Ashley’s life was in full bloom as a talented teenager when a tragic car accident leaves her grieving the loss of her father and her ability to play the piano. Her mother, Michelle, forges ahead to keep her family afloat without her husband when she receives an insistent prompting from the Spirit that will only make sense in the months to follow. In the end, that prompting is the key to Ashley’s healing and a reminder to both that love and family endure beyond the doors of death.
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Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host KaRyn Lay.
Okay, be honest – when you saw this week's theme, did you gag a little bit and think, "Ugh, how cliche for the week of Valentine's Day?" If you did, I totally get it. Even as a person who loves love and finds deep joy in all those red hearts and the explosion of pink that comes with this holiday, it's sometimes hard to reconcile the expectations of love that we're sold in the movies with what actually happens when we attempt to practice this divine principle with human people.
It's funny, we throw the word "love" around like it's nothing when we're talking about our relationship to say – I don't know – a Popeye's spicy chicken sandwich, because well, it's delicious, for one thing, but also, we don't have any expectation that that sandwich is going to love us back.
But people? People are complex and interesting, and oddly enough, human. There's a deep risk to love that can feel way more intimidating and vulnerable than Valentine's Day, or Hallmark, or even Popeye's chicken sandwiches would have us believe. Loving someone means truly stepping into the unknown on so many levels.
So if you're worried that we took the easy way out here at "This Is the Gospel," don't let the theme fool you. Today, we have a story that does not shy away from the risky parts of love. But it also doesn't shy away from the beauty of it either.
Ashley and Michelle, our mother daughter storytelling team, have a tale of love, and loss, and miracles that spans this world and the next. It'll have even the most cynical among us believing in this thing called "Eternal love." A quick note, this story has elements of trauma that – while told carefully – may be hard for some sensitive listeners. First, we'll hear from Ashley and then Michelle will join in the story.
Here's Ashley and Michelle.
I've been playing the piano since I was eight. And my mom, was super adamant that all the kids learn how to play because she didn't know how to play and she wished that she did. So we would get up before school and practice half an hour before school and then half an hour after school every single day – piano was just always playing in our house and it was such a huge part of our lives. And I used piano as a stress relief. It was truly like my joy in life.
Family was also a big part of my life, and my dad actually used to love to sit in the living room and listen to me play. That was one of my favorite things to do was to play for my dad. We had such a genuinely good father-daughter relationship.
So when I was 17 – this was actually 17 years ago – my dad came to pick me up from a school event and my youngest brother – who was four at the time – tagged along. And halfway home, I was thirsty and begged him to stop at McDonald's, which was so out of character for me. I would have never asked to go to McDonald's, and he would have probably never pulled over, but he did. Like miraculously, he said, "Okay, let's do it." And while he was inside getting me a drink, I hopped in the backseat, which is also super uncharacteristic, especially for like a 17 year old, who likes to sit shotgun.
I went and got in the backseat, I was going to read to my brother and then take a nap. And I was asleep in the back, so I was unaware that we were in a car accident until it actually happened. And I just remember thinking as the car was . . . I could hear the windows being smashed and I could feel the like hot August air coming in. And I could smell like burning tire, and I knew that this was an accident and like the whole front of the car was gone.
First thing I did when I came to, is I checked my limbs. I checked my hands, and I made sure they were still there. That was the first thing that crossed my mind, I was so worried that I wouldn't be able to play the piano again. And they were still there, but I watched my left hand and wrist just start to crumble and deform before me, and I knew that it was not good. My brother was awake and he was conscious and crying and some angel of a woman who saw the accident came and got him out of the car.
And my dad was in the front, he was unconscious and I didn't know if he was alive or dead. I just knew that he didn't look great.
I was cleaning when I got a phone call, and it was 911. And I thought – 911? It just was trippy to me because 911 doesn't call me, I'm supposed to call them if there's a problem. And she told me her name, and she said to me, my family has been in a bad accident, and that if I could find somebody to take me up to the hospital, that was what they needed me to do. I . . . it just took me a moment to register what she was saying. I asked her individually, I asked her, "How is –" each one of them, "How is Jet? How is Ashley? How is Kash?" And I kept going over and over and over, like, how are they? Because I wanted to know what was going on. And she said to me that she didn't know. But she did know it was tragic.
My brother went to one hospital, and I went to another. And the hospital contacted my mom and told her where my brother was, but they couldn't find me – they didn't know where they had taken me. So I was alone, in and out of like ER rooms and x-rays and . . . being shuffled around before surgery for like five hours by myself. And no one knew where I was. I didn't know where I was, I didn't know the state of my family, like what was going on.
And I remember thinking on a gurney in some hallway waiting for the doctors, I just remember thinking, Heavenly Father, please, please do not let my dad die. I promise I will do anything and everything to be a good person if you let him live. And I remember feeling, I didn't hear it, but I felt it distinctly in my heart, that – "No, if I take him home, you will do anything and everything to be a good person to live with him again." And at that point, no one had to tell me that he had passed away, I knew that he was gone, because of that confirmation.
They accident happened at, oh, about a quarter to four, and I probably was at the hospital by four thirty. Maybe faster, you know, I got there pretty quick. But I can't recall exactly . . . I know a social worker came into the room they put me in. They put me and my kids and my girlfriend who drove me up there into like a room in the ER. And a social worker came in and I can't even recall what she said to me, but the next thing I know a sheriff and the bishop come in. And now there are three women in this room with my kids and the sheriff says, "Which one of you is Mrs. Johnson?" So . . . oh boy.
And he got on his knee – he had Kash's driver's license in his hand – and he got on his knee and . . . probably because that way he could see me face to face because I was sitting in a chair, and told me that Kash had passed away at the scene of the accident.
I tried to deny it, like my mind just couldn't accept it. And I think you do anything you can to say "No, that's not him," or "Are you sure?" kind of a thing. And that was really hard to watch my two children that were there react to hearing that their dad had died because I couldn't prep them, I didn't know that was coming.
And um . . . that day in the driveway, I – because he was in a taller car, I just remember standing on the side rail – I'm short – so I stood on the side rail, put my head in the window and kissed him goodbye. . . Sorry. It's a hard memory. But um . . . and he said, "I love you," Of course we always said, "I love you," and "Goodbye." So I kissed him goodbye. And that was the last time I heard his voice or saw him or anything.
At this point we have no idea where Ashley is. No idea. Nobody can tell me – the hospital doesn't know anything about it, nobody can get to the bottom of it. I just think, where's my child? Someone finally said, "We found her." And uh . . . she was next door. She was at the U. And so now I've got to tell Ashley what really happened.
So I . . . my Bishop went with me. But he of course, said it was my job to do that. You can't prepare them or find words to say that to your kid. And I think by nature, when we have bad news, we don't want to say it, we find other things to say. So, you know, I've tried to catch my breath, and I walked into the room, and I can see that she's in pain and . . . and I don't know, do I hug and love her? Do I talk about her dad? What do I do?
And the first thing she says to me is, "How's dad? Where is he?" And I didn't want to tell her, so I told her about Jet. I said, "Well, Jet's in surgery, he's going to be okay," which I didn't know anything about. That was pretty much a good lie. But it felt a little safer, because I did see him alive. And so I told her that, and she pushed it. And I just thought, okay, I have to tell her. And I just said that . . . that he went home to Jesus. I couldn't say that he died, I just couldn't do it.
So that's what I told her. I said, "He went home to Jesus."
The day after the accident – it was less than 24 hours for sure – that the organ donation people contacted me. They are the kindest, most empathetic and well-trained people to deal with such a heartache. And were so kind about me losing Kash, that he passed, but they also very tenderly reminded me that he had offered to donate, and if I was willing to honor that wish – and I told them, I would do that. And they said, "Well," you know, they said, "We need to read this to you." They said, "Can we have –" and they started going through the list. And it just became so overwhelming to me.
First, a lot of it was – they were medical terms, things that I wouldn't, I wouldn't call a body part, a layman's word. So some of them I just didn't even know. And at some point, I didn't care. And the list went on and on and on. I just thought, I can't hear this. I don't want to know what you're taking. Just take it all. And I told them that and they said, "We can't." "We have to read you the list, and you have to agree to each, each part." So I let them finish reading the list and I was overwhelmed. I also had the two kids that I needed to get back to at the hospital. So I just said, "Can you call me back in a couple of hours? I'm going to donate. But I have to breathe for a second." And they said, "Yeah, we'll call you back."
And in between that I asked the bishop, "Is this something that the Church is okay with? Kash really wanted to do this, he really wanted to donate." And he said, "Absolutely." So, a couple hours later, they called me back and they went through the list again. And I can't tell you if I paid much attention to the list. But apparently, I must have remembered a few things. And some of them were easy to remember. Like I remember things like heart valve, and I remembered . . . I heard the word "bones," I know what that is, but I didn't remember all the and I knew they were you taking his eyes and . . . but I couldn't tell you a lot of the other parts until it was reminded to me later, but the list was long.
And so I gave them permission. I just said, "Make sure that I can't tell when I bury him." They said, "We are perfectly careful about that." And so respectful. So it was not traumatic at all. And the decision had been made two or three years – two years before.
My husband Kash was a pilot for Delta Airlines. And probably about a year or two maybe before he passed away, he came home from a trip and he was quite emotional about something that had happened. And he told me the story. He said that before they took off on that day that a medical crew came on to the flight and brought an ice chest up into the cockpit, and it wasn't to be touched or anything like that. It just had to be there. And it had organs in it. And he knew that he was transporting it. It was going to a children's hospital.
It just really made him think he said the whole time that he was flying he thought about where it was going. We had five kids at that point and so it was probably really tender, and maybe . . . it probably made him think about, wow, would I ever donate any of my kids parts or organs, or how would I feel if I was the one that needed to receive it for one of them? So it really touched him. And so that is how he decided that he was going to become an organ donor, just because it was such a tender moment for him.
And he often also said that, flying, he always felt that . . . It's really quiet in the cockpit – when nothing's going on, of course – he always felt closer to Heavenly Father while he flew, because he could see the earth. And it just was a really spiritual time for him or it was – he could have spiritual moments while he flew. So having those organs in the cockpit with him, just really touched him. And it – enough that he came home and I can tell that something was going on, like "What, what's going on?" And he said, "I have to tell you this." It's just something that we don't think about much. And so he just had a situation that brought it right to his, to his face and his heart and everything else. It was in his presence right there. So it was easy for me to say yes. So that is how I was able to make the donation.
My mom eventually found me and she officially broke the news to me right before I went into surgery. For a while I was super angry. I mean, I was 17. And I was superficial and angsty. And it – my perfect life had been ripped out from under me and I was very angry at Heavenly Father.
I never doubted that he . . . I never doubted that my dad was supposed to die. Sounds terrible to say – I never doubted that though. I knew that that was part of the plan of salvation, and that he had work to do on the other side. And . . . but it made me mad. It made me mad that his work on the other side was more important than his work here with his family.
After several surgeries, my hand was still not healed. I couldn't move it, I couldn't move my fingers or my wrist, the blood flow was slowing down and my hand was dying. I couldn't play the piano. I was in a cast for 14 months after the accident. My brother had extensive head injuries, but he fully recovered. I would sit there at the piano and play one handed and just cry, because I didn't think I would ever be able to play again.
So I also danced, and that was over. I couldn't dance, I was too – there were too many surgeries, I was on too much medication. And just – that was over as well. My entire life went from this blossoming, full, happy life to nothing. I had, I felt like I had nothing and everything had been taken away.
My family was super close. And we pulled each other through it, but I think that I, personally, because I was in the accident had kind of a grudge a little bit? Because not only had I lost my dad like them, I was the only one that lost everything else. Like I was the one that was in the accident that . . . that had more than just my dad taken away. I was jealous. I think I was jealous of my siblings. I mean, I was jealous in the self absorbed teenage way. You know, like, I don't know it wasn't it . . . yeah, it didn't ruin any relationships at all.
About three or four months after the accident, my hand wasn't getting better and there wasn't a specific plan going forward, there were just options. And one of the options thrown out there very casually was just maybe we can do a bone graft. And then just as quickly as he said that, he went on to the next option. So it really . . . we didn't know for sure.
I just remember one of the times that we were disappointed again that a surgery didn't work, and as I was talking with the doctor about it, one of the things that he had said, "If some of the surgeries don't work, we can always take bone from her hip and do a transplant to her arm." And I did recall him saying that and I just thought, oh, we can't do that. Ashley was devastated when she heard that. She didn't need another surgery and another place that hurt on her body.
I just remember being at home or I couldn't tell you where it was. I have no idea if I was in my kitchen cooking, I don't know at all. I just know that out of nowhere, I had this moment where I went, "Oh my gosh! I donated his bones. Where are they? Oh my goodness. Where are they? Where are they? Where are his bones?" It just kind of like almost hit me – like I was stumped for sure. Because I wasn't thinking about her surgeries or anything, that conversation with the doctor had passed probably weeks before that. It wasn't on my mind, it just all of a sudden – there it was: you donated his bones.
It had been about three months down the road already. And I called the organ donation people and asked them, "Where are his bones?" Like, please – I just had my fingers crossed, please, please, please, I hope they're not gone. And they said, "Actually, they are not even finished being processed. We are about a week shy of them being done." That's when I called the doctor and said, "We donated bones from her Dad, can they be used?" And he's like, "Of course they can." He didn't know anything about that part of it of the story. So he called the – I'm going to say – the bone bank, because I don't know what words it's called, I kind of look at like a blood bank, and reserved what he needed, and then some. He said, "And extra, just to be sure." And so they were just put aside. And we still didn't know if we were ever going to need them. We hoped we didn't, because we didn't want to have to go through more surgeries on a trial basis to get there.
But then six months down the line, we knew that that was the last option. The last thing to do to save my hand was a bone graft. And at this point, my mom, the light bulb turned on. She says, "Guess what, I saved some bone, I reserved it for you. Let's do this." And so as I was in the operating room, before I went under, the doctor pulled out this little container, and it had my dad's bone in it. And he said, "Here it is, here's your dad, he's, he's gonna make you better."
And we both cried a little bit together, and then I went under and the surgery worked. My blood started flowing again, my hand, came back to life – I guess you could say. My fingers were able to move again, after lots of physical therapy. My wrist is still paralyzed, but I am so grateful to have a hand, I'll take it.
I think that had I received a transplant from anybody else, my own hip or another donor, that I may not have ever healed emotionally. I felt like I was getting a little bit of him back like he hadn't quite left me. And I also felt like even in death, that he was still my dad. And he was still looking after me and taking care of me and making it better.
The fact that I had lost everything, made it possible for me to get that very special, unique connection with my dad that none of the other kids were able to have. It was kind of the turning point where I could start to heal emotionally. And I think at that point, that I kind of accepted what had happened, and knew that everything was going to be okay.
I remembered that a good friend had told me when Kash passed away, that Kash was not released as my husband or wasn't released as the children's father, and that at any time that we needed him that we could call on him and he would be there if he could be, in any capacity that he really could be there for us. And so when we got the bones . . . to me that day, I felt like I had this . . . I don't know, beautiful confirmation from Heavenly Father, that Kash still belonged to us and that he was still a part of their lives – my children's lives – in any way that he could be.
My dad is very much alive in our lives still. We talk about him as if he just lived in another state. We talked about Papa Kash and who he was, what he did. We have a picture book of him that my kids look through and know all about his life. A lot of people after they die, we talk them up and we remember all the good things and forget all the bad. But I feel like everything that we talk about, like all the things we talk about my dad in death, that's how we talked about him in life. Like he was that big in life and he was such a good dad,
Because of his job, he was – when he was there, he was there all the time. And so his focus was 100% on the family or on the kids, mostly. He just enjoyed every second being with them, so that's what he did. Until his next trip and then he would hurry up and come home and start all over with all the playing and homework and everything else he loved doing.
My kids who've never met him like to hold my hand and say, "Oh, it's Papa Kash." And it is, it is fun to think that I literally have a piece of him with me, always.
I think that we are able to do this because we know that we're going to see him again, like we know that he is still alive and present. I mean, truly, if it wasn't for the Savior and the knowledge of the plan of salvation, I'm not sure that I would have been able to get over this. And I really clung to my testimony of the plan of salvation, to kind of understand and accept why my family would lose my dad.
At the time of Kash's death, I felt like we . . . I thought that we were doing okay in the gospel, I felt like that we had tried hard or, you know, were obedient and did the things that we were supposed to. But the day that he died, our eyes opened up to the all the truth. We always thought we knew the truths, but when you need them to be true, and you just don't say, "I believe they're true," but you need them to be true, it's different.
I like to use this analogy that the day that he died, our family's ship sunk, and the captain went down with the ship. And we were tossed in an ocean of waves. And then I realized that we were wearing life jackets. And I always say, and that was the Savior who gave those to me. He didn't stop the storm, but he gave us tools to be in it. He gave me life jackets. And did I go underwater, every time a huge wave came? I went down. And thought I would never come up.
The only thing that came to my mind was get those children's life jackets attached to mine. In my mind, that was like, get those kids as close as I came to me every day all day. This is my world, I've got to help these kids survive. And then over time, the waves felt to be a little lower and a little further apart. And as I paid attention, I noticed that I wasn't – we weren't floating anymore. Now we were on like, a piece of wood. And then I noticed it was like a little dinghy. Over time, we figured that we could see – it wasn't like we ever watched it happen, but we could look back and say, "Wow, we've built our own ship now." We are not drowning. But it took us from drowning to . . . until one day we looked and we had rebuilt a life and we had a ship and not one second of that time that we went from being our ship sinking, to getting on to being on our new ship, not once were we not completely aware who was building that ship with us. Whose hand was there.
There really is a plan. And the plan of salvation is real and alive and there are no coincidences, there are no accidents, that Heavenly Father really does have the big picture. And even though it doesn't make sense, and even though we hate it sometimes, in the end, everything that He does for us is for our good.
That was Ashley and her mother Michelle. We first learned of Ashley's story when it was featured on the Humans of New York Instagram account not long ago. We love Humans of New York and the work that they do to bring humanity and empathetic stories to our social feeds. So before we even knew the whole story, we were just drawn to the love – that true love – that permeated this family and their experience with their loss.
The fact that Ashley's dad's love could reach from beyond the grave to offer healing to her and so many through the donation of his earthly body, it's really inspiring and hopeful.
Our story producer, Erika, pointed out this really beautiful parallel. It didn't scientifically or medically have to be Kash's bone that was grafted into Ashley's hand, but the fact that it was brought so much healing in a way that no other surgery could have accomplished.
As you and I move through life and love on this earth there are plenty of options for mitigating the natural pain and suffering that come with mortality. But there is only one option, one true option that has the power to bring real healing to us. The atoning gift of our Savior. And every time we accept the offer of the sacrament, that beautiful symbol of his flesh and his blood, every time that we humbly take that into our own bodies, we are grafted into the body of Christ and blessed to see his salvation bloom in our lives. Talk about a love that is enduring and eternal.
I want to go back to what I said in the intro. Loving people the way God loves them is a risky business. We have expectations and hopes when we love deeply that leave us vulnerable to loss and deep sorrow, especially when, as Michelle said, the ship goes down.
It would be really easy to believe that all that love that we poured into that ship is lost under those mountain waves of grief and pain. I had an opportunity recently to revisit a talk that President Nelson gave long before he was President Nelson. It was a general conference talk from 1992 called, "Doors of death." It might seem like a really morbid title for a talk, but as I read it, my heart was filled with that strange fluttering of hope that comes from truth.
One part that really stood out to me was this: President Nelson said, quote, "We mourn for those loved and lost. Mourning is one of the deepest expressions of pure love. It is a natural response in complete accord with divine commandment: thou shalt live together in love, in so much that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die. The only way to take sorrow out of death, is to take love out of life."
Both Michelle and Ashley understand this concept well. That taking the love out of life is not an option. As disciples of Christ we sign up to live the commandment to love, to risk it all by pouring our hearts into one another. C.S. Lewis said in his book, The Four Loves, quote, "If a man is not on calculating toward the earthly Beloved, whom he has seen, he is none more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the suffering inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to him, throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and he chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it."
I think what C.S. Lewis and President Nelson are saying is that mourning departures from this life is actually proof positive that we honored our covenants. That deep expression of pure love means that every tear, every dip below the waters is more evidence that love is still with us in its most eternal and everlasting form.
And that it can actually be a tool to bring us closer to the source of true healing and hope. So if you have an ache that lingers after deep loss, that leaves you feeling unmoored and drifting at sea, there's nothing wrong with you. It just means that you have loved well and eternally. And when the time is right, probably just when you think you can't bear one more dip below the waves, you'll remember the reserves of strength and hope that God has set aside for you in your very bones that will bring healing.
You'll remember that you are always encircled about by the life jacket that comes from the gift of the greatest and most eternal act of enduring love. You'll feel and understand what President Nelson said that, quote, "We need not look upon death as an enemy. With full understanding and preparation, faith supplants fear. Hope displaces despair. The Lord said, 'Fear not even unto death. For in this world your joy is not full. But in me, your joy is full.'"
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storytellers, Ashley and Michelle for sharing their story and their love. We'll have a link to the Humans of New York post, as well as more info from both our storytellers in our show notes at LDS living.com/Thisisthegospel. That's also where you can find a transcript of each episode.
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The stories in this episode are true and accurate, as affirmed by our storytellers and we find lots of our stories through our pitch line season over season. So if you have a story to share about a time in your life when you learned something new by practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ, we want to hear from you.
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This episode was co-produced by me KaRyn Lay, with Erika Free who also produced and edited our story. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios, our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDS living.com/podcasts.
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