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?