My father was 86 when he passed away a few years ago. It breaks my heart to remember how, in the years before his death, he brooded over whether his life had been successful, and whether anything he had ever done was quite good enough. His World War II service, for instance, had all been stateside; it did no good to remind him that he had responded when called and had gone where he was sent – who could do more? He grieved that he had been unable to provide my brothers and me with formal education; it did no good to tell him that while we may not have achieved all we might have done, he had raised three children who did as well with our high school diplomas as many did with their college degrees.
I was reminded of my father’s fears that he had not measured up when, a few weeks ago in Sunday School, one of the good and true widowers in my class asked plaintively how he could identify the spiritual gift I had just asserted, on the strength of D&C 46:13, that each one of us had been blessed with.
I like Brigham Young because he understood and had compassion for old men.
That sound you hear is half my readers under 40 clicking away to something they think is more relevant. I know, it’s an odd topic, and it’s about to get weirder. But stick around anyway.
For all his physical activity in his younger years and his travels throughout his life, Brigham Young was not always a well man. His teeth were so bad that he eventually had them all pulled and used dentures; before he reached that point, he was often sick in bed, or went about his business with what was described as a stiff face, which I presume was at least part of the time caused by abscesses. He chewed tobacco for a number of years to kill the constant pain in his jaw. He suffered from intestinal problems. He had the mumps in old age. He died of what we think was a ruptured appendix, although that diagnosis wasn’t available to his physicians.
And for at least a decade before his death, Brigham Young was under the necessity of catheterizing himself several times a day to pass the urine that would not come on its own. Think what that meant in an age before plastics and before disposable caths – his were made of lambskin and silver, and they had to be sterilized for constant reuse. He may have been ill from infections at times.
I told you this was getting weird. But it’s going to get even weirder.
Brigham was in his mid-70s when he became aware of another man, one two years older than Brigham himself, who was ill and dying from similar troubles. Who knows how he learned the details of the old man’s illness? People talked to him about everything. Brigham didn’t just send his blessings to the sufferer – although he did send them. He also had his doctor send the man a new catheter, and Brigham dictated a letter detailing the use of the thing.
It gets pretty graphic and I won’t reproduce it here, but it tells the man what he needed to know – beginning with “Draw it through the hand slightly to warm it, then oil it with consecrated oil.” Steps for insertion are included, both from a standing and a prone position. Brigham tells the man “if there is any body who can help you, it may be well to have their aid,” but he himself had been using the thing so long that “I never want any help to use mine.” He warns the man against missteps he might make, and urges him to “be patient” and “use it gently.” He concludes with a promise that “you need have no fears in using this instrument” and if he will do so, he will live. “I pray that this may have the desired effect and you may be satisfied with it.”
Presumably it did have the desired effect, because the old man lived for another full year.
That may be about the oddest letter I’ve run across in Brigham Young’s papers, but on some levels it is moving. Brigham is a man who understands the fear and suffering, and perhaps even the shame, of another old man, and he doesn’t find it beneath him to advise the sufferer, with patience and gentleness, on overcoming the difficulty of an embarrassing condition.
There’s another letter in the Brigham Young papers that I like quite a lot, although it doesn’t tell me a thing about the church, or Utah, or politics or religion or any of the topics most people would be looking for in those papers. A middle-aged man – at 55, I won’t call him old, but he was definitely feeling old, ignored, and put out to pasture – had written a lengthy letter to Brigham Young complaining that he was not accorded the respect that he deserved; nor did his neighbors listen to his wise advice with the deference he felt was owed.
In similar situations I have read Brigham Young’s pointed replies, telling his correspondents to mind their own business, to snap out of their self-pity, to get back to work. In this case, though, he seemed to sense that something else was going on and that a different tack would bring a better result. He dictated a reply in language I have otherwise never seen him use: In place of his usually terse instructions, his technique seems to be “never use one word when that word can be stretched out to ten. Or better yet, fifteen.”
He does tell his correspondent to mind his own business:
There is also a feeling, for some reason rather more common in small settlements than in large, to know somewhat more about and trouble and advise more concerning their neighbors’ affairs than their own, esteeming themselves far wiser than others esteem them, or, perhaps, much wiser than they really are, which tends continually to make affairs work more or less at cross purposes, and certainly with many ill feelings that it would seem grown up people might obtain and exercise wisdom enough to avoid.
He tells him not to take himself so seriously:
Furthermore and notwithstanding, human beings are so situated, whether in high or low altitudes, that they are very prone to esteem themselves as “some pumpkins” and their neighbors as “small potatoes and few in a hill,” when in the very great majority of the cases just addressed the direct reverse is very much nearer the truth, though it is rather a stretch of strict veracity to allege that any but a very few are in reality as yet “some pumpkins”.
He tells him to relax and not fret about things that are beyond his control:
All sublunary matters partake in a great degree of instability, change, and uncertainty, causing it to appear exceedingly strange to a reflecting person that people should so often strive to induce an extensive tempest in a tea pot, or to enlarge a mole hill into a mountain, or be in so many ways so very particular whether all straws are laid due north and south, or due east and west, or invariably in any other particular point of compass.
He tells him a great many other things in similar language – page after page after page – all of it taking thought to decipher, all of it aimed at the man to whom it is written, but without being blunt and direct. I puzzled over the oddity of this letter for a long time, and think I finally understood the gift that Brigham was giving to this man: Receiving this letter would be a great event in his life – he would treasure it, read it repeatedly, and eventually come to understand that it was directed to him far more than to the general third parties it speaks of. The letter was beautiful, something he could quote to his neighbors with pride. And it was long – very long – a letter he could show to everyone as evidence that someone – Brigham Young himself – took him seriously, consulted with him on important matters, treated him as an equal.
That was my conclusion in 2001 when I first used this letter in a paper, and it’s still the explanation I think is true these years later. In part, that is because a letter played a similar role in my father’s life. About the time my father was baptized as an adult convert, he “called” himself to document the construction of our ward’s new chapel. He walked over to the site virtually every day, taking a picture to show progress, from the sign on the ground saying “Future Home of …” to Joseph Fielding Smith entering to dedicate the completed building. This resulted in hundreds of negatives, which he asked me about one day – did I want them? I really didn’t – yes, they were a sample of one of my father’s many professional projects, but they weren’t personal or family history and not of special interest to me. I suggested that he might donate them to LDS Archives – after all, Dad’s pictures documented not only architecture and construction, but showed members nailing rafters and holding dime-a-dip supper fund raisers in the unfinished cultural hall, practices that have disappeared from LDS culture.
Dad donated the negatives – apparently the only such documentation ever deposited there – and in time received a one-page letter thanking him for his contribution. It was a routine thing on the part of the archivist who sent it – a slightly modified form letter like many he must have sent in the past. But you wouldn’t have known that from the effect it had on my father. He put that letter in a plastic sleeve to protect it. He reread it daily and mentioned it frequently to me in our nightly phone calls. He showed it to everyone who called on him, every time they called (God bless his home teachers for their patience). You see, it was the evidence Dad needed that he had done something worthwhile in his life, something so important that the Church had written a letter to thank him for his service.
I know what that letter from Brigham Young meant to its recipient. God bless Brigham Young for his understanding of and compassion for old men.
Update: At reader request, here are links to the previous essays in this series: