The night in March that we picked up our two newest daughters, I found myself perching on the edge of a sectional with eight people I didn’t know, waiting for their arrival and watching Big Hero 6 in Spanish. The movie looked OK, but I was too restless to decipher much with my limited Spanglish skills. The folks sitting mutely on the couch were my kids’ cousins or second cousins; it was unclear. I just knew we were at Tio Beto’s house, where we’d picked up the two older girls—our two older girls—two years earlier. I hadn’t met Beto before, and haven’t since.
My wife, Lacey, and our son, Armando, waited silently in the dark van outside, faces lit by the games they played separately on their iPhones. As I sat with the ambiguous relations, my daughters Valeria and Maria hovered near the screen door with greater-than-usual teenage awkwardness.
When we heard a truck pull up, my daughters hesitated, turned to each other with twin looks of determination, hesitation, and excitement, then bolted outside towards their sisters. I got out a quick “gracias” to the folks on the couch and followed. By the van were two new girls silhouetted in the truck’s headlights, rapidly overtaken and hugged by their sobbing older sisters. Armando, loading their bags in the trunk, looked grim.
I wasn’t sure what to do; I hadn’t hugged Valeria and Maria when they arrived. “I’m Laura,” I said to Leslie, and she hugged me, so I hugged Sandra, too. We climbed into our van, all seven seats full, and took off, away from our old neighborhood to the new, bigger house.
Do something extraordinary and everything that follows seems heroic. My wife and I took in five teenage siblings over the course of three years, and became sort-of parents. Do it boldly enough, and apparently everyone goes along with it. Hey, presto, we’re a family.
Not only are we now a family, we’re a big family, like I—circa age eleven—had wanted. Though that desire was primarily so I could name them, the putative twins Anya Marie and Annika Millay—I had at least seven names ready. “I never knew I wanted a big family,” says Lacey, who did always want kids, but just couldn’t figure out how she’d have them. She considers pregnancy an infestation brought on by penis, and will have none of that.
I wanted kids, but then I didn’t, and then I wasn’t sure. Armando cured that. Armando, Valeria, Maria, Sandra, and Leslie cured that. But, Armando first.
I met my son nearly four years ago. He was 17. It was a hot summer day, and as I drove up to the house after work, I noticed a gigantic, sweaty teenager mowing my lawn. I wondered how my then-girlfriend had weaseled out of the chore–and who she’d gotten as a replacement.
“Who’s the kid?” I asked, as soon as she met me in the yard. I probably looked concerned about how much we’d pay him for the yard, and whether we had cash. Lacey looked elated, satisfied.
“You remember that kid I told you about?” she asked.
“Which one?” I said, since she works with teens, helping them become their own advocates, but had rarely brought them home.
“This one,” she said, and then there he was, making the face I’d later come to know as nervous anticipation. The tentative smile of getting himself in order, the gentle face missing the glasses he needed, overhung by thick, grown-out hair.
He wiped his hands on his shirt. He was tall enough to stand there and blot out the sun. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Armando.”
Later that day, Lacey told me his story—the one he’d later tell at immigration reform rallies. When he tells it, it starts something like this:
“In March of 2010, I was sixteen and a junior in high school. I came home from school one day and I saw my Papi’s truck in the driveway. He was never home in the afternoon, so at first I was excited; I thought he was home early. I ran into the house looking for him, yelling for him, ‘Papi!’ And then I saw my mom. She was sitting in the corner of the living room in Papi’s big chair. ‘La migra got your father,’ she said, ‘they took him.’
“I haven’t seen my father in almost five years.”
Armando’s mother and six siblings moved to Mexico that summer to join his father, and Armando moved in with an uncle in our neighborhood, so he could finish high school. Like his parents, his aunt and uncle were undocumented immigrants; they had small kids of their own and little money to spare. Over time, his teenage sullenness and his prodigious appetite—along with his habit of sending all of his babysitting money to his mother, and sharing none with his hosts—soured the relationship.
At the Latino nonprofit where Lacey works, Armando spent summer days avoiding his aunt and uncle by helping Lacey make copies and organize files, and then by mowing our lawn and having dinner with us on occasion. She noticed he didn’t eat all day, so she started to bring him lunch. She realized he needed glasses, and we helped him get them. In November of 2011, the fall of his senior year, his uncle said Armando had to go—to Mexico, to anywhere. And so, at 17, he came to live with us.
Armando tells his story as part of the fight for immigration reform, at rallies organized by my wife and her colleagues, at churches, on the local radio, even in an article that ended up running nationwide. (I managed to avoid being in most of the accompanying pictures.) His story has become almost rote in the telling, but it never fails to pull him apart. I hope it’s like building a muscle, that it tears just a little and gets stronger in the mending. He tells this story less often now, and with reluctance, which I see as a good thing. It can’t be the only thing that defines him.
His life keeps expanding beyond what he shares in his stump speech: the arrival of his sisters, first two, then four, to live with us (when he speaks, his sisters can’t relive the day their father was taken without crying); his life as a college man on full scholarship; whatever comes next. Five years and three months from that day, he’s a rising college senior, studying abroad in France.
Today I saw photos of him online, at Normandy, looking contemplative. My heart leapt into my throat. How could he be so big, so smart, and so far away? Is there any way to contain him? Or do I have to grow, keep up, stretch out my love even across an ocean?
When he finishes his stump speech and all eyes follow him as he steps away from the microphone or bullhorn, I have a crazy desire to leap up, push him safely behind me, and tell everyone to quit crying, quit pitying him. Because, goddamn it, he is not alone. He is loved.
The story I want to tell starts just as his ends, because though I feel wretched to admit it, I know this was meant to be—this family created by Armando and Lacey and me. Without us, he might not have gone to college at all, or he might have succumbed to the pressures common to first-generation immigrants and college students and dropped out. Even if he had, even if he weren’t such a model citizen and perfect case for reform, if he were just another kid, knocked down by this huge, faceless system, who didn’t go to college or make rousing speeches, Armando and I were meant to be together. I know it in every atom of myself.
I want to explain it all: who I was before, the confusion of my sexuality, the striving yuppie with the simultaneous inner struggle, the strange rightness of meeting and marrying my wife, the wonderful enmeshment of my kids. I want to step out in front of the crowd and shout, “I am his mother!” But I’m not. Not quite.
When I think about what we’re doing with these kids—doing for them, as other people phrase it, though I am fairly sure our family isn’t the result of a white savior complex—I have two persistent visions. They pop into my head and stick there (even though I’m a much more verbal person) when I’m rushing through the airport to catch a flight to a business meeting, getting ready in the morning, attending a high-school honors ceremony, or sitting idly at my desk. First, I envision my hands knitted together into a little stirrup, my knees bent, crouching next to a great blue wall. I hoist up a foot, one and then another, lifting them up and over. And in the other, I clench a dagger in my teeth, and I climb. The visions become the reason I work every day: I crouch, I hoist, I climb. Inside I feel a fierceness and, paradoxically, a tender, intoxicating weakness. A grain of mother love. Instead of pushing it away, I secret it deeper, quiet my heart, keep on climbing.
I try not to think about the memories of my kids that I will never have, but yearn to. My son as an infant, cradled in my arms, waking from sleep and looking up at me. (Likely, while I wince with back pain. I’ve seen a photo; he was gigantic.) Or walking with my little daughters, holding hands. I can’t think of it. I can’t want it. I know I may never be called “Mom.”
Ultimately, I am not their mother. That’s the line I toe without crossing. I may blend in with the moms, save the huge asterisk I lug around. Our kids have parents, and they try to keep a good relationship with their mother, at least, by phone. My relationship with her is brittle, as she doesn’t speak English, nor I Spanish, despite some half-hearted efforts. Mexico is far away, and the phone lines are unreliable and crackly. Her poverty is the crushing weight of that big, blue wall that I imagine hoisting her kids over. To their benefit, I hope.
Today, Valeria graduated from high school, and she’s already begun classes at the local community college. Valeria has a wicked sense of humor combined with an infinite patience and a selfless love for children. The world is lucky to have her in it. I told her so in her graduation card. Maria just finished another straight-A year, another stepping-stone on her path to medical school. Sandra, with her sly smile, managed to rescue a C from a half semester of math, a bewildering tangle of half-forgotten algebra she was forced to repeat—C as in “coup.” Leslie begins high school in the fall, and, in the meantime, she can be found daydreaming about cheerleading, or hiding out in Valeria’s room, watching anime and playing video games.
My kids, her kids, our kids—all as happy and healthy as one could reasonably hope for. Far more so than their mother could reasonably hope for, had they remained with her. I have no legal right to any of them, and no right to overwhelm their stories with mine.
But today, like many days, as Lacey and I proudly posed for photos with our eldest daughter in her mortarboard cap and huge grin, my heart is filled with pride, and also cracked with the slightest fissure where the doubt gets in. I am not their mother, the doubt says, rising in my mind and dividing almost endlessly, crowding the available space. I am no one’s mother.
A rare native and current resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, LAURA MASCHAL is most often found doing typically suburban activities such as working in healthcare technology, puttering around her house, and spending quality time with her wife, five kids, five cats, and two dogs. Less typically, Laura devotes what time remains to activism, performing in her local LGBTQ wind ensemble, playing around with words, and daydreaming. “Borderline Mother” is her first published creative work. (@liberalGRIT)