PhotoMD is my ‘day job’… my own business which I run from my home. As part of my job restoring old and precious photos and documents, I am told many stories… the tales behind the images. This is one of them. The names are changed but reflect ethnicity, some small identifying details have been modified. Otherwise, this is all true, just as I was told it.
My new customer had a high pitched voice on the phone when he called. Sounded like he was a stressed fellow, but that’s not so uncommon these days. He told me he had an old photo he wanted restored, so we setup an appointment for Dan Shapiro later that week.
When he came by I saw a medium height, medium weight man with thick dark-rimmed glasses and a full head of somewhat wayward gray hair. Dan’s wife Agnes came along with him. She was tall and thin, dressed very nicely, and had a look of concern about her. I’d soon find out why. They were both in their late sixties, I’d guess. They sat down in my living room and showed me a photo of a young girl, about 12 yrs old, which was quite faded and stuck to the broken glass inside the frame. I told him that I could recover it for him and commented that she looked like a sweet and pretty girl, and he asked me if I’d like to hear her story.
When Dan was in his early twenties, he was in the service, stationed in San Antonio. One day a friend told him about a little girl of six who desperately needed a home – and needed it fast. Her mother was a good woman, practically a child herself, but her father was abusive, a drunk and a man who flew into rages and hurt his wife and child. He’d recently beaten up the mother and she was hospitalized. They wanted to get this child away from that environment as soon as possible. Dan’s job in the army afforded him private quarters – an apartment with two bedrooms which he shared with no one. He offered to house the child for a while, until a suitable family could be found.
Maria was placed with Dan, but no ‘suitable family’ was ever found for her, and Dan never pushed the issue. Over the six years she stayed with him, Maria won his heart. She was happy and kind, and wise beyond her years. There was a sadness in her that made him just want to hold her on his lap and love her. He realized that he wanted to adopt her himself. He had been able to contact her mother, Ana Teresa Munoz, and they became friends. Dan allowed Ana to visit Maria anytime she wanted. Ana Teresa’s older husband had abandoned them, but still showed up on unpredictable occasions to terrorize her and Maria. She worked but couldn’t afford to move away. Over time, Ana Teresa grew to respect Dan as much as Maria did. She knew that Dan was a rare, kind and overwhelmingly generous man – and that his caring and love for Maria was a wonderful solution for all three of them.
As the months turned to years, Dan decided he’d leave the military, move back East to his family hometown, buy a house and start a life with Maria, then 12, who by now really was his daughter in every sense but legally. Dan had started the legal process for adoption and it was well underway, with the full blessing and gratitude of Ana Teresa.
It’s a testament to the goodness of this man that he didn’t want to separate Maria from her biological mother, so he offered to move her to New York as well, putting her up in her own apartment which would be nearby. She joyfully accepted his kindness.
Dan and Maria would fly back east first, get settled, and then he’d send for Ana. After making the flight arrangements for the two of them, planned for right after the adoption proceedings were to be finished, they ran into a kink — the adoption was delayed purely by a court scheduling problem. Dan had job interviews and house-searching appointments prearranged back in NY, so Ana Teresa and Dan hatched a plan. Since he couldn’t take Maria out of the state until the adoption was finalized, Dan would leave Maria with Ana for three short weeks while he flew back to NY and made the arrangements for moving them there. They would stay in his apartment where they’d be safe.
Dan came home and told his family what he was doing. A Jewish man adopting a Catholic girl (and her mother). They were at first against it, but when they saw how much he loved Maria, how much a part of his life she was, they acquiesced, and got together to help him find a suitable place, in a good school district. Dan called Maria and Ana Teresa every day and told them of his progress. They were all excited to begin this new life, somewhere safe, away from so many sad memories. Away from the father and husband who was such a cruel man.
One day near the end of his visit home, Dan got no answer at his home, nor at Ana’s. None the next day, or the next – thankfully, it was time to return and he was glad to get back as soon as he could. He was concerned, but not particularly worried. He knew Ana liked to visit her parents in El Paso, and figured she and Maria had gone there to say goodbye.
He went first to his base apartment. No one there, and no messages. Still no answer at Ana Teresa’s either. Dan was beginning to worry – what if something was wrong? He noticed that people at the base were avoiding talking to him – acting strangely towards him. Now he really became alarmed. Dan went to visit a priest, Father Joe, who’d been working with them on the adoption, the move, etc, and was Ana’s confessor. He asked him where they were.
Father Joe took Dan into his living room, and they sat down together.
When Dan went back to NY, things were fine with Ana and Maria. They were packing, laughing, smiling all the time, so very happy. During that third week, Ana and Maria went over to Ana’s to get some things they wanted to pack for NY. However, Maria’s father, Mateo, barged in. Somehow he’d gotten wind of the adoption plans, and the upcoming move. He’d been watching Ana’s place so he could catch her. He and Ana argued angrily, Maria tried to explain to him that this was what she wanted. But he would have none of it. Ana and he were still married, and he was Maria’s father, and Mateo made it clear they would never move away.
But Dan and Ana Teresa had done their homework. Ana and Mateo were legally separated, and by court order, he was prohibited from visitation or other contact with either Ana or Maria. Ana told Mateo that finally, he could not further ruin their lives. They were leaving, and that was that. He’d have to accept it because this was a result of his own behavior and sickness towards them.
Mateo stormed out and got raging drunk. Ana thought he’d just stay away, that he’d accepted what she told him as something he could not change … so she decided to spend the night in her house. Mateo returned later that night, roused the sleeping mother and daughter, and tied them with rope, put them in his car, and headed west toward the hill country.
After about an hour, along a deserted stretch of road, Mateo pulled over and stopped the car. He opened the trunk and got out a large can of gasoline. He opened up the doors, and doused Maria and Ana, the seats, and then himself.
The woman and child were crying, screaming “NO!” “What are you DOING!” “PLEASE no, Mateo!” “Daddy, no!” but Mateo coldly, silently slid back into his seat, and turned north onto an old access road that ran along the east side of a steep scrub canyon. Soon he turned left, hard and fast, floored it… and drove the car and its trapped, terrified passengers over the edge of a cliff. The car seemed to hesitate, to float, then it slammed into the rocky ground, exploded into fire, rolled over and came to a stop. All you could hear were the flames. No screaming. No crying. No voices. Some hours later the still smoldering wreck was discovered, the bodies burned almost beyond recognition.
Father Joe had saved the newspaper accounts that described the awful scene. There was no mention of Dan as a survivor/relative, no explanation for why this happened, just a matter of fact story about a crazed man who drove his family off a cliff in a tragic murder-suicide of shocking cruelty.
Dan told the priest he wanted to see where it happened. He HAD to see it. Father Joe tried hard to dissuade him. “Dan, this is NOT something you need to see. Please listen to me!” but Dan was frantic, distraught and inconsolable. Finally, Father Joe agreed to take him to the site. They climbed into the Father’s car, and rode west in silence… Dan shaking his head from time to time, still trying to grasp it all; eventually, Father Joe told Dan that they were near the site, and once again, unsuccessfully again, tried to convince him NOT to look at it.
Dan walked over to the edge of the cliff, and looked down. He could see the scorched earth where the car landed. In his mind, he could see the beautiful faces of Maria and Ana Teresa contorted with fear, terrified, screaming for their lives. It was a beautiful, cloudless Texas spring day, a day that makes you happy to be alive, but Dan’s grief took so engulfed him that he never noticed it.
Dan fell down on his knees, sobbing. He gasped for breath. This was so surreal, so unbelieveable, so horrible, so inconcievable. He just couldn’t take it in. It felt like his heart had been ripped out of his body. The pain, the hurt, imagining the horror and dread Maria and Ana suffered – it was all too much. He slumped over and was quiet. Father Joe gently guided Dan back to his car, and drove him back to the base hospital, where they admitted Dan. Dan wasn’t crying, or talking, or reacting to anyone or anything. He just sat there, sometimes rocking back and forth, sometimes doubling over, but never speaking to anyone, with a frightening, empty stare in his eyes. After 3 months in the hospital in Texas, Dan was transferred to a mental health hospital back in New York, near his family. He remained there for another six months.
Then, suddenly… Dan forgot. He had no memory at all of Maria, of Ana Teresa, of the six years they were such a huge part of his life, no memory of the horrible murder they suffered. It was gone, and Dan appeared to be ok.
Released from the hospital, he eventually found a good job – he was trained as an engineer – married, and raised three children of his own. He seemed to be a healthy, normal man. A few years after his first marriage ended in divorce, Dan married Agnes, the woman who came with him to give me the photo to restore.
In the boxes which had been sent from his apartment in San Antonio was the photo of Maria, in a small frame. It was a 4×6 shot, taken only months before she died. Her school portrait. She was a lovely young woman – Hispanic warm-toned skin, with big, smiling green eyes and shoulder length dark blonde hair, parted on the side, and combed straight down and under. She was still a child — one who’d known suffering, but who was now so very happy. Her smile just lit up the photo.
The photo had been up on a bookshelf at his parents house all these forty years since he’d come back. He had seen it, but didn’t recognize it as anyone he knew. Dan retired from his job, and went over to visit his parents – something he did regularly. But this time, the photo caught his eye… something about it… he had asked them who it was years before. They said “Someone you knew back in Texas.” and he let it go at that… but this time something nagged at him.
He asked if he could have the photo and they gave it to him. Dan took it home, and looked at it… trying to remember who this could have been. How strange, he thought, that he’d have brought a framed photo of her with him when he returned yet had no idea who she was.
Dan started having dreams, nightmares really, in which he saw Maria… and darkness, and fire, he couldn’t help her, and a jumble of confusing images over and over … until one day, he remembered.
He remembered it all. Maria at six when he first met her, Ana Teresa and their growing friendship, Maria living with him… dancing, laughing, playing. He loved to spoil her, she was always so sweet and grateful. And smart- she was doing fantastically in school. Then, he remembered going home to NY, to make arrangements for her to come with him… and he remembered her violent death. He remembered his anguish, the hospital, everything came rushing back – like a high-speed train heading right for him.
And so Dan fell down again, sobbing, again. He was inconsolable. His family was stunned, here was a whole chapter in their husband and father’s life that no one knew anything about. And what a chapter – full of wonder and love and then, tragedy. Dan became so distraught that he once again needed to go into a mental health facility, where he spent another six months. This time, though, he didn’t forget. This time, the pain never left him. He learned to bear it, with the love and support of his wife and children, his siblings, his family. It was a struggle every day. This time Dan was able to remember and unable to forget.
When Dan told me this story, I sat there in silence, speechless. His voice broke several times – it was clear he still felt very raw emotionally about it. The room was electric, the moment was one that takes your breath away. This time, he was telling the story to select people – as recommended by his therapist. Let it out… His wife also sat there in silence. We looked at each other several times, recognizing the intensity of the pain Dan was trying to hold in. She told me later that until Dan remembered Maria, he’d been one of the most stable, sane people she’d ever met. Then, out of the blue, this happened. She did whatever she could to help him, but this memory had changed their lives. He was a different man, once emotionally strong, he was now so fragile, so consumed with renewed grief that it overtook most aspects of their lives.
It was she who suggested to him that they get the photo restored, and that’s how they found me. It’s how I came to hear this deeply personal, very emotional story. Dan was my customer five years ago, and I still think of his story. I can’t imagine living it.
When Dan picked up the finished image, he cried again, but this day, it was more of a sentimental cry rather than a cry of anguish.
And then, he left.