I’ve believed in God ever since I was three years old, when I first had an awareness of the higher being that created me and the world I lived in. From that point on, I felt myself growing closer to God over the years as my inquisitive mind wanted to understand what my maker was all about. Even during some pretty challenging times throughout my life, I still believed in God and still felt his presence.
The past twelve years have been especially challenging for me. I lost my car, my driving confidence, memories, and some brain function when I was t-boned by a pickup truck. I lost many people in my life to death, mental illness, or misunderstandings. I lost my energy, my health, and the quality of my voice to autoimmune disease. I lost chunks of my body to skin cancer. I lost feeling and movement in half of my face when I had a tumor removed from my forehead. Throughout all of my trials I remained confident that God was in control of the seemingly bad stuff that was happening to me because I always felt his presence. The things that happened to me made no sense, but I trusted that my creator knew exactly what he was doing with my life and that it was happening for some ultimate purpose.
I know that I’m not unique in the challenges and suffering I’ve faced. I know that so many people have had much worse things happen to them. But after a young friend lost his battle with cancer and it seemed that my two years of daily prayers requesting that he be healed had fallen on deaf ears, I finally cried out, “God, where are you?!” For the first time, I did not feel God’s presence. I didn’t doubt his existence; I just didn’t feel him. I try to approach everything – even tragedy – with humor, so I decided that since I didn’t feel his presence God was probably on vacation.
Then, this past winter, my husband and I went on a much needed vacation to Playa del Carmen in Mexico’s Yucatan. The Caribbean sunshine and authentic Mexican food was a good distraction from the reality I had been experiencing back home in frozen Minnesota. I’m obsessed with photography and was thrilled that I found many opportunities to capture impressive images as we explored beaches, jungles, and Mayan ruins. I had taken more than 1,100 photos over a week’s time with my Canon point and shoot camera. On the last day of our trip, I took a photo of me and my husband sitting on the bed in our room at the Playa Maya hotel. Then we headed to our favorite beachfront bar, Yan Ten, for one last happy hour. I took some photos of seagulls sitting on a wooden arch on the beach. After that, my husband and I wandered downtown Playa del Carmen looking for souvenirs, and for a unique place to eat dinner. Around 6:30 pm my husband headed back to our hotel room to use the bathroom while I headed to a convenience store. We planned to meet at our hotel then go out to eat after I was done shopping. On my way to the store, I noticed that the Nuestra Señora del Carmen Church that sits on the corner of Playa del Carmen’s Founding Father’s Park looked especially beautiful as it was framed by the setting sun. I was moved by the spiritual vibe that seemed to be emanating from the church and I wanted to try capturing it. I reached into my purse for my camera to document the moment, but it was gone. I knelt down on the sidewalk and frantically emptied the contents of my purse, hoping that it had slipped under something, but my camera was definitely gone. I was devastated as I realized I had lost hundreds of photos capturing beautiful moments, like that of my husband fulfilling his childhood dream of visiting Chichen Itza and climbing to the top of Coba. I was also devastated because the battery in the camera was from my son. He had given it to me for Christmas and it meant a lot to me because of the thought he had put into my gift.
I stood up and turned toward the church. I suddenly sensed the presence of my young friend who had died from cancer. I felt him telling me he was working on getting my camera returned to me. I thought my grief had caused me to go completely crazy. I couldn’t believe my mind would concoct a scenario that would have someone who died so tragically attend to something as ridiculously trivial as my lost camera. I stared at the cross on the church’s steeple and gave God an ultimatum for the first time. I said that if God wants me to believe that he’s really there, and if he has really been hearing my prayers, I desperately needed him to prove it by returning the camera to me. I knew the likelihood that my camera would be returned in a busy Mexican tourist city was probably non-existent. But I felt like my ultimatum was a good way to communicate to God how tired I was of having frustrating things happen to me – and how tired I was of his apparent absence in my life.
I stopped at a few places my husband and I had been since I last used the camera. When I asked if a camera had been turned in, I was told it hadn’t. I didn’t find the camera on the surrounding sidewalks where we had been walking. I returned to the last place I had used it, which was by the wooden arch on the beach. After searching the beach for my camera in the twilight and eventually getting approached by a gang of men, I ran back to the hotel room and told my husband I lost our camera. Together, we returned to all of the places we had been since using the camera, with the hope that someone had eventually turned it in if it had fallen out of my purse. I felt that it was more likely that it had been stolen from my purse that was always packed tightly and securely, and that it would probably be pawned. The camera was only worth a couple hundred dollars, but the memories it held were irreplaceable.
My husband and I finally gave up searching for the camera. Around 7:30 pm we ate dinner at a restaurant my husband chose. It was called Tucan and it was off the beaten tourist path. I felt like all I wanted to be doing was searching for my camera in the places we had been earlier, but I didn’t want to cheat my husband out of an authentic Mexican meal. While we ate we talked about my camera. He said he felt bad for me. I told my husband I was trusting that God had a reason for me losing the camera, but that I felt bad for losing the photos of the moment my husband’s childhood dream had been fulfilled at the ruins. He said that photos meant nothing to him because he had the memories to take home. It struck me that photos mean everything to me, because I live behind a lens. I’m always so busy capturing impressive moments that I don’t actually experience them until later, when I’ve looked at my photos. I had a week’s worth of time spent in Mexico that I hadn’t completely processed because I didn’t actually see what was on the other side of the lens. I realized that was an unfortunate way to live. I finally realized that there is more beauty to be experienced when life is processed in real time, instead of later in a scrapbook. I decided that I should start making a point of living in each moment before I lost the opportunity to experience them.
During our meal, my husband and I also talked about who might have the camera. I said I hoped it was someone like me, because I would look at the photos on the memory card and I would see all of the images of the hotel property and I’d figure out where it was in Playa del Carmen. I would then take the camera to the hotel manager, show him the photos of the owners of the camera and ask that it be returned to them. I planned to leave my contact information with our hotel management when we left the next morning in case someone turned in the camera after we returned home. I felt like that was wishful thinking, because I couldn’t imagine our hotel management going through the effort of reuniting us with our camera. I decided that, if my camera had been stolen to be pawned, I hoped it resulted in a Mexican family having food to eat for a while.
After eating, we walked to the church where I first realized my camera was missing, and I took photos with my phone. Then I took several photos of the park the church sat on, and of our favorite bar. My phone’s camera is really poor quality, but at least I would have some photos of our time in Playa del Carmen to take home with me. Around 9:00 pm we decided to head back to our hotel room. We walked up a side street from our bar on the beach and turned back onto 5th Avenue, the main tourist strip in Playa del Carmen that is packed with people in the evening. Right after we turned north toward our hotel, a guy who was heading south on 5th Avenue shouted through the crowd to my husband, asking if he was staying at the Playa Maya. My husband was going to ignore him because we had been harassed all week by people presenting different angles to sell us something. But this guy was different than the street peddlers we had previously encountered. His accent sounded a lot like ours. My husband responded, “Yeah.” Then the guy asked if my husband had lost a camera. I almost fell over.
My husband and I walked over to the side of the avenue to talk with the guy and his wife, who were from Toronto, Canada. They found the camera on the sidewalk near a library courtyard a few blocks over from where we were standing. They came upon it about fifteen minutes after it must have come out of my purse. We had been in that area because there was a little festival going on there earlier in the day with music and food vendors. My camera might have fallen out of my purse when we were quickly crossing the street, or it might have been pulled out since the sidewalks were so crowded with people. As soon as the guy found the camera on the sidewalk, his wife started looking at the photos to see if she could discern who the camera belonged to. She recognized the bedspread we were sitting on as belonging to the Playa Maya hotel because the couple travels to Playa del Carmen a few times a year and she has done a lot of online research concerning local hotel options. She sent an email to our hotel letting them know that they found a camera belonging to one of their guests. She also posted a message on Trip Advisor about the camera they found. They tried to find the Playa Maya hotel to give the camera to a manager, but couldn’t find its hidden location on the beach. So they took the camera back to their hotel room and put it in their safe. Then they headed to a late dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. They were just a block north of their restaurant when the guy recognized my husband on 5th Avenue from the photos I had taken of him earlier. Together, the four of us walked back to the couple’s hotel about fifteen minutes north on 5th Avenue. And roughly two and a half hours after I delivered God the ultimatum, we were reunited with our camera.
Yes, God’s really there. He has been hearing my prayers. Some of his reasons for things that happen will always remain a mystery. He wants me to fully live in each moment because the beautiful gift of life is too short for each one of us. And if he does take the occasional vacation, it’s in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
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© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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