S. Michael Wilcox has one memory of his father prior to his parents’ divorce: he is very young and sits atop his father’s shoulder in an amusement park.
Michael’s father, who had been instrumental in his mother’s return to the Church, fell away from the Church himself as the rest of his life fell apart. After the divorce, Michael’s father occasionally came to town to take Michael and his siblings to the amusement park, but there were no letters and there were no gifts between visits. In the absence of his father, Michael’s mother, Norma Wilcox, threw everything she had into raising Michael and his older sisters.
“We were the most important thing in her life, and so we saved her, and she saved us,” Michael says.
His mother, who was a stalwart Latter-day Saint for the remainder of her life, taught Michael that though his father wasn’t around, there was someone else he could always rely on—his Father in Heaven. And so, Michael began to talk to this Father regularly.
“Things would happen in my life that I thought were just normal for a boy to have in his relationship with God,” he says. “I’ve been talking to God all my life and feeling He always listened.”
And perhaps it was this communication with Heavenly Father that led to a stirring in Michael’s heart as a freshman in college—a stirring that led him to do something he didn’t anticipate. The unanticipated seems to be a theme in Michael’s life, but that doesn’t mean he is not determined to appreciate every beautiful thing life gives him.
A Son’s Love
“In college, I was moved by God . . . to engage my father, which terrified him because he didn’t think he mattered,” Michael explains. “He did matter. His being gone mattered.”
His father was scared to death when he received Michael’s call, but Michael was determined to make his father a part of his family. From their reconnection to the end of his life, Michael’s father was invited to holiday gatherings, he was loved unconditionally, and as Michael had children, his father became a grandfather.
“Now he wasn’t the greatest of grandpas [because] he didn’t know how, but he could be involved,” Michael says, adding, “My father was a weak man, he was not a bad man.”
His father returned to the Church and served a mission on Temple Square. When he died, Michael wept.
“In the great wisdom of God’s goodness, my father was instrumental in bringing my mother back into the Church, and then his life fell apart and he left. . . . So my father brought my mother into the Church, my mother gave me my faith, and I gave it back to my father,” Michael says.
As it happened, a year after Michael lost his father, he lost his beloved wife, Laura “Laurie” Wilcox. Today, more than 11 years later, you cannot talk to Michael for more than five minutes without some mention of his beloved wife. His loss and the subsequent grief gave readers of Michael’s work perhaps the most beautiful book of his career, Sunset: On the Passing of Those We Love. The book shares what Michael learned about grief from losing the love of his life.
In the days and weeks following Laurie’s passing, Michael longed to dream of his wife. But instead, Michael dreamed of someone else—his father.
“My father’s face in that dream was the most radiantly joyful face I have ever seen or could imagine,” he recalls. “And it was his way of saying to me, ‘Everything will be alright, for all of us. God will see to all of our happiness. He saw to mine in spite of all my mistakes.’”
Michael says he would’ve wanted that face to be Laurie’s face, but it was probably more important that it was the face of his father.
“I would’ve never questioned Laurie’s face being joyous and radiant—well of course, she was the perfect woman. But my father, who had lived a challenging life?”
Michael likens the dream to a scene in the children’s novel The Wind and the Willows. In the book, the characters Rat and Mole see the Greek god Pan, the god of the animals. Pan has often been said to be a type of Christ in the book and the scene as analogous of the Lost Sheep. Rat and Mole are searching for a baby otter when they find it at the feet of Pan.
“I can’t imagine anybody describing what it’s like to enter the presence of Jesus better than [Kenneth] Grahame in The Wind and the Willows,” Michael says. “There he is bright, white, and glorious, and Mole says, ‘Rat, Rat, are you afraid?’ And Rat says, ‘Afraid? Of Him? Oh never, never. And yet, and yet old Mole, I am afraid.’
I think that’s probably how we’ll feel, but to see my Father’s face radiant, all the burdens gone from his life, all the guilt, all the regrets, all the remorse, all the ‘I should’ve’s, all the ‘I wishes’ I had, all the ‘I oughts’ gone. Just one radiant face of light and happiness. That was a great gift of God to me, to say to all of us, ‘Be free. I am love right through.’”
And then Michael adds, as if hoping to encapsulate the point of the whole story, “I’ve never been afraid of God. He’s been my Father since I could talk.”
A Connoisseur of Beautiful Things
Michael came by a love for reading and writing naturally. The son of a mother who read to him and a father who was an English teacher, he says he may have even received this love genetically. But he knows, like most good things in his life, that it started with his mother.
“I learned to love the scriptures listening to my mother’s voice reading the stories. . . . And she [also] read us Oscar Wilde’s fairytales,” Michael says. “And Mother would read these stories, and she would cry and I would cry because they were so beautiful. Oscar Wilde would read those stories to his children, and he would cry and they would ask him, ‘Why are you crying?’ And he would say, ‘Beautiful things always make you cry.’”
And so it is that Michael became a connoisseur of “beautiful things.”
“My mother taught me to love the refined and the beautiful things that made me want to be a better person,” he says. “Anything that is beautiful and true and good, whether it’s in the scriptures or Chinese philosophy or Russian literature or American literature or British plays or Shakespeare, [and then] whatever we love, it’s just natural, we want to share it . . . and hope that other people will love it equally and you’ll share something.”
It makes sense, then, that Michael first shared his love for the gospel of Jesus Christ as a seminary and institute teacher and then began taking people around the world to see the other beautiful things he has discovered. He has taken tour groups all over the world, and while the tours were temporarily disrupted due to COVID, he has over 30 tours scheduled over the next two years.
He is a believer that our Heavenly Father has been “trying to get all the goodness and all the beauty and all the truth He can on earth everywhere, all the time, any way He can do it.”
“If you can’t hear the voice of a prophet or of an apostle, maybe you can hear the voice of a playwright, or a poet, or a musician, or in the life of a person, or a sage, or a philosopher,” he says.
Even during the apostasy, He believes a loving God was still finding ways to speak to His children, and he has made it his own personal life’s mission to find that voice everywhere he can.
“I kind of want to say to everybody, ‘Can you hear God’s voice in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? Can you hear His voice in Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Can you see Him in the glaciers of Alaska and the whisper of His voice in the Redwoods? Can you hear Him in Confucius? Can you see Him in the Norse Mythology? The Greek stories? He’s not just in the Old Testament. You’ll find Him everywhere.”
And it is because he has found God’s voice everywhere that he has such a desire to help others who may be struggling with their faith. In his newest book, Holding On, Michael issues a plea to his fellow believers to “hold on.”
“If nothing else,” Michael writes in his book, “Holding on allows time to draw upon strategies, images, and truths that help counter the impulses to leave.”
One has to wonder whether Michael’s father leaving when he was a boy has anything to do with his desire to be what he calls a “stayer.” At the end of his book, he writes that he gave up on both baseball and learning to play the piano as a young boy. After relaying the disappointment he has always felt in himself for giving up on those hobbies, he writes, “Maybe I got all the walking away out of me at age 12 or 13. I hope so. Maybe the memories, conscious or unconscious, forged an unknown need to never walk away from something worthwhile again—to fight the impulses to leave. I want to be a ‘stayer,’ a ‘sticker,’ an ‘endurer,’ a ‘continuer,’ a ‘remainer.’ I want to stand and ‘be not moved’ (Doctrine and Covenants 87:8). I haven’t always been as steady and consistent as I would like, but the desire is constant. It is something we choose by an active volition of will. There is dignity in holding on.”
Regardless of whether or not his earthly father’s decision to leave when he was a young boy has any influence on his desire to be a stayer, it is clear that his Heavenly Father’s constant presence in his life has carried tremendous wait. It is the reason he hopes others will hold on.
“Well, I can’t imagine my life without the gospel—without, from a very young age, talking to my Father in Heaven. He has been the one constant that never goes away. My mother’s gone, Laurie’s gone, friends come and go. God stays,” he says.
In-text photo of Michael's father and the photo of Michael and Laurie Wilcox courtesy of S. Michael Wilcox.
Lead Image: YouTube screenshot
When surrounded by faith-shaking fears—impulses to leave the restored gospel—how do we find the strength to hold on? We may not have certainty in all things, but we can hold on to those truths we do believe. And when honest doubts come or impulses to leave tempt us, we can be prepared. In this book, author S. Michael Wilcox shares six strategies to cope with these challenges and help us grow our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Drawing on his own personal faith journey as well as lessons from scripture, history, and literature, Holding On is an insightful, honest, and empathetic conversation about faith and doubt. The messages in this book urge us to hold onto faith, center the essentials, resist the impulses to leave—and stay.