Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On the other side, but still there

First off, this is pathetically late. My excuse, however, is that I've spent the last couple weeks thinking about how I would be able to do this justice. I suppose that now is as good a time as any. July 18th was a day that I'd like to erase from my memory, but that's just not possible. It's never a good thing when you get an unexpected call from your mom in the middle of the day, and you can barely understand her because she's crying. To then learn that Brittney Knouf, one of the greatest friends you've ever had---someone who you confided anything and everything to---decided to end her life....well, there isn't anything you can do to prepare yourself to receive such heart-wrenching news. Since it happened, my emotions have never really shown on the outside, but inside has been a different story. And yet, as soon as I got off the phone with my mom, I was overwhelmed by the Spirit prompting me to pray RIGHT THEN. The prayer had nothing to do with me or my needs; it was all about comforting Britt's family and helping them come to understand, in the Lord's time, where their amazing daughter is right now. It was also a prayer of gratitude for the close friendship that we enjoyed, and I was promised at that same time that this friendship was not over. When I went to the temple the following morning, this promise was confirmed by a sweet and peaceful feeling. I won't go into details since it was sacred, plus I can't really describe it in a way that anyone but myself can understand. The Lord works that way with His children; we each have moments and experiences that are personal only to us. Cherish those moments, because they can be some of the most sustaining things to hold onto as you journey through life. Even during my times of mourning and sadness since Britt left this mortal life, that feeling of peace has never left me. I don't think that it ever will. I was devastated that I couldn't attend the funeral, but I have no doubt that those who were there had a memorable experience. Several of them told me so, and I was grateful for that. I don't like seeing those who I care about suffer in any way, but I understand that it's part of life. Still though, it's a wonderful thing when peace and understanding comes to the mind.

I would like now to share the memories and experiences that Brittney and I had, which are really almost too numerous to remember. I don't say that to brag, but rather to show how strong our friendship became. I still remember the first time that I saw Britt; it was in the early-morning seminary class taught by my mom during my sophomore year of high school. She was with Liz Stewart, but I had no idea whether or not she was a member of the Church. That hardly mattered of course, but try telling that to a thick-headed 16 year-old. I assumed that she was a new member of the ward, and by the way she payed attention and followed along with what my mom taught( she even had her own scriptures!!), I felt pretty confident in my short-sighted assumption. Right from the start, Britt impressed me, and I felt that this was someone who I not only wanted to become friends with, but I sensed that I NEEDED to become friends with her. This was pretty new territory for me, since I hadn't done much to that point to go out of my way to befriend girls. I soon found out that Britt was, in fact, not a member of the Church. This brought my level of interest in getting to know her to a higher level. When I initially started getting to know her a little and finding out what she was like, I felt so unsure of myself in terms of my ability to talk to girls, and I told her that. I'll never forget her kind reassurance and understanding; she never laughed at or turned her back on me. The tiniest spark inside me began to burn, and our friendship took off from there.

That school year (2004-05) and the following summer was one of the happiest for the both of us, in many ways. I was there when she was baptized into the Church, with practically our whole seminary class there to support her. Back when MSN Messenger was still popular, we'd talk to each other all the time about anything and everything. I told her that I loved sports and especially basketball, and she said that it was her favorite as well and that she wanted to play with me sometime. And we did, many times; we played basketball under the hot sun, and in the pitch black with only a porch light. We once played in a pouring thunderstorm; we were having too much fun to care. In many ways, that epitomized our friendship; whenever we talked or spent time together, nothing else really mattered. I told her many times, and she said likewise, that I'd be having a really bad least until we got to talk. I remember when she turned 15 and I got her a card and a bag of tootsie pops. I snuck them into her bag at school, and she discovered them while she was sitting in class. She would come and watch me play in Church basketball games. And I'll tell ya what, there are few things that can fire you up to play your best when you know that a girl is there watching you. Man, I'm glad I didn't make a fool of myself. We took LOTS of walks together, practically all over Eugene. I could still go back there today and retrace those steps. That's how precious those memories were. We went to lots of Church dances and spent even more time talking and laughing. I was the prankster at those dances, and my friends always told me to quit messing around and dance with girls. I only ever wanted to dance with Britt, and that's pretty much what I did 99% of the time. I'll never forget how sad she was when I told her that our family would be moving in a few months back to Utah. She didn't believe me at first, but then she came over and saw the "For Sale" sign in our yard. That was a hard move for me as well; I was halfway through high school, had a strong group of friends, a nice house that we had built. Everything seemed to be going well, but it taught me a valuable lesson: There's nothing wrong with feeling a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but always be prepared for changes. The move turned out to be the right thing for my family, but this isn't supposed to be about me. Recalculating!

I remember how excited I was when I found out that Brittney would be coming with Liz and Audrey to visit and go with McKenzie to EFY up in Salt Lake. I might have gone too, but I had a BYU basketball camp that same week. Still though, I'll never forget those days that she was there. The picture at the beginning of this blog is from the night that our family went ice-blocking across the street from the Mt. Timpanogos Temple. After a while, I got kind of bored and went to sit down on one the picnic benches (still in the same spot now) and just looked at the lights on the temple. Before I knew it, she was right there beside me. We started talking  about the upcoming week for the both of us, and about what we wanted our futures to be like. A LOT of our conversations were like that. I didn't find out until later that this picture was even taken; Liz had hidden herself behind one of the trees to snap this shot that has become one of my all-time favs. On the Sunday before she and the other girls were going to leave for EFY, I rather nervously approached her and asked if she would like to take a walk after dinner. To my great relief, she said yes. I am not the least bit ashamed to admit that it was on this walk that I held her hand. This was the first time that I'd EVER held any girl's hand, but boy did I sure feel triumphant after that! Anyway, she went off to EFY and had a great time, while I rode that surge of confidence from our walk to a very good week at basketball camp. I'll just say right now that practically any interaction that we had with each other always led me to feel like I was on top of the world. Now honestly, I want those who read this to think: How many people in your lives have made you feel like that? I'd venture to say that the list is pretty exclusive.

We saw each other a few times during the next couple of years whenever my family would visit Eugene, but it would always end on a somewhat disappointing note, knowing that my family would soon return to Utah and we didn't know the next time we'd see each other. Then all of a sudden, I was off on my mission to Cincinnati in the summer of 2008. In my talks with her before I left, she had been feeling pretty low and dealing with a lot of different stresses. She added that it didn't help that I was leaving on a mission because she felt like I was the only person (at least the only guy) who see could really open up to. However, she knew that a mission was the right thing for me to do. I thought about her a few times during those first several months and even sent a couple letters, but I never heard back from her. I was a little bit concerned as to how she might be doing, but of course I couldn't let my mind wander that far from the Lord's work. I had to dive in with both feet, and that's exactly what I did. I was transferred to Hazard, KY in the fall of 2009 and spent the next six months there having many great experiences. Then came a preparation day late that winter; Elder Rush and I made our usual trip to the library to churn out our e-mails to President Robbins and our family. As I opened my inbox, I spotted an e-mail from an address that, sadly, I didn't recognize: What really caught my attention, though, was the subject of the e-mail which read: "Missing you. Hope you get this." To my great shock and excitement, I opened the e-mail and discovered that it was from Brittney! She said that she'd really been struggling with a lot of things lately and really wanted to hear from me. I can assure you that I don't remember ever writing a faster response to ANY e-mail. I also told her my address so that we could start corresponding through snail mail. There's something about written letters that just makes them special. From then until the end of my mission the following summer, we wrote back and forth. She told me that she wanted to get her life back on track, apply to BYU-Idaho, and start working towards a temple marriage. I sent her mission pictures, and she sent me a copy of one of her graduation photos...the same one that was in her funeral program. I had SO many letters to sort through when I got home, and for some reason I couldn't find the ones that she had written me. I finally found them several days ago and read through them. As I read them, I had that same familiar smile that I was always had whenever I talked to or saw her. She was beyond excited when I told her that my family was coming to Eugene the week after I got home from my mission. She kept calling my grandma's house until she finally got a hold of me and practically demanded to know what I was doing. Nothing really important; just trying to recover from post-mission syndrome. I was upstairs when she came over, and I could hear her talking to my mom. Oh, to hear that voice again! I headed down the stairs and just waited for her to turn around and realize I was standing there. As she turned and saw me, the flood of memories we'd had all rushed into my mind. Her hug was so tight, it practically sucked all the wind out of my lungs, but I could have cared less. We went for a walk on the bike path (holding hands again) and I spent practically the whole time talking about my mission. I showed her mission pictures and just watched her feel so much better than she had in a long time. We could have sat on that bench by the Willamette River and talked long into the night. We had another great walk before my family headed back to Utah, and I gave her a list of inspiring scriptures and a whole sand dollar that I'd found at the coast. She told me that I had no idea how much that meant to her. I watched her as she drove away into the Eugene night, feeling very happy inside....I would never see her again in this life.

None of us can avoid hard times or challenges, because that is as much a part of life as getting up every day. We all have to face them and try our best to learn from them. Britt's challenges were not like mine, but the way to overcome them is the same: Trust in the Lord, surround yourself with good, have patience, help others with their challenges, etc. I have no doubt that Brittney was exceptional in many of these areas during her life, but ultimately, she lost confidence in herself. When this happens to any of us, the will to keep going slowly withers away. The day she took her life, my New Testament class was having a lesson about the Atonement and Resurrection. I testify with all the conviction of my soul that the Savior knows perfectly what Brittney felt during her mortal life, and that He rose from the grave!! Because He did this, she WILL be resurrected! She has many lessons to learn in the spirit world, and I hope that she takes the opportunity to learn them. I talked to her the night before she died, and among the things I told her was this:

"I don't fail to see your flaws, but instead I look past them. Everyone has flaws, but I don't define people by their flaws. The things that are great about you are something that I want to surround myself withThe world       these days needs people who embrace the right things because they are right, and who won't change that stance even when things get rough. I can see you smiling, and that is something that motivates me. There's not many people who inspire me like you do, Britt. 
Know that I love and miss you and just want you to be happy. Have a very Happy Sunday!"

That was the very last thing I told her, and I think that some of the peace that I feel is knowing that I was there for her right until the very end. That's all you can really do. As I think about that very last thing I said to her, I am reminded of something Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin once said in conference in a talk entitled, "Sunday Will Come." He shared this:

"President Joseph F. Smith said 'that those from whom we have to part here, we will meet again and see as they are. We will meet the same identical being that we associated with here in the flesh.'
President Spencer W. Kimball amplified this when he said, 'I am sure that if we can imagine ourselves at our very best, physically, mentally, spiritually, that is the way we will come back.'

I think that of all the days since the beginning of this world’s history, that Friday[when the Savior died] was the darkest.
But the doom of that day did not endure.
The despair did not linger because on Sunday, the resurrected Lord burst the bonds of death. He ascended from the grave and appeared gloriously triumphant as the Savior of all mankind.
Each of us will have our own Fridays—those days when the universe itself seems shattered and the shards of our world lie littered about us in pieces. We all will experience those broken times when it seems we can never be put together again. We will all have our Fridays.
But I testify to you in the name of the One who conquered death—Sunday will come. In the darkness of our sorrow, Sunday will come.
No matter our desperation, no matter our grief, Sunday will come. In this life or the next, Sunday will come."

Yes, the way in which Brittney's life ended was tragic and hard to understand in many ways. And yet, her life is to be celebrated and remembered with smiles and not frowns. That is the only way that I have EVER remembered her since I've known her. Oftentimes in life, we will find that we have to go low before the Lord can lift us high. The Savior went below all of us so that we could be eligible to join Him and His Father in the highest degree of glory. In many ways, Britt is more deserving of this than me. How far she goes will depend entirely upon her, and that goes for all of us as well. I feel like I have my own special guardian angel who is watching over me and inspiring me to keep on going and doing my best. That's what Brittney Knouf did for me when she was alive. Yep, she's still that angel even now. God Bless Brittney Nicole Knouf.