A letter to José Heaton

Back in July of this year, I posted a blog about Tom Heaton of Mission Guatemala, whose twenty-year-old son José, was shot and killed on a bus in Guatemala City. This past Sunday, our church in California offered a Mass in honor of José. Although I know Tom, I had never met his son, but as our priest said the prayers asking for “the repose of the soul of José Heaton,” tears streamed down my face. 

Tom adopted José from an orphanage when José was twelve years old.  At José’s memorial service, Tom read a letter to his son, which he later posted on his Facebook page. With Tom’s permission, I am reprinting his letter in its entirety here.

Dear José,

It has been just over a week since I received the news of your death. I played back the message on my answering machine three times to make sure I heard everything correctly. I could not believe the words of George, a pastor in the neighborhood where you lived when I heard them. Jose is dead. It was the call I had dreaded would come for months. I shared the news with Manuel who immediately broke into tears.

There is so much that was left unsaid between us. I am certain I will continue to search for answers until my dying days. I was glad we were able to talk briefly on the phone just a few days earlier and both say, “I love you.”

Your life, especially your early years, was filled with such tragedy, and you had so many questions of your own that were never answered.

I am sure you must have wondered many times why you had to go live in the orphanage while your younger sister, Bea, got to live with family members. Although you were loved and cared for at Hogar Miguel Magone, it still isn’t the same as being loved and cared for by a family. I looked the other day at the picture of your birth mother holding you when you were around two years old. I too wonder why you ended up in the orphanage. I wonder why your birthfather never claimed you or Bea to be his children. I am sure it hurt you deeply that your aunt and grandmother cared for your sister while you lived away from them. I am also sure that you went to the orphanage because they loved you and wanted to make sure you were cared for… and you were.

I am also sure that the tragic murder of your mother affected you far deeper than I could ever know. Still, I will never forget the first day we met at Fundaninos orphanage. You had no idea what was going on, but the smile on your face charmed me right away. I know after we left, Vilma told you that I wanted to adopt you. After spending some more time together while we were in Guatemala, I am so glad you said yes. I think we still have the fastest Guatemala adoption on record. It was 45 days from the time my paperwork entered the system until the signature went on the paper making you Jose Luis Heaton. You told me that you never dreamed anyone would want to adopt a 12 year old boy.

Our family did not turn out how I had dreamed. Your life did not become what I had hoped it would be. But nonetheless, we were still a family. I am grateful that I was able to provide for you experiences and opportunities you would not have had otherwise.

I remember the fast friendship you formed with Aaron Shaffer when you first arrived in Nashville, Indiana. You both remained close to each other’s hearts even at great distances. Friends like Aaron are a blessing.

I remember the fears you had spending the first night in your new bedroom. It never occurred to me that you had never slept in a room by yourself before.

I remember the first time you met my father, your grandpa, and the love you had for him… and how angry you got at me when I got frustrated at him.

I remember the joy on your face and the hours upon hours you and Manuel played together in your first snowfall.

I remember our first Christmas and the joy on your face and your amazement at how well I had hidden the gifts… especially your bicycle. You told me you were certain, since nothing was under the tree, that Santa wasn’t coming that Christmas.

I remember the joy on your face when I arrived to pick you up at school and had Dawn, our first dog, in the car. She slept right beside your bed every night and loved to run with you as you rode your bicycle. I saw her the other day. She is very old now, but doing okay.

Family vacations will never be the same. I will always remember the fun at the beach and the skim boards on the sand. And, your amazement, that you were actually seeing space shuttles and rocket ships when we visited Kennedy Space Center. And even the joy and laughter visiting Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

I loved to watch you skateboard and how quickly you took to it. I still wish you would have worn a helmet.

Cheering for you as you wrestled for Brown County and Tompkins was so much fun.

I remember the pain in your face when you told me the phone call from your aunt in Guatemala, that came to the Old North Parsonage, was news of your older brother Johnny’s murder. How we struggled to get you a ticket for the next morning so you could fly down to be there for the funeral.

But watching you play soccer was probably my greatest joy. I remember how frustrated you were in the early recreation leagues in Brown County and Columbus. The other kids were so busy watching their feet and would never look up to see you open and pass you the ball. Remember that fantastic corner kick that went right in the goal when you were in middle school and we played against Mt. Vernon? I am pretty convinced that the opportunity to play soccer was the only thing that kept you passing classes the first two years of high school.

In high school, when you would disappear days at a time, I would sleep with the phone by head each night in hopes that you might call and ask me to come and get you.

Through all of this we were family and I loved you.

I want you to know that I will never forget what you said when we traveled back to Guatemala about two years after the adoption. As the plane flew over Guatemala City and began to land at the airport, you looked at me and said, “We are home.” I realized then that you were a young man torn between two worlds.

When it became painfully obvious to me that you were not going to graduate high school and that you were constantly in and out of trouble, I knew something had to happen. I still laugh when I think of how you tried to convince me that you were doing your best… yet still managed to fail Spanish 1. Deciding to have you return to Guatemala to live was one of the most painful moments in my life. Yet, you were pulled between two worlds. I cried silently for days. You seemed to know that it was your best option. And because of your fluency in English you were able to make a living and live independently… which is what you longed for since you were 15.

I do not know the circumstances around what happened on that bus that caused you to get shot. I do not know if you were in a gang and it was gang related. I do not know if you provoked someone in some way. I do not know if you were just an innocent bystander. Your friend Hector called me the other night in tears about your death. I hope to see him when I return to Guatemala City to learn if he can tell me more. Until I can learn something more, I think I will always wonder. I also hope to see your sister, Bea, too. Yes, I will take the shoes for her that you asked me to buy. Black All Stars size 6. 

Jose, I also want you to know that so many of your characteristics, which caused you so much trouble, I also appreciated. You never failed to speak your mind… especially when you thought someone was stupid. There are many people who have crossed my path in life that I wish I could have kindly told them exactly what I thought. I know it always puzzled you that I didn’t.

You had an enthusiasm for life and lived each day to its fullest. I told someone one time that everything about you seemed to be loud and energetic. People definitely knew when you entered the room.

I was hoping that somehow I could help prevent your life from ending so tragically like your mother’s life and your older brother Johnny’s life. Again, another hope bubble has burst.

The reality is beginning to set in that I will never see your huge smile and hear your laugh again… that I will not be there when you are married and get to hold your first child… my grandchild. That we will not take some of the trips together that we dreamed about. You know walking the streets of Panajachel again will be very painful, because I see faces like yours almost every day.

I do pray that Heaven is what you thought it would be. I pray that your mother was there to greet you with a huge warm embrace. I pray that the mother’s love that you so longed for but never had was fulfilled on that day. I hope that you and Johnny are now laughing together… and you finally got to teach him how to ride a skateboard. I hope that you are getting to make that huge vertical drop on your skateboard that you always feared. I hope and pray that one day we will meet again in Heaven, and you will greet me with a loving embrace and all the unanswered questions will be answered.

I remember one time, in a fit of frustration; I looked at you and said that I was certain God had a special place for me in Heaven because I had been your father. I regretted it the moment it left my lips. But you smiled and laughed and looked at me and said, “you are probably right again dad.”

I know that our lives together were complicated. I want you to know that I apologize for the mistakes I made and where I failed you. But I did the best I could. What a blessing from God it was for me to be your father. I am so grateful that God’s hand brought us together. Jose, I love you without question and I know you know that. I will never forget when you told me that I was probably the only person who ever really loved you. I am grateful that one small gift I could give you was that of a father’s unconditional love.

If I can find a way to keep in touch with them, I want to promise you that I will do whatever I can to make sure your sister Bea and your friend Hector have their basic needs met. I do not have all the money that you seemed to think I do, but I will do the best I can.

There is so much more I want to say to you. But there will always be things left unsaid. When you died… a piece of me died as well. I know that life will go on. That I will laugh again. But it will never be the same without you here. I know I will think of you every day.

Jose, “Te quiero mucho. Gracias por ser mi hijo.” “I love you very much. Thank you for being my son.”


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