Going home, with love
You might think Alfonso Guerra is going home to die.
But, no. He’s not.
He’s going home to live.
The 63-year-old man from Nicaragua boarded a plane to return to his beloved home, with help from a village of supporters―Spectrum Health hospice workers, loved ones, friends and strangers.
They rallied together in speedy fashion to grant the wish that lay deep in Guerra’s heart but seemed so impossible he almost didn’t voice it.
Faced with advanced prostate cancer, he longed to go back to Managua one last time. To see the small ranch where he grew up. To embrace his family. To bask in the tropical sunshine and walk along the beach.
He hopes his homecoming will be the tonic he needs to help him live longer.
“It is very important to me,” he said, his brown eyes shining.
A long way from home
With the help of an interpreter, Guerra explained that it has been years since he last saw his homeland.
Born and raised in Nicaragua, he moved decades ago to work in Costa Rica.
He learned he had prostate cancer in 2001. On the advice of his doctor, he came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, using his life savings to pay for medical treatment.
He has lived here ever since. He found a job and a small house, with a little covered patio and room for a garden.
Two years ago, while taking English classes at the West Michigan Literacy Center, he met his girlfriend, Carolina Cnol, a woman from Honduras.
He wooed her with flowers―tulips, roses and orchids.
“He is very special, very caring,” she said, holding his hand. “Always, every time I would be in need of something, I would have no clue how he knew about it, but he would be there to provide it.”
Over time, Guerra’s cancer progressed. It metastasized and spread to his hip and leg bones.
In June, he sought care from Spectrum Health Hospice.
He described his relief at having a nurse available 24 hours a day and help with managing pain and handling personal care.
“That is marvelous,” he said.
The hospice approach provided spiritual as well as physical benefits.
“Hospice provides all the caring to make you live,” Cnol said. “He is at peace.”
One of the tasks that faced him was to make his funeral arrangements.
His hospice social worker, Shandra Hop, set up a meeting with Rosa Gonzalez, a community outreach liaison at Reyers North Valley Chapel funeral home, on Tuesday, Aug. 29. Bi-lingual and connected with West Michigan’s Hispanic community, Gonzalez often helps people arrange burials in their home country.
“I asked him, ‘Alfonso, what would you like?’” she said.
Guerra said perhaps he would donate his body to science. Or perhaps he should have a cremation because it would cost less.
Gonzalez pressed him to name what he wanted. At last, he said, “I would like to go back to my country.”
Gonzalez responded, “We will make that happen.”
His eyes grew wide.
“He was so happy,” Hop said. “It literally looked like a weight had lifted off him.”
Gonzalez contacted LaPoderosa 93.3, a Spanish-language radio station in Grand Rapids, and asked for help raising funds for a plane ticket. The radio stationed interviewed Guerra and Hop about his desire to go home.
And then on Friday, Sept. 1, Gonzalez and Cnol stood in the parking lot of Tacos el Cunado, 455 Burton St. SW, holding a cardboard box secured with duct tape. As the radio station showed the event live on Facebook, a steady stream of donors drove up. Families came, with even small children reaching into their pockets to add a dollar or two.
By the end of the day, they had collected $3,400. Enough for a plane trip home, with extra to cover medication and other expenses.
Hop made the flight reservation―first-class. She arranged for someone to escort Guerra with a wheelchair when he changed planes in Atlanta.
A treasured reunion
A few days before his departure, Guerra had his bags packed. He had already shipped all the clothing he could spare to Texas, to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
With Cnol by his side, he smiled as he talked about his childhood in Nicaragua. His favorite memory? Taking care of the cows and training the horses.
He looked forward to seeing his family―which includes three brothers, two sisters, two adult children and two grandchildren.
He smiled as he talked about his longtime favorite foods, like Gallo Pinto―a rice and beans dish, and nacatamales―a corn dough filled with meat, rice and vegetables.
On Saturday morning, he hoped to have a childhood treat for breakfast.
“They call it sour milk,” Gonzalez explained, as she interpreted for Guerra. “It’s kind of like a yogurt, but not a yogurt. It’s very good.”
Amid all the joyful expectations, however, Guerra said he had mixed emotions about his trip home. Saying goodbye to Cnol would be difficult.
Cnol agreed, her voice soft with emotion.
“I am happy and I am sad,” she said.
They plan to remain in contact by phone. And Cnol hopes to visit him in Nicaragua.
Arriving in style
On Friday morning, Sept. 8, Guerra waited anxiously for an Uber ride to take him to the airport. But Gonzalez had another idea: a stretch limousine waited at the curb.
Guerra climbed in the car with Cnol and friends for a short drive around Grand Rapids.
“This is a very big surprise,” he said.
After he arrived at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, he checked his bags. He sat down in a wheelchair and prepared to go through security.
Looking at Hop, he said, “I am happy now.”
And to all those who helped make his journey possible, he expressed deep gratitude.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for your time. Thank you for everything. Your time is very valuable and I appreciate everything that everyone has done.”
‘My heart is bigger’
As they walked to the gate, Guerra asked to stop at a gift shop. He and Cnol bought matching magnets that say “Grand Rapids MI” with a picture of the city skyline.
“That’s my city,” Guerra said. “I love Grand Rapids.”
At last it was time to board. Guerra and Cnol shared a last hug and kiss.
“Don’t forget to call me,” he said. She assured him she would call.
Cnol stood at the window and watched until the plane took off. She marveled at the number of people willing to help Guerra make his journey home.
“We are grateful because we feel the love all the people have for him,” she said. “It’s incredible. It’s like a dream come true. My heart is bigger.”
For his hospice caregivers, helping to bring about the trip was rewarding.
“We love doing that,” said Lisa Vanderwel, the director of Spectrum Health Hospice. “This is the best part of our job―making those last wishes happen and making sure people have in place what’s most important to them.”
“Alfonso is a very, very special man,” Hop said. “Seeing the impossible become possible was amazing.”