This article first appeared August 8, 2011 in By Common Consent
Last Sunday, I woke my son with the words, “Elder Hanks has died.”
He responded, “Duffy? He died?”
I always called him Elder Hanks, and got upset when some of the aides in the center where he spent his last years called him Duff and handled him like a child. I wanted to yell, “Do you have any idea who this man is?”
I had loved him from my youth. I was still in high school when he spoke about faith and happiness in General Conference. He quoted Yeats. “In a poem of pessimism which he wrote soon after World War I,” Elder Hanks said, “Yeats described the widening circle—the gyre—in which the falcon flew away from the falconer.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
He went on to talk of various reasons people lose faith and joy. “There are those who have lost faith because of personal tragedies or troubles,” he said. “Faced with problems akin to Job’s, they have in effect accepted the invitation to curse God and die rather than to love God and gain the strength to endure their trials. There is, of course, in the promises of God no warrant that we will avoid the very experiences which we came here to undergo and through which we can learn reliance on the Lord. Jesus said, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33.) He had tribulation, and he overcame. And so may we, with his help.”
In the year he gave that talk, 1972, he was young and healthy–younger than I am now. Surely he did not imagine what tribulations lay ahead of him, or envision the only image my son has of him: an old man in bed, straining to move his mind beyond a haze.
He didn’t become my friend until Darius Gray and I were working on our trilogy about black Latter-day Saints. As we began writing about events in the 20th Century, we relied on Elder Hanks’s unparalleled understanding and experience, and were touched by his love for the characters we were writing about. We spent many hours with him before the clouds descended.
Even when he couldn’t remember names or faces, he remembered hymns, poems, and Christ. He never forgot his testimony. Once, in a completely clear moment, he testified to Darius and me that he knew he would be greeted lovingly by Jesus in the next life, because they were friends. He gestured to the various pictures of his family or of himself speaking at Conference; of awards given to him by humanitarian groups; of missionaries (some now General Authorities) who he had loved as their mission president in England; of the picture Darius and I had provided of Len and Mary Hope, black converts he had met during his mission and had served until their deaths. (He had sensed the exact moment when Len died, and had left a meeting to call the Hope family. It was no surprise when the oldest daughter, Rose, told him, “Daddy just died. Just now.”) He gestured to the pictures and certificates and said, “That’s my evidence.”
Sometimes, my husband and I read him poetry. Bruce once began reciting Blake’s “Jerusalem,” but couldn’t remember all of the words. Elder Hanks prompted him. (“And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?”) And we sang hymns as he requested them. We sang “The Spirit of God” vigorously. From his bed, Elder Hanks was conducting it like an energetic angel preparing for a most royal performance.
One of the sweetest moments in my history with Elder Hanks came about six months ago, when Bruce and I visited. I gazed into those old eyes I knew so well and loved so much. I had the thought, “I wish you could bless me,” and even as I thought it, Elder Hanks moved his hand to my head, cupping part of my cheek. He kept it in that position. We looked at each other and I was filled with love. It felt like a blessing to me.
As we prepared to leave, I said, “I love you, Elder Hanks.” He said he loved me too, and then looked at Bruce. “And what about you?” he asked. Bruce answered,“My wife speaks for both of us. I love you too, Elder Hanks.”
Darius Gray and I visited him two months ago. I don’t know what life felt like to him then–if it was like a gyre, turning and turning, with things falling apart. But I know the heart–the center–of him remained faithful.
I sang him the song he himself had penned, and which will extend his testimony through time as others sing it. He knew his Savior. They were friends. And he knew the truth which inspired these words:
That Easter morn, a grave that burst
Proclaimed to man that “Last and First”
Had ris’n again
And conquered pain.
This morn renews for us that day
When Jesus cast the bonds away,
Took living breath
And conquered death.
Thus we in gratitude recall
And give our love and pledge our all,
Shed grateful tear
And conquer fear.