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[Voir la version française, "Mon Aventure Guatémaltèque"]
Leceta visits Guatemala, her daughter's birth country
A MOTHER'S JOURNEY INTO HER YOUNG DAUGHTER'S PAST
Leceta Chisholm Guibault
In October 2000 I had the opportunity to spend an incredible week with a wonderful friend visiting the country of my daughter's birth. My traveling partner, Ali, is an adoptive mother of a three-year-old daughter also adopted from Guatemala. To our advantage, Ali is fluent in Spanish!
I must admit that there were many moments when I felt guilty that Kahleah (9) was not with me. She made a good point ... "I can't believe you are visiting MY birth country with out ME!" To be honest, I was not sure before my trip what to expect! Could I travel to Guatemala with a precocious pre-teen adoptee? Was it dangerous? Would the sight of poverty overwhelm her? How would she react? Now ... I can't wait to travel with her to HER birth country! My photos, souvenirs and video are just not enough for my little girl.
When Ali invited me to join her on the trip, she knew from previous conversations about my disappointment in the fact that Kahleah was escorted in 1991, and that I needed this trip. Add to the fact that we are matched perfectly as traveling partners because of our shared desire to "experience" Guatemala on the same level. We both felt the importance of maintaining a relationship with our daughter's foster families, understanding this important link between our daughters and their first caregivers. We both were in search of more information on our daughter's birth families and were eager to meet a Guatemalan lady who provides a search service for adoptive families.
It was a dream come true meeting Morena, Kahleah's foster mother, for the first time. We have been corresponding for close to five years. While waiting for Kahleah in early 1991, we would receive monthly updates from our adoption agency. Besides a medical report, there was always included a photo of Morena holding infant Kahleah (Maria de Lourdes) in her protective arms. My arms ached yet it was obvious she was loved and cared for.
At the time, contact was not suggested between the foster family and adoptive parents and to be honest ... I had not thought of requesting contact. This was probably due to the fact Kahleah arrived home escorted. We did not travel to Guatemala. Kahleah spent 5 months with Morena and her family. I remember a sigh of relief when Kahleah was home with us for SIX months because in my mind, well ... she had then been with us longer than anyone else!
By the time Kahleah was old enough to really look at her life book (album) it was obvious she wanted to know "who" the lady was holding her in the photos. "Did she love me? Did she take good care of me? Was she married? Was I good? Did I cry?" Who does NOT want to answer the questions of their child? I pulled out the Social Report from her adoption documents. A few of Kahleah's questions were answered but we needed to know more. Luckily there was a complete mailing address for Morena included in the documents. I decided to write.
The first letter from Morena was full of love and "blessings". She was so happy to hear from us! She sent Kahleah a birthday card and a number of baby photos. These photos were priceless! We continued to write once or twice a year with updates on our growing families. A year ago Morena's son contacted me by email. This came in handy when in October, a week before I left, I sent an urgent email message "I am coming to Guatemala!"
On our second day in Guatemala City Ali and I anxiously waited for a visit from Morena in our hotel room. Ali was teasing me ... it was obvious I was very excited. It felt like Christmas Eve! When I heard the knock at the door my heart almost exploded. When I opened the door I was met by out stretched arms and the kindest eyes I have ever seen. We hugged for the longest time. We were not strangers. We were mothers. As strange as it may seem ... hugging Morena made me miss my late mother more than usual. I cried. I could feel from her hug all the love she had for Kahleah.
After we sat down, I could not take my eyes off her. Thank God Ali was there and ready to translate!!! I found out that Kahleah was the first baby to be fostered in their home. They were not looking to be foster parents but by chance met a lawyer in Mass one Sunday who noticed Morena's love of children. He asked her if she would be interested in taking care of a baby girl who would be adopted "North". Morena's family agreed.
I asked Ali to tell Morena that while I was waiting for Kahleah to come home, I had an awful fear that Morena would adopt her. I even contacted my agency and was quickly reassured that Kahleah was our baby and not to worry (of course there WAS the chance that her birthmother could change her mind ... "don't worry!") Then ... for some reason I was not surprised, Morena told us that because of their overwhelming love for Kahleah and the fact that she immediately became a part of their family, they approached the lawyer about adopting her!!!! My "feelings" were confirmed. The lawyer told them that Kahleah had a family "Up North" and it was impossible for them to adopt her. Morena said they were devastated but continued to love her and give her the best care possible. She said that she used to rock Kahleah and "talk to her spirit" and tell her how much they loved her, would not forget her and that God had a plan for her. Her family truly mourned when Kahleah left. They had already promised to foster another baby shortly afterwards but could not bring themselves to foster a child again. It caused all of them too much pain. (At the time, Kahleah had a 12-year-old foster sister and three foster brothers between 13 and 16 years of age.)
Morena gave me a photo taken at the airport of her family and Kahleah moments before Kahleah was escorted onto the plane. I can not describe the obvious pain in their eyes. After Kahleah left the lawyer only gave Morena two photos of Kahleah and when she requested contact he said no. He said that "due to the economical differences between foster families and adoptive families, it was not advisable. This statement saddened me. We ALL loved Kahleah.
An interesting point. Although Morena and her family are educated (Benjamin is a dentist and professor) they still feared the "baby organ transplant" rumors and were more than relieved to finally hear from us and receive photos of Kahleah.
Anyway ... we exchanged gifts and photos in the hotel room. Morena took the time to examine every photo, just as a parent or grandparent would. It was as if she could not believe her eyes. It only got better when I shared with her a video clip of Kahleah, filmed only days before. Kahleah prepared a special message for Morena and Benjamin and it warmed my heart to watch her "see and hear" Kahleah. I was so proud of my little girl.
Morena had presents for all of us including Ali. It was obvious that she took a great deal of time to choose just the right gift. She loved the gifts that I brought, especially the Christmas ornaments and a snow globe with a beautiful church and a song that played "White Christmas".
We finished our first visit with a special video recorded message from Morena to Kahleah. It was not my last cry of the trip!
Before Morena left the hotel, she invited Ali and I to dinner at her home. I was so excited! I was finally going to meet the rest of the family and see with my own eyes where my child lived for the first five months of her life ... plus, I promised Kahleah lots of video tape!
Morena's son Juan Pablo picked us up at the hotel. I think that next time I visit, I would prefer to visit in the Spring or Summer, when the days are longer. It was a little unnerving traveling all over Guatemala City after dark (5 p.m.!) yet always felt safe with our hosts.
Morena's house was not what I expected ... yet, I didn't know what to expect anyway! I probably would have thought they were "poor" until I saw true poverty. It was that evening that I discovered that Benjamin was a dentist and professor at the university. It was obvious that one could not compare the financial success of dentists here in Canada to dentists in Guatemala.
When we walked into the home we were warmly greeted by foster dad Benjamin (what a sweetie!), foster sister Carla, her husband Ronaldo and their year old son Diego and foster brother Flavio. Flavio and foster brother Juan Pablo still live at home. They are all now in their early to mid twenties. Older brother Jorge had to work so we did not meet but I was presented with a great photo of him as a macho teen with baby Kahleah in his arms.
For a moment I felt like Princess Diana with all the camera flashes going off right and left :o) They were video taping every move Ali and I made too! It was clear that they were very excited to have us in their home. We were a link to Kahleah. I felt the same way. What I could not get over was how "comfortable" I was! Even though I did not speak the language ... each hug, eye contact, holding of hands ... even breathe ... felt like being with family ... close family. There were moments that I would just stand facing Morena or Benjamin, holding their hands, looking in each other's eyes. We would not say a word and just smile, gently squeezing each other's hands with tears in our eyes and Kahleah on our minds.
Morena prepared a delicious typical Guatemalan meal. Benjamin first said Grace and again brought me to tears. He included in his prayer his overwhelming emotion at finally having us visit after "years" of promises to come to Guatemala. For that moment ... although Kahleah was not with us, Ali and I were enough.
It was a precious gift to have each family member record a special message for Kahleah. All were filled with emotion while "remembering". After dinner I showed the family the video of Kahleah and her 6 year old Colombian born brother Tristan at home. They could not stop smiling and laughing at their (Tristan's actually) antics. Then it was time for a tour of the home. It was quite large with two stories. It was warm and spotless! We visited Benjamin's dental clinic and it was like walking into a museum.
The family is very talented. Morena is a painter and she presented Ali and I with beautiful paintings and one for Kahleah too. They will be hung with pride in our homes. Benjamin plays the guitar and has a melodic voice. He performed numerous songs for us in Spanish and I am blessed to have them all on video. Flavio, Carla, Ronaldo and Juan also played the guitar and sang! Flavio also played the Sax for us.
While Benjamin played the guitar, Morena went upstairs and returned with a box full of photos and "souvenirs" of Kahleah ... including all the letters and photos I have sent over the years. She presented me with more photos of Kahleah taken her first 5 months. She also showed me a handmade dress of Kahleah's. It was lovingly made by Morena's elderly mother. Included was a little baggie with the tiniest finger nail clippings I have every seen!!! Kahleah's first ...
THEN the shocker ... Morena handed me a document and said, "I am sure you have a copy of this". At first it looked familiar ... like most of Kahleah's official documents. I started to turn the pages THEN almost fell off the couch when I realized that, in my hands, I had a copy of ... Kahleah's birthmother's "cedula" (resident card) including a photocopy of her photo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Our first ...
We have ongoing contact with Tristan's birth family in Colombia but have been unsuccessful in contacting Kahleah's birth family. We have a lot of written social history but at Kahleah's age "who" she looks like has become very important.
I was a little disappointed when I first laid eyes on the photo. It is small and in black and white ... a photocopy. Kahleah does not resemble her birthmother in the least. The physical resemblance's between Tristan and both his maternal and paternal birth family, including cousins, is uncanny. I "expected" Angelica to look like an older version of Kahleah. Still ... I held a precious document in my hands. I then tucked all my precious photos and such into my backpack.
It was time to say good-bye to our Guatemalan family. I hugged everyone once ... and then again! I did not want to let go! It felt too good. Just one more time, looking straight into their eyes. Adios! As Ali and I got into Juan Pablo's car, Morena decided to come along for the ride back to the hotel. I waved good-bye to Benjamin and family until I could no longer see them. Once again, with the ever-present tears in my eyes and translation help from dear Ali I had something else in my heart to share with Morena ...
After spending the evening with Morena and her family it became obvious to me that Kahleah did have a "place" in Guatemala and Kahleah could feel it. I told Morena that it was comforting to know that "if" for some reason SHE had been able to adopt Kahleah ... I know she still would have had a wonderful life full of love, family, education, nurture, culture and music. She would not have suffered in her country of birth. She would still be the loving, intelligent, talented and spiritual child she is today ... the child she is meant to be regardless. Morena told me that she now knows that Kahleah IS where she is supposed to be. With her family ...
I hate good-byes. We said good-bye at the house and then outside the hotel. It was difficult. THEN on Saturday morning 6:30 Ali and I were in the line-up for Continental Airlines at the airport. Morena and Flavio arrived, carrying with them the three painting from Morena which she had rushed to have framed. Each painting had a loving inscription on the back. They waited until we cleared Security and we turned to wave one last time. I was on my way home ...
Both Kahleah and Tristan were very excited when I returned home. This was the longest I had ever been away from them. The house was clean and they presented me with a flower! What more could a Mom ask for? (Plus I have a WONDERFUL husband!)
Kahleah was more anxious to hear about the trip than Tristan . I was smart. I knew Tristan would not be too impressed with any of my purchases from Guatemala (except for the tree swings) so I bought the video Toy Story 2 for him during a stop-over in Houston. In his mind ... it IS from Guatemala!
Kahleah, Daddy Jean and I sat on the floor and started examining all my purchases! She loved everything ... just for the fact they were from her birth country. She cherishes the gifts from Morena and Benjamin because they have even more special meaning. I showed her her baby photos that Morena gave us. Her eyes were wide! She could not wipe the smile off her face. Then she kept asking me if they were "nice" people ... following up with, "I know they are but I want to know what YOU think!". It was time to hook up the video camera!
I can not describe Kahleah's expressions fully while I watched her watch the video of her foster family. I guess I should have taken her photo at that moment. It was like she could not believe her eyes. She immediately "connected" with the foster siblings calling them HER brother's and sister. She beamed at the realization that IF Carla is her foster sister then THAT means that Diego is HER nephew!!!! She then jumped up and down and hollered to Tristan, "I'm an AUNT!!! I'm an Aunt!!!!" While watching and listening to the special recorded messages ... just for her ... I thought I could see her heart pounding out of her chest. She was proud!!!!
Later that night, while lying in bed, we discussed her birthmother. I told her that Morena gave me a document with a copy of a photo of Angelica. I shared with her that it was very unexpected on my part but also a true gift. She asked to see it and I explained to her that it might not be what she expects and mentioned that it is not a great photo due to the fact that it is small, black and white, and a copy. She is used to all the family snap shots from Colombia. I did not want to tell her that I did not see a resemblance because I wanted her to have her own reaction. I also knew my daughter was more than ready after years of preparation. Maybe SHE would see a resemblance?
I brought the document into her room and for a minute we both sat with anticipation. She was silent for a minute after first viewing the face of her birthmother. She then looked at me and said, "She is not how I imagined but that does not mean I am disappointed. I wondered for a long time, most of my life, what she looked like. I guess I look like my Birth father!" She then started to list all the kids she knows that do NOT look like their mothers! She even commented on the fact that I do not look like my mother! Good point!
Kahleah and I now enjoy making plans for a trip together to Guatemala in the near future. I can't wait for the privilege to see Guatemala through her beautiful eyes.
Update - February 2001
Kahleah turned 10 years old today. We enjoyed a family dinner (just the four of us) and sang Happy Birthday as she blew out the candles on her cake. About half an hour after both Kahleah and Tristan were tucked snugly into bed I heard a faint whimper from Kahleah's room. When I went in to check on her she fell into my arms. She looked into my eyes and said, "Mommy ... I miss my birthmother! I think it is because it is my birthday. It is so confusing sometimes! I love her. It is not enough to know her name ... I want to KNOW HER!" I rocked her and explained that I felt her feelings were perfectly natural and normal. She was so relieved! She told me that she loves me with all her heart but feels that she must meet her birthmother. She also told me that she is happy that we can talk about anything and that she knows that I know she loves me and that I will always be her Mommy.
Kahleah asked me to think about how much I miss my mother (Mom passed away from cancer two years ago) and how I still "feel" her with me and in my heart. She said, "It's hard to explain Mom but I think I feel the same way about my birthmother. I can feel her in my heart." We hugged as we both mourned the mother's that gave birth to us. Kahleah then mentioned that she is "lucky" because she still has a mother to love her, take care of her and make her feel safe. She then told me that she could not replace my mother but we will always have each other. We looked at each other with tears rolling down our faces ... she wiped my tears, I wiped hers. She then said, "Like mother, like daughter!"
The story continues in 2003 when Kahleah visits Guatemala. See Loving Links, Part 2.
Leceta is mother to Kahleah (Guatemala, 1991) and Tristan (Colombia, 1994). Leceta and husband Jean and family live in Joliette, near Montreal.
Leceta Chisholm Guibault is a board member of the Adoption Council of Canada and the Federation of Quebec Adoptive Parents, and moderator of the email list Canadians-Adopting (groups.yahoo.com/group/canadians-adopting).
Copyright 2005 Leceta Chisholm Guibault, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published online on May 25, 2004 at www.familyhelper.net/heart/lcg/lovinglinks.html.
Also published online at www.nurtureadopt.org/af/adoptionarticles/lovinglinks.htm.