In 2014, due to the generosity of friends, we had our first (and to date, only) trip out of the country together. Together, we went to Costa Rica, where we stayed with some friends in an amazing house on the side of a mountain near San Juan, overlooking a coffee plantation.
We had several adventures on that trip, and we have some amazing pictures of what was truly a paradise. We played with monkeys, stood in the Pacific Ocean, walked through ancient churches, and met some amazing people with whom we shared long meals and laughed much.
But my favorite part of that trip was that we took what has become my favorite picture in the world.
There is so much I love about this picture. Let me explain some of them.
I guess the first is that smile on Renee’s face. We had been married for almost 5 years at that point, and we were finally on a big trip together. One thing we do well together is travel, and this was (and still is) our biggest trip. She took a big risk marrying someone who does the sort of rarely well-funded ministry things I do and we honestly never expected to be able to go to a place that is legitimately considered paradise.
And then there is that scar peeking out from under her shirt. When we were dating, her heart began to show symptoms of the heart disease that killed her mother, and she had to get a pacemaker with a defibrillator, to shock her in case her heart stopped. Before she would get a transplant a year after this picture, it would shock her at least 8 times, saving her life multiple times.
Her health was precarious in those days. Two weeks before this trip, she had had an ablation to prevent the wild rhythms her heart would swing into. But more about that in a minute.
Another thing is that we are there, in literal paradise, because of friends. It is a reminder to me that I get to do work that some people find valuable, and because of that, they invest in me and us and want us to have good things. This trip happened because people loved us, supported us, and invested in us. The wealth that sent us on this trip was the wealth that comes from friendships and community.
You see those glasses she is wearing? Those were $14 frames from Walmart she bought because that was all we could afford at the time. It sent me into a spiral of depression that, because of my career choices, she could not afford “nice” glasses, but for the years she wore those, she got compliments everywhere we went, and she would light up. I don’t know that $1000 frames would have ever made her happier.
I bought her that handbag early in our marriage. It was handmade by a Raleigh designer, and we had seen it in a shop downtown while window shopping. It was more than $150, which was a huge amount of money for me then, but I had seen the way her face had lit up when she saw it, and I knew I had to get it for her.
And let’s not forget that this picture is taken in front of one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, in the cloud forest of Costa Rica, in the middle of a wildlife preserve. The roar of the water, the mist that hits your face, the sheer amount of biodiversity around you – the toucans in the trees, the birdsong as you walk through the woods – it really is the most beautiful place I have ever been.
But the main reason this is my favorite picture is none of those things. It is because of what happened within minutes of this picture being taken.
The day this happened, we were at La Paz Waterfall Gardens in the highlands of Costa Rica. It is an amazing place, with a wildlife preserve, an aviary, and this long, winding trail down into the valley, past the waterfall, and back up again.
This picture was taken and almost immediately, her heart went into one of its wild rhythms it used to do in those scary days before she was transplanted. This would present itself as crushing chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
We had walked for more than a mile at this point, all downhill. When it happened, we had no choice but to walk out – more than another mile forward, all uphill, with probably 500 stair steps in various places. It was walking a few steps forward, and rest. It took us hours to cover what should have been 30 minutes or so.
We had no real choice – we were at the bottom of a valley, on a trail barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The only way out was through.
But she did not complain. She gutted it out like a boss, and worked her way, slowly but persistently, up the side of that mountain with a heart doing a thing that, under other circumstances, would have sent her to the emergency room. The image of her forcing herself up the side of a mountain in the jungles of Costa Rica is a funny one to anyone who knows Renee, but don’t be confused – I married a woman who, when she puts her mind to it, is unstoppable.
And all of that is why this is my favorite picture.