All I expected from Hola Cuban Café was a good Cuban sandwich. I got that, but I also received a life story that was incomparable.
We placed our order and were sitting at a table on the porch, waiting. The Florida sun felt good. At the other table a man was also on hold. He was a mountain in a Harley jacket. I could see his ride gleaming in the parking lot a few feet away. “Where you from?” he asked. When we told him we were from Pennsylvania, he said he used to live in a little town near Pittsburgh. “Well,” he said, “I was originally from Texas. From what I know. My parents walked out and left me at nine months, really left me to die, I guess.”
I was momentarily stunned by his openness and candor. I’ve known people for 20 years who wouldn’t share this intimately, and here was a guy I’d known for about 90 seconds, telling me he was born without love. Abandoned.
Not for the first time, I was fooled by the Harley costume, the black leather and chains, his mountainous presence. Inside, the heart was warm, eager to be known.
He was adopted. His father was Army, and was posted around the country. He and his new mother did not go with him. Finally his father settled in Pennsylvania and he and his mother moved to join him. That’s how he ended up in Pennsylvania, he said.
His story stirred something deep in me. I happened to be reading singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier’s memoir, Saved by a Song. Gauthier was put up for adoption as an infant and never knew her mother. She could not give herself in love, slid into addiction, and dug herself out by facing her pain square on. She recorded an album devoted to her ordeal. She called it “Foundling.”
There is something deeply human about this abandonment. You don’t have to have been left on a doorstep to feel it. Which may account for the untold millions of readers (my grandson now among them) who identify with Harry Potter, left on the Dursley’s doorstep. Long ago, Moses was nestled in a basket and set adrift on the Nile. Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, were similarly launched onto the river Tiber, where a she-wolf found and suckled them. Greek mythology is full of abandoned babies: Atalanta, Paris, Oedipus. One study, by historian John Boswell, notes that throughout Europe, children were abandoned by parents of every social standing in remarkably high numbers from antiquity through the Middle Ages. Yet in the late 18th century, some cities still had high numbers of child abandonment. In Toulouse, for example, 15% of children born in wealthy enclaves and nearly 45% of those in poor communities were abandoned. In Paris it was 20% to 30%; Milan was 25%.*
This theme runs like a chthonic bass line in the song of our lives. A single abandoned child now makes the local evening news, but that bass line thumps along just the same. No mother or father can ever love us fully, and some children who do not experience physical abandonment often feel emotional desertion. We spend years, thousands in therapist bills, trying to account for a mother or father who left us, one way or another.
It often takes a while, but ultimately we recognize that our feelings of parental jilting are pretty normal. People with good moms and dads feel it. Somehow I believe this recognition contains a blessing, for it leads us to forgive our fallible, human parents and finally direct our search to God. What we are after, a never-failing love, could never really come from anyone this side of the veil. The spiritual challenge of a lifetime is to locate our identity in Someone transcendent, to know that we are beloved in eternal eyes, and to rest in the knowledge that nothing—but nothing—can separate us from that Love (Romans 8:38-39).
*“Abandoning Babies is an Old Story in Europe,” Penelope McMillan, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1989.