CEDAR CITY — It took countless miles, round trip, through 28 of Utah's 29 counties. It took him over mountain passes and through red rock country, across vast deserts and through sprawling suburbs.

Erik Gray was on a mission.

Throughout the final years of his life, Erik Gray found comfort in temple work. | Provided by JoLene Gray

The 23-year-old man from Cedar City wanted to visit every temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah. From St. George in the south to Logan in the north, at the time, there were 16 operating temples and one under construction. Gray was determined to get to them all.

The only question was whether he would be able to do so before cancer took his life.

Battling cancer

Gray vividly remembered the day he found out he was sick. He was on a family vacation at Knott’s Berry Farm. A couple weeks earlier, he had gone into the doctor to run a biopsy on a lump he found below his jaw.

As he left the doctor’s office, he was told he would receive a call when the results were in.

“We had just gotten out of one of the Snoopy shows and my dad had a message on his cellphone, so we listened to it on speaker,” Gray said. “It was my doctor.”

The entire family huddled around the cellphone.

“OK here is the news: Erik has cancer," Gray recalled the doctor saying. "We will get jumping on this when you get back in Cedar. But for now, enjoy your vacation.”

That was far easier said than done. Gray couldn’t help but think to himself, “Wait. You’re not serious, are you?” But that wasn’t what he said.

He immediately tried to comfort his family members by encouraging everyone to forget about it and enjoy the vacation.

“I think that’s something I have focused on the whole time, right from the get go,” Gray said. “I worry about what I can control. The stuff that was out of reach at the moment, I would put on the back burner and I would cross those bridges when I got to them. I think that has really helped in every aspect of it all.”

The first time Gray found out he had mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a salivary gland cancer, was on Dec. 22, 2009.

In December 2012, Gray underwent a 13-hour surgery which involved replacing his jaw bone with the fibula bone from his leg. The blog he started to document his journey is humorously titled “Life Without A Fibula” (online at lifewithoutafibula.blogspot.com). He hoped to comfort others and brighten their lives through his posts.

Erik Gray is surrounded by some of his friends from Utah State University.| Provided by JoLene Gray

He kept battling on and tried to live life as normally as possible. He attended Utah State University, where he quickly became involved in a leadership group on campus called the A-Team. Emi Facer, another USU student, met Gray in the last round of these A-Team interviews. As the students introduced themselves, Facer admired Gray's charisma, and before he even spoke, she could already tell by the way he brightened the room that he was an optimistic man who loved his life. She wanted to be his friend.

“He introduced himself as a cancer survivor, but I could tell that he had not only survived the cancer, but that he had thrived because of the trials and opportunities he had gone through,” Facer said.

Because Gray made such a profound impact on USU, he was honored the Legacy of Utah State Award on April 15. This award is part of a large, university-wide award ceremony called The Robins Awards, which celebrates students nominated by their peers.

A temple goal

Throughout the final years of his life, Erik Gray found comfort in temple work. | Provided by JoLene Gray

In the summer of 2016, Gray and his parents were at a doctor’s appointment at Huntsman Cancer Institute when they received the most emotional news of the journey: His cancer was terminal.

When the doctor asked Erik Gray what he thought, he looked back at him and said, “I’m ticked off! That stinks!”

“That caught the doctor off guard that Erik would be so candid,” Dennis Gray, Erik’s father, wrote in an email. “That lightened the mood a bit, and we were all crying and laughing at the same time.”

That moment was pivotal for the Gray family. Since then, they have not wasted any time. They made a concentrated effort on making memories every day.

“Although he is terminal with his illness, I can honestly say that he and our family have never felt so alive,” Dennis Gray said. “The reality of what we are facing has reminded us of what is truly most important — our relationships with each other and with our Savior. They have become stronger and more sweet.”

Throughout the final years of his life, Erik Gray found comfort in temple work. | Provided by JoLene Gray

Among the memories Gray wanted to make: A visit to all of the 16 operating LDS temples in Utah.

He said that he set the goal a few years ago and was determined to reach it no matter how sick or tired he became. Many times, he would visit a temple or two on his way to a doctor’s appointment or as an excuse to take a little road trip.

“The peace that the temple brings makes me stronger,” he wrote in a blog post about his temple goal.

He needed this strength. The week of Aug. 1, 2106, Erik Gray received two doses of chemotherapy, one dose of immunotherapy and a couple PET scans. After no success and negative results, he decided to stop treatments.

When the doctor asked Gray what he thought about being put on hospice, he immediately looked him in the eye and replied, “It’s OK. If what I’ve been through and what has happened to me can help others in the future to not have to go through this and help them, then it’s OK. Really. It’s OK. Rock on.”

“Rock on.”

Throughout the next few months, Gray's health began to decline. In a journal entry, which he kept separate from his blog, he wrote about a time when he was physically and emotionally exhausted because he couldn’t do much without losing his breath. To cheer himself up, he asked his dad if they could go get a Dairy Queen Blizzard. “Mood food,” he called it. (He defined “Mood Food” as, “Food when one is sad, mad, grumpy, any sort of down emotion, etc., to make one happier and/or lighten the mood.”)

“So we got to DQ and I ordered a Mini Caramel Brownie Blizzard (his favorite flavor), and we pulled up to the window to pay and the employee says, ‘I was told I’d get fired if I made you pay,’” Erik Gray wrote in his journal.

Natalie Huntsman, a family friend who owns and manages the Dairy Queen, poked her head out the drive-thru window and said, “This is for you. We love you. We want to give this to you and just know you’re an inspiration to us all.”

“That was so sweet of them,” Gray said. “Wow. And just such a tender mercy. The mood food made me feel better, but more importantly I felt that people care about me. It really lifted my spirits."

Erik Gray's mother, JoLene, often joined him for his temple trips. | Provided by JoLene Gray

Although he was exhausted and declining quickly, one morning in early January, Erik Gray and his mother, JoLene Gray, took a road trip to Monticello, which marked the final temple on his list.

“Especially with doctors appointments, attending the temple has really helped me maintain perspective in the gospel, remember life’s purposes and the plan, and feel immense peace amidst life’s craziness. It’s all real. God is real. Our Savior is REAL,” Erik wrote in a blog post about his accomplishment on Jan. 15, 2017.

Although he was tired and needed to take a lot of breaks, he accomplished his goal.

JoLene Gray — whom Erik Gray called his “great road trip buddy” — loved the trip because she loved watching Erik’s excitement when he officially completed his goal. He was happy, which makes her happy. What he loves, she loves.

“Mothers can’t help but love everything their kids love,” she said in an interview. “For example, I haven’t ever loved snow all that much, but Erik does. Now I love the snow.”

For a while, JoLene Gray didn’t like sitting through church on Sundays. People would smile from the pulpit and declare their love for trials. “Oh, I pray for trials,” she remembered someone saying.

“I can see how trials make people grow and how they helped me to grow, but only now have I finally been able to embrace and accept them,” JoLene said through both tears and laughter. “It has taken me a while. My testimony of Jesus Christ has grown leaps and bounds.”

Sharing his testimony

Erik Gray bore his testimony in church on Feb. 5. JoLene Gray remembered that he wasn't so sure about bringing his oxygen tank to church, but he needed it.

“It was a huge deal that he took it up to the pulpit with him and he mentioned how he didn't want to, but submitted to the fact that his body needed it,” she said. “The next few days, he continued to need his oxygen more and more. His hospice nurse monitored him more closely and mentioned it would be good for the family to be nearby.”

Erik Gray and his family. | Provided by JoLene Gray

The next few days, Erik Gray’s family spent time with him, talking and helping him finish his journaling. When he got to the point of not being able to type them himself, his siblings helped type what he wanted to say.

“There were moments of tears, then laughter. Erik and his quick wit,” JoLene Gray remembered. “Those last few days were priceless. He had lots of words of wisdom; he shared parts of his patriarchal blessing with us. He shared insight from some of the books he had been reading and told us he was sorry for the next person who read from the books because of all his personal notes he wrote all over the pages. It's OK. Those notes are treasures now.”

Erik Gray's health declined fast. The family believes it was a blessing because he didn't have to suffer much at all. At 6:45 a.m. on Feb. 10, Gray passed away.

Before Erik passed away, his last advice to his family was, "Today is not a bad day. Today is a great day to be awesome." As his heart slowed and finally quit, there was sadness but also a great feeling of peace, JoLene Gray said.

“There has been a beautiful, indescribable spirit in our home the past few months and especially the past few weeks," she said of the time after her son's death. "I know our family is being watched over, and we feel the many prayers that are offered in our behalf. While it is sorrowful, it is also peaceful.”

'Message to the world'

Erik Gray's mother, JoLene, often joined him for his temple trips. | Provided by JoLene Gray

Weeks before Erik Gray passed away, he shared in an interview what he called his “message to the world":

“Be happy,” he said. “Take advantage of the opportunities you have. Love other people. Take the opportunity to share the gospel. Feel the gospel and how real it is to you. Take the time to do the little things. Through scripture study, prayer and temple attendance, I’ve been able to feel peace and joy and live a happier life.”

Gray knew that there is a bigger plan and that this life isn’t where his story ends.

“Don't look at my life and think of how unfair this is. Please. Look at my life and let it be an example to go and do something today that makes you happy,” Gray wrote in a blog post. “Life is all about learning and growing, relying on the Spirit and enjoying the journey along the way.”

A temple experience

While visiting the Vernal Utah Temple — one of the last temples he needed to visit to complete his temple trip — Erik Gray was amazed at the peace, humility and love that entered his soul.

“There is a giant picture of the Savior in the celestial room of the temple,” he wrote in a journal entry. “Entering the room felt to me like Jesus had his arms open, about to embrace me, saying ‘OK. You’ve made it! You did it and I’m so proud of you. THIS is where you rest because you pushed and tried so hard on Earth.’"

And, immediately, the scripture in Matthew 11:28 came to his mind: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Email: kelseyschwabadams@gmail.com