I wake in the early morning darkness to the realization that my son is gone. Really gone. His room empty. The piano, silent. The little towheaded boy I once cradled and tossed into the air, laughing, is now a grown man and off on an adventure that will lead him half way around the world. For two years, we won’t see him except via Skype on Christmas and Mother’s Day, and won’t hear from him except one short email a week (we hope) and maybe a handwritten letter here or there.
While many cultures have their coming-of-age rituals, it’s hard to imagine one more dramatic than what we Mormons put on. Right on the cusp of maturity—usually at 18 or 19—many dedicated young Mormons turn in a set of papers that say, in essence, “I’m willing to go anywhere in the world on my own dime to serve as a missionary. You tell me where, and I’ll go.”
The papers go in, and an anxious three or four weeks commence where their future hangs in the balance. They could serve anywhere—literally—from Moscow, Idaho, to Moscow, Russia, and everywhere in between. Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Germany. That litany represents the places where just my immediate family has served.
The morning his call arrived, the local Post Office called at 6:00 a.m. to let us know, as is their tradition. Jordan chose to open his call alone, in the mountains that he so loves. He returned to a large gathering of friends and family, re-opened the large, white envelope, and read aloud these words: “Elder Hawkes: you are hereby called to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Taipei, Taiwan Mission.”
That was March 14. Less than two months later, we dropped him off at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. When I was a missionary there in the early 1990s, the new missionaries and their families met in a large room informally dubbed “the cry room” to hear a few talks, sing a hymn together, and then say good-bye. The missionaries went out one door and the families, another. Dealing with ever more missionaries and perhaps realizing that the cry room made it even harder on everyone, the Church has now dispensed with that step altogether.
We arrived at the designated time, and were directed by a series of missionaries to a spot on the curb, where still more missionaries greeted us, grabbed our son’s luggage from the back of the van, and offered to snap a quick family photo. One round of hugs, and that was it. We were off, without time for so much as a backward glance, to endure a tear-filled 60-minute drive back to Centerville. Christian, age 5, who absorbs everything, picked up on the “Hey, this is a great day for Jordan” theme and kept repeating it over and over, despite his sisters' tears. That didn’t last long, however, as he melted down the next day, wailing that he “can’t give Jordan a hug,” that he “misses [his] brother,” and won’t see him for “two whole years!”
The night before Jordan left, he was set apart as a missionary, meaning he was given a special blessing by our local lay minister, after which he formally assumed the missionary role and became subject to the rather strict rules of mission life, one of which is that, with certain rare exceptions, he won’t be alone for the entire two years. Ever dutiful—and also mindful of those whom he would leave behind—Jordan quietly dragged a foam pad and sleeping bag into Christian’s room, telling him that “you can be my companion tonight.”
We’ll sure miss that kid, even as we take comfort in knowing that he’s in good hands. He’ll be watched over and guided by dozens of fellow missionaries who will help him learn the ropes, adjust to a new language and culture, and refine life skills ranging from dealing with rejection (the bread and butter of missionaries everywhere) to sewing on a button. Beyond that, he’s in the Lord’s hands, which are, of course, the surest and safest hands of all. Even so, the parting remains bitter sweet. God speed, my dear, sweet boy. We’ll see you soon enough.