“Do you know Dave Gurney?”
I was barely 19 when I first met Dave at the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo. Utah. I was to spend 8 weeks under Dave’s tutelage, preparing myself for the following 96 in Paraguay.
Dave was tall, handsome, and clean, an instantly likeable guy with bright eyes, a crisp wide smile, and a kind voice. After just a few minutes in his presence, I quietly assigned to him the role of mentor.
The Spanish portion of Dave’s lessons weren’t an issue for me; I had studied the language since Junior High, and not only could I conjugate verbs with my eyes closed, I also knew the difference between the familiar and formal. Spanish Rs rolled off my tongue like those spoken by Speedy Gonzales every Saturday morning of my childhood.
The language of a Mormon missionary, however, did not roll so easily off my tongue as the everyday words and phrases having to do with the purchase of ice cream, the location of the bathroom, and the color of apples. Although I had been born and raised in the church and had to that point never questioned its teachings, my faith had recently and for the first time been seriously tested by the news that my older brother was a homosexual. This shook my foundation, and I carried the weight and confusion of it and with me into the MTC, right into Dave’s classroom.
Dave was unique in that he commanded our respect by earning it, while at the same time lowering the barrier between student and teacher just enough for us to consider him a good friend where we to meet again someday. In time, Dave became more to me than a teacher and a mentor; he became someone in whom I could confide.
Every Saturday morning Dave would drag two of the classroom’s desks out into the hallway and spend a few minutes with each of us in one-on-one conversation. This may have been part of his assigned duties, but I have no doubt that Dave took the time seriously. We were young and untested, full of trembling confidence and far from home, headed to a foreign land that by all accounts was 50 years behind our own experiences when it came to just about everything. Dave did his best to settle our tremors, inform our fears, and answer our questions about an immediate future that held little in the way of certainties other than diarrhea, worn-out shoes, and lots of prayer.
During one of these Saturday conversations with Dave, after whining about missing my girlfriend, confessing to a palpable fear of tapeworms, and expressing my dislike for the communal showers in the MTC dorms, I felt impressed to share with Dave my concern that my family would not be together forever due to my brother’s lifestyle. Dave sat across from me, his knees pressed into the underside of a tiny desk, as I cried big tears and spilt my dark fears into his life. I had not spoken to anyone in such detail about my overwhelming confusion, my wavering faith, and the many broken emotions stemming from my brother’s rapid, and as I understood it at the time, voluntary fall from grace.
Dave listened to the very end of my worrying without a word of interruption or a care to the fact that we had by far exceeded the normal amount of time allotted to each of us during those one-on-one Saturday morning conversations. Floundering in a spiritual quicksand of panic and grief, I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, and realized that I had grabbed hold of my mentor’s ankle in a desperate attempt to save myself, without a moment’s thought to his own stability. The sharp pain of regret for my selfish behavior pricked at my heart.
To his great credit, Dave didn’t flinch, but instead smiled warmly, a reaction that will always stay with me. He didn’t judge my brother, counseling me to love the sinner but hate the sin, or make hollow promises about what would happen in the way of a miracle were I to serve my two year mission faithfully.
No, Dave simply listened to my fears, then looked me in the eyes with unwavering confidence and told me that all would be well; I was doing great, and had a good head on my shoulders.
As I flip through my mission journals more than two decades later, I laugh at the pages and pages written with such earnest yet desperate conviction. I wanted so badly to be spiritual, to have meaningful, life-changing experiences, and I wrote in my journal as if every day were a fulfillment of those righteous desires. I don’t remember so many of these supposed moments of feeling surrounded by God and heaven and all his angels without reading them, but I can relive with great emotional detail the personal interactions and experiences that I didn’t write much about, at least not in the flowery language meant for a prideful Sunday pulpit.
So what did I write about that long conversation with Dave?
“He is so good and I want to be like him when I get back. I love him.”
No emotional dredging equipment is needed when it comes to my experience with Dave.
The crowning moment in my apprenticeship with Dave came in the form of a prophetic visit to our classroom by his wife Katie and their first-born Taylor. I held baby Taylor in my arms and marveled at the thought of one day being a good and happy father to such a beautiful, bouncing child. I looked up at Dave and Katie, smiling and loving and tender with each other as they were, and in that moment the hope that someday I would have a family just like theirs took root within me.
On our final day with Dave, my classmates and I lifted him high above our heads for a metaphoric photo. It is a moment I will never forget. That photo is a happy reminder of a debt I simply cannot repay.
Not three years later, my mission in Paraguay finished and the tapeworms flushed from my system, I was driving to the beach in North Hampton, New Hampshire, seated behind the wheel of my little white pickup truck. A fiancé far more gorgeous, blonde, and happy than I had ever dared dream of loving me rode shotgun beside me. We would be married at the end of the year.
“Do you know Dave Gurney?” Elizabeth asked.
Her casual and very unexpected dropping of Dave’s name pushed me into a free-fall through fond memories.
“Yes, I know David Gurney! He was my favorite teacher at the MTC!” I answered, eager to know the how and why and when behind her question.
“He’s married to my sister Katie.”
My mind flashed back to meeting Dave’s happy family, holding Taylor in my arms, and my silent hope that I would someday have a family just like his.
In the years since the day Elizabeth asked if I knew Dave Gurney, I have come to learn that God doesn’t answer my prayers, no matter how humble, specific, earnest, and sincere I might be when uttering them. He does, however, from time to time, pay heed to my under-breath mutterings, coin-toss wishes, and silent hopes. While I retain scant faith in God’s fascination with the details of my daily life, I do know that he was paying close attention when Dave’s tiny family ignited a candle of hope within my heart 27 years ago.
Beyond marrying sisters and having three kids each, Dave and I are, in fact, almost nothing alike. Dave is successful, driven and goal-oriented, while I am at best ambivalent and wandering. I don’t work hard; I would rather sit on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder than climb it, and I haven’t earned much in the way of respect in this world. Over the years Dave has stacked achievements like cordwood, building up a large supply of success and security for his family, while I continue to stare up into the trees of life, mouth agape with awe and a wide, idle wonderment in my eyes.
But we remain friends and brothers, and Dave remains a mentor.
Several years ago, Dave and I met up during a reunion at the family cabin in the mountains of Utah. We picked right up where we left off, which meant that Dave asked a lot of selfless questions about how I was doing, what I was doing, and where I was headed. I have always loved that Dave still cares about me enough to show such interest, but in my heart I have always felt as though I have let my mentor down, because there’s never much to tell.
That year, Dave had managed to scrounge up a couple of bikes, and he asked if I’d be willing to take an early morning ride with him into the mountains behind the cabin. I wanted to sleep, but I got up and went with him, in spite of being certain that I would die along the trail from either exhaustion or a cougar’s bite.
After a few minutes of pedaling, I gave serious thought to turning back in order to retrieve my lungs from under the blankets where I must have left them. Not wanting to let Dave down, however, I dug deeper, sucked at the thin air, and prayed that the sidewalls of my heart wouldn’t blow out from exertion.
This past winter I spent some time alone up at the cabin. I wrote a lot, slept a lot, and thought a lot. News of Dave’s diagnosis and upcoming treatment weighed extra heavy upon my mind and heart one afternoon, so after packing a few snacks, a water bottle, and my pistol into a backpack, I headed up the same trail Dave and I had ridden together years before. This time, however, I took to the trail on a snowmobile. An overnight storm had dusted the trail with fresh white powder; it swirled about behind me as I sped recklessly up the mountain, dodging low hanging branches and sliding around curves at high speed.
The trail flattened out for a spell, and instead of pushing the snow machine even harder, I slowed to a crawl, standing as I rode to get a view of my surroundings. I stopped altogether when to my right I spied a grove of aspens, their leaves gone for the winter and their ankles buried in snow. The sun was low in the western sky, and her light partnered with those trees and a winter wind to cast long, quaking shadows on the white ground. I looked up at those towering trees and thought about Elizabeth, about our kids, and about silent, inspired hope.
Yes, I know Dave Gurney.
(Dave passed away on August 11, 2016 at the age of 49. I was honored to share the above at his celebration of life service.)