Friday, April 29, 2011

The Undiscovered Country

I found my Freshman English class at BYU to be a complete waste of time. I didn't need to take it because I'd passed the AP English Literature and AP English Composition exams, but it was "strongly recommended". So I took it (in fact, I took Honors Freshman English). Almost everyone else in the class was under the age of twenty and some of them got on my nerves. On top of that, I didn't really get along with the teacher, Mrs. Jorgensen.[1] One of our assignments was to write a personal essay. I decided to write mine about the way that I respond to the deaths of others. I really liked how it was developing, but eventually I hit a dead end (no pun intended). Rather than write a lame ending, I embellished things a little. When I met with Mrs. Jorgensen to discuss my first draft, she remarked about the tragedy at the end. At this point I confessed that I had fabricated those events and she became quite upset with me and required me to rewrite the ending. I complied, but the original is still, I think, superior to the final draft. Here it is.

When I was a child, death used to wait for me in dark corners. It lurked in deep stairwells and prowled outside my window at night. I did not know what it was but I knew to fear it. My parents told me that it was something sad and that they did not want it to happen to me. So, of course, I did not want it to happen to me, either.

The first person I can remember dying was my Great-grandpa Mecham. I have vague recollections of him even though I was only three or four years old. Like most old people, he had thin gray hair and mottled skin. He also had maroon-colored legs because a tractor had fallen on him and left him crippled. One day, in the middle of the week, my mom dressed me up in my Sunday clothes and told me we were going to go see him. But I never saw him. We just stood in a room with a big white box and everyone started crying. I asked my mom why everyone was crying.

Between tears she said, “Because Great-grandpa Mecham is dead.” I had no idea what that meant, so I made sobbing sounds like everyone else. I thought that that was what I was supposed to do. But I did not really understand that I would never see him again.

At that time the possibility that death was an absolute end had not occurred to me. I believed that when I died, I would be placed in the casket and buried and then spend forever being bored and lonely in the subterranean dark. I also pictured myself as still being a child when this happened. For a little boy who bathed in vast expanses of Rocky Mountain dirt and chased a myriad of insects through the unending sagebrush, that was a most terrifying image.

Before I reached the age of ten our family had moved six times. I became accustomed to leaving friends behind, knowing I would probably never see them again. My dad’s family lived in Wyoming and my mom’s in Utah. So, depending on which state we were living in at the time, I did not get to see certain grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. for long periods of time. Most of the people I knew drifted in and out of my life the way seasons do. During this time many of them died but I still did not comprehend it. To me it was like we were moving again and I would not get to see them again. But they were not gone. They had not disappeared forever—just for a little while.

As I grew older, I watched more and more television. I saw countless acts of violence and murder. Eventually it began to lose its ability to shock me. The first time I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark my heart skipped a beat and I felt sick when the airplane propeller hits the big Nazi. With the succession of such images I became desensitized not only to depicted death, but also to actual death. It went from being something fearsome and tragic to something mundane and inconvenient. I dreaded it like I dreaded hearing my mom say, “Matthew, we have company. Come upstairs and visit.”

Over time I learned that the popular concept of death was not to lie in a coffin forever, but a total cessation of thought. At church I learned this was not so [2] and lost the fear of my own death. But my Sunday school teachers could not teach me to mourn death. Nor could they save me from my emotional apathy.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my Grandpa Crook died of pancreatic cancer. My dad was there in the Salt Lake hospital when they took him off of life support. We traveled from Utah to Wyoming to attend the funeral. After the service we went to the graveyard to leave the casket. My Uncle Fred gently removed the pillow from under my grandpa’s head and shut the lid. While he did so, my dad placed a trembling hand on the casket and stared longingly and sorrowfully into the disappearing crack.

I felt pain for my dad and his loss—he said farewell to his father and left him on a Wyoming hillside—but I felt no pain for the death of my grandfather. Mentally I knew that I would never see him again, but deep down it just felt like we were just going back to Utah after having visited. It seemed like he was still alive, living in Wyoming, where I could not see him. Only, like with my old friends, we would never see each other again.

That same year my best friend’s dad died of leukemia. He died in the morning and my friend, Ben, was not at school that day. After school I went to see him and be there for him. His little brother began bothering me and I pretended to lose my temper.

“If you’re not careful,” I growled, “there’s gonna be another death in the family.” He and Ben just laughed but I immediately knew that I had said something inappropriate. Their mother certainly would have been offended at my flippancy. Inwardly I cringed at my insensitivity—I was like Meursault of The Stranger.

Two years later, while I was serving as an LDS missionary in northern Mexico, my Dad was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. We were informed that the disease would slowly emaciate the muscles in his body, but it would not affect his mind. He was immediately placed in the care of several medical professionals. Even then, thousands of miles from home, the relative absence of my family was surreal. I did not miss them; I just fondly remembered them as if they were part of a favorite dream. I knew my dad was dying, I just did not feel it. I watched as many of the other missionaries struggled through loneliness and homesickness—this only served to make me feel more isolated and anomalous. I had been desensitized by my chaotic childhood and increasingly graphic television programs.

After returning from Mexico, I began school at Brigham Young University, which meant living away from home. Again my feelings for my family were divorced by distance and I adapted too quickly to their disappearance. I even knew that my behavior was abnormal, but did not know how to remedy it. I worried that I would be equally dispassionate when it came to my wife and children.[3]

A few weeks before the end of the semester, as I was frantically preparing for all my finals, I received a phone call from my mother informing me that my dad was in the hospital again. He had begun rapidly losing weight and my mom, in concern, took him in to see the doctor. My dad’s motor neuron disease was intensifying and slowly destroying his body in a gruesome war of attrition. The doctors said he had a few weeks left to live, at the most.

I drove up to see him on a Saturday and sat weakly at his bedside. My mom left the room as my dad grinned at me with shallow eyes.

“There’s something I’d like to tell you, son,” he said.

“Okay,” I whispered.

“I never really understood death until I saw Grandpa Crook slipping away.” Tears sprang to my eyes. “He had a smile on his face. He was in a lot of pain. But when it was time to go, peace came to him. It made him happy.”

“Dad?” His eyes had become slightly cloudy.

“Matt,” he said, steadily. “Death is just the end of your life. So, if your life has been good, you won’t fear it when it’s complete. Live a good life.” His eyes lost their focus and he began slipping into a coma.

“Dad!” I wept. “I’m gonna miss you.” My dad was smiling.

Saturday and Sunday were very difficult for me. I tried to study for my rapidly approaching exams. It was urgent that I learn the material before the deadline, but I just couldn’t concentrate. I could not sleep, either. Monday morning we had him taken off of life support. My sisters, who had not been there when he had really died, cried profusely. Each took her turn drying her tears on my shoulder. The viewing was that evening.

We held the funeral in Wyoming on Tuesday, so we had to drive up late Monday evening. As we drove on the winding road through the dark, ragged canyons, no one spoke. My mom, grim and resolute, clutched the steering wheel with anguished ferocity. My sisters sniffled themselves to sleep, lulled by the gentle hum of the engine. I, in the passenger seat, harbored my confusion and distress. I could find no solace in my dad’s dying words.

The next morning endless concourses of people wandered through my vision. Each one stopped to give their condolences and then hurried home to make something for the potluck to be held in the gym that afternoon. At that moment having a feast seemed much more sacrilegious than my offhand remarks to Ben’s little brother. I wished Ben were there, but he was still in Italy on his mission. Even more, I wished my dad were still there.

At the cemetery I stood near the coffin staring down at my dad. He was still smiling. And then I knew I was okay. I was not confused—I was mourning. My face flooded anew with tears as I closed the coffin over the solemn form of my father. But my future was bright: I said farewell to my dad and left him on a Wyoming hillside.


[1] She once accused me of being the ringleader of the goof-offs.

[2] From a young age my parents also taught me about the resurrection, which was made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, I didn't fully understand the resurrection since I didn't really understand what death was.

[3] At this point my teacher made me change the "essay". The version I turned in to her said:

As I ponder, a passage of Shakespeare comes to mind:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of...
          (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act III, scene i)
The mystery and terror of death lie in its opaqueness. We do not understand it nor fully comprehend it. To many, death is an unknown predator that slowly stalks them through life, never revealing itself. We have hopes, as well as fears, of what to expect when it overtakes us and devours us. But we are unsure. And sometimes that is the most frightening thing of all.

Image attributions:

Cemetery (or "man orchard" as my still-alive dad likes to call it) of Chettle parish church is by Anton van der Kraaij, available at


  1. Brings a wry smile to my face, your teacher's reaction. (I also took Honors Freshman English, even though I had the AP credit.)

  2. Matt. I cried. The end!!! Ugh! I forgot that it was the first draft at first and so I read about Dad having motor neuron disease and about had a heart attack that I hadn't been informed! Luckily I remembered it wasn't true! Phew! Nice writing though!