For My Missionary Son

Today, you are boarding a plane to Texas where you will spend the next two years preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, you plan to attend college in a distant town. The time has come for you to leave us, your place in our family transfiguring into a different shape. A piece of the puzzle sometimes found, sometimes lost. But always remembered.

Today, you are boarding a plane to Texas where you will spend the next two years preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, you plan to attend college in a distant town. The time has come for you to leave us, your place in our family transfiguring into a different shape. A piece of the puzzle sometimes found, sometimes lost. But always remembered.

It’s strange that something so universally experienced by parents—a child leaving home—can feel so personal, so catastrophic, so piercing. I want you to go. I don’t want you to go. Eighteen years is a long time for another person to be planted next to you, roots wound together beneath the surface.

How can I let you go?

The thought of dropping you off at the airport with a quick hug and a “you got this” floods me with the same bewilderment I felt the day we brought you home from the hospital as a newborn. As I placed you in the borrowed bassinette, which you hated and never slept in, an uncreaturely terror wreathed through my body. Your life was in my hands, and I had no idea what came next or how to stop your crying.

Today, your life leaves my hands and I once again wonder how to nurture you. While food was the answer then, and often is the answer now, I know you need wisdom and perspective and faith. What top ten list should I shout at you as you stroll through security and turn to wave? Should I print out inspirational quotes and slip them into your carry-on? Or whisper timeless clichés into your ear when we hug goodbye?

Be true to who you are. Laugh a lot and you’ll get through anything. After the storm, the sun will rise. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The key is to be happy in the hard. Everything happens for a reason. Winners never quit. Crime doesn’t pay.

But these platitudes kerplunk without a ripple in the emotional pool of today. Here at the other bookend of your childhood, I once again question how to proceed. But you are the one that taught me to be at peace with my questions as we travel through life’s wilderness.

***

By six or seven, you ate questions for breakfast. You probed the caterpillars on the sidewalks and interrogated the night sky while camping. Like the husky whispers of grasshoppers, your questions suffused my every waking moment:

“Did Adam and Eve get to pick their last name?”

“How do people make plastic?”

“Why don’t motorcycles have seatbelts?”

“Are germs tiny bugs without eyes or mouths?”

At the time, I wrote an essay about your questions, hoping to better appreciate your “wonderlust,” as I dubbed it.

Now on the day of your departure, I rebound your childhood wonder and pass it back to you. Pack it in your suitcase between your cap toe shoes and motley ties. There is uncertainty ahead, like exploring a single track on your dirt bike. The view might be magnificent, but the difficult terrain must be traversed one boulder at a time. Your faith and wonder will be your suspension over the rockiest parts, those littered with questions.

Questions unearthed for the first time because missionary life will plow up your solid ground.

Think of it. What you are doing is nothing short of staggering. It’s unfurling your testimony before strangers in hopes they will do more than wipe their feet on it. It’s trying to prick hearts in a world so distracted few hear the pounding at the front door. Netflix is your competition. Along with deep-rooted addictions and apathy. Sincere people will judge you for believing in a personal God, modern revelation, golden plates, and sin.

Yet, you are more prepared than I ever was. You can talk to people. This will help you avoid a complete meltdown in front of the mission president, his wife, and scores of other missionaries after your first experience street contacting.

It happened on my second day in England in a Manchester marketplace. Our leaders paired us up and demonstrated how to approach someone on the street:

“Excuse me, we are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we would like to speak to you for a moment.”

It seemed simple enough, but my heart failed at the prospect. Did I expect to be a missionary and never speak to people? Yet back home, I’d struggled even replying to the cashier at the bank when she asked the question; “And what can I do for you today?”

The idea of buttonholing strangers on the street spooked me as much as attempting to decorate my bunny-shaped 4H cake for the county fair. (Oh, the shame of a white ribbon!)

For twenty minutes, I struggled to keep stride with my temporary companion who called out in her Finnish accent “excuse me, excuse me” on the busy market street. I was near hyperventilating. No one gave us more than a glance.

Back at the van, the Elders grinned. “How was it?”

“Terrible,” I gulped. My nose red, tears fishtailing down my face.

I’d yet to learn the skill of hiding my emotions behind a mask of fake enthusiasm. With flushed faces, the Elders shuffled their Doc Martens on the pavement. What do you do with a crying Sister missionary?

Be kind, my son. Be kind.

***

You already sense the racket of life, the beetle-backed crunch of trials underfoot. You have experienced it yourself, like when I informed you of your impending flu shot the night before the appointment (always a bad idea for someone under ten), or when your final track season was cancelled due to a virus the size of Horton’s speck. More astonishing is your budding understanding that hardness touches everyone.  

“I’m realizing how hard it must be as a parent to watch your kids go through hard things,” you said one afternoon as we bounced through the construction on Bluff Road.

“Yes,” I said, tugging the steering wheel to avoid another pothole.

“It’s probably the hardest part of being a parent.”

“Yes.”

“I can see that now.”

Yes. You’re beginning to see. Your answers snowflaking from heaven.

Thankfully, mission work rarely resembles my first experience in Manchester’s city center. We spent little time scouting for candidates like carnies on village corners. Instead, we found people to teach while visiting members or hobnobbing with friends of friends of friends. And in these relationships with the oddest of people, you find relief from the grunt work of missionary life.  

I remember the man who spoke in such a thick Welsh accent, I just nodded along for days until his inflections clicked with my brain. He rolled flakes of tobacco into rice paper and tapped the ashes out the second story window as we chatted. In his white jalopy, he and his girlfriend drove us to castles on our day off.

In Preston, we befriended a fourteen-year-old girl, a ward of the state, who lived on her own in government housing. At church, her body jerked and seized on the second row, riving the meeting and irking the members. We had our suspicions the seizures were fabricated, a behemothic cry for attention.

On the Isle of Man, a woman daily dwindled in a recliner, her basket of pills on the end table and her tales of Ballamona, the mental hospital, fresh on her tongue. We invited her to church many times. “Don’t be obnoxious” she’d answer with a guarded smile. It was on this hidden gem in the Irish sea, I stumbled upon a lovely group of Dickensian people, including the vivacious Jane who rightly lampooned our cheesy church videos but squealed with joy when she broke from the water during her baptism.  

Seventy-year-old Phillip lingered in his Rochdale flat with his liter of cheap vodka behind his armchair. His Irish accent so thick it sounded like Chinese to my half-asleep husband years later when Phillip called in the middle of the night to say hello. In Chester, long-haired Rachel attended church and we spoke for hours in the chapel afterwards, the sunlight slanting through the windows like a prism. She wanted to be baptized and quit smoking overnight. But her live-in boyfriend convinced her that God didn’t care if they weren’t married, only that they loved each other. She stopped answering the door, and my heart ached like a sore muscle for weeks.

Like your childhood questions, the people you learn to love will be noisy, feverish, and persistent. But loving people pancakes boredom and fear. They answer the question of why. Why a mission? Why so hard?

Because of the people you will reach.

***

Back in the day when your questions ran like Usain Bolt, you grappled with the universal who-would-win-in-a-fight scenarios. All day long, the creatures matched up like boxing rivals in your mind as you sought answers from me.  

Would a pig or a wolf win in a fight? A grizzly bear and a fox? Two crocodiles against a fox? A shark and a crocodile?

This last question­––the shark vs the crocodile––stumped me. Unlike the others, the answer wasn’t obvious. In my essay, I wrote the following:

I find myself picturing a shark and crocodile in water somewhere swiping at each other with their razor-sharp teeth. They are circling, the shark chomps onto the lizard’s tail, the crocodile lunges for the tailfin of the shark. Their hideous bodies heave and hum and throb.

I wish I could show my son the futility of his question, the unlikelihood of a crocodile and shark ever encountering each other in battle. I want Drew to grasp something of the complexity of life. I could say, “Hey look, we can’t always predict who will win. Sometimes a host of factors, random or otherwise, might change the order of things.” I could thwack him with the ancient aphorism “Life isn’t fair” or enlighten him with a moral or two. “It doesn’t matter who would win,” I want to say. “Other things matter in life but not that.” But I don’t tell him. He’ll find out soon enough.

A mission will teach you what really matters in life. It will teach you swiftly, like a knife cutting through the subterfuge. And while you probably no longer care about the crocodile and the shark, there will be other creatures battling in your boxing ring.

One such creature bares its teeth every time an investigator loses heart and rejects the message.

The hardscrabble of missionary life can wear on you, your efforts blaring like a trumpet in contrast to the half-baked efforts of others. You are getting up at 6:30 a.m. every single morning for crying out loud! It’s true that success cannot be measured in number of baptisms, but some dwell on those figures. In my mission, the pressure to baptize bore down on us like the inescapable Las Vegas sun. Hopefully, your days under the Texas sun will not be as brutal.

But despite the sunburns, your mission will consist of days never to be forgotten. You will remember the streets, the houses, the smells, and your love of Jesus vibrating like a cello in your chest. You will remember the hazy, almost magical flavor of the days. And the way wading through the daily muck feels both gritty and cathartic. There will be boring days and tedious hours and times you will hide in the bathroom just so you can be alone. But there will be days where the Spirit stars your life so fully that the sky shimmers and you don’t mind the cancer-looking spot on the dog licking your face. The overarching picture of your mission will be bold brushstrokes. Days. Never. To. Be. Forgotten.  

***

When you were seven, you asked the hardest questions of all.

After finding one of our newly purchased baby chicks dead in the temporary box in the basement, you cried, “Is it just sleeping?” 

I looked at the lifeless body, as flat as a pancake underfoot the other chicks. They promenaded over the poor thing like it was a bath rug.   

I shook my head.

You sobbed. “Why did it die? Why did it have to die? “

A question that has echoed through the ages.

For you, it was the beginning of no good answers, or the end of easy answers. You wanted a reason, even if the reason was something deplorable, like the other chicks pecked it to death or we’d forgotten to feed it. But the poor thing had simply died.

Two weeks ago, your beloved aunt lost her life in a tragic accident. The circumstances fluky, fateful, divinely fixed. Why did she have to die? Such a question perplexes like a foreign language, and we get lost in the translation. But these difficult questions, the ones about death, will draw people to your message, to hope, to the resurrection, to Christ. Questions will increase your ability to understand doctrine because true inquiry always circles back to the spiritual.

So why sorrow? Why death? Why 100-degree weather in Texas?

As a missionary, you will find answers to eat for breakfast.

***

Once again, I ask my mumsy question: How do I let you go?

I can see you hitting the palm of your hand to your forehead like you always did as a tween. Silly Mom.

It’s true I might sob as hard as I did near the white van on that first fateful day in Manchester. A world without you as foreign and overwhelming to me as those first days as Sister Ott. But there will be others to help, like the seasoned missionary who approached me by the van, linked her cool blue eyes with mine, and spoke as if she held up the snake staff in the wilderness:

“Heavenly Father helps his missionaries. I know this. Heavenly Father will help you.”

I grasped at her words as if they were illuminating stones set in a steep riverbank, guiding the way up to the embankment. I climbed with the rushing water underfoot, the inky sky above. But the stones remained solid under my hands.

The stones still shine. You will have help. I will too.

It’s the reason I can let you go.

Taming the Deer

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

There is something in the way my daughter cuts across the soccer field after another game that makes me afraid.  Her body sags with defeat even though her team won the game.

“Good job.” I hug her.

“Thanks,” she mutters in my shoulder. “But, Mom.” She pulls back. “I’m the only forward who hasn’t made a goal.”

I try to stop it from happening. To blanket my mind with objectivity and logic. But these words trigger a familiar commotion and panic in my brain. My thoughts bound up a hypothetical mountain like a deer chasing one shadow after another, and I have no choice but to cling to its back like a rodeo clown.

In this moment, I believe nothing more tragic could be happening to my daughter. The horror of it. How can she live this down? She’s disappointing her coach, her team, herself. I’m lost in fresh hysteria.

But I play it cool with my daughter.

“Well, I’m sure you’re not the only one. What about the midfielders?”

“I’m talking about the forwards.” She winced. “It’s not the midfielders’ job to make a goal, Mom.”

She says Mom like I’m a dumbbell. Usually, she’s a very nice girl.

Here’s the truth. My brain can be dangerous to my well-being. It can conjure up a host of dangers and worries while whittling down my self-esteem to the size of a popcorn kernel. If allowed free range, it will tailgate my peace and run it right off the road and into a ditch. It’s real grunt work, keeping my brain in check, trying to pinpoint and uproot the thoughts causing me grief. It’s easier to let the rhinorrhea of obsessive thoughts flow unhindered into my neurotic hanky. At times, I’d like to remove my brain, unscrewing and removing it like the hard drive of a computer. Other times, I treasure my brain, obsessive snot and all. It’s this love/hate relationship that I find so uncanny. Our brains cause us no end of heartache.  And joy. And boredom. And curiosity. And dread.

At the next few games, I haggle with myself under the shade of the sport’s umbrella.

Making a goal is not the most important part of soccer.

Yes it is. Make a goal, Autumn.

It matters more that my daughter is playing well, improving, and having fun.

But she needs to make a goal.

This experience is perfect for her.

Make a goal now!

Before bed, I pray for Autumn to make a goal, but it feels wrong, like praying for a new car or a pet panda. Shouldn’t I be praying for her to have the experience she needs? Isn’t that real faith? Trusting in God’s plan over our limited perspective?

But I balk and pray for the goal.

Meanwhile, my daughter never mentions the issue again. She lives day to day as only a teenager can. The fuss is my own Frankenstein. It’s not about my daughter and her goalless status. This is about the white-knuckled tactics of my brain. Her mantra isn’t Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Nope. That’s all mine. And this is not my first obsessive rodeo. I’ve tormented myself about my marriage, my kids, the state of the world, my friendships, the terrorists that one time I swore were lurking in the rocks by our campsite in the isolated Utah desert. I suspect my brain distracts itself with this sort of hackwork to avoid the real work, the full-throated stuff of life.  

The British philosopher Alan W. Watts wrote:

“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be another experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality.”

I’ve heard the mantra a thousand times: Live in the precious present moment. I’m finally listening. Anything to stop the endless pawing at my brain. When it happens, that split second when the deer is about to bolt, I try to galvanize my five senses.

I fling off my sandals at the soccer fields and hunker in the grass. Funny how sharp the blades feel against my newly shaved legs. I flick off a few ants from my ankles. I listen to the jabbering of the spectators on the hill behind me and taste the melting tonic of dark chocolate on my tongue. Driving home, I rub my palms along the hard leather of the steering wheel. I’ve never noticed the pencil-thin canal sandwiched between two houses even though I’ve driven this road for years. I roll the window down and smell the mixture of hydrogen sulfide and decaying brine shrimp drifting across the wetlands. The seat warmer pulls the chill out of my bones.  

 At night while praying, I rub my knees against the carpet and feel the pliable mattress beneath my elbows. I smell my tangy face cream and listen to the pitter-patter of tiny feet sluffing bed. My husband sighs at the bathroom sink; the house shuts down.  

In the here and now, the iridescence of my life lengthens and deepens. Guilt evaporates in the absence of a past. Worry scatters like October leaves, collecting on the fences of the future. My mind pools in peace. It’s always going to be about this moment, the now of my life. Gratitude pulses through my current heartbeat, not the heartbeat from a month ago. My prayers reside in the moment I utter them. Living in the moment is the only way I have found to get off the bounding deer. It’s true I find this present-moment-nirvana as difficult to achieve as deciding on a throw pillow at Ikea. 

But when it happens, it’s glorious.

Oct 2019-Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for Ashes

I’d jammed my day with tasks, every minute accounted for and assigned a purpose. My checklist included a trip to the orthodontist, scrubbing the shower, reading with the kids, writing in the morning and again in the afternoon, driving my son to kindergarten, picking up lunch for a friend, teaching piano lessons, making roasted cauliflower soup for dinner, and Christmas shopping with my husband. The stress was self-imposed. At the time, I found it perfectly acceptable to cram my days like Jack Black in a wetsuit.

I hustled the kids out into the van as my mind raced down the list of tasks. I was counting on no wait at the orthodontist, or I would be hopelessly behind schedule. My writing time usually became the sacrificial lamb. Drew buckled Kate in her seat as I slid behind the wheel, turned the key, and shifted into reverse. Then it happened.

First came the serrated sound of impact, metal against metal. Second, the horrifying realization. The garage door had been innocently creeping up the metal rails when I’d given it a sudden punch to the gut with the back bumper of my van. In short, I had backed the car right into the garage door before it had opened completely.

What an idiot!

Immediately, shame siphoned away all the momentum I had for the day and gloom settled in like fog. Turning the car off, I jumped out with an intense longing to skedaddle out of my own skin. I’m such an idiot. I’m such an idiot, I muttered to myself, my hands gesturing wildly as I circled the space where my husband usually parked his Civic. Wade is going to kill me. My mind howled. My hands shook.

My twelve-year-old son, Drew, emerged from the car. “Mom, don’t freak out. It’s going to be OK,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” I hissed.

He stood looking at me like a puzzled Christopher Robin.

We got back in the car (we had an orthodontist appointment after all) and I slowly inched out of the driveway like a student driver under surveillance. The garage door would no longer shut so I left it open, the shelves of tools, sleeping bags, and motor oil displayed like my sins to the world. The falling snow gathered on the driveway before the open door. It might blow inside, paling the shelves and garden tools with white dust.

In the orthodontist’s waiting room, I slunk to a corner sofa, hoping to avoid the gregarious receptionist. Drew sat next to me. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s just the garage door. At least our house didn’t burn down.”

I eyed him with suspicious wonder. He was, no doubt, referring to the tragic incident six months earlier when the house next door caught on fire and within minutes was consumed in flames.

Is this kid for real?

Despite my son’s attempt at perspective, I couldn’t shake the stupidity of what I’d done. It was the most ridiculous of all my mistakes. It was on par with Jar Jar Binks or Watergate. How was I going to tell Wade? When I returned home, I yanked on the garage door until it slid closed. Then, in some sort of She-Man frenzy, I attempted to push in the dents with my bare hands. I wanted to fix it, erase my mistake, go back in time. I cancelled my lunch date, I didn’t write, I forgot about the homemade soup, I didn’t take a shower. Instead, I sobbed on the side of my bed and tried to pray.

My inner dialogue rose to a frenzied pitch. “Who does that? Who runs into their garage door?”

“Actually, a lot of people,” Wade reassured me when I finally summoned the courage to share the news. “It’s a common mistake, Kristen.”

Bless him.

Could my husband be right? Could this not be a big deal? Could I be overreacting just a tad bit? As funny as it sounds, I didn’t consider these possibilities at first. During the initial emotion, all I could do was rubberneck the wreak. It held my gaze like watching Michael Jackson dancing “Thriller.” It took an interaction with my husband to deflate the mountain back into a molehill. As the undertow of self-reproach slowly eased its pull, I scrambled up from the floor where I’d been rat-holing tissues under my knees.

The pendulum swung to the opposite side, and I began to wonder why I had overreacted to the point of rejecting all my goodness because of one lousy mistake.

***

In my neighborhood several years ago, a teenage girl was sunbathing in the hot sun on her driveway. Because of the earbuds nestled in her ears, she didn’t hear the truck roar to life in the garage. Her older sister checked the mirrors to make sure the coast was clear. It looked clear to her. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a garage door to impede her progress down the driveway.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. Not the one that tragically died two days later in the hospital from brain injuries, but her sister, long-limbed and vivacious, who’d been behind the wheel and had asked her brother to jump out and see what she had just run over. “Probably a bike,” she’d suggested before her life changed forever.

It was a terrible accident, no one at fault. Everyone said it. Law enforcement deemed it as such. The media emphasized it. But how could she breathe?

I willed her to know it wasn’t her fault, that it could happen to any of us.

***

After backing into my garage door, I worked to change my frazzled mama status because frazzled mamas run into garage doors. I calculated the cause and traced the evolution of the error. If I avoided all the pitfalls that lead to metal against metal, I would be safe from relapse.

Now, I see clearly my problem lay in my behavior after the garage door incident, not before. I can’t avoid mistakes. There isn’t enough slowing down in this world to dodge accidents or avoid risks. I could very well run into the garage door again when the imminent soccer game starts in five minutes and we’re still waiting for my son to finish in the bathroom.

My mistakes are strewn behind me like fallen leaves, a brown and wilting trail of inevitable regret. I cringe at this memory not because I drove like a peeved off Herbie into the garage door but because I treated myself so harshly afterwards. This was my mistake.

If I struggled to forgive myself over a garage door, how could my neighbor navigate through the emotions of forgiving herself? I prayed she was stronger than me.

We’ve all heard the slogans. Mistakes are a part of life. Accidents happen. We harm others and they harm us. We learn valuable lessons from our mistakes and failures. People run into garage doors and tragically over loved ones. I remember Wade’s words, “It’s a common mistake.” He meant garage doors, of course, but after it happened, many came forward with similar driveway tragedies to comfort the girl and her family.

The consequence of my mistake, my miscalculation, consisted of a crooked door. For my young friend, the loss of a beloved sister. Both events started from the same place, backing out in a hurry, our thoughts directed at destinations and the mundane tick-tockings of the day. It’s a testament to the unfairness of this life that my consequence lasted a few short hours, while hers will last a lifetime.

I’m quite certain she still has bad days—the brown leaves mixed in with the red and orange—but she remains vibrant and generous. I recently heard her speak to a group of young people. She spoke about faith in God and choosing light instead of darkness. She was strong behind the microphone, cloaked in courage and confidence.

“I do not believe,” she said, “that this life is a test to see who can suffer the most. This life is for joy.”

We applauded her with our tears. There’s relief when someone finds a way to bear the unbearable.

Maybe it helps her to know tragedy comes to all of us. Maybe she’s learned to forgive herself again every morning. She must have ways to cope when the darkness threatens. She must intimately know the mental ruts she can never allow her mind to wander. If she can find a way to face every day with hope, I will try to treat my own mistakes with a little more grace. I will try to see the beauty in the ashes.

***

Every fall break, we join family friends for a camping trip to the west desert. I affectionally call it “The Wasteland” and we fantasize that the Tatooine scenes from Star Wars were filmed there. It’s a place that even the environmentalists care little about and leave us alone to roam the knolls on our dirt bikes. We ride pell-mell on trails dotted with sagebrush and heave over the whoops and the sand dunes. With each of us insulated in our bulky helmets, we point and nod to communicate. At the wide-open flats near I-80, the kids scatter to make figure eights in the salt and push the limits of their speedometers.

Back at camp, the kids spend hours digging a hole in the ground, an activity that can only be explained by the accessibility of endless dirt mixed with boredom. Last October, they dug deep enough to hit saltwater. My daughter and her friend shaped the wet clay into bowls and plates and attempted to harden them into pottery over the fire. The younger kids carved a bench in the side of the hole and ate their dinners there as if it were a clubhouse or a foxhole.

The landscape feels abandoned. As if God ran out of the good stuff during the Creation and simply rippled this part of the earth with His fingers in a desperate attempt for some contrast. But at dusk, the colors flare across the western horizon like your own private fireworks show and my throat swells like an Adele crescendo. The view is humanlike: ruthless, raw, and lonely. A place where mistakes glitter like sand in the sun. We can’t live a life without mistakes. Nor would we want to miss out on their barren beauty.

In the camping trailer, I hear the muffled sound of dirt bikes roaring to life on the desert. My daughter clambers up the metal stairs and pulls open the screen door.

“Mom!” she says and holds up her helmet.

It’s time to risk another ride.