After my mother died, I started to think of her in fragments, in isolated sections that stubbornly refused to form a whole. I remembered her hands, but not her feet; her hair but not her neck; her nose but not her chin. My inability to remember her whole made me feel like a traitor, and the torment of this betrayal only made it more difficult to remember her as the sacred unit she had always been to me. That was until I spotted an orchid in Costa Rica.
It's called The Bishop's Shoe. No explanation needed. The last time I had seen one--at the Botanical Garden in Medellin, Colombia--I was with mom. I remembered then how she looked at the orchid, how her eyes settled into a squint as she explored the inside of the shoe, how she smiled and cooed into the flower, the way she did at home with her own plants, how she caressed the fuzzy petals and told me it was the prettiest orchid she had ever seen. It was hard to tell who was more alive; the orchid or mom.
And just like that, thousands of miles away from home, somewhere in San Jose, in the middle of a savage downpour, in one corner of a run down green house, as I squinted into a Bishop's shoe orchid, I was finally able to see my mother again in her entirety. She was not the summation of the neck and the nose and the hands. She was a gestalt mother. She was a force: sturdy, relentless, fearless, so real that it felt that the three of us--mom, the orchid and I--were the only living things left in the garden.
Somewhere in Costa Rica I found this tree. It should have died a long time ago. After losing its branches and foliage, it was meant to tilt, like an old man, and drop stridently, breaking in pieces on its way to the ground. But it didn't. Its roots, obstinately, kept stealing nutrients from the soil, saving the tree from starvation. And so, it stayed there, in a sort of limbo, suspended in time until green pockets of life burst from its withered branches like miracle kisses.
My mother left Mariquita, her hometown--the only place she ever called home--to be with my dad. I left Colombia more than two decades ago to find some peace. My daughter grew up in three different continents, each with its language, religion and culture. I raised her in a melange of Spanish, English and Arabic; a hodgepodge of Christianity, Unitarianism, and Islam; a concoction of arroz con pollo, apple pie and falafels. Our roots have loosened with each generation. My mother never learned a word in English. I speak English with a Colombian accent; my daughter speaks Spanish with an American accent. We are uprooted immigrants. We have never settled anywhere long enough to grow roots. Yet, there is one place whose name we only need to utter to feel at home even if we are half way across the globe from it: Mariquita. Then we are all mangoes and avocados; hot and humid like the town itself; we smell my grandmother's kitchen and hear the chickens rustling in their coop. We consider again the existence of the chupacabras, the church bells deafen the other prayer calls we've heard in the last twenty years, and in an instant, we are home again. Our roots become ravenous, they consume all that is good around them and give us life, which is to say, identity.
It is my mother's hometown, I place that we haven't visited in over twenty years, where our roots are. Where we become the tree reluctant to die.