Archive | May, 2015

Long Distance Denial

31 May

Recently I read that the author Isabel Allende, in exile from Chile, began writing what would be her (fabulous) first book as a letter to her Grandfather when she couldn’t be there in his death. Based on this, I would say that good things could come from having family pass away while you’re far away and unable to return. But so far for me it’s really just caused me bureaucracy-induced trauma and paved a nice clear path to this unintentional state of denial.

It’s been over a month, and it still doesn’t feel real that my dad could be dead. I keep reminding myself of anecdotes and personal news tidbits to tell him next time he calls me.  Thinking of what we’re going to do on his next visit. Getting ready to call him on his birthday. Then stopping myself, trying to remember that, no, he’s gone, Julia. And then wondering if I really have to remember now, or if I can put that off till later. Maybe it’ll sink in when I go back home. Maybe not.  It might have helped if I’d been able to go home when it happened. Been there for the memorial service. If I’d even had time to grieve. But it’d also be nice if my dad just wouldn’t have died yet in the first place. I didn’t have much choice on any of those matters, so here we are. In accidental denial.

Granted, there is no murderous dictatorship happening in my country, so my exile isn’t nearly as black and white as Isabel Allende’s. Plus I have slightly more technological access, even here in Southern Oaxaca, than what was available to Allende at the time of her Grandfather’s death. I could’ve gone back to Kentucky if a) my dad had died when I still had plenty of maternity leave (gosh, Death, couldn’t you have checked people’s schedules?); b) I had spent my maternity leave getting paperwork together instead of bonding with my baby and spending time with family, including my dad; and/or c) left my one month old behind. Different reasons, same result: I couldn’t go home. I tried, though. I tried.

My dad passed away at the tail end of my maternity leave. And while I’m sure that my work would have given me a couple more days off, a couple more days was not going to cut it. Because neither Louisville, Kentucky, nor Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, are major hubs of international travel, it typically takes two days of travel to get from one to the other. Which meant even to go home for one day would mean a whole work week off- and who wants to travel four days with a newborn and a little one to be somewhere for one day? But they didn’t really want to give me a week off, anyway, and I couldn’t risk losing my job. It didn’t even have to come down to my job standing in the way, though, because I couldn’t get Khalil’s U.S. passport in time.

All humans travelling to another country need a passport, even at 5 weeks old. We knew this because we’d had to get Lucia’s passport to come to Mexico when she was 7 weeks old. I was hopeful, however, that maybe we’d be able to travel with only Khalil’s Mexican passport, which I knew we could acquire in just one day if we went to Oaxaca City. It seemed possible in the moment.

Conan and I started making phone calls right after I received the news about my dad.  (Okay, I might have opened my stashed-away bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon first, despite it being a bit before noon. We don’t need to discuss that part.) The nice people at Mexican Migración assured us that the Mexican passport folks would surely see us without an appointment, under the circumstances. I had to figure out if we also needed the U.S. passport or not, and if so, how to acquire it immediately. The answers were not coming to our house, not even with the bottle of bourbon nearby.

Conan gathered up our little family and ushered us over to a friend’s house. We spent hours there, with Lucia parked in front of the laptop becoming a zombie from watching so many videos, me parked in front of our friend’s computer screen trying to find information. Conan took care of Khalil except for the eating part (thus I did not drink the amount of bourbon that I wished to drink). I was back and forth with my mom- was this document at her house? What about this thing? I harassed my awesome immigration lawyer friend for free legal advice on Facebook (tacky and shameless, I know, but she was very nice about it). I googled until I was blue in the face. I made phone calls and more phone calls, waiting on hold more than talking. Despite all the effort, I made zero progress on getting to Kentucky that day.

I did get relevant, albeit depressing, information, though. I found out that if we went to the U.S. with only the Mexican passport and not his U.S. passport, they might give my newborn a tourist visa upon arrival, if we got really lucky, or they might turn us around and send us straight back to Mexico. Not a risk I was willing to take. So I talked to the U.S. passport folks some more and got my information there straightened out.

When I explained that my dad had died and I needed to get home in a hurry, the folks at the U.S. consulate in Mexico City agreed to speak with me, although it wasn’t the correct hour of the day for passport questions. “Isn’t there anybody you could leave the baby with for a couple days?” they asked me first. “No,” I told them, without explaining that I was totally unwilling to leave my brand new baby for days on end, both for breastfeeding reasons and for my own emotional needs (being totally unprepared to deal with my dad’s death and not have my husband or baby with me). So then they informed me that yes, I could potentially get Khalil’s passport the same day, but that I would have to go to Mexico City, and that it wasn’t a guarantee. And no, they couldn’t cut corners on any of the extensive requirements for the process.

And extensive might be an understatement. With Lucia, it seemed like a hardship trying to get her passport in time to travel when we were just barely surviving this whole having-a-newborn-baby thing. But that was NOTHING compared to what was expected for Khalil. Before my dad died, I’d pretty much given up on going to the US this year, because every time I looked at the requirements I just felt overwhelmed. Dealing with death on top of it didn’t make it any less overwhelming, but it gave me some grim determination to get it out of the way. The more information I got, however, the more impossible it sounded to make it in time to mourn with everyone else. By day two I resigned myself to just the vague hope of getting to my Kentucky family for my vacation in July of this year.

I had madness to deal with if I wanted my son to go to the U.S. ever. To prove your kid’s right to U.S. citizenship, they want time-stamped photos of you and your partner before and during the pregnancy, and for the time immediately after birth. They want ultrasound pictures. They want the exact dates for every day you’ve been in the United States for every moment of your life (which is problematic if you’ve travelled a lot and don’t remember your exact dates and can’t find your old passport. And don’t they already have that information, anyway? Don’t they have records of who enters the country and when? But I digress.) They need the birth certificate, the hospital record, the marriage certificate, tax forms, vaccine records, and your first born. (Okay, maybe they don’t want to keep your first born.) Here’s a link to the complete list of requirements to prove your child’s citizenship. You might want to read this if you’re a U.S. citizen and you’ve ever considered giving birth abroad, or if you’d just like to have a good laugh, imagining new parents getting all this together in their excessive amounts of spare time.

The biggest problem was proving that I was in the US all those years that I was. I had my college transcripts and diplomas here, but that was it. And that might or might not be enough for them. There was no way I was going to Mexico City for the passport, because I didn’t have it together enough to be worth the risk of them maybe not giving me his passport there. And I just didn’t have time to get it together in a day or two. It took me over two hours in the internet café, nursing Khalil, Lucia playing outside the café with Conan, just to fill out and scan the Step 1 paperwork- after doing hours of prep work to be able to fill out the papers in the first place.  I was back and forth to the internet for days on end it seemed, ordering paperwork (to be sent to my mom’s house, where she’d have to send it to me), making appointments. Plus we were getting things together for his Mexican passport, which was nothing compared to the US one, but was still more work. I spent 50 pesos on copies alone, which is impressive since each copy only costs a half a peso. On top of it all, I was parenting an almost-three-year-old, nursing a newborn, pumping milk for my impending return to work, and trying to make sure we slept and ate meals as if life were normal. It was madness. I did everything except grieve, because I didn’t have the time or the energy to feel anything but my grim determination.

We got most of the madness together in the 5 days I had between my dad’s passing and my return to work full time. I went to work that Monday through Friday, and then I got the time off work to go to the appointments in Oaxaca City, which is a seven hour van ride (public transportation) away. A miracle happened and the last of the paperwork I needed from the U.S. got delivered to my work about an hour and a half before our departure for Oaxaca. Both parents and the baby must apply in person, which means Lucia went with us as well. We went up on Saturday night and came back Tuesday night, opting to be in the van all night so at least Lucia wouldn’t suffer that many hours of being on the road.

We spent Monday getting Khalil’s Mexican passport, which we got the same day, and Tuesday applying for the US passport, which I’m still waiting for, hoping it’s in the mail soon. And then back to work, to pumping milk, to having two small kids, to still not having electricity, to struggling to maintain. I still don’t have time to grieve.

So I couldn’t be there for my dad’s memorial service. I missed out on his wake. I missed out on the support from most other people who knew and loved my dad. I’m grieving piecemeal, just a bit at a time. Here and there I remember that my dad won’t be calling me soon. That I can’t tell him about that funny thing Lucia just said, or how big Khalil is getting already. Or I see something my dad gave us this last visit, think about something that happened then, and think, “He can’t be gone. He just gave us this. He was just here.” And then I sigh at myself because part of me knows the truth.

Little moments hurt.  Lucia talked to my stepmom on the phone the other day, and said, “I wanna talk to Paw-Paw.” And I almost broke down right there, but didn’t. At random times she says, “Mommy, when we go to Kentucky, we’re not gonna see Paw-Paw. Just Gamma.” She says it cheerily, because she’s correctly reciting something important I told her. It was the only thing I could think to tell her to try to explain why I was crying all the time those first few days. So she recites what she knows without understanding it. And part of me doesn’t understand it, either. Maybe I won’t until I get to Kentucky. Maybe I won’t even get it all the way then. Because after my visit I’ll come back to my new home, so far from everybody, and I’ll be able to still wait for his phone call. Maybe I’ll just hold on to my long distance denial. Maybe this is the way I’m destined to lose my dad- to suffer his loss little by little, one missed phone call, one lost visit at a time, so my little exiled heart keeps beating like it has to.

Ready for School, Take Two / Action!

24 May

My sweet little baby is going to school. And she only sort of speaks the language! But Lucia is an adventurous little soul, and I’m pretty sure I had more nerves about it than she did.
Granted, it’s not officially even preschool, the mandatory schooling which starts at age three (so her official preschool will start this fall). But she has to wear a uniform and everything! She gets to take her backpack, the little purple Dora one we bought her in Oaxaca City the other day (which she settled for since we couldn’t find a nice yellow one in her size like she’d been talking about for weeks). Her backpack only carries her lunch, water bottle, and a toy, but she gets to carry a backpack! (“And Map,” I’m sure she’d correct me. “My backpack’s got map!” she says whenever she compares it to anyone else’s backpack. I just hope she’s as excited about real maps someday.)

Dora backpack, complete with Map.

Dora backpack, complete with Map.

The thing is, she’s been dreaming about going to school for months now, talking it up all the time. As I mentioned before, ever since she decided to be potty trained (months ago now), she’s been telling us she’s ready for school. Telling us about how she’s gonna go with her yellow backpack, and give Mommy a bye-bye kiss (and she makes a smoochy sound) and give Papi a bye-bye kiss (another smoochy sound). And she’s gonna play with the other kids. And it’s gonna be no Mommy or Papi, just Lucia, and the kids and the teacher. And then the other day we saw the school- the place where I want to send her for real elementary school. And- be still her heart- there’s a playground! With a swing and a slide! I think she almost peed herself when her Papi told her she was gonna go to school there.
Not that I was really planning on sending my kid to a private school, not yet at least. I definitely thought it’d be crazy to pay a bunch of money for preschool, of all things. I mean, the point is to go get socialized, right? How much difference can it make where you go? But there’s no public school before the preschool level. We were going to send her to a daycare down the street and call it school, but when we talked to our neighbors who had sent their kids there for a little while they warned us against it. I thought we would just wait until preschool. It’s only a few more months, after all. But a few months, when you’re not quite three, is FOREVER. And with the brand new baby brother, her amount of time spent outside of our house diminished to almost nil. And- hooray- my mama stepped up to sponsor her so she could go to school right now. So we had to go for it.
But my baby! My nena! She’s not ready! It can’t be! The funny thing is, I didn’t think I’d feel like that at all; I thought I was as ready as she was for her to go to school. Conan and I kept foolishly trying to prep her for it. “And I’m gonna tell the teacher, ‘me pegó’” she told my mom over the phone the day before school. I had to remind her that she doesn’t need to say that someone hit her unless they do actually hit her, which they probably won’t, I tell her. Oooh except they surely will. But I don’t want her to focus on hitting as her expectations for school. But I want her to be prepared. Yikes! What is the right thing to do? I finally decide to quit trying to tell her what it’s going to be like, quit trying to teach her phrases in Spanish that I think she might need. Just breathe and let her make it up. Tell me again about the bye-bye kisses, which is way better than kids hitting her.

It’s hard not to worry that your kid won’t be understand as well as they are at home, especially when their language skills in the teacher’s language aren’t nearly as clear as they are in her other language. Then I remembered that lots of kids who go to school or daycare at this age or younger can’t communicate well in any language. And they get by. They figure it out. They do what they’re supposed to do at school- they learn. And it’s not even like she doesn’t know any Spanish- she just has less vocabulary than she does in English. She can’t yet rattle on nonstop for hours in Spanish. But I’m sure any day now she will be able to. As evidenced by her new obsession in asking me, “What’s Spanish say, red? What’s Spanish say, dog? What’s Spanish say, the dragon is breathing fire?” Meanwhile, she knows how to communicate her most important needs. The rest will come. She’ll be okay.
We tried to over-prep her for this whole no Mommy or Papi at school thing, too. I was worried because she’s never really been anywhere for very long without one of us. And when she’s been in other places without us, it’s almost always been with a grandparent or other person she knows well. And I remember one of my (adult, mother) English students in the U.S. trying to leave her daughter in the preschool classroom that was part of our program. It was a little girl who’d never been to daycare, never had to be away from her mom, and who wailed and screamed and cried and threw herself on the ground and turned blue in the face. But that was that little girl. That’s totally not Lucia. My kid was dying to get away from us!
Her first day of school we hadn’t yet bought her uniform, so she got to pick her own clothes. “What’s Spanish say, tutu?” she asked after she picked it out. (Not a clue about that word in Spanish, by the way.) I packed her a yummy lunch- she agreed to a tuna sandwich, apple, and yogurt. I decided it was worth it to be late to work so Conan and I could drop her off together on her first day, at least fulfilling her expectation of a bye-bye kiss for each of us. We got there at quarter till 9 so she could play on the playground for a bit before class time (although they have recess time outside later anyway). We finished the registration process and passed by the classroom to receive our anticipated kisses. I almost cried on the way to work, although I wasn’t even sure why.

too cool for school!

too cool for school!

maybe a wee bit nervous, too.

maybe a wee bit nervous, too.

Conan picked her up a little before the school day was over at 1PM, since he had to get Khalil to me for nursing by the time I got off work at one. Lucia was exhausted, but happy. When Conan asked her what she did at school, she said, “I washed my hands!” As if that were something new and exciting. She did tell me that she played on the swing and the slide. And that she cried. Something about toys and how she wanted to play with it and not the other little girl. The first several days she reported crying and a lack of desire to share the school’s toys, but she was unphased by it. “Do you want to go to school again tomorrow?” I asked her after the first day, and she gave a resounding yes.

ready with her uniform

ready with her uniform

older and wiser, too

older and wiser, too

Her second week of school she got sent home with a fever that somehow escaped our attention when we sent her off to school that morning. (Yep, we are already those parents! Sending their kid to school with a fever.) It was some kind of random passing virus, though, so she was back at school by Thursday. Less than two whole weeks in, she’s already a veteran. She’s telling me every day that she didn’t cry. She’s telling me that sometimes she shares the toys. She tells me when a kid hits her- but she doesn’t cry. She remembers a couple of the other kids’ names. She says, “I think the teacher says Spanish and English,” although the teacher says she doesn’t speak English. I suppose that’s a sign that Lucia’s making herself understood, at least. She’s getting out of the house, getting into the routine. Feeling important and big. She’s especially pleased that my work is also a school- a school for grown-ups, I tell her- and “my work is a school, too!” she says. I try to tell her she doesn’t work until she gets a paycheck, but it falls on deaf ears. She’s thrilled that she and her mommy both go to work/school everyday.
I am thrilled for her. I’m so glad she wants to go to school, and is enjoying it. I’m proud of my independent little big-girl. But apparently some part of me is just a little sad that she doesn’t need us all the time anymore, even though I’m equally grateful for that. Some part of me is a little sad that, before I know it, her ability in Spanish is liable to surpass her ability in English. And part of me is not sad or happy, just awed, totally awed, that my little bitty baby is already so big. Part of me just wants to savor this moment more and more and more- but of course it can’t last forever. So I savor it, make a very conscious, strong memory, and let it go. Let Lucia go off to school, to keep growing, to navigate her way, with her little purple backpack and map.

Memorial to the (self-proclaimed) Mad Dog, My Dear Dad

9 May

My dad passed away a couple of days after I posted my last blog. I couldn’t go back to Kentucky just yet, for various reasons that I promise to detail in my next post. So I wrote my own little memorial and put it on video. (With no crying! And just so you know, the internet being what it is here, it took about 2 hours of our whole little family at the internet to get this short video uploaded. But it’s the least I could do for my papa.) You can see the video here:

Meanwhile, I have to tell you one more story, because I’ve been lamenting not having space to include more details about his trip to visit me in Chile. The trip was no small feat, and was revolutionary for us both in many ways. So one fine day, my dad accompanied me to my volunteer job- an all-day affair involving multiple kinds of public transport to get to the far outskirts of town. He charmed the sweet but tough-as-nails old ladies who were the unpaid bosses of the organization I was volunteering for. Through my (unpracticed then, rather dubious) interpretation between languages the ladies and my dad discussed inequality and institutionalized discrimination, comparing things in the US to their neighborhood, El Monte. But the best part was taking him to the elementary school for the morning part of my job, where I helped with a couple of English classes. The kids were so impressed that my dad had come all the way from the US to help them with their English! My dad taught them how to pronounce new words in English, and they taught him the same in Spanish. There was lots of cheering and hoorahs after each word, the kids and my dad motivating each other, even when nobody got it exactly right. My dad was in the spotlight, totally unrehearsed, smiling, arms wide in his “look at me; I did it” stance after each word, both humble and proud, cheering the kids on with all his open heart. He was so joyously him in that moment, his love and light shining through.
I am so like my dad in some ways- rebellious, stubborn, a bit outlandish, unabashedly decided about who I am. I dirty up a whole sink-full of dishes to make a really good meal (though I don’t have his knack for making it all come out at the same time). I can’t resist talking to everyone and their mom everywhere I go. And I hope to prove myself as fiercely dedicated to my kids as he did. I hope they’ll love me as fiercely for all my character, my quirks and lovely imperfections, just like I love him. Your memorial continues, papá.