Immortal Clay

My little brother is serving an LDS mission. He is in Germany for two years working to serve the spiritual and temporal needs of the people he encounters. Dad died when he was just five months into the mission. This project I've undertaken is personal, but I think, in this space, with my lovely readers, it is alright to share. 

photo of dad and daniel, by justin hackworth

Dear Daniel,

Dad spent more time talking about you than not in the months before he died. He was so anxious for you to understand your worth, so proud you were immersed in the Lord’s work and so worried you wouldn’t have enough mail to get you through the hard hours, days and weeks. His mom sent him something in the mail almost every day of his mission. It wasn’t always a letter, even for a loving mom there wasn’t enough to write about that often. Sometimes it was a funny card she saw at the grocery store, a clipping from the newspaper or just a photo of the people back home that loved him. He saved much of this correspondence and as a child, I remember loving to thumb through the silly morning cartoons and little somethings she’d sent across the ocean to a boy she loved.

We were eating BBQ at his favorite local smokehouse when the subject came up again.

“I keep thinking about Buddy. You know, some days are just so lonely and it is so meaningful to come home to something in the mailbox. But it’s hard to think of something to write every week on top of emails and regular letters. I’ve been thinking, what if someone sent him snippets of literature, poetry and other interesting writing? For example, a favorite passage from Mark Twain with the reasons that it is loved. The thoughts it brings to mind. It would be a great way to expand his horizons while he is gone while also filling his mailbox. I think if someone were to do that, it would be as meaningful for them as it was for Daniel.”

And then he took another bite of his ribs and the conversation moved on to other things.

You know Dad. He was asking me to take on this project without really asking. I thought about it for a minute and then got caught up in fall, winter and then the months that came and took him away. In the time since he has been gone, I have missed him for me, but I have also missed him for you. I had a sitter today and should have been working. Instead, I drove around town and cried over the pen pal you’ve lost. I pulled into a parking lot and bent into the steering wheel and asked the air around me what I could do to help you, to give you the experience Dad was so anxious for you to have. Through the wet on my cheek and the grip on the wheel I felt a drop of calm and remembered that conversation over spice rubbed ribs and mustard sauce.

I can’t give you the letters Dad would have written, but I can finally start the project he sneakily laid on my doorstep that day. I don’t know how much it will help you. I can tell you that it will help me. Dad used to call me just to tell me about a good line he’d read in his latest book and he was always interested when I came to him with new to me discoveries he’d found years ago. Right now, I can’t think of a better way to keep that close to me.

So, you’ve got about 54 weeks left in Germany and I’ve got at least 54 new and old discoveries to share. Some will catch you where you stand and others you’ll watch pass you by. There will be lightfilled poems and heartwrenching prose. And maybe just a few thoughts on astronomy, gardening, food cultures, the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse or anything else that sparkles long enough to catch my wandering eye. I can’t say that the collection will be more than its many little parts. I can say Dad wanted us to have it. And for me, right now, that’s enough.

First, a poem from CS Lewis. I found these lovely lines in a book given to me by my friend, Rachel. She sent it to me in the weeks before Dad’s death and it has been a constant companion since then.


Walking Away

for sean

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –

A sunny day with the leaves just turning,

The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play

Your first game of football, then, like a satellite

Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see

You walking away from me towards the school

With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free

Into a wilderness, the gait of one

Who finds no path where the path should be.

That hesitant figure, eddying away

Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,

Has something I never quite grasp to convey

About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching

Ordeals which fires one’s irresolute clay.

I have had worse partings, but none that so

Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly

Saying what God alone could perfectly show –

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go.


Daniel, we could sit and talk about the concepts introduced in those few words for hours and hopefully, someday we will. But for now, I will share just a few brief and incomplete impressions.

First, I think sometimes as we grow up we feel that we must be the ones that do the walking away to achieve our selfhood. You and I both know now, that isn’t true. Dad never would have walked away from us, rather he was carried from us. But he is away, nonetheless. So you and I and all the people that looked to him, and the partnership comprised of him and mom, are left a little like our friend in the poem, searching for a path where none seems to lie. The path is there, it is just waiting for you to make it. Take the first step. Yes, we’ve been burned by the ordeals that fire and set our irresolute and immortal clay. Buddy, I want you to know, that it’s okay if it feels too hot sometimes. Don’t let the heat distract you from the flames' work. Acknowledge the pain of the fires that lick and then feel about your soul for the things they’ve hardened into place.

Second, in both the most brilliant and most agonizing moments of mortality, we are given glimpses of God. Separation is the act most necessary for us to establish our eternal selfhood. We must walk away from home to get back it both in mortality and immortality. You and I believe that we were sent here, away from our heavenly home so that we could become more like God. What I think we often forget is that by reaching to become our best selves, we are also reaching for our divine selves. God trusts us to become like Him by living up our truest selves. It’s a beautiful and heady and honorable task. You are strong enough for it, I promise.

And finally, love does not dissipate across the distance of space or time. Rather, those two things work to prove its construction. Love doesn’t simply reach across the baseball field, the move from home, the closed casket. It overcomes them and sees clearly beyond them and and picks us up to place us in the spheres we are meant to inhabit. We’ll find one another there when this mortal daylight dims. Until then, we’ve got fire to face, paths to make and love to prove.

I’m watching from across the field and buddy, you’re doing just fine.