Adopting parents begin a crash course the moment their child is placed in their arms. Be ready for anything!
I spent my first hour as a dad in tears. During the months of our waiting, I had played with the fantasy of what the moment of first encounter with my daughter would be like . . . how I would feel, how she would respond to me. I thought I had gone over every possible scenario, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what actually happened. Esther and I had taken the PanAm “red eye” from San Francisco to San Salvador, El Salvador (via Los Angeles and Guatemala City). On arrival at the heavily guarded international airport, we were weary enough to sleep and wired awake with anticipation. Silvia, our driver and guide, offered us the alternatives of going to our hotel to freshen up or to Hogar del Niño, the orphanage, to see our daughter. Guess which we chose. Hogar del Niño is in a part of the city that was particularly devastated by the earthquake of October 1986. Directly across the street, collapsing walls crushed to death fifteen school children while they waited outside their school for noontime rides. A year later, evidence of the quake was still visible everywhere. The orphanage itself showed many ugly, unhealed wounds. Yet, the Vincentian Sisters and the lay staff carried on the daily task of caring for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of 580 children, ages birth to eighteen. From the moment we entered the grounds, I sensed we were in a special place--a shrine in which the holy objects were not relics of dead saints. It was a shrine inhabited instead by living young saints displaced by a war not of their making, by the death of parents, or by the sad-eyed, hollow-bellied hopelessness of poverty. Unused to Latin American ways, we expected that someone would bring our daughter to us in a private parlor where we could meet and begin the process of getting acquainted. That wasn't the way things happened in an environment where privacy was a luxury and where life’s most intimate moments were lived and shared in the presence of others. One of the Sisters escorted us into a back yard where dozens of children milled about on the dusty broken concrete. In a crowd of curious eyes, two were bigger, blacker and more wondering than the others. There was no laughter in those eyes, as there had been no hint of humor in eyes of the little girl whose photos we had treasured for the past five months. The round, dirty face was correspondingly solemn, as if aware the moment of election had arrived, and she wasn't sure she wanted to be the chosen one that day. Esther spotted Monica first. “Look, Al, it’s her!” My throat swelled and went dry as I gazed down at a tiny beauty dressed in a once-white smock that radiated the noonday Salvadoran sun and contrasted with her tanned olive complexion. While I fumbled with my camera to capture this life-changing moment, Monica inwardly consented to her election and wordlessly melded her body into Esther's embrace. She was ours! This truly was “the first day of the rest of our lives.” Before I could take my own sweet little girl into my arms, another child a few feet away caught my attention. She had broken into a sobbing wail that echoed off the adobe walls surrounding the courtyard. "This is Blanca Estela," the kind nun informed me, "her sister." To my surprise, Blanca held in her hands the photo of Esther and me, which we had sent to Monica months ago. It was clear she knew we'd come to take her sister away--and she thought it must be forever. How was this possible, I asked myself? We would never have wanted such a cruel encounter to take place. We had learned of our daughter's seven-year-old half-sister only days before leaving for El Salvador. She too, we were told, was being adopted by American parents, who would be coming for her soon. Though I longed to meet and hold my new daughter, I felt compelled to embrace and console the inconsolable Blanca. In my arms she begged to come with us so she and her sister could remain together. In my broken Spanish and choking back sobs of my own, I promised I would do everything in my power to see that she and her sister would be reunited in the United States. I suspected Blanca had been told too many lies to place much faith in the word of an unwelcome stranger. Welcome to parenthood! Note: Several families, including our own, have tried over the years to adopt Blanca. To this day, she remains in El Salvador. She is now a young woman in her early 20s.Copyright ( c ) 2001 by Alfred J. Garrotto- - - - -For permission to reprint this article, contact Mr. Garrotto at algarrotto.comcast.net.