Uncommon origins: Lessons learned from my adopted siblings

Opinion by Sabrina Medler
June 15, 2017, 2:42 a.m.

“So do you guys go to school together?” our Uber driver asks us, trying to make harmless small talk.

“We’re sisters,” I reply, awaiting the inevitable perplexed look on his face. He pulls up to a stoplight and then turns back to get another look at us.

“Oh wow. You guys don’t really look alike…” he trails off as I roll my eyes.

This is how just about every introduction of my sisters goes. My older sister, Natasha, is adopted from Vladivostok, Russia and my younger sister, Wendi, is adopted from Patzún, Guatemala, which is about one hour west of Guatemala City. This past weekend my parents took Wendi back to Guatemala to meet her birth mother and learn about her life before she was adopted, prompting me to reflect on some of the valuable lessons she’s taught me.

Laughter is universal.

Natasha was adopted as a baby, before I was born, but Wendi was adopted at the age of four, so I actually remember her “‘Gotcha Day,” a common phrase in the adoption world for the anniversary of the day she officially joined our family.

We awaited Wendi’s arrival at the airport, decked out in red, white and blue holding personalized, hand-made signs. Our parents suggested we each bring one of our toys to give to Wendi, but I was so excited to have another sister that I essentially packed up two full gift-bags of toys and stuffed animals for my brand new best friend.

Though we couldn’t communicate — Wendi only spoke Spanish and Kaqchikel, the language of her Mayan Indian tribe — we instantly clicked. We all went to Casa Gallardo for dinner and Natasha, Wendi and I spent the whole dinner giggling about making funny faces and silly noises.

Blood may be thick, but it’s not determinate.

I always get the question “Is it weird because they’re not your real sisters?” and I simply do not understand it. Natasha and Wendi are my real sisters – there is simply no other way I could think of them. Besides, of course, as karaoke confidants, carpool buddies, future bridesmaids and lastly, best friends.

Our squad officially came together when we adopted Wendi just before Christmas in 2002 and, as a family, went to pick out a Christmas tree. On the drive back, a magical moment happened. “Feliz Navidad” came on the radio and Wendi lit up, recognizing it because she’d heard it in Guatemala. All eight of us sang off-tune at the top of our lungs, hugging our baby sister, as my parents cried tears of joy.

I’ll have some things to teach her, but she’ll have much more to teach me.

We had a White Christmas that year, much to the surprise of Wendi who’d never seen snow before. That afternoon, Wendi and I ran to our backyard as I taught her how to make snow angels.

The day before my parents had told Wendi about Santa Claus and how every year he leaves presents for good boys and girls. As a firm believer in Kris Kringle I was surprised when Wendi confessed that she didn’t buy any of it. She grew up in an adobe hut with dirt floors and a metal corrugated roof in an impoverished community in the mountains, and apparently Santa Claus hadn’t made a lot of visits there. I had never considered someone not getting presents on Christmas.

Since then, both Wendi and Natasha have made me rethink the way I see the world time and time again. I have noticed our differences, but realized that these differences are assets to our family. Natasha has the voice of an angel, while the rest of the family can’t sing to save our lives; Wendi’s calm and kind presence is a nice contrast to our otherwise obnoxiously loquacious group; Natasha’s silly personality can break the tension in any room and Wendi’s art beats my stick figures any day. Both of them bring something unique to the table.

When it comes to people who love you, the more the merrier.

Through a private investigator, my parents were able to track down Wendi’s birth mother for the adventure of a lifetime this past week. On this trip, Wendi learned so much about her first four years of life. She reunited with her two teenage foster sisters and learned that they had been the ones to introduce her to her now-favorite hobby, dance; she discovered that she has a biological brother and got to meet him; she learned that she had pet chickens as a child; she even met Isabele, her birth mother, again who passed down a traditional, hand-made “huipil,” which she had worn herself and has huge sentimental value.

The best part of their trip, however, was when they went to visit Wendi’s birth place and were met with a gaggle of twenty or so people standing in the driveway, ranging from an infant of several months to an 80-year-old. Much to Wendi’s surprise, Isabele’s entire family had thrown together a huge celebration for her return complete with fireworks, a giant banner and a home-cooked feast.

These people expended a considerable amount of their slim earnings to give my parents and sister a grand greeting. My mom remarked on how warm, caring and loving Wendi is, and noted to her biological family that it is obvious where she got such character traits. Though I, myself, did not meet them, I’m sure of their incredible kindness because they’re related to Wendi, who is the kindest person I’ve ever known.

An emotional night for all, everyone shared how much they loved Wendi, and they couldn’t be more right. I feel so lucky to have both Wendi and Natasha as sisters, and knowing that there are so many other people who hold my sisters in their hearts humbles me.

Though my family is unique in its own way, the bonds that we share are akin to those of any other family. We still bicker in the car on long road trips, embarrass each other in front of significant others and have each other’s backs in times of trouble, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Contact Sabrina Medler at smedler ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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