Years 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.