Well…the house is finally quiet, friends and relatives have taken their potluck dishes home, the missionary is exhausted, and the floor is littered with potato chips and plastic forks. Wait—that sounds awfully familiar. Didn’t we just do this two weeks ago? This month ranks high on the list of most unusual times in our family’s history. In thirteen days’ time we will exchange two returning missionaries for one who is just beginning the journey, with Mexico-bound Jake entering the MTC on December 7th, his older brother Nate returning the very next day from a mission in Brazil, and their sister Sarah scheduled to arrive home from the Philippines on December 20th. We are certainly not the first family to have multiple missionaries serving, but, when it’s your own children, the emotions triggered by their comings and goings are unexpectedly intense.
Last Tuesday morning, my husband and I took Jake to the temple for one last endowment session. We will miss sitting with him in the Celestial Room. He spent the afternoon finalizing his packing and getting the bedroom in good shape for its next inhabitant. At one point, Jake came to me requesting a lesson on the finer points of folding white dress shirts. After a brief demonstration, and after we neatly folded and stacked the shirts, I peeked into the suitcases to check the state of things, not surprised to find that my organized boy had everything under control. Sheets and towels? Check. 12 pairs of dark socks? Check. Assorted neckties? Yep. Suddenly I felt my own control slipping. I have walked through the “Domestics” aisles of many a department store without shedding a single tear. Why then did the sight of this particular set of sheets and that small stack of beige towels leave me misty eyed?
My mind was flooded with questions: Will there be a clean and comfortable mattress for Jake to put his sheets on? Did we buy enough allergy medication? Will he be able to buy quality contact solution if he runs out? What if it gets colder in Mexico City than we prepared for? I forced my mind to calm down, remembering lessons learned when sending Nate and Sarah off for their missions: things will work out, and my worrying serves no useful purpose. With the packing of the bags accomplished, and our “last supper” eaten together, the moment had come for Jake to officially become a missionary, and his father was the man privileged to set him apart. What a sweet memory that will always be for Brad and Jake.
Late Wednesday morning I received an e-mail from my Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Dennis who are serving a temple mission in Brazil. They were pleased to report seeing Nate as they officiated the endowment session which he and six other missionaries attended before they headed to the airport. That was the happy news of the day. The more difficult part was waking up to the knowledge that Jake would be leaving us.
I know I would have been crushed if he had chosen not to go, but that doesn’t seem to take away the sting of parting. For the third time in two years we made the drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a brief goodbye/hugs/photo session. We discovered that it’s just as difficult to part with the third missionary as the first, probably because we have never said goodbye to this particular child before. Though we’re pretty familiar with the MTC drop off routine now, it was still surprising how quickly our missionary was swept away into a sea of dark suits. He didn’t look back.
The Changing of the Guard
Such timing. At 12:40 p.m., the exact time Elder Jake began his adventure as a missionary, Elder Nate’s plane began to taxi down the runway of the Salgado Filho airport in Porto Alegre Brazil, the first leg of his journey home. Throughout Wednesday afternoon, our thoughts were divided between these two beloved boys, with the expectation of Sister Sarah’s imminent return hovering in the back of our minds. We were a small, somber group as we arrived home, but didn’t have the luxury of time to process all that we were feeling. We still needed to paint the “Welcome Home” sign for Nate, and wash his bedding so it would be fresh for him. My mind was racing for most of the night—having 3 missionaries out for 24 hours was exhausting!
The scriptures say “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning…” (Psalm 30:5) In our case, joy arrived at the Salt Lake International Airport just after 12:30 p.m. We gathered in the lobby, along with the families of five other returning Elders, complete with yellow balloons and fluttery stomachs, watching the escalators for any sign of our missionary. What a thrill it was to recognize Nate’s suit clad legs, and then his beaming smile in a suntanned face. My husband insisted that I be the first to hug Nate, and oh, what a feeling it was to throw my arms around him! The intensity of that experience will never be forgotten. It was a moment of perfect joy.
After a long round of hugs and photos and the collecting of the baggage, we loaded up our cars and headed south. Knowing that Nate is always hungry, I suggested we stop at a buffet to fill him up and he eagerly agreed. I had to smile when he went straight for the beans and rice—as if he hadn’t eaten them nearly every day for the past two years. It was rather surreal to sit by him in the restaurant, hearing snippets of Portuguese—a language unfamiliar to me—creep into his conversation, enjoying the sound of his wonderfully familiar voice, and mostly just staring at him—basking in the happiness of his safe return. I think I had been holding my breath for two years without realizing it.
The first thing Nate did when he entered our home was slip off his shoes so he could savor the feel of the carpet. Next, he walked to the kitchen faucet and turned on the hot water. Up to that moment I hadn’t known that the only hot water he had in Brazil came from the electrically heated shower heads. We followed him out the back door as he toured the yard and pasture, got reacquainted with his golden retriever, and met the new red shed and the “Lone Ranger,” a truck Jake had so painstakingly cleaned for him just days before.
The most fascinating part of the evening was the unpacking of the bags. We relaxed into the couches of the downstairs family room, watching as Nate emptied his suitcases, and I was surprised at the emotions I felt. Hadn’t it only been a few months since I sat in the same spot and helped him mark all of his belongings as he packed them away? I was surprised to find that most of those items had been left behind for other missionaries: the brown suit, all but two white shirts, his sweater and heavy winter coat.
Instead, the bags were filled with the snail mail letters he had saved, mission journals, MTC notebooks, planners, a surprisingly large number of brightly colored soccer jerseys from popular Brazilian teams, and other souvenirs and gifts for the family. I recognized only one tie from all that we had purchased two years before. This he had saved to pass along to Jake for another two year mission. Nate had traded his other ties with his companions, and as he pulled them one by one from his suitcase he told us which Elder each tie had come from. He pointed out the pocket-sized Portuguese hymnbook, the page edges slightly yellowed from use, as a treasured possession. Finally, Nate handed me a gift, sent to me by a thoughtful church member—a reminder of the many kindnesses the people of Brazil had shown to my missionary. I was witnessing the unpacking of a life, or at least one season of a life.
As I listened to my son share the history of each item, a sense of nostalgia began to steal over me, for I too had once unpacked a life. The decades since I returned from my own mission have not dimmed the feelings of that day. Every item I removed from my tired grey suitcases was attached to a memory of the places and people that had been my world for eighteen months. What a strange sensation to suddenly step out of the life you’ve lived for the past few years and be thrown back into all that was once familiar. It’s disconcerting, to say the least. You aren’t the same person you were when your mission began, and you see everything through the lens of your new experiences and it changes your perception of your old life and surroundings. In some ways, everything is so familiar that you wonder if you dreamed the mission. But no, it really happened, and you will never be the same.
Nate left behind a humid 95 degree Brazilian summer when he stepped on the airplane in Porto Alegre. He was greeted by 30 degree winter weather as he disembarked in Salt Lake City. So it is with each missionary’s return—the seasons of their life change overnight, and re-acclimation takes time.
I awoke Friday morning smiling at the knowledge that Nate was asleep in his own bed. Of course, that thought led to tears as it reminded me that Jake’s bed was empty. I spent much of the day fighting my Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings, finally realizing that, as happy as I was to have Nate back home, I needed to mentally process the events of the past two days and allow myself to cry over Jake’s departure before I could take a deep breath again. Make no mistake—I’m thrilled that his mission has begun, but I do grieve the hole that his absence leaves in the fabric of our family. As each child goes, they take something precious with them.
On Saturday afternoon, a most welcome e-mail appeared in my inbox—the first correspondence from Elder Jake. He sounded good, used more Spanish in his letter than I had expected, reported that he was the district leader, and was enjoying his new companion. My one concern: Jake had already lost five pounds that he couldn’t really spare. Now we are praying for his appetite to return.
That same evening, I escorted Nate to my bedroom and encouraged (forced) him to sit down with me for a mission “de-briefing.” It was good to be face to face with him so I could read his emotions more easily than I could through his letters. Sunday morning, he reported to the High Council and spoke in Sacrament Meeting. It was wonderful to see friends and family later as they gathered in our home to honor our first official RM. Which brings us back to the potato chips and plastic forks littering the floor. Once all the guests had driven away, I sat at the computer to compose my first official e-mail to Elder Jake, and my final e-mail to Sister Sarah. Yes, there will be more plastic forks in our future because we’ll be doing this all again very soon.
In just eight days Sarah will board a plane and fly from the island of Negros to Manilla, then take another flight to Hong Kong, yet another to San Francisco, and finally, her long journey will end in Utah. A journey that has been so much more than just miles across an ocean. I predict that once again there will be yellow balloons, fluttery stomachs, and much happy hugging. And I predict that later, we’ll gather around to watch as Sarah empties her suitcases—unpacking a life.
Since Sister Sarah is 13 hours ahead of Mountain Daylight Time, we received her final e-mail on Sunday evening. Her words reminded me why we’re willing to send our children out on missions:
“I wish I could say that I’ve been a great missionary. I know I’ve done some good things, but of course the mission has done much more for me than I’ve done for anybody else. Even though I can’t say I was a perfect missionary or that I don’t have any regrets, I can say that I’m better than the old me. I can say that I have worked harder at this than I have at anything else in my life. I can say that it was worth every second. I can speak Hiligaynon! I can wash laundry by hand. I can cook! I can teach people about Jesus Christ and His true church with confidence and know that my words are true. I can do hard things. I can do all of those things, thanks to the Savior.”
Oh, life is wonderful and strange at the moment. Our hearts are both tender and joyful, and our stomachs could probably use a few Tums. We can never repay the Lord for His blessings and tender mercies, but that won’t stop us from trying.
Signing off…Lynne Christofferson and her small band of missionaries