September 25, 2018

Tragedy struck, and that led Alma to God

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos.

Morro Bay, Calif. – At first I thought she was a kook or nut or something.

I have a big habit. In late afternoon I pedal my trike to our McDonald’s for a coffee. I bring a magazine or two. Coffee in hand, I plunk myself at one of its small tables, open my Time or Family Handyman or Smithsonian—borrowed from our public library— sip my coffee and read. It’s a highlight of my day. For variety, I do the same across the street at our Burger King now and then.

Well, one day I spotted her, also alone at a small table. A lady in her mid-40s, matronly and dark-skinned but lightly. No food. No beverage. Totally engrossed. She had a huge book open – volume is a better word — with a big notebook open next to it. She had pen in hand. She was scrutinizing the book and taking notes.

The pages of the big book were plastered with stickers. Blue, red, yellow, pink stickers. Notes scribbled on them. Line after line of the volume were

Alma and daughter Zeann at work at McDonald’s.

underlined in black or blue. Whole paragraphs high-lighted with a yellow marker. Oh, well. None of my business.I went back to my Family Handyman.

Two or three days later, same thing. There she was. Again engrossed.  I had a hunch. Now I was sure. That big book was a Bible.  Was she studying for a divinity degree or something?  Oh, well.

The next time, same thing. But now a pretty teenager was sitting at the next table, but had moved closer to her mom, well, so I assumed. Also with a big book open, but smaller. A Bible, I thought. It, too, had stickers in various colors. She also was reading and taking notes.

It was busy today. But the table this side of the woman was vacant. Good. I  was so curious. I squeezed behind it so I’d be right next to her. She paid no attention. What the heck was she up to?

I leaned toward her and caught her attention.  “My, oh my!’ I said with a smile. “You are working hard! That’s the Bible, isn’t it?”

She looked at me.  Still held her hand.

“Are you a minister?”

“No, no. Yes, the Bible. I study it every day. I love God!” She tapped it with her hand. “And I’m struggling to get to know Him better!” Now she tapped her chest several times.  “Knowing God is so, so important to me.”

“Please tell me more. I’ve seen you working like this several times now. I’ve noticed how terribly important it is to you. I‘m fascinated.”

And she told me her story. Needed little nudging. Was bubbling with enthusiasm.

Well, her name is Alma.  She is a teacher here. Spanish. Lives here with her husband and their three children. Excuse me. Two now, so sad to say.

Her story turned out to be a long one.  Grew up in Mexico in a small town, like ours here, but poorer. Was raised on a ranch. Her dad was a cowboy.

Alma and her hubby Bayrn promised three things.

He moved the family north, to New Mexico, for more money. A better life. It’s a story familiar to us.

She was 11.  She liked school and dreamed of becoming a teacher. Got into the University of New Mexico. She met a guy she liked. Studying chemistry. He was from Morro Bay.  As a senior at our high school here had heard nice things about that university. Love! Marriage!

Eventually Bayrn – yes, unusual name — moved her and their kids back here. He no longer does chemistry. She teaches half time in our Del Mar Elementary School.  She and Bayrn have started what they call their Spanish In Action program, They run the program in three schools after the regular school hours. The parents pay. It’s a small business. Alma and Bayrn are ambitious about it.

A remarkable story. I enjoyed it. Now I put a hand on her Bible. “Please tell me more what this is all about.”

‘”Sure.” She shifted to see me straight on. “Understanding God is my passion now.  Yes, passion! It’s the most important thing in my life. Well, you know, after my family.  I study here at McDonald’s because no husband, no kids, no TV, no dog. Usually I come alone.”

She smiled. “McDonald’s is just perfect! But, I do the same thing across the street sometimes.”  She pointed that way. She meant Burger King.

I told her that I blog. Enjoy writing about interesting people and topics. And this looked interesting to me. “Would you mind?”

“You think this would really interest people?”

“Yes, very much. ”  She smiled. And nodded. And I got right to it. “Have you always had this great big passion?”

“No.  Oh, I believed in God.  But that wasn’t knowing God! There’s a big difference.  It happened when my little boy died.  His name was Kaeden.  Our only boy.  A wonderful, wonderful little boy. Kaeden had asthma, which is not that rare, of course. We took him to a doctor and he gave us medicine and we treated him. Well, people live years and years with asthma. But Kaeden became very, very sick. And died. It was very fast. So fast. He was only five!”

I thought I had misheard his name. Asked her to repeat it. “Kaeden. Yes, an unusual name.”

She looked me straight in the eyes. Her voice rose. “I was crushed! I felt a big knife had been driven into my heart. Nothing this bad had ever happened before. It made me sick. I couldn’t work. I cried.

“Of course I thought about God. Felt I should know Him better. And that intensified my interest in the New Testament.”

I put my hand on hers. “Thank you so much for telling me about Kaeden.  Yes, so tragic.  I can see how badly you hurt. I feel so, so sorry for you.”

She was quiet a minute. ”I had an aunt who used to say a few words from this book often.” She tapped it. You know, when things weren’t so good. She’d say, ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,’ which is very tiny, ‘you can battle anything. Anything!’ I have never forgotten that.  But I wondered, was it really, really true?”

She paused, “I’ll show you the exact words. Just one little minute!”

She ruffled though some pages. “Here it is.” She lifted off a blue sticker that covered those lines.

“It’s a bit longer. It’s from Matthew 17:20.” And read the passage to me. “He (Jesus) replied: Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this the mountain, ‘move here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.”

Alma looked at me again. We were on a first-name basis now. “I felt I had no relationship with God. God my Creator! I wanted a relationship with Him.  I needed it. He told me it was possible! I bought a Bible and here I am.”

That was a few years ago. Well, she wore out that Bible.  She bought this beautiful leather-bound one.   She says she has read it 18 times. By the way, the Old Testament part in the first half has 34 books and runs from page 1 to page 1039. It’s the part that is the basis of the Jewish faith. The New Testament, about Jesus’ ministry and teachings, has 27 books and runs from pages 1043 to 1353. She’s done a lot of reading!

Meanwhile, watching us and listening had been her daughter, Zeann, Alma reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Zeann is our precious, wonderful daughter,” she told me. “She is a sophomore at the high school and on the honor roll. Look at this book she’s studying! European History! And it’s a college-level book!”

Zeann smiled. Blushed. Very sweet.

Their oldest, she told me, is Syler, 19.  He was the valedictorian at his high school graduation two years ago.  Received a grant and is a sophomore at the University of California Santa Cruz and is doing fine.

By now Alma knew I was serious about writing this up. She saw all the notes I was jotting down.

“Alma, such unusual names. Your husband is Bayrn. Your first son Syler. Your poor little boy Kaeden.  And she is Zeann. Are these names from the Bible?

“No. No. We made them up. Bayrn and I. We did it together, one at a time. We feel every person is distinctive. We wanted them to have distinctive names.”

Reminiscing more, she told me that a very good year was 2011   ”I became an American citizen! And was baptized at the Nazarene Church in Los Osos.”  Which is a town next door.

To do a good job, I felt I should chat with her husband.  She smiled and nodded. “No problem. Bayrn is such a wonderful husband!  You’ll like him.”

She then confided something in me. “It didn’t take long for us — him and me — to feel we were right for one another. But we had discussions.  We agreed on three essentials.” She smiled.  I would cook. But he would do the dishes and the laundry. And no screaming, ever! And now, that we love God together!”

We met two days later again at McDonald’s. The three of us.  Bayrn is a giant of a man. Has a quick and warm smile. Likes to let her do the talking. I could see his affection for her. How she was truly very dear to him.

I said to Alma again, and to him now, that it’s easy in my line of work to make mistakes, and I work hard not to, and I wanted to double-check many of the details. And we did that. It went well. She was happy. And so was I.

Pedaling home, I thought about all this.  Tried to summarize it. And these words came to me. “Alma suffered this great, incredible, life-changing tragedy. And that’s how she found God.”

That doesn’t happen to many of us.

~ ~ ~ ~

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