One night last week I offered my daughters steak for dinner and my 15 year old, Ale, turned up her nose. “Steak AGAIN?” she complained. At first my jaw dropped in surprise and a little righteous indignation –I sure didn’t take steak for granted when I was growing up!
Then I remembered.
My daughter Jesse wasn’t supposed to die, we had survived two months of brain surgery, rollercoaster ups and downs, and now she was safely in rehab where the only question was how long before she would talk and walk again. The tumor had manifested very late, and very ambiguously, until suddenly in March 2004 she seized again and again and was admitted to the hospital. She never returned home again.
After the shock and numbness began to fade, I realized how unprepared I was to lose the daughter who was my closest companion in life. I had been a single Mom with a twenty-year old son away at college and a nine-year old daughter with a learning disability who required extra parenting . Jesse and I were extremely close. Her face greeted me when I opened my eyes every morning and was the last thing I saw at night.
I knew I wasn’t done with parenting. I knew I could never replace Jesse, but I had a physical craving to care for children, and after only a few months I realized I could satisfy some of that need in a way that would benefit everyone and honor my Guatemalan-born angel.
And a year later, I brought my daughters Alejandra and Diana came home from Guatemala. Ale and Di are sisters abandoned to an institution in Guatemala City called an ‘hogar.’ Hogars are home to some orphans, but mostly to the large numbers of children given up by parents who cannot feed them. These hogars are themselves impoverished, supported by meager contributions from their sponsoring church and by the rare foreign adoption. The children are marginally better off than if they on the streets, and they are basically warehoused until the age of eighteen. Nobody adopts older children, everyone wants healthy infants.
My daughters had been left at the hogar when Ale was four and Di was about a year. It took five years for the government to declare them ‘abandonado’ and another year and a half until I brought them home. In their short lives they had experienced hunger and starvation, loss, physical and mental abuse, and extreme neglect, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my United States middle class life. I’m talking bug-ridden gruel for breakfast and nothing else until a thin garlic soup for dinner. The hogar had no flushing toilets, no hot water, one caretaker for fifty children. The euphemistically named ‘school’ was without books, paper, or pencils. The girls were punished by starvation, beatings, sleeping outside in the cold, kneeling for hours on uncooked rice. They arrived here with lice, tuberculosis, and giardia, funguses, rotting teeth, and eyes badly needing glasses.
Five years later, standing in the kitchen looking at my steak-disdaining child, I remembered when I first met them. I remembered them staying with me at the Guatemala City Marriott, the looks on their faces at the buffet breakfast , awestruck at being able to eat as much as they wanted. They spent twenty minutes in the bathroom running their hands under hot water in the sink (“Que rica!” they said – “how rich!”) and they had to be shown how to flush the toilet.
And now, a MERE five years later, Ale is turning up her nose at steak. Some people might think she’s spoiled. I’m grateful she’s a normal teenager, and humbled by the strength it took her to get to normal. I know of no one as courageous as my two girls, no one who has overcome worse odds. It’s such a lovely thing to be able to ‘spoil’ them, to feed them so well that they have the luxury of being picky. I’m comforted that although Jesse is lost to me forever, her spirit lives on in these precious girls, her sisters. I’m grateful that all three of us were given second chances. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!