Crossing the Sweetwater of Our Hearts
by Scot and Maurine Proctor
We could hardly believe what the Spirit whispered to us about our son.
For some time we had been worried about our high school son Eliot, a worry that ate at our peace of mind and sometimes kept us talking, restless and edgy, into the night about what we could do to help him. We remembered so many tender things about him-the way he used to leave a minute’s worth of kisses for Maurine on the answering machine when he was little, the way the story that he had written about a monster in first grade had been so funny, the way he remembered birthdays and Christmases with unique presents. As he had grown up we could see he had a gift with people, a charisma that attracted friends to him in hordes, but for all the good things about him our relationship had become strained. Our love for him was laced with fear for we had come to worry about his choices. His priesthood leader said he always skipped out on meetings, he sluffed seminary, and he had told us, his words dripping with sarcasm, that we couldn’t shove “our religion” on him.The more we saw these changes, the more we worried, and nothing degenerates a relationship between parent and child quite like fear. Where is he headed? Will he reject the things that matter most? Is he throwing away his opportunities, his life? This is what we thought while we asked instead, “Where are you going tonight?” Fear made our questions to him too pointed, too insistent. Fear obliterated casual conversation. And the fear in our hearts, unbeknownst to us, also edged into resentment. How can this boy trample the values that are dearest to us? And even more, “I love you and I don’t recognize you.”
Gray Day on the Sweetwater
It was in this state of mind that Scot went to Wyoming to take several photographs of Martin’s Cove and the Sweetwater River. He recorded this of his experience:
Gray, wintery days are miserable for photographers whose lives are spent chasing the light. An aching hollowness seems to stalk the halls of the creative mind and heart as he looks for definition, for light and shadow in the rocks, the trees, and the streams he is trying to shoot, and finds none. Such was the kind of day I faced as I stood alone on the banks of the Sweetwater River in the highlands of Wyoming and within echoing distance of the famous Devil’s Gate.
Sometimes I will wait for hours for the light to change, for cloud cover to move over, for the angle of the sun to increase-waiting for that moment when all the elements from the heavens work together and my immense task is to use my index finger to press the shutter. It is during these times that I ponder and pray, wander in memories, meditate the things of eternity.
The Sweetwater was cold and swift that day as I stood beside an s-curved shoreline. With the camera locked on the tripod and the meter set, I took a moment and dipped my hand in the icy water. A shiver went up my spine and my hand immediately throbbed and ached, “Now that is cold water,” I said aloud. The horses in the field nearby seemed to hear my voice.
In that terrible, early blizzard of 1856, members of the Martin Handcart company had been forced to cross the Sweetwater near this very spot where I was standing with my camera., an intolerable idea given their haggard,, hungry, already frozen condition. I thought of Patience Loader as she described her feelings when she saw that the river must be crossed again, “I could not keep my tears back…One of these men who was much worn down, asked in a plaintive tone, ‘Have we got to go through there?’ On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. That was the last strain. His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, ‘Oh dear! I can’t go through that!’ and he burst into tears.”
My mind wandered to those brave teen-aged boys, C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, David P. Kimball (and the less known Stephen W. Taylor) who had arrived with the rescue team to do what they could to try to save the Martin Handcart Company. Seeing the plight of the people, they willingly plunged their bodies into this icy river scores of times all through the day to carry the freezing and hopeless pioneers one by one to the other side-across what seemed to the pioneers an uncrossable chasm.
A slight breeze picked up and changed the face of the water before me. How had their parents instilled such goodness in them? Where had these young men found such nobility of spirit? I then thought about Eliot and my spirit took a bit of a dive as I stood there by the Sweetwater and thought of the pain I felt in parenting this child. I thought of his anger and how he seemed to thwart every effort for good we attempted.
My ponderings became vocal as with almost cynical doubt, I blurted aloud, “If Eliot had been here at this spot in 1856, would he have helped these Martin Handcart saints across this freezing river?” Then came a surprise, At that second, the Spirit whispered to me in a startling, gentle, heart-piercing voice, “Of course he would have.” Tears came to my eyes. “Of course, he would have.” I knew that the Spirit testifies of the truth of all things. I knew that God cannot lie. ” My feelings for this seemingly hardened teenager were softened and it appeared that mine was the heart that had been cold.
The Icy World of Ukraine
In the year and a half that followed, we changed and so did Eliot, and in the flurry of life we didn’t think much more about Scot’s experience in the snow until our son had been in the Ukraine Donetsk mission for over a year. Winter in Ukraine is bitter with winds that sweep off the Arctic and blow across the Russian steppes with a ferocity that slices into the very bone marrow and as young American missionaries tramp the streets their eyelashes and nostrils freeze and their muscles numb to the point that words fall out of their mouths in a mumble. Anything they had known of cold in the past dims before this blast which teaches them new levels of endurance. Because there is no snow removal, the ice on the walks builds with every storm until is it four or five inches thick, cutting into boots and making missionaries fall. Eliot said the record number of falls in his mission in one day was fourteen. “It is so wierd,” he said, “to be walking along and have your companion suddenly fall to the ground, unable to keep his footing.”
Yet missionaries in Ukraine can’t find much comfort by slipping into public buildings for a moment of warmth either. Even here their breath still pants out in frozen clouds and their face never thaws for it costs money to heat buildings and in the depressed economy, heat is a luxury. The first building in Donetsk where Eliot attended church was an old barn of a Communist rally center where for three hours of church in layers of thermal garments, thermals, shirt, sweater, coat, down parka, gloves, wool socks and hat, he froze, partaking of the sacrament with fingers stiff with cold.
While the discomfort was bad, the worst was its toll upon the less fortunate. One week the temperature plunged to 35 below zero and the missionaries were advised to stay inside, but outside, Eliot learned, people froze in the streets, their life slowly ebbing out amidst an inhuman chill.
Saving a Bleak Christmas
When Christmas came, the bleakness of the city was hardly lifted, and Eliot stomped through the streets feeling the grimness seeping into his soul. The buildings seemed identical in their gray and tan drabness. They were either of five stories or nine with the only essential difference being the five story apartment buildings had no elevator. In both, water and heat were intermittent and appliances were clanky and rusted. Now, in this season of lights, there were none and the only vestige of Christmas that Eliot found was a straggly tree in city center with a couple of strands of Christmas lights and a drunk Santa Claus and a Snow Princess who charged $2.00 to have their picture taken with you.
“All of us missionaries had expected that our mission field Christmases would be our best ever, and we were so let down. The difference between here and home was indescribable. Not one person we knew even mentioned that Christmas was coming, and when I received a new companion from Estonia on Christmas day, he asked casually, totally unaware of the holiday, ‘What’s the date today?’
It gradually became clear to Eliot that if there was to be any Christmas cheer for the missionaries in his district and the neighboring one, he would have to rally. He couldn’t bear to think of how the missionaries’ spirits would sag without a little remembrance of the season. A few days before Christmas, he and his companion were shopping at the market, putting potatoes and cabbage into a nylon bag, when a Christmas tree for sale caught his eye. Though his hands were already full, he bought this eight foot tree, put it on his back and dragged it home, the top dragging in the ice behind him. A couple of times he had to stop and rest, but it gave him time to hatch the entire plan. He would give a Christmas dinner for the missionaries at his apartment!
Though he had always hated shiny balls, suddenly he was thrilled to find them for sale by a street hawker and got tinsel from a little woman at the side of the road. He broke his only knife trying to saw off the bottom of the tree and when he stuck it in a bucket, the only adequate weight to keep it from toppling was an old pair of missionary boots stuck in with the trunk.
Dinner was equally inventive as he divided up assignments amongst the missionaries. Some brought potatoes, some vegetables, but Eliot made an apple cake and plucked a turkey to bake. Midway through the preparations, Eliot had to go to the office to pick up his new companion, and when he got back another elder was trying to cut the turkey. “Didn’t you ever watch your parents cut a turkey?” he asked. “This is how you do it.” “It felt so good to cut a turkey,” he later confided to his journal.
The missionaries drew names to exchange with each other, and Eliot pulled out of his own Christmas box to fill in the gaps of those who had nothing to give.
As parents we delighted hearing about this Ukrainian Christmas from a distance on the telephone that Christmas night. We felt a tenderness for this dear son who had tried to make Christmas fun for his fellow missionaries, and listened on the other line while his three-year old sister, Michaela, sang “Jingle Bells” to him. He had not cried talking to us, but now we heard him sniffing as she mispronounced the words in great glee to him.
A Poignant Letter
It was only a few weeks later that Eliot sent us a poignant letter. The bleak midwinter weather had begun somewhat to relent, and the buds were on the trees. Easter was coming when Eliot and his companion came upon a man swaggering on the street in drunkenness. They had been here long enough to know that the drunkenness was only the symptom of a deeper ill-a hopelessness that came with the inability to find work.
The missionaries asked the man where he lived. He was too incoherent to answer, and they knew that he was in danger of becoming another statistic-another forgotten soul found dead on the road. Finally, learning from a neighbor where he lived, Eliot picked him up, staggering a little under his dead weight, and ploddingly, painfully carried him home. “My arms are in pain from the weight of his body, even though he was not that big,” Eliot wrote home. “This man was completely helpless. Without us carrying him home, who knows what would have happened? We are all like this middle-aged man who, on the wayside of life, are utterly helpless without the atoning blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. I am so grateful for his love for us.”
It was when we read of this event that Scot’s moment on the Sweetwater came back to us. “Would Eliot have helped these Martin Handcart Saints across the freezing water?” Scot had asked and the Spirit had answered, “Of course, he would.” Scores of memories came rushing to us. A neighbor telling us that Eliot had seen her carrying heavy boxes as he drove by in a car. He had stopped and immediately lent his hands. An elderly woman at a grocery store in Idaho, couldn’t make her boxes fit on the three-wheeled vehicle she had brought shopping. Eliot had run across the parking lot to steady them. A baboushka on a winter’s day in Donetsk was shoveling a pile of coal. Eliot had taken the shovel from her and done her work. A drunken man needed to find his way home and Eliot carried him and a bunch of missionaries needed a Christmas dinner and Eliot plucked a turkey.
We have been grateful that in a manger of Bethlehem lies the promise of the Garden of Gethsemane, that the Christ who was born for us also atoned for us, knowing both our pain and our possibilities intimately. And we are grateful that the Spirit cannot lie for on a winter’s day on the Sweetwater, our hearts made a crossing as we were told something about our son that we had forgotten-who he really was.
Before he went on his mission, Eliot had a movement in his soul, but so did we. We thawed.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.