Earlier this year, I learned that a man who’s like a second father to me had cancer. He was doing so well for so long this year (from my standpoint of living at a distance from him) that I’d almost forgotten the clock was ticking on my time with him.
I was able to visit him for about an hour when I was in his state for a family event. I cherished those moments sharing him once again with two of my children, letting them spend a little time with this great man. I did know it was possible it was my last visit with him, but I hoped it wasn’t.
Now, his time on Earth is over, and he’s moving on to a new stage of life, one where he will be reunited with his sweet, sweet wife who died some years ago.
I met Robert Harbertson when I was assigned as a missionary for my church to the visitors centers at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Rather than spending 18 months going “door to door,” as many are familiar with our church’s missionaries, I had the unusual volunteer opportunity of basically being a tour guide, of showing visitors from all over the world around Temple Square and introducing them to some of the history and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This amazing, dear man was assigned to be in charge of all of us young volunteers (as well as the older ones, retired couples serving together). As such, he was an authority figure and a parental figure, who watched out for us and made sure we were safe and happy and thriving and getting along with each other. I saw him every day and knew he had absolutely my best interests at heart.
My 12-year-old says now her favorite story about him (I’ve told my children — and anyone else who will listen — plenty of good stories) is his opinion on the thickness of the peanut butter in my daily sandwich. Mind you, this same man handed down a rule that we young missionaries were not to comment on others’ food choices; we had missionaries serving there from countries all around the world, and sometimes they ate some strange-looking things to us Americans (or maybe vice versa). He didn’t want any comments on the “weirdness” of cultural food options to make anyone feel hurt. Even so, one day I was sitting at our lunch table and about to sink my teeth into a perfect peanut butter sandwich: it was made from the homemade whole grain bread provided in our break room and a very thick layer of creamy, gooey peanut butter. He reached around me and actually handled my sandwich, squished it, and said, “Sister Carmode! How much peanut butter did you put in that sandwich?!” I told him to mind his own business. Well, basically. We still had a good laugh.
President, as we just tended to call him, had a stern facade, which could be mighty intimidating if you didn’t know him, and if he had the need to make a point. But after just a short time of knowing him, I was wise to his game: just ready to pop out from behind the stern face was a huge, impish grin. He was also competitive, reminding us that he played college basketball, and we learned at the beginning of a spiritual address from a top church leader that President and this apostle regularly played a serious game of racquetball. I’m sure it was take-no-prisoners.
But at the heart of this stern, rule-making, authoritarian figure was a warm, gooey heart that held a spot for little ol’ me. He was in charge of probably 100 or more young women during his volunteer time, but he could make me feel I was the only one he had to take care of. Honestly, I love and miss my dad a great deal, but thanks to a very tough upbringing, Dad wasn’t a naturally, unconditionally-loving kind of person. So being in President’s care, having that place in his big heart, not just during the time he was assigned to watch out for me but in the two decades since, was a window into an experience I hadn’t quite had. It gave me a better understanding of what it means to be loved unconditionally and a boost to my feelings for myself.
When I was dating my husband, I took him to visit President and his wife, and he got their stamp of approval. It just so happened that was 2 1/2 months before my parents got to meet my then-future husband. I visited President on my way across country during one of our long-distance moves, with my firstborn baby girl. I’ve visited many times over the years and had little booster shots of that man’s love, all the while giving my girls the opportunity to experience it a little themselves.
We met in a place where a famous choir often sings “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” Now, I sing it to President. I look forward to meeting you again.