I woke up early this morning on your birthday. I’m not sure why, but it was a gift: your birthdays make me wistful, and it was nice to start it face-to-face with you as you snoozed, looking just the way you did at one month old, or even in that ultrasound photo.
Sometime last year you started slipping into our bed in the wee hours of the morning so that we awake to find you nestled between us. Occasionally one of us gets a foot in the face, since you have always been such a contortive sleeper – your dad in particular seems to be a magnet for your toes – but we wouldn’t trade it for anything, not even bruiselessness.
In just a couple of hours you would start your new preschool, a big girl in a brand-new uniform of foolhardy crispness, not yet indelibly stained by finger paints or pudding. A big girl in brand-new shoes, not yet scuffed and intentionally dipped into as much mud as possible. I couldn’t believe the size of them when the saleswoman brought them out after measuring your feet: they looked massive, as do you sometimes when I come home from work, or whenever you wear jeans.
But this morning you looked just like your baby self, and as I watched you even let out the very same squeak I noticed on the day we brought you home from the hospital, a funny little nasal sigh of slumbering contentment.
Entonces, la apapaché. I reached out and hugged you as close as I dared without waking you and breathed in your sleeping smell, nose to nose in the dark.
Apapachar means, on the simplest level, to hug someone, to snuggle. “Apapáchame,” your dad sometimes says to me, and I thought of the word as just one of the many woven through my Costa Rican existence. I recently learned, however, that in the usual way of words, this one has more to it than I realized. Some consider it the most beautiful word in the Spanish language – and once I realized its actual meaning, I had to agree. It comes from the indigenous náhuatl word meaning “to embrace with the soul.”
Read more: Famous last words (hablando paja, part II)
Lying there next to you as dawn slid around our curtains, apapachándote, I realized two things.
First: a bicultural family is not really bicultural. It is not as simple as two roads or two rivers meeting. Rather, it is, like any family, a multitude of strands, an infinity of streams coming together. You are not a U.S.-Costa Rican. You are made of indigenous roots, of Spanish and English conquistadores and colonists, of New England winters and Iowan farm sunsets and Costa Rican humor. I need to remember that you, like anyone else on earth, are more complex than I can grasp. You are not two-sided. You are a little universe.
And second: my work as a parent, especially as your U.S. parent, is not to present you with my culture, but rather to champion whatever strands are most neglected in your life. I’m not a forward, trying to put my ball in the net. I’m on defense, trying to see where the gaps are, trying to fill them in. In a world of Disney Junior and English-language preschools, this may mean that what I most need to connect you with is the part of your heritage I know the least about. For you have indigenous blood in your veins and your father has sacred náhuatl syllables on his lips, and it would be so easy for you, with your Doc McStuffins doll and Curious George books, to grow up without that never even crossing your mind. It would be so easy for you to ignore the ground on which you walk.
We do that in my country, in many countries, and that’s one part of my heritage I don’t want to pass on to you.
How do I manage all this? I wasn’t sure, but I knew it was too much to contemplate before making coffee.
So I sent these thoughts floating up toward the ceiling, hoping I could call them back down later. I thought instead about blue shoes and cereal and the cake I needed to drop off later so your brand-new classmates, still fresh and bland and mysterious, not yet colored by affection or annoyance or hair-pulling, could sing you happy birthday. A store-bought cake, every inch of which I’d let you cover in sprinkles, since that is the only kind of dessert you have any interest in and the only part you will eat. (Over breakfast, when I told you I’d be bringing the cake by later, you looked at me suspiciously and told me to “make sure you don’t burn it” – a real vote of no confidence, considering it was fully frosted and sitting on the counter.)
I leaned in and whispered in your ear.
“Wake up,” I said, imagining that I was hugging you with my soul. “Now you are four.”
Learn more about the book “Love in Translation: Letters to My Costa Rican Daughter” here.