I want to start out by wishing my dad a happy birthday! This is an essay I converted from a blog post from this summer, and I want to dedicate it to him. I love you Daddy!

I’m sitting in my usual spot at the large wooden table in the kitchen when I open the email, watched by the faces of three men in an old oversize photo hanging on the wall that Gladys tells me are ancestors of her husband Yohani’s. One of them, if I have understood the story correctly, is Yohani’s father’s father, although it was told to me on the first day I arrived, when I was only catching about seventy-five percent of what was said. I can see the resemblance if I tilt my head and squint a little, but the enormous photograph hangs there still, as if the long-gone members of the Espinoza family are sitting around the table too.

I have just made tea, my fourth or fifth cup of the day to stay warm in the unheated house when I see a message from my dad waiting in my inbox. This is nothing unusual, we email almost every day, about school or plans for the future or crazy ideas one of the two of us has. I send him my writing and links to YouTube videos and he sends me articles he thinks I’ll like from the New York Times and reminders to do things I would have forgotten otherwise like send thank you notes. This one is short, written in fragments, sent from his phone, it tells me at the bottom.

Was in ER all last night and had an emergency appendectomy this am. Appendix perforated so I will be in here for a few days.

The kitchen swims a little in my vision. I don’t know at the time that appendectomies have a high success rate, that even though his appendix burst before he got himself to the hospital the chances of sepsis or peritonitis or any other life-threatening consequence are small. But I would be fooling myself to say that knowing any of that would have made a difference, would have changed anything I felt or did.

Earlier that week I went to bring two children to the local hospital to get tests run with Francisco, one of the interns in the infirmary at Hogar Redes, the orphanage where I work. When the youngest children go, the ones that can’t yet walk, they each need someone to hold them and carry them—on the way over, into the hospital and in the waiting room. Francisco took Fernando, a one-year-old with Downs syndrome, and I carried Yulian, the smallest member of the nursery, a baby of two months that had been hospitalized twice already since he arrived at the orphanage, and who was roughly the same size now as he was then. Sitting in the front seat of the van that took us to the hospital in downtown La Serena, I cradled him in his fleece blanket to my chest, trying to absorb the bumps in the road so they wouldn’t reach him. He was so much smaller than all the others I was used to holding that his faint weight against my body hardly registered. He felt like a toy, a doll stuffed with tissue paper. He fell easily to sleep with the rhythm of the wheels against the road and the warmth of the sun permeating the car windows. When we arrived at the hospital, it was crawling with families and crying children, so full it seemed like maybe there was some kind of epidemic I hadn’t been informed of. Francisco, whose main responsibility was to bring all the children to and from their various doctor’s appointments, steered us easily through the crowd to the pediatric waiting room, which was no less crowded than the larger general waiting room outside. I stood in a corner, rocking back and forth to keep Yulian asleep while Francisco took Fernando into one of the examination rooms and talked to the doctors. At one point a young mother caught sight of the tiny bundle in my arms and started to coo almost involuntarily. “Can I see?” she asked, motioning toward Yulian. I nodded and unfolded the fleece blanket shroud that had been covering his tiny little head. “How old is he?” she asked. “Two months,” I answered, and she looked surprised, commenting on how small he was. A few moments later Francisco came out of the examination room and motioned for me to switch with him. I passed him Yulian, and in turn received Fernando into my arms, sitting him down on my lap and jiggling my leg up and down to keep him from crying. The mother looked surprised and confused for a moment, looking back and forth between me and the child that clearly was not mine, and then at Francisco in his scrubs holding Yulian, and I realized that she had somehow, for an instant, mistaken me for Yulian’s mother.

I mostly try to avoid thinking directly about the reality of what is going on around me at the orphanage, like you would avoid looking straight into the sun or holding your ear right up to a speaker at full volume. Some of them have parents who left them, who can’t or won’t care for them, others who visit every week but aren’t fit to keep them full time, and still others who are no longer living. The younger ones, the one and two year olds, call out for “mamá,” without really understanding what it means, without being able to comprehend the sharpness I feel in my sternum when one of them says it as they look right at me.

Since arriving I have been asked no small amount of times whether or not I have children, and each time I can’t help but stifle back a laugh. It seems a ridiculous question, one that would have to be asked with sarcasm in the States but that here is fair and common.  Can’t they see I’m still a child myself? I don’t have children, my parents have me. But in the hospital, holding Fernando and Yulian while they waited in a cold, hard, poorly lit room to be held down on a table and examined, I realized that while I was not their mother, in that moment I was sort of all they had. I was the one who stood in, who held them in the car, who cradled them in the waiting room, who tickled them and talked to them to keep them from crying. I wasn’t their mother, but in that moment I felt like their family.

Alone in the kitchen I begin to think about the physicality of the distance that separates us, my dad and me. It is a thirty minute drive from my house to the La Serena airport, an hour flight from there to the capital, a nine hour flight from Santiago to Miami, and a three hour flight from Miami to Boston, and a two hour drive from Boston to Portland, Maine, where my dad currently lays hospitalized. All in all, almost twenty-four hours of travel lie in between us. I’ve been in Chile for two months and I couldn’t feel the distance until just now.

I will later learn that my dad spent the days leading up to his surgery complaining of stomach pain, but refusing to let my mother take him to the hospital. It’ll pass, he said, it’s just a stomachache, and all sorts of other phrases that sound a little too much like famous last words. Finally, at some still-dark hour of the morning when I was asleep thousands of miles away under a pile of thick wool blankets, my mother rushed him to the emergency room where it was determined his appendix had ruptured and he would need an immediate appendectomy. The surgery was performed successfully and now he was just being held under observation to monitor any possible leakage of toxic fluids into his system from the ruptured appendix. But I don’t know any of that yet, and the words “ER,” “appendectomy” and “perforated” seem to jump out at me off the screen and latch onto my chest.

The two-year-olds have their naptime right after lunch and are usually still sleeping when I make my way across the patio from the nursery and enter the classroom. I sit on a mat and watch them sleep, rubbing the backs of the restless ones who threaten to disturb the rare, languid calm of the entire room. Occasionally some of the children will be visited by their parents during the afternoon when the rest of the class is playing outside or watching movies or dancing to reggaetón. They are tapped by one of the teachers who will then wash their faces thoroughly, eliminating any traces of dirt or food or watercolor paint from the morning’s activities.  I remember one afternoon watching one of them being awoken from his peaceful slumber to be told that his father was there to visit. “My dad??” He asked, as if someone had told him Santa Claus or Superman was there to visit him. A look of unrepressed and almost involuntary joy tore across his sleepy face as he clumsily rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself up, his excitement beginning to override his drowsiness. He hopped immediately to his feet and ran out onto the patio with unbridled enthusiasm and untainted love for a man who only came to see him every once and a while. To him family was something mythic, was like Christmas morning.

When I watch Angela, the head of the nursery, there is not a single doubt in my mind that what she does each day can be called anything but mothering. She can tell which one of the eight infants in the nursery is crying from two rooms over, she knows exactly what it takes to get each one of them to fall asleep. She has spent the last two months teaching all of these things to me. Isabel always spits up no matter what, so you have to wear a cloth over your shoulder when you burp her. Vicente sleeps better on his stomach. Florencia likes to make cooing noises to herself that sound kind of like crying but aren’t. It is impossible for Jesús to keep his pacifier in his mouth.

Even if the children in the nursery are too young to ever remember Angela, to ever have any conscious awareness of her role in their lives, she has made a difference in their development, she has provided the love and care that will shape them as people. She is raising them, she is the one who is there, helping them grow, every day—no matter what any of their birth certificates say. She is their family.

And so as I sit in the kitchen, still stunned by the email I have just read, with images of the hospital and Hogar Redes still swimming around in my head, everything begins to come into focus. My dad walking me to the first day of kindergarten when I had insisted upon wearing my Dorothy costume, holding my hand as we crossed the street. My dad and I hiking up Mt. Cardigan in New Hampshire when I was five, sharing Vienna Finger sandwich cookies at the top. My dad, taking way too many pictures on the sidelines of my high school cross-country races. My dad patiently helping me as I struggled with my math homework at the kitchen table. But more importantly the moments I can’t remember but that have no less made a lasting impact on my own formation as a human being, the moments I have been experiencing now with the children in the nursery—the holding, the cradling, the feeding, the changing, the rocking, the caring, the helping and watching grow.

A few hours after opening the email I stand in the kitchen trying to explain everything to Gladys, and the next day to Angela at the orphanage, what happened and why I need to go, and how sorry I am.  But I don’t even need to, not really. Some things mean the same thing everywhere. Gladys takes my hands in hers and looks right at me. “Es tu familia,” she says, like that is all there is to say. And maybe it is. He’s your family.

On one of my last days I pass one of the infants’ fathers on the street when I’m walking home from work, a thin, broken looking man who comes to visit his son more regularly than most other parents. I do not know the reasons he cannot keep his child—Angela cannot tell me the specifics of any circumstances and it is not my place to ask. I have been there long enough now for him to recognize me as we pass each other. I often have Vicente when he comes, feeding him or holding him up to the mobiles Angela made that hang from the ceiling and making him laugh. I wait for his father to wash his hands in the sink out in the hallway and then I gingerly hand him over, all of the usual rules about access and belonging to and even possessive apostrophes getting all confused and mixed up around us. How is Vicente, he asks me as we pass each other at the end of the dirt road that leads to the orphanage, his voice inflicted with desperation. It hits me square in the chest, makes the hollows of my cheeks sting a little. He’s wonderful, I reply, wonderful. I am a stranger, a foreigner, a temporary volunteer, and yet I am the one with the answer of how his son is. I am the one who knows that he is already crying so much less often than he did when I got here, that he can now grip my finger tightly with his tiny little hand when I feed him, that he doesn’t mind being changed so much if you sing to him while you’re doing it. I know exactly where to tickle him to make him laugh, I know which cry means he’s hungry and which cry means he’s tired. I know all of this and I am a stranger. I am no one. This man is his father, and he is asking me.

As I prepare to leave I can feel a distinct ache for the enchanting, delightful children I have come to love and the extraordinary Chilean family that welcomed me so graciously and completely. I think about the pleasant, warm weight of a child on your chest as you rock them to sleep, the radiant blueness of the sky over the patio in the afternoon, the limitless patience and love Angela brings to the nursery each morning, the boisterous, wonderful dinners with Gladys and Yohani and Cristian and the yellowing photo of their ancestors in the tiny kitchen. But I also think of the anguish on Vicente’s father’s face, of his beautiful baby sleeping in a metal crib that has held dozens of other children. My father never had to ask about me. And so in the end the choice I make isn’t a choice at all.

Five days later I walk down my driveway in Maine, the evening light of Northern Hemisphere summer settling into the broad-leafed trees overhead, far away from the cloudy, temperate Chilean winter. I feel the involuntary joy, the unbridled enthusiasm. Hobbling up the asphalt toward me, frail but fine, is my father, his arms opened out to me as they have always been.