I spent my last 24 hours in San José loitering apathetically, waiting to fly to Bogota. Slouching back at my favourite hostel, ready to move on. I watched Elf with a Canadian girl called Brianna, both heavy limbed in our pre- Christmas homesickness. In that gap of waiting with adventures paused, we sank into our shells and numbed out the emotional turbulence. Elf still makes me melancholic for all the wrong reasons. I said goodbye to Costa Rica, promised to be back sometime and boarded my flight to Bogota.
At Arrivals, I could see two short, dark haired, dark eyed women with rounded intense faces. Two sets of thick rimmed glasses, two hopeful frowns, two denim jackets. The women shared holding up a grainy A4 photograph of my face.
Dazed and suddenly shy, I did my best to speak politely in Spanish to these women during our car journey. I couldn't quite grasp exactly who they were. The whole situation tested my very limited Spanish beyond its boundaries. Finally at the house in Bogota, I discovered that one of the women was my friend Caroline’s mother-in-law and the other her sister (auntie-in-law?) At the house, there was Caroline.
Caroline's Mother-in-law was most concerned that I had not spoken to my parents on my journey yet. On hearing this fact she clutched at her heart and asked about my 'poor mother' who must be 'worried sick'. Quite unexpectedly I was placed by a telephone and given international codes in order to make the call. This was the first contact I had had with anyone from home since I had left America. I had been in regular email contact and had been actively avoiding calling them. I had justified this decision by telling myself that this trip was meant to be about self discovery, self reconciliation and self reliance. The truth was that communicating but not speaking to my loved ones who were so so far away had made being away easier. I didn't have to feel and then manage the pain of missing them all and feeling so fitfully frightened on my own. Not speaking meant not connecting with difficult emotions about being out of reach, out of safety and in another universe.
When I talked to my parents that day I felt a squelching sense of powerlessness: How could I possibly share what had happened over the last couple of months in a five minute phone call? How could I cope with the puppy-yelps of emotion I felt in my throat at just hearing their voices so quiet and far away on the phone? The conversation felt disembodied. I was business like and polite because I would not allow the bundle of real responses to open up and spill out of me. I told myself I was doing what I had to do, but the witnessing of my own cowardice lodged in me somewhere.
The embracing thing about my parents and my friend Caroline is that their strategy for encouragement and support is to quietly be on side. They accept the core of me and the ‘who’ of me more than I can even see and accept it by myself and that serves to show me how I can do the same. I am unusually lucky in having parents who have never simply followed the rules for their own lives, but lived ‘intentionally’ decades before it was a thing. When things have fallen apart for me, my parents have offered unconditional support, held back and allowed me to decide who to be and how to respond without rescuing or smothering me when the path gets hard to follow. Later my parents revealed to me just how anxiety inducing my travel had been for them, but in that call and in the time building up to my trip they were stoic, supportive and encouraging.
Caroline had already paved the way for me to be accepted into the bustling organism of her family. Over the next ten days, I felt wholly accepted, held and embraced.
Caroline's tribe of Colombian family was a cast of extroverts, introverts, quiet observers, gregarious linguists, studious teenagers and uninhibited children, half of whom live in Colombia, half in Cardiff. This family was conservative and kind. Sometimes there would be fighting, arguing and shouting, but tensions dissolved quickly in the mix of honesty and compassion. I have never been amongst people who found so many reasons to smile and laugh. Everyone had space to be themselves and to speak their minds. Compromises were found quickly and thoughtfully. Reunions in Colombia are rare and special occasions for this family. Not a scrap of time could be wasted on grudge bearing or sulking.
I witnessed such a breadth of affection between them all during my ten days with them. From exasperated and heated conversations over art to Caroline's auntie-in-law simply holding her tiny mother in her lap and stroking her hand and hair as if she were a child. This family held and soothed one another. Each giving and receiving this expansive affection with such extraordinary grace and poise.
On Christmas day, I found that my own mother extended her love through parcels of incredibly thoughtful little presents: a tiny watercolour set, a breathable lightweight jacket, books, mini notepads and cards reminding me that I was loved. Feeling the chasm of geographical distance between me and home, I avoided my feelings in response, for fear that I would not be able to recover from their impact. I packed the gifts away in my backpack and dared not look at them.
At the airport separating from each other my Colombian hosts wailed and sobbed. Hearts broke. Handkerchiefs saturated. They hugged for decades and finally trundled cases away from each other.
From a distance just before going my own way, I saw the Cardiff half of the family joking together at souvenirs, still drying the last of their tears and getting on with getting to their flights. I was puzzled but struck by the humble bravery of that presence of being.They had been able to pass through the hiccuping wrenching sobs and emotional punch of separation and bring themselves back into laughter in the now.
I considered this: Maybe the only way for me to be able to laugh as hard and as quickly as this family was to stop being so afraid to feel my feelings. Stop imagining there would be no recovery, no escape, that I would be devoured whole by grief or sadness should I let it in. Caroline's family allowed themselves to react, in the moment, even if it meant heart break. The glue of their being with each other was their emotional honesty. Maybe it is only possible to laugh as much as they do if you are prepared to go to the difficult emotional places too. Just as my own parents and Caroline were able to be so accepting of me, I needed to stand back from myself, stop protecting and smothering myself and have the bravery to let myself feel.