Today, we as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints commemorate the anniversary of the organization of the Relief Society, the largest women’s organization in the world. This organization began in 1842. The Church has produced a video to communicate what Relief Society is all about. You can enjoy that here: Relief Society — An Enduring Legacy.
The power and purpose of the Relief Society can be found in the lives of individual women who strive to live lives of faith, strengthen homes and families, and serve others. Today, we celebrate the life of one such woman.
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She died several years ago, but her influence remains strong and real in my life.
I remember when Juanita first crossed my path. She was in my stake [a geographical area consisting of about 8-10 ward congregations]. She came to our weekly Saturday stake volleyball activity, bald head wrapped, smart and cute, in a scarf.
She was a mother of nine, eight of whom were living. She was an exemplary wife and mom, focusing her energies and time on building a haven within her home and raising her children in faith. The partnership between her and her husband was powerful to observe. If you didn’t know how humble and wonderful she was, you would be intimated by her. But you couldn’t be intimidated. You just couldn’t because of who she was. How she was.
I found myself with the wonderful fortune of having her move into my ward when ward boundaries changed. Her cancer had been in remission. She was quickly called as our ward congregation’s Relief Society President.
We all quickly fell in love with her. She was unassuming, genuine, loving, faithful, and approachable. She invited every sister to her home for a gathering, just so she could get to know us all better. For the mothers of young children (which was me at the time), it was a breakfast. She wanted to know about our lives, our thoughts, our suggestions. She even implemented one of my ideas in a Relief Society class.
She had been our Relief Society President for only a few short months when the devastating news arrived: her cancer had returned. This time, it attacked not her breast but her liver and lungs. We were stunned. As a ward family, we mourned. We prayed. We fasted. We reached out in love as much as we could. Her family reached back, and shared intimate details of their struggle with us. We received regular emails updating us on their journey. They decided that they would open up their usually-private life so we could exercise our faith better, and so we could travel with them. It was one of the most unifying things I have ever experienced in a ward. Even in her pain, and even after she was released from her calling as Relief Society President, she taught and ministered through her faith and example.
Part of the reason I connected so much is because so many of the struggles she had were struggles I was having, just in a different context, and obviously to different degrees. I was dealing with undiagnosed chronic illness. I understood struggles with fear, concerns about the future and life and family and all of those things that surface when your health is in question. I was pretty sure that I didn’t have cancer, but there were still so many unknowns, so many concerns that were the same. I just empathized with her–and she did with me.
I will never forget the time when I left a Relief Society weeknight class and hid myself in an alcove. I sat on the stairs and just sobbed. I couldn’t handle the normalcy with which the presenter was talking about getting up just a little bit earlier to exercise. I used to be that person, an avid and active runner, willing to sacrifice a little sleep for precious exercise. But that was no longer my life. I was mourning the loss of that life. I felt different, and I felt alone. Like no one understood.
But someone did.
Juanita found me in that alcove. Here she was, facing the possibility that her cancer would not go away this time around. But she listened and let me unload my concerns and doubts and fears.
As I apologized for complaining about my life, especially given all that was going on in hers, I realized that the severity of her trials didn’t change what my trials were to me. That moment of clarity came: We can’t compare suffering. She obviously knew that. She never made me feel that she “won” because her health problems were worse. She just cared.
As things continued to get worse in her life, we as a ward family continued to exercise our faith together. Between pregnancy, nursing and health issues, I had only fasted a handful of times in several years, and one of those times was for her. We had very specific purposes to our fasting and prayers, and I felt strongly that we were exercising faith in a way that was pleasing to heaven. I had the sense that if she passed away, it would be God’s will, because I felt we were truly doing all we could do.
During this time, she would openly share her doubts and concerns and questions in Relief Society. These were the times I felt that much closer to her. Often, women weren’t sure even what to say, but oh, how I could understand the questions she asked, for I had asked many myself. What do you do with priesthood blessings that don’t seem fulfilled? How do you truly exercise faith? What do you do when your life doesn’t turn out as you expect or want it to? I think in the end she really understood the answers. Faith is not about getting what we want. It’s about submitting and trusting in whatever God’s will is. Ultimately, we have faith in Him, and in His eternal plan, and in His Son, and nothing else.
God’s will was made clear. She deteriorated rapidly in the end. She slipped peacefully into eternity on the day that I had anticipated finally going to her home to say my last and personal goodbye.
Later, I found out more about those final moments. She was ready to go. But she actually chose to wait a couple of hours before moving on, until her oldest daughter’s flight arrived and she could be in that room, too. Even with the morphine flowing in her system and even as the door of death was wide open, a miracle happened: Juanita was able to interact in priceless ways with her family, cracking jokes, sharing some last thoughts about the family’s future. She’d already spent time before creating keepsakes, recordings, and letters, so these final words were simple but full of love and unselfishness. Amazing.
Once the daughter arrived, the family then sang together, then prayed, then let her go.
I have no doubt that Juanita passed her test. And in doing so, she gave those around her more strength and desire to do the same. This journey, though poignant and difficult, was one also filled with light, peace, understanding, and hope. As she and her family shared the journey with us, they strengthened our testimonies about the truthfulness of the gospel, the plan of salvation, the reality of the spirit world, of the resurrection, of eternal families. It all reached me so deeply that I will never be the same.
I miss her. I love her. And I will be forever grateful for the influence she had on my life.
And, so, sometimes I still cry.