On December 1, 1987, life as I knew it ceased to exist. I watched helplessly as my 9-year-old son’s tired and cancer ravaged body slowly released his spirit. I saw his partially paralyzed face find its proper form and like the graceful arch of a feather, his smile returned once more. His half slit eyes, almost crusted closed, now yawned wide open; dark slate turned to brilliant blue, like forget-me-nots floating in a pool of cream. In the split seconds of my gasp, the soft glow went out and blue faded again back to gray, and although I knew I had just looked into the eyes of God, I crumbled to floor and wept.
Something shifted within my soul that day that has never shifted back. I became a different me. One door closed; a new one, at least in that moment, did not swing open. Like a newborn baby, I cried to be held and rocked, hoping sleep would come forever. When I first awoke at the next day’s dawning, I knew there was no death watch today…only the gray.
Everything was muffled. How could this have happened? How can I possibly live without my son? Many of us in this life will be faced with these same questions that have no answers, and we struggle to survive. How we survive is different for us all. Not surviving sounds like an attractive option, but not a rational one. We have to learn to live all over again.
I am now more than two decades into my grief as a bereaved parent, and I feel compelled to tell you a little more of that journey that has this many years later brought me much peace. After my son died following a two-year battle with cancer, I fell into an abyss of despair. We had fought for so long to save his life with everything in our power. We had great physicians, surgeons, oncologists, a great children’s hospital and insurance.
But they were not enough. They still could not save our son from his ultimate death to cancer. I detail the events in my book “Letters To My Son, a journey through grief.” Publishing that book and making my grief 3-dimensional was a huge milestone in processing my grief and subsequently a springboard to a future I had never conceived of or envisioned.
I had remortgaged our house to publish the book of my son’s life, his death, his healing, our miracle, our journey. I transformed the most intimate details of a family’s worst tragedy into an inspirational source of healing for the bereaved. Of the 2,500 copies that were printed, I have 250 left. It was my first attempt at writing a book, and I am ready to fill another with the miracles and healing that have been brought into my life because of it.
When we knew our son was truly going to die, the Make-a-wish organization agreed to send us to Hawaii for two weeks, and then return home for more palliative radiation. On our return from the Islands, we traveled to Mexico for a day on the advice of a relative that we could locate some healing herbs to help our son’s recovery from the assaults of chemotherapy. My nephew lived in San Diego, which is not far from the Mexican border.
His family rented a beach house in a small fishing village called Maniadera, just south of Ensenada near the famous landmark “La Bufadora” a natural seawater blowhole on the Pacific side of the Baja. Their beach house was owned by local landlord who lived close by. She was in her mid-seventies, and held in high esteem in the village.
It was she who collected the healing herb high in the mountains. When we met her, she said she had a vision of our son coming to her for a healing and she asked us to come to a healing service held in a small chapel built behind her home. We decided to attend. We did not return home for almost two months and our son’s grapefruit size tumor completely disappeared. God had given us a second chance, we sold everything we had and moved to San Diego.
Months after living in California, the cancer returned and, our spirits broken, we moved back to Minnesota where our son died in our arms in an almost empty rented apartment near our home and family. Our only other child, our daughter Meagan, was 6 years old when we lived in Mexico.
Through the years, I have always told her that when the time was right, I would take her back to Ensenada, back to that that little fishing village, to the little chapel where the miracle occurred so long ago. Boyfriends came and went, but the significant other in her life that would warrant the journey, that felt right, never appeared in her life until just a few years ago. She fell in love with a wonderful young man, the real deal, a genuine man with tenderness and depth of character. They had a child together, our grandchild.
It now felt like the right time to make our pilgrimage back to Mexico. We started to make plans. To drive to Ensenada, you have to drive through Tijuana and navigate the long coastal road several hours to get to Ensenada and then again an hour to Maniedera if we could even find it after 21 years.
Driving your own car or a rental both are considered risky with the current instances of Banditos accosting tourists who attempt to make the drive. We saw an ad for a cruise ship that sailed to Ensenada, we booked it for the four of us early this spring for an October cruise that would at least bring us to Ensenada.
Before we left Minnesota, I envisioned what I wanted to happen once we were in Ensenada. I prayed that we would just get off the boat, walk up to a trustworthy English-speaking taxi driver, and I would offer him a hundred bucks for four hours to take us to La Bufadora and on the way see if he could help us find the little chapel near Manieadera.
I carefully tucked a crisp new one hundred dollar bill in the back of my wallet just for this purpose. While on board the ship I asked about hiring a driver once we arrived in Ensenada. They did not recommend doing any touring that was not offered through their itinerary. If we wanted to pursue it on our own, we were free to do so, but they were not responsible for our safety and we would have make the twenty-minute walk into town to inquire.
We got off the boat prepared to walk into the center of town. We passed the many Carnival Cruise Line tour buses that people were lining up to take the hour or to drive to see the famous La Bufadora. We only had about a 5-hour window to find our chapel, so we started to walk quickly.
Just past the last of the big tour buses sat a lonely white van with a small sign in the window, which simply stated :” Shuttle Service For Hire”. It appeared to be a brand new van despite the very faded “Tips accepted” sign (which was the reverse side of the shuttle for hire sign).
I had walked by the van at first and then I retraced my steps to see if there was a driver inside, as I approached he got out of his van and asked me if I was looking to hire a taxi. I said that I was and that I wanted to go La Bufadora with my family, but want to do several hours of more personal sightseeing on the way.
He smiled broadly and with a knowing wink in his eye and in perfect English said “how about four hours for a hundred bucks?? I about fell over, but calmly said that would be fine, let’s do it. He brought out a little step stool to help us into the van, shut the double doors, sat back in the driver’s seat and he announced: Hi my name is Gilbert, where to first?
I explained that although we did want to travel to La Bufadora, as it is well worth the visit and a part of our nostalgic tour, but we really wanted to find the village of Maniadera above all else. Did he know of the village? He responded that although he was from Ensenada, he had gone to school in Manieadara and knew how to get there.
We talked more and I told him a little of our experience of 21 years before, and why we wanted to find the chapel and possibly find and walk the beach we had lived so long ago. He said much has changed in those many years and Maniadera has spread out in all directions but he thought he could get us near the beach area that we hoped to see. I told him about the miracle healing that we had experienced and I had recalled the gentile older woman who owned the chapel and that her name was Dona Nieves but she was also known as Senora Fisher.
His eyes lit up immediately and said, “I went to school with her son, I know where her house is and even possibly the chapel of which you speak, I heard she died about 8 years but her son may live there now. I am certain we can find it.” Soon the smells, the geography started to take on a familiar quality, like glimpses of a recurring dream teasing at your body, mind, and soul. The olfactory senses being the strongest trigger see, to retrieve the deepest of memories, even those gained as a child, and my daughter was experiencing it big time.
Every place on earth seems to have its own smell and flavor. Fishing docks, dead seaweed, ocean breeze, hints of raw sewage and blooming cacti brought us back to those long forgotten days almost immediately. My daughter’s hands clutched an old shirt her brother had last worn when last we lived here and he was alive. She had surprised us by packing it in her purse for this purpose, if and when we found the chapel.
A few wrong turns and a closed road later, we found ourselves parked in front of the chapel that changed our life so many years before. We all got out of the van stunned that we had found it and it still looked the same. Soon a woman came out of the main house and I am sure was wondering why these four American tourists were standing so reverently and speechless in front her husband’s machine shed.
St. Gilbert to the rescue again…through his interpretation he explained the story and why we were there. The kind lady was the daughter-in-law of the late Senora Fisher and she confirmed that the old woman had died. She also said that although the building was now her husband’s machine shed (with a very visible cross still on the peak of the roof ) it was indeed the little chapel that Senora Fisher had built for healing.
We could not go inside but we were allowed to take some photos in front of the chapel. When through, we graciously thanked her and left. We took a short walk to the beach and soon lost ourselves in quiet gratefulness, savoring so many memories that were flooding our being. We looked for the beach house where he had lived those few months, now more than two decades later. We knew from relatives that the house itself had burned to the ground less than a year after we had stayed there and had been built over again.
It was difficult to ascertain where the exact spot was, but it made no difference we were there. We felt it. We then took a very quiet ride to La Bufadora, and ate some delicious fish and shrimp tacos, sipped a cold Corona and we pondered our miracle as it was happening. Our angel, our friend St.Gilbert of Ensenada had certainly come through. We walked back to our van after our light repast and asked Gilbert to take us back to the town of Ensenada itself to seek its memories yet to be revealed.
On the drive back I told Gilbert I used to frequent a place back when we were here last, it was only a street vendor but they had the best tacitos I have ever had in my life, it was on the corner of Seis and Ruiz in a non-tourist part of town. Gilbert exclaimed with excitement, “I was just there yesterday!!”
He took us right there. Nothing had changed at all; my God, it looked like the same place I had walked up to 21 years ago, and had the best taste treat of a lifetime. El Norteno was still open for business. The store front was just a cubby hole with green and a white tiled counter housing the cook, the grill, a white chest refrigerator, a soda cooler, and the lady whom you paid.
You ordered how many you wanted and when you were full you gave her the count of how many eaten and you paid up. It had not changed one iota in 21 twenty years. There just happened to be a local musician, leaning against his pick up serenading all who ordering and those who were eating. No place to sit, you stand and enjoy.
The first bite of that little taco gave me a jolt of true reality. For a brief moment, I was back to a life lived so long ago. I was swept away. Paying for our nine tacos, one torta, and two Coke lights we left to find Gilbert waiting silently in the alley. I pulled that crisp one hundred dollar bill from my wallet, along with a few hundred pesos that we had left to give as a tip.
I almost had to push it in his hands, as he seemed reluctant and embarrassed to even take it. We hugged warmly as I placed it in his hands, cupping them tightly and simply said, “Thank you, Gilbert, thank you so very much.”
He modestly responded: “Good memories, I am sure you had, as well as some sad ones, Va con Dios, my friends. He nodded his head with that same knowing wink he gave me four hours earlier on the pier. He then disappeared from our lives as quickly as it had entered it.
We had been touched by an angel, St. Gilbert of Ensenada. We returned home to Minnesota, bodies tanned, spirits filled. I walked through my gardens around the farm, which had obviously experienced a recent hard October frost in our absence. Most of the leaves on the plants and flowers were a dark cucumber green and drooping loosely.
Soon, I was surprised to find a batch of forget-me-nots seemingly unscathed. they stood defiant amongst the other browning flora and scattered leaves. I had planted these plants as seedlings in the spring, and although a spring blooming plant, they had thrived but did not bloom this spring or summer, not at all…until now.
In the center of the patch was one tall stem with the most brilliant tiny blue flowers I have ever seen, like staring into my son’s eyes. I felt warm all over, and I heard Kelly clearly say to me, “You have not forgotten me, I will forget you not.”
Copyright 2008 by Mitch Carmody.
After suffering many familial losses from a young age and ultimately with the death of his nine year old son of cancer in 1987 Mitch Carmody, has struggled with the grief journey and how grief is processed and perceived in this country. He published a book in 2002 called Letters To My Son, a journey through grief. To learn more about Mitch and his work, go to: www.HeartlightStudios.net.Tags: grief, hope