Sunset: On the Passing of Those We Love (Hardcover)
“I did not know I had so many tears.”
When Michael Wilcox’s wife, Laurie, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life, he began keeping a journal to record what he was learning about living, loving, and grieving. Although at the time he was not intending that it would ever be published, he gradually came to recognize our “sacred covenant to share our burdens, our mourning, our comforts, and our witnesses.”
The lessons he offers in this thoughtful and sensitive book are more than a chronicle of his own journey; they are important reminders to all of us to cherish every day we have with the people we love, to treasure the gift of our mortality, and to turn to the Lord in all our trials.
About the Author
S. Michael Wilcox received his PhD from the University of Colorado and taught for many years at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. He has spoken to packed crowds at BYU Education Week and has hosted tours to the Holy Land and to Church history sites. He has served in a variety of callings, including as bishop and counselor in a stake presidency. He has written many articles and books, including House of Glory, Sunset, 10 Great Souls I Want to Meet in Heaven, and Finding Hope. He and his late wife, Laurie, are the parents of five children.
The Eternal Reach
. . . The widest Land
Doom takes to part us leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee . . .
The Gordian Knot
There is a story told of Alexander the Great while he was on his way to conquering the known world. He faced the puzzle of the Gordian knot, a tangle of rope so complicated that no one could untie it. I remember visualizing this knot when young, wondering in my imagination if I could have succeeded better than the great Alexander. There were no ends seen to the knot as the rope twisted and turned upon itself, hiding the beginning and the end within the interior mass of the fibers. Alexander failed, and in a final act of frustration this man of action drew his sword and sliced through the rope, severing its coils and scattering them on the ground. He could conquer the world, defeat the mighty Persian Empire, but was defeated himself by the mystery of entwining cords.
I have thought of this story over the last months as I have tried to endure the dying of my wife, Laurie. My thoughts turn upon themselves and I cannot find a beginning and ending, a way through. My emotions are so varied and changing, sometimes within seconds. Fear, doubt, love, grief, empathy, longing, hope, acceptance, denial, faith all find their place in the turnings of my mind. Then there are the questions—above all the questions. There is also the physical element of grief, which reminds me of nightmares I had as a boy when panic would grip my stomach, wash upward into my chest, and hold me motionless in the darkness. Grief feels like that sometimes. It hurts, physically hurts. It is a constricting, suffocating pain. At the emotional-physical level it is first cousin to being terrified.
I am grateful that anger at God has not as yet found a place in my tangle of feelings, but I can understand how it could. Perhaps that is the first great lesson I am learning: that God can take our most precious thing, can allow the severing of a part of ourselves, and we can still love and trust Him. But is He taking her, as if it were some part of His plan? We speak in these terms so commonly, but I doubt He is.
I don’t think there is a determined time for each of us to go. Life happens, and even God shares our sorrow at its ability to stun us, but He has a much larger perspective. I think He would say to us, “Laurie and Mike, I’m sorry this terrible thing has happened. I wish you could have those many future years you dreamed of sharing, but I cannot save everyone whom cancer has appointed to die. The hollow your grief creates I will one day fill with joy. Everything will pass and all will be well.” Does the scriptural phrase “appointed unto death” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:48) mean God has decided “our time to go,” or has life brought its own unwelcomed conclusions? At any rate, we are promised that “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Sometimes the rush of emotions becomes so constant it feels like there is not enough air in the world to draw in and contain them from spilling out, usually in the form of tears. I have to breathe deeply to stay in control. How can I make sense of them all? We are all grieving in our own ways—one daughter in her need for her mother, another in the painful memories of those last weeks, the boys in a certain quiet, numbing puzzlement, and me in my nervous anxieties, ceaseless internal discussions, and relentless longing for my perfected Laurie of a thousand combined memories. It is all sometimes so confusing. I was so used to being in control, knowing what I wanted and where I was going. There were few ambiguities, and certitude was my expectation. Much is being challenged. Now my uncertainties seem to pull the knot into an unyielding tension.
The more one wrestled to untie the Gordian knot, the tighter it became and the less yielding of its secret. Watching one you love pass through the struggle of ending life is like that. You feel lost in a maze of emotions, sentiments, and turmoil, and there is no Ariadne to hand you the clue of thread to find your way out of the labyrinth.
And what of Laurie’s thoughts? They must matter more than mine, yet of them I was largely ignorant. Hers I did not really know, though I could guess them, for the cancer had stopped her ability to communicate. But even if it had not silenced her speech, she was not one who opened her mind easily. The thought that she was dying was too threatening for her. She turned from it. I do not believe it was the fear of the unknown that troubled her. She just wanted to live; “living is so dear” (Thoreau, Walden, 81). So we survived day by day without her expressing what she was feeling and thinking.
One with Humanity
I will write—but not from my head primarily, as always in the past—for writing seems to bring with it a clarifying and ordering of my thoughts and my faith, and there is a renewing. Perhaps it will do the same with emotions. God has so often filled my mind with His truth while I was writing; surely He will do so now at the level of the soul. I write for my own peace and solace, but also in the hope that those who face the passing of their own dear ones and labor to make sense of it, to wrap their hearts and souls and minds and future lives around it, may possibly find some measure of understanding through a shared experience. My life had been so comfortable. Things I had once called trials seem so minimal now. Perhaps the graciousness of the life God had allotted me had separated me too much from the majority of my fellow men. I thought I could empathize with them, had empathized with them. Now I think, “So this is what so many for so long have endured!”
There is healing in the flow and ripple of words. Both grief and love must be expressed somehow, someway—grief that it may lessen or at least become endurable, and love because to speak it, to share it, to open the heart, intensifies it and increases it, lets it grow out in the open air and light. Unexpressed love dies, suffocating in the confining, restricted space of the self. One thing I believe above all else: Laurie’s early death has taught me a great deal about loving and being loved. All of love’s expressions—affection and romance, the spiritual and the physical, the emotional and the familial, its quiet acceptance and its passionate yearning for otherness, learning and sharing, forgiving and sacrificing, woman and wife, intimate lover and devoted friend, the needed and searched-for help—meet for all dimensions of a joined life. Did she realize how much she took with her in her passing? Do I yet realize it? Do we feel how much life was filled until the emptiness left teaches us its volume? Yet the loving remains and grows and is itself a kind of filling. Death breaks the heart, but in living, most of the deepest sorrow seeps out through the cracks until love can seal them and replenish the hollowed-out spaces. But the heart remains touch-tender—and oh, the little things the magnet of our longing is drawn toward.
Someone asked me, “What do you miss most?”
“Holding hands while walking; feeling her fingers on my arm; her insistence that I always stand one step down to compensate for our difference in height; calling her ‘little one’; her voice singing Mary’s Lullaby; sensing her smile on my face when I’m not looking; seeing love in her eyes,” I answered, and then turned away as a hundred other tiny “everythings” flooded back.
The Backward Yearning
When it became apparent that we could not win the battle against the cancer, Laurie’s mother asked what she could do for me. I told her I wanted the picture of Laurie that used to sit on the piano in their home in Alberta. She was almost eighteen, her age when I first met her. I remember the first time I saw that picture. Laurie and I were dating, and I had driven with her to Canada to attend her sister’s wedding and to meet her family. Somehow the turning of her head, the downward flow of her hair, the simplicity of her smile, and the open lighting of her eyes caught some essence about her. It was pure Laurie captive in time. I had coveted that picture for almost forty years, so I asked my mother-in-law if I could now have it. She brought it to Utah with her, along with many other photographs of Laurie as a child growing up.
I realized as I turned through the pages of her past that I loved her at every age. Though I had not met her until she was a freshman in college, I fell in love with the five-year-old in curls and ribbons, the ten-year-old vacationing in Waterton Park, the fifteen-year-old high school student walking through the snow of Alberta with her books. I had seen these pictures before, they were not new to me, but as I went through her past I realized a new dimension of eternal love.
We speak of the everlasting nature of love, its infinite scope (only Mormons truly believe all the love songs and have as their most sacred ordinance the verification of that belief). I always imagined that ceaseless, eternal love as stretching down the long corridor of welcoming time, past horizons, past setting suns and turning galaxies, but my vision was always a future one, of time unspent. Now I feel it pulling me backwards, through every moment of her childhood, her growing preparatory years, the seasons of dolls and dances, first lipstick and earrings, times that I did not share with her but that were now as precious as if I had always known her, always loved her, had never lived without her. And I sense in this backward yearning that when the day comes that veils and closed doors will part and open, the reach of love will encompass all the eons of the past so that eventually there will never be a time when I did not love her.
I am not speaking of the commonly held—with just a touch of Mormon folklore—belief that we knew and loved each other in a premortal life. It is not that! But something deeper, more holy, first created, initially begun, in the temple, at the altar, there where the eternal motion toward both future and past begins its infinite longing reach. I look through the chaining chambers of reflected eternity in temple mirrors differently now. She is in each reflection: those that stretch before me with such promise and those that reach comfortably behind me like a familiar landscape or the peace of going home. Was she ever not there? Was there ever a time I did not love her? No, it seems in this that love is retrospective and captures all the moments of the past and makes them part of the now, one eternal round, all things in the present, time in perfect wholeness, union before union. Ironically it is death, the perceived ender of things, that has given me this gift of enhanced ages. Shakespeare spoke of “love-devouring death,” but would not the proper name be love-engendering death?
by Ruth - reviewed on January 18, 2012
This is one of the most moving things I have ever read. It gives a very personal tribute and also shares with the reader a very private grief. It is uplifting and hopeful. I think anyone would benefit from reading and re-reading this book.
Impactful reading even for those of us fortunate to still have our spouse
by Doug - reviewed on August 20, 2012
I recently spent three incredibly intense hours listening to Michael Wilcox speak about his experience with the loss of his wife. Then I read this beautiful book and experienced that same depth of emotion. Michael's words reach deep into the heart and fill you with gratitude for any life fortunate enough to be filled with a loving companion. Deeply grateful to have read this while I still have the gift of time to share with my wife.
Sunset- more than 5 STARS!
by Silvia - reviewed on January 27, 2012
Every person that has lost a spouse should read this book. Ditto to everything said and shared.It makes you realize you are normal and SO UPLIFTING!The best Christmas present I bought myself after loosing my husband in July. Thank you a thousand times to Michael Wilcox for sharing this with us. Every bishop and Stake Pres. I know I tell them they must have those grieving the loss of a spouse read this book.