The spiritual crescendo of Easter-time causes me to reflect on the lives of special people I’ve known that are now on the other side of the veil. I’ve been blessed with some extraordinary friends with extreme physical challenges. Several have already been called home (along with many of my relatives), which makes Easter’s promise of the Resurrection even more meaningful for me. In this article I’d like to focus on just one of those friends, Debbie Avila. Her recent death touched so many of us who had been blessed by her online friendship.
At the age of seven Debbie was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy (an insidious disease characterized by progressive skeletal muscle weakness and the death of muscle cells and tissue). Her mother and two sisters also had the disease; only one sister is still alive. By the time she was seventeen, it was necessary to put Debbie on a respirator that was like a metronome of mortality pushing air through a hole in her throat into lungs that no longer had the capability to breathe on their own. She wasn’t expected to live past thirty but made it to fifty-three, a fact for which her friends feel unbounded gratitude.
Over the years Debbie’s great heart led her to discover ways to keep serving others, primarily through the Internet. Debbie emailed me a message of love and gratitude for my Meridian articles a couple of years ago, and her ongoing messages led to a rich and wonderful friendship formed in cyberspace. She told me she only retained partial use of only one hand and that it took her a half-hour to type a message of any length. One of our mutual friends told me that Debbie could only move her right hand enough to use a mouse that was by her side in bed, but she used the on-screen keyboard, and typed by pointing to each letter individually and clicking on it. So I treasured any communication from her as a meaningful sacrifice. Debbie gave me permission to share whatever I chose from her writings, and today I’d like to share three things: the first two are replies (which I’ve edited and shortened) she wrote to probing questions, and the last is the eulogy she wrote that was read at her funeral.
Debbie Reveals the Greatness of Her Spirit
Question to Debbie: “Tell me, dear friend, your secret for focusing so well on others and on what you can still do, instead of on the misery you must surely experience most of the time with your body. You are a marvel! Tell me how you do it.”
She wrote back, “Darla, there’s no secret, no mystery, only a desire to keep my covenants to my best ability and completely trust Father’s will. That’s what Women’s conference was all about, remember? . . . I absolutely never think of me “doing” anything but rather just “being.” I don’t fret about the undone because I know that for today I had been [not DONE] my best to all around me; that I remembered Him always as I covenanted to do; that whatever derived and was produced from seeking to keep my covenants, it was good enough for Him, maybe not good enough to my egotistical mind/ paradigm but, I’m not to see things in my way or DO things in my way but HIS. His ways aren’t confusing but simple-and always based in LOVE. Love is BEING IN THE SPIRIT. Seeking to BE. I make a billion mistakes but they’ve become my educating material and that’s how I see it. It’s a shifting of how I see things. It’s a daily affair. Pain stifles me but temporarily, and that allows me to stay malleable and repenting every day with HOPE, not in self–loathing or condemnation. Faithfully your friend, Debbie”
Question to Debbie: “In your circumstances, how have you been able to keep such a positive and happy spirit?”
Debbie’s answer: “In all honesty, I’ve never categorized myself as “positive” but rather logical. I see what I don’t have as pre-mortal conditions I wholeheartedly embraced with enough understanding that my Heavenly Father would absolutely never abandon me, that He couldn’t break his word, and therefore, I completely trust Him.
“Naturally, that Trust has been tested under fire, but I have been trying to be diligent to His ways, and through personal prayers and fasting, I’ve received assurances that everything I’ve experienced and may need to experience is based on my pre-mortal promises with Father (exactly as Christ had a specific mission).
“This knowledge has colored all of my experiences in life; it reassures me that even today’s pain, loss, hurt, and suffering have purpose. So, this testimony helps me examine a situation as something that Father is allowing to occur at the right moment because I need it. THAT’S where my trust becomes inextricably my force in life. Because all these things have a purpose [to and for me], I can endure.
“I’ve trained my mind to see myself as third. God is first, others second. Throughout the years of diligence in setting myself third, I’ve found lasting peace in my relationships. My grandma taught me at an early age that you cannot find God by focusing on yourself. Because my two younger sisters were also in need, I learned to love them more than myself, which shaped my thinking up to this day. God, in his mercy, has placed me in a situation where I depend on others for absolutely everything. I see my caregivers and friendships as part of my eternal family. How I feel about them, view them, and treat them is vitally important. I haven’t done perfectly but God knows I’d give my life for them. After I make my fellow man as a priority the rest of my needs are cared for, without compulsion.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a victim or have been cheated out of anything because my perspective has been focused on the eternal. I feel that today is preparing me to be a better Servant and worthy daughter. Keeping an eternal perspective is key to my balancing every-day challenges.
“I don’t believe we have really understood how to use the power of our temple endowment and this has been an area I take time to daily recall; to pray for better understanding about how to use these blessings every day; in every circumstance.[Special arrangements were made for Debbie and her sister to receive their endowments] The endowment is for every day, not to be seen as a mere garment that we care for respectfully, but a privilege and right to put into use for ourselves every day.
I recall my initiatory blessings daily, and when I’m thoroughly exhausted from life and confused with certain hardships, remembering those anointing blessings helps me gain a foothold.
“Many times I ask, how would Jesus handle this?’ I don’t think I’ve ever really asked what would Jesus do?’ which seems too general for my mindset and too broad for my tiny, finite mind. I have held to particular truths, principles that have become a second nature. I try to never compromise my self-dignity or integrity. I need to understand the HOW’S… How can I meet this situation in a higher plane of obedience?
“I have a personal Honor Code. Some refer it to as a personal mission statement:
1. I know I’m here to fulfill pre-mortal promises.
2. I exercise my complete trust in Father’s word.
3. I make myself third.
4. I see my covenants as supremely important to my enduring well.
5. I seek to understand How Jesus would do something or needs me to do it.
6. I don’t worry about performance or competition; that’s not in my framework.
7. I stay saturated with the good and the beautiful every day.
8. I do a lot more listening than talking.
9. I immerse myself in scriptures and the teaching of prophets and spiritually enlightened souls–every day.
10. I find as many ways to serve others as I can.
(end of Debbie’s message)
The reality of how Debbie accomplished the last item on her list, finding many ways to serve others, astounds me. In most of her emails Debbie would ask me, “What do you need? How can I help you?” and I’d sometimes bow my head and weep, knowing those words came from a dear person who required nursing care 24/7 and was unable to do anything for herself. But help she did! She sent beautiful Spirit-led quotes, such as: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” (Joseph Smith Teachings, p. 256)
Another quote she sent me was: “When the Latter-day Saints make up their minds to endure, for the kingdom of God’s sake, whatsoever shall come, whether poverty or riches, whether sickness or to be driven by mobs, they will say it is all right, and will honor the hand of the Lord in it, and in all things, and serve Him to the end of their lives, according to the best of their ability, God being their helper. If you have not made up your minds for this, the quicker you do so the better.” (Brigham Young)
On three different occasions Debbie had her caretakers send me books she had loved and marked in earlier years, music that lifted her, inspiring talks on CD that she felt I needed. She had a friend create a wall plaque with our shared motto: “In God Is Our Strength” in beautiful calligraphy. She said she wanted me to have something to remember her by: as if I could ever forget her! I never ceased to marvel how the things she sent were so often exactly what I needed at the time-and that I was only one of many receiving her loving messages and care packages. Whenever I chafe at my limitations or feel tempted to feel sorry for myself for my health challenges, I can think of Debbie and find perspective. She was a hundred times more limited than I am, yet found unlimited ways to serve!
Sheila, another of Debbie’s email friends, said, “When one of a person’s senses does not work, if they are blind or deaf for example, the other senses heighten to make up for the loss of that one sense. With Debbie, who was completely paralyzed except for her right hand, it seems as though her spiritual awareness was heightened to make up for a non-functional body. All who knew her could feel the Holy Spirit that emanated from her, even through the Internet. She had wisdom way beyond her years. She had friends from every position in life who sought out her wisdom and loving words, which she generously gave to all, as Christ would.”
When I received news of Debbie’s death, I grieved for myself and all of Debbie’s friends, who would no longer receive her comforting words, but my heart swelled with gratitude to know that she was free! Free of pain, free of the body that had so long limited her movement, free of the day-by-day deterioration that had even made it difficult to swallow or to talk. I imagined her running and laughing and shouting for joy. That joy is evidenced in the following Eulogy that she wrote herself.
Hello all my loved ones! Welcome to my Farewell, until we meet again.
Yes, I decided to write my own eulogy because I thought only I could tell you the stark truth, without all the flowery words and praises we sometimes say at times like this.
Now just for your information loved ones, even though you can’t see me with your natural eyes right now, let me assure you, I am looking at you! And, you should see me now!! Va-va-va-voooom!! You’d say to me, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Yes, I am standing up, dark wavy long hair, a glorious white gown, and a ten-pound crown! Oh, and let’s not forget, Cinderella slippers! Yes, indeed, I’m quite a sight! But you already knew that!
I would like to introduce you to my mouthpiece Shirley Morgan. She probably knows more about me than she herself wishes at times! Please welcome her within your heart.
Now, how can I make this brief and yet a sufficient life-sketch without boring you? I think this will be the best way. To begin, let me reiterate that I love you all more than a lifetime could ever show you! Secondly, thank you with all my heart for showing up, not only today, but also throughout my life’s existence on this mortal plane.
Thank you for all your love, your prayers, and countless kindnesses toward me, but above all, for your time. I think Emerson said it best: “Rings and things are apologies for the only true gift…TIME.” So thank you again for the gift of your time while I was here by you.
My life sketch is brief,
1. I was born of goodly parents and a noble heritage.
2. I was blessed with the best, greatest, most spiritually strong, faithful and long-suffering family, especially two of the noblest, queenly and understanding sisters…Tanya Marie and Liza Ann. What more can a girl ask for and get? I can’t think of a more perfect blessing from heaven!
3. I was bestowed with the choicest and most beautiful friends in this world! I couldn’t have asked for more when I already had the greatest! I AM TALKING ABOUT ALL OF YOU!
4. I lived a good life! I lived, I laughed, loved, cried, learned, scraped my knees and soul against many different life surfaces. I experienced much beauty, tasted the bitter and sweet, wondered at times about many things, wandered off the track at times, but God’s grace and the love of my family and friends always whispered me back to the strait and narrow path.
5. I was given one of the most priceless gifts ever, my tenderhearted caregiver Angelica. Please welcome her up here to the pulpit so you see her. You can see her beautiful soul. She is not only the embodiment of my grandmother who kept me on the straight and narrow, but was my friend, my sister, my mentor, my hands, feet, and voice. She was also my defender, a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes even my “Cinderella Godmother.” I use to tell her, “Angelica! Come on, do a miracle!” Well, so many times…she did. Please indulge me in letting me thank her for making my life for so many years easier, more beautiful and worth the struggles…and for her undying loyalty and patience. I bow to her.
Don’t ask me why I was so abundantly blessed, but I am pretty sure it was and is all because of a Perfect, Loving Heavenly Father and Divine Savior, who gave me the supreme choice and opportunity to have the gift of a physical body, the privilege to make right and wrong choices, and to have been given the true Gospel of Jesus Christ through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think my life sketch resembles your own fairly close! Don’t you? We have all been blessed, challenged, strengthened, given choice family and friends, we’ve all laughed, cried, experienced losses, gains, have had sweet opportunities to change, grow, serve, care for another, see the beautiful and the not so beautiful while on this earth, savored the bitter and the sweet. So, for any of you who had the erroneous idea that I had unseen wings (because I never had any), or walked on water (I wouldn’t even try it if you paid me…I’m terrified of water), I was really quite like you! No wonder we all got along marvelously!
Would I have had it any other way? Honestly and humbly, NO. I remember reading once that the Lord lets us wait for what we want so deeply, so that when we receive it, we truly appreciate the desired blessing. I know that everything I have profoundly wanted, when I receive it, will be the sweetest blessing ever!
I’ve waited for this hour with sweet anticipation, as most of you have heard me say for many reasons, my loved ones. And even though we must be physically apart for a while, I solemnly testify to you, I am NOT far away. I am happy and finally at home where we shall meet someday!
This quote says it better than I could:
“He knows how to guide us and how to time his blessings to our wants; and when you feel impatient and dissatisfied because He does not give you more than you now have, and when you are afflicted and bowed down in sorrow and pain, let the reflection enter into your hearts to comfort you, that our Father and God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, trod the path we are now treading, that there is no affliction and sorrow that we are acquainted with, or can be, that the Lord has not already had an experience in; and He knows our condition, He knows what is good for us. If we need a gift and a blessing, he knows when to bestow it upon us.”
My time has come!
I leave you with my undying and immovable testimony and assurance that God lives and is ever watching and caring over us. Jesus is the only Savior and because and through His perfect life and sacrifice we will be reunited as eternal families and friends as He intended and promised the faithful. This life is just a little knot in the eternal unending thread, a tiny stitch in our lives.
I will miss you all, but will carry you in my heart until we once more clasp hands and embrace. Be strong in the face of any challenge and confusion, everything is in order my beloved loved and cherished Ones. I love you all. Thank you for everything you gave to me so unconditionally. You gave me quite an example to follow! Until soon!“ (End of Debbie’s eulogy)
I’m so grateful to Debbie Avila for her shining example of faith and endurance and ministering to others even in her situation of extreme disability. I love her dearly. I’m also grateful for the promise of the resurrection and to know her resurrected body will be strong and perfect.
Writer and Pastor Max Lucado said, “We face our fears, we grow in our struggle, adversity deepens our faith. There is always something wonderful and surprising around the corner on earth and beyond.” (“A Time to Grow,” Guideposts Magazine, March 2014) I can only imagine what was “around the corner” for Debbie, who had surely filled her second estate with honor.
Easter time is such a good time to renew our stores of gratitude for all the people we love and for the promise Jesus gives us of everlasting life for them and for us. We will be with them again!
Author Note: check my website darlaisackson.com for details about my latest book of comfort for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. While my last book (After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Hope to Go On) was written strictly to the LDS audience, this one, Finding Hope While Grieving Suicide, is written to anyone who believes in God and the Bible. If you know anyone whose life has been impacted by a suicide, you may wish to check out these resources that offer grievers the help and comfort I’ve found in a decade of searching.
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