Exponent Classics: Rose-Colored Glasses
There couldn’t have been a more model Mormon family than ours. I was serving as the stake Relief Society president; my husband was a former bishop; e had five children, the oldest of whom had just left on a mission. Not only did we look good on paper, but I felt like we were everything that a good family should be.
By all appearances, our second son was not the one whom we ever expected to rebel. He is by nature a peaceable, sensitive person. He seemed to be well-adjusted and happy. He was popular with his peers; he had been junior class president in high school, a quorum president, a good student who had just earned a four-year scholarship to the university. He seemed to have everything going for him.
During his senior year, he began drinking. We began hearing things like, “I want to live my own life. I want to do my own thing.” We hoped this was a phase that would pass as he matured or got some experimenting out of his system. But the drinking persisted and in fact began to be a problem. I began to fear that any night the police would come to our door and tell us that our son had been killed or had caused an accident.
One early morning, about 1:30 A.M., the doorbell rang, and there on our porch stood three police officers. My heart sank because I knew that my worst fears had come true. However, they did not bring news of my son’s death, but the unbelievable news that he had been involved in a shooting incident. No one had been killed, but someone had been injured by my son.
What followed was the nightmare of seeing my nineteen0year-old son taken off to a jail cell, hearing that his actions could bring him up to five years in prison, going through a very emotional trial, and having it result in his being sentenced to a year in the county jail. He was later granted a work-release program. Imagine feeling fortunate that your son was only going to the county jail and not to the state prison.
During all this turmoil and worry, I remembered the image of that “model” Mormon family and thought what a sham it was. To have an incident like this take place in our lives was humiliating, embarrassing, and a deep heartache. I probably would not have shared it with anyone outside the family, but it is difficult to hide something that appears on the front page of the newspaper. The incident took place on a Saturday, and we all went to church the next day. Believe me, that was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
However, I needn’t have worried. We felt such an outpouring of love, much unexpressed, but we definitely felt it. Our friends expressed their support, and I never heard anything negative about our situation. No one ever made me feel like they were wondering how this could happen to the stake Relief Society president’s son, although I certainly wondered that myself. I was operating at that time on the premise that if you keep the commandments and have family home evening, then everything should go smoothly. I have learned an important lesson: that all we as parents can do is teach and guide and that each person has his or her own agency to make the choices that he or she wishes. And no matter what, trials will come! This was unfamiliar territory for me.
Another important lesson that I learned was that most of us worry more about how we appear to others than others ever think about us. We imagine that others need us to be a certain way—need to think that we have a great marriage, a great family, perfect children—when in fact others are usually relieved to learn that we are not perfect. They need to know that they are not alone in the problems that they are experiencing.
In the weeks and months following the shooting, I felt barriers begin to break down as several people shared their heartaches and problems with me. I began to feel, for the first time, that I was not alone. Ironically, two other young men in our stake were sentenced to prison sometime after our son. I was able to give strength and encouragement to their mothers, something I may have felt inadequate to do previously.
My growth continued in some unexpected ways. While serving his time in the county jail, my son told me about a young man who had no one to visit him. My son considered him to be a good person and wondered if I would visit him. Little did I realize what a positive experience these visits would prove to be.
I could see a real need in this lonely young man and others like him. This visit led to visits with other inmates, and as I lifted them, I lifted myself. What had been such a painful experience for me became one directed by the love that came from helping others. To some inmates, I gave haircuts or a bus ticket home, with others I shared tears and laughter, an outing with our family, birthday cards, letters, encouragement, and the gospel. I also conceived of the idea to present some motivational classes at the state prison. With input from these new friends, I put together a proposal for nine classes that would cover such topics as accepting responsibility, setting goals, alcohol and drug abuse, and problem solving. After some bureaucratic hassling, I received permission to present the first of these programs at the state prison to twenty-five inmates who had been selected for their receptiveness and need.
I was frightened when I went to the prison. There is a blackness there that is unlike anything I had ever experienced. My Relief Society training really came to the surface because I went armed with a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls for refreshments. Refreshments are a known quantity to me, and I needed that little bit of security.
I didn’t know what to expect, but appearance and reality again had little to do with each other. These twenty-five inmates could have been a college class. They were respectful and responsive; each could have been your next-door neighbor and was certainly someone’s brother, or father, or son. They had hopes, fears, and dreams, just like us; the only difference was that they were paying for some serious mistakes that they had made. That presentation was a major hurdle for me in coming to terms with what had happened to me and my family. My perceptions will never be the same again.
The telling of this experience is still very painful. I often wonder why it happened, even though I can say that I have learned some valuable lessons that I might never have been forced to learn. And, I have tried to come to some conclusions about appearances and expectations.
Perhaps we expect too much of our children, but to expect less would probably be a disservice as well. Perhaps the problem is that we expect too much of ourselves as parents and believe or hope that we can spare our children the pains of this life even though we know that this hope would deny them their own growth.
I, like many, have found the holidays to be a particularly difficult time, but I think that I have discovered why: It’s those terrible Christmas letters that we all receive and, perhaps, have even written. You know the ones I am speaking of—with the interminable lists of accomplishments of the eight kids told by the overly proud parents. I have thought of sending my own version: “…our son is serving time in jail this year, our daughter has just wrecked the car for the second time this month, and Johnny hates school—we have to drag him there every day. Nevertheless, we love them very much and find that they are teaching us a lot about living life in this world. Happy New Year!”