Guatemala. Summer 2018

August 2nd, 2018

Something I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have, is the way Guatemala now possesses my heart. I’m here with my kids, so happy to breathe in this place. (Yesterday we visited friends who are weavers in Xenocoj; the photo shows Olivia standing beside them, dressed in their beautiful traje.)

Other photos show the kids eating lunch at Pollo Campero and a bus with balloons and sticky notes. (This week was St. Christopher’s Day, patron saint of travelers and drivers.)

With every trip, my appreciation for this remarkable country deepens.









July 19th, 2018


My father died on July 4th at 11:50 at night. My family was on vacation in Delphi, Greece. We’d just checked into our hotel and I turned on my phone to see if we had WiFi.

A minute later, an email arrived from my sister Adrienne. “Dad is crashing. He’s in ICU.”

It was still July 3 in California.

Even if I turned around and left that minute, the soonest I could get to San Diego was in thirty-six hours.

Adrienne again: “Can you FaceTime?”

I couldn’t because I’m a technology dinosaur, but my son Mateo knew how.

Mateo set it up and we called. My father’s head filled the small screen, his eyes unfocused, his skin pale green.

“We’re in Greece,” I said. “Remember when you were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean?”

My father’s face, not moving, a tube up his nose.

“I love you,” I said. “I love you, Dad. I love you. I love you.”

I tell myself I saw him smile.


I had visited my father the week before we flew to Greece. My sisters Deanna and Adrienne were there. We visited him every day in his Memory Care place in Coronado. Any food he requested, we brought to him. One day we brought a submarine sandwich from Jersey Mike’s: spicy ham and salami, the works. Another day we brought a Reuben on rye from the good deli, with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, secret sauce. A third day, it was jelly donuts from Stardust in Imperial Beach, with real coffee.

He wanted food that was bad for him, loaded with salt and sugar and fat. We didn’t care. We gave him whatever he wanted. When we watched the Preakness, he ate four finger sandwiches, three deviled eggs, and two brownies, and this after a big lunch. My father lost the ability to stand, to write, to toilet himself. But never his appetite.


Because I live in San Francisco, I was able to fly to San Diego to visit my father often. When he could still operate his scooter, he scooted to Smart & Final to buy Almond Joys. He scooted to the Tidelands to watch children play soccer and the Pharmacy to fill his dozens of prescriptions. He scooted to the hospital and the bank, to the liquor store on Orange for Lotto tickets and the bottles of whiskey he kept hidden behind his computer monitor.

Once, in his Memory Care place, my father got a speeding ticket for knocking over a medicine trolley. A few times out on the road, he flipped the scooter and frantic passersby dialed 911. Among ourselves, we called him The Phoenix. Anything serious turned into a false alarm. The last words he spoke to me were the same words he’d said for years: “You’re looking good, kid. Love to you and your family.”


My father raised his five children Catholic. At Mass on Sundays, he sang louder than anyone else. My father loved to sing. He had a beautiful voice.


I’ve been writing my father’s obituary for a week and can’t stop revising it. Now the edits are miniscule: changing a participle to a verb in past tense or moving a prepositional phrase.

I think: If I don’t finish writing my father’s obituary, maybe my father won’t really be gone.











My father

July 9th, 2018

My Dad died on July 4th, at age 89. He was lucky to live a good, long life. What I want to tell you about my father is that he loved Olivia and Mateo as deeply and totally as he loved all his grandchildren, from Day One. That may seem an obvious statement—of course he’d love his grandchildren, doesn’t every grandparent? But from the countless adoption stories I’ve heard over the years, I know love doesn’t always happen and it doesn’t always happen automatically.

I cherish many qualities of my father, but his unconditional love for my children may be the quality I cherish most. (The photo of him laughing is one of my favorites. He’s holding his first great-grandchild, my sister Adrienne’s granddaughter. The other shows him with my late, beloved mom, Gerry, the love of his life.) Rest in peace, Dad. Flights of angels.




forever friends

June 16th, 2018

Olivia and Mateo are in Boston with my wonderful sister Deanna and her family while I’m in Los Angeles for my fourth MFA residency at Antioch. Here they are with forever friends–in 2012, and today. I love our GuatAdopt community. xoxo





Fuego and Pacaya

June 4th, 2018

The footage of Volcano Fuego erupting is mind-boggling. The latest reports state at least 25 dead and hundreds injured. Aurora International Airport is closed, and for miles beyond the lava flow, ash blankets roads, trees, and houses. Our family in Guatemala is safe, thankfully, but so many are not.

Guatemala is home to some thirty volcanoes. As I’ve previously posted, Mateo and I have climbed Pacaya several times; the photos here are from our trip in October 2015. Pacaya is known as “safe” to climb, unlike the mighty and active Fuego, whose name means fire.

Guatemala always is in our thoughts, now especially.







Annual gathering of GuateAdopt families

May 30th, 2018

Here I am at the front door in my huipil from Coban, Guatemala, as our first guests arrive for our annual party for adoptive families with children from Guatemala. Our community is what makes this party amazing. About one hundred people attend: Kids everywhere, while parents share stories, fellowship, and food.

I’m always happy when I read about other folks/organizations around the country also hosting gatherings. It’s very special to watch our kids grow up together while we grow as parents. We love our community!

photo by Susan Hurst.



St. Louis families in reunion

May 22nd, 2018

I’m posting here a fascinating and important TV clip about families in St. Louis who are connecting with birth family in Guatemala via DNA testing and social media. The desire to know who you are, your roots, your blood–that feels hard-wired to me. And with social media, the internet, and DNA test kits so available, everything is possible. Sending best wishes to the beautiful families profiled here. xoxo

PS: IMHO, the Fox News commentary about Guatemala is a little one-dimensional. This may be because I visit the country often and view it through a more faceted lens. But overall, I applaud this segment for calling attention to the fact that many adoptive families are in reunion. In my own family, my kids feel lots of emotions around knowing their birth mothers, but one of the strongest is relief. Relief to know their mothers’ stories–the reasons why they made the decisions they made–and relief to know they are loved. I believe the same is true for their mothers in Guatemala. They no longer wonder and worry. They know their children are safe and loved.

Note: We hired trusted searchers to find our children’s mothers. The searchers are culturally sensitive and aware, able to help us navigate.

Reunion is a complicated responsibility. There’s not a day I regret having taken the first step.



Interview on birth country connection

May 9th, 2018

A week or so ago I posted about Sliding Into Home, the new YA novel by my friend and fellow Guatmama Nina Vincent. One of the themes in Nina’s book is connection to birth country. Nina interviewed me on the subject, posted today on her blog. Thanks, Nina!

Here’s an excerpt:

NV  I know that you have made it a point to have your children learn Spanish. Can you talk a little bit about why you felt that was important?

JO’D  The first year we went to Latin American Heritage Camp in Colorado, we attended a panel discussion led by young adults who’d been adopted from Central and South America. The audience was filled with adoptive parents and the question was asked, “What’s your advice for us? What’s one thing you’d like us to know?” And to a panelist, each of these young adults said, “Teach your children Spanish. Even if your kids rebel and resist. Keep trying.”

Language is power. It’s the way we connect with one another. You’ve heard the expression: “We speak the same language.” When we go to Guatemala, it’s great to be able to communicate directly with people. Speaking another person’s language often leads to deeper understanding of that person.

What’s interesting is the way my kids’ attitude toward Spanish has evolved. When they were younger, they studied the language because they didn’t have a choice. They took Spanish in school; they studied for a month every summer in Guatemala; and for five years, Olivia attended a two-week Spanish immersion camp in Minnesota (Concordia).

All that learning was directed by us, their parents.

But as teenagers, they’re out in the world as independent operators. Because of the way they look, strangers start speaking to them in Spanish. Kids at school who are bilingual speak to them in Spanish. My kids want to speak Spanish if only because everyone assumes they do. To become fluent is their goal now, not mine.

And let’s face it, being able to speak another language is totally cool.



To finish and to begin

May 4th, 2018

One day this March when I was in Guatemala, four of us hiked up a mountain near Antigua. The hike is a favorite of my friend, Wende, an American who has lived and worked in Guatemala for decades; she and her husband, Jeff, raised their three children there.

It was Wende’s idea to read a poem after the hike, and she chose one by Irish poet John O’Donohue, For a New Beginning. We each took a stanza and the poem unfolded that way, in our different voices.

I was lucky to read the first verse:

“In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.”

As soon as I said these words aloud, I knew they were intended for me. Eighteen months ago, I began an MFA program in creative writing, fulfilling a dream that, yes, had been quietly forming since I graduated from college. After my mother died, I decided not to wait any longer. Enough stalling. I was ready to emerge.

Before the trip, Wende had asked us each to choose a single word to guide and inform our actions through the year. One friend chose “Explore,” another “Create,” and a third, “Trust.” My word was “Finish.”

Finish the MFA.

Finish the Critical Paper required for the MFA.

Finish the Final Manuscript that is my MFA thesis.

Finish. Finish. Finish.

Tonight, I’m reflecting on my word because May 25 is the end of this Project Period and I’m hurtling toward that deadline. My Critical Paper is done (!!!!) and in Format Review. My reviewer has sent it back to me three times for revision: the citations must conform to MLA format, a requirement far more onerous (to me) than researching and writing the thing. What’s left now is to finish the manuscript. Or, more accurately, finish my millionth rewrite of the manuscript.

I wish the same for you, in whatever is your challenge. To finish. And first, to begin.

For a New Beginning

By John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.






Sliding Into Home by Nina Vincent

April 28th, 2018

My dear friend and fellow Guatmama, Nina Vincent, has published her first book! Sliding Into Home features protagonist Felipe “Flip” Simpson, born in Guatemala and adopted to a white family in California. From the Amazon listing:

“Thirteen-year-old Flip Simpson’s ideal life just began to crumble. His adoptive parents are splitting up. He’s moving from the only home he’s ever known. He has to leave before his baseball team finishes the playoffs. And his little sister is his only companion. Flip folds under the weight of so much loss until he meets Ricki, an indigenous classmate who loves baseball and gives Flip a sense of pride in his Mayan roots and Zorba, an eccentric houseboat dweller who is a cross between The Cat in the Hat and Willy Wonka.”

The novel is suitable for middle-grade readers; I’ve bought a copy for my high-school daughter, as well. Sliding Into Home is cause for celebration: Kids love to see themselves reflected in books. Congratulations, Nina!