"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
August 7, 2013
Tommy
by Marian Stoddard

When the telephone rings at 3:30 in the morning, you know it’s not good. It was a hospital emergency room, wanting to know about code status….

My husband was sent out to see a mildly retarded man who had called into the law office. He wanted to sue a doctor, and Bill listened to him, then explained patiently that doctors cannot do magic and that they had done everything appropriate in his care.

Sometimes you just don’t have perfect luck. Finally, he felt that he had succeeded in making him understand and accept that answer. He was ready to say goodbye.

But that wasn’t the end. The man asked Bill if he would come back and play him a game of checkers. Anytime, it didn’t matter; and my husband agreed that he would. So at some point a few days later, he said he had to go play Tommy his game of checkers. Bill figured that that would be the end of things. (Famous last words.)

He was greeted with glee and the declaration that he would be beaten — “skunked.” “I’m gonna annihilate you!” And despite the differences in their IQs, Tommy did in fact beat the lawyer he challenged, and Bill came home the loser. Tommy played a mean, expert game of checkers. That was one of his very specific skills.

As they played, Bill found out that Tommy had grown up in the state home for the mentally retarded, that his father was dead and he had no contact with his mother, who was then still alive. There was no other family, and he was very much alone. He lived in a congregate care facility within a mile of our home. Bill came home with the feeling that he should do more, troubled that Tommy had no one.

He went back. He took Tommy out of the place for an outing. He dropped by for another game of checkers. He also knew that he could not solve all of Tommy’s needs or fill up all his empty hours. This evolved into a commitment to take Tommy out for a movie and a burger every six weeks, making sure that the schedule hit his birthday in mid-December. They did that, more or less, for twenty-five years until Tommy was placed too far away.

Because of his time with Bill, Tommy wanted to know about the Church. We gave him the children’s scripture stories, the ones that look a little bit like comic books, and he met with the missionaries. When he wanted to be baptized, he was interviewed by the mission president to judge his capacity to make that decision.

The president said that he had at least the understanding of a child at eight, probably better, and wanted it very badly. He gave the okay and Tommy was baptized. He was ordained a deacon and served to pass the sacrament with reverence. That first glow in the Spirit bathed him, like it would anybody else.

It wasn’t all sweetness and light from then on, though. Tommy tended to want what he wanted when he wanted, and would call every ten minutes for hours, wanting Bill when Bill was at work. I confess it was a blissful relief when he was moved somewhere without instant access to a phone. He was moved a lot.

He held onto a grievance with gusto. When Bill tried to counsel him that he needed to forgive others’ mistakes, now that he was baptized, he declared that he wasn’t going to. We had to reflect that no matter what our capacities we all have to exercise choice on the principles. Only the Lord can judge our individual accountability, but it exists at some level for each of us.

Six weeks seemed to come around awfully soon sometimes, when family time was hard come by. I rebelled once, well more than once, but on this occasion — pregnant and tired — I said, “We need you here, why do you have to be the one and why do you have to go this week?”

My sweetheart looked at me and said, “Because he’s counting on it, and he has no one else. I have to do it. I don’t know why it’s me. I just have the feeling that when we get to the other side he will be a person I will want to know, and I want to be able to say that I did my best.”

The years brought me to better charity. Two of my friends were up in arms that Bill was going to answer a distress call while I was in the hospital with our last child. Tommy had gotten himself down to Portland, run out of money, and was in trouble.

I said that I would rather have him take six hours while I was in the hospital and the kids were already taken care of than after I brought the baby home the next day. Tommy was in a wheelchair by that point, and he was out on the streets and it was cold. So yes, go get him.

Then one day, lo and behold, a funny thing happened. Tommy decided, angry at something, that he was leaving the state, and bought a bus ticket. At a lunch stop en route he suddenly had a visible, physical, falling-down seizure.

A sharp neurologist checked on his history and diagnosed an atypical seizure disorder that explained his cycles of rage and explosions, always followed by calm. It had never occurred to anyone that there might be an organic cause for his problem behaviors. With a simple Dilantin prescription he was meek as a lamb.

Tommy’s physical health deteriorated over the years. He had a stroke, was placed in a nursing home north of Seattle, then the state home, and our contact diminished. Bill was still the contact person in lieu of legal next of kin.

Tommy had ended contact with the Church but reached out towards it again. He had a crisis a couple of months ago where he was at death’s door, but he rallied; Bill talked with him about what he wanted, medically and spiritually.

This time the crisis was clearly going to be final. It was Sunday morning. If he had been at either of the hospitals in town, both nearby, it would have been simpler.

There was an ordination before sacrament meeting that was the fruit of two years of home teaching efforts, and Bill had to be there. He called the hospital after sacrament meeting to see if the end had come yet and was told no, so he took off out of town. Before he reached the hospital, however, Tommy had slipped quietly away from this life.

Remember the story about the man on the beach when the tide had gone out, picking up starfish and flinging them back? Another man, coming upon him and seeing the multitudes of starfish stranded on the sand, told him his efforts were hopeless. What does it matter? You can’t get to them all before they die.

The man just picks up another starfish and throws it into the waves. “It matters to this one!”

Explaining Tommy, my husband often said, “If every person would just help one other person, the world would be a much better place. Tommy is my one person.”

A year from now we will be at the temple for him, to do the ordinances that he did not have the capacity to receive while he was here. He will stand whole, his intelligence unimpaired in the next life, and the doors will be open for him. Tommy’s “best friend” will see to that, as a last act of service.


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About Marian Stoddard

Marian J. Stoddard was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in its Maryland suburbs. Her father grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and her mother in Salt Lake City, so she was always partly a Westerner at heart, and she ended up raising her family in Washington State. Her family took road trips all over the United States and Canada, so there were lots of adventures.

The adventures of music, literature, and art were also valued and pursued. Playing tourist always included the local museums as well as historical sites and places of natural beauty. Discussions at home, around the dinner table or working in the kitchen, could cover politics, philosophy, or poetry, with the perspective of the gospel underlying all. Words and ideas, and testimony and service, were the family currency.

Marian graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, and attended the University of Utah as the recipient of the Ralph Hardy Memorial Scholarship, where she was graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in English. She also met the love of her life, a law student, three weeks after her arrival; she jokes that she had to marry him because her mother always wanted a tenor in the family. (She sings second soprano.) They were married two years later and have six children and six grandchildren (so far). She treasures her family, her friends, and her opportunities to serve.

Visit Marian at her blog, greaterthansparrows.† You can contact her at bloggermarian@gmail.com.†

Marian and her husband live in Tacoma, Washington. Together they teach those who are preparing to go to the temple for the first time, and she also teaches a Stake Relief Society Institute class.

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