the day Chad died

Word spread quickly the day Chad died.

To tell the truth, I’d barely known him, although we had been in both junior high and high school together. We were in different crowds. I had friends back then, but I was one of the quieter kids ins school, still learning to develop my confidence. My social group consisted more of the ‘outcasts’, we seemed to collect a bunch of kids who didn’t really belong anywhere else, and I was the unofficial activity planner, getting all of the friends together frequently.

The other Chad, he was blonde and skinny and obnoxious. He played constant pranks and made fart noises in the hallways and was always taunting girls in class. He wasn’t a bad guy, not one of the jerks. He was more on the edge of the cool crowd, sort of like the popular click’s class clown in a way. He was funny, cute, and nice. But although we were both named Chad, we hadn’t interacted much over the years.

My high school in southern Idaho seemed to be comprised of mostly Mormon kids. Across the street from the school was the Seminary building. Each Mormon student took a full class period during school each day to go to Seminary and be instructed in church doctrine. And on a particular evening after school, the Seminary program had a class activity where Mormon students could gather to picnic and play games.

I didn’t go that night, but word spread quickly. Chad and a friend had driven a truck too quickly into the park, likely trying to show off, and the truck tires caught the gravel wrong, and the truck flipped over. And Chad died, just like that.

I remember being shocked that night by the abrupt ending of a life, one so young. It was an absolute tragedy. I remember getting together with some of my friends and sharing stories of the last time we had seen Chad, telling stories of jokes he’d told or obnoxious things he’d done. It was a haunting feeling.

In a dinner table conversation with my mother and step-father that night, we’d discussed the Mormon belief structure, that God calls souls home when he is ready for them, that Chad’s spirit would be in the spirit paradise dwelling with other loved ones until the time for the resurrection and judgement and then Chad would likely go to Heaven. He’d see his family again and he’d get a body again. I took comfort in knowing what would come next, but I was also confused and sad.

The real grief didn’t hit until the following Monday morning. I’d arrived at school early, like usual, and a group of girls sitting inside the building looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost.

One of the girls stood up, a look of horror on her face that was quickly replaced by joy. “Chad Anderson! I heard you were dead! You’re alive!”

She hugged me tightly as I felt my heart sink. I pulled away from her. “It–no, it wasn’t me. It was the other Chad. Chad Johnson.”

And the girl sank back to the floor, a new wave of tears on her cheeks.

That moment repeated itself a dozen times throughout the day, and it was painful every time. “Chad, you’re alive!” and “Chad, I’m so glad it wasn’t you!” and even one accusatory “You shouldn’t have let people think it was you, that’s cruel”.

In class that morning, a literature course that Chad had also been in, one girl burst out crying and run from the class. In Seminary class that day, the lesson had been focused on the loss of Chad and everyone was in tears. Later that day, a special testimony meeting was held in Chad’s honor, and people got up to share their thoughts and feelings, expressing gratitude for the love of God and the joy they felt even in their pain knowing that Chad had gone home with God again.

For me, Chad’s death was surreal. The only other person close to me that I’d lost before was my stepfather’s sister, Wilma, and she’d been an old woman after a long life. I didn’t know how to comprehend someone so young being gone so suddenly.

At lunch, I heard passing comments, as people tried to find some reason in the unreasonable.

“He shouldn’t have been driving so fast.”

“You know, everyone is acting like he was such a great guy, but I thought he was a jerk.”

“He was the best person I have ever known!”

“I guess it was just his time.”

“God needed him more than we did.”

I didn’t go to Chad’s funeral. I’ve never been to his grave. It’s been over 20 years since he died. He likely would have gone on to serve a Mormon mission, go to college, get married in the temple, and have children, just like we all did. I knew very little of the world beyond our small Idaho town, and there seemed to be only one future plan for all of us at that time. And truthfully, like most everyone else from high school, I probably would have never seen Chad again regardless, except perhaps through some social media photo from time to time.

But as I write this all these years later, now as a professional who frequently helps those impacted by tragedy, including losing a loved one suddenly, my mind moves back to Chad from time to time. I think of how easily his death could have been averted. I think of the community and school that grieved his loss. I think of how horrible I felt when people had thought it was me who was gone. And while I still can’t make sense of it all, I’m glad to be alive.

And I remember.

Mormon wedding night

June 17, 2006

My cell phone alarm goes off at 5:30 am promptly, giving off a soft pleasant beep with a low vibration that rattles the phone against the nightstand. I sit up suddenly, stretch my arms wide, and feel my back pop. I twist this way and that, adjusting, yawning, moving my body from sleep to wake. I slept better than I thought I would, considering the significance of today.

Today I’m getting married.

It’s maybe the most significant day of my life thus far. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to mark spiritual milestones as the most life-altering and noteworthy events in life. Baby blessing, baptism, confirmation, ordination, patriarchal blessing, endowment, temple sealing. It is more than just a wedding. There is a commitment, a legal signing, and an exchange of rings still, but it is a special event that takes place in God’s holy temple. A holy man has the couple dress in white, kneel across the altar from each other, and, surrounded by family and friends who are worthy to be there, join hands to be married for all time and sealed together for all eternity. It is a beautiful ceremony, so sacred and enduring. Every religion has special rites, passages, and ceremonies, but this one is the big one if you are LDS.

As I make my way down to the continental breakfast in the time-share where I’ve been staying with my family for the past few days in Salt Lake City, I think about how different my life is going to be from here forward. That was my last night sleeping in a bed alone. And tonight means not only sharing a bed and starting a new marriage and no longer being single, it means… sex. When the word comes into my mind, I can hardly take another bite of my cereal. I’m so nervous!

Mormon kids aren’t taught about sex. They are only taught not to have it. There are long lists of Do Nots. Don’t date before you are 16. Don’t date other people who aren’t Mormon. Don’t kiss frequently and don’t make out, and it’s okay if you never kiss until you marry. Don’t dance too close. Don’t “heavy pet.” Don’t dress immodestly. Don’t touch any private parts, your own or others. Don’t engage in any form of sexual activity prior to marriage. And the biggest don’t of all: don’t be attracted to someone from your own gender and definitely don’t act on it if you are.

I can still remember when I was 15 and the group of boys in my ward were taken in for a talk about chastity. The man in his 60s looked at the group of us and, trying to level with us, said, “Boys, I know how good it can feel at times when you touch your pecker.” I’d been shocked and confused as he explained how our bodies are temples and need to be treated carefully and in accordance with God’s commandments. I’d had dozens of moments like this as a young man, as a missionary, and as an adult where parameters are taught and set up. Some indiscretions are excused while others are responded to very seriously. But I’m not worried about that because even though I haven’t been able to rid myself of same-sex attraction, I have saved myself for marriage, and Megan is the only girl I’ve kissed. Our physical relationship has stayed safe; small kisses, hand holds, and back massages, but always very tame.

But then suddenly, when you do get married, not only is sex permissible, it is expected. And with no education in a highly conservative religious culture that doesn’t talk about sex, newly married couples are supposed to know what to do, and when, and to what, and for how long, and are supposed to want to do it often. Birth control is somewhat frowned upon. Intercourse is allowed and other sexual stuff, like oral or other things, are never really taught about on the don’ts list so it seems to be up to the husband and wife to decide.

I’ve been nervous about the wedding night for weeks. I’m worried for a lot of reasons. I find Megan to be absolutely beautiful, inside and out. But even though I’m excited about sex in some ways—I mean it is my first time in 26 years!—I just don’t feel the same drive and passion and lust toward women that I hear my friends talk about with their wives. Where they feel aroused and excited, I feel scared and a strange sense of duty. It makes me feel like something is wrong with me. And I can’t shed my own attractions to men, but I know those aren’t natural or right. Once I’m married, I just know things will work themselves out. Things will finally be right in me, and I’ll be right in the sight of God.

A few weeks ago, in a panic, I’d called up my old friend and roommate Jesse, who’s been married a couple of years, to ask him about the expectations and details about sex. Does it hurt the girl the first time? Do I need any supplies or, like, sexy underwear or anything? I asked frightening questions about female anatomy and felt both confused and ill-at-ease as he’d explained the answers. He’d discussed male and female arousal, emotional connections, and foreplay. In another conversation, my brother-in-law had compared women to an electric stove that takes time to heat up and cool down, and men to a gas stove that heats up quickly and go out right away. I’d wondered how I was supposed to know all of these things, and if it was a sin to know now, and what other things I should know but didn’t.

After making a bit of small talk with various family members, I get dressed and head over to the temple by myself. Megan will be there in moments with her parents, who I adore, but I have just a few minutes to reflect on the beauty of this building and this place. So much sacrifice and symbolism went into its construction. So much heritage and love and pride mixed into this landmark, this Mormon Mecca. The grounds and the building itself are beautiful. The weather is perfect. It feels right that it is here that my life will change.

I turn and see Megan walk up. She’s radiant. She’s glowing in a way that can only come to a bride on her wedding day. Her parents look so proud and happy. We go through the next several hours in sacred temple ceremonies and we are soon married and sealed together in a simple and beautiful ceremony with our loved ones all around us. Mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other a thousand times, showing the eternal nature of our newly formed family. Then it is the reception, where we are greeted by all the eager well-wishers in long lines to congratulate us. Gifts, cakes, a string quartet, hours of photographs. And Megan looks so beautiful in her wedding dress, a red sash down the back adding flair to the sequined white. This all in conjunction with the festivities, events, and dinners of the past few days have made this a truly amazing week for us.

I don’t get nervous until we are in the horse-and-buggy ride on our way to the Romeo and Juliet honeymoon suite. Tomorrow we’ll leave for ten days in Canada, but this is where we’ll spend our first night together. I think about what this must mean to Megan: her first night with her new husband. She wants, needs, and deserves to be desired, loved, held, and cherished. Her first time should be gentle, full of love and heat and desire, free from physical and emotional pain and doubt. And I think about what this means for me: my first night with my new wife. A chance to show Megan that I love her, and how much. A chance to finally be a man, to work through all my doubts and fears and just do what is expected of me. A chance to finally prove to God that all my unholy desires can be taken away and I can be right in his sight.

The night goes well, I think. Even though I am really nervous, I do my best to try and keep my focus on her and I try to make it as special as possible. There are times when it feels really good and I am able to just be in the moment and focus on the emotional and physical connection and pleasure. There are times when I feel dirty, like what we are doing is wrong, all these things that are on the don’t lists. And there are times when I feel… unnatural. Like this just isn’t how it is supposed to be or how I am supposed to feel. Still, it’s fun and I do love Megan.

That night, I feel grateful for this amazing woman, I feel exhausted from the day’s lengthy festivities, and I feel confused about myself. We fall asleep to a movie and leave the lights on. It is so strange having someone else in my bed. Just like that, I’m no longer a virgin. I think about all the torture I’ve put myself through over my own sexuality and decide again, in that moment, that this is the right thing. I’m married now. I made the right choice. I did what God wanted, what I know is right, and I hope to be blessed for it.

And oh how I love this woman next to me.

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