“I’ve Always Wondered What It Would Be Like to Look at Someone and Know Where I Got My Smile From.”

I don’t even know where to start. I have so much to say on this subject, and yet I don’t know how to communicate all that has been/is going on in my head the last month or so without it coming out as complete gibberish. As I type this I keep having to pause, stare, take a deep breath, and stare some more before typing a complete sentence that makes sense.

Ugh, I’m rambling and still have yet to explain why. So. I’m from Colombia, you know the country in South America. The one that is spelled C-o-l-o-m-b-i-a, NOT Columbia. I’ve recently realized I’m not the only Colombian irritated by that misspelling. I was born in the country’s capital city of Bogotá. I am also adopted. My parents got lucky and were notified about me and a need for a home when I was only 3 months old. It was rare to get such a young baby and my parents were really excited to complete their family with one more (I have an older brother who was also adopted). They then spent the next few months preparing for a trip down to Bogotá from Michigan. Once they arrived to Bogotá, they spent their time in a nice little apartment and had a guide/translator, Pepita, who took care of them and helped them with whatever they needed. They did typical tourist activities while in Bogotá such as visiting the salt mines, and taking the gondola up Monserrate. And they had me. A little squishy me. One of the stories told over and over by my mom was when she laid me on the bed to change me for the first time. She asked if I was able to roll over and was told I was too young to do that or hadn’t done that yet. So she went to go fetch the diapers on the chair, and I rolled right off of the bed! She always told it with such pride, maybe thinking I was advanced for being able to roll over at such an early age? I don’t know, lol, it still makes me giggle and I can still remember what she looked like when she’d tell that story. While in Bogotá, there were some delays with my visa. It got sent to South Korea. So, between that and having a horrible time trying to reach someone at the consulate in Detroit, they ended up being in Bogotá for about a month. It was frustrating and stressful for them, but they eventually made it back to Michigan with a brand new baby girl for their son who was not too pleased about it.

I had a great life in Michigan. I lived in the “boonies” on lots of land that my dad had two gardens on. I loved to pick strawberries, shuck corn, and pick out the biggest and fattest pumpkin I could find when Halloween would roll around. I often wandered through the woods, back to the garden by the river, playing sports with the neighborhood boys, acquiring black eyes and scraped knees. I waded through the swamp, chased snakes, and later started taking photos of my adventures. I always ended up taking over my father’s Minolta camera. It was big and fancy, with multiple lenses, and my favorite was the zoom lens! I argued with and annoyed my brother, would make him beat the scary bosses in the video games to get to the next level, and would out-play him in basketball. I loved to bake with my mom, but especially my grandma because she always spoiled me. I definitely get my baking talent from her. I really couldn’t have had a better childhood. My parents always provided beyond what was needed.

My parents were also older, especially my dad, but my mom was the one with constant health issues, many of which the cause remained a mystery for years. She was eventually diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and unfortunately in her case, it continued to debilitate her and decrease her quality of life. It took away the things she so enjoyed to do, one by one. And then it took her leg. She was sad and angry, but tried to hide it as best she could. The last 6 months of her life I had been away for a month and a half, traveling around the Four Corners camping, hiking, photographing, drawing, and journaling for a class of mine. I was coming up on the last semester of my college years (finally) and I pulled away. My mom’s health continued to fail and she was in and out of the hospital more and more and her stays became longer and longer. I tend to have pretty good intuition about these sorts of things, so I think I was just trying to prepare and protect myself from hurting, but death (and life for that matter) are things you can never be prepared for. I will forever feel guilt about my response to her worsening condition. I acted like such a shit at times. I could have handled it better. I could have been more present. Coulda, shoulda, woulda…I at least had my goodbye with her. She had been in the hospital for a few weeks, in intensive care. I came to visit her before they  put her into a medically induced coma. She wasn’t able to talk because she was intubated, but through a mess of tears I was able to tell her that I loved her. Her condition was not improving and it looked like we would have to make the decision on whether or not to keep her on life support. I knew that she would be so unhappy, if she even came out of the coma, with her quality of life. It had already suffered quite a bit, and doctors said it would severely decrease if she woke up. I knew what we had to do, but we ended up not having to make that decision. Her condition worsened overnight and we were now told there was nothing else that could be done. So, our family gathered in her room. It was a Sunday. January 17, 2010. Just a little after 3pm. The sun was out in full force, a rarity in the middle of a Michigan winter. The machines were turned off. The tubes detached and taken out. The shell that was left was not my mother. To me, her soul, her beautiful spirit had already left. Her breathing slowed, little by little, with extremely long pauses in-between each inhale of air. And then it stopped. It was eerily quiet and we all knew it was done. It’s now almost 8 years since that day, and I’m still recovering. I don’t know that it’s possible to recover from losing a parent and watching them take their final breaths. All I know is that you adapt. You learn how to breathe again. You learn how to get out of bed again. You learn how to shower, dry your hair, do your make-up, again. You learn how to drive, do your laundry, pay your bills, go to work, laugh, love, and live. Again. It feels like you’ve made it. You’ve figured it out. You’ve healed. And then a bad day comes along, and it’s as if you just lost them all over again. That is part of the process, too. To know you are going to have those kinds of days, that kind week, or month…that is life when coping with death.

After my mom’s passing, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to my dad. He was already in his late 70’s, but in great health for the most part. I was so scared that he was going to die of a broken heart. My mother was his life. He stood by her through everything, loving her as fiercely as someone can love another human being. He took his vows seriously and loved her through all kinds of sickness, in the worst of times, and he did it with a smile and with laughter. I think it’s his fault I’m so picky about my choices with men. He set the bar pretty high and not many men come close to his example of love. I lived with him over the next few years, and noticed his age start to creep in. He used to go on daily walks down the road, getting in at least a few miles. Then he started carrying a walking stick, and then his walks were out to the mailbox and with a walker (we did have a long driveway). Falls became much more frequent and the Michigan winters with lots of snow and icy patches worried me terribly. Our roles started to switch, and I had to tell my dad that he couldn’t do certain things. I had to scold him. I hated it, but I also didn’t want to see him get hurt. That was one of the hardest changes to swallow. I was now the ‘parent’ and he was the ‘child’. Then came the time where it wasn’t safe for him to be driving anymore. He was hard of hearing and I eventually managed to learn to shout when talking to him, but his mobility became more and more limited, his reaction time slower and slower, and I knew we had to have that discussion after a doctor’s appointment. It was tough, but he understood, and we went forward from there. This was also around the time that he had a growth on his forehead appear. He was diagnosed with skin cancer years ago after being a young sailor who had spent too many afternoons on his boat without sunscreen. He was also a redhead and sun-exposure and him never really agreed. After that diagnosis, he was very diligent with using sunscreen everyday, wearing long sleeve shirts and pants, and wearing a hat when outside. He’d occasionally have to have spots ‘burned off’ (surgically removed), but he never made a big deal about it and came home with the area covered with a bandage. This new growth was different. It grew quickly and his dermatologist wanted him to see a specialist on the other side of the state at the University of Michigan. So we made and appointment and a few days later I was sitting nervously in the doctor’s office with my dad. I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I’m sure my dad’s dermatologist knew what it was, but it needed to be confirmed, and unfortunately it was.  My dad had a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer called Merkel Cell Carcinoma. From there on, we were coming back for tests at least once a week, a 2.5 hour drive there and a 2.5 hour drive back. It was decided that since the cancer had spread to my dad’s neck, surgery would be needed. My dad was in great health for his age, so the doctor thought he would handle a large surgery well. They would cut the mass out of this forehead, and they would also cut around his ear and down his neck to remove his lymph nodes, the method in which the cancer used to metastasize. The doctor was hopeful he could remove everything and get it cleaned out. My dad was in surgery for nearly double the amount of time estimated. I was terrified he wasn’t going to make it past surgery. It was hard to watch him come out of anesthesia, and see the strong man I grew up with who was my hero and protector, look so frail and helpless. From there he went to the ICU, nearly bled out after accidentally tearing tubing out when he rolled over, and would end up being brought back to the hospital and rehab facilities multiple times over the next few months because of illness, infections, poor care, etc. It was frustrating because a fast time line to get his wounds to heal was essential to getting him to the next phase of treatment which was radiation. I knew his medication list and schedule, his history, his allergies and medication sensitivities…I could run down his medical chart as if I was an intern reciting it to my attending. I was his caretaker. I was his nurse. I cleaned out his gaping wounds three times a day. It wasn’t pretty, but fortunately those kinds of things don’t get to me very often. I had to be his advocate and often times my frustration would come out with yelling, tears, or both. I knew we were running out of time. I knew this was not going to end the way I hoped it would. And then the visit with his PCP came around to tell us that the cancer metastasized. It was now growing in multiple places in his body. Multiple systems. It was devastating news even though I knew it was coming. We were then connected with Hospice. Our team of nurses and in home aides changed. I had new medications for pain to learn about and administer. It was now about making my dad comfortable.

From there, his memory started to go. He was often confused. He was sad. He was trying to make sure everything was taken care of, loose ends tied up. He’d hallucinate and be stuck in periods of time where the dead were now living again. His appetite became smaller and smaller. He slept more and more. He would wander at any given time of day and I was going off of very little sleep. I was always on alert and afraid that he would start a fire, or wander outside and hurt himself. I couldn’t continue to do it by myself. As painful as it was, and as much as I felt like a failure and that I was letting him down, my brother and I came to the conclusion that he needed to be put into a facility that could monitor him around the clock. I made it as much like home as possible, but it wasn’t his home and I was so mad at myself. My guilt ate away at me, and still does. He was very geographically close to my brother now and his sister. They were able to visit a lot. Not even two weeks later he was gone. I received a call from my brother in the middle of the night and I cried until the morning. I was glad he wasn’t suffering any more, and that he was reunited with my mom, but I felt like an orphan. I felt so completely alone. All I’ve ever wanted was to be a part of a big family that was close knit. And now it felt as though I had no one.

I spent the next year taking care of everything. I made sure my parent’s estate was dealt with in the proper way, all accounts were closed, all bills paid, etc. After settling all of those details, I was completely lost. Everything had changed. And that’s when all of my travel started, which opened my eyes and I started to forgive, I started to love, I started to remember the things that gave me joy…I started to live again.

And now, after months of trying to figure out my next travel move, my flights to South America are booked. I leave October 27th to head to Portland to catch my flight the next day to Quito. I then catch a flight from Quito to Bogotá. Over the last few days, I caught a little bug, and have remained in bed for the most part, researching and connecting with multiple adoptees from Colombia and Los Pisingos (the orphanage my parents got me from). I have been blown away by the support and the well-wishes from complete strangers who know a part of me so intimately because they’ve been through the same thing. Some I’ve talked to were even there at the same time! One woman even asked a bit more specific information suggesting we could be related. I looked through Facebook to find others with the same last name who lived in Colombia. One woman popped up and could be around the age as my biological mother. I stared at her photos. I looked at this stranger analyzing every line and curve of her face to see if we shared anything. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to look at someone and know where I got my smile from. To look at another person and have the possibility of that being there stirs up so many emotions. As I type this, I’m in tears. I never thought this would be something I’d explore.

I have managed to set up an appointment with the orphanage to visit and to take photos. They’ve recently had issues with their licensing because of corruption and illegal practices, which left me brokenhearted. My parents always spoke so highly of their organization, but I’ve now learned that this happened after new staff had taken charge of operations. Recently, as far as I’ve been able to tell, they are up and running and licensed again. I hope to get some clarity on this when I visit. As far as the rest, I’m not sure what I want to find out, what I’m ready to find out. I may look into getting more information on my adoption, on my mother, but I may realize I’m not ready. I don’t think I will know until I am down there and visit the orphanage. I’m just trying to stay as open and positive about this as possible.

So it’s now a few weeks before I leave. I have lots to take care of before I go and lots to finish planning. I still need to verify things with the school I’m taking intensive Spanish lessons at. Four hours a day, five days per week! REALLY wanting to get the language in my head this time and hoping nearly full immersion and a month and a half will help! Besides those details, I’m think I’m ready to go. I’m really nervous about how I will get through this on my own. It’s a lot to navigate through without having support with me, being somewhere I’ve never been, and being in a place where I don’t speak the language…it’s concerning. However, I’ve come to realize that I’m a strong person and my life’s tragedies have only better prepared me to handle the unknown that’s accompanied by the unexpected. Whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made…I will be thankful for. I know that not all adoptees get the opportunity to return to their birth place. I am extremely lucky. I am extremely thankful. I hope I make my parents proud.

4 thoughts on ““I’ve Always Wondered What It Would Be Like to Look at Someone and Know Where I Got My Smile From.”

  1. Marcella – so touching, so beautiful, so real. I’m so glad that you shared this. I can now see more of who you are – your strength, your heart, your bravery, your beauty. Sending you so much love, Robin

    Liked by 1 person

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