For those who know my family in Harlingen, it is not unusual for them to be aware of the width and breadth of our farewells. Of their intimacy. People refer to them as singularly “Serda” because although they are strongly reminiscent of most Chicano goodbyes occurring simultaneously in our south Texas borderlands, astute spectators tell us ours are super-sized.
It is because in addition to el Chicanismo, we have my father’s thread to Mexico and my mother’s to Lebanon stoking our blood.
Love each other, my father used to demand of us. Quieranse, he’d say sternly when as children he’d catch us fighting.
We learned the alternative was undesirable. That our own kind—our siblings, our family—mattered most, and in turn, as payment and as proof that we understood, at the center of that universe, we placed him and her: my father and my mother, who stood ready to cradle us.
I do not deny that often others have found our kind of familial loyalty to be overwhelming, intimidating, or absurd. I do not deny that I would not live my life in any other way.
The Serda farewells are ritualistic in large part because we are superstitiously, obsessive compulsive. As a standard, we begin hours before the actual departure, and it is certainly not rare to at first see my mother’s eyes welling up, the rims turning pink, her bottom lip quivering beyond her control. We’ll watch as abruptly she’ll seek my father’s arms having gone from solid to fluid in a matter of seconds; she’ll rest there in my father’s embrace: melting, writhing; she’ll finally cry—silently—having not had the ability to nip the tears before they stream down her face and we—her children who are about to leave her—reach out with our fingertips, our own lips now feeling the downward pull of our own quiver, we stroke her cheeks, kiss the velvet of her eyelids, and tell her that soon we will return though we know that to return to the Valley will take much longer than we need or want.
We are theatrical, lyrical, and unapologetically unpoetic in our sentimentality.
We feel the separation somewhere in our marrow. We kiss each other’s faces and tightly embrace with both arms again and again. When we finally board our cars and drive away, we do so with the windows rolled down, with our free hand waving vigorously in the wind, with the other honking four times in quick succession once we round the corner and find ourselves no longer able to see.
It is deep inside these roots that we express our gratitude, our disappointment, our love.
We Serdas react viscerally to being apart, and I’ve been brought up to always come back.
It is precisely the inability to grant myself this that I hate about the way I travel. I feel too much, see too much, know too much. I weave myself too far inside. And at thirty-three, I know myself well enough to know that most often, I cannot return, I cannot rekindle the past, I cannot recreate what I leave behind.
I cannot live out all the lives I initiate.
I cannot be everywhere at once.
I cannot always love the way I want to love.
I do not sleep the night before the final day at Sanata. The night is quiet save for the mosquitos working to creep inside the net and the periodic, not-so-distant barking of wild dogs roaming the countryside outside my host mums’ Mary and Catherine’s home in Gilgil of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.
I do not sleep; I fantasize:
Kevin holds my hand as I walk down the street of some nondescript American suburb. We head to school for his first day. I introduce him to his teacher who is young, pretty, understanding in her lavender cardigan. She reaches out to him and puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He reacts only with a tentative smile, with a slight sliver of ivory where usually I see up to his gums. She then introduces him to his classmates whose interest is collectively piqued at the mention of the word “Africa.” I put my hand on his chest as he stands in front of me, and below the delicate ridges of his ribcage, I feel the rush of his heart against the palm of my hand. He is nervous, feels ill-prepared for this ambush, and I attempt to calm him by whispering in his ear, telling him he’ll be fine, nudging him gently forward, increasing the pressure of my hand against his skin.
But his feet are cemented to the floor beneath him; he refuses to leave me.
“He has family here,” Sanata’s staff tells me when I ask if I can adopt Kevin, and they tell me that somewhere his aunt exists; thus, Kenya refuses to allow Kevin to become my son.
“It’s impossible,” they add at this point unnecessarily.
Then: “Why don’t you instead just come back?”
At twenty, I walked away from a nameless child Lorca’s poetry inspired me to call Preciosa. We met in a revolution-era, bullet-pocked park of Old Havana in Cuba. Her hair fell in loose curls around her face down to her shoulders. I remember she felt light in my arms when we hugged, and I pulled her near my face. I remember her thin fingers were tipped in pink lacquer, and she wore an unbecoming pale, gray dress. We spoke of ballet and of her dream of becoming a dancer. I envisioned her as one of Russian-taught Cuban ballerinas pirouetting across a well-worn studio like the one where I danced as a child in Texas.
Preciosa reminded me of me. Of some former innocence.
The image of her waving to me as I walked away—the image of the tears on her eight-year old face—haunted me for a decade after, and I had to write story after story and poem after poem about her in order to immortalize her for myself.
In order to put away the regret of having left her.
But like Kevin, she had family: A mother who Preciosa told me was a prostitute. A mother who didn’t know that Preciosa preferred to walk to that particular park because it was there that no one knew her mother.
“I will sponsor Kevin,” I tell my mother in an email. “I will send money. I will send him to school, to college, feed and clothe him. He will not go without.” She tells me that I am good but I do not feel good. It is not enough for Kevin. Nor for myself. Nor for the sixty-six other children at Sanata.
And money is a derivative form of love.
And walking away is a wound.
In the last few moments, Kevin refuses to accept my arms when I reach out to him. I search his face and cannot see him. In his place stands a boy who has said goodbye too many times. Who has heard the words I will miss you! too many times, who has seen their cadaverous nature too many times, who has said Come back to me! and has learned that most often, people like me do not.
Like the Serda I am, I persist.
Like a scavenger, I persist.
I steal him away from himself. I draw him to me against his will. I pull his body off the ground like I once did Preciosa’s, like my father did when I was a child, and enclose my arms around him while he pours like string against me.
I feel the strong thud of his heart against me. The ripples of ribs glued to his skin. I smell the dirt and wind on this unwashed child. I hold him against me for as long as I can: He doesn’t give in. He refuses my embrace. Refuses to cave into me. Refuses to do anything other than hang.
When I let go, he walks away without looking back.
It is dark when I leave Sanata. I cannot stop my tears nor can I suck in enough air.
In the shadows where no one can see me, I stop and look back. I see Kevin’s sillouette on the porch standing in a corner near the dining room door; for moments he does not move and I do not breathe. But the stillness does not last; he breaks it by tentatively raising his hand to his face; he wipes at it quickly then more assuredly walks inside, leaving me, joining the rest of the boys at Sanata.
Joining his family of children at Sanata.
And I walk away. I leave Gilgil. I leave Kenya. I inch closer to my return home to the south Texas Valley where my own family patiently, persistently awaits.