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The Man Who Prayed
This is the story of Fernando, as it was told to me. I did my best to reconstruct the story with the fragments that were given to me over time, shared in reminiscent pieces as the memories were dug up slowly over late nights and mournful moments.
Many years ago, in the 1940’s, lived a young man called Fernando. Fernando lived in a valley of the mountainous region of Utuado, Puerto Rico. Fernando made his home in a secluded area, residing in a small house on a hill. The elevated foundation of the concrete house was laid with cinder blocks, so as the land receded, one could see right underneath the house, to the very bottom. Behind his humble home was a lake, around which Fernando made a living as a landscaper. A simple man, he would cut the grass and the Thespesia bushes with his machete. No tractor, no mower, just a quick swipe from right to left until the job was done. He would keep the grounds of a summer house that belonged to a lawyer across the lake, and the grassy pasture around it. Every morning, at five AM, he would pack his thermos of black coffee, climb aboard his dingy motorboat, and cross the lake to the lawyer’s house. In the evenings, he would swim back and forth for miles across the vast expanse of the lake. He came to know the lake, with all of its pits and depths and sand traps. A dangerous lake, as it was, Fernando revered it, mapping its ebbs and flows, knowing it like a friend.
Fernando was known as the man of the lake, the only person who knew how to navigate those angry waters. Often, Fernando would be contracted to help police investigators make dives to recover the bodies of those who were swallowed by the wrath of the lake. He needed no tank, no goggles; he would just cross the lake with his boat to the spots where he knew that the lake took her vengeance, and he would jump in, and pull the innocents out.
One afternoon, in the still quiet of the valley, Fernando’s rest was interrupted by a man banging on the door of his house. The man cried for help, as he gasped for breath. A child was drowning. He got stuck in a sand trap, and his body could not be found. Without missing a beat, Fernando ran to the scene, and jumped into the lake. 1 minute under water. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. After almost 4 minutes under water, Fernando pulled the boy out of the sand trap, dragging his body onto the shore. Miraculously, the boy lived. What happened after that is a mystery.
After many years, the lake became dark with pollution, so Fernando no longer swam in it, although he still traversed the waters from the safety of his boat. He met a woman called Carmen, a fiery Pentecostal who held her heart in one hand, and her faith in the other. The two became inseparable, as Carmen and her children became everything that he never thought he could have. Her children were grown, but he raised her grandchildren, loving them like his very own. He loved the grandchildren, saving up every cent in order to pay for their bus fares and their afternoon ice cream. He would hide the quarters and nickels on top of the door frames, where every afternoon, he would reach up, grab a handful, and distribute it among the three children. He brought them to school every day, mounting them on the small boat, and bringing them across the lake to the place where the bus would pick them up. When they grew up, he paid for their college, and would travel for hours across the island to bring them groceries and snacks so that they would not hunger.
As a young man, Fernando was stubborn. He was stubborn in his beliefs, routines, and in all the ways in which he learned to live. Upon meeting Carmen, he was her total opposite. Carmen was the truest kind of Pentecostal, praying every day at five AM, noon, and six PM. She was a pious woman, who never missed a Sunday. Fernando, on the other hand, was a man without faith. Kind as he was, he lacked knowledge of God. He liked to drink and laugh and make mischief. Carmen would drag him to church for every service and prayed for him every day. It took many years, but after a hard-fought battle, Fernando accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. After being diagnosed with a condition which filled his lungs with water, he slowly began to settle down. He continued doing his work, taking a pill every day to keep his body from flooding. It was at this time when he also began to pray daily. He would lay down on his stomach, and stare out his bedroom window, gazing on his beloved lake. With hands clasped above his head, he would approach the Father. Every day, before trekking out to the lake, he did this.
After many years with his condition, Fernando developed a new routine. He would cut the grass on the weekdays, rest on Saturday, and go to Church on Sunday. Every couple of weeks, he would take a trip to the city to go to the store, pick up his pills, and do his grocery shopping. One weekend Fernando made his routine trip to the city to pick up his pills, and unlike all the other trips, for some reason, the pharmacist would not give him his prescription. Whether it was “would not” or “could not”, unknown to me, the pharmacist did not fill his prescription but sent him home empty handed. He was told to return in 3 days- then, he would be attended.
The three days of waiting were painful. He continued his work, trying to keep to his schedule to distract himself from the slow stiffening of his body.
On the third day, when the sun began to rise, Fernando was found dead in his bedroom, laid down on his stomach, facing the window that gave view to the lake, with his hands clasped above his head.
A man seemingly gone without reason, for one pill could have saved his life; But also, a man whose last breath was a prayer. He learned to love his Father, and so the Father loved him. Surely, the conversation that he began with the Father that morning was then completed in heaven, for the Lord is merciful, and Jesus bridged the gap between heaven and earth. This, I’m sure, Fernando knew.
The funeral was held soon after. The whole town gathered at that small Pentecostal church hidden in the mountains. Many showed up, for Fernando was abundantly loved. The crowd gathered and paid their respects; they laughed and cried, sang and danced, and celebrated a life that ended in victory. Life after life, they called it, allowing that hope to ease their sorrows.
But then from afar, a man came running. He ran into the church, weeping bitterly. The guests looked at him, puzzled- nobody was able to identify him. The man sat at the altar and continued to weep. After many long minutes, someone approached the man and asked, “how did you know Fernando?”
The man looked up and said, “When I was a little boy, that man saved my life.”
That night will never be forgotten by Fernando’s grandchildren, for they often recall the moment after long nights of celebration, or when rummaging through old photos.
“Your great grandfather was a wonderful man,” my mother would always tell me, “let his faith be an example for you. For after all the life he lived, Abuelito Fernando will always be remembered as the man who prayed.”
“I love the Lord because he hears my voice
and my prayer for mercy.
Because he bends down to listen,
I will pray as long as I have breath!
Death wrapped its ropes around me;
the terrors of the grave overtook me.
I saw only trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Please, Lord, save me!”
How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
for the Lord has been good to me.
He has saved me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
And so I walk in the Lord’s presence
as I live here on earth!
I believed in you, so I said,
“I am deeply troubled, Lord.”
In my anxiety I cried out to you,
“These people are all liars!”
What can I offer the Lord
for all he has done for me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and praise the Lord’s name for saving me.
I will keep my promises to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
The Lord cares deeply
when his loved ones die.
O Lord, I am your servant;
yes, I am your servant, born into your household;
you have freed me from my chains.
I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people—
in the house of the Lord
in the heart of Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!”
During a group prayer time, Psalm 116 was read aloud as the gentle hum of the ceiling fan whirred away, and the wall clock ticked its irregular beats. The words of the Psalm wrapped us up like a warm blanket in the presence of the Lord.
I looked out the large paned window and saw the greenery converging together over the horizon. Mountains. The telephone wires hung down in low arks, and just above the neighboring roof, I could see the green and yellow shades blend upward- the peak of the mountain.
In looking at the peak, I was flooded with a haze of nostalgia. The humid air stuck to the window panes, forming fog around my view of the lush summit.
There is a certain smell when hot and cold air meet; you can smell the air condensing into water. It smelled cold, like all those years ago, in Puerto Rico.
I remember being in the small bathroom with a wooden door that was once a purple curtain. I remember the butterfly shaped mirror that was too high for me to reach, and across it, two metal racks full from top to bottom of toilet paper, baskets of clips and combs, and bottles of hair products all in bright colors, with shower caps and loofahs sticking out on all sides. The upper right corner of the back wall was made of thick glass bricks, the ones where you could see distorted rings of light and colors. The corner piece was missing up there, resulting in a hole in the wall, where the breeze came in right above the removable shower hose. My grandmother’s bathroom was a glorious place to cool off when I would wake up in the mornings, sticky with sweat, or in the midday when I smelled too much like the sun. I would bathe in the ice-cold water, shivering, and jumping in and out of the icy stream as I washed my hair, using a different shampoo every day. I would then sit outside on the hammock, refreshed, and read books – well, one book- and it took me the whole summer to read. The words were hard, and I didn’t have internet for my slide phone- or an English dictionary- so I would guess what the words meant, daydream, and rewrite the paths of the characters. I always liked the ending though; it agreed with my newly written fantasies as I laid on the hammock that was attached between the house wall and the garden wall. I’d sit and stare into my grandfather’s window and wonder about the cherubim statues that resided in the upper corners of his four-poster bed. I would stare at the colors and shapes of his model car collection and imagine what they would look like in full size. I would scan the cluttered room, and when nobody was looking, try to peep through the double opening glass windows with the sharp corners that my grandmother always warned me about. I never really got the chance to stick my head through the windows because every day at twelve and six, my great grandmother would go into the room and get on her knees to pray to God. I remember playing hide and seek with my cousins and running in on her praying. She didn’t even notice. Embarrassed, I slowly walked away, closing the door behind me.
If it wasn’t the prayers that kept my head out of the window, It was my grandmother standing in the kitchen, which had double opening windows right next to Abuelito’s room. She’d cook rice and beans or chicken or whatever she had in mind for that day. She’d pass me fruits through the window, whether strawberries or grapes or even starfruit from her trees, and she’d watch me read, look at the garden, and try to play with the visiting kittens. Sometimes I would watch Abuelito magically appear on the roof with his machete to cut the coconuts off the large and shady palm trees. Sometimes my grandma would come sit outside in the white plastic lawn chair, either painting her nails, dying her hair, or reading the Bible. She’d watch me swing and swing and swing. She would tell me stories about my cousins, or her garden, or king David and Jesus. I’d draw her pictures of whatever she was talking about; and like all the other drawings from the years before, she would put them in her bible, and use them to mark the pages.
She would smile and praise the Lord every time she opened that bible, but at the time, I didn’t understand how she could be so happy to read a book that was so hard to understand- I definitely didn’t smile when I opened my book. How she could read and nod at the pages, I never understood. I could not comprehend the certainty of the text. She never made up her own plot for the heroes in her book, but fell in love with the complex lives of the people, even when they failed to meet her expectations of what she thought they should be.
That summer, like the years before it, I would sit and study memory verses and bible questions for my church’s annual “Bible Olympics”. I’d sit with my little binder full of papers and a pencil. I’d check off the questions that I knew the answer to, and reread the answers over and over again to the ones that I didn’t. It became easy because I’ve always been competitive, wanting to know it all; to be like my older brother who knows absolutely everything. He could definitely have read my book and understood all of the words and plots. I would memorize the words and repeat them out loud on that hammock.
At the time, the things that I repeated were just words to me, phrases and strings of sentences that just flowed off the tongue. Abuelita would applaud me and hug and kiss me for those words, as many others did, for she understood what those words meant, and I did not. At ten years old, I was happy though, because the declarations of Jeremiah 29:11, and Isaiah 40:36 were promising. They had a stored amount of good, and carrying them felt as joyful as carrying the quarters that Abuelito would give me in my pocket for the ice cream truck that would come up the street in the afternoons. Those words were so refreshing, like the cold showers of the day, and exciting and mysterious, like the way that Abuelito would appear on the roof.
As I got older, I began to pick up that book in place of the other stories that I would struggle to read. My vocabulary grew, my knowledge grew, and hence my love for the book grew exponentially. I began to understand that the hero of that book never failed, and although he didn’t fit the expectations that the people had for him, He still managed to save the world. In a beautiful and wonderful way, he saved the world- not just once, but over and over again. What a beautiful ending, to be left open with the words “It is finished.” Though the pages stopped, the story kept going, and is still going. The hero’s work is done, but the story is still being written.
Those were the days that I began falling in love with the Lord. Slowly, like the way that the droplets formed on the window panes, until the Lord of the book became my own. Faith. Oh, a childlike faith. These days it seems so complicated, with the company of worry that grows one up so fast. But looking into the window, I saw a child, and was reminded how sweet it is to lay the burdens that grow you up down at the feet of Jesus.
Childlike faith, like the one that King David speaks of.
That faith that allows me to talk to the hero of the book firsthand, the thing that I watched my great grandma do everyday. The faith that taught me that the book, over time, would become my best friend. It made me the person that I am today. There is so much still waiting to be uncovered by that book, and every day, the seeds that were planted grow and take root, transforming into a garden more refreshing and more life-giving than even the most beautiful of gardens that I sat under the shade of all those years ago.