Standing in front of a bunch of people hadn't been a problem for him for several years now. He was used to crowds watching him. But today was different. He was standing in front of a group of people who knew him well. He looked up at his pastor who smiled and winked.
The pastor wasn’t like most pastors he had met. He had a couple of visible tattoos and seemed way too young to have the responsibility of pastoring so many people of varying ages. Chico thoroughly appreciated his warm personality and was grateful that, even though he knew his whole story, he had always treated him with grace and respect.
The church was gorgeous. The light was shining through the stained-glass windows, the high ceilings spoke of the majesty of God, and the dark wooden pews, covered in red velvet, were comforting to him somehow. He had always loved the sights, smells, and sounds of this sanctuary as it brought back memories of the Catholic church he had worshipped in at the orphanage in Mexico. When they had begun attending this church, he was surprised that such an exciting contemporary service, with so many young, enthusiastic people, could be held in such a beautiful, traditional sanctuary in such an amazingly historic building.
Chico couldn’t help but look around at all the people in the first several rows. His mom and dad had tears in their eyes. His brother, David, and his wife sat together; each holding one of their newborn twins. Across the aisle on the front row sat one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. Though he simply called her by her first name, Mari, she was his birthmom. She was there with her husband and their children, who were finding it hard to sit still. Behind them were Aaron, his birth father, and his family and Chico couldn’t help but think about how much they had grown. The only person missing was Ruben, but as always on happy occasions, everyone tried not to think about him because it always spoiled a good day.
The church was full and everyone was eagerly anticipating what was about to occur. After looking across the sanctuary and seeing so many people who loved and supported him, his eyes finally rested on his wife. What a gift she had become to him. In her arms, squirming a bit, lay the reason for the crowd. Their first child, a boy, was about to be baptized.
Chico's mind took a quick tour of the past ten years and the rocky road that had led him here. He thought about the deep valleys he had gone through, and the enormous mountains he had climbed. He recognized that all of the people in the building had played a part to bring him to this point.
He couldn't help but choke back tears as he laid his hand on the restless little boy and looked into his big brown eyes, sparkling with mischief, even at two months old. His dark hair was already curly, and he had his mother’s nose. Chico was amazed at how quickly he had fallen in love with this tiny creature.
And he heard the words of the pastor as he said, "Nathaniel Dirk Stevens: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
As the water was sprinkled on the head of his son, Chico silently thanked God for the people around him and for the journey that had brought him to this moment. He knew that his journey had brought him to a place where he was ready to be a good father to the next generation. He knew that he would always be grateful, not only for the good things, but for the struggles that had defined him.
Chico looked around at the bare walls. He was only able to have four pictures on the walls at a time and they were only allowed to be pinned into a small bulletin board that sat above his desk. He had chosen pictures of his family: his mom and dad, his brother David, and his brother Ruben; it was the last picture they had taken for that dumb church directory. He remembered that day and how much they had all complained about having to go get it taken, but now he was glad he had it. A very recent picture of his parents together, smiling at each other, one of his favorites, was in the center. He then had a picture of the day that he and Ruben had moved in with his mom and dad and David. There they were -- three eight year old boys, all with silly smiles on their faces, so happy to be together again. Chico wasn't like some children who couldn't remember when they first heard the word “adopted.” His πadoption from Mexico along with his best friend had been a surprise, especially when he found out he would be living with the really cool people he had met when they were working at his orphanage on a missions trip. He remembered “move in day” very well and also remembered his day in court when his adoption was finalized and he officially became a Stevens.
That picture was taken almost eight years ago but it still made him smile as he remembered how very happy he had been on that day. The last picture was only a few months old and taken after his last football game. He and his brothers were celebrating his win, and his mom snapped a picture of a group “high five” as they all jumped into the air.
It was late and the pictures were dim in the darkness, but Chico stared at them while willing himself to fall asleep. He didn't often sleep well at the group home. The bed was hard and his roommate, Tango, snored loudly. He often found his thoughts taking over and going around in circles in his head while he laid in his bed at night. Chico had told his therapist about what he referred to as “the train track.” “It’s like there is a track in my mind,” he had said, “and something has to be on that track. Whatever is on the track just goes around and around and I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Tonight wasn’t just a typical “hard to fall asleep” night because this day had been one of the strangest of his life, and his mind couldn't stop replaying what had happened. He awakened super excited to see his parents. Three weeks before they had dropped him off at the group home, and it was his first time to see themππ since they had left him there.
When they walked in the door he had thrown his arms around them and given them huge hugs. He had been so happy to see them. But after the initial greeting, things got really weird. Within a few minutes, his life changed a great deal and that is what was making his thoughts race in circles tonight.
While Chico remembered his orphanage days, he knew nothing about what had brought him to the orphanage. He was told that he was a toddler when he was dropped off there, but even the orphanage director and the others who worked there didn't know anything about his history. All of the holes in his own story drove him crazy sometimes, but he figured he would never know what happened. He had concluded, angrily, that the story of his life would always be a secret.
When Chico walked into the meeting with his parents he was a bit puzzled asto why there wereπ other people in the room. Ms. Mari was one of the people who worked at the group home, but he wasn’t really sure what she did. He liked Ms. Mari and found her to be beautiful (though he never said that out loud) and very kind. The other person in the room, Mr. Aaron, was everyone’s favorite staff person at the group home. Mr. Aaron was the chaplain and all the guys thought he was cool. Chico really had no idea why Mr. Aaron would be there, either. He just wanted the meeting to be over fast because he was certain that it would be really boring. Chico was anxious to talk to his parents and find out about how his brothers and friends from school were doing.
He allowed his mind to wander and was in his own little world when he heard the words π"birth mother" come out of Ms. Mari's mouth. Suddenly, he started paying attention. She explained that earlier in the year she had been to Mexico to visit an orphanage, trying to figure out what had happened to her son who had gone missing so many years before. She said that Ms. Stephanie, the orphanage director, had shown her pictures of a baby, and she knew immediately that it was her son. That baby was Chico.
Tonight as he tried to fall asleep, Chico wondered if his mouth had literally hung open when Ms. Mari shared the shocking news. He was surprised that she had said nothing about this during the three weeks that he had been at the group home. He certainly never had any thoughts that she could be related to him. But now, studying her face, Chico could see it. She had a very similar smile, with just one dimple on the side of her face. On top of that, he had overheard Mari say that she liked chorizo, one of his favorite foods. It certainly wasn't anything they served at the group home, but when she had come back from eating lunch out in Willton, she mentioned it to a coworker and he had overheard. He sat wondering what else he would find that they had in common.
After Ms. Mari had shared her news, Chico once again found himself understandably distracted, but the words that Mr. Aaron spoke next quickly grabbed his attention. Mr. Aaron started talking and explained that he was Chico’s birth dad. Chico couldn't have been more surprised. He tuned in quickly to hear that Mr. Aaron had been in a brief relationship with Ms. Mari when they were in high school and Mari had moved away, never telling him that she had a child. The first Mr. Aaron had become aware of Chico’s existence was a few weeks ago when Ms. Mari had figured it out and shared the news with him.
This revelation was even more puzzling. Mr. Aaron was white and Chico had never thought that he might be anything other than fully Mexican, even though he had always wondered why his skin was a bit lighter than the other kids he had known at the orphanage and in Willton. It was all starting to make sense.
This was all so shocking but both Ms. Mari and Mr. Aaron said that there would be plenty of time for more details and said that they wanted Chico to enjoy his time with his parents while they were at the group home to visit him.
Fortunately, his mom and dad, who everyone else called Nat (or Dr. Stevens) and Dirk, were really cool people. They didn't act all weird about this new information, and they told him that they were happy that he now knew his birth parents. Chico had a few friends who were adopted who attended a support group where his parents would drag him and he knew that if his friends’ parents were in this position that they would not be handling the news so well. He imagined some of them would be totally freaking out about such shocking news.
Chico sighed heavily, grateful that his parents were so understanding. They reminded him that he would have plenty of time to sort things out and then they gave him a chance to ask questions about his brothers and friends. It was a great visit and he wished that it would never end. When they were saying their goodbyes they reassured him of their love and promised that they would call every night. Now that he was done with his first three weeks, he would be allowed to have that privilege, as long as his behaviors were good.
The rest of that afternoon and evening Chico was extremely distracted by his racing thoughts. He didn't have the patience to deal with the other guys who wanted to horse around, play pranks on each other, and get on the nerves of the staff. He had too many questions running through his mind. Where had he come from? What was his story? For so long he had thought he would never know the answers to these questions. Finally, there were people who could fill the gaps in the story of his life.
In some ways Chico was very relieved, but in others he was terribly anxious. What if he found out some things about himself that he didn't want to know? What if knowing who he really was would make him feel worse? He could feel his breath changing as he got more agitated. He kept dragging his fingers through his hair in frustration, wishing he could just stop thinking about all this stuff and go to sleep.
When the alarm went off the following morning, Chico was NOT ready to get out of bed. He was exhausted and, as usual, crabby. He hated mornings. He hated how the sights and sounds around reminded him of his failures when he first woke up. Chico was instantly aware of all of the things that lead up to his being at the group home -- his bad behaviors at home, his anger and outbursts, and the horrible night that he had broken his dad's nose.
The group home, or “residential treatment center” as those who worked there called it, was an institution. It was not a home and it did not feel like home. Every room was painted the same colors -- beige with lighter beige trim. The furniture was the kind of avocado green you might see in reruns of 1970s television. It was uncomfortable and torn up; parts were covered in duct tape. The temperature was never the way he wanted it, it was always too hot or too cold. All those things were bad enough, but on top of that, he was uncomfortable with the kind of people he was living with. The other guys in the home had “mental health issues” that Chico thought were much worse than his own. Some of them were obsessed with things and others heard voices. It seemed like they were always arguing and fighting and could never shut up.
Waking up surrounded by these guys reminded him of his "special needs." The last year or two his parents had done a lot of research and had concluded that he had "attachment issues" and "Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder." He knew that he was going to figure out what all that meant someday, but right now it just made him angry that he wasn't like everyone else back home. He was supposedly like the “crazy” people he was now having to live with.
Every morning when he woke he dreaded the day to come. The food was gross. They served carrots or peas almost every day and he hated them. The other kids around him were annoying. He knew the routine..... disgusting breakfast, stupid school, disgusting lunch, more stupid school, and then group therapy. “Talk about stupid,” he thought. This was even more stupid than school, sitting around with a bunch of guys who were more messed up than him, trying to talk about feelings. He knew that the word stupid was applied to way too many things in his life, but he didn’t have the energy to come up with anything more sophisticated as the thoughts tumbled through his mind.
The nights were usually the same, too. After a disgusting dinner they would go back to their cottage and watch TV. Most nights a couple of the guys would get into an argument or fight and the staff had to break them up. He tried to stay out of them because the staff guys were big and would put the kids up against the wall. Even though their point wasn't to hurt anyone, it sure didn’t feel good. In the first three weeks Chico had been up against the wall twice, and that had given him enough incentive to at least try not to get into it with the others.
One of the things that he did enjoy at the group home happened once a week. His therapist, Ms. Meagan, was awesome, and she was hot! She was always in great shape, dressed in the coolest clothes, and she had great legs, even though he wasn’t supposed to think about that. She was super easy to talk to and she was even fun. Despite the crabbiness of the morning, he realized that it was Tuesday and that was his day to see Meagan. Even better, he got to get out of class for an hour.
All these thoughts had been running through his mind as he participated in the morning routine. Chico had showered, made his bed to military standards, put away all of his stuff in his closet and locked it up like everyone else, then headed to breakfast. He didn’t have much interest in what was going on around him and tried to ignore all of the noise and bantering that Tango created almost daily with the other guys in the cottage.
Eleven o'clock finally came and it was time to go see Meagan. He was always appropriate and polite and called her Ms. Meagan whenever he talked to her or about her with others, but in his mind she was just Meagan. He knew that she had to be super old, like maybe 35, because she was married and had kids. None of that mattered. She was still beautiful. Of course, he never told anyone how beautiful he thought she was.
When Chico arrived at Meagan's office his heart jumped a couple of times when he heard her say, "Come on in Chico." Knowing he had to act cool, he walked in slowly with his head down. He loved the way Meagan had decorated her office. There were lots posters of animals and somehow they were soothing to him. The couch was comfortable and a light blue -- a big contrast to the furniture in the cottage where he lived. Her office always smelled good because of a little machine that had good smelling air coming out of it.
When he got inside the office and looked up there was Meagan, looking even better than usual. He headed to "his" couch and was suddenly caught off guard. The chair next to the couch wasn’t empty like it had been before. Instead Ms. Mari was sitting in the chair next to the couch.
He never really knew what to call it when things like this happened in his head, but suddenly it was as though there were too many thoughts all jumbling together and he was very confused. He slumped into the couch and put his head in his hands. His nice time with Meagan was now going to get all messed up. Even though he had spent the night with all these questions about his birth parents and his history running through his head, he suddenly did NOT want to talk about it. Not right now. Not here. Not messing up his time with Meagan. So he closed his eyes and sat down on the couch, staring at the floor.
The hour went by with Meagan and Ms. Mari both trying to convince him to open up, but it didn't happen. Chico didn't want to talk. He didn't want to listen. He had too many feelings and too many thoughts and he just wanted everyone to shut up and go away.
Chico left the office still mad with a thousand questions rolling around in his head. Why did they ambush him like that? Why didn't anyone tell him that was happening? How was he supposed to respond? What if this happened every time he went to see Meagan? He concluded that it wasn’t right for them to catch him off guard like this.
On his way out of the office his anger took over and he punched the door. He didn't mean to punch it so hard that he hurt himself, nor did he intend to put a hole in it, but both of those things happened. At least it was a door that appeared to have been punched and repaired many times by kids just like him for years.
He knew it was going to be one of those days.