The early-morning fog had barely lifted from the green rolling hills on the outskirts of Rome. The fall air, clear and brisk, had only just begun to give way to the warm glow of the sun. As I gazed through our apartment window at the splendor before me, I quietly realized that a chapter of life was drawing to a close. It dawned on me like the new day: my mission was over.
I fumbled with my battered suitcase, that old familiar friend that had been with me on so many transfers. It would be lighter now, spared of the tattered shoes and graying shirts I was leaving behind. How long two years had seemed when the suitcase, shoes, and shirts were new. How short it seemed now.
The other three elders in the apartment didn’t say much as I prepared to leave; but I could feel their love, and I knew how much I would miss them. My companion, Elder Hunter, had that inimitable and ever-present smile on his face. I reflected on how close we had become in just one month.
My fellow missionaries and I shared embraces and one last prayer together. Baggage in hand, I waited at the bus stop outside our apartment building. Few cars passed; the bustle of the city had not yet begun. The next few moments seemed like an eternity. I knew that my life would change forever when I stepped on to the bus that would carry me to the mission office on the other side of the city. I realized that I was at a milestone, a threshold beyond which lay a new era in my life.
My thoughts turned to the past, to the experiences of my mission. I thought about how many times I had stood at bus stops just like this one, waiting to go to baptisms, appointments, conferences, or church. Over the last two years, perhaps I had begun to take for granted the sights and sounds of Italy that now surrounded me. I took a fresh look around. I looked at the trees gently swaying in the morning breeze. I looked anew at the old villas and buildings, the stately gates, the cobblestones. This was Rome, a city where history hung in the air.
The bus arrived. The big rear doors opened. I stepped on board. Even the little signs inside the bus, so commonplace before, took on new significance. I mused over one sign in particular: Non parlare al conducente (Don’t speak to the driver). I remembered that every time I had boarded a bus, there was at least one person engaged in energetic conversation with the driver. I smiled inside as I thought about how gregarious and naturally friendly these people were. Asking them not to speak was like asking a flower not to bloom.
The people on the bus had no idea I had just spent two years among them and now I was returning home. Perhaps they marveled that I watched them so intently, soaking up their every word, action, mannerism. They didn’t know how much I would miss them.
I looked out the window. Italy was literally on parade before me. I saw the small shops, the newspaper stands, the water fountains, the open markets, all with renewed appreciation. As the city came to life, cars began buzzing by, their drivers dodging and swerving expertly. Italian traffic had always captivated me, but this morning it held me spellbound. It was behind the wheel of a car that the Italians best demonstrated their impressive ability to improvise. It seemed a paradox, but Italian traffic was a sort of ordered chaos—chaotic because of the aggressive darting and scooting about, but ordered because everyone drove the same way.
After a few minutes, I saw some ristoranti (restaurants) and osterie (inns) that reminded me of the Italian passion for good cooking. I thought of the countless meals in Italian homes at which we were urged to continue eating long after we were full. I thought of their generosity and graciousness toward their guests. I remembered all the times when, knocking on doors, we were invited in for a meal even though our hosts were not interested in our message. I thought of how many times they would ask us if the food was good, and how often they would scurry about the house fussing over every detail. Italians had refined entertaining to an art. I was saddened as I thought how much I would miss their hospitality.
I saw fathers and mothers walking their children to school, and I recalled how impressed I had always been with the Italians’ strong love of family. As a missionary I had had many chances to see how they lovingly looked after their own. I witnessed their concern over how their actions might affect family relationships. I saw how they cared for their elderly and how they maintained family ties, even with extended family. I observed how they took pride in the accomplishments of their loved ones. In a country in which the government had changed hands more than 40 times since the end of World War II, the Italians always knew that the stability and integrity of their society lay in the home.
Now it was time to change buses downtown. I continued to look around me, absorbing my surroundings and thinking. I saw the monuments, the statues, the ancient ruins. I realized how much I had grown to appreciate this people for their sense of history and their rich cultural heritage. I remembered that Italy was the heart and mind of the Renaissance, that this country had produced some of the finest art, literature, and music in the history of mankind. I reflected on this people’s refined sense of aesthetics and how they excelled in design, architecture, and fashion. I remembered some of the great minds that this people had produced: Dante, da Vinci, Fermi, Marconi, and others.
I observed people talking on the sidewalks as the bus continued on. I saw them energetically gesturing as they spoke. I thought to myself that the use of the hands for conversational emphasis must have been invented in this country. I recalled my first experience hearing Italian members give talks in church. I could understand few words, but the earnestness and the honesty conveyed by their hands will stay with me forever.
A lady on the bus was noticing the name tag pinned to the pocket of my shirt. She moved closer to read what it said. I smiled, as she made no effort to conceal her curiosity. At home, people would read name tags through a series of unobtrusive glances, hoping the wearer would not notice. But Italians were unabashedly inquisitive.
I recalled when I first learned of the Italians’ inclination to investigate. I was riding the train from Foggia to Rome. It was Easter, and the train was packed with travelers. I had been fortunate enough to find a seat in a compartment. I promptly struck up a conversation with my fellow passengers (never a difficult thing to do in Italy). To make some points about the gospel plan, I had drawn a diagram. When I looked up from my work, no fewer than 15 people were engrossed in what I was saying. Many were leaning into our crowded cabin from the adjacent corridor. I recalled everyone trying to ask questions over the clickety-clack of the train.
As the bus made its way up Via Nomentana toward Monte Sacro and the mission home, I thought about why I viewed everything around me with such a profound sense of appreciation. Of course there had been rejection, unkindness, and even scorn on my mission. But those were not the things I remembered on this day. They were far from my mind, and they remain so today.
It occurred to me that I had been blessed with a heightened capacity to love. I had always heard that I would grow to love the people I served as a missionary, but only now did I realize how the beauty of these people was etched in my heart. I knew I would love them forever. It wasn’t the traffic that made me smile; it was the drivers. It wasn’t the buildings; it was the builders. It wasn’t the food; it was the cooks. It wasn’t the city; it was the residents. The Savior had blessed me with a love for these people that I didn’t know was possible.
When we speak of missions, we think much of teaching others, which was in fact a wonderful and vital part of my mission. On this day, however, I realized how much I had been taught. I realized how my association with these people had profoundly influenced my own attitudes and my own outlook. In a simple and profound way, they had become a part of me.
The new chapter of my life suddenly seemed far less daunting. The Italians faced their challenges with courage. I took heart from their example. They confronted life’s problems with resourcefulness and enthusiasm. They adapted to change. Many were models of cheerfulness, even in dire economic circumstances. Many had made far greater sacrifices to accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ than I had ever been called upon to endure. Their example had given me the courage to face the rest of my life with greater confidence. Their energy and gusto made me even more willing to dive headlong into the future.
The words of our mission song rang in my ears: “Two years we’re asked to give, for in losing life we live.” In giving two years of my life, I had gained so much more. I had learned to love. I had learned that it was possible to see people through the eyes of the Spirit—to overlook faults and appreciate strengths. I had gleaned powerful lessons for my own life.
I thought of the Apostle Paul, who had labored anciently in this same city. His words to the Ephesians would later remind me of today’s bus ride through Rome:
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,
“May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
“And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19).
My thoughts were interrupted by the squeaking of brakes. The bus was arriving at my stop. As I made my way toward the doors, I paused for a moment to read another small but familiar sign above me: Non scendere prima dell’apertura delle porte (Do not step down before the doors open). In true Italian style, my fellow passengers had already stepped down onto the platform directly in front of the exit. I watched as they easily dodged the opening doors with practiced grace. This simple scene became a final treasure that I quietly and reverently tucked away in my heart. I smiled inside as I stepped through the exit into a new day.