12 May Happy 33rd Birthday Christina!
Thirty-three years ago today, Carol and I became parents, the world became a little better place…. and I became a storyteller.
My journal entries were small but full of heart. I tried with limited success to describe the feeling of laying beside baby Christina, watching her attempts to stabilize on all fours. Her beautiful blue eyes reflected the intensity of her focus as she wobbled on her knees while simultaneously lifting her upper body off the floor with her hands.
Christina’s accomplishment resulted in a smile that began its orchestration with the slight lifting of the lower right corner of her mouth, turning into a full blown vision of beauty that spread into every muscle of her face. To her Daddy, this was the stuff of greatness, pure magic. I was intoxicated with the beauty of her auburn hair, ivory white skin, blue eyes and red lips on a canvas of mint green from her Osh Kosh overalls.
Following “Christina’s little magic trail”, (as I described in my journals ) for twenty seven years has been a thing of beauty and grace and I am thankful that the journey has continued past the brevity of her life here on earth.
Today is a birthday celebration so I looked within my heart and decided to tell a Christina story that started in 2007 in India and concluded with the surprise of my life in Pune India, just months ago.
This is a story you may want to enjoy slowly over a cup of coffee, preferably a latte with a lovely heart. Up until now I have attempted to tell this story only to close friends, over coffee. It is my story to tell but it’s a story for all who hold a deep love for someone whose earthly appearance they can no longer experience.
In the summer of 2007, Christina traveled to India with a group of fellow Samford University students. Perhaps Christina’s source of inspiration was from our multiple viewings of “The Little Princess” with its magical tales from India while we consumed copious quantities of popcorn or maybe it was just her destiny. Either way, Christina was a passionate traveler and carried with her my gift of a Canon camera to capture the memories that were sure to accompany this trip to the country of her dreams.
Upon Christina’s return from India her stories always returned to a coffee shop with a purpose she had experienced on her travels. Not only was the coffee memorable but the shop’s purpose-driven ministry of helping others inspired Christina with the dream of one day starting such a place of her own.
After Christina’s earthly passing in 2013, I carried within my heart the dream of finding this coffee shop as a way of continued connection with her. How much we take for granted the ability to text those we love with a simple question.
The travels I have taken over the last 54 months have taken me through 34 countries and to India three times. During my first and second trips to India in 2015 and 2017 I always thought about Christina’s time there and the dream lingered about finding the coffee shop she experienced. I searched through all of Christina’s photos of India but all I was able to confirm was that her travels took her through Delhi and perhaps Pune as one photo had a sign that bore the name Pune University on it. There was also a photograph of a lovely Indian girl sitting beside Christina with no clues to her city or identity.
India is a country of over 1.3 billon people, Delhi over 18 million and Pune close to 10 million people. One does not need to be a mathematician to figure out that if I followed my heart’s desire for finding this shop, it could be my undoing.
Return with me now to 2018 as I travelled to India for the third time. My travel buddy Carissa entered southern India with me on a five week journey that would take us the length and breadth of this colorful country.
On my fourth morning in India and with sleep still in my eyes, I checked my messages. The one that caught my attention was from Uma, the director for Orphan Outreach in India. I would be meeting Uma for the first time in a couple of weeks in northern India while photographing for this ministry in the mountains of Manali.
To my amazement, Uma let me know that he had been reading my blog and came across a story that contained a photograph of a dear friend of his, WITH my daughter Christina sitting at her side. This was incredible because I had written over 300 posts since the one containing this photo, meaning that the chances of him coming across it were infinitesimally small. Uma went on to say that his friend’s name is Preeti and she now lives in Chennai. He suggested that I connect with her as Chennai was my next destination.
It was hard to catch my breath over the odds of being gifted with the opportunity to meet this person who Christina befriended during her brief time in India. So just days later during our visit with my special friend Sathish, whom Christina sponsored for nine years, he agreed to take Carissa and I to meet Preeti as well.
Preeti is married and has three little girls now; her hospitality was as memorable as her stories that recounted her time with Christina. Preeti told of meeting Christina in a coffee shop in Pune whose name she could not remember. Since my next ministry to photograph for was in Pune, my heart skipped a beat at this fortunate stroke of serendipity!
A day after our arrival to Pune, I found the nerve to tell my host and close friend, Anu Silas, about my coffee shop search. I shared the details of Christina’s trip to India in 2007 and how that after my visit with Preeti I was pretty sure that the coffee shop she loved was in Pune.
This is where the story gets really hard to believe. I told Anu about the shop and based on the vague description I provided, she said, “I think I may know of the one” ?!?! The name Coffee Jar did seem familiar to me and I had high hopes… but really?? Pune is a city of almost 10 million people! The shop that Anu referenced had opened in 2006 and had since spread to seven more shops so even if this was the store that Christina frequented, I doubted seriously if I would be fortunate enough to find the exact one.
Upon entering Coffee Jar with Anu, I met owner Cini at the counter and told him about my daughters 2007 college mission trip and how there was a coffee shop she frequented in Pune. I bravely asked Cini if he knew of a shop that met that description. Expecting an incredulous laugh from Cini I was surprised when he asked if I had a photo of my daughter Christina. Feeling it to be an act of futility, but still intrigued by his interest, I provided him with a photo I had been carrying of Christina (sitting beside Preeti) during her time in India 11 years prior.
The look on Cini’s face made my heart stop as his smile spread widely.
“Oh, of course I remember Christina”, (now here is where I need your trust as I am not making this up, his exact quote was “she was special”).
I had not informed Cini yet of Christina’s passing. Tears just started streaming down my face as Cini went on. “I see two thousand students a year pass through my shop while they are on mission trips here in Pune and I cannot tell you the name of a single one but for Christina.”
“In the brief time that Christina was here,” Cini continued, “she was always asking about ways that we might use proceeds for our coffee sales to help people who sleep on the streets. Since then we have started selling bags of coffee, mugs etc with the proceeds going to help those in poverty. Christina helped inspire me to do that.”
I would not have felt any more lightheaded if God himself had appeared and told me these stories. To be honest, I felt God’s presence in a supernatural way in this store and it felt as though God was speaking through Cini to deliver a message.
Cini and I chatted and I explained Christina’s story, her sponsoring of a little boy named Sathish in India for nine years, her passing and my coming to India myself to meet Sathish. Cini shed tears of his own when he learned of Christina’s passing. Cini went on to share that he normally does not come to this store location, but today, for some reason, he felt as though he was suppose to come, in his words, “I now know why.”
I rejoined Anu and her two daughters and Carissa at the table to catch my breath and savor this special moment, grateful that I was with friends that deeply understood this unusual path that God has me on. Anu and her daughters’ own story was one that I had fully embraced upon hearing it in Thailand two years prior. I came here to tell their story and God was gracious to add meaning to my own.
“The things we do outlast our mortality. The things we do are like monuments that people build to honor heroes after they’ve died. They’re like the pyramids that the Egyptians built to honor the pharaohs. Only instead of being made of stone, they’re made out of the memories people have of you.” R.J. Palacio, Wonder