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.