Monday, October 3, 2016

To whom shall we go?

I've shared this with a few, but not written about the experience before today—my second anniversary. The night before Mr. PNU's stroke, as we drove home from a party with his behavioral science colleagues, he said he didn't usually go to the Saturday evening sessions, but that he'd like to attend all sessions of the upcoming LDS stake conference. Our stake was promised a special visit from Elder M. Russell Ballard for all the meetings, and I agreed to my husband's request that we be in attendance.

And the next morning everything changed.

A week after the stroke, Mr. PNU remained in ICU, paralyzed on his left side, feeding tube threaded through his nose, the swelling in his brain pushing slightly past eleven centimeters threatening his healthy hemisphere. Saturday afternoon came and what else was I to do? I left the hospital and went alone to the adult session of stake conference. It's what my husband of six months had wanted. Elder Ballard spoke to us of the importance of the family council. He referenced our Heavenly Parents and our Heavenly Mother. What I should probably mention is how much I've struggled, not understanding the role of the feminine divine, how utterly unsettled I've been by lack of reference to a woman's place in the universe except as dictated by men who have long commandeered the talking stick, the parchment, the pen. Mr. PNU gave me a handful of priesthood blessings in the first six months of our marriage encouraging me to continue pushing forward in my search for Her to better understand who She is, and thereby come to an understanding of who I might become. My youngest daughter, L—, continues to be bothered by lack of clarity of her divine potential and the lack of self-determination afforded women while men take as granted their potential as being outlined in whole lessons in Gospel Principles. It's only been in the last two or three years that suddenly She was given more attention, as women in the Church rightly grew unsettled about the invisibility the gender experiences as a whole, both in mortality and without. Elder Ballard's inclusions meant something to me, but that's all I remember of that evening meeting.

Morning came so early. I can't remember if my kids were all at home with me, or if they were at Ex Numero Awesome's place, 3/4 mile from my cul-de-sac. The next six months before Mr. PNU came home again I grew increasingly grateful for my ex-husband's close proximity and easy availability to our kids. The only child whose presence I clearly recall for the Sunday session of stake conference was my daughter, L—.

I couldn't tell you what was said during that meeting if I tried. I went through tissue after tissue, weeping for some reason—out of sadness? Out of the strange comfort and strength I felt? Out of exhaustion and heartache?

Elder Ballard was concluding speaker, but even before he stood to give his remarks I recall the surge of boldness, belief, and faith to take out a sheet of paper, borrow a pen from L—, and scrawl a message that at best recollection went something like:

"Dear Elder Ballard,

My husband, Justen Mark Olsen, had a massive stroke a week ago, and is still yet to stabilize in the ICU of UVRMC. He is only 47-year-old; we have five children. Will you please pray for him? We are willing to accept whatever is the Lord's will for us.

Thank you. With Love,
Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen"

I folded the sheet of paper, gave it to my then 14-year-old daughter and gave her instructions.

"Go out the door to the left and walk up the hallway toward the door that opens nearest the stand where the stake president and Elder Ballard are sitting. A body guard will stop you at that point. Give him this note and ask him to deliver it to Elder Ballard."

L— took the note, walked across the crowded gymnasium where we were seated and disappeared through the door on the left. I continued weeping, waiting for her return. She only took a few minutes before reseating herself and indicated that all had gone as I'd indicated. There was nothing more I could do. I relaxed some then, except for that surge of boldness/belief/faith that continued to pump through me. The meeting came to a close and the congregation stood to exit the building. Over the podium the stake president's voice called out:

"Is a Sister Shiffler-Olsen here? Sister Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen, could you come to the stand?"

I shook as I pushed my way from the gymnasium, through the crowd, into the hallway, excuse-me-I'm-so-sorried my way to the front of the chapel and up the stairs to the stand where Elder Ballard stood waiting. I went to him, arms outstretched, and he took my hands.

"I read your note, and I want to you to know that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve will pray for your husband by name in our prayer meeting in the temple on Thursday."

I can't explain what came over me, but personal space and boundaries seemed to no longer apply. I wrapped my arms around him, then took his soft, grandfatherly face in my hands, thanking him over and over. I experienced electrification, a lightness and comfort that overwhelmed me, changed the quality of daylight once I was outside, carried me and L— back home, stayed with me for some hour or so afterward.

And so I continued to pray. Mr. PNU's family continued to pray. Our friends and associates kept us in constant thought and prayer. But the swelling remained. Thursday came and I watched for improvement. Near the next weekend, fourteen days after the stroke, doctors indicated they felt safe to discontinue the drugs used to decrease the swelling. His evaluating neurologist gave me the grim prognosis May 5th. On May 6th, Elder Ballard's secretary emailed me to say the Brethren planned to pray for Mr. PNU a second time during their meeting on Thursday. Three days later, May 10th, Mr. PNU was transferred to the nursing home for the six months that he lived there. May 15th, five days after my husband moved into the room where I expected him to reside for his life's duration, I wrote a letter to Elder Ballard explaining what I believed was the final outcome:

"As I wrote to you in my note, I and my husband are willing to accept the Lord's will. I think the hardest part of this challenge is that we have, and so far the Lord's will is that he is not progressing very rapidly. 

His stroke was quite severe. The clot in his carotid artery that caused the restricted flow of blood to his brain's right hemisphere could not be removed. This means he has sustained extensive damage to that region of the brain. He has no function of the left side of his body. He has experienced deficits to his perception of his own disability. He has lost the ability to read more than one word flashed on a screen at a time around 40 words per minute, where before the stroke he read books voraciously. He has flat affect, which means, where I used to feel I always knew what he was feeling and thinking from the expressions on his face, I now must ask him to tell me how he is feeling because his face is mask-like. 

His doctors have not given us a hopeful prognosis. They do not expect him to walk again, although they believe his eventual capability to sit in and operate an electric wheelchair is a realistic goal. It takes two or three people to change his soiled briefs, although with teamwork he and I have figured out a strategy for him to use a hand-held urinal. It is unlikely, although he still hopes to return to teaching, that Mark will ever work as a professor again. He has long periods of unpredictable "fog" that fall over him and interrupt his communication and thought process."

I went on, expressing gratitude and faith. I accepted Mr. PNU's prognosis. Mine was the task of now working through the trial beside him. I knew we'd make it through. That was my belief.

Two weeks later Elder Ballard replied:


Your expression of love for your husband and faith in your Heavenly Father is admirable, and your safety net for the balance of your life will be staying close to your Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

May the Lord bless you and your children with strength in the years ahead, and your husband with courage and spiritual strength.

Warm regards,
Elder M. Russell Ballard"

Today we celebrated two years of marriage—six and a half months of delirium, seventeen and a half months of rollercoaster joy and hardship. Every day when we pray, Mr. PNU opens by thanking God for another day of life, another day to spend together. But we have experienced increasing doubt and trial of our faith. This is not the desire-to-sin kind of doubt, not the unrepentant-wavering, not the kind of skepticism that comes from no-prayer-no-scripture-study-no-time-to-spend-contemplating-Jesus-Christ-and-His-gospel. Our beliefs have shifted. Mr. PNU's in one way; mine in another. But both of us have deep, unanswered questions that have shaken the foundation of our faith narrative. Enough so that a few weeks ago we admitted our shared wavering to one another. In the past, when we've had faith issues—and they've always existed for both of us, for the whole marriage—we'd talk through the problems until we came to a wall of doctrinal impasse or where the discussion must end without bailing ship. Then one of us—most often Mr. PNU but sometimes I'd take charge—would look at the other and say: I'm not leaving. To which the other would respond: Me neither. And we'd tuck the problem away, focusing on Christ. Only the problems we're dealing with right now rock even that foundation and we've been reeling, praying for guidance, looking for greater clarification, and it's simply refused to come. Mr. PNU gets no answer to prayer at all. My answers are usually assurance that it's okay to be skeptical, it's alright to be frustrated and sad and sometimes angry, and that questioning isn't wrong—but never to leave.

So we held on till this past weekend's General Conference.

The two days of messages were fraught with belief mood swings. It hasn't been easy to weed through words and guidance that clarified so little. And then, Sunday morning, Elder Ballard spoke.

Look, I know how people mock this man. He's in his late 80s, doesn't understand the generational paradigm shifts that have taken place, has said and done some things—the lipstick comment, the Pokemon admonition, speaking at Focus on the Family—that have made him the point of shameless ribbing and ridicule. Some of it I understand. But I also understand what it is to hold his face in my hands and feel his compassion toward me and my family in an hour of desperate, desperate need.

So when he says:

"If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold."

That's enough to get me choked up and listening. When he went on:

"Never stop reading, pondering and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon...Stop and think carefully before giving up whatever it was that brought you to your testimony of the restored Church of Jesus Christ in the first place. Stop and think about what you have felt here and why you felt it. Think about the times when the Holy Ghost has born witness to you of eternal truth."

And when he says this:

"Life can be like hikers ascending a steep and arduous trail. It is a natural and normal thing to occasionally pause on the path to catch our breath, to recalculate our bearings, and to reconsider our pace."

I remember being here. And when he said this:

"I don't pretend to know why faith to believe comes easier for some than for others. I'm just so grateful to know that the answers are always there, and if we seek them — really seek with real intent and with full purpose of a prayerful heart — we will eventually find the answers to our questions as we continue on the Gospel path."

I get that sometimes answers come one stone at a time, after several ascents up the mountain, and that
in the end my altar is going to look different than everyone else's. And that's okay.

A friend of mine wisely advised:

"Not every talk is for every person. Those ones that made you want to keep holding on? Those were for you. Put the others aside for now."

Trust me, there were plenty of other talks that out of necessity I put aside. I might actually leave otherwise. Too much cognitive dissonance. I'm aware through memes and FB expressions that there are many for whom Elder Ballard's words were not meant. I want to tell you it's okay. Put it aside for now. But for me I've needed to know where I might go, and to whom I might talk, have prayed for that. Like a sweet old friend, this Apostle answered, provided rest for me, not threat nor solid answers—I may not get those in this life—but the assurance of peace. Mr. PNU held me as we listened, and for him, too, there was peace. This one, Elder Ballard's talk "To Whom Shall We Go," it was for us. In the grand scheme of our marital timeline, Elder Ballard became inextricably connected, an integral facet to the greatest demonstration of God's love for me and my husband imaginable. Not only did my husband live, when there is no logical reason why he should, my husband came home, my husband walks with a cane every day, my husband has lived and thrived through hurdle after hurdle when I was ready to accept the odds. I really do think God did that for us—that our Heavenly Parents have been carrying us through the last year and a half—through the power of our participation in the atonement of Jesus Christ.

So to whom else can we turn? Even when I have no answers to the mind/body problem and my husband no longer believes in spirit, or that there is matter lacking on the Earth's surface for a literal resurrection, and when the historicity of the Book of Mormon seems more than unlikely and my husband thinks the Angel Moroni is a fictitious character, and the only answer for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters is mixed-orientation marriage to a sexually unattractive spouse or a life of celibacy, and mortal imperfect men lead a Church like a capitalist corporation with a larger marketing department than Joel Osteen. Until our prayers are answered otherwise, we're not leaving.

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