When I was about two or three, my mom and dad separated. He’d had a vision that he was going to be a prophet, and was told to sacrifice me to prove his worthiness. My mom thought that was a bad idea, packed up my sister and me, and we moved away.
We moved to a small, inconspicuous town in Southern Utah called Panguitch and “settled down” for a couple of years. At some point, my mom remarried (“dad” #2). I remember he was really severe. We lived in a tiny apartment, and I remember setting up traps (hangers dangling from a thread tied to the door knob) so I’d be awake to know when he was coming.
At some point, my mom realized he wasn’t the right guy (plus he was still married to his previous wife), so we left him too.
We moved to another small, unassuming town called Oak City. With my mom working as a hotel maid, we lived about as you’d expect—without much. I remember starting school there, not fitting in, and not being very smart. I remember my grandma pulling my hair to try to teach me my alphabet. My mom found another guy, and decided to get married (“dad” #3).
By now I was in grade school. I was the really poor kid, and was a loner. I remember hiding at recess from the bullies. After school one day, one of them pushed me down. I grabbed a big rock (it seemed big to me at the time), and smashed his bike. Then I ran home as fast as I could—terrified, but feeling vindicated.
When I was about nine, we moved to a tiny town in Montana called Marion. We were really poor. In fact, I remember one time finding a dime on the road. I went home and showed my mom, and she sent me down to the little town store, where I bought one of those Atomic Fireballs. I brought it home, and we broke it apart and shared it. At one time we lived for a while in a tent in the forest. I remember once my mom brought home a box of Bisquick mix that was about a quarter full. My step brothers and I mixed it all up and were preparing to cook it on our propane stove, but we never got that far. We ended up just sitting around the tin bowl scooping it out with our hands and licking it off our fingers.
Our dad worked on an oil rig, and he was always gone. But he’d come home on paydays, and would drink a lot. He was a mean drunk, and in time, my mom left him too.
We moved into a little tiny trailer, where we got really poor. We couldn’t afford my older sister anymore, so she went to live with my grandma. The trailer didn’t have electricity, or running water. I remember not showering in the winter unless I could manage to stay at a friend’s house, so I’d go to school and would really stink. As you can imagine, I was expertly avoided. In fact, my teacher got a little partition, put it in the back of the room, and put a desk in it. When I arrived in the morning, she would send me straight back to my little desk and close the partition around me, and I’d play with a few Lego bricks or a Matchbox car I brought in my pocket.
One time, I walked in and my teacher made some comment about my clothes or my smell, and I simply hauled off and punched her. That got me suspended, which wasn’t good, because the one thing good about school was that they provided lunch.
By now, my mom was working really hard to make money, so she’d be gone traveling for several days at a time playing the guitar and singing. I’d be home alone in that little trailer, with some blankets and a little dog that I owned. I remember sometimes being a really scared 10-year-old there in the middle of the woods, with all those noises outside.
One day, my mom came home from one of her trips with some guy I’d never met before. I remember one night when I was trying to go to sleep, I heard a car pull up. Seeing the headlights coming towards the trailer, I was excited that she’d come home. She was with some guy I’d never seen before; she introduced us, and then said we were leaving. So we packed our stuff into three black garbage bags, put them into the back of his pickup, and drove away.
She dropped me off at my grandma’s house. She told me she was leaving to try to get some money so we could be together again, and she left.
My grandma and grandpa were already taking care of my sister, and I was a growing 11-year-old boy who really needed a full-time dad (and some structure), so we drove to Idaho where we visited my aunt and uncle and their six kids.
I didn’t know them very well. My mom and her brother never really got along, so we never really saw each other. Here I found myself in another completely foreign place, with foreign people. But at the time, I figured we were only visiting. At least I had my grandma, who seemed to be my one “constant” in life.
That made it very difficult when she pulled me aside to tell me that she was leaving me there to live with them. Watching her drive away—my last vestige of familiarity—was one of the hardest moments of my life. That and the day I actually came to grips with the fact that my mom was never going to come get me.
Now the point to all this… My grandmother leaving and the realization that my mom wouldn’t return were probably the most challenging times of my life, but were probably the two most important things that ever happened to me.
The family that took me in ended up being exactly what I needed. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy, for me or for them. I came in as an 11-year-old boy, with no structure, no discipline, and… well, a lot to learn. I was now the oldest member of the family – dethroning their oldest boy, and coming in as the same age (basically) as their oldest girl.
Just try imagining that for a minute. Picture an 11-year-old boy that you know (think of how naturally awkward they typically are at that age). Now picture having that person come to live with you, not for a while, but for the rest of their childhood, and imagine you already have six kids. It’s a sacrifice they made that I’ll never fully appreciate nor understand. And we didn’t always get along. For a long time I clung to the fantasy that my mom would come get me, and that caused problems.
They gave me shelter, heat, food, clothes, and all the material stuff I’d never had. But more importantly, they introduced me to God. They taught me the gospel, gave me my own set of scriptures (a copy with an upside-down cover—I still have them today), and set me on a path that led me to here.
Fast forward to today. I’m married to a shockingly beautiful woman. We have six amazing kids (five boys, one girl). I’m a Vice President of Products for one of the largest and influential real estate software companies in the nation. I served a full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaking Mandarin Chinese in Sydney, Australia. Both of our luxury cars were gifts from my employer. I’ve been to college. I live in a beautiful house on the foothills of the Rocky Mountain range in the Salt Lake area.
I could go on and on about the wealth of material blessings we enjoy, but those can be gained by anybody. More importantly, I’ve been given perspective. I’ve been able to see two polarizing sides of life. I’ve lived and breathed poverty, and as such have a burning empathy that comes only from personal experience. I’ve seen firsthand what broken homes do. What broken marriages do. But at just the right moment, at the most critical point in my life where perhaps I was at the tipping point, God lifted me out of that life and placed me in an environment that would show me the other side of life.
Someone recently sent me a cartoon that I loved. It shows a man carrying a cross along with a bunch of other people, each carrying their own crosses. Along the way he keeps cutting his down to make it lighter and easier to carry. But soon he comes to a chasm in the road. The others, who had accepted the struggle of the crosses given to them, were able to use their cross to bridge that gap and cross, but his was too short. It was followed by the statement, “We often complain about the cross we bear, but we forget that it is preparing us for the chasm that only God can see.”
The burdens I had have prepared me to be who I am. I wouldn’t be the father I am today, nor would I have the understanding I have, had those experiences not been mine. They have prepared me for life in a uniquely compelling way.
And finally, they have shown me that no matter what our current or past circumstances in life, we can overcome any and all obstacles. It is not our past that matters. No, our future is determined by far more substantial things than memories. It’s our perspective on life, our perseverance, our will to succeed, our attitude, and most importantly, our ability to hope and to trust in God. These are the things that shape our future. Past is past. Dwelling upon it only results in an ever inhibiting cycle of self-imposed limitations. We convince ourselves that we are stuck within it, but we’re not.
My experience has taught me that.