I am a little in love with the flight attendant’s voice, speaking Spanish. It’s not every day I get to hear that song, even if it is crackled by the plane’s sound system. She doesn’t even sound like she’s a native speaker, but I don’t care. Her voice is letting me know what I need to know. At our current altitude we have crossed into Guatemalan airspace. We can expect to arrive at our destination of Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport on time. As we finish the final leg of our flight, damas y caballeros, please enjoy the beautiful clouds and the view of at least one of the volcanoes.
I raise the stiff shade of the window beside me and first see Guatemala as a single, snaking road cutting through tiered fields. So much green divided into different shades and textures. The moving shadows of the clouds above make it seem alive. When I see the first volcano, my breath catches. Around me, the other passengers are also staring out their windows. Some have their hands in their laps, their lips slightly parted. One Guatemalan man puts his hand on the glass and whispers something I can’t hear. In the reflection, I can see his eyes are shining. This quiet unveiling of the country feels like prayer; in the face of such beauty, all of us praising and pleading in private.
I reach for my husband’s hand. What has brought us to Guatemala is the same thing that brings many couples to this country — parenthood. Or, in more concrete terms, adoptive parenthood: an incompliant body, a ream of paperwork, a handful of photographs, hope.
* * *
Love is more purposeful than we allow ourselves to believe. Looking back, there is proof that we were supposed to come here years ago. Having lived with a chronic disease already for years, I’d tell my friends I wanted to have five children, despite knowing that I would not put my body through pregnancy. Before we were engaged, my husband wrote a thesis project on fatherhood for his Science Fiction Literature class, focusing on the role of adoptive fathers. Too American in Spain and too Spanish in America, I spent years learning to walk the balance only a child of two countries knows. My husband’s childhood was riddled with hard lessons. He learned early on that parenthood is not a privilege of title, but of action. The tributaries of the love that brings us here began in each of us at birth.
What we were not ready for was the waiting; nothing we’d ever experienced had tested our emotional endurance like months of endless waiting. We waited for our home study, our fingerprints, our governmental approvals, our dossiers. We waited for the birth of our daughter, then the birth of our son. We waited for opportunities to send care packages, to sleep with the stuffed animals we were sending so they’d smell like us. We waited to record audiotapes of us reading poems and stories in two languages. We waited for emails with pictures and medical updates, for phone calls from our agency. We waited for the giant international adoption machine to move our files from the American Embassy windows to social workers’ desks, to the Procurador’s office. We waited for friends to bring their children home so we would know that this whole adventure was not the making of our imaginations.
After eight months of this, every day was like a walk through fog; we were existing but not quite alive. On Mother’s Day, I had a meltdown. Not seeing me in physical possession of a child, my friends and family members had ignored my motherhood. I couldn’t understand why people were recommending I spend my time taking hot baths, or getting my nails done, or freezing casseroles. It all seemed so pointless. Instead, we decided to get on a plane and fly two thousand miles to visit our babies. We knew we would have to leave them after our visit, that we wouldn’t be able to travel again to bring them home until after their adoptions were finalized in the Guatemalan courts. Friends and family members thought we had lost our minds. No one could understand that at least the pain of leaving would be rooted in the joy of living with them for a short time.
* * *
As we begin our descent near Guatemala City, the view from my window reveals the endless green beginning to give way to signs of population. I see occasional flecks of reds, yellows and blues from cars. Houses begin to appear and multiply. We fly over sandy patches of construction sites and over a soccer stadium. Low office buildings press against each other like dominoes and then, with a bump, the plane’s wheels meet the runway, we have arrived. We are in the same country as our children. I start crying at this startling intimacy, at what it is like to be here, carrying the love for my daughter and son inside of me.
* * *
Each of them has two names: a first name we’ve given them and a middle name from their birth mothers. Our daughter’s name means “gift from God”; our son’s means “God will establish.” We want divine protection and blessings for them. I wonder if the names we’ve picked for them, based on our dreams and their pictures, will fit them in person. I need something to do while we speed through the heavy, chaotic Guatemala City traffic in of the backseat of our lawyer’s car, so I worry.
The foster mothers have brought the babies, I don’t know if by bus or foot or car, to the law office and are waiting for us when we walk through the door. I miss a beat from the shock of seeing them in the flesh. I start to walk towards their reflection in the mirrored wall rather than towards them. My husband’s hand gently steers me so only he and I notice this.
The babies don’t look like their pictures. We can identify them as the babies we’ve been staring at for months, on the refrigerator, on the nightstand, on our bulletin boards, but the camera has not managed to capture the exact glow of their complexions or the flash of their particular pairs of dark eyes. Now we see for the first time the habits of movement of their tiny mouths. They each form small “Os” while their eyes rise up the height of us.
We’re offered a conference room where we can get to know the babies. Carmen, our daughter’s foster mom, places Maya into my lap. I have tried to prepare myself that she will cry but she doesn’t. At four months old, she widens her dark eyes to take me in and holds herself very still. I speak to her in Spanish, whispering “Soy tu mama” over and over. Carmen leans over us, knowing how to soothe Maya before she even needs it. Sarahi, our son’s foster mom, places Joaquin into my husband’s arms. He’s only two months old, still really a newborn. His upper lip folds slightly over his lower one and his eyelids droop sleepily. We sit together at the conference table letting the curves of our children sink into our bodies, letting them learn to become one with us.
Our lawyer interviews the foster moms about Maya and Joaquin’s schedules, writes down instructions for us about how much they eat and when, what they like, and what they’re afraid of. The information amounts to two stapled sheets of paper, which we place into the diaper bags Carmen and Sarahi hand us. The ladies comment on how much Joaquin looks like my husband, the long legs and strong nose. I read so much into this comment — that they are reaching out, that they think we fit together as a family. I am trying hard to be so respectful, so grateful in this situation. But I am not sure what, if anything, is coming across.
* * *
I forget that I am in a foreign country until we leave the office building. We are told that there are certain precautions we need to take; crimes against American tourists, particularly adoptive parents, easy targets, have been on the rise. The ladies leave ten minutes before we do and walk out of a separate exit. We leave through the garage again, receiving blankets over our shoulders and the babies’ faces. We can unveil them in the lawyer’s car but must sit in the back where the windows are tinted.
I want to say that I am unafraid, that I can be a fearless traveler — but I’m not. The sight of so many cars poured onto the roads, of so many people crammed into Jesucristo buses astounds me. We see uniformed men holding shotguns on street corners and plainclothed men with machine guns on the back of a truck. I have never been amongst so many weapons. I have never visited such a politically unstable country. We learn that the house we will be staying at is safe: there are gates, barbed wire, guards. In the backseat, my husband and I wrap our arms around Maya and Joaquin and pray for our family’s safety.
* * *
For a few days, I’m something other than a mother only in my mind. I’m a practicing mama. My clothes smell of Similac, my cuticles smell of Johnson’s baby shampoo. I lose weight as I flutter between one need and another.
Our babies are beautiful, they are patient with us while we learn their tricks. I make Maya laugh by showing her the pretty girl in the mirror. I soothe Joaquin by wearing him swaddled against my heart. Todd slow dances with Maya to put her to sleep. He stays up late into the night, rocking Joaquin in the chair in front of the television. Our disposable cameras make them smile and blink hard after the flash. They reach minute fingers into my hair and across Todd’s beard for the swoosh and the bristle, respectively.
In the early afternoons, before they go down for their naps and the seasonal rains break over the city, we carry them for walks through our host’s garden. Creeping green vines and fists of tropical color spill over the tiled path that snakes through the garden. There is something mesmerizing about it, otherworldly. I could walk through this garden over and over again.
* * *
If Joaquin makes it home in time for Halloween, we’ll dress him up as Charlie Brown. He’s got the same squiggly mouth and haircut. I don’t know if he’ll be home though. I don’t know if he’ll always look like this.
He’s having trouble staying asleep tonight. Maya keeps taking his blanket and pulling it over herself. He opens one eye, then the other, and starts a low whining, telling me he can’t settle himself. I take him in my arms and walk into the bathroom so he won’t wake Maya. Todd is in the shower and the water helps cover the noise.
We are within five feet of both Todd and Maya but it feels like we are all alone. The steam wraps around us. The humidity makes his sparse black hair begin to curl around his face. I wish I knew the songs his foster mom sang to make him relax and give in to sleep. Since I don’t, I sing the first song that comes to mind: U2’s “If God Will Send His Angels,” which seems particularly appropriate, since Joaquin’s middle name is Angel.
It’s a slow, hesitant song. I have listened to it about a thousand times, but never sung it to anyone. Joaquin doesn’t mind. He holds my face in his eyes while I sing and sway with him gently. I sing, “and I don’t have to know how/ and I don’t need to know why/ and I don’t wanna promise/ cause I don’t wanna lie/ just know that I need you tonight.” On the wings of these lines, he lets out a great sigh and lets himself really nest against my heart. Within seconds, he’s asleep.
I am careful not to stir him when I start weeping. This is the first time my son has chosen to lay his head against me. Todd and I are leaving Guatemala tomorrow. I tell myself I won’t think this is the last time, the last time it will happen, the last time it will happen for I don’t know how long.
* * *
Whatever I previously thought hell was, it wasn’t. Instead, it is this.
We bundle Maya and Joaquin up and pack the diaper bags. We hug our children and kiss them over and over again; we spend the car trip back to the law office breathing in the smells of their hair, their sweat. We hand them across a conference table back to their foster moms. I can hardly breathe, I am so shaken by sobbing. On the way out the door, the ladies each give us a hug and tell me they will take good care of the babies. We repeat “Mami y Papi les quieren” — “Mommy and Daddy love you.” It’s the last thing the babies will hear us say until we see them again.
When they are gone, we’re left in the empty meeting room for a few minutes. The lawyers don’t know what to do with us. It is awkward to be in this situation without any provisions for grief. I wonder what’s wrong with other people that they don’t weep like this. Todd’s crying, too. Alone, we lean in to each other.
* * *
Our plane doesn’t leave for another twelve hours. We have to get through one more night. The room reminds me that everything my body has learned in the past few days, it must forget. I have no reason to sway when I stand, no one to swaddle or balance on my hip.
It takes hours for me to fall into sleep but even when I finally do, I fall into panic. Half-asleep I throw the covers off of the bed, run around the room, screaming and searching for the babies. Todd wakes up and reaches me before I run down the hall to the rest of the house. He has to bring me out of my nightmare; hold me and tell me that they’re gone, that this is the way it must happen.
In the morning, I find Maya’s purple hair clip on the bathroom floor. It’s so small but I’m thankful for something of hers to hold in my hand, something of hers I don’t have to let go of.
* * *
In a tiny room of my self, I believe that if I can capture the act of waiting, I can free myself from it. Buckled-in and red-eyed on the La Aurora International Airport’s runway, I photograph the left wing of our plane, the Continental jet beside ours, the USAir jet beside it, the afternoon drizzle hanging in between. With a flash I force them into limbo. May they always be frozen in time, waiting to take off or fall so I don’t have to be.
It doesn’t work. Back in Pittsburgh, I pushpin the photograph to my bulletin board but Todd and I are the ones still waiting. I try again with an essay. If I can write a beginning, surely I must find an ending. But this trip is not about a beginning or an ending. Instead it is that molasses middle, there’s no escaping it . . . yet. But I keep writing and living the days; I chronicle the side of love I hope not to continue to bear: I chronicle the waiting.