He looks like Mister Bean, I thought.
The first time I saw Elder Fowler had been at a zone conference a few months before. He didn’t quite fit in with the other elders, and I think he liked it that way. He was a big man, around 6’4” and 280 pounds or so, with a strange face that he frequently contorted into bizarre facial expressions purposefully. He had the standard missionary gear on, white shirt and tie, slacks, and black shoes, but he wore characteristic ties, with bizarre patterns or obscure cartoon characters on them. During that first meeting, while the other missionaries ate sandwiches and chatted with each other, Elder Fowler sat over in the corner solo, blowing bubbles from a pink container, like a child would in a park. No one really interacted with him because, well, he was blowing bubbles.
I had been in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for two months when I got the call that Elder Free would be leaving and Elder Fowler would be my new companion. My brain scanned itself, remembering the bizarre bubble-blowing, and I felt a sense of dread come over me. Living with a person like Fowler would not be easy. I had no idea what I was in for.
Living with a companion was difficult. We shared the apartment, the car, even the bedroom. We weren’t allowed alone time, ever, except to shower. Sharing space with someone like that, with no breaks, was trying even when perfectly suited for each other, but living with someone that was difficult to be around, with no breaks, with no reprieve, with no recreation… I knew I was in for a major challenge.
The first day in our apartment, Elder Fowler entered the apartment singing show tunes. He opened a bag, calling it his Mary Poppins bag (Mary Poppins was his personal hero) and removed a series of bizarre items that he placed around the apartment, things he would use ritualistically every day thereafter. He had a stuffed winged bat that he hung from the ceiling over his bed that he kissed good night before bed, three purple ceramic hippopotamus figures that matched the small plastic purple hippopotamus he wore on a string around his neck, a collection of cooking supplies (like a rolling pin and cookie cutters) that he would use to make elaborate baked breakfasts every morning (stuffed French toast, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, and thick pancakes), a small CD player that he played Disney soundtracks on, and a large bottle of bubble bath.
Elder Fowler was impossible to talk to. He avoided basic questions about himself, constantly engaged in banter that proved impossible to respond to, and he burst out singing frequently. He blew bubbles while he walked, made the Catholic sign of the cross (father/son/Holy Ghost) before opening any door (and he opened a lot of doors), tried doing terrible magic tricks for strangers, and had a laugh that ranged over several octaves in just a few strained breaths. He was generally silly, not happy but silly, and on a few evenings per week he would lock himself in the bathroom for a bubble bath, during which I could hear him splashing and singing. I looked forward to his bubble baths as they were the only breaks I had from him.
I was determined early on to be a good companion for Fowler. He casually mentioned how his other companions had teased him before this, and how he had a difficult time fitting in, and I certainly knew how that felt. Toward the end of our companionship, two months later, he soberly mentioned how he hadn’t counted on that aspect of missionary work, confiding how he had not fit in with peers most of his life and he had hoped that would go away on his mission, but how instead it had only intensified, leaving him more isolated and lonely. I grew to admire how much effort he put into being an individual. He was almost definitely gay and struggling to change, just the way I was, and I empathized with him there, too. And so I was determined to be the nice guy, which meant no criticism, no telling him to change, no rude comments or angry looks. And I succeeded, every hour of every day, clenching my stomach tightly every time he made the sign-of-the-cross, every time he kissed the bat good night, and every time he had a conversation with his purple hippopotamus necklace.
Outside of the bizarre complexities of Elder Fowler, missionary work remained much the same, but with shocking twists that constantly tested my patience. We knocked on doors like usual, trying to find people to teach the gospel to. Fowler had unique approaches. When a stranger answered the door, instead of introducing ourselves, he would use a fake thumb with a hanky stuffed in it or a few face cards to try and grab attention with a poorly executed magic trick. At other doors, he would hold his pointer and pinky fingers up in the air, and use his other three fingers extended out from his hand to form a mouth. He would then talk through this strange hand puppet, flapping his fingers and thumb together as he spoke in a high pitched voice from the side of his mouth. “Hi there, I’m Elder Chihuahua of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints! We want to teach you!” When the person inevitably closed the door in our faces, Fowler would drop the pointer and pinky fingers straight down and make a dog’s whiny noise, indicating his disappointment.
After several weeks, Fowler began to relax around me a bit, letting his facade of strangeness drop from time to time. The weather grew colder as he grew warmer, opening up about his life a bit more. In the early days, when I asked questions about him, he would either avoid them or directly refuse to answer. Over time, he began telling me about his childhood in Arizona, about his father leaving when he was a kid, about his mother’s struggles to make end’s meet.
One night, as we hit light’s out time, after he kissed his stuffed bat and climbed into bed, he lay down in the dark and asked if he could share something personal with me.
“This isn’t something I share with many people,” Fowler said, serious, his voice low. “When my mother was working at her job while she was pregnant with me, she became very sick and weak and she fell. When she woke up, an angel came to visit her, and it was the angel who told her to name me. A lot of people assume my first name comes from the Bible, but it is actually not in the Bible. I’ve never heard of anyone else having my first name. Anyway, the angel told her that I had a great destiny in my future, and sometimes I don’t know what that means for me, but it’s a lot of the reason I chose to come on a mission, because I’m supposed to do something really amazing. I know it sounds a little crazy, but it is really special to me.”
As he drifted off to sleep, I sat thinking of my own upbringing, similar in many ways. My mother had talked at times of Heavenly visions, had told me I had a destiny to save souls, and I too had wondered why I didn’t fit with those around me, wondering if my destiny somehow caused me to be set apart from others. I felt a strange kinship with Fowler that night, isolated and divinely inspired all at once, and I wondered if we were more the same than we were different. Then I heard him whispering good night to his purple hippo again and instead clenched my ulcer tightly.