Waiting Between Earth and Eternity

August 30, 2006 | 9 comments
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Barbara Kirkham Jolley, my mother’s mother, died on Monday. She was 86 years old. Grandma Jolley’s husband, Joseph Arben Jolley, died eight months ago, and by all reports, she had put little effort and had even less interest in living ever since. Just days ago, she fell and broke her hip; when she heard that she would have to receive surgery, she was happy: “I hope,” she told my mother on the phone, “that I will go to sleep, and never wake up.” Which is exactly what happened. Her body didn’t quite come out from the anesthesia, and was put on life support. Her children, including my mother, unanimously decided to take her off the respirator; “she’d hate us if we kept her alive artificially,” was one son’s conclusion. The doctor suggested she could remain alive in that state for days, weeks, even months–but as it was, she died in minutes. Obviously, she’d made up her mind to leave.

We use all sorts of deeply romantic and intense metaphors to describe the marriage relationship in the church: welding, sealing, becoming “one flesh.” We hold out an ideal–supported by theological speculations, assorted teachings and hymns, and a few scriptures here and there–of a relationship between a husband and wife in the eternities that is practically unitary, or at least perfectly and totally complementary. And in this life, some seem to be able to reach that state. The cliche of partners being able to finish each others’ sentences is, as some of us know, a real possibility. Certainly that was the case with Grandma and Grandpa Jolley–whatever they might have been before marriage, after they married they spent more than 60 years growing into something more than the sum of their parts. Which has to make one wonder if, after having become such a sum, anyone could abide being turned back into a mere, singular, integer. Grandma couldn’t; as much as she loved her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they simply couldn’t fill that empty space that Grandpa had once inhabited. Put that together with a body that was failing in so many ways, and the prospect of struggling to hold off one’s reuinion with a partner who has gone on before, one’s next step in the eternal journey, seems downright silly.

Not that I’m making a defense of euthanasia–nothing of the sort! But there’s a big difference between endorsing euthanasia, and supporting someone who has lived and loved and lost in their decision to focus on moving along as soon as God allows, even if that means years of simply waiting. I suspect that may be the fate of my parents. If my father dies first, my mother probably won’t last long–longer than Grandma Jolley did, perhaps, depending on her health, but I seriously doubt she would want to or would even be able to go forward vigorously with her life alone. On the contrary, I suspect she’d probably shrink her world even further, letting us–her children and grandchildren–in, but probably very few others. By contrast, my father’s health is pretty good, so he might very well outlive my mother by decades. He’s an energetic, constantly engaged man, and would probably continue to travel and be involved in business and everything else–but I also think he would try to get one or more of the children with their families to move back in with him, to provide noise and activity and someone for him to talk to, as the long years went by. He’s told me before he can’t imagine ever re-marrying; my parents are so settled into their lives and each other, so very much each others’ best friends, that the very notion of anyone else complicating the equation they have totalled up together over the years strikes him as perverse. Besides, we kids–all nine of us–would probably unintentionally (or not…?) make such a woman’s life a living hell, and I’m sure Dad knows that. So he would probably end up like my father-in-law’s father; he’s been a widower now for over twenty years. And though he’s become quite the cranky old man, I also can’t help but kind of respect his determination to stay right in the same place (in his case, literally as well as metaphorically; he still maintains their old Salt Lake City home) that he was in when the woman he loved and had committed to for time and all eternity left him–if only for, from an eternal perspective, a little while.

(Though I can see the opposite route as sometimes being necessary. One of my teachers at BYU was Paul Hyer, one of the grand, wild men of mid-20th-century Mormonism: a member of that posse–including Hugh Nibley, Marion Hanks, David Kennedy, Spencer Palmer, Truman Madsen and others–that seemed to have been everywhere and done everything as the church began to go global in the 1950s and 60s. He radiates independence and competence. Yet, when his wife passed away while serving as a temple president in Taiwan, he came home, morose and at a loss, and his kids got together and told him he needed to get remarried, if only to stop him from accidentally setting his house on fire or sneaking into North Korea and starting a war or some such thing. If I recall the story correctly, his kids vetted the potential candidates as well.)

I don’t have control over what will happen to Melissa and I, obviously. Maybe disease or disaster will leave one of us all alone with children still to raise, or other pressing tasks still before us, and maybe we’ll have to change things, perhaps even bring someone else into our lives. Is it wrong to say that I hope not? Not just that I hope my beloved sticks around as long as I do, but also that I hope I won’t have to face the expectation, or the obligation, to “go on with life”–take a wife, take a class, go on a mission, go on a cruise–if the one that I’m building my life around departs? Maybe that suggests a kind of selfishness, a perverse romanticism, even an idolotry. If so, so be it. With our marriage covenant, as I see it at least, Melissa and I promised to give up our selves, and make a new “self,” together. Should fate break up that self, leaving one half on Earth while the other half resides elsewhere, then what remains is something incomplete and broken. I guess that broken thing can be put back together, can keep on keeping on, if necessary or so desired; certainly God regularly makes use of broken things, and He might make use of one of us. But frankly, I’d much rather thing work out the way they did for my mother’s parents–a long and loving marriage, followed by first one and then the other moving on to the next stage of our eternal existence, with very little waiting in between.

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9 Responses to Waiting Between Earth and Eternity

  1. lamonte on August 30, 2006 at 7:44 am

    Russell – Thanks for your thoughtful words about your grandparents and about the beautiful blessings of a marriage relationship. My wife and I have been together as a married couple for almost 33 years and we were sweethearts for three years prior to that. We have four sons who are mostly grown and gone. Only the youngest is still hanging around while he finishes college. I’m a little ashamed to admit a time. more than twenty years ago, when my family was young. I was riding the bus home from owrk one night one night, noting the fact that I couldn’t afford a second car to drive to work and I actually thought my life would somehow be better if I didn’t have these obligations of wife and children and all the needs that go with them. I also remember a very short time later being sent to Los Angeles for a temporary work assignment (about two weeks) and noting to myself that after being away from those “burdens” for less than twenty four hours I was heartsick and homesick and I vowed that I would never again take them for granted. I hope I haven’t. God always seems to be able to give me a knock on the head, without actually inflicting injury (well, except for my ego) to help me understand when I have made an error in judgement.

    Today my wife often travels back to the West to visit her mother or her sister or for any other number of reasons and quite often I stay home because of work commitments or other pressing needs. I absolutely hate to see her leave and I rejoice when she returns. I just don’t do well when she’s away. Although we are middle age, my wife still has one grandmother alive and doing reasonably well in the Salt Lake Valley. This past summer my wife traveled there for her grandma’s 95th birthday. My wife’s grandfather passed away about 5 years ago and oh, how grandma longs to be reunited with him. I know it is the desire of her heart and as the days and weeks pass she becomes a little more impatient. At this time in my life I can’t imagine wanting to pass from this life for any reason but if my eternal companion was not here to share this life I might definitely change my mind. And I pray that of all the things I might have taught my sons, or failed to teach them, they will remember the love that I share with their mother and how much happiness it has brought to me. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on August 30, 2006 at 8:49 am

    Beautiful comment, Lamonte. Thank you.

    “Although we are middle age, my wife still has one grandmother alive and doing reasonably well in the Salt Lake Valley. This past summer my wife traveled there for her grandma’s 95th birthday. My wife’s grandfather passed away about 5 years ago and oh, how grandma longs to be reunited with him.”

    There is a story I’ve been told a couple of times–who knows how accurate it is–that when Elder Bruce R. McConkie was on his deathbed, at age 70, his mother, who was still living and had been a widow for decades, came to visit him and said simply “When you get to the spirit world, tell Oscar to come and get me right now!” And, of course, the payoff of the story is that Elder McConkie’s mother, who had been trucking along in her nineties, finally passed on just a couple of weeks after he did. I sure hope this story is true; it gives me reason to believe in at least some level of responsiveness across the veil.

  3. Susan M on August 30, 2006 at 10:18 am

    I’ve always figured women generally live longer than men so that they can have some time of independence and freedom before dying. (Sorry to burst the romantic bubble!)

    When my grandpa died my parents almost immediately started planning a trip to take with my grandma, so she’d have something to look forward to—something to live for. My grandparents were married for 60 years, and I know my grandma missed my grandpa terribly, but I was happy to see her live for awhile longer on her own. She got to travel a lot and do things she couldn’t have done otherwise.

    I’ve never thought too seriously about what would happen if my husband died, since I’m the one likely to go first (I’m diabetic). If I die, I’d fully expect him to get remarried, and soon. He just does not do well on his own. That sounds bad, but he’s just one of those people who need companionship.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on August 30, 2006 at 10:20 am

    Russell, my condolences on the death of your grandmother. Your thoughts on her marriage, and on yours, are a wonderful tribute to her life.

  5. bbell on August 30, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Can we have more posts like this…….Please?

  6. Tim J. on August 30, 2006 at 11:54 am

    Great post.

    My Grandfather passed away a few years back and my grandmother has eagerly awaited reuniting with him. One of her happiest days of the past couple years is when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 6 months to live. One of the saddest is when she went in for an appointment and they informed her she had been mis-diagnosed. She is now fit and healthy as ever and often comments that she doesn’t know what to do now that she’s not going to die.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on August 30, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Roslaynde, Tim, Bbell, thanks for the compliments. (And though I don’t want to turn your serious request into anything morbid, bbell, I’m afraid I can’t resist: I’ll try to continue to write posts like this, but I’m out of grandparents now, so it might be difficult.)

    Susan, despite what I may have implied in my post, I don’t mean to suggest that I genuinely think it’s “bad” for people to remarry once their spouse dies. It’s worth asking about the theology which is implicated in that decision (under our current doctrinal understanding, it’s a very different thing for a temple-sealed woman to remarry than it is for a man), and what it has to say about marriage patterns, but honestly, when it comes to navigating through this life, I recognize that there are all sorts of different kinds of needs. Who knows what kind of needs I might have as a widower? All I’m saying is 1) I hope not to have to find out, and 2) from what I’ve seen, there is an integrity and logic to wanting to follow after one’s spouse, and hoping to keep the waiting in the meantime to a minimum.

  8. Tyler Johnson on August 30, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    My brother sang Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest” when he (my brother) got married. This is the last verse:

    “Next door, there’s an old man who lived to his nineties then, one day, passed away in his sleep. His wife, she staid for a couple of days then passed away. I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong–that I am the luckiest.”

  9. Coventry on September 2, 2006 at 12:01 am

    It is an interesting thing that under out doctrine and practices, widows/widowers who remarry can enter into de facto polygamy. Both my husband and I feel stongly that we would never under any circumstances marry anyone else. Sure it might be hard to be alone. I spent two weeks at an opera program this summer, and my husband didn’t fare well on his own. He said he couldn’t get up the motivation to go out with his friends, to watch t.v. or even play his video games. He just wandered around the house for a couple hours after work and went to bed early. Even so, he says he figures he spent 31 years a virgin doing his own laundry waiting to marry me, he can wait another 1, 10, 60 years celibate doing his own laundry waiting to be with me again if need be.