As in pageant, so it is in life: one can't always choose a role

Sunlight and shadow interplay in the trees as early morning rays push silently through leaves and branches to illuminate selected spots on the soft, brown earth. Somewhere here, Joseph Smith knelt to pray and changed the course of religious history forever.

Birds chat intermittently, their discourse blended only with the footfalls of feet - five sets - moving, unhurried, along the trail. The stillness is remarkably contagious; my three children are this quiet only when they sleep.As we come to a clearing, we separate for a time: my husband, Brad, takes seven-year-old Cami's hand and they sit on a log; Katie explores the fallen, damp leaves and throws handfuls in the air to shower herself, as six-year-olds will; and I watch my son, Stephen, 11, walk the trail ahead of us all, exploring areas on his own that we have yet to see - a poignant metaphor, especially now.

A year ago, we watched as Stephen forged ahead. His leukemia - first diagnosed in September 1991 - had returned, 11 months after his last chemotherapy treatment had ended. A bone marrow transplant offered his only chance for long-term survival, and we spent the summer trying to prepare for the all-too-real living drama that fall would bring.

Dramatic and spectacular. Terms used over and over again by the thousands that flock to the base of the Hill Cumorah each year to see scenes from the Book of Mormon recreated by a cast of some 600 volunteers. Participants from all over the United States and Canada apply months in advance for the opportunity to spend their summer vacation acting out a drama that spans roughly 1,000 years.

Ten-year-old Steffan Williams is a shepherd in this year's pageant. He didn't choose his role. "They just assigned us the parts," he said. "My two sisters and my mom and dad are shepherds, too. My brother's a Lamanite warrior."

Steffan explains that, because the pageant is all pre-recorded, no one has a speaking part; after one week of rehearsing, the cast is ready to perform.

Members of the Salisbury Ward, Wilmington Delaware Stake, the Williams' decided to apply for cast parts as a family after hearing their stake president talk about a similar experience with his family.

"This is a dream that I've always had that our family could be in the pageant," said Kristin Williams. "I think that we have benefited much from it, just being here in this part of the country, partaking of the spirit of all these people. . .that have contributed their feelings and their spirituality to just make this a fantastic experience for us."

Stephen was 10 last summer. Being cast yet again in the role of a cancer patient was not something he, or we, had applied for. As we wait for the pageant to begin, my children play with a beach ball on the grass, oblivious to any thought of the roles they played one short year ago in our own real-life drama. I hear and feel the enthusiasm that Sister Williams has for the opportunity she and her family have to be cast members. And I think about my own role in July 1993. . . .

I can't say that I ever would have applied for it. The cast, in our case, numbered at least 600 - including family members, friends, ward and stake members and medical professionals. Actually, the number was probably twice that, if all of the stories I was told about prayers being offered by groups of people we will never know or meet are counted.

Each played a role - large or small - that culminated in a miracle as real for me as the ones I bear silent witness to by bringing my children to this place.

Now I ponder the whys and wherefores of our family's circumstance - both then and now - and contrast them with the Williams' and with other families we know, each playing out their own life dramas, some silently, and others unwittingly public. I marvel at the similarities I can find amid the vast differences that exist in individual circumstance.

"Our bishop's family is also here from our ward - that's one of our friends too," Sister Williams says. "Both families got accepted, so it was fun to be here with them. About five families from our stake are here and some young adults as well."

November 1991. Another family we know is dealing with their own cancer drama. There have been many long, sustained battles for them in the years since their child was diagnosed; by comparison, our three-month fight seems like a minor skirmish. I watch them say goodbye to their child for the last time in this life, and I wonder where the rest of mortality's drama will lead us; how long Stephen will remain healthy; why he lives, and other small cancer patients we know and love, die. There are no easy answers. . . .

"I think I can speak for everyone when I say one of the best parts of the pageant is getting to know new people," Sister Williams says.

"Yeah, that's one of the best parts," says 14-year old Jamie. "We talk to a lot of non-members here, give them stickers and programs and ask them if they'd like to receive a copy of the Book of Mormon."

Meeting new people - doctors, nurses, child life specialists, lab techs, phlebotomists, counselors, interns, residents, pink ladies, home healthcare workers - the list seems endless as I look back. Some become like family - it's amazing how quickly bonds form in a critical care setting.

We weren't spreading the gospel, but we were united in a common cause - to eradicate the cancer that poisoned one small boy. A portion of a letter one of my colleagues wrote to Stephen urged him to visualize the battle going on inside his body - the good cells fighting the bad ones.

The pageant has begun now, Lamanite and Nephite warriors locked in battle, good vs. evil. Stephen understands better than I what it means to fight. . . .

"We would do it again, definintely," Sister Williams says of the family's pageant experience. "At first, the kids were a little dubious. We missed a tournament for baseball and other things they had going on. And my youngest daughter worried about spending her birthday away from home.

"We tried to assure her it would be the most special birthday she could have, being in this pageant, and I think that she has felt that it was really important and has good feelings about it."

Would we do it again? We aren't in a position to choose. But I do know one thing: we wouldn't change the things we have learned, individually or as a family. Faith has deepened, love grown stronger, time become more precious. We've celebrated birthdays in a hospital room, my girls riding the hydraulic bed up and down in place of a carousel horse. We didn't choose those parties, but we held them, nonetheless.

We've cried and prayed and paced, agonized. But just as surely, we have found a strength and a peace we didn't understand before - secure in the knowledge that God helps direct the dramas, large and small, that form the fabric of our lives.

"I knew it was something we needed to experience that would draw us closer to the Savior and closer to one another," Sister Williams said. I smiled a knowing smile.

One night after dinner not long ago, Stephen was talking with his dad about nothing in particular, when a flash of insight entered the conversation, then fled just as quickly. "You know why I got sick again?" Stephen asked, knowing he would have Brad's full attention. "I think we didn't learn enough the first time, and we needed that experience to grow closer to each other and to Heavenly Father."

He's right. We're still learning, still seeing some things Stephen has already seen. And I pray no matter what roles we find ourselves playing or where they take us, we'll use them to love God, and each other, better.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed