In the darkness of early morning, Velma Torres Rivera wakes up, walks downstairs to the living room and lights a candle.
Her son smiles from a photograph as she prays. His uniform hangs on the wall.
Soon, she and her husband, Felix Torres, climb into their silver Lincoln MKX to drive the five hours from Homestead, where they live, to Apollo Beach.
They talk about what awaits them 280 miles away.
A boat ride, definitely. A chance to talk about their son, certainly. A step toward healing, they hope.
• • •
Last month, the couple got a call from Kelly Kowall, the founder of FAVE Boating Expeditions. She invited them to join her for a boat ride and a picnic to remember their son and others who have died while serving in the military.
Kowall, of Apollo Beach, started the nonprofit last year with the simple idea that a day on the water might ease the pain of parents and friends of lost soldiers. She lost her own son, Army Spc. Corey Kowall, on Sept. 20, 2009, when his vehicle overturned as he was on his way to support other troops in Afghanistan.
The soldier who stayed with Corey as he died will be on a boat trip this month.
"It's just good to be able to get away from everything," Kowall says of the boat trips. "It's just a relaxer."
She heard about Rivera and Torres — and their son Christian Guzman Rivera — from a mutual friend.
On Aug. 6, 2009, Christian and three other Marines were killed when a 100-pound improvised explosive device blew up beneath their Humvee.
The 21-year-old had been promoted to corporal five days earlier.
This boat trip will not end the suffering of Christian's mother and stepfather. They know this. For them, going on the boat trip is just another small thing they do to remember him.
Christian had grown up on the water in Miami. He had sent home pictures of himself fishing on base in Okinawa, Japan, before he deployed to Afghanistan.
The water reminds them of him.
• • •
The boat ride is on a Sunday afternoon. Joining Rivera and Torres are many veterans, one active duty soldier, other families who have lost loved ones and volunteers who simply enjoy coming along.
They all climb aboard two boats at Circles Restaurant and set out on the 20-minute ride to Beer Can Island. It's sweltering and the water is rough. The waves chop at the boats, bursting into a mist that provides nice relief in the heat.
At the island, Rivera and Torres wade to shore, carrying beach bags over their heads. Everyone is soaked, everyone is smiling. Some people set off in search of shark's teeth; others stand and share stories.
Rivera reaches into her purse to show something to Kowall. It is a metal chain, and on the end is a dog tag, slightly bent and black around the edges.
The dog tag says, "Guzman Rivera, A Pos … USMC, M, Catholic."
The military had told Rivera they hadn't recovered anything from the site of the explosion. But 14 months after Christian's death, Rivera received a package in the mail. A mechanic had found the chain in the wreckage, and it had made a long and wayward journey through the mail before it got to her.
Rivera normally keeps it in a small glass dome in her son's memorial room at home. It's a mom thing, she tells Kowall. She wanted something that was with her son when he died. Kowall wraps her in a hug.
• • •
Cruising back to shore, everyone is quieter than they were on the ride out. Torres looks toward the shore, his wife leaning against him. It's Father's Day, his second without Christian.
Rivera and Torres spend that night in Apollo Beach and the next morning they meet Kowall and her mother for breakfast. The date marks one year and nine months since Corey's death.
Rivera knows how it feels to mark every tiny anniversary. She still writes on Christian's Facebook wall. She's already planning his two-year celebration of life.
The boat ride was only a small milestone in their long journey without Christian.
Biz Carson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2441.