Betty and Banana: raising very different kids

“I had a nightmare about princesses,” A, my six-year old son recently told me. He had a look of haunted exhaustion on his face, like if he heard one more word about princesses he might just give up on life completely.

A prefers monsters. Like the character Hagrid from Harry Potter, he finds the most ferocious creatures to the be the most worthy of his love. The more fangs, or claws, or poison sacs, or dragon wings, or spiky dinosaur ridges, or lava-spewing pustules the better. Lately, he’s had a particular affinity for the two-foot tall white-furred ferocious yeti that he received on his birthday. That day, he spent hours letting the yeti defeat each one of his super hero toys in turn, then the heroes returned for more rounds in greater numbers, yet the yeti stood triumphant in the end.

I recently came across a video of A when he was three. In it, he looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes while he lovingly pets the spiky back of a green T-Rex.

“His name is Terminus,” he says when I ask him. “He eats mommy snakes, baby snakes, and one spider.” When I ask him if Terminus has any friends, he tells me, “No. He ate all his friends.”

Terminus lined the toy shelf for years next to A’s other favorites, with names varying from Apples Juice to Ocean to Shrug. He always chose names out of the blue, but the names always stuck. But it wasn’t just dinosaurs, it was tigers, rhinos, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and man-animal mutated hybrids of any kind. They soared and swooped through the house unendingly, A always perfecting their roars.

Yet A had nightmares of princesses. I read between the lines, hearing him say that he had nightmares of girl toys and girl things, anything less than roaring and horrid beasts that devoured anything before them. To him, princesses were sweet and pink and they sang songs and wanted to kiss boys, all terrible things that, to him, were much more frightening than a monster.

Yet A’s older brother, J, age 8, prefers princesses. Even as a baby, he reached for toys that would be considered more nurturing, like baby dolls, soft rabbits, and cute mice. More recently, he’s had a slight obsession with horses, and girls who ride them shooting arrows. He’s always been thrilled at the small and innocent being able to be the most powerful of all, saving the world against impossible odds and perhaps falling in love along the way.

Several months before, I had purchased him a collection of child versions of the Disney Princess toys, and, in order to make the set something the boys would play together, we endowed each princess with her own super power, so they could band together to form the Princess Patrol and fight evil. Belle was the leader and was super smart, Cinderella could make boys fall in love with her, Pocahontas was a natural hunter and tracker, Mulan knew kung-fu, Snow White could control animals, and Ariel was a super fast swimmer. There were 11 of them in all, and the boys took them on a myriad of adventures before the princesses, like every other toy for children these days, ended up on the bottom of the toy box because a new toy was receiving all of the attention.

My sons are being raised by a gay dad and a straight mom in two households, and we are a united front when it comes to parenting. Rather than enforcing any sort of gender or cultural norms, we have always let our sons just be themselves. We encourage kindness, fair play, honesty, teamwork, sharing, and listening, but we have never tried to change their interests. And for years now, their styles of play have melded together seamlessly, monsters fighting alongside princesses, instead of against each other. Just the other day, the giant yeti was helping to protect the little girl’s horse farm they had set up in the backyard, and all helped in the attacks against them. (I often play the villains).

Lately, I’ve been encouraging creative thinking and teamwork skills between my sons while embracing their individual play styles. I sat them before me, telling them they were going on an epic quest.

“You will be the Mystical Monkeys,” I told them. “Please select your names.”

J, excitedly wringing his hands, couldn’t pick one. “I, um, oh gosh, I don’t–um, I choose, um–”

“Speed it along, son.”

“Okay, I’m Betty!”

“And I’m Banana!” A followed.

And so the adventures of Betty and Banana, the Mystical Monkeys, began. They were each given one super power, passive powers I chose to encourage thinking. Betty was granted the power to change the color of anything, and Banana to turn invisible for a few seconds at a time. They retrieved a magic coconut from a treetop after fighting off an army of tarantulas (though A called them “try-ranch-ulas”) before swimming across a sea full of kissing mermaids. After a series of quests, Betty could then grow rabbit ears to jump high, and A developed a fire fist and a rock fist. They braved the Valley of the Stone Trolls, unscrambled the words to a magic spell, and entered a cave to answer riddles from a witch.

As they fell asleep, I contemplated their intersecting worlds. Dinosaurs and bunnies, super heroes and little girls, poisonous snakes and brave ponies. Betty and Banana. Their three baskets of toys overflowed, signs that they are well-loved and a bit spoiled, with both vampires and fairy queens, yet they both slept, breathing the same air heavily.

Every parent wants to give their child what they didn’t have. For me, that means raising my sons with a strong sense of identity, asking nothing more from them than to be exactly who they are and to know that they are loved.

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Pill-Popper

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“So it’s chronic pain that brings you in?”

Dr. Mary looked up from her clipboard, a smile on her face. She tapped a pen against her chin as she listened.

“Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The pain levels are worst in the mornings. And then I sit for my job most of the day, so the pain just kind of intensifies throughout the day. It gets better a little bit when I move around. But definitely worse in the mornings.”

“Hm. And where do you tend to notice the pain most? And rate it on a scale from 1 to 10.”

I shifted my weight, hearing the rustle of the paper that lined the raised seat in the doctor’s office. “In the mornings, I’m stiff and sore from the scoliosis. I get back head aches and neck aches, and my back is really rigid and achy. More like a 6 to 8. Then after I eat and shower, it gets a little bit better, closer to like a 4.”

Dr. Mary jotted a few notes down. “And what helps to relieve the pain?”

“I usually take a few Ibuprofen in the morning, and a few more in the afternoon. That helps. And food and eating seem to help for some reason. Sometimes I use a heating pad on it.”

“What are your food habits?”

I clicked meals off on my fingers. “On a typical day, I’ll eat two bowls of cereal for breakfast plus a few slices of toast with peanut butter and a glass of orange juice. For lunch, maybe a hamburger and French fries, with maybe chips and a cookie. I’ll snack on a bag of microwave popcorn and a liter of Pepsi at work, and the caffeine helps the headache. And then dinner is variable. Maybe Little Caesers, or my wife might cook roast and potatoes and chocolate cake, it just depends on the night.”

Dr. Mary had me step up on the scale. I was 30 years old, I was 5 feet 11 inches tall, and I weighed 245 pounds.

“You’re a little overweight,” she said, when the truth was I was obese. “I think you might also be struggling with some depression. Between your job doing therapy for others, your Church callings, and your responsibilities at home with your wife and baby boy, I could understand that.”

As she tapped the pen against her chin a few more times, thinking through ideas, I wondered if there was anything she could do to help me. I felt like a shell of myself. I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t like myself, and my marriage was beginning to feel a bit empty, a routine of church service and watching the DVR. Because of my weight, I was constantly out of breath and sweating all the time. I didn’t have any close friends, and I had just become accustomed to pretending I wasn’t attracted to men. Depression was definitely part of the picture.

“Okay, Chad, here’s what I think we are going to do,” she muttered while scrawling down a few things on a prescription pad. She was silent until she finished, then Dr. Mary looked up at me, the smile back on her face. “Trust me, I think this is going to help.”

Over the next few minutes, Dr. described the regiment of pills she was going to put me on. “I want you to start taking Cymbalta. It’s an anti-depressant. It should help your mood and your sleep. There can be weird side effects at first, some people feel electric buzzes in their brain at the beginning but it goes away, and it can result in more weight gain, but I think it will help.

“I’d also like you to begin a regimen of painkillers every two hours throughout the day. We’re going to go up to the maximum dose on those. Now, the warning labels scare some people off, but you can actually take a bit over that dose when necessary. But we are going to tackle this from two different directions. You can take up to 500 milligrams of Tylenol every four hours, and up to 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen every four hours. So I figure if you take the Ibuprofen with food and water when you wake up, say at 6, then at 8 you can take the Tylenol, and at 10 you can take more Ibuprofen, and you can alternate that schedule throughout the day. You don’t have to do this every day, but it will help on the difficult days.”

My eyes widened as she presented me with three prescriptions, for Cymbalta, for Ibuprofen, and for Tylenol, all prescription level doses that would have to picked up through a pharmacist. She told me that I might expect some digestion issues based on the high doses of Ibuprofen, and that the meds could cause long term liver and kidney problems, but that those weren’t things I needed to worry about for now.

And then Dr. Mary left, and I sat in the room for a moment, stunned. Pills. Lots of pills. An anti-depressant, multiple painkillers, and multiple anti-inflammatories every day. Would that help my headaches? Although I hadn’t had a clear agenda going in, I was a therapist by trade. My doctor had just diagnosed me with depression in a swift paragraph, yet she hadn’t recommended going to a counselor, and hadn’t asked me any questions. She’d noted that I was overweight, but she hadn’t recommended a diet or even limiting food, or exercise, or more regular physical activity.

Just… pills.

A few hours later, I had a new bag of pill bottles in my car. I sat outside the pharmacist and I placed my first Cymbalta pill on my tongue, swallowing it with a swig of Pepsi, then I did the same with the large chalky Ibuprofen. A few days later, the electric zaps in my brain that she’d mentioned would start, and the stomach issues would follow. My head aches and body aches grew numb with the pills, but they never went away. Within a few weeks, I needed the pills to feel normal, the pain intensifying without them. And within a few months, I gained another 10 pounds.

Before I quit the pills cold turkey, just three months later, I felt my depression get worse. The decision to quit the pills and replace them with nutrition, exercise, and therapy came suddenly.

But for that time before that change, I was just a typical American, as fat on the outside as I felt on the inside, and using pills to numb the pain.

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Dynamite, Napolean

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“Chad, listen, I booked us a room in Preston, Idaho! You can’t say no, it’s been on my bucket list for like ten years!”

Sheri sounded far too excited. She was flying out for a week in Idaho and Utah to visit family a few days later, and I planned to pick he up from the airport before driving her up north. But apparently she’d made us plans already.

I was skeptical. “Preston, Idaho? Why Preston? What’s in Preston?”

“That’s where they filmed Napoleon Dynamite! I love that movie!”

And so, we found ourselves in Preston, a small, picturesque town, surrounded by rolling hills and farmland. Sheri had pulled up a list of sites that she wanted to see, backdrops from the movie itself. With my children in the backseat of the car, we’d driven through the Preston streets searching for Dynamite. Sheri gave quotes from the film as we walked through the town, using Napolean’s biting sarcastic nerd whisper.

“Give me some chapstick! My lips hurt real bad!”

“You gonna eat your tots?”

“Tina, come and eat, you fat lard!”

Honestly, there was just nothing to see. The home that served as the exterior shot for Napolean’s home had a small hand-painted sign that said visitors were allowed to take photos, but there weren’t any other signs or notices. The tetherball pole stood in a schoolyard, without a ball attached. The burger joint had all kinds of fried, terrible foods, but no pictures of Napoleon inside. But Sheri was elated.

That night, Sheri navigated us to our reserved hotel room, at a little place out of town next to a local hot springs. My sons clamored out of the car, ages 8 and 6 now, clutching their packs full of toys, and entered the lobby with us. The hotel was in a state of disrepair, with tarps hanging over entire walls, holes in the carpet, and spiderwebs in corners. A 14 year old boy manned the front desk and checked us in to one of the eight rooms on site, just across from the lobby, room number two.

Number two. How appropriate, I thought.

We entered the room to find two full size beds next to each other, a television on a desk, and a large jacuzzi tub with a shower curtain next to the beds. Next to the beds. Not behind a wall, not in a separate room, but next to the beds. I wondered if this was some sort of honeymoon suite for small town folk who wanted to bathe together but not sleep together. Sheri and I made eye contact and burst out laughing. Sure enough, there was a toilet and a sink in the bathroom, with a door that closed, but the shower and jacuzzi were right there in the main room.

With our stomachs still full of tater tots, we all changed into our swimming suits and checked into the hot springs. There was one other couple there, a barrel-chested man with a large stomach who’d collapsed against the side of one of the waist-deep springs, and his buxom wife who sat on the side, feet dipped in the water, playing on her phone. There were five separate hot springs pools, but the one with the water slides was closed off and another pool was drained empty. (We soon found the teenage lifeguard, a blonde high school sophomore, basically sleeping on a bench, and she informed us that the slides were “broken”.) So we spent our time in the main springs, with the kids pretending to be Pokemon, until we were sufficiently soaked and ready to wind down for bed.

Upon our return to the hotel room, the boys were wrapped in towels and shivering. Sheri averted her eyes while J, the 8 year old, climbed into the tub, closed the curtain, and tried turning on the water. With my help, after several minutes of experimenting, we managed to get the shower turned on, but the water was freezing. I played with the knobs until the water was merely cold, but we still couldn’t find any warm or hot water. I pulled my towel back on and walked across the hall to the lobby, and found a new 14 year old working the desk, not an adult in sight.

I explained there was no hot water in the room, and he shrugged. “Yeah, that’s a problem here. I know it’s a hot springs, but there isn’t usually any hot water. Sometimes if you let the water run for 30 minutes or so it will turn hot.”

I stomped back to the room, muttering a few words about hot water being a basic amenity to be expected in a hotel room. We had cold showers.

Later that night, the kids snuggled up in their beds, and A, the 6 year old, woke me up with a shout, a nightmare he was having about someone stealing his toys. Outside, an angry cow mooed into the night sky, and I felt its pain. In the morning, I packed our bags and the toe of my foot passed underneath the bed as I moved. I pulled my foot back and found a large piece of sticky green popcorn adhered to my sock.

“Oh, that’s it,” I muttered, that small detail finally being enough to take my patience away. “We are out of here.”

We loaded our bags, returned to the car, and as the cow mooed at us again, took a family photo. We drove out of town, and I felt that our experience there had been much like the movie Napolean Dynamite itself. Amusing, but ultimately forgettable.

Not a Missionary

welcomehome

“There’s something I haven’t told you. I was mugged.”

The night I came  home from my mission, I sat with my mother and my younger sister, Sheri, who was now 18, and played cards. . I taught them a game called Idiot, one we played on the mission for hours and hours to kill time.Sheri had gently chided me for playing face cards on my mission, but I explained Idiot had been a much safer game than Risk or Strategy, games the guys in the Philadelphia mission favored because of the strategy aspects, but games which resulted in much greater arguments. Idiot had been a safe, easy game, less competitive and more fun.

We’d casually chatted while playing cads. It had felt so surreal to be home, the dog nestled in my lap, the sounds and smells of my home the same. Until the following morning, I was still a missionary, still wearing the white shirt and tie, the tag. Technically I wasn’t allowed to watch television or see movies or listen to the radio until then, although there was certainly no one there to monitor me now.

My mother looked up, concerned. “You were mugged?”

“Yeah, I never told you about it because I didn’t want you to worry. It was several months ago.” And then I told them what had happened, about the day my companion and I had been arguing, about the men who’d surrounded us, and about being punched repeatedly and knocked unconscious. The room was silent, the clock ticking behind me.

“I wish you’d told me,” my mom had said, looking down.

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

We didn’t say much more about it, returning to the cards, laughing, changing the subject a bit. My family was sometimes really good at not talking about uncomfortable topics.

A bit later, I headed down to bed, extremely thankful that Mom and Sheri were okay. Two years ago, what felt like a lifetime now, I had been so worried about leaving them, and I had asked the bishop of my ward to keep a personal eye on them. I had been the ‘man of the house’, and he’d promised me he would look after them until I got home.

I walked back into my old bedroom and everything was the same. The dog stayed at my feet, jumping up on my bed to keep my attention while I changed into a comfortable shirt and sweatpants. The same picture of Jesus hung on the wall, my ten boxes full of comic books still lined the bookshelves, the same clothes lined the closet rod. It was baffling, confusing. I lay in bed, contemplating the changes that had come over met he past few years. Two entire years had gone by. All those endless hours of study and silence, of knocking doors, of prayers, of service, of depression, of exhaustion, of tedious boredom. All the lessons, all the people, all the culture. And now I was back in stark cold Idaho potato country like nothing was different, except I was extremely different.

I turned off the lamp and felt the dog move under the covers and position herself between my knees. Snow fell outside in the night sky. It was December 14. The next few days, I would be released as a missionary, reconnect with old friends, and have a homecoming message delivered in my old ward. I’d take care of tasks like driver’s license renewal and address change, and I’d hunt for a job. In ten days, it was the Christmas festivities, all the chaos of family and food and presents and music. Then New Years. And then school would start. Life would continue moving forward, just like it had while I was gone. What would life hold for me now?

Just as I settled into sleep, I heard Mom coming down the stairs. I turned on my side, feeling the dog adjust herself underneath the covers, and pretended to be asleep as she stepped into my room.

“Chad?” she whispered. I didn’t answer. I felt empty, spent, and didn’t know how to engage anymore tonight. I felt her step close and lean forward, kissing me on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re home,” she whispered before heading back up the stairs.

It took me hours to fall asleep. I couldn’t figure out how to plan things out from here. According to the plan, I should find a woman and settle down, get married while I was going to school, and start a family. It’s the only future I knew how to plan. I’d decided on the mission, faced with so many social justice issues there, that I would major in social work, but I didn’t know what my career would be, or who I would marry. And though I had numbed those parts of myself long ago, I still knew deep down that I was attracted to men and not women, and I knew that it was incurable. The best I could do now was pretend that it was gone, and then keep on pretending. What kind of future could I build now?

Eventually I fell into a heavy slumber, and the next morning I rose. Mom made pancakes and eggs, Sheri slept late, Christmas music played on the radio station. The world was the same. I was changed, but the world was the same.

That afternoon, with a simple interview, I was released from being a missionary. I was back to being just a regular Priesthood holder. I was 21, soon to be a college student, and i had the rest of my life ahead.

During the release interview, I was asked to share the story of someone I had converted on my mission, then I was asked how I had changed and grown closer to God. I answered, by rote, but I wasn’t sure any of my conversions had stuck, and I worried that I was farther from God than before. But I answered, keeping the smile on my face where it was supposed to be, to blend in, and to hide myself in the world around me that needed me to keep being something I wasn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dog Remembered

lhasapooWhen we pulled up to the house, the dog was yapping loudly, a sentinel stationed on the back of the couch where she could see out the window. Her bark was familiar, the same anticipatory ‘oh my gosh I’m so excited my family is home they are home hooray’ bark as she jumped down the couch to the floor and back up repeatedly, pumped full of adrenaline.

“Sammy’s sure happy to see you!” Sheri, my little sister, nudged me from the back seat, and I grinned.

Mom turned off the car. “Welcome home, son.”

Two years. Two years I had been gone. I was still in my Mormon missionary clothes, and technically still a missionary, until I got a Priesthood release the following day. I’d just flown back into the Idaho Falls Airport and seen my family and friends for the first time. Now the adrenaline was wearing off again.

My house, it was the same. The same butterfly decorations were perched on the wall, the same flowerpots lined the driveway, the mailbox was dented in the same place. The pine tree we had planted was a bit bigger now. The yard was covered in snow, and the air was crisp. I got my suitcase out of the trunk and made my way to the front door.

Inside, it was the same too. It smelled like… home. Like the place I grew up. i didn’t know how to describe the smell except it was the smell of my home, my family, my adolescence. Two years had gone by, and suddenly I was assaulted by the smell of my home, and tears immediately brimmed in my eyes. The same photos hung on the walls, pictures of my siblings, one of my grandparents, one of the Mormon temple, all in the same order. My mom’s doll collection was on the back of the piano, the wallpaper remained half-finished in her bedroom, the same ceramic fish swimming toward a ceramic outhouse was on the wall in the bathroom. It was all the same. I felt a rock in my stomach. I was home.

Sammy barked violently when she realized a stranger was entering the house. Her bark shifted from an excited yapping to her guttural protective warning growl. I set my suitcase down at the bottom of the stairs and reached my hand up toward her so she could smell me. She growled, sniffed my hand.

“Hey, Sammy girl, it’s me, it’s Chad, I’m home.”

And then she remembered me.

I watched her shift from defensiveness to excitement. She jumped from the top stairs into my arms, knowing I would catch her. She scrambled in my arms, smelling my neck, licking my face, wiggling all over the place. I walked upstairs with her barely able to contain her, and then sat down. She whined and yipped, jumping out of my arms then back into them, on the floor, then up on my lap. She was bouncing and squirming everywhere, unable to stop moving. She licked and nipped and whined and barked and bounced and moved and squirmed. Over the next several minutes, tears leaked down my cheeks, and she licked them off, whining continually before finally settling down into my lap. She kept whining, a homesick pathetic sound, as she settled there, refusing to leave my lap for the next few hours. It’s like she was afraid that if she turned her head, I might be gone again.

Sammy was only six pounds. She was officially called a Lhasa Poo, a  mix between a Lhasa Apso and a toy poodle. She’d always been a needy dog, so clingy and whiny and attached. She’d follow you around the house, needing constant attention. If you were sitting, she was in your lap, and if you were walking, she was at your feet. If I was in the basement and she was hungry, she’d run all the way up to the kitchen and retrieve a single piece of food from her dish, then run back into the basement and eat the morsel in front of me before running back upstairs to get another piece. She cried inconsolably when left alone, and was always thrilled when you came back. When i was in high school, she would bed hope across the family in the order of our waking up, staying in bed with mom until she woke up, then snuggling with me until I did, then with Sheri, then finally with Kent, our step-father. She was loved, a full-fledged member of the family.

I sat on her couch in my home and rubbed her little head, thinking of how Kent had brought her home as a surprise years before. My mom hated dogs and didn’t want one, but he’d seen her as a puppy in a box at the grocery store and had picked her up on a whim. Mom had grown fond of her over time, but never liked having a dog. Kent had wanted to name her Tammy, but Mom had hated that, and we’d settled on Sammy, short for Samantha.

I moved my hand to her back, her tiny spine. She was only six pounds, a small pathetic little thing. I could still feel the place where Kent broke her ribs, the jagged edges along her back where the bones had healed improperly. She’d had major back problems ever since then, struggling on stars or with jumps on to the furniture, the injuries aging her much faster thanks he would have aged naturally. She had bad arthritis and joint stiffness now, and getting up on the tall furniture was becoming more difficult with age.

I rubbed her tummy, and remembered how Kent would try and starve her to punish us. He’d put her in the garage on freezing cold nights and told us anyone who took her food or water or who comforted her would be punished, told us that if we had been better then the dog wouldn’t have to suffer. My bedroom door was near the garage and I would hear her crying into the night. Some nights, I snuck her a blanket or food, and Kent would always catch me. Other nights, I just had to go to sleep crying.

Sammy was a loyal thing, a tiny creature who had been through as much or more than any of us in the family had before Kent left for good. My mom had sent me notes from Sammy on my mission, saying things like “Dear Chad, arf arf arf yap yap bark bark bark. Love Sammy”. Sheri’s letters would give me updates on Sammy’s tricks and interactions, and I had several photos of her in my family picture album.

I continued petting her and she melted into me, content and happy. I was home, I was here, in my house with my dog. She’d remembered me.

Clark Kent

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I waited to be the last person off the plane, building up the sense of anticipation. It was December 14, 1999, and I was officially home, my two years as a Mormon missionary complete. Now I was standing in a tiny plane on the runway of the Idaho Falls Airport, and I knew my family and many of my friends were waiting inside.

It was a surreal feeling. I was confused and elated and exhausted all at once. I grabbed my carry-on bag and walked off the plane into the dry, frigid air. It was stark, different. The humidity of Pennsylvania was gone. The Idaho air was familiar. It felt like home as it chilled me to the bone. My skin felt dry, my mouth had no moisture, and my nose hairs froze.

Two years. I hadn’t seen my family in two years. God, that had been a long two years.

I stepped through the door into the airport, and felt the oppressive heater blast me and warm me at the same time. Around the corner, they were waiting. I took a moment to collect my breath. And then I walked forward.

The room erupted in applause. Waiting at the gate (this was long before the security regulations had changed), stood my family, friends, and family friends. My mother was crying, Sheri looked shy, some friends held banners and balloons. I dropped my bag while they all still cheered and heard cameras flashing as I wrapped my mom in a tight hug. I held her there, and spoke, softly.

“Hi, Mom, I’m home.”

She clutched me there for several seconds, then I turned to hug other family members. Kara was six months pregnant, and her sons and daughter had grown immensely over the past two years. Sheri was taller and she had cut her hair short, I hardly recognized her. Many of my friends had married. Everyone looked different, felt different. I was different. Nothing was the same. I was changed.

After the initial round of hugs, while everyone was still gathered, I surprised everyone  by standing up on a nearby table, one set in between stairs in the wait area. I got confused looks, but I cleared my throat to get everyone’s attention. I flipped my tie back over my shoulder, and began to unbutton my shirt.

“Chad! What are you doing?” My mother was scandalized. But I untucked my shirt and continued unbuttoning. A confused silence settled over everyone. I undid the last few buttons on my shirt, then spread it wide open to reveal a classic blue and red Superman shirt underneath. I posed heroically, hands on hips, as the room broke out in laughter. I was Clark Kent, revealing my Superman identity to the crowd. My mom broke out in giggles, cameras flashed, and I stood, posing there for several seconds.

I had done it. I was triumphant on my return home. I was a super hero, in my own right. A flawed hero, but I had done something hard, something impossible, something I had been expected to do no matter what.

I remembered buying the Superman shirt a few months before, planning this moment.  I’d been shopping on a street in Philadelphia, coming across a comic book shop. Comic books had always represented an escape from reality for me, an ability to leave the hard things of the world behind and get lost in a fictional colorful reality of heroes and villains. I’d seen the shirt in the window and bought it straight out. It fit me well, and could hide easily underneath my shirt and tie.

I buttoned my shirt again and received another round of hugs. The large group of people moved through the small airport toward the baggage claim, where I could get my two suitcases full of missionary supplies I would never use again. I was technically still a missionary, until I received an official release the next morning. My mom clutched my arm tightly as people walked together, asking random questions, ones I barely had time to answer as more were lodged my way. The questions felt empty, inane. There were no answers for any of them, even the easy ones. They swirled around my head, thick like cotton candy, ethereal like clouds. How could I measure my feelings, my experiences? There were no answers.

“Chad, how does it feel to be home?”

“Does it feel nice to see your family?”

“Did they have snow out there like this?”

“How was your flight?”

“How does it feel to finish your mission?”

“What were your favorite parts of your mission?”

“Are they really the best two years?”

“How many people did you baptize?”

“How do you like being back in Idaho?”

“When do you start college?”

“So now that your mission is done, should we expect a wedding announcement from you soon?

“Welcome home! How do you feel? Excited to be back?”

Here was this room full of people who loved me, who supported me. It felt wonderful. It felt… weird. I’d been alone in my own skin for months, struggling with depression and pain. There was so much I hadn’t told my family. The last two years had been heavy and strange, painful and desperate. I’d kept so much to myself. And now it was all over. It was so abrupt.

I got my suitcases, and there were final goodbyes, promises that people would visit soon, invitations to lunch and movies. We walked outside to the car, the same car my mom drove before I left. I climbed in the passenger seat. Sheri was behind me, Mom next to me. We drove down familiar stretches of road, ten miles from home. It was all the same. Every house, every business, the same.

But they were different. I was different. What would my world be now?

the Flight Attendant

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The plane was only half full, so there was plenty of room to stretch out. Elder Franklin took his own row, and I took my own row behind him.

It took a bit for my tears to stop. I had just said goodbye to my entire family, and I wouldn’t be seeing them for nearly two years. It was January 1998, and I had just finished my brief training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Now I was being sent out into the missionary field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My family had gathered at the airport to bid me farewell. They stayed with me at the gate until I had to leave. Elder Franklin’s family couldn’t be there, as they were far away in California. Mom and Sheri, Kathy with her husband and six children, all in matching shirts, Susan, Kara with her kids, even Kareen and Dad had flown in from Las Vegas to surprise me. There had been lots of hugs and photos, letters handed to me, fun conversation and memories shared. And when the flight was boarding, lots of final hugs, handshakes, and kisses on cheeks. They were proud of me. I was sacrificing two full years to do missionary service. It felt wonderful to be doing the right thing, the thing that was expected.

I’d waved a final goodbye, walked around the corner to get on the plane, and burst into sobs. I was leaving everything behind. Everything I’d ever known. It was heartbreaking. But thousands of missionaries had done this before me, and I could do it now.

After the flight was safely in the air, the flight attendant walked by. She had long blonde hair, was tall and thin in her early forties. She looked haggard, like she hadn’t slept in a few days. She smiled at me.

“Hey, hon, you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m all right. Just said goodbye to my family.”

“Aw, I miss my family too. I got a couple kids back in Phoenix. Feels like ages since I’ve seen them.”

I smiled up at her. “How old are they?”

“Ten and nine. Two different dads, both of them gone. They live with my parents so I can work.”

We chatted for a few minutes. I told her I was from Idaho, that I was going to Pennsylvania for a few years to do missionary work. I was 19 but looked more like I was 14, and the flight attendant was astounded by the news that I would be gone two years. She soon had to tend to some of her flight duties, giving out drinks and snacks, but the plane was quiet, so she returned and sat down in the chair across the aisle from me.

“Two whole years, huh? I’m Lydia, by the way.”

“Yeah,,” I smiled. “It’s what God asks of his servants.”

“So what will you be doing that whole time?”

“Well, I’ll be assigned to an area. I’ll have a companion, a guy just like me. And we will go out door to door and teach people.”

“Do they pay you for this?”

“No. We do it because we believe the messages God has for people can save lives. He makes it so families can be together forever.”

Lydia couldn’t help but laugh. She read my tag. “Elder Anderson, is it? Sorry to laugh, I’ve just never met anyone like you. I’ve seen you guys on your bikes, but I thought you were college students or something. What you are doing, giving up two whole years, that takes some serious dedication. It’s admirable. Weird, but admirable.”

Not missing a beat, I responded with the lessons I had been learning over the past few weeks. We had had time in the MTC to teach a series of discussions to each other, or to people pretending to be an ‘investigator’, or someone investigating the gospel. This was my first real chance to teach the lessons.

“Most people believe in a Supreme Being,” I began, reciting the words I had memorized through practice. I talked about the love of God, not realizing how baffled Lydia looked for the first few minutes as I spoke. She sat, respectful, laughing awkwardly a few times. I asked about her beliefs in God, and she mentioned growing up Baptist. I kept talking, but she interrupted me.

“Look, this looks like this could take a while. But I have to get back to work. I don’t have a bunch of time to learn about your church. You’re sweet, though. I hope my boy grows up to be like you a bit.”

She stood, not waiting for me to continue, and walked back to do more of her job. While she did so, I reached into my carry-on and pulled out a copy of the Book of Mormon, then I grabbed a pen and wrote in the front cover.

Lydia, it was nice talking to you this morning. This book changed my life. If you read it and pray about it, you will know that it is true, and if it is true, then you know that the church is true. If you’d like to learn more, please call the number on the card I’ve placed here, and missionaries can come and teach you wherever you are. Remember, your Heavenly Father loves you. From, Elder Anderson.”

As the flight landed, I handed Lydia the book, and she accepted, with a confused look on her face. She thanked me and walked to the back of the plane without another word.

Elder Franklin was astounded. “Dude! Did you just teach a first discussion? On the plane, like before our missions even started? That was amazing! I’m going to tell everyone about this!”

We walked off the plane and I felt pure joy. I had brought truth to someone, a hard-working single mother of two, and if she just read the book, she could change her life. I wanted to share this truth with every person I passed, every person God placed in my path. I would be an instrument in his hands, and I had two years to prove to him how hard I wold work.

Later that day, I would meet my trainer, my first companion in the field, Elder Winward, and he saw how enthusiastic I was. He called it “greenie fire”, because I was green and excited. “Just wait,” he said. “That part fades fast.”

 

 

Delaware City

DelawareCityYears after I left Delaware City, it stayed in my mind. It was tiny, a town of less than 2000 people, but had been designed to rival Philadelphia itself. It was surrounded by water: ponds, rivers, and the ocean, and was covered in wildlife and lush vegetation. With lined streets containing antique shops, thrift stores, and other home businesses, it was picturesque, and unlike anything I had experienced before.

The nuances of the place stuck with me. Just off the coast of the town, on Pea Patch Island, there had been a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, and the town was near where Washington had crossed the Delaware River. The country’s history extended into this small place. Years later, some ideas that formed during this time would turn into my published graphic novel, the Mushroom Murders (a book that would be lauded by critics, but never picked up much in the mainstream comic book industry).

As missionaries, we walked the streets of this little town, and other towns around it. I loved the mix of ethnicities there, and the rural feel of the town. People moved more slowly and were much friendlier. It was comfortable, and it felt safe. My companion and I had a car again. There were trees and bigger homes. After nine months in Philadelphia, it felt wonderful to be in a smaller community again, although the day to day pressures of missionary life stayed the same. No more endless walking, no more abject poverty, no more danger in the streets. Just green trees and quiet families.

My final companion was Elder Kelton. He was nice, from rural Utah, with an easy smile and a relaxed personality, handsome in a non-threatening way. Although I was the senior companion, I let him take the lead most of the time. I was content to do missionary work, but I was also content to relax and bend a few of the rules, so long as they weren’t the big ones. I knew there would be no more baptisms now at the end of my mission, and I felt like I had put in my time.

I grew reflective in those last days, walking the flat Delaware streets, breathing in the humid air. I thought of home, I thought of how much energy I had had at the beginning of my mission, I reflected on the different companions I had had. I flipped through journal pages, hundreds of them, and thought of the hundreds of letters I had written. I thought of the changes in my family, in my friends, in myself. I was pensive, deep in thought, and haunted. I wondered what life held for me now.

In ways, I couldn’t wait to go back home. I’d been so weary of missionary work for so long, and I wanted to go back home, to college and family and a future. But I dreaded it as well. Back at home, I had to face the reality that, while I was returning honorably, I had failed to do more, to be better. Eight baptisms, and all of them had gone inactive already. And I was still gay, still attracted to men. When I’d left, I’d felt so sure I could control it, heal myself, and it hadn’t worked. I’d have to return to dating women. I’d be expected to marry and father children, to go into debt while finishing my education, to serve in church callings. It’s the future I wanted, as it was the only future I had ever planned on, but I wasn’t sure I was capable of it all. Going home meant that future, yes, but it also meant sacrificing the freedom I had gained being on the other side of the country.

Elder Kelton and I didn’t talk much, except about our basic routines. We taught a few lessons, played cards and had meals with other missionaries, went to church. It was relaxed, and easy, and the time went quickly. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Those last days stretched on endlessly, and yet they flew by, and suddenly it was December 14. In January, I would be starting college, working at a job again, living a normal life.

Before I left, I had a final interview with the mission president. It was anticlimactic. He reminded me of a used car salesman. He asked me about my experiences, my converts, my successes. He asked me about my plans once I got home. He gave me some canned advice about being successful in college, trusting the Lord, getting married before long, and multiplying and replenishing the Earth while always serving nobly in the Church. He assured me God loved me, and asked if I wanted a Priesthood blessing. I thanked him, but declined, shaking his hand on the way out. I felt very aware of how God felt about me, and for now it was much easier to keep him at a far distance. The alternative was to open myself up the pain of disappointing him again.

On the final day, I got a ride to the airport. I packed my suitcase with all of my mission supplies. I threw away my old, tattered, yellowed clothing. I gave away Caliban, my fish, my small blue beta that had kept me company for over a year, who had moved with me to three different apartments. I mailed home the boxes of keepsakes, including old comic books, that I had accrued over my time there. And then I got on the plane, headed westward, like the Saints had once done, East to West, back toward home, family, and future.

On the plane, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to eat. I took out a pad of paper to write, but found I had nothing to say. I just sat there. The woman next to me asked about my mission, but I only made small talk, not wanting to teach her about the gospel, she could learn from someone else. I felt empty inside, a careful combination of relieved and worried. The plane landed in Salt Lake City, then another soon took off for Idaho  Falls. The ground below was white with snow covered mountains. The plane landed, and I waited, making sure I was the last one off. My family was waiting.

I was home.

Catholic vs. Mormon!

Catholic

“Okay, elders, here’s the thing. I want to learn all about your church.”

Elder Shoney and I looked at each other with excitement, wondering if we had perhaps found a ‘golden investigator’, or someone who was easily converted to Mormonism, at a time in their life when they were searching for truth. An easy tally on our list of baptized souls, one more saved soul showing us that our work was paying off.

Ed continued. “But I have no interest in joining your church. I’m Catholic. I was raised Catholic, as was my mother and father and those before them. I’m not seeking to change that. But I do want to learn about your church.”

Shoney and I broke eye contact, suddenly confused. “If you aren’t looking for truth, or for a religion to join, then why would you want to learn about it?”

Ed was matter-of-fact. We sat in the backyard of his beautiful home, just down the block from our apartment. He had thick, bushy grey hair, and a lean muscular frame. He was in his early sixties and wore a blue button-down shirt with a red bowtie, purple suspenders, and black slacks. He leaned back in his chair, sipping his iced tea.

“Well, that’s simple, actually. I’m worried about the Catholic Church. I’m very involved in my local congregation, and I’ve come to realize that we are having difficulty retaining members. People aren’t coming like they used to. But when I read reports, I see that the Mormon numbers are growing consistently, and I want to know why.” He took another long sip, and then kept talking. “Obviously, you have this entire missionary program. The guys in white shirts and ties going out to teach the world about the church, drawing in converts, and thus money and numbers. I want to know how you do it. Now, you are welcome to try and convert me, but I won’t end up being converted. Still, I would love to learn from you if you like to teach me.”

We stepped off to the side to consult, and figured the Lord could guide our actions. What would be the harm in teaching someone who wanted to learn? The Lord could work miracles, and we loved teaching. (It definitely beat knocking doors all day, and it made our numbers at the end of week report look more successful and fruitful).

We returned to Ed, and agreed. We would teach him a series of six lessons. He grew visibly excited, and said he wanted to take two lessons per week, but he wanted permission to tape record them, so he could reference them later. We considered again, wondering if we needed to get special permission to be recorded, but we decided there was no risk and went ahead.

Ed was a delightful man who had drinks and snacks ready for us whenever we came over. He shared his love for his religion, and for religious history, and engaged in long discussions about Biblical stories and our interpretation of them. He loved our views on God, on family, on faith and repentance and baptism, and on the holy spirit. But the day we taught him about the Apostasy and Restoration, things grew slightly heated.

For this lesson, I brought a can of Pringles that I had filled with plastic cups, each labeled with a taped on sheet of paper. I laid out the cups carefully as I taught, building a small pyramid on the table in front of us in an elaborate lesson about Christ and his church. We discussed how with the birth of Christ, the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled, and a new truth had to be established on the Earth. Christ taught among the Jews, Scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, teaching his new doctrines and setting up a brand new church. He called 12 apostles and gave them the power, or Priesthood, to administer in his name. He built his church on basic truths like baptism, faith, the Holy Ghost, and others, carefully laid out in the Bible. But then, Christ had been killed and resurrected, leaving the Earth. And then the 12 apostles were all killed or they disappeared. And with the apostles gone, the Church of Christ was left behind to be interpreted by men, who tried hard to follow the teachings in the following centuries but they ultimately corrupted the truths, split and divided into many different religions, thousands of them. Men were left without the truth of God, and without anyone who had the Priesthood to lead them. This was called the Apostasy.

Ed watched carefully as we explained. We began pulling out cups on the bottom row of the pyramid, and soon it all came crumbling down, showing that without the leadership of Christ’s church or authority, the belief systems came crashing down. Man couldn’t salvage the wreckage, not without the authority to do so from God. And then we told of the Restoration, how God and Jesus visited Joseph Smith in the 1830s to get him to set up the new Church, bringing their authority back, and letting him call 12 new apostles.

Ed took copious notes, even though he was recording the lesson. He muttered words like ‘fascinating’ and ‘wow’ and ‘unbelievable’ as we chatted. When we finally reached a stopping point, he turned toward us, instructing quietly.

“See, this is where our religions differ. After Christ and the apostles started dying, we believe the Priesthood, as you call it, passed on from Peter to others. Eventually the Pope took over and formed official positions within the church. The Catholic Church is centuries old, where as yours is a baby. But we both claim to have that truth or authority. The rest of religion is basically just driftwood, variations or amendments on the existing truth. In the end, it’s just us versus you,” he said, laughingly.

At the end of the lesson, we had lemonade and cookies and chatted about our families back home. Ed talked about his daughter, about the books he had written, and the stories he liked to tell. He was somewhat of a celebrity in certain circles. He shared some of his works with us, giving us copies to take home. As he walked us out that day, setting up a time to take us to dinner later in the week, he smiled and shook our hands.

“You know, growing up, I was given a pamphlet, teaching me about how dangerous Mormons were, about how they were a cult that would try and take your children. You guys aren’t so scary.”

Elder Shoney, who made me laugh regularly, quipped back. “And we were taught that your church is the great whore of all the Earth and the corrupter of all truth. And you definitely are that scary.”

We had a good laugh. Over the next two weeks, we saw Ed four more times, teaching him each time. And then the discussions were done. We went to his church once, he went to ours once, and then we bid him farewell. He shook our hands, thanked us for an enlightening experience, and said he had learned a lot.

“But you didn’t convert me. I still believe in the pope over the prophets. But only one of us can be right. Unless we are both wrong.”

He gave his characteristic grin, and then I never saw him again.

Farewell, Philadelphia

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Leaving Philadelphia was surreal.

I had only a few months left on my mission, and I was leaving the thriving, divorce, crime-ridden metropolis where I had spent nearly nine months, and moving back to northern Delaware briefly. In just one season, I would be back in the potato farm country of southern Idaho. I could barely compute it all.

I’d had special permission from the mission president to spend time online registering for college. In less than three months, I would not only be home, I would be enrolled in Ricks College, a Mormon school just a few dozen miles from where my mother and sister lived. I could get a job and commute back and forth to school. I wouldn’t be a missionary anymore. I still had a few months left, but I was itching to be done, beyond weary of the monotonous routines.

Leaving Philly was more difficult than I’d expected. I often walked the streets, wondering what it would be like to live here, as a college student perhaps, or what it would have been like to grow up here. There was no way to compare the high rising skyscrapers, extreme poverty, and thousands of homeless to the dusty long fields, middle class struggles, and dominant Mormonism of my home in Idaho.

I started saying my goodbyes a few weeks before I left. I visited the Wissahicken one last time. I stopped to get a cheesesteak from Sava’s Cheesesteak Stand and bid the Greek man with the thick mustache farewell. I knocked on doors, saying goodbye to people I had taught or become acquainted with, even the three people I had baptized, and spent some final moments with their families, knowing I would likely never see them again; they had already stopped attending church.

When I returned home, I planned to pursue a degree in social work. It felt like a natural fit. I’d used my compassion for others my entire life, trying to help them through difficult times, and as a missionary, that trait had frequently come in handy. I’d learned so much about the diversity of life, about poverty and racism, about the differences between men and women. There was such an enormous world outside of my Mormon bubble in Idaho, and my mission experiences had shown me everything from the Amish to the plight of the refugee. In my college entrance essay, I had had much to discuss, and I felt very ready to engage in new classes.

At my very first dinner appointment at a member’s home in Philadelphia, Cecelia, an older black woman who had joined the church five years before, had invited us over for a “home-cooked meal.” She lived in a humble apartment overlooking a dirty street outside. She’d asked me to set the table and I’d opened a cupboard door to see three large roaches scuttling away. Dinner had been macaroni and cheese baked into a pie, and a glass of milk. At the time, I had been horrified, confused, and a little nauseous. Now, I could eat at Cecelia’s house any time and not stop to think about it.

Knocking doors in north Philly had taught me much as well. I met single mothers who had six children by six fathers, their current husbands away in jail, living off of Welfare and food stamps with no way out and no way to get ahead. I saw children in diapers sleeping on lice-ridden couches on the front stoops of homes while mothers sat near by high on drugs. I stepped over used drug bags, blood, and human feces, and once a bullet casing. And after knocking on doors each day, I would walk back into my nice apartment overlooking a park and sleep in my bed with freshly laundered sheets. The opposing forces of these two worlds assaulted my senses on a daily basis, and I began to understand what privilege is, and what poverty is. I began dedicating myself to the causes of social justice, and I kept a list of topics I wanted to explore in college.

On my final Sunday in the local branch where I had been attending for several months, Mary-Lou asked to speak to me. Mary-Lou was intimidating, a large woman with a permanent scowl, yet her entire face and demeanor changed when she smiled. She’d had a rough life, and she didn’t trust easily. Mary-Lou had been born a member of the church, and she was white. She taught our Gospel Principles class in the branch, and saw a rotating group of church visitors going through every week, making her job difficult as there were constantly new faces in the room. The branch had 10 missionaries in it, and she refused to let the missionaries in the room as they tended to dominate the lesson, and she wanted it to be the new potential members who were learning.

Before sacrament meeting began, Mary-Lou pulled me into her classroom and closed the door, then took a seat facing me. I watched her scowl turn into a soft smile as she spoke. “Elder Anderson, I know you haven’t had it easy here. You’ve had a few difficult companionships and I know you got beat up once. But I just wanted to tell you, it has been a pleasure having you here. It’s rare that I trust a missionary, so many of you are just so immature or full of yourselves. But you have a good heart, and you made a big difference in our branch. It has been an honor, and I truly hope we will see you again some time. Come back and visit us.”

Mary-Lou walked out of the room as tears leaked down my cheeks. I’d felt numb for some time, and she’d broken through to me. Maybe my efforts weren’t all in vain, maybe I had made some small difference.