sick he was from congestive heart failure, she brought him home to live with her for the last two years of his life. She loved having that time with him. 

I was glad he had her, a bit jealous that she had more time with him and the reconciliation I wanted but was too afraid to have. She connected me with other family members of which there are many, and the more I spoke with her and met some of my aunts and uncles, the more my jealousy grew and the angrier and more hurt I became. The old wounds were reopened, and I found it difficult to actually become a member of this family. My half-sister is two days younger than me, and suddenly my mother’s hesitation made more sense, but I was also mad at her for not being more open and honest with me. She left me in ignorance, and I had to find this out and deal with the repercussions on my own without her wisdom and guidance. I started to hate my father again, all I could see were his mistakes, the things he had denied me, and the consequences my mother and I had to live with. 

I didn’t want to deal with that hurt again. It was easier to close the wound, cover it up, ignore it, and go back to ignorance. I was fine as I was. I had my mother’s family, my step-family, and my in-laws. I didn’t need or want anything else. What was the point of a reconciliation now?

But when my half-sister told me that he had died my first thought was, You could do his work for him. He and his entire family are Catholic and while I do not know the level or commitment of their faith, there is a doctrine in my Church that baptisms and other covenants must be performed by proper Priesthood Authority which is only found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some find this belief offensive, and I’m sorry for that. I too have had to struggle with this requirement when I see so many individuals of other faiths that I consider to be wonderful and faithful and gloriously spiritual. Through my questions and struggles with God, I have come to see incredible beauty in His Priesthood and the Covenants that we can make with Him and they are special to me. I do not think this diminishes the beauty of other people in the eyes of God. He offers wonderful things to all His children. 

The covenants we make with God in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be made by proxy for those that have passed on and they are able to accept or reject the covenant in the Spirit World. Again, some find this offensive and problematic. I understand that point of view, but I hope that you can view this work as an expression of love as it is intended. Similar to how others light candles for the beloved dead or give them offerings. These proxy covenants are offerings of extreme love and they are our way of reaching beyond death to serve others without the barriers of time or mortality. 

If you can see this as a gift of love, perhaps you can then understand my hesitation in actually performing the work. I have no doubt it was the Spirit prompting me to take my father’s name to the temple and give to him the ultimate gift symbolizing my hope and desire for our future reunion. In my pain, anger, and confusion, I simply did not want to do it.

I covered the wound back up and went on with my life until April of 2018 when Elder Renlund gave a talk in General Conference about family history work. He said, “When God directs us to do one thing, He often has many purposes in mind … God, in His infinite capacity, seals and heals individuals and families despite tragedy, loss, and hardship.” As I listened to his talk, I felt keenly the promise that my wound would be completely healed, not just scabbed over, if I would undertake this work. Still, I procrastinated. Six or seven months later, we studied this talk in a Relief Society meeting at church. I felt that the promise of healing was mine for the taking, I just needed to go and claim it. If I wanted to know what my friend in Michigan learned through her reconciliation with her father, I could. If I was jealous of my half-sister, there was no need because I could still have the peace that she did. It was not too late. 

I still didn’t fully want to. I didn’t want to reopen that can of worms when it could just remain shut. I didn’t fully understand what the benefit was, but, trusting that the Lord gives good gifts and keeps his promises, I reached out to my new family members and gathered the information I needed. It took some time, but as I worked on it and thought about what I was doing, my hesitation turned to excitement. 

The wound is open, and it is clean. I am ready to be made whole.

There is no barrier the Lord cannot cross. Death is no obstacle, nor any fracture too wide or deep. The only thing the Lord will not take from us is our agency. We must claim the promise. Trusting Him with our wounds can be hard, especially when they’re still hurting, and we don’t know how long until the relief will come. But hope is powerful too, and we can trust Him that our hope will never be in vain because He will heal us. 

Elder Renlund also quoted Ezekiel 47:8-9 in his address:

The waters (meaning the river coming from the House of God) issue out … and go down into the desert, and go into the [dead] sea … , [and] the waters (meaning the Dead Sea) shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: … for they shall be healed; and everything shall live whither the river cometh.”

The river has come to my heart and my heart lives and is healed. I want the river to reach to my father’s heart and beyond. It is the greatest gift that I can offer him. My forgiveness, my hope that he can be healed as I have been, is how I honor my father. 

It is also how I honor my Heavenly Father. Separations in this life can always be mended. Unity is built across all barriers, and it is never too late to find it.

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