On the plane, Crouch told me he was going to miss me. “I’ve never had a companion I felt as close to as I do to you.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” I said. I really hadn’t felt close to him at all but had done my best to get along.
I got off the plane when we landed, while Crouch continued on to Santa Cruz. I took a cab to the office missionaries’ house, where Benita greeted me like a returning son.
“You look really good,” she said. “Much better than the last time I saw you.
It was true. I had regained most of the weight I’d lost since arriving in Bolivia, and I was in better shape than I had been before my mission. And laying out on the roof of the house had given me a pretty good tan.
Almost immediately I noticed that with the sudden change in altitude and climate my skin felt really dry and itchy. I had been in very humid conditions for months, and now I was in a dry mountain valley. My voice also started getting scratchy.
I borrowed the Land Cruiser to take my brown suit to the dry cleaners. Since it was a wool blend, I hadn’t worn it at all in El Beni, but it had hung in the closet, unused. When I took it off the hanger to pack in my suitcase, I saw that it was covered with blotches of mold, inside and out. Somehow I ended up at the same dry cleaners where Hermana Thomas and I had picked up her dress several months before. In some ways it felt like a lifetime ago when that had happened, but now I was going home.
While I was out, I ran into Grolsch, my MTC companion. We ended up going to lunch and doing a little souvenir shopping, which was hard since I only had $20 left to my name.
“Do you believe the church is true?” Grolsch asked me over saltenas at lunch.
“Yes, I do,” I said. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t.”
“I’ve been praying to know it’s true ever since we left, and I’ve never gotten an answer.” He looked away, at the wall, a real sadness coming over his face. “I think … I mean … I don’t think it’s really true.”
How could this be happening? Everyone agreed that Grolsch had from the beginning been one of the most dedicated and hardworking missionaries, and he, like me, had volunteered for an extra six months in the mission. But here he was telling me he didn’t believe in what we had been teaching.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and it will all work out.”
“I wish I could believe that,” he said. “By the way, I have an extra bed in my hotel room, and I’d really like it if you stayed with me tonight.”
“Oh, no, thanks,” I said. “My stuff is all over at the office house, and the cook is making me a special dinner tonight. I really can’t.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang out with him, anyway. Maybe I should have.
That evening Benita cooked a large batch of enchiladas, and I ate way too much. I asked her if I could send her anything she needed from the US when I got home.
“Well, you can’t good cinnamon here,” she said. I promised I’d send her a box of cinnamon from home.
That night I slept on the couch in the living room, and before I went to bed, I knelt down at the side of the couch and poured my soul out to God. “I’ve given thee these two years as an offering,” I said. “And I need to know if my sacrifice is acceptable to thee.”
I thought of all the stupid mistakes, the wasted time, and the times I broke the rules. I wondered just how much of those two years I had really given to God, and I felt ashamed.
I pleaded for forgiveness and asked that my offering, imperfect as it was, be accepted. By this time the edge of the couch was wet with my tears, and I was feeling like I had failed in my mission.
But I remembered some of the good things, the people I had met, and the friendship of companions, and it made me feel better.
In the end, I said out loud these words: “Heavenly Father, I know that these two years haven’t been perfect. I haven’t always done what I should have, and I haven’t always been the kind of missionary I should have been. But I can’t change what I have done. My mission is what it is, and I hope that you will accept it.”
I got off my knees and lay on the couch, feeling more resigned than anything, but at least I wasn’t ashamed anymore.
In the morning I headed over to the mission office for my final interview with President Nichols.
“Well, Elder Johnny-cat, you’re going home,” he said, smiling. “How do you feel?”
“Pretty good,” I said truthfully, my voice even hoarser than the day before. “I know I haven’t done everything right, but I know I did the best I could.”
“I know you did,” President Nichols said. “You’ve been a good missionary, and we will miss you very much.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
He asked me if I was still worthy to hold a temple recommend, and I said I was. He handed me a signed recommend with my name on it.
He said that he had only one piece of advice to give: “Make sure you find a woman you don’t just want to go to the temple with; make sure she wants to go to heaven with you.”
I promised him I would.
“We’re running behind, so I’m sorry but I have to cut this short.”
We knelt together, and he prayed that God would bless me in my righteous desires. And that was it. He hugged me, and then I went out into the lobby to wait.
At the president’s house, we had a large dinner, and Sister Nichols cried when she said goodbye to me. “You were always one of my favorites,” she said. I was going to miss both of them.
The president’s assistants loaded the luggage onto the rack on the Land Cruiser, and we piled in. I had driven that route so many times, but it would be my last. When we arrived at the airport, a woman named Dunia, whom I had baptized nearly a year before, stood on the sidewalk, waiting.
She gave me several presents: a cassette of Tarija singer Enriqueta Ulloa, some homemade cookies, and a woven sash embroidered with “Cochabamba” on it.
“You really changed my life,” she said, wiping away tears.
“You’ve changed mine,” I replied. “More than you know.”
We were late getting to the airport, so the new travel secretary put all the luggage on the scales, and then we all had to pay an equal share of the excess baggage fee. I had carefully packed so that mine would not be overweight because I was down to my last ten dollars. Two of the welfare hermanas had huge wicker baskets full of souvenirs, so when it was all divided up, we had to pay ten dollars apiece. I was now officially penniless.
Since we were late, we had to run for the plane. I said a quick goodbye to Dunia and then walked as quickly as I could across the tarmac and onto the plane. As I put on my seatbelt, I heard over the PA system a song by Los Kjarkas that I had not heard in quite a while:
Sol de los Andes…
Vuelvo a mi tierra morena
a labrar sus sueños junto a su mañana
I was already crying when I put my bag in the overhead bin.
“What’s your problem?” asked the missionary sitting next to me.
“Nothing, it’s just a hard day for me,” I said.
“Not for me,” he said. “I can’t wait to get home. Want a valium?”
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, we bought some valium so we could sleep on the plane home,” he explained.
No, I didn’t want any valium. He and the guy on the other side of me both took their pills and were soon asleep. I sat on that plane and thought about everything that had happened and wondering what my life would be like when I got home. I had no idea.
We stopped in Santa Cruz, and I had dinner with Dannelly in an airport cafeteria. The shack that had been the airport when I had arrived two years earlier had been replaced by a gleaming, modern, air-conditioned airport.
“Is it weird knowing you’re going home?” Dannelly asked. He would be leaving in a few months.
“No, not really. It feels like it’s time to go home.” My voice was really hoarse by then, but I didn’t really care.
I told him I’d find us an apartment in Provo, as we were going to room together at BYU. Then I gave him a hug and got back on the plane.
In the middle of the night the plane began to descend, and I looked out the window to see the moon reflected in a large body of water. Something wasn’t right. There shouldn’t be that much water in the jungle. It turned out it was the Amazon, and we were landing in Manaus, where we were shepherded into a small glass enclosure for “in transit” passengers. An armed soldier stood guard, and our only company in the cramped room was a woman selling cold Orange Crush. As there were no chairs in the room, we stood for nearly an hour before the soldier unlocked the door and let us get back on the plane.
Once again we stopped in Caracas, and I remembered thinking how easy it would be to just disappear. But why would I want to do that?
We were late getting to Miami, and a computer problem delayed us even more, and we literally had to sprint across the terminal to catch the plane that would take us home. I sat in my seating, out of breath and sweating, just as they closed the door for takeoff. We stopped again in New Orleans and changed planes in Denver. At each place we got strange looks from just about everyone. Most of us did look a little threadbare and tired. But I didn’t care. I was going home.
The plane began descending just as we crossed the mountains separating the high desert from Los Angeles. Past the mountains, the valleys looked like they had been filled with a gray-brown soup, but it was just winter smog.
When we landed I looked out the window of the plane to see my parents and my two younger brothers standing at the window, looking for me.
I stepped out of the plane and onto the top stair. This was going to be a big moment. They could see me now. I took a step forward and tripped on some kind of electric cord, stumbling down three or four steps before desperately grabbing the rail to keep myself from falling into the people ahead of me.
As I came through the door, my mother hugged me and said, “Oh, you look so gaunt. You’ve lost so much weight. I’m so glad you’re home.”
“I love you, Mom,” I tried to say, hugging her more tightly than I could remember. But I had almost completely lost my voice.
“And you’re sick, too!” she said, hugging me even more tightly.
My dad was looking a little misty-eyed and neglected, so I hugged him, too, and told him I loved him.
My brother Danny just laughed and said, “Nice entrance, John. You almost fell on your face on those stairs.”
I was home. Dad snapped a whole lot of pictures of me and the other two missionaries, and then we got in the car to go home.
At home, I showered and changed into a t-shirt and jeans and then sat down on the couch to talk to my parents about my mission experience. A few minutes in, I had a major brown-out and had to go shower again.
I knew my life wasn’t going to be same as it was before.