“I’ve got four minutes to get emotionally prepared,” my youngest said. The reality of what was happening was finally hitting her. And not a moment too soon.
My parents had just buckled themselves into the back of the minivan. We’d gone to lunch together, but decided to park their car by the temple to make the things the drop-off easier at the MTC (Missionary Training Center).
We were so goodbyed out from the events of the previous days (his own farewell [speaking in church before departing on a mission], others’ farewells, a family party, family and friends stopping by, his setting apart [a laying-on-of-hands blessing — like what we believe the Savior did — to officially designate him as a missionary]). My son and I jointly decided that we didn’t want to do the traditional photos in front of the temple. (Besides, seeing other people say their goodbyes to their missionaries was almost worse than saying goodbye ourselves. Yup. Nope. Much to my dad’s chagrin (he’s called Papa-razzi in our family), we weren’t doing that today.)
And so, from 12:56 to 1:00 p.m., we drove laps around the temple (counting down the minutes in jest for my daughter, to try to lighten the mood a little) and then drove directly west, through the light, to the MTC gate entrance.
– – – – –
“How did your orthodontist appointment go? Is everything set?”
Something about my son’s answer to my question left me feeling unsettled. He was two days away from turning in his mission papers; I wanted to be sure we had a firm date for when his braces would come off. From all that we had heard from his orthodontist, a mission availability date of August 15 was playing it safe, but still, I wanted to be sure.
Nothing could have prepared me for the orthodontist assistant’s response to my inquiry to confirm his his braces-off date.
“He’s not scheduled to have his braces off until February or March 2018.”
Once my brain reconnected with my vocal chords, I tried to be as calm as I could be, but I’m sure my voice belied the fact that everything inside of me was swirling and churning. “Can…I…please…speak to Dr.________ ? He called me back within a few minutes. I could tell he felt pretty awful about this unbelievable miscommunication.
My son had had his braces taken off for an MRI that confirmed a bizarre diagnosis of jaw arthritis. (Apparently it’s not bizarre for our family; her sister was diagnosed with the same condition in December 2017.) The braces had been put back on earlier in the year after treatments for the arthritis, and everything that we had heard was that the braces would come off in August.
During that phone call, the orthodontist assured me that they could be off by Thanksgiving, and that was the end of that call.
But how would I break this news to my son?
It was hard news for him, but I watched in gratitude and not a little wonder as he immediately started scrambling to un-defer his acceptance to college, register for classes, and find housing. I admired his willingness to adapt to a hard, unexpected situation.
In August of last year, instead of starting a mission, he launched headlong into a semester of his freshman year of college.
– – – – –
I took a deep breath as we filed behind the line of cars slowly descending into the underground MTC parking garage. This is definitely different from when I was a missionary, I thought.
Not that I was complaining. Drop-off day back in my day was a dramatic, traumatic experience for both family and missionary alike. This is how it went. There was a presentation about who-knows-what (I doubt any missionary or family remembers what it was, probably an orientation to the MTC or to missionary work in general). And then, abruptly, the person at the microphone in front of the sea of missionaries and their families said, “Okay! Missionaries go through that door, and families go that way!” I don’t remember being warned about how abrupt that moment would be, although we probably were. Warning or no warning, it was awful.
To this day, I can’t really tell you whether I regret looking back for one last wave, but the can’t-describe-it-in-any-other-way-except-to-call-it-pathetic look on my mom’s face is seared in my memory. It tore at my heartstrings. Fortunately, as a missionary, the spirit of the MTC swept me away the minute I turned the corner from that bitter goodbye.
But now I was the momma.
I wasn’t sure I was emotionally prepared for this, either.
– – – –
October 1, 2017
“You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints….”
My son read his call to anxious and excited friends and family members crammed into the space in front of the stairs of our home. (Not all missionaries read their mission calls in front of others, and actually my son had opened it in the mountains before reading it to the rest of us. But he wanted to also share the joyful news with those he loves, all the more so because of the wait.)
“You should report to the Missionary Training Center on January 10, 2018.”
His call had finally come!
– – – – –
As our car started the gentle incline toward the underground parking garage, my son blurted out, “There’s ________!” He rolled down his window and yelled out to his friend who was sitting outside with her companion. Right before we went under, she yelled out, “Welcome to the MTC, Elder!”
There really is no place in the world like the MTC, and here he was being welcomed into its electric spiritual energy field by someone he knew. What a tender mercy for us all! He was giddy as he rolled the window back up as we turned the corner into the dark parking garage.
– – – – –
December 12, 2017
Dr. Jaw Specialist saw my boy for what we thought was the final check-up before his mission. We found out his arthritis relapsed; he needs some kind of new treatment to stabilize his jaw, and that will take another 5-6 months. To say this was devastating news is an understatement. We all had to process it in our own way.
But my dad’s impression closely mirrored my own: There must be something about the timing here. God is at work. My heart was broken for my son, but I did feel an underlying (if not perplexed) peace.
When I dropped my son off back at school, we had a long talk in the car. There were a lot of things we discussed, but one of the things I will never forget was this:
“Mom, I realized that I had two choices. I could either turn away from God, or I can turn towards Him. I choose towards.”
He had already made phone calls. Once again, he was hustling to reapply to school, find a vacant space in housing (he ended up in his same hall!), and sign up for classes. He also found work quickly, as his budget had only allowed for one semester of school. The rest was tucked away in his mission fund.
He was in for another amazing semester, with so many blessings, opportunities, and friendships that enriched his life. We never would have planned it this way, but I’m sure that over time, he and we will come to appreciate all the more what goodness God was up to.
– – – – –
“You have three minutes,” the elderly MTC volunteer said, without much of a smile. (That must not be a fun job. Not fun at all.)
Fortunately, we were ready for the abruptness of this goodbye. Had we had a stopwatch pointed on us, I would dare say that we came very close to our time limit. It almost felt like a challenge, a game. UnpackTheBags, SnapThePhotos, and then, (breathe) DoTheHugs. In three minutes, flat?! Bring it on!
His missionary host was right there to help with the bags, my dad did what he does best with the photos. My son gave me a short hug and a sweet kiss on the cheek, and then I watched as he quickly hugged his tearful sisters and his grandparents.
– – – –
June 20, 2018
It didn’t quite register in my tired brain when I woke up to the news. “Mom, the blood test came back positive.” What? He’d had no symptoms of which he was aware; the only reason he got the test is because his sister had been diagnosed. It is customary to get immediate family members tested, so after he and his youngest sister were out of school, I took them to get the obligatory blood draw. But none of us expected anything like this to come of it.
Celiac disease is not an uncommon problem (nor an unmanageable one), but with the combination of everything with his arthritis, we just weren’t sure where things would stand with this news. He made a couple of phone calls to people in the missionary system, and everything looked good, but given everything we’d gone through, we still had that nagging fear: What if things were delayed, again?
My son took a very long walk that night. I didn’t talk to him afterwards (I just wanted to give him space). But I’m pretty sure I know at least part of what was going on during that walk.
“I realized that I had two choices. I could either turn away from God, or I can turn towards Him. I choose towards.”
I could have used a long walk that night! But it just so happens that I was in Mosiah 28 in my personal Book of Mormon reading. (Truth be told, I was behind where I should have been in my reading. But as is not uncommon, I was actually right where I needed to be in my reading. God is so, so good.)
Now it came to pass that after the sons of Mosiah had done all these things, they took a small number with them and returned to their father…and desired of him that he would grant unto them that they might…go up to the land of Nephi that they might preach the things which they had heard, and that they might impart the word of God….
And it came to pass that they did plead with their father many days that they might go up to the land of Nephi. (Mosiah 28:1, 5, emphasis added)
I’d never noticed this “many days” thing before, probably because I had never been a parent facing the fears that can come with sending a child off into missionary service. I felt a kinship with Mosiah. I felt his human side in this moment, not just the fearless prophet or king we usually focus on. I felt like God was saying it was okay to have fears. It was normal. It was okay to wrestle with these questions when you just aren’t sure what should happen. It’s okay to feel protective of your children. Of course, Mosiah also felt a deep love for the gospel, as do I. That was a given for me. But there were just too many feelings to sort through, too much at stake.
I wanted to be willing to do whatever was right. If he needed to stay home longer, then we would do that. But oh, how I didn’t want him to have to go through that, again. Watching him head out on his late-night walk, shoulders and head down, hurt my heart so much. But my own shoulders were feeling heavy with the weight of anxiety in the face of uncertainty.
I felt like God answered the questions deep in my momma heart.
And king Mosiah went and inquired of the Lord if he should let his sons go up among the Lamanites to preach the word.
And the Lord said unto Mosiah: Let them go up, for many shall believe on their words, and they shall have eternal life; and I will deliver thy sons…. [Mosiah 28:7-8, emphasis added]
Two days later, I was in the hospital with my son while he got an endoscopy to confirm what the blood test had already revealed. He now had an official diagnosis to carry with him…into the mission field. Those assigned to support him on the other side of goodbye were ready to help him forward. It was time for me to let him go.
– – – –
I confess. In that short three minutes in the MTC parking garage, as we hustled to get him on his way (you’ve been warned, future missionary parents: three minutes!**), I sneaked in another hug (a mother’s prerogative, I think). Then I stood off to the side as I watched him turn and walk alongside his host missionary, away from us.
He didn’t look back.
**The people in front of us took, er, longer than three minutes. (This is not easy, folks, so go easy on them). But let me warn you future missionary parents once more: While we waited to leave the parking garage (and yes, we were anxious to leave that dark place), it looked like the somberish, yellow-jacketed, elderly volunteer was about to be upstaged by a uniformed security/police officer. The three-minute business is serious. Just sayin.’
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This post doesn’t capture all the details of the ins and outs and ups and downs of our pre-MTC journey, including his sister’s diagnosis of jaw arthritis in December that actually unlocked the knowledge about the right treatment for this condition (how we didn’t get that information before December is yet another puzzle, that only “God’s timing” as an answer can solve to our satisfaction).
Also not mentioned above was his dad’s international business trip that he had to schedule before we had a new date for our son’s mission departure. I asked my parents to be there with me since my husband could not be. (Note to missionary moms — don’t be alone on dropoff day. My parents’ company made all the difference in the world for me, especially after I came home to an empty house, as my daughters had places to go.)
It’s all been such a roller coaster. But honestly, I was a bit surprised to wake up the next day and realize I’m so happy to be on this side of the waiting and wondering. I miss my son; his absence is palpable, and to be sure, there is an ache in my momma heart. Love and loss cannot be separated. And believe you me, I can’t wait for his first Monday letter [today]!
But he has looked forward to this day since he was a very young boy. He is where he wants to be, where we want him to be, and where God wants him to be. So the ache is buffered by the joy and gratitude of a dream finally coming to fruition.
Some may think members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are crazy to let their children go off for 18-24 months like this. The reason we do it is because the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ means that much to us. Not unlike Hannah of old, we choose to give our children back to God so they can teach others about Him — and experience what it means to consecrate themselves to Him. When we give ourselves to God, as a previous prophet, Ezra Taft Benson said, “He can make a lot more out of our lives than we can.”
I also wanted to share a little of what it’s like for missionaries in a Missionary Training Center, for those who aren’t familiar with it (or for Mormon youth or parents wondering what training for a mission looks and feels like). Take a look at the following video exploring the new Provo MTC, or read more about Missionary Training Centers all over the world (some current details may differ slightly from the time of printing of the article).
I have to say that the new additions to the Provo MTC are incredible. I was able to help with and take a tour last year before it was dedicated and put into operation. I’m excited for my son that he gets to experience this new MTC.
Several times since Wednesday, I have tried to picture what my boy might be doing during the day. I breathe and try to remember a little of what I felt that day I started my journey as a missionary nearly 25 years ago.
Godspeed, my dear son. I love you so very much.