It was two years after his wife’s passing and Monson was awake and alone in the Rotterdam Hilton because the others had booked hotels with Dutch-sounding names. The big concrete structure with modern design held his comparatively action-figure-sized 6-foot-3, 230-pound body, covered in white undergarments, safely and firmly six floors above the brick-lined intersection that was home to Dutch people who lived quietly and were currently under the barrage of a heavy rainstorm. He thought back to his home in Salt Lake City where people did not live so quietly, and also to Sao Paulo where people lived even less quietly.
As the senior apostle of the Mormon church, he was to say an important prayer tomorrow while Dutch translators spoke into the earpieces of the hundreds in attendance.
He opened the window to better hear the rain’s tapping on the cobblestone six floors beneath. The room had no other sounds besides these. He was grateful for the noise. The church’s prophet of the last decade, President Hinckley, was “not doing well,” as Elder Oaks had told him just moments ago. Following this statement, there had been an exhalation, all but directly stating that he, President Monson, may address tomorrow’s congregation with the status of prophet.
In the bathroom, he stood in front of the mirror. He ran the hot water and waited, unwrapping three complimentary, wax-covered soaps of different flavors, all placed next to other little things, all there for his use. One of the soaps was scented with black licorice. He liked the waxy feeling on his fingertips but he did not like the Netherlands. If he were to be in a foreign land, he would prefer to be in Sao Paulo where it was loud.
Being thrown into Sao Paulo at nineteen-years-old was like a second birth for him. Perhaps even more of a second birth than kindergarten as a baby. It was true that everything was brand new to him on his side of the wall after his mother dropped him at Hawthorne Elementary. His mother would see the familiar grape juice cases and the light-brown carpet. He too would have seen the grape juice perched high on the shopping cart at Paul’s Market, if it were not for the necessity of kindergarten. However, it was precisely because of the necessity of kindergarten that made him, instead, see unfamiliar grandma-faces and play bricks, which he eventually discovered were nothing more than cardboard boxes covered with burgundy paper.
Sao Paulo was a more intense kindergarten from a certain perspective. Fellow missionary, Elder Day, caused him to realize, “we don’t see anyone or anything from our past life… for two years.” Despite it being his barefaced reality, he was already one month into his LDS mission when Elder Day caused him to realize it— not only would he not see his family, but furthermore he would not see anyone or anything familiar to him, apart from that which he brought in his suitcase, for two years. “Any nao aliens,” they had joked. For every part human, the Brazilians were equal part alien, and he to them, likewise, those first few months. It was his fourth night in Sao Paulo when he tried at a joke. “How does the cowboy call to his filha?” he shouted to a posse of children outside the Fazenda de Oliveira. Going against his better instincts, he then shouted the punchline, “feeee-ha!” with two hands cupped to the corners of his mouth. It was after shouting the punchline that he no longer could pretend the children’s laughter wasn’t cruel. He saddled his bicycle, unable to understand their words. He had stood there above his bicycle. They laughed at him cruelly, despite the fact his spirited gestures were the very same as those back in Utah. They entertained the children in Utah and earned him compliments, “isn’t he great with children,” and “taking notes mia maids?” But that day in Sao Paulo he had stood there over his bicycle.
His cell phone lit up with a message and yanked him into the present, inside the Rotterdam Hilton.
“We are praying for his comfort now.”
“Heavenly Father. Please give him comfort. In the name of Jesus Christ Amen,” he whispered.
He snapped the third soap into little pieces. This one was lavender. He pressed the soap crumbs into little flat discs and dropped them evenly across the bathwater.
“Father, may he make it through the night. Not tonight.”
“Father, according to thine will.”
In front of the mirror, his face’s reflection showed heavy, lifeless creases at the junction between the chin and neck. The wrinkles transitioned gradually, neverminding the bags beneath his eyes, to a slightly smoother forehead. He touched it, noting to block his eyes’ reflection. It was soft and wrinkly to the touch. His bald hairline had borne the shape of an inverted window’s peak, which, he wished his wife could see him now— time had lampooned his life-long chopping board hairline. At times the flat hairline juxtaposed the priesthood brethren’s so starkly that it provoked comments from the congregation. Many had commented. The other priesthood brethren’s hairlines were all either receding or bald and were prominently displayed because stickum slick-backs were in-style following David O. McKay. This bald spot, shinning in the mirror, was the product of incremental, unnoticeable changes— from kindergarten into this—the changes had been unnoticeable day-by-day.
In kindergarten, he once took a leak wearing roller skates. The extra six inches above the toilet felt exhilarating. The additional three feet now, on the other hand, were unnoticeable; quick changes were easily spotted, but slow ones…
He exhaled, pressing his palms flat against the countertop.
Had his leaks not been taken from the same height as the previous day, and so on for all his life? It was Tolkien, was it not, who once said: one can spend a lifetime climbing a ladder only to discover it is propped against the wrong wall.
He averted his eyes down and away from the mirror.
Then left the mirror permanently and stood in the bathtub.
Looking down, his face’s reflection glimmered back at him.
He stepped back over the wall and dried his wet shins.
He dialed Elder Oaks.
It rang twice.
He canceled the call.
He walked back to the tub.
This time he focused away from his reflection. The water’s surface intersected his legs, cut mid-shin, and bobbed around a freckle on his right leg. The skin around his belly was tight. The skin around his arms was wrinkly. He was used to it. He was used to a lot of things. He had seen a lot. He had seen people die as he administered to them. He’d seen them get weak. He’d seen them lose interest in life. He’d seen them gain a burst of energy. He’d seen their eyes gloss over. There were many details in the three-folded hospice brochure, ‘A Loved One Passes’ which had been confirmed by his experience.
His phone was ringing. He dried his hands.
“Elder Oaks, hello.”
The old men were soft-spoken as they addressed each other by President and Elder.
“He isn’t doing well President. The chemo is hitting him hard.”
“Oh dear. You’re at the hospital?”
“And Elder Nelson?”
“Yes President,” the former heart surgeon’s voice came through the line, “I’m here.”
“How is he?”
“He is in good spirits. Although I must say,” Elder Nelson’s voice cracked as it came through the speakerphone, “it will be my privilege to accompany,” he swallowed heavily.
“Oh dear. Oh dear.”
“Yes. He is a great man who will soon meet his Savior and Redeemer.”
Monson stepped back and set the speakerphone on the counter.
“Is that so,” he replied. “Health-wise… what’s going on?”
“The chemo weakened his immune system, you know, and now a disseminated infection is hitting him. And yes, yes President, it isn’t looking good.”
“Well. Well, that isn’t good,” Monson said.
“The chemo does give him a chance to extend, but he is ninety-seven...” Elder Nelson exhaled, “they are also considering antibiotics, but again, he is ninety-seven.”
“That’s not good,” Monson said, “sorry, I mean.”
Monson inhaled and exhaled.
“Yes it’s effecting us as well. But, alas we must remember this is a happy passing, as he will soon be with our Savior.”
“Right. Okay. Yes, that is right. Thank you for staying by his side, brethren.”
“May we pray for his comfort?” Elder Nelson asked.
“Okay,” he balanced the phone on the tub’s porcelain wall and bent gently to his knees to avoid splashing. A soft “ready” came through the line and he began his prayer slowly, “Dear Heavenly Father… Please comfort President Hinckley, prophet, seer, and revelator of your church on the earth today... Please provide him with comfort tonight… according to thine will… so he may pass the veil... according to your timetable. In the name of thine son, Jesus Christ, Amen.”
They exchanged goodbyes. A “thank you,” “goodnight,” and “thank you President” came through the line.
He hung up to find a new silence reverberating deep in his ears, more intense than before.
“Please not tonight.”
Through the bathroom’s doorway, he could see that the hardwood floor was so black it was almost purple. This option was in the catalog when he and his wife did their remodeling, maybe four years back.
He counted the number of years in his mind.
Where was the rain?
He dried his lower half and left the bathroom to check on the rain. The paint on the drywall was cakey, he thought of the unbearably small amount of sound that must be bouncing off of them.
The living room’s window was only half open.
He fixed it.
But the sound did not increase.
You need more than twice the sound to hear twice the volume, he recalled.
It had to do with logritihms or something.
He turned on the television.
He dressed himself. He used his wrinkled arms to pull a white, mesh undergarment over his tight belly. He looked down at his stomach, standing like he had in the bathtub. He watched his stomach rise and fall with the cadence of his breath. The links of white mesh circles clung tight to his wet stomach, pulling themselves taught against one another and exposing the pink skin underneath. When he stood above his bicycle after shouting filha to the children outside the Fazenda de Oliveira, it was similar to how he stood now.
It was not his first time being mocked. He had always felt like an outsider in kindergarten and had been mocked accordingly. In grade school’s following years, however, he was better able to hide his outsider’s mentality by pretending in certain ways when talking to people. This type of pretending stopped the mocking but led to an indifference on behalf of his classmates with respect to him. But yes, because he was an outsider in kindergarten, he could say with authority: to be mocked by six-year-olds at nineteen-years-old is worse than at six-years-old. After shouting filha to the circle of children outside the Fazenda de Oliveira, he pretended the situation could be improved by calling “Tchau!” over his shoulder while peddling away, uphill to catch his missionary companion Elder Holt who had peddled out of sight beyond the hill’s apex, thus violating the mission rules detailed in the 'white handbook' booklet inside his button-up's front pocket. He wished Elder Holt had seen the laughter, so as to make it less cruel and make it belong to something other than solely the memory of the children, his own, and the passing Avo who witnessed it. The way it actually happened was worse. Worse than any other way.
That evening, he and his mission companion Elder Holt knocked the door of a rich man. The rich man took him in as a guest and smiled at him many times with straight, white teeth and sat him down inside a room of clean furniture. From the tribulations of missionary life, the dark ashes of his trials were ignited by fire. Bearing testimony of the gospel made his bosom burn in Sao Paulo, especially in the late evenings when the air was cool and dark. When he did so hungry on an empty stomach, the fire of his testimony was the only thing inside of him.
“Mr. Santos I know Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.” With broken Portuguese, his nineteen-year-old-self looked the rich man whose culture he did not understand in his eyes and bore testimony of the gospel. “And Joseph Smith restored God’s power on Earth.”
There is a page in his journal from that week which reads, “The burning sensation when I bear testimony of the gospel is not only the Holy Spirit, but also is the upside of a refiner’s fire. These are little checkpoints wherein the Lord reminds me, ‘you’re on the right path Elder Monson,’ as I wade through the obstacle course which He has designed SPECIFICALLY for my growth, how fortunate am I. Like a sword that must be forged at high heat, I too must pass through the Lord’s refiner’s fire to become a useful tool in His hands.”
And for these checkpoints he was grateful, the fire within him pushed the lingering tribulations of the day—being mocked by six-year-olds— vertically upwards and out of his body. The tingling sensation of the refiner’s fire started at the heart and spread outward, replacing everything else, and everything else billowed like smoke and tingled its way out of his head. To feel the Holy Spirit in such a foreign land with no connections to home, to have his bosom burn only by bearing testimony, it was a testament to the gospel’s universality.
The rich man’s face was still and did not hesitate to look back into his eyes. The rich man’s breath was drenched in alcohol, a smell that he did not understand at the time, and the rich man breathed heavily through his nose hair. Looking into the rich man’s eyes he bore testimony again. “God made Joseph Smith His prophet. Like Moses. Like prophets you read in your Bible,” he testified.
“Prophets. Sim. Like Moses or Noah,” the rich man said.
“Yes senior, like Noah too,” his companion Elder Holt replied.
“Joseph Smith,” the rich man cut in. “He is in America?”
“Joseph Smith passed away, but God’s power has been passed from Joesph Smith on and on until this day. We have a living prophet today in America, and his name is George Albert Smith.”
“How do American Mormons transfer their power?”
“Death!” he said excitedly, “when the prophet dies…” He turned to his companion for help. He understood the rich man but did not have the vocabulary to answer the rich man.
“When one prophet passes away, the next highest in seniority takes his place,” Elder Holt said.
“God does not select him? Who decides who the next senior? You see, this interests me, I am elevated high in my business and I understand power does not transfer easy.”
“No, God selects him,” he answered, but again was impeded by his limited vocabulary.
“Because God oversees the process senior,” Elder Holt explained, “God makes John Doe, erm, Luis Lima, what’s a common Brazilian name?”
“Luis Lima. Yes. Let us say, God wishes Luis Lima to become prophet at 60 years old. He will oversee it all. He will make Luis Lima an apostle at say 30 or 35 years old, such that… ”
“I see, I see,” the rich man gestured downwards with a flat palm, “an apostle at 35 so he turns into a prophet at 60.”
“Corrigir! You is intelligent, a speedy learner Mr. Santos,” he said to the rich man.
The rich man stared at him. The rich man averted gaze, and then laughed at him. For the second time that day, his Portuguese was the joke.
“This is a meaningful compliment coming from you,” the rich man mocked grimly, “this one’s Portuguese is far more standard.”
“Yes yes. Elder Holt is very fluent.”
Elder Holt smiled, “this is only his fourth day in Brazil.”
“Yes, his fourth day.”
“Fourth day!” the rich man pointed at him, “You is intelligent. You is a speedy learner!” Laughing loudly, the rich man bounced up and down. His belly shook.
“I do God’s work!” he tried joining in the positive energy. “You can have the same. In your life…”
“Okay okay,” the rich man said, “tell me, how does a boy pretend to have such wisdom?”
And for the second time he bore testimony directly into the rich man’s eyes, “Mr. Santos, this is a very nice home. You is a very successful man. Yes, I young. But I know. But I know the gospel is true.” He pulled out his scriptures. Inside the front cover was a photograph of a bearded man wearing thin glasses. “This man is a prophet. His name is George Albert Smith. He is a true prophet of God who communicates directly with God” And for the second time that day, the Holy Spirit fire seared him. It burned all the chaotic ‘worldly things’ upwards and out of his body.
“He speaks to God?”
“Yes, senior. And God speaks back.”
“How do you know that God speaks back?” The rich man ran his fingers over the photograph.
“Good question, senior. I pray about it. And the Holy Spirit....”
“The Holy Spirit communicates by a feeling of peace and comfort,” Elder Holt explained.
“Yes, that is what I feel. The Holy Spirit is here. Right now,” he said sequentially with long pauses. “This feeling. I feel it. You feel it. This is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is telling you, George Albert Smith is God’s prophet. And this is God’s true church on the earth today.”
That night, underneath a scribbled ‘January 4th, 1947’ he documented their entire conversation and crafted his philosophy on the nature of spiritual knowledge— a nuanced, doctrine-based perspective which, similar to the Socratic dialogue, was framed and motivated by his real-life conversation. “How do you know? Do you ever doubt?” the rich man had been animated. “I know because of the Holy Spirit,” he answered, then admitted to the rich man, “But I do doubt sometimes. Of course. That is human.”
In the end, it was his invitation to action that opened the rich man’s heart: “I look for truth,” he said, “I can see, you look for truth too. This is a personality thing. Right? Part of wisdom is knowing how much you know. I know that I do not know everything. But I’m surest of the things I feel myself. I read the Book of Mormon. I pray to ask God if it is the truth. I get a feeling,” he made a fist over his heart, “I get an answer. You will have the same. Do not trust me. Test the book. Do not trust me. Test the book.”
Tucked into the leaflet of the same journal is a baptisimal photograph. He and the rich man are dressed in white garb holding stiff, happy faces. Clinched in his hand is a Portuguese Book of Mormon in the gorgeous blue-and-white cover which it used to be distributed in, shipped in wood slatted crates of 450 to Sao Paulo’s mission home each year.
He had only ever done what was asked of him. He had only ever done the right thing. He had only ever done what he was supposed to, what any good man would have done.
In the following page, two canteen-sized circles were traced onto the paper, one labeled ‘mortal knowledge’ and the other, ‘spiritual knowledge.’ In the Venn diagram’s overlap were two bullet points, “prophets and apostles,” because the prophet and quorum of the tweleve are in “unique position to obtain spiritual knowledge directly through mortal channels such as sight and sound.” An Apostel’s communication channels with God are direct, only second to the Prophet’s. This had been the popular understanding within the 1960s church membership when then Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, called Tommy Monson into his Salt Lake office, laid two hands on his head, and appointed him to be an Apostle of The Lord. Monson accepted the assignment straight out his military post in Fort Collins. He was in this thirties, married with three kids. He and his wife had locked the door and wept.
His phone vibrated with a new message. He folded the journal shut and swiped to answer the call.
“Please call if still awake.”
He closed Elder Oaks’ text, opened it, and then again closed it, then turned on the television and paced the room.
“Father, according to thine will.”
He paced the room.
There are permissible times to ‘zone-out’ in one’s life, and he knew this, having over forty years of marriage as well as responsibilities at the church headquarters. Sometimes his duties required that he relax by eating food and watching cable news, a form of psychological damage control for the greater good that even his father would have approved. His relaxation habits were analogous to him, or his father, advising a struggling church member to go for a long walk before calling a divorce attorney. “Take a daily walk, think about the children.” He could envision his stern father, now at this moment, approving of him taking three Ambien. But he had none, and the food here was too foreign, and the television had nothing familiar, and his heart raced too fast as he paced on the purpleish hardwood floor.
He grabbed the cell phone and called Elder Oaks.
A lump of something rose into his mouth.
“He passed,” came through the line.
“Right of course,” he said absentmindedly, “I’m going to need to go.”
“Thanks for the news Elder.”
Without the rain, there was only his breathing. He leaned in, switched the lamp off, and lay down. As the church’s new prophet, he closed his eyes to speak with God.
When he opened them, it was slowly and through the slits of squinted eyes. He saw his big stomach covered in white undergarments. There was a notch just above the navel. The mesh circles were pulled open just like before.
The whole mound rose and fell with the sound of air passing through his nostrils.
He picked up his phone.
“Are you with him?”
“Yes,” Elder Oaks said.
“And he passed?”
“Yes, he is with our Father now.”
“It’s was, really quite… ”
“No actually,” he said firmly. “Actually, actually, I’ve been meaning to discuss a few insights...”
Elder Oaks listened.
“Can you catch a cab to my hotel?”
“I’m in Salt Lake,” Elder Oaks chuckled, “at the hospital?”
“Oh that’s right, excuse me.”
“Let me try Elder Bednar, Elder Bednar is here.”
“I was about…”
He called Elder Bednar’s phone but there was no answer. Who else? Who else, who else, who… Hallstrom. He tried Elder Hallstrom’s phone but there was also no answer. Old men should not be left alone. Was it not Tolkien who wrote about this?
The alarm clock read 2:32 am. Each digit was composed of eight segments, on or off, to make the time show 2:32. The two was composed of five segments, then a colon, then a ‘3’ (the ‘3’ was simply a ‘2’ with its bottom-left segment shifted right), and finally another ‘2’. Soon, the two’s bottom segment would shift right and the time would become 2:33 am. He stood there and let the red light spill into his open eyes.