The Mother from Milagrosa
Willie and I visited Colombia for our second time in September 2015. We returned to Medellin where my oldest friend now lived with his wife and young daughter. Although we came here to escape Canada’s winter, it was more to be with my friend who had isolated himself from the friends, family and society he was so familiar with. He recently revealed that he had never missed or felt the need for family so much as in the past 3 years since the arrival of his daughter. Indeed, it was interesting to see how isolation could make one’s perspective change.
In our first month here we met a beautiful young mother living in a poor neighbourhood named Milagrosa. Her name was Alee, and she took us on a trip to a small town named Cocorna just 2 hours outside of Medellin. Here is her story and what Willie and I experienced.
At the age of only 15 Alee found herself pregnant. This would be rare by western standards, but in Colombia it’s a very common story. She was a product of her society, but why was it this way? Why were so many girls that were still children having babies? Was it Roman Catholic ideals that prohibited the use of birth control? Was it the sexist views that put women in a box and viewed them as abnormal if they did not have a child by 21? Was it the absence of a proper father figure growing up? Did all of these in some small way create women of low self-worth, self-esteem, and internal happiness, pushing them into a depressed state that causes them to look externally for solutions (and which only by having a baby can they be pulled out of)? A baby can definitely give someone in a depressed state with no purpose a sudden bounty that keeps them busy for decades. They are such a beautiful miraculous external distraction from attending to the needs within, but at some point we all need to deal with this and Alee was just beginning.
On our first day together she took us to Parque El Salado in Envigado, a perfect place for Willie to run free while we got to know our new friend. Alee had just turned 26…still a very young woman…still a child in many ways. She now had 2 boys, 10-year-old Simon and 8-year-old Samuel. She was a single mom for most of the boys’ lives, struggling between work and school. She did receive help from her parents and grandparents, which is very common in Colombian culture, but life as a single mom with 2 young children requires all the help one can get. My friend that has been raising his daughter together with his Colombian wife here in Medellin praises single parents and has said many times that he does not know how they do it. From this perspective I feel that Alee’s raising of 2 healthy children is a success story that she should be proud of.
As we continued walking through the park I noticed Alee’s extremely thin frame and baby face which made her look much younger than she was. I tried very hard, but could not even imagine her as a mother of one, let alone two, children.
As the day ended I asked Alee about love and what it was to her. It was an unexpected question that perhaps no one had ever asked her before. Caught off guard she paused to think, but no clear answer came to her. However, the confused look on her face said it all.
The next day Alee invited to take Willie and I to her grandfather’s home town of Cocorna. During our bus ride I was able to probe deeper into her life. Our main topic of conversation was trust. She shared cheese and sausage with Willie and detailed the many occasions in her life when she was betrayed, lied to and let down. For this reason she did not trust anyone except her grandmother, Myriam, that had raised her for most of her life.
Waiting for us at the bus station was her father, Hammer. Upon seeing him for the first time I was able to start putting faces to Alee’s stories. He was just a few years older than me. I quickly did the math…he had Alee when he was only 19. I thought back to when I was that age…it was the age when I was finally able to get into bars…the age when I had my first real girlfriend. Having a child was the furthest thing from my mind.
We walked over to the home of Alee’s grandfather to meet the rest of the family. The home reminded me of my grandfather’s in India. Built of bare concrete, it was cold and felt cave-like at times. It was difficult to communicate as my Spanish was limited and no one except Alee spoke English. This made for some interesting moments when Alee left the room. It’s amazing how much one can communicate with simple hand gestures; it’s frustrating when nothing is understood and fun when a totally different message is received. As the night went on we drank and the conversation became easier.
There was not much to do in Cocorna. It was a small quiet town of old men that hung out in pool halls drinking coffee and beer all day. With not much to do we ended up at a bar with lively music. Here I was able to observe a different kind of father-daughter relationship, of laughter and friendship, which warmed my heart and made me smile.
It was nice to see Alee free. To see her smile. To hear her sing. To watch her dance. To see her live life in the moment. 3 hours and 3 bottles of Colombian aguardiente later, the bar closed and I found myself giving Alee’s father a piggyback home as he was unable to walk very well. It was an interesting ending to an evening out, but what was to happen next was a first for me.
Once home I helped Alee’s father to bed. I took his shoes and socks off to make him comfortable. He reacted in a surprised manner, but soon realized that there was only love in my actions. I then prepared a midnight sandwich for Alee…she was starving. To make food for a mother that had made many meals for her boys over the past 10 years was an absolute joy for me. I watched her as she ate and it made me feel amazing.
I wished her sweet dreams and kissed her on her forehead as she fell asleep. As I got up to leave her bedside she stopped me to say something. Something surprising and unexpected.
She said that I was going to marry her tomorrow at the town church. Without actually asking the question, she proposed to me. A first in my 43 years on this earth. Yes, she was drunk, but where were these ideas coming from? How do I respond to this without offending? I was speechless. With Willie still awake and looking at me for direction, I looked at him in confusion. What would Willie do? He probably wouldn’t provide any answer, give a loving lick on the face and then leave to find a comfortable place to sleep. After digesting this new information I pointed out how we knew very little about each other and how there was no rush to talk about such deep commitments, especially when it was so late and with our intoxicated states of mind. I may have said too much as I was met with much resistance from Alee. However, after a few minutes of silence she was fast asleep, and Willie and I were able to sneak out of her room.
I have to admit, at first I did not know whether the answer was yes or no. For a brief moment I considered her wild proposal and I kind of liked that she was telling me how things would be rather than ask. She was a woman that was taking the lead and giving direction. She was actually a drunk woman taking the lead, but for a moment my ego was filled and I was flattered. But as quickly as that happened, reality slapped me with a big fat “no”. However exciting the idea was, there is no way she would be able to live in my world. She would never be happy there. She was exactly where she needed to be right now and that wonderful moment that we shared would just be that…a moment.
Willie and I got up early the next day to a warm sunrise. A perfect day was forming to spend at the finca. When Alee finally woke she acted as if the proposal from the previous night never happened. This made it much easier to spend the remaining time together.
While at the finca I began to notice some things about Alee. In one instance I asked her for a bottle opener and she attempted to use her teeth…I stopped her and then looked for a bottle opener. She replied that she always used the same tooth, which didn’t make it any better. It actually hurt me to think that she would neglect herself in such a way. I then continued to observe a behaviour fed by the need for constant distractions. The external kind. I watched as she went from smoking to eating to drinking to responding to mindless communication on her phone. Constantly looking for that mini high, she did not rest for a second to really enjoy the beauty and peace that surrounded us. I understood. I too was in this place for years and ultimately it took isolation and being more like Willie that brought me out of it. I tried to guide Alee out, to help open her eyes and see what was right in front of us, but she wasn’t happy being “just there” so I had to accept it as it was.
After lunch at the finca we went to the river. It was there, as I watched her swim, play and enjoy the water flowing around her like a child, that I tried to imagine her as a mother 10 years ago. A mother with her first son at 16 and her second before 18. A mother that was still in most ways a child. I just couldn’t picture it. Was she robbed of her childhood? Did she even think of it that way?
The next day we caught the first bus out of Cocorna back to Medellin. As the bus left, Alee quickly fell asleep in my arms. As I watched her rest peacefully, I was pulled back to a familiar place. A place of comfort and love.
I then thought of geography. This young woman could have been my sister had she been born in Colombia. It could be my best friend’s daughter that’s growing up here now. I can understand why he’s already planned to move his family out of Colombia before she reaches 10. Such a different life simply based on where you were born. I think of this every day now, how being born in Canada was like winning the lottery. One that has provided me with education, a very comfortable life and freedoms that most people don’t have.
Alee was headed back to her life in Milagrosa, one filled with many challenges. I recalled a time when I went on vacation to escape my life. I came back and to my surprise all of my problems were all still there patiently waiting for me. My problems were not going away until I dealt with each and every one of them. Cocorna was Alee’s short escape, but she too had to go home to deal with her problems.
After arriving in Medellin we shared breakfast during which Alee slowly woke up. As this happened I watched her come from a place of inner peace to a place of discomfort and stress. She returned to that box that Colombian society had built for her and detailed her current “problem”. She needed to pay her tuition bill that was late that day and was short. After taking care of everything for the past 3 days…bus, food, taxi, it felt like she was acting out of fear that we may never see each other again, that this may be her last opportunity to ask me for something. Not knowing how to respond to such an unusual request, I left her to hang for a moment and she quickly become upset. I began to ask more questions to determine how immediate her needs were, but all that did was make her even more irritated. I asked her to not leave with such a bad feeling, but she did. Shortly after we exchanged texts, but it was too late. She already had placed me into that category of mistrust.
It’s a common scenario that most women live through over and over again. One that places a beautiful Colombian girl with a foreigner, creating a very dysfunctional unbalanced interaction. One is filled with unrealistic expectations, resulting in both parties feeling cheated in some way. After thinking over what had happened, I began to understand her behaviour. She was just doing what she was conditioned to do and that was the only way she knew.
I realized I really couldn’t help her and have it be both productive and the way she wanted at the same time. Throwing money at the problem would only kick the can down the road a little. Money couldn’t be a solution to a problem that was created from years of conditioning that lacked love. The only thing I could do was express love by being there as a reliable friend.
A few weeks passed and we spoke again. The anger had passed, but she was now very sick. After watching how poorly she took care of herself I took it upon myself to visit her in Milagrosa. Willie and I ventured up the mountain into an area that locals would say is very dangerous. After getting lost a few times we came to her family home. While there we found that Alee had been sleeping on the cold floor for days, making it even harder for her to get better. I asked why and she said she had to sell her bed to pay for school.
At that point a bundle of thought and emotion filled inside me. Doesn’t everyone deserve to have a comfortable place to rest? It was a simple question to answer and effortless to act upon. I did exactly what my mother would have done. I acted with love, just as she would have. It was impulsive, but felt right. Willie and I went out at that moment to find Alee a bed.
Being in Colombia, it was easy to find a new complete bed online delivered on top of a taxi for only $150. It was an affordable fix to help her rest better.
And yes, even though I decided not to fix her original problem of paying for school, I indirectly did so by buying her a bed. She didn’t ask me for it and seeing what she was willing to give up to move forward in life made it very hard to do nothing and just accept things as they were.
It still didn’t resolve the main problem. In the end that will be up to her, but that same evening the bed was delivered she sent me this unexpected and beautiful message.
It will be a long journey for Alee. One filled with many familiar distractions from shiny things that she thinks she needs. It will be a hard one. Will old thought patterns and habit prevail or will she take this new path? It will be a very different and scary one for her, one of unlearning. It will start with a choice, a choice to be happy, and from the communication above it appears that a door has already opened, or at the very least Alee has decided to look through its peephole.