Elizabeth imagines snowflakes and cold as she daydreams through her bedroom window, wondering what birds and squirrels might feel if not for their feathers and fur. Warm, safe, riddled with guilt, she is the lucky one. The one that now has a family of her own. The one that is insulated from the cold of the world.
Christmas Mornings Past
The smell of their favorite cookies baking on Christmas morning always followed a sleepless night. After midnight mass, Baby Jesus would bring gifts for the children. They listened carefully for sounds that might signal Papa Noel had received their letters. Elizabeth, Dorian, and Grace would crawl into bed together this one night a year and giggle with joy under the blankets in great anticipation. The morning light always brought the aroma of plantains, gallo pinto and their much-loved cookies. The first one to awaken from their multiple cat naps throughout the night would wake the others pointing to the dawns light. “It’s here. It’s morning. It’s Christmas!”
All gathered joyously, innocently, unaware of what was to come. They ripped the wrapping paper off the boxes hidden under the adorned Christmas tree with plates of food spilling from their laps, laughing, grabbing for their favorite homemade Christmas cookies.
Elizabeth 12, with her sibling each four years younger, Dorian 8, and Grace 4, always took great care of her brother and sister. Their parents’ Nicaraguan dissidents were seeking political asylum in the United States.
Captured and imprisoned during their journey to the US by the Nicaraguan Government, the parents insisted that their children forge on under the supervision of another family. Rafael and Maritza Davila openly opposed the government and ignored their warnings, which made them targets endangering the entire family. They knew their children would have a chance of survival if they were to receive political asylum in the United States.
Once at the Texas border, after a physically demanding journey, the children were separated from their guardian family and then, from each other. Elizabeth, old enough to explain the circumstances of their plight to the border agents, learned of her parent’s demise in a Nicaraguan prison. The three were placed in a retention center. Shortly after her arrival, Elizabeth was admitted into a nearby hospital with severe flu and stomach issues. Developing asthma during their arduous journey because of the neglected flu, she was too ill to be treated in the center. Her siblings remained.
During her hospitalization, she was treated by a husband-and-wife doctor team that longed for a family of their own. American citizens of Latin decent, their cultural similarities provided great comfort for Elizabeth. Older now, both doctors had regrets about never having children, but time slipped away while dedicated to their careers. The three had developed a wonderful rapport and with Elizabeth's blessing, the doctors pursued a special order granting them permission to foster Elizabeth with the hopes of adoption someday. They wanted to foster her siblings as well, but that was denied. Since Elizabeth had special medical needs, her placement was considered an “exception,” but her brother and sister had to go through regular channels, leaving their fate precariously open.
Leaving Nicaragua in the middle of the night, they walked miles to reach a place where they could take a bus through the mountains. Her parents and Elizabeth traded off carrying Grace for long periods of time. The lack of meals, cleanliness and exhaustion broke their bodies. It was at a hidden yet widely known resting site along the roadside where the parents were arrested. Soldiers waiting for their arrival. Seven of them came out of the shadows encircling the family, shouting orders to step away from their children. The children screamed and clung to their parents, while their parents tried to pry them off. The children screaming and crying, No mama, no, but the soldiers brutally ripped them away from their parents. Their mother cried out in agony as she was grabbed with force, and then, only seconds later, they were gone. The children paralyzed in terror.
Grace developed serious anxiety and night terrors after her parents were taken. Dorian tried to be strong for them, but he was equally terrified and held his emotions close. Elizabeth managed it all, following the others along the railroad tracks on foot and although under the watchful eye of a family, she knew she was really the only person her brother and sister trusted. Elizabeth tried to soothe Grace as she shakes and cries out each night. Dorian wakes observing this ritual yet turns away, sobbing quietly to himself. The worst part of this heartbreak, this is not unique. The physical exhaustion may soon heal but the emotional toll will last a lifetime.
Elizabeth’s thoughts confused and burdened as she is grateful for asthma which has given her an opportunity for a better life. If I want to be free, I must be grateful for my illness and see it as an opportunity to save myself and my siblings. She too lives with anxiety, depression, and survivors’ guilt, which makes anything joyful feel like daggers to her heart.
She takes walks on the small farm that the doctors call home. Split rail fencing creates a boundary defining their personal space. Spreading feed for chickens, the two goats and a baby llama, as they run free on their parcel of land. Each morning she peers out her bedroom window and takes in her surroundings separated from others, and that makes her feel safe. Eye lids closed, facing up toward the sun, feeling the warmth against her skin, breathing in this moment allowing it to enter her soul, envisioning being able to share this wonderful home life with Dorian and Grace. She misses her parents desperately and the thought of how they might have been put to their death is too excruciating to consider. She wonders if Dorian was told about their parents or is he waiting with hope against hope that they will be coming to retrieve him. Grace too young to understand all that has happened, she’s hopeful that the guards would be smart enough not to share the news of their parent’s death with a four-year-old.
She prays constantly for the safety of her sibling, and the chance to perhaps see them again, even one more time. They are never out of her thoughts. As she assimilates to her new life she imagines Grace in her arms and Dorian at their side joining her in each experience.
The darkness of night, stirs the memories of her mothers screams. The doctors burst into Elizabeth’s room, trying to console her. She relives her fright each night in her sleep. They hold her and reassure her, stroking her hair. They do not know all that she has lived through, but they understand her nightmares are real. Watching her neighbors/friends home burn to the ground because they refused to let government snipers perch upon their roof. The mission to shoot anyone who appears to break their law. This was the night that her parents knew they had to leave their beautiful homeland as they were active among the protestors, and it was only a matter of time before they would become victims. That house fire murdered the family inside including babies and children as the soldiers would not allow them to escape the fire and watched as they burned to their deaths.
Once arriving in the US and placed in cages, her heart broke imagining her tiny sister, crying out for her without any understanding of why she wasn’t there to console her, to protect her. Her only hope was that her brother and sister were eventually placed together so at the very least they had each other. Do they know what happened to me, she wondered? Do they know why I am not there with them? Do they think the unthinkable, that I betrayed them? Or worse, that I stopped caring for them? Her young life fractured into small segments of thoughts, riddled with despair.
Only a child herself with the heart and dedication of both mother and father.
Christmas was only a few days away. She hoped for the possibility that they might have a celebration. She asked the doctors if they could bring the letters that she wrote daily with a few toys and Christmas Cookies to the center. The doctors expressing concern as to whether they would actually receive the letters, gifts, and cookies, but agreed to do it anyway. Together they baked Grace's and Dorian's favorite cookies.
She wished for their time behind walls of wire and metal, to be short and peaceful and also hoped they had a warm soft bed like hers, a Christmas meal, but most of all, understanding guards that might offer reassurance and kindness. She prayed that they somehow could feel her presence with them, always.
This morning like non other, meets Elizabeth’s heart with a heavy burden especially as she experiences feelings of joy. But she has made a specific request to the Doctors, “NO COOKIES, please! I vowed to myself not to have Christmas Cookies until I'm having them with Grace and Dorian. A symbol of our past life. A pleasure that I want to savor only when I am once again united with them.
Elizabeth woke to the wonderful aroma of bacon and hot chocolate. American traditions that she grew to enjoy. The tree adorned with colorful ornaments and garlands of silver and gold. So many presents placed under the tree. More than she had ever seen before. A mountain of glittering gifts that sparkled light and promise. Next to the tree was familiar baggage camouflaged as packages, but Elizabeth was so caught up in the moment that she failed to connect where she had seen them before.
This sight was captivating, yet overwhelming. Slowly as she descended the staircase, looking over the rail at the fireplace blazing with this beautiful tree and a table filled with an abundance of foods including many dishes from her country, she just stopped to breath in this vision and fell to her knees. As she moved closer to the table, she spied a triple decker platter of cookies hidden in the corner. Feeling slightly baffled by the cookies, wondering why the Doctors ignored her request, she decided not to notice them while outwardly trying to express her appreciation for this magnificent display. A showing of caring and optimism for the future from the doctors. She wanted to remember it forever. Life was uncertain. She really didn’t know if this too could be taken away.
The doctors which she has never addressed with their names or mama and papa were watching in wonder as she her absorbed this first Christmas in their new life. She wanted to call them something, but mama and papa was too painful. She couldn’t wipe her parents away by giving someone else their names.
They called her over to enjoy this bountiful breakfast before opening her gifts. Elizabeth was so humble and grateful; she obeyed every word that was said to her, terrified to object or express any opinion that could be misunderstood as ungrateful. She sat down to a plate of gallo pinto and plantains with eggs. She wanted so much to please the doctors, but she could not feel what they seemed to want her to feel. They went to all this trouble to make her happy but her real happiness was placed in the things that couldn’t be cooked or bought. She prayed for courage.
After breakfast, they gathered in front of the fire to open their gifts. The female doctor handed her a large card and an envelope. The doctor requested that she open the card first. As Elizabeth opened the card, she pulled out a picture. The picture was of her brother and sister together, smiling and waving while holding the gifts and cookies that they had sent. Her heart sung with relief. The thought that they were actually going to eat cookies that she made with her own hands, brought about a feeling of closeness that was unexpectedly satisfying. Behind the picture was a paper, she unfolded the paper and it read, Petition to Adopt. The name on the paper was Elizabeth Ana Maria Davila. She read it and cried. This meant permanency. Something she could count on for the first time in a long time. She wept in this bittersweet moment.
Then the doctors brought forth the giant platter of butter and sugar cookies with red and green icing, sprinkled with white and brown chocolate shavings. They placed it before her and said, “Once reading what’s inside of this envelope, we believe you will enjoy these once again.
Then the male doctor pointed to the envelope. She opened it to see the names of her brother and sister. It read, Petition for Foster Care- Dorian Rafael Davila and Grace Maritza Davila to reside at the home of The Doctor’s Sanchez, McAllen, Texas. She read this puzzled, as she didn’t understand what it meant.
Just then on cue, the front door opened, and standing there was Dorian and Grace, a bit taller and undernourished, needing haircuts and a long hot bath. They ran to each other and held one another so close and so tight. They vowed to never let go.