Bundled up in her late son's favorite jacket, a north San Diego mother fought back tears Friday as she pleaded for the return of a very special locket she recently lost - a locket that contains the ashes of her only son.
"That locket is...the angel that helps me walk every day and get up every day, and helps me to keep going in life," mother Cristina Parodi-Araya told NBC 7 San Diego, her eyes filled with tears.
Standing in front of Fashion Valley Mall, Parodi-Araya said she's desperate to find the necklace, which she believes she lost when she visited the mall on Monday, Nov. 30, during her lunch break.
Parodi-Araya describes the necklace as an 18-inch-long silver chain with a 3-inch, silver, dangling locket charm in the shape of an angel. On the bottom of the angel charm, there is a little screw. Inside the angel are the ashes of her son, Francisco Jose Araya, who passed away eight years ago at the age of 19 from the rare cancer, Ewing's sarcoma.
"He was my only child. After 16 months of watching my baby die a little bit every single day, on April 30, 2007, I held my son for 10 hours while he agonized and, finally, returned to the Lord's house," Parodi-Araya recounted.
Parodi-Araya, a single mother originally from Argentina, said she brought Francisco to the United States when he was 3 years old with hopes of a bright future for her only son.
Francisco was diagnosed with cancer in late 2005 after finishing his first semester at Southwestern College, where he studied business. He dreamed of being successful, his mother said, and of one day taking care of Parodi-Araya so she wouldn't have to work so hard.
"I miss his hugs. The kisses," she said, looking down.
"And, especially, he used to tell me, 'How is the princesa today?' It means, 'Como esta la princesa?' 'How is my princess today?' And I used to tell him, 'I'm not the princess, I'm the queen. Don't forget,'" she smiled.
Two months after Francisco's death, Parodi-Araya said a friend told her about the possibility of putting her son's ashes into a keepsake locket.
She went to the mortuary and asked about it, picking out a locket in the shape of an angel
because "angel" is the nickname she used for Francisco since his birth.
"I picked that angel and I carried with me, in that angel, his ashes," she explained.
On Monday, she wore her "angel" as she did every single day - close to her heart.
Parodi-Araya, who works at the San Diego County Office of Education at 6401 Linda Vista Rd., told NBC 7 she drove to Fashion Valley mall during her lunch break.
She parked on the backside of the lower-level of parking lot B near Macy's that day and visited three stores: Macy's, The Disney Store and Banana Republic.
Parodi-Araya believes she lost the locket during that trip - either at the mall or in the mall parking lot,
or maybe in the parking lot of the San Diego County Office of Education.
She didn't realize she had lost the locket until a few hours later, as she drove home.
When she went to touch her neck where the jewelry typically hangs, it was gone.
She was devastated.
"I was driving home - I live in Escondido - and, all of a sudden, I was at the stoplight on Linda Vista [Road] and Genesee [Avenue] and I looked down and realized that my angel was not here. I went into panic; I pulled over and started to cry," she recalled.
Frantic, Parodi-Araya called her friends at work. They looked everywhere, but did not find the locket.
She rushed back to the mall, but her search turned up nothing.
"I was desperate, but nobody saw my angel," she lamented.
Over the past five days, Parodi-Araya has contacted the mall's lost-and-found service, guest services and the main office and given the mall her personal information. Still, nobody has turned in the locket.
The mother has created fliers with a photograph of the necklace and her contact information and put them up around her work and at the mall.
Again, no leads.
Parodi-Araya said she touched and kissed the locket every day, and often talked to her son's ashes inside. She said losing the locket has not only left her with an overwhelming sadness, it has left her feeling a heavy sense of guilt.
"I always ask him for help when I encounter any tough situation. And now I feel that, as a mom, I truly feel that I didn't take good care of my child," she cried.
"I feel so empty because everybody knows me because of my angel. My closest friends always used to say hi to Francisco, " she said, touching her neck where her locket typically rests. "They know that was my Francisco Jose."
The mother is now pleading for the return of her necklace.
"Please, whoever found that locket, whoever knows of the person who found it, please give me a call and let me know where I can pick up my angel. No questions asked. I just need my baby back," she begged.
Parodi-Araya said she has no hard feelings about whoever may have picked up the locket because she knows that person has no idea of the significance the necklace holds for her.
"I've been heartbroken. I've been crying. I'm desperate. I'm just begging to whoever found that angel - I'm positive that person doesn't know there is a mom that is heartbroken because I need my angel back," she added. "I have his ashes there, so please, have a heart. And know that it is so important for me to get my angel back."
"I know, in my heart, that the person who found that locket doesn't know the meaning that it has to me. That person didn't realize there are ashes in that locket. I'm sure that the person doesn't know what to do with it," she continued.
The mother is hoping for a Christmas miracle, she told NBC 7.
"Please, it's Christmas and they say that miracles happen [during] Christmas, and I'm just waiting for my miracle, please."
For now, Parodi-Araya will keep praying for the return of her locket. She will remember her son by wearing his favorite brown jacket and looking at his photographs.
"He closed his eyes with this jacket on. It's keeping me warm now - until my locket comes back," she said.
Still, the mother said nothing compares to carrying Francisco's ashes with her every day.
There's not a day that passes that she doesn't think of her son, of his smile, his warmth, his hugs and his positive outlook in the face of a terminal disease.
She said having the locket back in her hands will make her feel complete once more.
"I know that my angel is watching over me. I know that he's at peace. But I need my locket back," she said. "I really hope that whoever found my locket returns it to me. If it is the Lord's will that my angel, my locket, takes a different path, I will accept that. And I will have to learn to live again with that part missing."
Parodi-Araya said anyone with information about her lost locket can call her at (619) 402-8000 or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.