A mother’s journey into her daughter’s past


Leceta Chisholm Guibault
Focus on Adoption magazine

In 2002, I had the opportunity to spend an incredible week with a wonderful friend, also an adoptive mother,visiting  the country of our daughter’s birth.

There were many moments when I felt guilty that Kahleah, nine, was not with me. She had said, ”I can’t believe you are visiting my birth country without me!” I was not sure before my trip what to expect. Could I travel to Guatemala with a precocious pre-teen adoptee? Was it dangerous? Would the sight of poverty overwhelm her? How would she react? Now I can’t wait to travel with her to her birth country.  My photos, souvenirs and video are just not enough for my little girl.

Ali, my travelling companion, and I are matched perfectly because of our shared desire to “experience” Guatemala on the same level. We both felt the importance of maintaining a relationship with our daughters’ foster families, understanding this important link between our daughters and their first caregivers. We were both in search of more information on our daughters’ birth families and were eager to meet a Guatemalan lady who provides a search service for adoptive families.

It was a dream come true meeting Kahleah’s foster mother, Morena. We have been corresponding for close to five years.

While waiting for Kahleah in early 1991, we would receive monthly updates from our adoption agency. Besides a medical report, there was always included a photo of Morena holding infant Kahleah.

At the time, contact was not suggested between the foster family and adoptive parents and to be honest I had not thought of requesting contact. This was probably because Kahleah arrived home escorted, as we did not travel to Guatemala. Kahleah spent five months with Morena and her family. I remember a sigh of relief when Kahleah was home with us for six months because in my mind she had then been with us longer than anyone else.

By the time Kahleah was old enough to really look at her Lifebook, it was obvious she wanted to know who the lady holding her in the photos was. “Did she love me? Did she take good care of me? Was she married? Was I good? Did I cry?” I pulled out the social report from her adoption documents. A few of Kahleah’s questions were answered but we needed to know more. Luckily there was a complete mailing address for Morena included in the documents. I decided to write.

She was so happy to hear from us. She sent Kahleah a birthday card and a number of baby photos. These photos were priceless. We continued to write once or twice a year with updates on our growing families. A year ago Morena’s son contacted me by email. This came in handy when in October, a week before I left, I sent an urgent email message, “I’m coming to Guatemala!”

On our second day in Guatemala City, Ali and I anxiously waited for a visit from Morena in our hotel room. When I opened the door I was met by out-stretched arms and the kindest eyes I have ever seen. We hugged for the longest time.

I found out that Kahleah was the first baby to be fostered in their home. They were not looking to be foster parents but by chance met a lawyer in Mass one Sunday who noticed Morena’s love of children. He asked her if she would be interested in taking care of a baby girl who would be adopted “North.” Morena’s family agreed.

I asked Ali to tell Morena that while I was waiting for Kahleah to come home, I had an awful fear that Morena would adopt her. I even contacted my agency and was quickly reassured that Kahleah was our baby and not to worry (of course there was the chance that her birth mother could change her mind!) I was not surprised when Morena told us that, because of their overwhelming love for Kahleah and the fact that she immediately became a part of their family, they approached the lawyer about adopting her. The lawyer told them that Kahleah had a family “Up North,” and it was impossible for them to adopt her. Morena said they were devastated but continued to love her and give her the best care possible. She said that she used to rock Kahleah and “talk to her spirit” and tell her how much they loved her, would not forget her and that God had a plan for her. Her family truly mourned when Kahleah left. Morena gave me a photo taken at the airport of her family and Kahleah moments before Kahleah was escorted onto the plane. I can not describe the obvious pain in their eyes. After Kahleah left, the lawyer only gave Morena two photos of Kahleah and when she requested contact, he said that “due to the economical differences between foster family and adoptive family, it was not advisable.” This statement saddened me.

Although Morena and her family are educated (Benjamin is a dentist and professor) they still feared the “baby organ transplant” rumors and were more than relieved to finally hear from us and receive photos of Kahleah. When we exchanged gifts and photos in the hotel room, Morena took the time to examine every photo, just as a parent or grandparent would. It was as if she could not believe her eyes. It only got better when I shared with her a video clip of Kahleah, filmed only days before. Kahleah prepared a special message for Morena and Benjamin and it warmed my heart to watch her see and hear Kahleah. I was so proud of my little girl.

We finished our first visit with a special video recorded message from Morena to Kahleah. It was not my last cry of the trip!

Before Morena left the hotel, she invited Ali and I to dinner at her home. I was so excited! I was finally going to meet the rest of the family and see with my own eyes where my child lived for the first five months of her life and I had promised Kahleah lots of video tape!

When we walked into the home we were warmly greeted by foster dad Benjamin, foster sister, Carla, her husband Ronaldo, and their year old son Diego and foster brother Flavio. Flavio and foster brother Juan Pablo still live at home. They are all now in their early to mid twenties.

What I could not get over was how “comfortable” I was. Even though I did not speak the language, each hug, look and holding of hands, felt like being with family, close family. There were moments that I would just stand facing Morena or Benjamin, holding their hands, looking in each other’s eyes. We would not say a word and just smile, gently squeezing each other’s hands with tears in our eyes and Kahleah on our minds.

It was a precious gift to have each family member record a special message for Kahleah. All were filled with emotion while “remembering”. After dinner I showed the family the video of Kahleah and her six year old Colombian born brother Tristan at home. They did not stop smiling and laughing.

While Benjamin played the guitar, Morena went upstairs and returned with a box full of photos and “souvenirs” of Kahleah including all the letters and photos I have sent over the years. She presented me with more photos of Kahleah taken her first five months. She also showed me a handmade dress of Kahleah’s. It was lovingly made by Morena’s elderly mother. Included was a little baggie with the tiniest finger nail clippings I have ever seen—Kahleah’s first...

Then the shocker. Morena handed me a document and said, “I am sure you have a copy of this.” At first it looked  like most of Kahleah’s official documents. I started to turn the pages then almost fell off the couch when I realized that, in my hands, I had a copy of Kahleah’s birth mother’s resident card including a photocopy of her photo!

We have ongoing contact with Tristan’s birth family in Colombia but have been unsuccessful in contacting Kahleah’s birth family. We have a lot of written social history, but at Kahleah’s age, “who” she looks like has become very important.

I was a little disappointed when I first saw the photo. It was a small,  black and white photocopy. Kahleah does not resemble her birthmother in the least.

After spending the evening with Morena and her family it became obvious to me that Kahleah did have a “place” in Guatemala and Kahleah could feel it. I told Morena that it was comforting to know that if she  had been able to adopt Kahleah I know she still would have had a wonderful life full of love, family, education, nurture, culture and music. She would not have suffered in her country of birth. Morena told me that she now knows that Kahleah is where she is supposed to be.

Both Kahleah and Tristan were very excited when I returned home. Kahleah and I sat on the floor and started examining all my purchases. She loved everything just for the fact they were from her birth country. She cherishes the gifts from Morena and Benjamin because they have even more special meaning. I showed her baby photos that Morena gave us—her eyes were so wide.

I can not describe Kahleah’s expressions fully while I watched her watch the video of her foster family. I guess I should have taken her photo at that moment. It was like she could not believe her eyes. She immediately connected with the foster siblings calling them her brothers and sister.

While watching and listening to the special recorded messages just for her I thought I could see her heart pounding out of her chest.

Later that night, while lying in bed, we discussed her birth mother. I told her that Morena gave me a document with a copy of a photo of Angelica. I shared with her that it was very unexpected on my part but also a true gift. She asked to see it and I explained to her that is was not a great photo because it is black and white and a copy.

She was silent for a minute after first viewing the face of her birth mother. She then looked at me and said, “She is not how I imagined but that does not mean I am disappointed. I wondered for a long time, most of my life, what she looked like. I guess I look like my birth father!” She then started to list all the kids she knows that do not look like their mothers!  She even commented on the fact that I do not look like my mother!

A year later, Kahleah turned ten. We enjoyed a family dinner and sang happy birthday as she blew out the candles on her cake. About half an hour after both Kahleah and Tristan were tucked snugly into bed I heard a faint whimper from Kahleah’s room. When I went in to check on her she fell into my arms. She looked into my eyes and said, “Mommy I miss my birth mother! I think it is because it is my birthday. It is so confusing sometimes! I love her. It is not enough to know her name. I want to know her!” I rocked her and explained that I felt her feelings were perfectly natural and normal. She was so relieved. She told me that she loves me with all her heart but feels that she must meet her birth mother. She also told me that she is happy that we can talk about anything and that I will always be her mommy.

Kahleah asked me to think about how much I miss my mother who passed away two years ago, and how I still “feel” her with me and in my heart. She said, “It’s hard to explain,  but I think I feel the same way about my birth mother. I can feel her in my heart.” We hugged as we both mourned the mothers that gave birth to us. Kahleah then mentioned that she is “lucky” because she still has a mother to love her, take care of her and make her feel safe. She then told me that she could not replace my mother but we will always have each other. We looked at each other with tears rolling down our faces. She wiped my tears, I wiped hers. She then said, “Like mother, like daughter!”