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the meaning of josiah

by K.D. Taylor

 

“If we are to see things more clearly, we...must lift ourselves above the secular smog.”

- Neal A. Maxwell


There has been confusion, ironically enough, as to the meaning of “Babylon.” True, the

word harks back to Babel, and so signifies confusion, alluding to the confusion of tongues, but

even this we have misunderstood. To many, this confusion at Babel consisted in a cacophony of

gibberish, and it is precisely here we get it wrong. “Gibberish,” properly defined, is unintelligible

or meaningless language, and yet to each individual who spoke, albeit in vain desperation, that

day at Babel, the language in which they spoke was not unintelligible — they knew perfectly

well what their words meant. And exactly because it meant something, if only to them, it was not

meaningless.


I believe, too, there is a deeper shade of meaning yet. In its Bible Dictionary, the Church

of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clarifies that “in D&C 1:16, Babylon means ‘the world.’” It

might well be asked, in light of this, if to leave Babylon means to leave the world, as in the world

of sin, or to leave the world, as in our planet earth. But are there not those who have left both?


I would only ever ask this question rhetorically since, as it happens, I know one who in


fact did both. His name is Josiah, and when I knew him back in 2014, during my days as an

educational assistant at the middle school, I was myself thirty-five years in age, and thus

“midway upon the journey of our life,” as Dante might have said. And yet it was not I, but

Josiah, who would, like the Florentine poet, tour the world beyond.


Josiah belonged to that special class of special-needs students who had been designated

as “medically fragile.” Among all the students in the Life Skills department at Linus Pauling

Middle School, he was most likely to be marked absent, and it is tempting even to say that he

was marked for absence, as if by an unkind Fate. And it was always our hope never to see his

name marked down for that most awful absence and tragic truancy which has sometimes been

known to give a solemn and sobering symbolism to the very sound of the school bells. Therefore,

naturally, our handling of him, as with the handling of anything coming in a package marked

“fragile,” was with care.


Even so, his rapid transition, on the very day before winter break, from a mere medical

fragility to a moribund frigidity was not only unexpected, but unseemly, even in the very

seamlessness with which it happened. I had been engrossed, this morning of the final day before

the break, in the happy task of fashioning holiday ornaments—to be presented as gifts to the

families of our students—at a table in our classroom, together with another E.A., Debbie, who

was seated next to me. Guiding the small red and green beads onto a thin wire, with thin and

wiry fingers which had more than once warranted, and had in fact elicited, comparison with the

desiccated digits of Jack Skellington, I was speaking to my seat mate of how obsessed my


youngest son had been of the celebrated Pumpkin King, when I first took notice of Josiah’s

arrival.


I heard Louise, Josiah’s personal nurse, exclaim from the opposite side of the room,

“Josiah, you can’t fall asleep, now! You were awake the whole ride over!” She had, I would later

learn, removed the hood of his jacket from his head, and discovered his eyes to be shut. But the

closing of his eyes was not the only thing that caught her own. He had also stopped breathing,

and I have since thought that, if one did but know, she herself might well have done likewise, if

only for a moment, upon learning this. In a classroom coursing with conviviality, her look of

shock was, of course, incongruous.


Within a half of a second, our supervisor, who was much nearer to the unfolding action,

shouted for me to “get over here—NOW!” My legs responded to the summons before I had even

summoned myself to any consciousness of their having done so. A second later, I was close

enough to be struck by the deathly pallor, and almost palpable chill, that had spread entirely over

Josiah’s face. Along with the recent entrance of Josiah and his nurse through the door, which

leads directly outside, had come a baleful blast of winter cold across the threshold, which at this

moment enveloped, and for an instant even seemed to constrict, me. It called to mind the morgue

I had so many times cleaned as a hospital housekeeper. Josiah’s mouth, meanwhile, hung open in

what looked to me like the very aperture through which a ghost might pass. And never had I so

much as supposed, let alone seen, that human flesh could ever be rendered so white in so short a

time.


Our supervisor, Stacie (still affectionately called “Coach Stacie” by staff and students

alike in honor of her having once coached special-needs students in modified gym classes),

immediately directed my fellow aide, Amanda, and me to remove Josiah from his wheelchair.

We acted as bidden, and, time not permitting us to unfold and lay out for him the luxury of a

padded mat, simply laid Josiah on the floor. It felt, to me, like a sacrilege of human dignity to

place a medically fragile young man upon the hard and cold and unforgiving surface of a

schoolroom floor, but circumstances did not afford us the more decent alternative.


It was now that several things happened in intuitive unison. Stacie called out for someone

to dial 911, whereupon another of our aides, Stephanie, peaked through the doorway of an

adjoining room, and with a phone to her ear, said, “I’m calling, right now.” Amanda, meanwhile,

slid a moveable wall over so as to conceal the unfolding drama from the eyes of the rest of our

students, just as I stepped forward and began waving the students, as encouragingly as I could,

out the door which leads into one of the main halls of the school, with the words, “Let’s head to

the cafeteria for activity time! We’ve got crafts! We’ve got games!” But, feeling as though I’d

begun, by such language, to verge on conduct better suited to a carnival barker—which seemed

not only tacky, but tactless, under the circumstances—I relented from speech, and simply

motioned our (thankfully) compliant throng of students out into the halls, and through the halls,

ultimately, into the cafeteria. Silently, I commended the soul—or, at any rate, the body—of

Josiah to the resources of Louise and Stacie.


Meanwhile, as was our custom in Life Skills during the first period of the day, we led the

students in a game of hangman. The only differences, today, were the change of venue and the

use of a portable easel rather than the customary classroom whiteboard. The irony of our playing

such a game as hangman even while a young man’s life hung in the balance as we played was by

no means lost upon me.


And I began to think of suicide. I do not mean that I contemplated committing it, but

rather that I began to contemplate the concept. I recalled how, in our city, a young woman of

high school age had, earlier that same year, hung herself. Her body, I remembered, had been

discovered by her brother. She and her brother both belonged to a Latter-day Saint family, who

attended church in the same meetinghouse as I did with my family. I remembered, too, hearing

how that same year suicide had grown to become the second leading cause of death among

teenagers. I reflected that, according to Camus, there is one truly serious philosophical problem,

and only one, though billions there may be who prefer to ignore it, and that is suicide. I even

began reciting, in a sort of half-whisper, G.K. Chesterton’s “Ballade of Suicide.” I wondered

how many youth of around Josiah’s age, had they seen him lying coldly at the portal of death

itself, might have wished to trade him places. I hoped, as I hope to this day, it would have been

none of them.


I was abruptly snapped out of these ruminations, however, when approached by a

member of our faculty, who informed me that the police had arrived, and that they needed to get

my account of the morning’s events for their records. As I wended my way from the cafeteria


back to Life Skills—the very name of which now seemed almost a travesty of the tragic

situation—I caught sight of Debbie, who sat in the hall, grieving openly. Her weeping, I

gathered, was that of compounded bereavement, as she had, a number of years back, personally

lost a daughter, who had also been medically fragile, under circumstances painfully similar to

those now confronting us.


“Don’t look at him, Kevin!” she cried out to me as I passed, although I could not, at that

moment, unravel the full purport her anxious plea. Did she feel the sight of him too sacred to

intrude upon? Did she simply desire that I be decent enough to honor Josiah’s privacy? Did she

think the spectacle too frightful or sad to risk having it linger in the mind for all the remaining

years of my life? I didn’t know if Debbie had been the one to find her daughter deceased, and I

never asked her if she had. In any event, her request was honored.


I arrived back to the classroom, and proceeded to recount the unfortunate events of the

day, as I remembered them, to an officer who transcribed my statement in what can only have

been a shorthand fashion. I would later learn that, as a matter of fact, a crew from the fire station,

located around the corner from our school (and actually visible from our track and field area),

had arrived on the scene within less than two minutes of having received the call about our

emergency. As it happened, in one of those acts of Providence which skeptical hearts prefer to

explain away as mere cosmic coincidence, the crew had only just left the station on their way to

do fire inspections when the call came in.


But even before arrival of the crew, Stacie and Louise had performed, with impeccable

precision, those resuscitative measures which will increase the probability of successful rescue

and survival, if anything can. With Louise monitoring, Stacie had administered chest

compressions, and with her athletic way, I cannot doubt Josiah benefited from the very best of

capable hands. For her part, Stacie would later own that she wept quite freely in the very act of

doing the chest compressions, so deep and thoroughgoing was her concern for Josiah’s already

imperiled well-being. But for all of this, I had not been present (nor, thankfully, had any of our

students), though the facts were eventually related to me by Stacie herself.


Substitutes were, in time, called to fill in for us, while we were called in to confer with

Eric Beasley, who was then our principal. Also present was a counselor who, though generally

on hand for the emotional and psychological support of the student body, now administered to

our good. His first words to us were, “What a great team!” Having heard how our instinctive

coordination of efforts had come together so naturally and fluidly as to appear like second nature,

he added, “You guys were textbook.”


Word as to the outlook for Josiah would not, for the moment, be forthcoming, however.

We knew only that he had been taken to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, and was in

the care of the ablest physicians on hand. We were admonished to refrain from speculation, and

of course to say nothing that would distress any of the students. A celebratory assembly,

scheduled to happen that day, had in the meantime been cancelled, as office staff and

administrators continued to wait in readiness, monitoring the situation with Josiah as word


arrived, here a little and there a little, throughout the day.


During this school year, Linus Pauling Middle School offered a movie showing after

lunch, as an entertainment option for students. Many, if not most, of the special needs students in

our care preferred this over the rest of the available options. On this day, as might be expected

for the day just preceding winter break, the film shown was one of the Christmas subgenre, titled

The Polar Express. I remember musing, as we sat and watched this movie, on one of its scenes

involving a tunnel. I thought of how frequently those who die, and then are privileged to return

to mortality, report having floated through a tunnel-like passage on their journey into the realm

of spirits. I recalled, with amusement, how that shaman of scientism, Carl Sagan, had attempted

to explain away all such postmortem tunnel reports as merely the mind reliving the infant’s

descent through the birth canal. I knew that the eminent Dr. Sagan had been dead himself since

the Christmas season of 1996, and I supposed that even he must know by now whether or not the

tunnel is the truth. I hoped that the answer had come as a pleasant surprise. But however that

may be, I wondered now if Josiah’s own passage through this tunnel had led him, ultimately, into

an experience, like the experience of the children in The Polar Express, of meeting Santa Claus.


Our last meeting of the day with Principal Beasley provided closure, while opening, for

many, a floodgate of emotion. “Official word from the hospital,” he said, “is that he didn’t make

it.” Debbie burst into tears, as did Stacie. “He’s flying with those angels he loved to hear singing,

now!” Debbie said. Josiah loved classical music, and was often to be seen falling asleep to some

celebrated piece from Bach, Handel, Beethoven, or other master composer. With those bright


celestial choirs on high, she felt, he now would surely blend his voice in the angelic ecstasy

which was never his portion to sing aloud in life by dint of mortal tongue. I could only suppose,

though I dared not speak it openly, that Debbie must have also envisioned her own daughter,

now long since passed on to the Hereafter, among those inhabiting the native home of all spirits,

welcoming the departed Josiah into their midst.


I returned home, at the end of this extraordinary day, and pulling into the carport felt as if

I had seen my home for the ten-thousandth time, but only appreciated it for the first. I related the

events of this eventful day to my wife and sons, and it was the oldest of my sons who, as children

always do, gave the most philosophical of responses, asking his then-favorite question: “But

why?” He was not, in this case, asking about medical causes. His question was not how, but why

a young man, perhaps especially a young man with so many conspicuous limitations of ability,

should die. Parents, I understand, can become prone to exasperation at the constant, relentless,

inexhaustible stream of questions put to them by their children, and would sometimes like to

know how to silence them, if only for an hour or two. Well, I have found out a way. You ask

them the toughest question you can think up, and challenge them to mull it over. I put the

counter-question to my son in words to the effect that he should first (as Pope would say) “the

harder reason guess,” and tell me why—again, not how, but why—a young man, disabled or

otherwise, should even live for any length of time at all. To this, he hazarded no reply.


That night, long after my sons had gone to bed, I was in the midst of composing a mass

email to send out to family members, sharing with them what few details I was then at liberty to


disclose concerning the day’s events, when I received a phone call. It was none other than Stacie.


She had informed all of us, at work, of her intention to stop in at the hospital and pay her

respects to Josiah’s family, whose collective anguish we could only imagination. Before she

spoke, I was conscious of an upbeat tone in her voice that startled me. As she began reporting to

me her account of things, I confess that I, at first, thought her very understandable grief had

carried her off into the realm of delusion. I shudder still to think of my momentary unbelief,

though it is an unbelief of which I have long since repented.


She told me of how she arrived at the hospital, anticipating an atmosphere of gloom, only

to discover Josiah smiling up at her from his bed, and giving her the thumbs-up gesture which

had been among the favorites in his limited repertoire of hand signals. She had entered not a

scene of wailing grief but of unutterable delight as she came upon Josiah and his family in that

hospital room. She spoke of how “our Josiah” was now back in all his glory. Even as our phone

call ended, I was only beginning to realize she spoke truth. I thought then, as I have thought

since, and will almost certainly have occasion to think again, of how certain it is that there are

“more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”


I was later to learn that Josiah’s body was lying in the refrigerated morgue at the hospital,

and the deposition of his body was actually under earnest discussion, when one of the attendants

in charge of looking after the body discovered a pulse. In the coldest, most inhospitable quarter


of the hospital, his heart had resumed beating, fully two hours after it had entirely ceased to beat

at all.


It occurred to me that in Josiah we now had a new kind of martyr. Whereas, traditionally,

a Christian martyr has been the man who gives up his life in this world for a cause which he

loves—with the understanding, however, that he is only temporarily giving up his life in this

world, as he will one day live in it again when “the meek shall inherit the earth”—it now appears

that a man may give up his life in the next world (temporarily) for a cause which he loves.

History, ancient and modern, affords ample testimony of men leaping cheerfully into flames to

claim a martyr’s reward, or of a forlorn hope charging into the very mouth of hell with a defiant

grin. Josiah, now, as anyone who has since been privileged to see him awake will testify, spends

every waking hour with a grin upon his face like a medal of meritorious valor demonstrated in

the face, not of death, but of life, and not of life only, but of life largely bereft of functioning

limbs.


There are those who speak of what “makes life worth living.” As well might a tale be told

of how King Midas turned gold into gold, or of how Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into straw.

Nothing “makes” life worth leaving for the very simple reason that it is already worth living, and

a thing cannot be made into what it already is. All one can do is find out that life has meaning; a

meaning that was always there for the finding. It is only certain lifestyles which are not worth

living; life always is. It is even worth living with limitations.


Josiah was welcomed back to school with great and fitting fanfare. The assembly which

had been cancelled on the day of his death was now held upon his return, not long after the end

of winter break, and his family was there in attendance with him. The officers and emergency

medical teams who assisted him were also present, and honored at the assembly for their heroic

efforts. The burst of exuberant applause when Josiah first appeared and the announcement was

made that he yet lived and was in good health, cannot be described. It can only be felt, and

remembered, perchance, by those who felt it. It was not only the sound of robust and cheerful

shouting, clapping, or thunder of rhythmically stomping feet, but the meaning behind the

combined force of the sounds, which must be experienced to be known.


A report on the celebratory occasion appeared in the January 9, 2015, edition of the

Corvallis Gazette-Times, in a simply but tellingly titled article, “The boy who lived.” Reading it,

I was struck by the following lines:


Doctors still don’t know exactly what caused Josiah’s heart to fail — or exactly how he was able

to come back from his two-hour brush with death. The word “miracle” came up a lot in conversations with

the medical staff, Josiah’s sister said after the assembly, and one physician went further than that.

“He said, ‘It’s supernatural — this doesn’t happen.’”


When Josiah left this world, if only for a few hours, he saw that which this world only

serves to represent. “That which is earthly,” Joseph Smith taught, “is in the likeness of that which

is heavenly.” That which is earthly, therefore, only expresses a greater reality, and it was this


latter reality which Josiah personally experienced. But, to return to my oldest son’s question,

why? Why does one climb a mountain? According to René Daumal, the reason one climbs a

mountain is: “Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know

what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.” The

remarks of Randall L. Hall, therefore, were well to the point when he observed how: “The

scriptures contain inspiring accounts of prophets receiving grand, expansive visions. Generally

these visions were received away from the noise, distractions, and challenges of everyday life in

the tops of mountains.” Cyrus Wheelock was therefore inspired in reminding the elders of Israel

that they must not only bid Babylon “farewell,” but go on “to the mountains of Ephraim to

dwell.” Only from the mountains can Babylon be seen for what she is: the mother of harlots.


Randall Hall could have described the prophetic visions he spoke of as having been

received “away from Babylon.” And I think Josiah was well and truly clear of Babylon when he

made his own brief retreat to the mountaintop, and there saw clearer, I am sure, than he ever did

before. He returned home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, and still is speechless, as are

those, generally, who hear of his story for the first time. But his very name is enough to say what

anyone really close to him could tell you he would want to say, were his tongue to be loosed this

very hour, as his name “Josiah,” in the Hebrew original, literally means “God has healed.”