(*trigger warning: some graphic descriptions about plane crash)
The morning of Wednesday, August 6th, 2014, I woke up with a deep anxiety in my heart. I didn’t know at the time that my father had been up knee deep in prayer for me all night, in the quiet of his home back in Arkansas. Meanwhile, my heart was about to explode in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I had made a decision to climb the biggest mountain of my life. I don’t know how tall it was physically, but as tall as my spiritual eyes could see. I wanted to back out of it, but I didn’t think my friend & pastor Bobby would let me. You see, I had invited him and my friend Erin Calaway to climb that mountain with me. I knew I couldn’t do this alone. A steep climb to my own human calvary. The place where my mom was alive last. The anticipation of a whole week of waiting finally had arrived.
The song that God placed in Bobby’s heart that morning as he and Erin lead our 6:45am devotional broke and strengthened my heart all at once. I will climb this mountain with my hands wide open… Erin spoke about Jesus taking Peter, James, and John, to the mount of transfiguration where He would reveal Himself to them. Surprisingly, I saw that God had appointed this time for us 3 to go up and meet with Him as well. My heart felt weak and most definitely I was leaning on my own understanding, not fully seeing that my life was in the hands of the maker of heaven. God was asking me to give it all to Him, overcome fears, and trust that He would make something beautiful out of this. But how can God make something beautiful out of the most horrible tragedy in my childhood? My mom taken. My mom burnt. My mom gone. Ripped and shattered as the plane crashed on the side of a mountain. I’m told by a survivor, another mother, that her last thoughts were of her children. Vivian Pellas consoled me exactly 25 years ago and said my brother and I were the last thing she thought about as the plane tore in 3 parts on the morning of October 21, 1989 at 7:20 a.m. How did she know this? Because that’s what ran through her own mind as a mother, as she ran away from the burning fuselage of the plane, her skin literally falling off of her body, until a farmer rescued her and her husband. I was the last thought on my mother’s mind.
So I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to see this damned mountain that I hated so badly. I was gonna climb it fiercely. I was gonna climb and rush to where she was last, trying to make sense of the stupidity of a life taken too early. I was scared, but I was determined. And in case I changed my mind, Bobby and Erin were there to keep me going.
I jumped in the truck, heart racing, short of breath…Erin to my left, Bobby to my right. Our driver, Miguel, invited Carlos to join us. I didn’t know Carlos from Adam. The 40 minute ride through the bumpy, hilly city eventually took us to a dirt road where Miguel stopped to ask strangers for directions (the Latino way) 3-4 times.
Do you know how to get to the memorial of the plane victims?
He asked fully expecting each person to know exactly what he was talking about. The men on the side of the road looked a bit confused & curious, squinted their eyes up towards the mountain, and made hand signs that signaled it was WAY UP THERE. Just keep going straight, with no real directions on how to get there. We would eventually see the steps on the side of the road. A few moments I feared, “We’re not gonna find it. I came all the way here and we’re not gonna find it.” But I trusted Miguel. He was determined to find it. I held my breath.
Halfway up there Miguel pointed to the wind farm up on the mountainside and the wind mills gently turning in the wind. That’s where we were headed. That’s the green, hilly mountainside where the plane had crashed, shocking the nearby residents living in little wooden huts. A mix of a loud crash, screams, fire, chaos, death. I reached for Erin & Bobby’s hands and gripped them, afraid I may just jump out of that jeep. Good thing I had the middle seat. As Erin rolled down the window to the dusty road to shoot a picture as we got closer, the wind mills started speaking to me about the winds of God’s mercy. I couldn’t breathe.
How we found the steps on the left side of the road don’t ask me, but all of a sudden we were there. We slowly got out of the car and Miguel quickly started climbing up the 50+ rocky steps. I looked up. It looked high. The memorial was staring at me at the top of the steps, as if beckoning me, as if wondering how come it took me so long. Carlos also went ahead. I grabbed Erin’s hand. Bobby lagged behind. I took the first few steps and out of my inner bone marrows came the despair, came the crying, came the floodgates of my sadness. My legs felt weak. My knees couldn’t hold me and I dropped to my knees. I didn’t realize I was speaking in Spanish and that Erin/Bobby couldn’t understand what I was saying,
Señor ten misericordia de mí. Yo no puedo. Yo no puedo hacer esto. No puedo subir. Dios mío ten misericordia.
I cried out to God. Have mercy on me Lord. I can’t do this. I can’t climb. God have mercy on me. And God had mercy…Carlos had mercy and he came back down, swept me around my waist and said,
Let’s go up, we’re going to do this, you have to do this.
The howling started. I would look up and it felt insurmountable. Unreachable. Unbearable to walk into my pain. I could feel my mom’s presence. I had flashbacks of scenes of the accident collected by eye witnesses and newspaper clippings. Fire. Despair. Screams. Pain. Confusion. The 11-year old child in me cried out from within me.
Mamita Linda… (mommy…)
Between my body shaking with clamoring and my cries of despair, with Erin crying to my left also sensing my pain, and Carlos’ strong arms holding me on my right, I slowly made it to the top and collapsed on my knees and on my face. I couldn’t look up. Later Bobby would say that as he watched Carlos swoop his arm around my waist to hold me, it was the clearest picture he had ever seen of Simon helping Jesus carry the cross. What a gift. I by no means compare myself to Jesus, but if I’ve ever gotten minutely close to carrying a large rock or elephant on my shoulders while trying to climb a mountain, it was this time. It was redemptive to have this Honduran man help me on my way up. He showed me that God’s arm is not too short to help. And He sends His helpers to carry you.
On my face before the memorial I had no strength to get up. Looking up felt too painful. I don’t know how long I sat there but I was stuck, paralyzed with fear and emotion colliding. Eventually Bobby came and said something like,
Come on, get up, let’s go. He extended his hand to me and had to pull me up. It took everything within me to not fall back down. I didn’t want to walk. I couldn’t carry my own soul it was so heavy. He walked me around to the back of the memorial where I guess he had discovered a metal gate to enter the fence surrounding the memorial. I didn’t think there was a way to enter. But we entered in until we faced the tall black plaque with all the names, In Memoriam… through my tears I try to scan the non-alphabetical names until I see my mom’s, staring at me at eye level, the mercy of God to be able to see it that up close.
MARIA DEL VALLE LOZANO M.
The child in me saw that name and collapsed again. The wailing resumed. The childhood memories flooded my heart. The waves of deep aching stung. And the ache, the ACHE in my heart was so deep, I was burying my mom all over again. If Bobby hadn’t held me I would have collapsed. Then something snapped when my friend, my pastor, declared,
We have entered the holy of holies right now Inés…
This is where it gets complicated for you (dear reader), because it’s hard for me to put into words how I felt, what I saw, what I perceived, or anything. And I’m sorry about that. Words don’t do this experience justice. How I entered the most Holy place, led by my Shepherd. How I went past the veil by the way Jesus had opened up. How I felt the embrace of heaven strong around me. Surrounding me. Protecting me. How I felt the kisses of heaven. Like a Father kissing his daughter. I sat at His feet by the throne of grace but more intimate than that, I was sitting WITH Him curled up on that seat: held. He’s never let go. I feel the heartbeat of heaven loud in my ears. The love of God flooded every inch of my heart, my mind, my soul, my bones. All this love flooded like a waterfall as if the heavens had opened up and they weren’t holding back on me. I felt that God was pleased with me. I felt beloved. But all of this still in the midst of my deepest pain. I would hear Bobby pray but also I was gasping for air as I wailed. I had flashbacks of my mom. I’m a small child running, laughing, she’s watching me smiling, with a twinkle in her eye. I feel loved by her. Held by her. The wind picks up and God speaks mercy over my hair, my trembling body, surrounding me with His strong arms. His heartbeat. I don’t know how long I stood there as God embraced me in a most tangible, pure, sacred, holy embrace. But I was growing as I was groaning. The 11 year old in me was being soothed, comforted, consoled, and it’s almost as if she was being shushed, rocked, quieted, and the woman in me became stronger as the little girl in me was having her heart healed. Her heart freed. Her little sobs became softer and my heart got stronger.
My mercy stopped you from getting on that plane, remember? You were supposed to be on that plane.
How do you deal with this. HOW do you deal with this that the God of heaven shut the doors of death on my face and said, “No, she’s mine, and it’s not her time.”
PSA: my 4yr old son Nash literally just got up from watching cartoons and came and gave me a kiss on my lips, picked up my hand and kissed it, too. If that isn’t destiny & purpose I don’t know what a mother is.
Bobby stopped praying for me and told me I could take as long as I wanted there by myself. He leaves that inner sanctuary and I clear my eyes to look at my mom’s name. I trace every letter with my fingers. I watch my right hand tracking her name. My right ring finger holding her wedding band. My hand that my dad says looks just like hers. The last time her wedding band was on this mountain, it was on her right ring finger, which is where I carry it so I can carry her close at all times. Now I’m closest. More thoughts ran through my mind than you want to read. I don’t know how long I stood there. My heart was healing. I looked up to the bright, blue, sunny sky and asked God, begged, for Him to lift this weight off of me, it’s 25 years heavy. And slowly He’s doing it. Miraculously He’s lifting the darkness and flooding me with Joy. A wave of Peace surrounds me. Grace fills me. Mercy shoots through my veins. I begin to worship in Spanish with my hands held high, open and willing to receive… I sing about His mercy, about His faithfulness, about how beautiful and glorious He is. I see the glory of God. I stand in the presence of God. I see His face. I begin to smile. SMILE. The love is so deep it overwhelms me. I melt in His peace. The wind keeps howling gentle and steady. His mercy steadies me.
I invite Erin to come into the circle and we take pictures. I tell her about my mom a little bit.
Then we all 5 hold hands and pray and give thanks to God. Carlos leads us at the end with Amazing Grace. We climb back down the mountain. My face has stupid joy all over it. I can’t stop smiling. The peace helps me breathe. One step at a time and at the last step Miguel tells me to shut that door and not look back.
So much more happened, was said, was felt, was seen, but there’s no room here to share all this intimacy with the Most High and with my friends that carried me. I have the best friends in the world. I do remember feeling like Moses when he stepped down from Mt. Sinai, because Bobby, Erin, and I felt speechless. We could barely talk. We couldn’t speak. We just looked at each other and smiled and gave tight hand grips that spoke a million words. The moment was pure, sacred, holy. The purging and catharsis was intense in such a short period of time. The joy and peace have remained to this day. I’ve been so afraid I would forget or lose what I felt and heard. My hands are still wide open to the heavens and I continue to process all that happened. I had to enter through the door of suffering and pain up that tall mountain, but the embrace of His presence was worth it. I’m in love. I’m in love with a wonderful, merciful, beautiful Savior. I’m a Lover of His presence. And He has set my heart free so I can run.