After I had showered the second time, my mom asked me if she could get anything for me.
“Yeah, I could really use a Coke.” I had been drinking two to three liters of Coke a day in El Beni, and I hadn’t had any for more than 24 hours.
“All right,” she said. “We have to do some shopping this afternoon, so we’ll get some then.”
We went back to talking about my mission, with me showing pictures and the few small souvenirs I had brought home.
“Can we get that Coke now?” I asked.
“Sure, just a minute,” Mom said and asked me about a quena I had brought home.
“Can I have the car keys?” I asked. I really needed a Coke.
That evening the stake president came to our house and formally “released” me from my missionary service. He said that everyone was very proud of me for serving so honorably. And then he left. I was just me again, no longer Elder Williams, missionary.
At church on Sunday, it was testimony meeting, meaning that anyone who wanted to could get up and speak from the pulpit. I still had a really hoarse voice, but I told them how happy I was to be home and how much I had appreciated the letters I had received over the last two years.
I was wearing a sweater Benita, our cook in Cochabamba, had knitted for me, mostly because it made me look heavier, but people still told me I looked gaunt and unhealthy. And since I could barely speak, everyone assumed I’d picked up some horrible disease in Bolivia.
As part of the homecoming process, I had to go to doctor and get some specific tests for parasites and tuberculosis. Before I left Bolivia, I had taken a couple of doses of worm and amoeba medicines and had taken a stool sample to a lab, so I knew I was “clean.” I sat there in my temple garments, which by that time were worn through and a light orange color, wondering if I had done any permanent damage to my body. The only concerns the doctor had were a large cyst on my back and a smaller one on my nose, which he said would have to come off.
I was a little more worried about the dentist. Having seen Bolivian dentistry, I had avoided the dentist completely for two years, and I was sure my mouth would be full of cavities. But the dentist found no problems and no cavities, so I was mightily relieved. I really hate dentists.
Greg came over, and we went out for a Coke and sat in my dad’s car talking for a long time. He had been home almost six months, having opted out of the six-month extension.
“Why didn’t you stay?” I asked.
“My mission president found out that I was good with ‘problem’ missionaries, so I spent almost a year babysitting people he had trouble dealing with. I would have stayed, but I knew it would be six more months of babysitting. I just couldn’t do it.”
His parents had traveled to Finland to pick him up, and they had traveled around Europe together for a couple of weeks. He had spent Fall semester at church-owned Ricks College in Idaho, and he would be going back in a couple of days.
“I don’t think I could have handled Bolivia,” he said. “You guys went through some serious shit.”
“Yeah, but you guys didn’t teach or baptize,” I said. “I don’t think I could have handled that.”
“Oh, who cares, anyway?” he said. “We both got through it, and we’re back.”
He started telling me about his girlfriend, a girl from Indiana he’d met in school, and I found myself wishing I had someone like that to come home to. I had completely shut off all thoughts of girls while I was gone, and that week, it felt like two years’ worth of pent-up hormones had come spilling out of me. I was having all kinds of trouble keeping my thoughts “clean”; not even singing a church hymn helped.
By Sunday I was berating myself for being such a lustful man, but it was time to give my official report to the high council, a group of twelve local leaders, all men of course.
I gave them a brief overview of all my areas and told them a few highlight stories. For some reason, it felt really natural as a returned missionary to sugar-coat the experience. Not once did I mention having a suicidal companion or nearly getting killed or even the living conditions. I just talked about the Bolivian people and how it had been my privilege to bring the gospel to them.
All through my report, I was thinking that they could all see through the façade. They knew that I was a boiling cauldron of lust who was unworthy to stand before them like that.
When I finished, all of them shook my hand, and one of them, his voice quavering, said, “I haven’t felt the Spirit so strongly in a long time. You must really have been a wonderful missionary.”
The shame burned inside of me, and I excused myself and walked out.
My homecoming address at church was a bit of a mess. President Nichols had always said, “Don’t give them a travelogue. Preach the gospel.” So that’s what I planned to do. I chose as the subject the Atonement of Jesus Christ, meaning His sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
When I arrived, I saw on the program that I was the only speaker. The bishop had wanted me to plan the meeting and choose the speakers, but I had never gotten the message, so I was it. That meant that I would have at least 35 minutes at the pulpit alone. This was a problem, since I had prepared for only 15 minutes.
The bishop’s counselor, who was the father of my friend Rob, introduced me by reading the letter President Nichols had written. It was pretty much a form letter listing the areas where I had worked and the leadership positions I had held.
“John’s mission president has written something in the margin that I’d like to read,” he said. “‘How we love this young man! He will always be a son to us,'” he read, and I was suddenly overcome with emotion just before I was to speak. I managed to pull myself together and step to the podium.
I had my voice back by then, and I talked about Jesus and what He had done for us. When I finished my talk, I looked at the clock and realized that I had more than twenty minutes, so I gave them a travelogue, describing the towns I worked in and the spiritual experiences I had. I finished ten minutes early (Dad was grateful), and it was over.
I got a job the first week back at a gas station out in Moorpark, working for the same man I’d worked for when I was a teenager. I sat in a bulletproof glass booth at a self-serve station. It made me feel isolated, but then I was pretty isolated everywhere else, too.
I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Social situations were totally awkward, and I could barely force myself to talk to women. My bishop told me I should attend the singles ward, so I did. But it wasn’t any better there. I would sit in church on Sundays in a panic, feeling totally ill at ease.
“You look really lost,” said Jon, a guy from my home ward. He was the stake president’s son and had recently returned from a mission in Arkansas.
“Yeah, kind of.”
“That’s pretty typical, but you get over it.” He smiled.
From that Sunday on, Jon sat with me in church and introduced me to people, inviting me to activities and parties, to the point at which I felt like I was sort of normal again.
I would be heading to BYU again in a few weeks, and I was glad to feel like Bolivia was behind me.