Till we meet again

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.

Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.
Here we are together at a 20-year reunion.

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.

5 years of missing a giant personality

Next week will mark five years since my dad’s death. I expected I’d write a post then to observe the occasion, but I’m finding I’m missing him a great deal right now, so that anniversary post is happening now.

Dad’s death was unexpected and a completely devastating experience I was wholly unprepared for. I felt sure I had a good decade or more with him so I wasn’t at all ready to face the possibility of him not being in my life. His loss upended me, changed me utterly, and created a crater in my very self, as if a fiery asteroid had crash-landed in my torso. Time passing and the reality of no more phone calls or visits or little notes or pictures in the mail have forced me to accept his absence, but the crater is still there. Only problem is that it’s somehow been covered up over time by the accumulating detritus of life, so few observers have any idea it’s there, this charred chasm.

Dad and Cathy LOVEDad and I were close. I have come to appreciate that calling him one of my best friends is not an exaggeration. He really was. He also could be completely exasperating and sometimes annoyingly clueless. He was a hypochondriac and an over-sharer, and loving completely unconditionally did not come naturally to him, thanks to a difficult upbringing. He was obsessed with taking care of his health and was a bit underweight, and he focused overmuch on other people’s appearances. Thanks to that, in part, I am overly concerned with how I look, a frustrating shortcoming that can sometimes take me away from what’s truly important in this short life. Honestly, I could write a few more paragraphs about how he could make me crazy, sometimes even angry.

Nonetheless, I adored him. I have so many treasured memories of time with him, daddy-daughter time. He taught me so much and transferred so many of his own “likes” and preferences to me that I feel sometimes I can just channel him. Dad took me to cultural events: orchestra and band concerts, ballet performances, plays (because he was a university professor we had access to some great performances at the various universities where he worked. And if they were free or a very low price, all the better: he really disliked spending money). He instilled his love of music and his humor. I can still almost hear him laugh. Just … almost … the sensation, the sound, is just out of reach, like a word on the tip of my tongue. I can imagine his reactions to just about anything. He loved card games and was quite competitive. He had so many distinctly-him mannerisms. I can practically bring him to life any moment by repeating something he’d typically say or by aping a habit. My oldest daughter in particular remembers those things pretty well and can accurately mimic him too, repeating how he’d bug the poor front-line workers in a McDonald’s about “What kind of oil exactly do you use in your fries?” or deliberately and dramatically placing a card down on the table when playing a game.

I’ve read over the years how those who are grieving do want to talk about their loved one who has left this mortal existence, that asking questions or talking to them about the person who’s died is actually a welcome activity, not an intrusion or painful reminder. No, we already know that the person we love is gone. We can’t possibly be “reminded” any more. It’s SO true that what I want to do is just talk about him. I want to tell everyone about him, to just talk endlessly about all his quirks, all his high notes, all characteristics in between. In talking about him, I’m bringing him to life for someone else, keeping his memory alive for myself.

I am at peace entirely with my beliefs on where he is now and what he is doing. I’m happy for him to be in this next stage of what I know is an eternal existence. He gleaned what he needed to from this stage of life, and he’s learning more and doing more where he is now. But that peace, knowledge, and happiness that I have for him doesn’t change how desperately I miss him being here, with me. I still miss him every day. I still wish I could pick up the phone and talk to him, maybe get his advice and input, just hear his voice. He was such a vibrant, oversize personality: he was impossible to miss. He spoke loudly and commanded attention (he taught TV broadcasting and spoke accordingly). He was funny and appreciated good humor. Not having that presence around now creates a Dad-size hole that won’t go away until I am reunited with him someday.

I miss you, Dad. It’s as simple as that. My heart will ever be broken till we meet again.