21st and 27th Wards
by Tom Plummer
Just before Christmas 1997 and shortly after my mother’s 94th birthday, my sister called from her home in Provo. “We’ve got a problem,” she said. “I’ve been on the phone with Mom, and she just quit talking.”
I broke into her house, just a few blocks from ours in the Avenues, and there I found her, slumped back on the bed, the phone still in her hand. Emergency crews came and went, expressing sympathy. I sat beside her body, alone and stunned. A thousand images passed through my mind. Mother baking Christmas fruitcakes; mother making Swedish timbales; Mother sitting on my lap when I played Santa Claus, laughing so hard she had to hold in her false teeth.
A policeman, who came to certify the death, said, “Are you LDS?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you have sons?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You should have them give you a blessing,” he said.
With time, my feelings and memories blurred and softened. When they thought I was ready, my children told me their own stories about Grandma’s passing, stories that might have seemed off-key during the darkest time, but now had a healing power all their own.
Our granddaughter Rian’s goldfish had died shortly before Grandma Plummer. Its name was Jughead. That morning Rian had not yet noticed Jughead floating on its side at the top of the bowl. Her parents were trying to keep it a secret by spelling the name of the fish when talking about its demise.
But Rian, who was a precocious three-year old, caught on to the spelling ruse. “Jughead?” she asked. “What happened to Jughead?”
“Jughead died,” Dede said. “Do you want to help me put him in the toilet?”
“Yes,” Rian said.
So they scooped the ex-fish out of the bowl with a cup and took it ceremoniously to the toilet. Rian put it in and Dede flushed.
Rian jumped. “Why did you flush it?” She had expected Jughead to resume a happy life in the toilet. Now, suddenly, Jughead was gone.
“Well,” Dede said, trying to keep a calm, parental voice, “Jughead is dead and he’s gone to heaven.”
“Is that where heaven is?” Rian yelled, pointing into the toilet.
For Rian, the death of her great-grandmother was like the death of her beloved Jughead. When her parents broke the news about great-grandma, Rian pondered it for a moment and said, “Sometimes you have to flush old people too, huh?”
When my daughter-in-law Erica told her four-year-old daughter Anne that Great-grandma Plummer had died, Anne wanted to know why.
“Because she got really old,” Erica said.
“Well,” Anne said, “we’re not going to get old, because we don’t drink alcohol.”
From my adult perspective, I envy how the experience of children can be so fresh and full of life. Most of us, who are older but not wiser, wonder the same thing. Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” We find truth, light, and insight in children. It seems natural to me that we should celebrate Christ first at his birth. His birth brings us peace, assurance, calm, and joy.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will, to men.
And Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Jesus blesses the children in the Book of Mark, and cautions those who would keep them away: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”
And in Third Nephi, he surrounds the children with angels:
. . . and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.
And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.
The children give us hope and clarity. My sister sat beside her small grandson Christopher, who lay dying of a neuroblastoma in an oncology unit for children at UCLA hospital. It was an unreal place in a real world, she said. Bald children everywhere. Clowns came to visit and entertain. Jugglers. Balloon artists. A kindly death camp, but a death camp nonetheless.
Christopher had survived Christmas, but the chill January air marked his turn to die. He lay on his hospital bed with family gathered around, family grieving for the death of one so young, family exhausted and distraught from months of hospital stays and rising and falling hopes, family pleading with God to save the life of this child. They could not keep him. He was leaving. Then came a moment that my sister said got her through the whole ordeal. Shortly before the last breath came, little Christopher looked up at the ceiling as if it had opened into the sky above, and said, “Look—it’s Santa Claus.”
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.