Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Homecoming

The day finally arrived.  The day that we thought, two years ago, would never come.  The day that our son, Elder Alex Nicholes, arrived home safe and sound from serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Independence, Missouri mission.  As you can imagine this was a wonderful day for us and as we could have never imagined, his release as a missionary was almost as hard as the day we dropped him off at the MTC.  That statement may sound a little strange, but if you have ever sent a missionary out for two years and had the experience of welcoming your missionary home again, you know what I am talking about.  I will attempt to explain what I mean as I describe what happened in our lives over the next 36 hours or so after Alex arrived home.

This blog entry will be very different than the entries that I have previously written. Over the last two years I have been writing all about Alex from his perspective through the stories that he sent home as part of in his weekly letters.  This blog entry will be written completely from our perspective as the parents of a missionary who has returned home safely and honorably from a two year mission.  So let's get started!

Alex's flight was scheduled to arrive at the airport at 7:15 pm Friday night.  We of course, had already notified family and friends that if they would like to meet Alex at the airport, they were perfectly welcome to come and share in the excitement that we have been anticipating for the last two years.  Since we have known for several weeks what time his flight was scheduled to arrive, we made sure to give ourselves plenty of time to travel from our home to the airport.  We also wanted to give ourselves a little bit of extra time at the airport to settle in and get ready for the big moment.  Just our luck, right off the bat as we entered the freeway, we ran into the typical Friday evening rush hour traffic.  The traffic report on the radio was warning the evening drivers that this jam was serious and to be prepared to wait.  When we were planning our trip to the airport earlier in the day, a traffic jam was not what we had anticipated.  Luckily our freeway entrance was closer to the end of the jam rather than the beginning.  Some of our friends who were also planning to join us at the airport, weren't so lucky however.  Well we arrived at the airport, settled in like we planned and immediately noticed that there were several other families doing the same thing.  They were holding hand painted posters welcoming their missionary home just like we were.  In fact, there were probably a hundred people standing there at the bottom of the baggage claim escalator waiting in pure excitement. Alex wasn't the only one coming home from the Missouri mission.  There were several other Elders and one Sister missionary who were also returning as well.

As the arrival time of his flight came and went, the crowd grew larger as more and more of us were standing there holding our "Welcome Home Elder ..." signs.  We were all staring at the constant steam of people descending the escalator hoping to catch the first glimpse of anybody in a suit sporting a missionary name plaque.  To our surprise, several passengers who had been on the same flight and were already entering the baggage claim area, informed us that there was a group of missionaries standing at the top of the escalator just out of our sight.  While we were all waiting, they were talking and hugging and saying goodbye to their missionary companions whom they had served with for the last two years.  Then finally, as all of us who were standing at the bottom of the escalator, the crowd started to cheer with excitement as these fine missionaries stepped onto the escalator and started to make their way towards us.

There was Alex, standing on the escalator right in the middle of the pack.  You can probably imagine just how excited we all were to finally see our boy... Man, again after two year.  Of course I have to say that at this moment it felt like the last two years had just flown by.  Standing there in the airport watching Alex come down the escalator felt like it was just last week that we dropped him off at the MTC.  He looked great.  His patented "smile" and glow that he always carries with him was there and very familiar.  I don't have to tell you just how great of a sight that was.

At the bottom of the stairs you can just imagine who was there to greet her missionary son first.  If you guessed anybody other than his mother, in the first place you would have been wrong and the second place you would have been crazy to guess anybody else.  You have probably heard the old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words".  Well, I think the following pictures tell more about the excitement and emotion of the whole experience than I could ever write.

I don't think that I have to tell you just how exciting it was to finally see Alex again and to hug him and talk to him in person.  Especially knowing just how wonderful of a missionary he has been over the last two years and everything that he has accomplished.  Who wouldn't be proud of their son or daughter knowing that they had just spent two years of their life serving their God and as well as their fellow men.

For some reason, our family is always the last to leave any party and this airport homecoming was no different.  Alex had parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins and friends there to greet him.  We all stood there talking and hugging for so long that when we finally looked around, everybody else had already gone.  There were still a few strangers in the baggage claim area waiting for their bags, but the large crowd who had been there just minutes before, had now left.  There were so few people around that we had a hard time trying to find someone who would be willing to take one last picture of our whole welcome home party.  Luckily we were able to recruit a man who had been standing off to the side watching the whole experience.  Then after the final picture we decided that it was probably time for us to leave and head for home.

On our way home we asked Alex where he would like to go to get something to eat.  I know it had been a long day for me and I was hungry.  It had also been a long day for Alex and he was probably hungry as well.  Believe it or not, the place we chose to go after this huge event was... Crown Burger.  If you aren't from the Salt Lake area, Crown Burger is just what you would think, a fast food burger joint.  However, it isn't just any burger joint, Crown Burger was actually featured on the show Man vs. Food if you happen to be familiar with the Travel Channel.  Anyway, enough of plugging the burger joint and on to the story that happened next.  As we pulled into the parking lot, Alex still wearing his missionary suit and tags of course, spotted a woman sitting on the curb talking to a man in a wheel chair.  Alex immediately grabbed his box of church pamphlets, selected two of them and walked up to these people introducing himself as Elder Nicholes from the Church of Jesus Christ.  Alex struck up a conversation with them where he asked who they were and what they were doing.  They noticed the missionary tags and asked Alex about his mission.  It turned out that they were both members of the church and were very excited to hear that Alex had just returned home from his mission.  Alex handed them both the missionary pamphlets anyway and we all wished them a good evening.  This is where I insert an old but very fitting cliche, "you can take the missionary out of the mission, but you can't take the mission out of the missionary".

The rest of the evening went very well.  We enjoyed our meal at Crown Burger where Alex informed us that it was getting late and that he needed to be home and in bed by 10:30 pm.  We finished up dinner, said goodbye to the family and friends who were there with us and headed home.  Once we arrived at home, we unpacked the car, reintroduced Alex to his home and new room just before Alex went to bed.  If you happen to be reading this President, Yes... Alex made it home and in bed on time.  For the rest of you who may think that being in bed on time seems a little silly for a returned missionary, well at this point Alex was still a missionary.  His release from being a full-time missionary wouldn't happen until 9:00 am the next morning.  Since being in bed by 10:30 pm didn't apply to the rest of us, we all stayed up and watched the previously recorded BYU vs. TCU football game.  We won't be going into that, if you know what I mean!     

The next morning, being a Saturday as well as the day after that very emotional day we just experienced, we of course slept in a bit.  That doesn't mean to say that we didn't hear the rustling around of our missionary son who was up on time just like every other day for the past two years.  As it turned out, since his younger brother just became Alex's temporary companion for a few hours, they had both gotten up early, gone down to the track at the high school to workout and were finally back home.  When their mother finally wandered downstairs... well the following photograph tells the whole story.

If you think for a second that this picture was staged, I assure you that it wasn't.  Alex had pulled his new junior companion out of bed, spent time exercising and now they were both fully engaged in companionship study.  Alex still had about an hour left before he would be released from his service as a full-time missionary and he wasn't about to waste any of it.

Speaking of being released, remember at the beginning of this blog I told you that experiencing the release of a missionary son is almost as hard as dropping him off at the MTC.  Well, here comes the experience that took us all by surprise.  One that we will never forget and one that even though it was hard, we wouldn't trade for anything.  Not long after the picture above was taken, we all were up, dressed and out the door to go meet with the Stake President.  As it turned out, our Stake President had a conflict and wasn't actually able to be there to release Alex from his missionary service.  However, the Stake President had delegated this responsibility to his first counselor who is also a very humble and spiritual man.  As we entered the Stake President's office, we all sat down and the first counselor began to speak.  I was focused on what the first counselor was saying and listening very intently to his words.  After he had been speaking for a few minutes, I noticed that his voice began to crack.  That is when, in a tearful tone he said, "don't start this...".  What I thought he meant by saying that was that the spirit was very strong and he was starting to feel very emotional about what was happening.  Then I glanced over at Alex as tears were streaming down his face.  It wasn't the first councilor who was being overcome by this very emotional experience.  It was Alex and his emotional response to being released from his service was affecting not only the first councilor, but the rest of us as well.  I won't go into everything that was said during the meeting but I will relate one more thing that speaks to just how important being a full-time missionary really was for Alex.  Once the first councilor was finished speaking and all was said and done, we all stood up to shake the first councilor's hand and make our way out the door.  All except for Alex.  He was still sitting there in his chair not wanting to leave.  At that moment I could read Alex like a book.  He knew that once he stood up and walked out of that office, his full-time missionary service would be complete.  When he finally did stand up, he quietly unclasped his missionary tags from his suit coat and white shirt, put them into his pocket, shook the first councilor's hand and it was done.  He cried all the way out to the car and most of the way home.  This was a very significant moment for us because the day that we dropped Alex off at the MTC, we all cried in the car all the way home.  Experiencing almost the same emotions the day Alex was released as the day Alex left, was something that we never would have expected.  What a moment!

The rest of the day was wonderful for us.  We spent the whole day in the mountains which was a little different for Alex since he hasn't seen any mountains for the last two years.  We watched family videos, looked at family and mission photos and tried to catch up on as much of all that has happened over the past two year as we could.  Later that night, Alex went to visit some friends and no, this time as a released full-time missionary, he wasn't in bed by 10:30 pm.  But he wasn't too much later than that.

I have said this before on this blog and I will say it again.  To all of you who watched out for our missionary son over the past two years.  To all of you who taught him, mentored him, fed him, housed him, acted as surrogate mother, father, grandmother and grandfather.  To all of his companions, church leaders, mission leaders and presidents and to those of you whom he taught and helped to bring into the gospel of Jesus Christ.  THANK YOU!!!  You will never know how much the Missouri, Independence mission with all of the people there in, mean to us and especially to Alex.  We hope to met you someday and thank you in person as well.

Thank you again and may God bless you!

The Nicholes Family

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Here's your sign

The last couple of weeks for Alex have been unusual.  But then if you consider that there is always something new and different going everyday of your mission, maybe unusual is normal.  Alex only wrote us a quick email a couple of weeks ago due to the fact that he had a busy P-day planned.  He and several other missionaries were headed out on their P-Day to take a tour of the Community of Christ temple and the tunnels that run underneath it.  When the opportunity arose to go on a tour like this, he figured that he should jump on it because he probably wouldn't have another opportunity.  But, in his most recent letter home, he told us that the tour of the tunnels and the temple wasn't as exciting as he thought it would be.  There just wasn't much that was out of the ordinary and the fact that he only wrote a couple of sentences about the whole tour, must mean that there wasn't much to write home about either.

Speaking of temples, Alex told us that this past week he also had the opportunity to work with some of the missionaries in the northern part of Kansas City.  If you weren't aware of this already, that part of Kansas City is where the LDS church is currently in construction of the Kansas City, Mo temple.  The temple is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012 and will be a very exciting addition for the members of the church in the area.  Alex told us that the temple is one of the smaller versions but where it is positioned, just off of the freeway, it appears suddenly as a seemingly large structure when you round the corner while driving along the freeway.  The temple construction has resulted in a lot of new interest in the church from the people who live in that area.  Alex said that every where they went, people were asking about the temple and what it's purpose is.  Of course not everybody has been excited about the new LDS temple.  Alex mentioned that he met one little girl who was very disappointed to learn that the giant pretty building just off the freeway, was actually a Mormon temple.  She was really hoping that it would be a castle for a princess.  Well, if you really think about it, this little girl might actually be right and maybe someday, she will be that princess. 

Of course general conference was this last weekend and for those of you who attended the Priesthood session, you probably heard the marvelous priesthood choir.  Well, we might be a little biased here because all of the choir members were from Alex's home town.  Alex told us that they arrived a little bit late to the Stake center and the priesthood session had already started.  As a result, they missed the announcement about the choir being from Pleasant Grove.  Then later during the final musical number when the TV camera started panning around the choir members, Alex told us that all of the sudden he saw this red headed kid that looked very familiar.  After a little closer look, he thought, "hey I know that kid".  Then the camera focused in on this kid's dad and then another person that he knew.  Right then it dawned on Alex that the choir was filled with all kinds of familiar faces.  Faces of people he knows from back home.  Alex told us that it was really fun to see all of these people from home and know that they are all participating in the priesthood session of general conference.

So this has got to be one of the funniest stories that Alex has ever told us during his mission.  He told us that about a week ago, he and his companion were working with the zone leaders in Olathe, KS.  One night they decided to stop by a local BBQ place called Oklahoma Joe's, to get something to eat.  While they were there, they just happened to sit down at a table right next to two people who Alex described as a Christian and an Atheist.  How did Alex know that?  Basically by the rather loud religious discussion that they were having over dinner.  At one point during their discussion the Atheist pointed at the missionaries and said, "If there was a God and he really cared about these Mormons, he would have bought their lunch".  Right after he said that, one of the missionaries got a big grin on his face.  The Elder leaned over to Alex and said, "God did buy my lunch".  As it turned out, that previous Sunday a member of the church had walked up to the Elders between church meetings and handed them gift cards to Oklahoma Joe's restaurant.  So in reality, God did buy them lunch.  So there you have it!  To quote a famous comedian, "Here's your sign".  ;-)  Oh but wait, that wasn't the end of the story.  Alex and the other missionaries actually sat down and talked to this man for quite a while after his Christian friend had left.  This man invited Alex and the other missionaries to come and talk to his Atheist group at some future date.  Alex isn't quite sure how he feels about that, but it sounds like, at the very least, it could be a great adventure.

Just a quick side note.  We are getting down to the end of these blog entries due to the fact that Alex will complete his mission at the end of this month.  One of the many things that Alex has done over the past two years is make the most out of the time that he had while serving his mission.  He is feeling very happy to be coming home and seeing his family and friends again.  But at the same time, very sad that his service as a full-time missionary is coming to a close.  He has told us many times that he wishes his mission could last forever because he has enjoyed every minute of it.  I will try to fit in at least one more blog entry before Alex returns home.  Of course that will depend on Alex and how much time he has to write home over the next few weeks.