Monday, July 31, 2006

Lucila: The True Story

When I was in the MTC, I started dreaming about an old Mexican woman. She was standing on a green porch in front of a brick house, shaking out a rug. She had bright red lipstick on, and her hair was dyed black. I would wake up from these dreams with this feeling of love for this woman, though I had no idea who she was. One of our teachers told us that if we desired it, the Lord would bless us with love for the people we would come to teach before we ever even met them. So I figured this must be the case.

I left for Chile, and the dreams ceased for a while. At one point, a letter arrived from Mom that announced that my younger brother, Ouija, had dropped out of high school and moved back to our home state of California (they had all moved to Colorado right before my mission). She said in the letter that he had stopped going to church. I decided to have a fast for Ouija, that he would one day come back to the church and serve an honorable full-time mission. Being hypoglycemic, I knew that I wasn't really supposed to fast, but I figured the cause was great enough that it would be worth a few medical complications.

The next morning, as I was ending my fast, I began to have brown urine. This came and went for the next few months. The mission president's wife told me it was probably dehydration, and to drink more water.

I was transferred to Punta Arenas, a beautiful city at the end of the world where it snows on the beach and all the houses are painted bright gay colors like salmon and chartreuse and turquoise. And the dreams came back. By now I'd seen enough of southern Chile to know that the lady in my dreams wasn't down there at all. She was back in the United States. The dreams came with more and more intensity, until finally I decided to pray about what to do. I decided to talk to my companion about the issue. He agreed with my own idea that maybe I was supposed to go back and finish my mission in the United States. We decided to talk to Elder Moffit, my district leader.

Elder Moffit seemed to agree, upon hearing my story, that I needed to talk to the mission president about the possibility of an inter-mission transfer. First, though, I'd have to talk to the zone leaders and then the assistants to the president, and finally the president himself. So I sat down with the zone leaders, who supported me just as my companion and my district leader had. The next step was to call the assistants. Just my luck, I got Elder Camilla, on whose bad side I'd been ever since I met him at zone conference and, well....

Zone conference: Elder Camilla was up in front of the chapel presenting his new teaching program to all the missionaries. The idea was simple. We would teach the principle of baptism in every section of the first discussion. Part one was about God the father, and during that part, we would mention that through baptism God has prepared a way for us to come back to him. Part two was about Jesus Christ, and we could mention that we are following his example when we get baptized. And so forth. During the presentation, I was squirming a bit in my chair. It all seemed a lot like the Saturday Night Live character Subliminal Man to me. Finally, I had to say something. I raised my hand, and when called upon, I presented a different approach.

"This new system seems like it would work if our end goal were just baptism," I said. "But to me baptism isn't the most important part of the gospel. The atonement is. It isn't doing us any good to keep baptizing people if they aren't learning to utilize the atonement to help them to stay in the church. Why don't we mention the atonement in every part of the discussions? Heavenly Father loves us and wants us to return to him, so he provided the atonement for us.... Jesus Christ atoned for our sins so that we can be clean again.... Joseph Smith's vision taught us much about the nature of God and his love for us, and it's because of Joseph Smith that we now know so much about the atonement.... The Book of Mormon teaches us more about the atonement than we'd ever known before. Then by the time we get around to talking about baptism, we can say, will you accept the atonement of Jesus Christ in your life by repenting of your sins and being baptized in his name?"

Elder Camilla waited patiently for me to say all of that, and then started back in where he'd left off. "Well, Elder Smurf, that's a nice thought, but this is the new system we're going to be using for the next while. In the fourth principle--"

"Hold on a second." It was the mission president, cutting off Elder Camilla mid-sentence. He was standing up now, on the stand behind Elder Camilla. "I think Elder Smurf has a good idea here. Go ahead and have a seat, Elder Camilla." The mission president took the chalk from an aggravated Elder Camilla, erased what he'd had on the board so far, and replaced it with the details of the new system I'd thought up.

Anyway, the point of that aside is that that's the only other interaction I'd had with Elder Camilla before having to call him to tell him I needed to talk to the mission president about my crazy dreams.

So now I was on the phone with Elder Camilla, who informed me that the president was in a meeting. "What is this about?" he asked. So I told him the whole story, maybe a little more succinctly than previous versions of the story, because the call was long distance. He tried to "resolve my concerns," a trick they'd taught us in the MTC to help others to see the flaws in their own thinking. "So what you're saying is that you feel that the prophet called you to the wrong mission." It didn't even feel like a question.

"No, I know I was supposed to come here, but I feel that maybe it's time for me to go somewhere else. I've been praying about this, and I feel I need to at least explore the possibility."

Elder Camilla promised to talk to the mission president about my "concerns." He used the word a bit pointedly, so I'd know he felt this was just something I needed to resolve. Plus, the Spanish word for "concern" is the same as their word for "doubt," calling my story into further question. He said he would talk to the president and I could expect to hear back from him in the next few minutes.

I waited by the phone. It rang after only about three minutes. I picked it up and said "hello."

"Elder Smurf, junior companions are not supposed top answer the phone." It was Elder Camilla, and that was not a real rule. I hung up.

The phone rang again. "Can someone please come answer this phone?" I shouted to the five senior companions who were living with us at the time

"Why don't you?" someone hollered back.

"Because I'm not a senior companion."

My own companion came and answered the phone.

"Hello? Uh-huh. It's for you."

He handed me the phone. "Hi, Elder Smurf, it's Elder Camilla. The President does agree with me that the prophet did call you to this mission and he didn't make a mistake." This time he hung up on me, and I couldn't get in a word edgewise.

I was a little mad at this point. The zone and district leaders and my companion all came in and sat down with me. We all lived in the same house, after all. It was decided that they would all fast for me and my cause. I knew I wasn't supposed to fast, especially after the whole brown urine thing that still hadn't completely gone away, but I couldn't let all these young men fast for me without my doing my part. SO I agreed to fast along with them, starting right then.

The next morning, I woke up with something very, very wrong. I was starving, for one thing, so I got up, grabbed a huge salad bowl, poured in an entire bag of Chilean Cocoa Krispies and a whole box of milk, and ate it all with a gravy spoon. Then I was VERY tired, and I couldn't keep my eyes open. I lay back down on my bed and succumbed to sleep. I awoke just in time for lunch. My companion seemed very worried about me. he was sitting on his own bed, reading his scriptures when I came to. I felt better than before, though a bit weak. There were really no major problems, though. At last not until I stood up. And then everything went haywire. My heart was beating extremely hard and fast, as though I'd just been running. I took my pulse. 120. I knew that a normal heart rate was between 60 and 80 beats per minute at rest. We had a lunch appointment, and I thought we should try to walk the few blocks to the members' house and eat as we normally would. It was a Sunday, and we had church right after lunch, so this would be a good way to get the day started. By the time we got there, however, my pulse was up to 180. It didn't go back down all through lunch. I started to get a pain through the left side of my chest and my left arm and shoulder. "He's having a heart attack!" the mother of the household kept calling. She made me to lie down on the couch as she ran to the neighbors' to use their phone so she could call the family from our ward who had the car. They came and picked me up and took me to the hospital.

The Doctor gave me a pill to calm my nerves and everything went back to normal. He said I'd be fine, but that he wanted me to return the next day so that he could double check everything.

By my appointment the next day, my pulse had sky-rocketed again, and I was feeling dizzy and weak. He admitted me to the hospital to un some tests. I saw all kinds of specialists over the course of the next five days. I had blood taken from veins and arteries, I had sonograms taken of my heart, I was tested in a room where they did something nuclear to me as I lay on a table with some sort of spinning apparatus passing all around me in different directions like I was the nucleus of a cell. In the end, a neurologist came to see me.

I should mention that some time around my third day, I received a call in my hospital room from the mission president. "Elder Smurf, tell me about this dream," was the first thing he'd said. So I did. I told him all about it, and how I'd prayed and felt like I was supposed to go back to the United States. He said that maybe what was happening to me now was the Lord's way of taking care of things. I completely agreed.

The neurologist came to see me on the fourth day, and he had an idea about what was wrong with me. He'd just been to a seminar that weekend, he told me, up in Santiago, and he was the only doctor from Punta Arenas in attendance. There'd been a doctor there from the United States who had taught them all about a new disease that Chileans had never heard of before. They called it "sindrome de falla autonomica aguda," or "acute autonomic failure syndrome." he had some simple tests he wanted to run, makeshift versions of tests they'd have run on me if he's had all the equipment available in the United States. In one test, he monitored several aspects of my health while having me stand up and lie down alternately. All the tests confirmed his theory. He broke the "bad" news to me: he was sending me back to the United States.

It was a holiday that day, some Catholic saint's birthday, and there was a mad rush to gather together all of the missionaries who were in the city and collect enough money to pay for my plane ticket back to the United States, since the banks were all closed. We made it just in time, and I ended up leaving without really getting to say goodbye to the members or the other missionaries. I never got to see the mission president during all of that. Everything was a blur.

Meanwhile, my neurologist, who spoke only Spanish, explained to the mission doctor, a gynecologist who spoke only English, that I had experienced shortness of breath and that I'd need to stay reclined as much as possible. The mission doctor explained that to my mission president, who spoke only Spanish. He, in turn, called some people in Salt Lake City, who called my stake president in California, who called my mom's stake president in Colorado, who called my mom and told her that I was paralyzed and on a respirator.

Mom met me at the airport with a wheel chair.

She was relieved to see me walk off the plain, but cried when she saw that my weight had dropped fifty pounds in the five months I'd been in Chile. I weighed 125 lbs. when I stepped off the plane, and stood 6'2 as always.

I stayed in Colorado at my mom's house for a month. I still arose at regular missionary time, studied my Spanish every day, and did all the things a missionary is supposed to do. And I went to the doctor. I needed a clean bill of health before they'd allow me to continue my mission stateside. Miraculously, the day of the tests, I woke up and everything was fine. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me. The doctor had never heard of something called "acute autonomic failure syndrome," and he explained to me that I had probably caught what doctors call a "funny virus," a foreign virus that hasn't been documented yet. He signed the bill of health, and my mom's stake president faxed it off to Salt Lake. A week later I received a phone call and was informed that I'd be finishing my mission in Tennessee, Knoxville, and that I'd be going with three other missionaries who had just returned home from Spanish-speaking missions, and that the three of us would be the first Spanish missionaries in that mission.

When I got to Tennessee, I explained about the dreams to the mission president. He sent me down to Dalton, Georgia, where my first companion was a Mexican Elder who'd been called to serve in English. Our first day of proselyting, Elder Valdovinos took me to the government housing in a poor area of town. I was dumbfounded when we arrived. Every house in the neighborhood was made of brick and had a green porch. Just like my dream! I started to get excited. We hadn't gone two blocks before I saw her, not shaking out a rug, but rather shaking the dust out of a window fan. She looked exactly as she did in my dreams. Her name was Lucila.

We talked to her. We taught her the first discussion. She was very receptive. I was overcome with those same feelings of love I'd had in my dreams, and she seemed to connect with me very well. I came back with a brand new missionary on exchanges a few days later. She had loved the Book of Mormon, and wanted us to teach her whole family. We taught them all the first discussion. I came back again with yet a different missionary shortly after that, and taught the second discussion, the one that has the baptismal invitation. They accepted. Elder Valdovinos came with me again when it was time for the third discussion. This time a new lady answered the door.

She told us that Lucila and her family had been caught by the INS and that they'd been sent back to Mexico.

And that was it. I never saw her again. I have no idea what became of that family.

And the sad ending doesn't stop there. It was indeed a miracle that I'd been better on the day when I was given my doctor's clearance to return to the mission field, but as soon as we'd gotten out to the car, I'd once again become weak and dizzy and short of breath. I was throwing up a lot. I'd thrown up on the plane on my way out to the new mission. I'd thrown up all the tie between discussions.. I'd gotten so dizzy I had crashed my bike at a high speed and procured scars that I still bear to this day. Now Lucila was gone, and I knew it would be only a matter of time before I could no longer keep my illness hidden from those in authority.

And one day I got bronchitis. I had to go to the doctor to get pills, and he took my pulse and checked my file and confronted me with the truth: "You still have what you got down in Chile, don't you?"

I confessed, and he called our mission president (the doctor was also a member of the church). This was a Saturday. The mission president told me I'd be going home that Monday. I was sad. I spent Sunday night praying/arguing with God. He usually wins those. "I refuse to learn any lessons from this," I remember yelling at him at one point, "because every time I do you just throw something worse and more horrible at me. So that's it. I'm staying right here." Soon, though, my heart was softened and I was overcome with the knowledge that Christ had been with me through all of the trials I'd experienced, and that he was undoubtedly with me even still. I could feel his presence in the room with me.

And I came home. To California this time, since I was going home to stay. I'd lasted two months in the Tennessee Knoxville Mission. After being home for another month or two, I was released as a missionary. It was during that time that I wrote the poem, "Lucila." After my release, I was given the opportunity to speak in the ward from which I'd left. My brother, Ouija, came to hear me speak. I told the congregation the story of Lucila, and her sudden disappearance. I told them that I didn't know why I had to come home when I did, but that I knew the Lord was behind it.

Ouija met up with Don, his old best friend from high school. Don invited him to institute. He came to institute, and came back to church the next week. In fact, he didn't miss church again during that whole year. Don left on a mission. And a year after my homecoming, we were back in my old ward, only this time for Ouija's homecoming. He bore his testimony, shared some stories, and then he looked right at me where I was seated in the congregation. "My brother doesn't know why he had to come home early from his mission," he said. "But I do. If he hadn't come home right when he did, I wouldn't be standing here today." Of course I cried.

Ouija went on to be the top baptizing missionary in his mission in Mississippi.

I still don't know what all of that means. But I know I'm a better person for it.

Closer to God, My pride on a shelf.
I was looking for her, but instead found myself.


Samantha said...

Thanks, just never know, do you, what's in store when you're serving the Lord...

Something to think about, though, just in case you haven't: The things you taught Lucila were ETERNAL truths, and she accepted them. The Lord loves her dearly--and He allowed you to feel His love for a woman you had never met--what a breathtaking experience...I believe a way will be provided for her to partake of the atonement, and to feel the joy that is in store for her, through the knowledge and truth you provided.

Life is truly an amazing journey.

Mustard said...

Though I've heard this story a few times before it was wonderful to read it again. You always have a way of strengthening my testimony, and getting down to the "true" truthfulness of the gospel...Christ's atonement. I love you kid! - M

el veneno said...

Well that was an amazing and inspiring story. Thanks for taking the time to share. I love that I know some of the Elder Camilla and his big head (like literally he had a very large skull).

AttemptingthePath said...

thanks for sharing that smurf, it helped me believe that there's a reason why I'm here.

вџн said...

Elder Camilla sounds very, very much a two-faced narcissist.

I liked this story. It's kinda long, but you wrote it well enough so that I didn't really notice. Time for go

noelle feather said...


I am floored by your post. I just finished reading it.

I'm kind of blinking back tears.

I'm so glad I read your post.

Thank you.

Jason said...

That story was awesome. I was very touched by it, and by how obvious God's love for you and his other children is in it. Thanks for sharing it.

Distinguishing Preoccupation said...
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Distinguishing Preoccupation said...
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Distinguishing Preoccupation said...
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Distinguishing Preoccupation said...

What a great story. Thanks for sharing.


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Vero Awesome said...

It's amazing how you think you know someone, but you really don't. Like looking at a single facet of a diamond. We only see the part that glimmers when we shine light on it. Amazing.