Christmas of 1987 was my first as a married man. I had found the love of my life when we were both missionaries in Bolivia, and we had been married for nearly six months. We lived in perhaps Provo’s tiniest apartment, where you could sit on the couch, put your feet out straight, and touch the wall with them. The bedroom was so small that we couldn’t kneel in prayer at the side of the bed.
I was going to BYU full time and working nights waxing floors at the Wilkinson Center on campus. My wife was working on an assembly line making lasagna at the Stouffer’s plant in Springville. We drove an old red Chevette with “Famous Potatoes” license plates, and we were dirt poor.
I didn’t mind. We were happy.
Sometime in November, my brother Danny had come to see me. I had never seen him so distraught. He told me he had gone to see his bishop to “confess everything I’ve ever done.” He was terrified that he’d be kicked out of school or at least lose his scholarship. But he felt like he needed to go.
A few weeks later, he attended what is charitably called a “disciplinary council” with his bishop. That afternoon he came over for dinner. His face was tired and swollen, his eyes almost slits they were so puffy. He hadn’t slept at all in two days, and he was exhausted. But he was relieved. His bishop had given him a list of assignments that he wanted him to do over the following six months. They weren’t anything difficult, just attending meetings, keeping the commandments, and so on. He said if he did those things, at the end of six months he would not take any church action. If my brother failed to do them, he would be disfellowshipped. I didn’t ask my brother what had happened, as I thought he would tell me if he wanted me to know. It was enough to know he was feeling better about things.
My mother called me a few weeks before Christmas and told me that she really wanted us to come home to California for Christmas so that our family could all be together. I was noncommittal, as I wasn’t sure about my work schedule or my wife’s, and I wasn’t sure we could afford the trip, anyway. As Christmas got closer, my mom became more insistent. Finally, we learned that we had three days at Christmas when we wouldn’t have to work, so I told my mom we would be coming.
A few days before Christmas, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t done any Christmas shopping, so I made plans to go out that evening and buy something small for my siblings and parents. Shortly after I got home, my wife called and said she had been in an accident. She wasn’t hurt, but the car was pretty badly damaged and would need to be towed. We had the car towed to a repair shop, and they told us it would take several days to get the right parts and repair it. We wouldn’t be going anywhere for Christmas.
That night, I called my mom and reluctantly told her we would not be able to get home for Christmas. She was almost in tears she was so disappointed. “But you have to come!” she said. “I was going to surprise everyone, but I’ve arranged for us to take a family portrait together on Christmas Day. Please find a way to come home.”
We hadn’t done a family portrait since I was nine or ten, so I knew this was important to my mom. But we didn’t have any money, especially now that we would have to pay to repair the car. I couldn’t see any way to get home, so I told her I just didn’t think it was possible.
An hour later my father called and said they had arranged for us to rent a car to drive to California. Because it was so close to Christmas, there were no cars available in Provo, but a place in Salt Lake said they would hold a car for us. I felt a little guilty that they were bailing us out, but then I knew how important this was to my mother. My grandfather drove to Provo and picked me up to take me to the rental agency. It had already snowed about six inches, but the snow fell heavily as we inched our way up the freeway to Salt Lake.
The car was buried under a deep snowbank, but it started once we dug it out, and I headed back to Provo in the same blinding snowstorm. After I picked up my wife at work, we went to the BYU Bookstore and bought some inexpensive books, and then we had an early dinner at the Cougareat before leaving town. The snow was still coming down hard when we left. Traffic was moving about twenty miles an hour, and the roads were slick with packed snow. I settled in behind a semi and crept along carefully but steadily. My wife wrapped the few gifts we had in the back seat as we drove.
We kept on at a slow speed until just past Cedar City, when the snow finally cleared and we were able speed up to a more normal rate. We arrived at my parents’ home not too long before daybreak, both of us exhausted. My family was happy to see us, but they understood when we went directly to the bedroom and went to sleep.
I don’t really remember anything about Christmas morning, really. I have no memory of what we did that morning, who got which presents, what we had for dinner. All I remember is driving over the hill to Malibu Canyon to take our photo at the house of my mother’s friend. We stood in front of a teal curtain, our family having grown by four spouses and one grandchild. My brother Ross borrowed a sweater from me because he didn’t have a jacket or anything nice to wear. Of course, Ross was six inches taller than I am, so if you look closely at the photo, you see that the sweater was stretched to the breaking point.
Danny wasn’t feeling well at all that day, but he smiled through the photo shoot, cracking his usual jokes. He had on the blue sharkskin suit he had bought at the Salvation Army store.
We left the next morning. I went back to the Wilkinson Center, where I spent the next week working long hours resealing the floors. The car came back, battered but functioning. We had been able to afford the mechanical repairs, but it would forever bear the deep wounds of its misfortune on its left side.
The six months came and went quickly, and I really hadn’t given it much though. Just before Easter, Danny and Ross and I went to the Richards Building to swim, and Danny told me he had an appointment the Tuesday after Easter to report to his bishop how things had gone. Danny and Ross made another trip home, this time for Easter and my mother’s birthday. On Monday evening, my father called me and said simply, “The sheriff was just here. There was an accident, and Danny and Ross were killed.”
I saw them one last time in their caskets at the mortuary, Ross in a brown suit and Danny in the sharkskin. I’ve often thought I’m glad I have that one last picture to remind me of my family. I thought of how easy it would have been not to go home that Christmas, and I know I would have regretted it always.
So I choose to think of my family as it was that day. Yes, we have added a lot of grandchildren, but that day we were together and complete.