This is an excerpt from my upcoming autobiographical novel, Waking From Innocent Dreams. The book is still a work in progress, but I wanted to share the first chapter with you for the 20th year anniversary of my reunion. This chapter is also available in PDF and ePub format for offline reading. To get updates about the release of my book add your name and email to the form below. Finally, if you get anything out of my work, please do me a favor and share it online or with someone you know. Thank you!
Derek and I both attend Beaver Country Day School, a small private school in Newton, Massachusetts. Unlike most schools in the area which spread spring break across two separate weeks, one in February and another in April, Beaver gives us two weeks back to back in March. This year Mom and Dad decided to take us sightseeing around Florida since Disney World is the only place we have ever been. I guess they wanted to show us that there is more to Florida than just Mickey Mouse.
Dad, who works at a small liberal arts college called Lasell, has just finished a month-long fundraising trip. Every year he spends the month of February visiting alumnae who live or spend winters in Florida. Mom also works in academia as a professor of German at Wellesley College. This year Beaver and Wellesley’s spring break fell on the same week. So here we are, the whole family, getting ready to spend an entire day walking around Old Town, Key West.
I hope Eric is having a better break than I am. Well, at least it’s warm. Back home, winter has not quite finished and the warmer weather of spring is still a month and a half away. Maybe I could find a basketball court and play some pickup. It won’t be as much fun without Eric, but it’s better than nothing. At least I’m not missing any of the March Madness games for this…
Mom puts her camera away, and Dad studies a map. Derek and I continue to lean against the wall waiting to find out the day’s agenda. I lazily kick a rock in the street, pretending it’s a soccer ball. As the rock bounces down the sidewalk, I turn to look at the giant banyan tree growing behind us. Its massive root system reaches at least 20 feet high. The morning sun sparkles through the trees and dances on the sidewalk in front of me.
“Ok, it looks like Fort Zachary is a mile and a half to the west. Then we can head south to the Hemingway house,” Dad says, pointing in the direction we are meant to walk. “From there it’s a straight shot to the southernmost point.”
Mom chimes in, “Sounds like a great photo op.”
Dad starts walking in the direction he pointed, and without missing a beat Mom and Derek follow his lead. I linger at the wall for a moment longer trying to muster the enthusiasm to look at some stupid old buildings. I turn to follow them, only to see Mom, Dad, and Derek walking together, perfectly in sync. That’s when it hits me Derek walks like Dad and has Mom’s complexion and mannerisms. I’m sure it’s been there my whole life, but I’ve only just noticed.
Growing up, my parents had always been very open about the fact that I was adopted. It is also pretty obvious just by looking at us that I am not their biological son. My dark hair, brown eyes, and tan skin contrast sharply with their light hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. Despite their willingness to talk about my adoption, my parents really haven’t been able to tell me much about my past – not because they didn’t want to but because they didn’t know.
All my parents knew for sure was that I had been adopted from an orphanage in Honduras called La Guarida. The nuns who ran it had said that I had been through a traumatic experience, but couldn’t tell my parents anything more than that. I was shy, malnourished, and temperamental. The nuns knew so little about who I was or where I came from that they couldn’t even tell my parents my actual date of birth. As part of the adoption, my parents had taken me to a doctor who guessed my age to be around two years old.
Of course, I’ve always had questions about where I come from, but I never ask them. I trust my parents, and I see no point in asking them about events they do not know the answer to. But still, life’s unanswered questions have a way of eating at you. Since I was little I always felt this hole, like something, was missing. When I couldn’t sleep, I would stare out into the blackness of the night and just wonder where I came from. With no birth record or family history, I felt like I had not been born but just appeared out of nowhere. Normal people at least know their birthday. Some of my friends could even recite the exact time of their birth, but not me. I have nothing.
How lucky is Derek that he has Mom and Dad? They love him so much, as only parents can love their flesh and blood. I mean, I know they love me too. I would never ever question that. Mom and Dad have shown me nothing but love and support over the years, but still, I wonder, where are the people who look like me? Derek, Mom, and Dad, are peas in a pod and I am the ugly duckling of the family. Even if they don’t care about our differences, I can see how others look at me. When we walk into a restaurant, I can see the hostess trying to figure out if we’re together and if so, what our relationship is. It’s times like that I wish I looked more like their son.
“Are you coming?” Dad calls out.
I blink and look up as my mind refocuses on the world around me. Mom, Dad, and Derek have stopped to wait for me and are now staring in my direction as I continue to lean against the wall. I stand up, blink one more time, and respond, “Umm…yea..yea, I’m coming.”
Somewhere off in the distance I hear Derek calling my name.
Not wanting to move I say slowly, “Yeah?”
“It’s dinner time.”
Opening my eyes slightly, I can barely see through the pillow that covers my head that Derek is standing timidly in the middle of our room.
Sticking a hand out from under the Disney and alphabet themed covers, I motion for him to go and say, “Alright… I’ll be right there.”
Derek turns and heads downstairs. I lie in bed a few moments longer, waiting for the dull fog that clouds my mind to lift. Maybe I could just skip dinner and keep sleeping…
No… Mom and Dad would never let you.
With a groan, I stretch and remove the pillow from my head. I slide down towards the end of the wooden bunk bed and slide my feet onto the ladder. I’m so groggy that I miss the last rung and almost fall off the ladder. I catch myself in time and hop down looking around sleepily for my glasses. I see them on the edge of the kid-sized desk across from our bed. I reach over to grab them and take a brief glance out of the double casement windows. The evening sun dances off the water of Lake Skatutakee. The reflected sun hurts my eyes, so I turn and head downstairs to join the rest of the family.
Before I can even take my seat at the table, Dad says, “Don’t go anywhere after dinner, your mother and I need to talk with both of you.”
“Okay…” I say, still half-asleep and not in the mood to talk.
“Did you have a good nap?” Mom asks.
“Sure,” I respond wiping the sleepers out of my eyes. I definitely shouldn’t have stayed up all night… Yesterday was my last day as a camper at Camp Frank A. Day, the summer camp Derek and I had been going to for the past eight years. For some reason that escapes me now, I had decided to try and stay up the whole night. Of course, it hadn’t worked, and I ended up randomly climbing into someone else’s bed to pass out around 6 am, only to be jolted awake by reveille at 7:30 am. Needless to say, I was pretty tired, but thankfully Mom and Dad had let me sleep since we got home around 2 pm.
I take my usual seat at one end of our oblong dinner table, directly across from Dad. Derek sits to my right waiting patiently. It occurs to me that I hardly saw him all summer. It’s funny how small camp feels while you are there but actually, there are a lot of people between the three age groups. Mom brings the last dish to the table and takes the seat to my right.
“Boys, can you say grace?” Dad asks. We all bow our heads. Derek and I begin in the usual fashion, reciting the German prayer Oma taught us so many years ago. “Komm, lieber Herr Jesu, sei Du unser Gast und segne, was Du uns bescheret hast. Amen.”
Over dinner, Mom and Dad ask us about camp. I’m still a little groggy, so I motion for Derek to go first. He excitedly recounts how his team, Hobart, was the volleyball and softball champs, which allowed them to win the plaque race. He even got to hold the plaque during the awards ceremony in the dining hall.
I’m starting to wake-up, so I bitterly explain how my plaque team, The Blue Jays, lost the race by only one game. It was the last volleyball match of the session, and our team easily won the first set and then lost the next two. We could have won too, but we were having so much fun goofing off that we let the other team win. It wasn’t until a few hours later that we found out that game was to decide the plaque. After eight summers of trying, it is a crushing disappointment to know that I will never have my name hanging in the dining hall.
I finish dinner and stand to take my plate into the kitchen. Seeing mom is finished I offer to take her plate and bring both to the sink. “Don’t go anywhere, we need to talk.” Dad reminds me for the second time.
With a slight edge of annoyance I reply, “Yea, I know.”
I get some more juice and head back to my seat. Dad cleans the kitchen, quickly rinsing off the plates and then placing them in the dishwasher. Derek brings his plate up and returns to his seat. Mom hurries off to get something. I sit in silence waiting impatiently to see what they want to talk to us about. My mom returns with a white FedEx envelope.
“How about you slide over next to Derek so we can all sit together.” I swing my chair around, so I’m facing the kitchen. Mom sits across from Derek. When Dad finishes in the kitchen, he joins us, grabbing an extra chair so he can sit in my usual spot.
Dad takes a deep breath and begins, “We have some important news to share with you both.” Perhaps picking up on Derek’s worried look, he continues, “Don’t worry, Mom and I aren’t getting a divorce.”
He opens up the FedEx envelope and pulls out a packet of papers stapled together. He places what looks like a church newsletter in front of me and points to the man on the front cover.
“This is Dr. Robert Kirschner. He does human rights investigative work in El Salvador.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth, I know exactly what we were going to talk about.
“Dr. Kirschner works for an organization called Physicians for Human Rights, which is partnering with an organization in El Salvador called Pro-Búsqueda. Together they are working to reconnect families that were separated during the country’s 13-year long civil war. About a month ago I received a phone call from Dr. Kirschner, and he believes that they have located your birth family.”
Of course, it’s my birth family, who else would it be?
“I was skeptical at first, but after discussing it with Mom, she thought some of the dates lined up too well with your adoption papers. So Dr. Kirchner sent us this package overnight, and we have been trying to make sense of it ever since.”
Mom chimes in, “Dad and I were waiting until after camp to tell you. We felt it was too much to bring up during Visiting Day.”
As if in prayer I sit motionless clasping my hands together, trying to take in everything they are telling me.
“Based on their findings they believe your birth name is Roberto Alfredo Coto Escobar and that you were born in El Salvador, not Honduras, on May 22nd, 1981. Your birth parents Luis Coto and Mila Escobar were revolutionaries in the country’s civil war. After the war ended in 1992 your maternal grandmother, “Mama Chila” as the family calls her, contacted Pro-Busqueda. They have spent the last four years digging through newspaper archives and government records trying to find you.”
“So… what happened?” I ask
“Well, Pro-Búsqueda believes that sometime in 1981, a few months after you were born, your birth mother’s picture appeared in a Salvadoran newspaper listing her as a wanted terrorist. She was forced to flee the country with you. She was then sent to Honduras where she and eleven other people kidnapped a businessman. This is how the revolutionaries made money to pay for weapons and supplies. The Honduran government found out the location of their safe house and raided it. They found you lying in a crib, in a back room.”
Taking a deep breath, my father turns the page of the packet, which reveals a Xerox copy of a newspaper photograph showing a woman lying face down on the floor, a pool of blood collecting next to her.
“When the Honduran police raided the house they killed everyone in the building. Pro-Búsqueda believes this is your mother.”
Dad’s words hit me with the force of a lacrosse check, knocking the air out of my lungs and momentarily disorienting me. I can’t speak and struggle to find my breath. Then I feel it, the sharp pain in my heart at the site of the impact. Tears begin to form, but I fight them back, composing myself in time to hear Dad say, “Your birth father was not part of this group and is still alive.”
“You also have an older sister, Eva who lives in Costa Rica with your grandmother, and an older brother, Ernesto, who lives in Panama with your father. After the war, your birth father moved to Panama and remarried a woman named Miriam. They have a daughter, your half sister Estefany, who is six years old.”
I stare blankly at the table, still trying to get my bearings. Even though I heard what Dad just said his words provide little comfort. I want to believe my lack of enthusiasm is because I’m still in shock, but I know the truth.
It’s mom’s turn to speak, “We are fairly certain that this is your family, the dates line up perfectly with some of your adoption paperwork, but the only way to know for sure is to take a DNA test. Dr. Kirschner has informed us that Physicians for Human Rights will take care of this and all they need from you is a sample of your blood.”
As Mom finishes Dad picks up, “We were waiting to respond to Dr. Kirchner about the DNA test until we spoke with you. You will be 16 in a few days… well legally anyway, and we felt that you are old enough to make this choice for yourself. We want you to know that your mother and I will support you, no matter what you decide.”
“If the test comes back positive then we can begin to organize a reunion. We have already spoken with our travel agent about flights for this December.” Mom says, perhaps trying to lighten the mood.
After another few seconds of silence, Dad clears his throat and asks, “So, would you like to take the DNA test?”
It’s been about three months since the DNA test came back positive and we booked these tickets. Those three months dragged on like the world’s longest S.A.T. test. My excitement only built as I learned that family from all over Central America were making the trip to Costa Rica to be part of the reunion. Mom and Dad had picked Costa Rica instead of El Salvador because of my grandmother, Máma Chila, lived there and it seemed like a good halfway point between my father who lived in Panama and my extended family which still lived in El Salvador. Now after months of waiting for the results, all that stands between my birth family and me is our luggage.
As I stand at the baggage carousel, excited and anxious, a female gate agent appears out of the corner of my eye and begins talking to me in Spanish. I can’t understand a word she is saying, so I try to play it off like I haven’t heard her. I have my headphones on so I’m hoping she will see them and just move on to the next person. It doesn’t work, and she continues to ask me questions. I’m a bit confused as to why she is talking to me and not Mom and Dad when it occurs to me that I must look like I speak fluent Spanish. Unsure of how to respond I stare blankly ahead still trying to play it off like I don’t notice her. Frustrated with my lack of response she storms off in a huff.
I frown as I wonder if it’s going to be this hard talking with my family. The lead investigator on my case, Ralph Sprenkels, was supposed to be part of the reunion to help translate, but he got sick and will not be able to join us. What will it be like talking with them? Will they understand me? Will I understand them? What will they look like? Endless questions float around in my head when finally our bags show up.
I grab the first one and toss it to Derek, almost knocking him over.
“Careful!” Dad scolds.
“Oops, sorry!” I say with a slight look of embarrassment.
Now that everyone has their bag we head toward the exit where a couple of customs agents sit, slumped in their chairs, chatting next to a giant x-ray machine. Dad walks up and places his bag on the X-ray machine. The man closest to us looks over, holds up a hand and says “broken” in a thick Spanish accent. Dad takes the luggage off the belt and holds up the customs form for our family. The other agent, who has been sitting with his hands behind his head, lazily waves us on, taking great care to move as little as possible.
“Why do they make us fill this out if they aren’t going to collect it,” Dad says in frustration.
“It’s ok, at least we are here,” Mom says.
Dad looks around and says “Do we have everything? Ok, let’s go.”
Eager to meet my birth family I lead the charge through the tinted sliding doors. The doors part, I walk through and stop short, unprepared for the spectacle in front of me. There is a wall of people forming a giant semi-circle around the exit. They crowd each other holding out signs and calling names. I notice a man in the front row who waves his hand and shouts “Taxi?, Taxi?” I shake my head and desperately try to find a familiar face in the mob of strangers. How the hell are we going to find them? Did we ever agree on a place to meet? From the look on my parents’ faces, I can sense they have no idea what to do either.
“Just keep walking,” Dad suggests.
Timidly I push forward to an area that looks to have the fewest people. Another cab driver asks if I need a taxi. I wave him off, only to have the man behind me ask me the exact same question. Just then I see my mirror image walking towards me. No, not my reflection, but the man I will become.
With tears in his eyes, my biological father walks up to me. He takes a second to look me up and down before hugging me for the first time in either of our lives. Wedged between us, awkwardly, is a little girl of about six who must be my half sister Éstefany. I try to adjust myself so that she doesn’t get squished, but it’s no use. The two of them are holding me so tight that I can’t move. They just stand there hugging me as if they will never let go. Giving into their embrace I place my head on my father’s shoulder, my body relaxes and pouring out of me come all the tears of my childhood.
Thank you so much for taking time to read this chapter. Your interest in my work means a lot to me. Just a reminder, If you would like to get updates about the release of my book add your name and email to the form below.
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I’m a jack of all trades that has done everything from business process design to video production to server administration to film photography. I’ve run, consulted on, and wrote a book about Crowdfunding campaigns. I’ve taught myself everything from Ruby on Rails to narrative story structure.
What do all these things have in common?