A God-obsessed mother gone mad. A once-devout father turned cynical. The only thing as challenging as growing up in a faith-fractured home is carrying your devotion into adulthood. Especially if you happen to be Mormon.
Throughout my teens and into my early 20s, I saw my father's decision to leave the Church as a razor-wire fence. Everything that came before it—namely my ancestors' remarkable pilgrimage, sacrifice, and faith—became entirely distinct from whatever followed it—namely myself. Dad's loss of faith cast doubt on my own identity, which I viewed as a rightful inheritance. My Latter-day Saint friends and neighbors seemed to receive theirs like old money, but my father had blown my spiritual trust fund. In the years following Mom's disappearance, in a thousand imaginary debates, I set out the justifications for Dad's reconversion, a series of rational arguments in favor of a religion whose tenets he now found preposterous. My case culminated with a reminder of the LDS belief that families can be forever, that a reunion with Mom was all but inevitable.
Our relationship increasingly revolved around Dad's decision to leave Mormonism and my decision to embrace it. Over time I realized there was one benefit of Mom's disappearance: It freed my father from his daily battle with a Being that only seemed to provide fuel for Mom's madness. I suspected Dad viewed my decision to believe as a source of disappointment, or at the very least a promise of future problems. He surely sensed my own frustration with his decision not to believe.
As my dedication to the Church grew, my alienation from my father increased. Every Sunday in winter, he had hustled my three siblings and me up to Snowbird ski resort above Salt Lake City. He called the resort "the one true church" we ought to worship. His irreverence, together with the Sabbath-breaking, offended my tender teenage piety. I told him I could no longer attend, which could very well have been the moment my faith and his atheism became truly adversarial. In the wake of our shared tragedy, he was doing his best to keep his family together; faith, once again, was making the job difficult. Our roles from then on were set. He saw me as a doe-eyed, inexperienced adolescent—a kid who clung to faith out of a lingering inability to accept reality. I saw him as an aging cynic—a man who'd abandoned faith the moment faith became inconvenient. For a time, my devotion to the Church was mostly an act of defiance.
Much of my adolescent faith was also an attempt at redemption, an ongoing effort to prove to Mom—wherever she was—that I had not forgotten. "You'll just have to remember next time," she'd said that night by the medicine cabinet. The memory is indelible; it has always occupied the space in my brain reserved for information about who I am and where I come from. With time, however, I have become increasingly aware of what's missing from my version of that evening's events—Dad. As I've matured, I have imagined him retreating to some corner of the home that night, his frustration extreme and entirely justified. Mom's condition had cost him more than his faith. The expenses he incurred for Mom's psychiatric treatment contributed to his declaring bankruptcy, dropping out of an MBA program, and moving into the only house he could possibly afford, one that was at least three rooms too small for his young family. He had borrowed two cars from his mother, and his wife had crashed both. Whatever dreams and ambitions he once had, they were all dead on the altar of Mom's "disease," a thing that seemed to begin and end with God. Looking back, I see myself apologizing to the wrong person—I should have been with Dad.