When we think of this word, I imagine most of us think of the firemen who lost their lives saving others in 9/ll. If we are of an historical frame of mind, we may think of the prototype—Odysseus in Homer’s, The Odyssey. Or we may think of a president we admire, a person who has mentored us, the founder of an orphanage in an underdeveloped country, an astronaut, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Winston Churchill, or General Eisenhower. These people are all undoubtedly heroes. When we study their lives, we are influenced by their courage, their optimism which refused to lie down in the face of great odds, their ability to rally people and change their hearts—giving them courage.
I have a personal hero who dedicated the best part of his life to me and my survival. He came into my life unexpectedly and didn’t look like a hero at all. In fact, he was not even a member of the church and was somewhat tipsy at the time. But, he listened to a little voice which, oddly enough, told him that I was the woman he was going to marry. He came right over, and in a manner which I have since found to be totally antithetical to his character, introduced himself and laid all his life’s innermost secrets at my feet. I was a bit overwhelmed, thought him way too intense as well as far more handsome than anyone had a right to be (I had an innate sense of distrust toward handsome men), but used the opening to bear my testimony of the Gospel. He asked me to church. I declined. (The only church he knew of was a Presbyterian Spanish-speaking church, which may explain my reluctance.) However, since I lived in a distant city and had returned there, he began a letter-writing campaign and I learned that he was 1.) possessed of a quirky sense of humor, 2.) a devoted correspondent, 3.) trustworthy and completely honest, 4.) a poet, 5.) to be relied on in any crisis, 6.) a wonderful artist, 7.) for some unknown reason completely intent on my happiness. His presence was not intrusive, like that of a stalker, he was just making himself known and, after about six months, his letters became a fixture in my life.
Then he started calling. Every day. Several times a day. Then, seven months after our first meeting, he flew to Washington, D.C. from Chicago for our first date. It lasted all weekend. Oddly enough, I had broken a date with the man I was planning to marry to go out of town and check internship locations for the next year, just to meet this friend who had intrigued me. (That was the end of the other relationship!) My visitor went home, and in an action he had thus avoided in his long dating life, wrote a letter declaring his love. I fell apart. This could not be. When he asked innocently, “Why?”, I told him it was because he was not a member of my church. His reply was, “You don’t know that I’m not going to join!” And that he did. Ten minutes into the first discussion, he gained a never wavering testimony of the First Vision. I was the first LDS person he had ever met.
What neither of us knew at the time of our marriage was that I carried the genes of a very serious illness. This man, my husband, David Vandagriff, was destined for a heroism that would try him to his very core (see I Need Thee Every Hour: Learning to Apply the Atonement in our Daily Lives, Covenant Communications). In the years before and during my illness, he served as a bishop twice and the member of a Stake Presidency with huge geographical bondaries. No one who has seen me ill, and then seen me well in the past four years (the woman he married) can believe that he had the compassion, the generosity, the strength, and the courage to descend into the bi-polar Valley of the Shadow of Death with me, many, many times, always gently pulling me back to some semblance of safety. This is not what he signed up for. He was married to a woman he didn’t know. This is how he describes it: The depression began to change her. The illness did not appear suddenly. G.G. was the sun in my life, and the onset of her illness was like an extended sunset. First, the color of the sun changes, turning slowly to red as it drops lower in the sky. Then, the horizon begins to take slices from that sun, one after another, and the sun grows smaller an smaller until it disappears from sight. In the sky, there is a glow, a memory of the sun, but soon that glow begins to fade. Shadows collect in ravines and behind rocks. Those shadows grow and spread, slowly covering the landscpe. Soon the world is dark, then black, and a long night begins. (I Need Thee Every Hour: Applying the Atonement in our Daily Lives,( Covenant Communications, 2010, p. 44)
That darkness lasted twenty-five years. Certainly, long enough for him to forget that little whisper, “That is the girl you’re going to marry”–the girl with the long brown hair in the ugly bridesmaid dress. It took him to places he never thought he’d go—psych wards, emergency rooms, therapist’s offices. He had to practice law, provide for his family financially and emotionally as I was sick most of my children’s years at home.
During those twenty-five years, he evolved from a happy man to a man of many sorrows and acquainted with grief. It was an Abrahamic trial. But, he did not overcome this trial on his own. After years of endurance, and times when he would have given up, but for timely intervention from the Lord and his helpers here on earth, David and I were both finally witnesses to my miraculous healing. I came back to him, not the woman who had left, but a woman much stronger and closer to my Savior in every way, having fought “tooth and nail” to stay alive.
But, the Lord gave me a hero, because he knew that’s what I needed. David didn’t see himself as heroic material. He definitely would have opted out if the choice had been given him before marriage. But he believed in covenants. He believed that if he did his part, the Lord would perform his—he would enable David to go on. And David did go on.
And we both learned that heroism comes, not from what we do ourselves, but for what we allow our partner and Elder Brother in suffering to do for us. Though there is an element of heroism in both our stories, for us there is one overarching Hero—our Savior, Jesus Christ.
To read more about my hero go to http://davidvandagriff.com or http://atonementblog.com