Often we influence each other in ways that we will never know or understand, but sometimes, we are gifted the opportunity to see how we touch each other’s lives for good.
The summer I graduated from high school, turmoil and pain surged through my family. My parents were divorcing, and I was 18. Like most young men growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had been planning to serve a two-year mission for my church, but now my world felt shattered—fragments of what it used to be. The foundation of my faith began to crack, and my well-intentioned course to spend two years serving God crumbled as I was swept up in the emotional storm of my family.
That summer Honoura Tetuanui (Hono) was currently serving his two-year mission in Southern California, where I lived. Little did we know the impact we would have on each other’s lives. Tall, dark, gangly, and brown-eyed, he approached me one Sunday in my congregation and asked in a thick, warm accent, “If you could serve a mission anywhere in the world, where would it be?” Looking at his dark features, his accent as he spoke seemed to fit my working hypothesis that he grew up speaking Spanish since he rolled his "R"s. I had studied French in school and loved the language, so I shrugged and replied without hesitation, “Somewhere French-speaking.” He completely caught me by surprise when a big grin spread across his face as he enthusiastically exclaimed, “I speak French!”
Hono and Ralph in California. Image courtesy of Ralph Holding.
A Needed Friend
Hono Tetuanui was from French-speaking Tahiti and sensed that I needed him in my life. He and his companion soon became regular fixtures in my home. We would eat, talk, and laugh together as if I had known him my whole life. As he took me out with him to visit homes, teach lessons, and give service, I began to feel the desire to serve a mission kindle deep within me. I also needed to know in a very real way that God loved me and that I could trust Him to help my family get through this. I knew serving a mission would help me figure this out.
In October, I submitted my paperwork to serve a mission. Now I was left to wait and wonder where in the world, literally, I would be called to serve: the East Coast? Japan? Russia? Or better yet, France? As Hono and I joked back and forth about where I would be called, he would always state confidently with a twinkle in his eye, “Ralph, you’re going to Tahiti!”
When my mission call arrived in the mail, I felt overcome with nervousness, fear, and excitement. I couldn’t bring myself to open it. With a pounding heart, I tossed the envelope on the floor of my car, loaded up my surfboard, and headed for the ocean—the one place that always spoke solace to my heart. I pulled on my wetsuit and stared at the unopened envelope on the floor of my car.
Then a familiar lesson that my years of surfing had taught me surfaced in my mind: when the water is cold, it’s better to plunge in. I grabbed the envelope, ripped it open, and read with a shock of surprise, “Dear Elder Holding, You have been called to labor in the Tahiti Papeete Mission.”
Did I read that right? I read it over and over. I became flooded with emotion and the overwhelmingness of it all felt stifling. With my head reeling with “Tahiti,” I grabbed my board and launched into the water. Being in the ocean was therapy, and with each fresh wave, I could feel the tension that had been mounting for weeks slowly wash away. On my way home, I called Hono. At first, when I told him the news, he thought I was teasing him. “No really Ralph, where are you going?” he asked in earnest. As the truth of my mission call to Tahiti sunk in, he started to laugh excitedly and began shouting a high-pitched Tahitian "Yeh, cheehoo!"
A Change of Place
Two weeks later Hono was transferred to a different area, but we continued to keep in touch through email, and I began to prepare for my mission. After several weeks in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, I arrived in Tahiti at the end of April. Completing his mission in July, Hono returned to his home in Tahiti, on the opposite side of the island from where I was serving. When he came to visit me in my home, it was both incredibly awesome and strangely weird to see him. Instead of speaking English together, we now conversed easily in French, and I was the one wearing the white shirt, tie, and name tag, and he was the surfer kid in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.
Hono, Ralph, and a fellow missionary in Tahiti. Image courtesy of Ralph Holding.
One day in January, I happened to overhear pieces of a conversation between two native ladies who were speaking fluently back and forth in Tahitian. After 10 months on Tahiti, my French was coming along well, but Tahitian was less fluent. Unless I was concentrating on understanding the conversation, it would usually go over my head. Today, however, words and phrases caught my mind: son, sick, bishop.
A heavy dread started to form in the pit of my stomach. Hono’s father was currently serving as the bishop of his ward. Could they be talking about Hono? But then, I had just seen him a few weeks before, and he was his normal, goofy self. As I debated in my mind back and forth, there was a lull in the conversation, and I seized the opportunity to ask if she were speaking about Honoura Tetanui. “He’s been in the hospital for a couple of days now,” she replied. “Yes. It’s very serious.”
A Desperate Blessing
I said an explosion of frantic prayers in my heart in the next few seconds. What had happened? How could my friend, my brother, be close to death? How could he leave this life without knowing the tremendous impact he had had on me?
Urgently, I called my mission president, and he immediately granted my request to visit Hono in the hospital. I called another set of missionaries who had a car and suddenly there were six of us racing to the hospital. Meeting Hono’s family face to face for the first time proved bittersweet. Excited to finally meet them, it was hard to do under those dark circumstances. When Hono’s mother saw me, she pulled me into a fierce hug, kissed me, then looked directly into my eyes as she exclaimed suddenly, “I know why you’re here. You’re here to save my son.”
As we entered Hono’s room in the Intensive Care Unit, I couldn’t shake the feeling of death that was there. Nothing could have prepared me to see Hono as he was. Pale, small, and gaunt—he seemed a shadow of his former self, a dark skeleton on the bed hooked up to snakes of tubes. In shock, I grabbed his hand and mumbled something about him being so skinny.
Hono had contracted a dangerous bacterial infection called leptospirosis. Because the early symptoms are flu-like, it had gone undiagnosed in its beginning stages and had quickly become virulent. The bacteria had attacked his lungs, and he was having difficulty breathing on his own. As his symptoms had progressively worsened despite medical intervention, the doctors believed that he would pass away that night. Maneuvering gingerly around the tubes, we carefully positioned ourselves to give him a blessing of healing.
As we placed our hands on his head, I felt in my heart to say that his work on this earth was not yet finished and that he would fully recover and walk away from the hospital completely healed. Again I grabbed his hand, "Hono, if you can hear me, it’s Ralph. Hang in there, don't leave me, brother."
"I Would Be My Brother's Keeper"
Returning home from the hospital that night, all my thoughts spun towards Hono. It was like a strong gravitational pull that I was powerless to stop. The next day was filled with teaching appointments, and I was grateful for the distraction from my heavy mind and heart. In the evening, my companion and I were pedaling home quickly from our last appointment. I thought it was strange that we hadn’t heard anything about Hono.
As the weight of my thoughts returned riding along the dark street, suddenly a car came screeching by us and skidded to a halt about 20 yards ahead. It was Hono’s brother. Hono had come out of the coma. A miracle. A shock cut through me, and I screamed with joy. “Yeh cheehoo!”
Hono would make a full recovery from his near-fatal illness and return home within a little over a week. After waking from the coma, he had to relearn how to eat, drink, and walk, but within a mere two weeks of coming home, he had recovered enough to resume a large portion of his normal life. To this day, all that remains of his illness is a small spot on the bottom of his right foot that if squeezed, is still tender: a poignant reminder to never forget the blessing of life that he was granted.
Ralph, Hono, and Fanovai in Tahiti. Image courtesy of Ralph Holding.
Just before I came home from my mission, I attended Hono’s wedding to his beautiful bride, Fanovai. On the day that I left Tahiti for home, his family showered me with gifts and came to the airport to see me off. Hono was an instrument in the Lord’s hands to save me spiritually, and I was blessed to be Heaven Father's instrument to save him physically. How we affected each other’s lives seems perfectly summed up in the words of a beloved hymn, “I would be my brother’s keeper, Lord, I would follow thee.”