Elder Jeffrey Holland

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A Story of Three Sisters

Just twenty-four hours after my call as an Apostle last June, I left for a Church assignment in southern California where, in due course, I found myself standing by the bedsides of Debbie, Tanya, and Liza Avila. These three lovely sisters, aged thirty-three, thirty-two, and twenty-three, respectively, each developed muscular dystrophy at age seven. Since that tender age, each has had her rendezvous with pneumonia and tracheotomies, with neuropathy and leg braces. Then came wheelchairs, respirators, and, finally, total immobility.

Enduring the longest period of immobility of the three sisters, Tanya has been on her back for seventeen years, having never moved from her bed during that period of time. Never once in seventeen years has she seen the sun rise or set or felt the rain upon her face. Never once in seventeen years has she picked a flower or chased a rainbow or watched a bird in flight. For a lesser number of years, Debbie and Liza have also now lived with those same physical restrictions. Yet somehow through it all, these sisters have not only endured, they have triumphed--earning Young Women personal achievement awards, graduating from high school (including seminary), completing university correspondence courses, and reading the standard works over and over and over again.

But there has been one other abiding ambition these remarkable women were determined to see fulfilled. They rightly saw themselves as daughters of the covenant, offspring of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel. They vowed that somehow, some way, someday they would go to the house of the Lord to claim those eternal promises. And now even that has been accomplished. "It was the most thrilling and fulfilling day of my life," Debbie said. "I truly felt I was home. Everyone was so gracious and helpful with the innumerable and seemingly insurmountable arrangements that had to be made. Never in my life have I felt more loved and accepted."

Of her experience, Tanya said: "The temple is the only place I have ever been where I felt truly whole. I have always felt I was a daughter of God, but only in the temple did I understand what that truly meant. The fact that I went through the experience lying horizontally with a respirator took absolutely nothing away from this sacred experience."

Elder Douglas Callister, who, along with the presidency and workers in the Los Angeles Temple, assisted these sisters in making their dream come true, said to me, "There they were, dressed in white, long black hair falling down nearly to the floor from their horizontal position, eyes filled with tears, unable to move their hands or any other part of the body except their heads, savoring, absorbing, cherishing every word, every moment, every aspect of the temple endowment." Debbie would later say of the experience, "I now know what it will be like to be resurrected, surrounded by heavenly angels, and in the presence of God."

One year after her own endowment, Debbie Avila made her way back to the temple, again with staggering special arrangements and assistance, to do the work for her beloved grandmother, who had literally given her life in the care of these three granddaughters. For twenty-two consecutive years, without reprieve or respite or exception, Sister Esperanza Lamelas cared for these three day and night. Virtually every night for twenty-two years, she awakened each hour on the hour to physically turn each child so that she would be comfortable in her sleep and avoid the problem of bedsores. In 1989, at age seventy-four, her own health now broken, she died, having given new meaning to the Prophet Joseph's invitation to "waste and wear out our lives ... do[ing] all things that lie in our power ... [for the benefit of] the rising generation, and ... all the pure in heart" (D&C 123:13, 17, 11).

Elder Jeffrey Holland shares this experience in Oct. 1994 Gen. Conf.