The plane takes off and I watch as Cali, Columbia is reduced to a tiny, toy village glimmering vaguely between curtains of rain. It’s been a month, and while my little dude and I are anxious to get home, we’re leaving some truly spectacular friends behind and that’s never easy.
Gabriel asks me if one day we can get on a plane just for a vacation and without a moment’s hesitation I take his hand and promise him that we will. We’ve only ever traveled together for medical reasons… I’ve dragged him to doctor’s offices all throughout the America’s but the kid’s never experienced the thrill of getting on a plane to go somewhere fun. He always has the inevitability of being poked, prodded, sedated and sliced looming over his head as we drag our bags through the airport but he has never once complained.
He is a warrior, I’m so proud to have been blessed with this child.
Gabriel asks me to put The Big Bang Theory on for him in Spanish and after fumbling with the touch screen for a while I comply. He’s become completely enamored with the Spanish language but I’ve wielded the phrase ‘Lo siento, yo no hablo Espanol’ like a shield during the past 33 days.
It protected us from inquiries about my son’s postsurgical bruises and fresh zombie eye. It kept us insulated while he recovered from another major surgery. It kept me sane while I came to terms with the overwhelming (and shocking) sadness I felt over the loss of my son’s other eye. It kept me safe as struggled to make peace with the fact that a chapter in our lives is now closed. Lo siento. Yo no hablo Espanol.
I thought I was ready, but maybe there are things in life that you can never really prepare for. Maybe you can only trick yourself into thinking you’re ready so you can do what needs to be done.
As the plane reaches cruising altitude, Gabriel laughs at Spanish Sheldon’s antics and I tell myself to shake off the layers of worry that have been clinging to me like cobwebs - irritating in their invisibility and difficult to dislodge. I’ve got the world’s most amazing fiancé waiting for me at home, and I don’t want him to see anything but the mounting excitement I feel at the prospect of being reunited with him. It was a very stressful experience, but all I want to bring home is gratitude and, luckily, I have so many reasons to be grateful.
The surgery went incredibly well, the whole trip was laced with tiny miracles and most importantly I got to watch my son blossom in the warmth of his first true friendship with a peer. This has long been one of my biggest concerns for my son: socialization. I don’t need to tell you that kids can be very mean spirited and thoughtless. Much like feral creatures, they’ll use any weakness they perceive to gain the upper hand and become King of the playground and my son’s weakness is glaring and debilitating.
He’s been exploited, used, stolen from, teased, bullied and made - on more than one occasion - to feel subpar. However, in Cali, he found a true friend and it is with joy in my heart that I write of her today.
We first met Nicole 5 years ago when we were in Cali for Gabriel’s first eye surgery. Gabriel’s Father, Ivo, accompanied us, because remember: ‘Lo siento, yo no hablo Espanol’. While our romantic relationship crashed and burned like a model rocket held together with scotch tape and silly string, an abiding friendship rose between Ivo and myself out of the ashes of the love we both have for our Little Dude. We set out to Columbia not really knowing what to expect, but we never even remotely expected that it would be over 3 months before we got back home.
The days bled into one another as Gabriel was bumped not once but twice from the donors list. When I learned that my Spanish speaking co-parent had to leave to attend to some pressing work he had at home, frankly, I was terrified. The prospect of being alone in a huge city where I didn’t know anybody or speak the language was daunting to say the least. My saving grace, was a man named Daniel.
Daniel was the only English speaking employee at the hotel where we stayed. I shyly asked him, the day before Ivo left if he could help us with a few things, like ordering dinner or telling taxi drivers where we need to go. He did better than that. He took us under his wing and checked on us every day. When he discovered my son’s love for walkie talkies he made Gabriel an honorary evening shift bellman and christened him Eagle #1 on the airwaves. That weekend he introduced us to his beautiful wife, Lorena and their lovely little girl, Nicole.
Gabriel was 5 and Nicole, 4 when they met. They were both incredibly shy with each other at first but a trip to the amusement park and 20 minutes in the ball crawl later they were thick as thieves. I noticed immediately how good Nicole was with him, how she seemed to understand immediately that Gabriel was blind and began to anticipate his needs: waiting patiently for him in the bounce house, taking his hand as they walked. It warmed my heart, but at that time Gabriel spent most of his time with older children who also looked out for him, so at that time I didn’t realize what a treasure Nicole is.
We spend a few enjoyable days with them and eventually had to say goodbye. Five years slipped by in the twinkle of an eye but Gabriel never forgot Nicole. As it turns out, she never forgot him either.
When I learned that we’d be going back to Cali for surgery in Gabriel’s other eye and that this time Ivo would be unable to accompany us, my first message was to Daniel (you gotta love Facebook). I was nervous, afraid and dreading being alone with the kid for the hot mess of stress that was coming our way. Daniel’s response turned it around. He and his girls were excited to see us and they promised to help us out in any way they could.
We saw our friends the first full day we were in Cali and spent as much time as we could with them in the month that followed. Sadly, Daniel’s work schedule didn’t allow him much free time but Little Dude and I had a great time with the girls. I’m so happy to have gotten to know Lorena - she’s a wonderful friend and an amazing mother who I deeply respect.
For Gabriel and Nicole, it was as if no time had passed at all and this time I marveled at how wonderful she is with him. Having experienced other children interacting with Gabriel in the interim, I’ve come to fully appreciate how rare and precious this little girl is. I also feel deep admiration and appreciation for how her parents are guiding her through childhood. She is polite, considerate and an all-around beautiful child.
With that in mind, it won’t surprise you to learn that Lorena stayed with me during the surgery and told me amusing stories to keep my spirits up. What a far cry from last time, when I sat anxious and alone with no way to ask anyone what was going on with my boy. While Gabriel was recovering - rocking the zombie eye - Nicole never once said a word about the way he looked. She simply held his hand, as she’d always done and guided him along the treacherously uneven sidewalks of the city.
The plane hits a spot of turbulence and Gabriel laughs as he always does but the smile quickly fades from his face as he realized we’re descending. “Nicole is far from us now” he informs me sadly. I’m struck, once again by the unfairness of life. My kid finally makes a wonderful friend who sees the amazing guy he is under that layer of incidental blindness and we have to leave her behind and return home where, sadly, children who accept him are few and far between. I’ve managed to shake off the last gossamer strand of my stress, but the sorrow on my little boy’s face tugs on my heartstrings.
“We’ll be back” I tell him and we will. In two years he’ll need bigger lenses and our friends will be waiting for us. In the meantime, when other kids get him down I can tell him that somewhere out there is a beautiful little girl that loves him and celebrates being his friend. I can assure him that not all people will weaponize his disability. On his worst days, I can remind him of Nicole, Lorena and Daniel. And on my worst days, I’ll remember them too.