This is my contribution to this week’s General Conference Odyssey. My previous contributions can be found here. Posts by other bloggers writing about the April 1975 General Conference today are linked at the end of this post. You can also visit the project group on Facebook.
Today we are writing about the Friday Afternoon Session of the April 1975 Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In December of 1974, Sister Virginia Perry passed away. She had been privately fighting cancer for four years. When she was first diagnosed, the doctors told her she would likely only live for six months. She told her husband, L. Tom Perry, “Don’t tell anyone about this. I don’t want it to change our way of life or have anyone treat us differently.”
She quietly underwent three serious surgeries, going to great lengths to keep them secret:
“With her careful planning, she would attend church on Sunday, the operation would be performed early Monday morning. By Tuesday, she was trying to get out of bed. By Wednesday she would be up moving around, trying to regain her physical strength. Thursday would find her helping the nurses assist others who were in the hospital. Friday she would spend trying to convince the doctor that she was ready to go home. By Saturday morning the doctor would give up in despair and discharge her. Sunday she would be back in church looking radiant.”
Throughout her hidden illness, she continued to lovingly serve those in need.
Two years into her struggle, her husband was called to be an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Then, in April of 1974, eight months before she passed away, he was called to be an Apostle. I can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been to take on all of the burdens and travel associated with these new responsibilities on top of an ongoing fight with cancer. Elder Perry was often away from home for months at a time. But she appears to still have kept her illness private.
“Her last acts were so typical of her. She was up preparing breakfast for her family. I heard her drop a dish and give a little moan. As I rushed from my study, thinking she had injured herself, I found that she was suffering from a stroke that was causing her to lose the use of her right arm. […] There was terror in her eyes as the paralysis started to spread down her side. I told her I was going to rush a call to the doctor. She said, “First, give me a blessing.” As I laid my hands on her head that morning, the Lord in his great mercy let me know that her time had come.”
In the April 1974 conference of the church, Elder Perry dedicated his entire talk to his dear departed wife, entitled simply “A Tribute.”
“She placed her illness entirely in the hands of the Lord, and he blessed her with enough strength to endure and just enough energy to live the kind of life she wanted to live. […] The Lord blessed her with four additional years that medical science could not promise her. How grateful we are for those years, for it was during this period that she was able to stand by my side as we were honored in these present positions. She was able to see, at least in some degree, what she had tried to make of me.”
I encourage you to read the whole thing:
In our modern era of social media, Sister Perry’s insistence on keeping her illness private seems utterly foreign. Our culture has undergone a major shift in attitudes about privacy, propriety, and pain. We now broadcast our struggles and our pain, not only to family and friends, but to the world.
Being open about the difficulties we face allows others who are struggling to know that they aren’t alone, and to draw strength from the examples and counsel of those with similar challenges. But reading about Sister Perry makes me wonder if perhaps we have lost something. There is something noble and inspiring about her private pain and her efforts to serve and bless others while she suffered in secret.
I can see virtues as well as drawbacks in both being open and in being private. Perhaps it comes down to pride vs. humility:
We can publish our pain out of pride and anger. We can also keep our pain private because of pride and anger.
We can publish our pain in humility and faith. And we can also keep our pain private because of humility and faith.
Sometimes we hide our pain from the people who can help us the most while broadcasting our pain to virtual strangers on the internet. Other times we hide our pain from people who could benefit from our example and help.
Sister Perry lived a life of service and selflessness. She put her illness in the hands of the Lord and He blessed her. Elder Perry recommends her as an example of faith:
“Even though there is great loneliness without her, her passing was sweet because of the way she had lived. In tribute to her today, I recommend to you her way of life. I watched service consume pain. I witnessed faith destroy discouragement. I have seen courage magnify her beyond her natural abilities. I have observed love change the course of lives.”
Other bloggers writing about the Friday Afternoon Session of the April 1975 General Conference today: