There’s an analogy I’ve heard many people use as I was growing up: “I’m starting a new chapter in my life.” Indeed, we’ve all probably used this phrase at some point, whether it was after a break-up, high school graduation, or a new job. I can remember many times when I have journeyed into the sunset, eyes glistening with the thought of my “new chapter.”
However, in my case, writing new chapters always seemed difficult. For example, my first (and only relationship) was riddled with self-doubt and apprehension about trusting Robert. Through lots of patience and love, Robert taught me trust; nevertheless, it was a difficult chapter to write. Throughout my school-years, I struggled with self-love and doubt about my friends’ thoughts about me. Did they really like me? Was I a lovable person? Even as I transitioned into college, I felt completely lost. I had no idea who I was anymore, and so began the journey to figure that out. I needed to find my missing chapter.
When I was a little girl, my mom gave me the first clue into my missing chapter. The title? Ivan Arizaga, my biological father. Shortly after I was born, he returned to Ecuador, and neither myself or my mother ever saw him again. As I grew, she told me stories about him. It was from those stories that I began to construct an image of what he must have been like. He loved the outdoors just as much as we did. He shared my love of music. He was funny, kind, and – at one point, at least – he loved me.
“Then why isn’t he here, Mom? Why won’t my dad come back?”
That was the question my mom could never answer, and the piece of my chapter I couldn’t construct. I can’t tell you how many nights my mom just held me as I would cry because I felt like it was my fault he was gone. I felt like it was my fault that my mom went through all that pain. I felt like I was completely unlovable. So, every night for as long as I can remember, I’ve closed my eyes and prayed to God that someday, somehow, he would bring my daddy back to me.
When I was sixteen-years-old, I received a Facebook message from Ivan. I can still remember that day with a great amount of clarity, because I spent all day asking my mom to check Facebook again to see what else he might say. He told me a lot about himself, as well as about my two little brothers. From there, we began to talk quite frequently back-and-forth. Slowly, however, anger began to creep up inside my heart.
For sometime, no matter what my mom tried to do to help me, I didn’t want to talk to Ivan. I wanted to ignore him. I wanted to reject him. I wanted to hurt his heart the same way he had hurt mine. My mom would make me reply to messages, and she would try to help me talk through what I was feeling. Despite her efforts, the pain in my heart led to a great amount of resentment toward the man sitting on the other side of the computer screen. He was a stranger to me, yet I still hated him.
In the past two years, however, the unexplainable love between parent and child began to chip away at my heart. I went to counseling. I learned to deal with my emotions. I found friends who empowered me to begin loving myself. All of the sudden, I didn’t want any more hate. I didn’t want to be mad. Just like when I was little, I just wanted my dad.
In February, I sent the message I had prepared for my whole life – the message asking my dad if we could meet, face to face. I called my mom over and over to read and re-read the message to her. I didn’t want to come across weird or pushy or desperate. Again and again, she reassured me that the message didn’t have to be perfect. As she always has, she reassured me that her heart knew my dad loved me and would want to meet me, too.
Pulse racing, heart beating out of my chest, I hit send. It wasn’t long before I received a reply. To my disbelief, it was a resounding “YES.” Suddenly, I was in a whirlwind of emotions. I was crying, not because I was sad, but because the first part of my missing chapter was finally in reach. I was about to have a video call with the man I’d been told stories about from the beginning. His voice, his likeness, was all about to become very real to me. Ivan purchased a plane ticket the same day. That was it; I was going to Ecuador. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
Between February and May, I experienced many different emotions. As you can imagine, telling my family and friends about my decision to travel to Ecuador was not easy. I faced lots of different reactions – happiness, anger, disbelief, sadness – and none of it was easy. In fact, in the spirit of transparency, I cried myself to sleep almost every night because I was completely overwhelmed with not only my feelings, but the thoughts and feelings of others.
Nevertheless, when May 16th arrived, Mom and Robert drove me to DFW Airport. It was an emotional goodbye with Robert, but even more so with my mom. As I hugged her tight, I couldn’t help but think of how she had prepared me for this journey: all the talks until 2AM, all the hugs, all the stories. I wanted her to go with me. I wanted her to be there, because I needed her strength. But, because she was strong for me, I knew I could be strong for her. With tears and a heavy heart, I left my mother’s arms and headed for the unknown.
Many people have asked me about the moment I stepped off the plane. As you can imagine, this was an experience I had envisioned for years. However, it was nothing like what I pictured. Once in Ecuador, I felt overwhelmed by the difference. I was alone in a country where I did not speak the language and did not know anyone. I was 2,000 miles away from anything familiar. I was out of place. Simply put, it was hard. However, even when I wanted to turn around and head straight back to the United States, I kept thinking of that little girl that got down every night and kneeled by her bed praying for her dad. I thought of all the nights she cried, all the days she wondered. I knew I had to do this, if for no one else, for her.
I stepped out of customs, and I could see him there waiting for me. This was it. The pictures, the stories, the legend – they were right there, standing just a few yards away. I came through the doors, rounded the corner, and immediately found myself in a warm embrace, in the arms of my dad. Almost as quickly as that moment began, it ended. I hugged my brothers, Alberto and Ivan, as well as Chi Chi. This is a moment I always envisioned to be long, drawn out, and emotional, yet it was exactly the opposite. It was quick and I didn’t even know what to say other than “hi” out of shock.
We walked out of the airport, warm air on our faces. I looked up at the man carrying my suitcases with so many questions in my head, but not knowing how to ask. “Would three weeks be long enough? Would everyone here like me? Do you like me? Where are we going? What should I call you?” We loaded up in the car and began the drive to our apartment in Guayquil for the night. At first, things were awkwardly silent. Luckily, Alberto broke the ice by asking “what kind of music do you like?” which led to our small, but first connection “Despacito.” No matter how many years go by, that song will hold a special place in my heart.
At the apartment, I was once again silent because I still wasn’t sure what to say. I remembered the photo album my mom put together for my dad. I pulled it out of my suitcase and tried my best to tell my new family the story of my life. But how do you do that?
Soon after, we all went to bed. My brothers and I shared a room, and I got the top bunk. I never told my family this, but I didn’t sleep all night. My mind was racing, my heart was pounding, and I was completely terrified. I was also very hot. Around 4AM, I figured it would be okay to go sit in the living room, so I set by the window and watched the rain fall until someone woke up. We ate a big breakfast, which I wasn’t used to, and I tried Dulce de leche for the first time. Afterward, we loaded up once again to head for my family’s home in Cuenca.
I slept for most of the road trip, but before I fell asleep I remember how hard I would try not to lean over on my brothers when we turned around sharp curve. I remember looking out the window in amazement at the completely foreign landscape around me. I remember being bewildered at some of the homes I saw. And I remember seeing lots and lots of dogs.
Once in Cuenca, we picked up a little ball of energy and fur that would soon become my best friend: Akira. She bounced all over the car as we cruised up the road to a strange new house. My impression walking in was “wow.” The home was absolutely gorgeous. I was led down the stairs to Alberto’s room (which everyone would only refer to as my room), which was filled with gifts for me. It was quite the welcome, yet I still wasn’t sure about how all of this was going to work.
My brothers and I went to downtown Cuenca later, and I quickly found out the bond between siblings, particularly brother and sister, isn’t hard to bring out.
If you didn’t know, let me give you a tip for traveling in Ecuador. Pedestrians DON’T have the right-away. No one told me this before I went, however, so I stepped out right in front of cars. Ivan and Alberto jumped into action to pull me back up on the sidewalk, quickly explaining I could not do that again. They showed me their city. We ate ice-cream. We laughed together at my bad Spanish. We even journeyed into some creepy little tunnels under the cathedral.
They were many things to me during my time in Ecuador: translators, protectors, navigators, friends, jokesters. I looked forward to picking them up from school everyday, because I didn’t feel as nervous when they were around. Alberto and I would sometimes stay up talking until 2:30 AM without realizing it. I took 100s of snapchat videos of him when he wasn’t looking. Ivan and I would watch funny videos until we cried. He was the first one to cheer me up when my emotions got to me. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them. I learned a lot from both of them. They took care of me. By the end of the trip, I didn’t even try to keep myself from leaning on them in the car. Haha! Because of them, I was content in knowing that even if I couldn’t connect with my dad, I still had gained a relationship with my brothers and that was worth everything I had gone through to come to Ecuador. They helped me write a new chapter in my book.
Another question everyone asks me: “How did his wife treat you?”
In the months prior to coming to Ecuador, I worried Chi Chi wouldn’t like me. The picture I had in my head was the evil step-mother from Cinderella. However, from the moment I stepped off the plane, Chi Chi’s heart of gold shined through, even though we didn’t even speak the same language.
She did everything she could to make me feel at home. My third day in Ecuador, I had a pretty severe panic attack. Chi Chi was by my side the whole time. She stayed up late with me to talk out my feelings and shared an important story that helped me begin piecing together that missing chapter.
She took me to the gym with her every day and, on our drives, we began to develop our own little language. Google translate helped us overcome the language barrier, and we became quick friends. We laughed, we cried, we sang “Despacito,” and we got to know each other. We went to dress designers, malls, and coffee shops. Chi Chi always made sure I was taken care of, both physically and mentally. She was there every step of the way, even during the not-so-glamorous moments. I’ll never be able to thank her for what she did for me. Because of her, my heart began to heal.
Alberto, Ivan, and Chi Chi – all irreplaceable parts of my new chapter. However, to find my missing chapter, I needed one more person to be a part of the new, but also to help me find what was lost: my dad.
At first, I cried a lot. I was self-conscious of everything I did around him, because I was afraid if I did anything wrong, he would disappear again. However, I can pinpoint a singular moment in which that turned around.
The night I had the panic attack, Chi Chi was there, but so was he. He held me tight in his arms, rocked me back and forth, and coaxed me to breath – just to breath. I know this seems simple, small, and insignificant. But, in that moment, I didn’t feel empty anymore. I didn’t feel broken. I didn’t feel like a part of me was missing. I found it. He was right there. He was the one cracking my bedroom door open every morning and saying “good morning, Sidney. Breakfast is ready.” He was the one saying “you’ll sit right here by me.” He was the one who made me tea when I couldn’t sleep. He was my dad, and he wasn’t running away ever again.
We shared many special moments. Lots of them were “A-Ha!” moments, in which we realized how similar we truly were. This wasn’t anything new to me, because my mother had always told me I was my father’s daughter. Seeing it in person was truly amazing. We walked the same, loved classical music (and Coldplay). We liked driving in a silent car. We both had an affinity for watches and jackets. We both loved animals (but I think I love them a bit more). We were both musicians, scholars, thinkers. We were, in many senses, the same.
Some moments were conversations. All of my questions were answered. Though it could never justify him leaving, I had the peace brought only by understanding. I finally had serenity in knowing it wasn’t my birth that caused him to leave. It wasn’t the fear of being a father. It wasn’t a lack of love. He had always loved me. He always would.
Some moments can be described as nothing more (for me) than divine. You see, when I was little, I would have dreams of meeting my dad. They always consisted of us walking on a beach together. I was wearing white. The sun was setting. We were having a complicated, yet positive conversation. The waves were rolling in. For years, I thought this was simply a dream. Once in Ecuador, I began to believe it was something more. That exact vision came into being late one evening in San Jose. The question I’ve always wanted to ask was answered with a “yes.” At last, I had not only my missing chapter, but a brand new one to write with my father as the co-author.
I visited many new places, I gained new friends, and I gained a love for a new place. Most important of all, I gained my family.
My last days in Ecuador were emotional. I cried every day at the thought of leaving the people that, three weeks ago, were complete strangers. I wrote letters and hid them under pillows. I said goodbye to my little movie and cuddle buddy, Akira. I said goodbye to my fetch buddies, Andy and Layla. I packed up my suitcase, the seashells I collected with my dad, and lots of memories.
My dad and I went out one last time for a special “daddy-daughter” night. You can bet, I was ecstatic, but I think I did a pretty good job of not showing it. He took me to see sights in the city I hadn’t yet seen. He told me more about himself, his time in America, and the time after. Pictures were taken and stories were shared. And, with every passing minute, my heart broke a little more because I knew that soon we wouldn’t be together. I wouldn’t be able to walk upstairs and see him waiting for me. We wouldn’t eat sandwiches together for dinner. We wouldn’t share anymore weird fruits. We would be separated – again – by over 2,000 miles.
I had to tell my brothers goodbye first. It was absolutely horrible, but they made it okay. Alberto reassured me, in true Alberto fashion, that we would see each other again, but until then we would talk everyday. Ivan made me laugh so I would stop crying. When we pulled out of the gate, I cried the whole way to Guayquil.
We stopped along the way to witness a fantastic sunset. I think it was an excellent send-off from the country. I think it was the land telling me “see you soon.”
Just like I had the first night I arrived, I didn’t sleep the night before I left. I sobbed the entire night, because I just wasn’t ready to leave. Time, however, doesn’t care about a person’s readiness, so morning came, and it was time to head for the airport.
On the way to the airport, I took in every bit of Ecuador that I could. The scenery, the people, all the dogs. I would look in the rearview mirror at Chi Chi and my dad, unable to imagine not seeing them again tomorrow. The car stopped, and we stepped out into the hot, thick air. The glass doors opened and we were in the airport, checking in my luggage. We had but one hour left together. I spent that hour sitting in silence next to Chi Chi and my dad. How do you say goodbye? How do you say anything at a time like that? Faster than I wanted it to be, that hour was up. It was time to say goodbye to both of them, too. I had practiced “I miss you” and “I love you” in Spanish for Chi Chi, but I think I just butchered everything but “te amo.” She just smiled that same reassuring smile she had since we first met and told me the same.
Then it was time for the part I had dreaded, the part that terrified me. The last time one of us stepped on the plane, we didn’t see each other again for twenty-two years. I hugged my dad as tight as I could, hoping he’d never let go. I tried my best to tell him I loved him and I would miss him and everything I had wanted to say but didn’t through a cracking, tearful voice. He just held me, giving me the same reassurance that it would be okay. We let go. We said goodbye. I walked through the gate, turned the corner, and – once again – I was alone. This time, though, I had what I needed. I had my dad back. I had that missing chapter. And as hard as every step further from Ecuador was to take, I knew I could be strong.
The final question people ask me is “what now?”
The answer to that question is a simple “I don’t know.” I don’t know when I’ll see them again. I don’t know when I’ll go back. I don’t know how to feel being home.
What I do know is that I talk to Alberto everyday. I FaceTime my family. I talk to my dad. My heart aches for them. I know it’s been hard to adjust back to my normal routine, because I left half my heart with the four of them.
You may be wondering why I’m sharing something so personal. There are many answers to that question.
There are many people who have invested in me since I was born. There are many who want to hear this story, and I want to share it with you. I want to thank you for helping prepare me for the most difficult step I’ve ever taken. I want to thank you for making me strong.
There are many people who disagreed with my choice to go to Ecuador. There are many more who will disagree with my choice to refer to Ivan Arizaga as “dad.” I want to share this story so you see how I felt, and why it was so important I go. I want you to see that, yes, absolutely, I love the dad I have here in the United States. He’s raised me. He took care of me. He took me in. I know all of that. I respect it. I respect your right to disagree. But there’s always been a part of me that wanted to know the unknown. By reading my story, I hope you can understand that.
Finally, there are many people with a situation similar to my own. I want to share my story with you so you can find strength, because it’s already in you. If you’re reading this, I need you to know how brave you are, how capable you are, and how loved you are. Even if you find a different answer, perhaps an answer you didn’t want – it is worth it. The journey isn’t so much about getting what you want as it is about understanding yourself, coming to a place of peace within yourself. Regardless of what happens, you deserve the truth. You deserve to know. You deserve closure. You deserve to write your story.
It’s not easy to share this. It’s not easy to put myself in a vulnerable position. But, in all honesty, I’ve already done the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do. I’ve been brave. I’ve been strong. I did it for my mom. I did it for that little girl who prayed every night. But, most importantly, I did it for me.
My heart is whole. My story isn’t missing any pages. The dawn is breaking just over the horizon.