"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 15, 2015
Joe's Farewell
by Marian Stoddard

As we drove home, the new, higher speed limits ate up the long miles hour after hour, but the hours seemed endless.

We had been in the habit of going to Utah by the southern route, just skirting the edge of Portland, but online resources now gave the northern route a time advantage of forty to forty-five minutes. Both meet up in Pendleton, Oregon, where there is no escaping the most difficult portion of the drive, through the northern Blue Mountains to the Idaho border.

Nevertheless, the other route along the Columbia River was greener and prettier. It had been a long week, and the way home seemed an endless road curling around hills that all seemed the same to me. But as I gazed out the window, I saw the tender, pale new leaves on the trees and recognized changes in the last week, since we had come through here traveling in the opposite direction.

I realized that each of these places was unique to those who lived here, and each of them was a loved home to someone. Our Father in Heaven knew and watched over every spot, and they were not the same to him.

Each life has a history. We had driven to Utah for a funeral — my husband’s brother Joe had died. We had had the phone call in the middle of the week that he was sinking fast, and another one two days later that he wouldn’t last through the weekend; in the middle of that night he quietly left this life behind.

Long before that call, we knew this would come. Joe had been diagnosed with a rare progressive neurological disease, which over the course of several years robbed him of cognition, while a secondary condition caused Parkinsonism and robbed him of mobility. (The “ism” simply means that the causation process was different than Parkinson’s disease, but the symptoms and patterns were the same.)

Joe had never married. He started out as a math teacher, but later moved back to Utah into a civil service job, where he became a section shift foreman. He was smart, quiet, thorough, and methodical. He was the exact middle child, the fifth of nine. He was my age; the first time I was brought to meet the family was for his mission farewell.

When one of his younger sisters needed a new start, he offered her a place to stay with him. They both supposed that this would be a temporary transition, but in fact they shared living space from that point on — when she couldn’t get a teaching contract, he persuaded her to try for a job where he worked (in a different section from his), and she’s still there.

He bought a house in consultation with her, and she shared the mortgage payment. That was twenty years ago.

The two of them were stalwarts in coming for every baby blessing and baptism, every wedding and party. Joe was the one with the camera, and shied away from having his picture taken; still, we collectively came up with many photos over the years, which played on a continuing loop at the mortuary.

I particularly enjoyed the black and white adult close-up that showed a glint of submerged mischief, and the childhood pictures.

So though she was a sister, not a spouse, it fell to her to deal with his disease and his needs.

Every life has its stories. With family gathered for the service, stories come out to be shared and remembered. One of the brothers told the story of a Christmas Eve when they tried to sneak downstairs and spy on what Santa might have brought. Their dad heard them and came out of his downstairs bedroom and hollered at them to get back up those stairs, and they fled. But when they counted up, there were only five of them where there should have been six. Where was Joe?

Joe tiptoed back up the stairs when he was sure that his father was settled back into bed. He had dived behind the upright piano and had not been spotted. He came out after the coast was clear and reconnoitered, and told his brothers everything that was waiting for them in the morning. We all laughed, imagining.

This older brother told us that Joe was their mother’s favorite, because he was the compensation baby. In the middle of these six boys there had been a baby girl, who died of pneumonia when she was six months old. Joe was the next baby, and that gave him a special place,

I thought with my mother’s heart that he would indeed have been the comfort and the consolation. I realized, as all these children were only a year apart, that at six months, at that loss, my mother-in-law was already carrying Joe and knew it.

I remembered how hard it was to lose my first two pregnancies, and the comfort it was to hold a real, living child to rock on my lap after another, later miscarriage. Her arms longed for that baby to come; when he did she didn’t feel quite so empty, holding him. There were eventually two other girls at the tail end of the family, a little farther apart in age, but that baby girl left an empty spot that all of them still feel.

Besides the stories, though, what stood out were the examples of loving, simple service. First of all, there was his sister who shared a home with him and stepped up to the uncertainties and worries of his condition. I put my head quietly to hers, while we were there, in a private moment and told her, “You have been the hero.” He was able to be at home until the end.

One of the brothers retired from teaching with the idea that he and his wife would serve a mission. They were getting things in order with that in mind when Joe’s condition worsened enough that he won medical retirement. They knew that at some point, possibly soon, it wouldn’t be safe to leave him home alone.

They talked it over and decided that Joe would be their mission, and they came to the home and took care of him while their sister M. was at work, for three years. Another brother, when Joe got worse, came up faithfully after work, one evening a week, from a greater distance, to give her some personal respite.

A near neighbor, their home teacher for all of the twenty years they had lived in this house, came and got Joe on Tuesday nights to take him over to their place for a movie and a visit, giving M. the time to go grocery shopping or whatever she needed. It was the only place outside of home where he didn’t get disoriented or anxious.

When Joe couldn’t help get himself into bed anymore, this good man came and put him into bed, every night, until the last few days when he didn’t have the strength to get out of bed.

The ward provided the usual family meal after the service and the trip north to the smaller town where he was buried next to his parents. Everyone who had come from at least four states had a chance to visit, share memories, and unwind. Small children were allowed a little freedom after a long morning, and no one was hurried.

Eventually the numbers thinned as people took their leave and headed to wherever home was. The group who were manning the kitchen started cleaning up. Two of the brothers were having a long conversation that needed to take all the time that was necessary, and those who were cleaning were unobtrusive as they worked around that table at a discreet distance and swept up.

I thanked them for their patience and they just smiled and said to me that this was what these times were for. Then they left. (I thought.)

As I sat on the other side of the room reading and waiting, I saw that under this remaining table was a pile of crumbs. A small child had had some cake while sitting at this table, and made a mess. I determined where the broom was and resolved to step in for the quick minute it would take.

But when the two of them raised themselves towards the door, the cleaners had come back in and graciously beat me to it. They had seen the cake crumbs too, but didn’t intrude, and there was no hint of impatience for the time.

I was thinking, after the graveside service, after the family meal was over, that for M. the burden was now gone, but so was the company. No matter how his health had declined and his ability to interact had diminished, Joe had still been present; now the house would be empty.

Everyone would go home, and it would be hard to be all alone. As I had the thought, the neighbor passing through the hall stopped and told me that Tuesdays were still going to be for M. and they would be there for her.

Pure service surrounded us. Mother Teresa said, “There are no great acts, only small acts performed with great love.” There were so many acts of kindness and faith, great and small, given with such perfect love, that blessed Joe and all of us.

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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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