The first time I left the United States was on a cruise ship for a family vacation with my biological dad. His parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and wanted to take their kids and grandkids on a trip. When he called to invite me, I was dumbstruck, but the answer came easily. “Of course, I’d love to go!” What a cool way to get to know his parents, my uncles, aunt and cousins… and of course spend time with him, too.
The two of us drove down to New Orleans together. I’d never been there, either. Our ship would depart the following morning with destinations including Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cozumel. We spent more than six hours in his truck together. We drove through south Arkansas, and he pointed out places he delivered liquor on the weekdays. I got to hear how he's made long lasting friendships through the work he does and how he has been called to serve people in his career. We learned about one another’s favorite snacks; he introduced me to Terra Chips (now a favorite of mine), and I shared my affinity for Diet Coke. I was still smoking cigarettes at this point, and he bought me an e-cig so I could puff on it in his truck. He wanted me to quit smoking, but knew how intense my anxiety must be. He was more worried about my comfort. He explained that he wanted me to be able to relax on this trip… be myself, and enjoy my first time out of the country.
We checked into our hotel and met up with the rest of his family for dinner. His parents and brother were there, along with his sister and her family from Oregon. For the first time in my life, I have cousins my age! My aunt has four kids, a girl and three boys. I was closest in age to Ximena, who was 18 at the time. We stuck together like glue throughout the week. It was such a gift to hear about the “cool uncle” that was my bio-dad, and hear stories about the rest of my family from her perspective. Like me, she wanted to study psychology when she went to college. We talked about what she loved about her home state of Oregon and what she looked forward to the most after graduation. She was really close with her family, and I loved hearing how much it meant to her to stay close to them. I was close with my family, too… but I needed to get out of Arkansas and see a new part of the world by going to a bigger, distant university.
I had just turned 21 that summer, so my bio-dad, his sister and her husband took me out to Pat O’Briens for their infamous Hurricane. We walked around Bourbon Street and I jaw dropped at every outrageous thing I saw. I’d never seen a place so wild, and it was even crazier experiencing it with this new family of mine. I could feel their eyes on me as I took it all in.
The next day we boarded the ship. It was my first time on a cruise and my first time leaving the country. My bio-dad introduced me to the different parts of the ship, and watched my eyes get bigger as I took in the splendor of the vessel. There were painted ceilings and carvings in the walls. Some rooms had mosaics made out of stained glass, back-lit with blue lights like the ocean. Some of the bars on the ship looked like Mexico, with bright colors and tropical shapes. We made a beeline for the first bar we saw and he introduced me to a tropical drink called a Blue Hawaiian, one of his favorites. That’s where we took our first picture, during our second drink.
One day, we were standing on the upper deck sipping boat drinks and inhaling the ocean breeze. My biological dad and I were choking back emotion as we talked about this second chance we were given to know one another. Reuniting was one of the biggest miracles of both our lives. It brought me closure to know where I came from, and it brought him closure to know his only daughter turned out okay. He spoke of regret and missed memories, but could still smile because we were making unforgettable memories on that trip.
An older gentleman was leaning over the deck railing just a few feet away from us. He stared deep into his drink and twirled the straw around. Finally, as my biological dad and I each zoned out and stared at the water, the man approached us. We were taken aback to see tears in this stranger’s eyes. He must have been close to 50 years old, his skin leathered by hours in the sun. “I’m so sorry to interrupt,” he started. “I just happened to overhear some of your conversation, and I want you to know how beautiful it is.” He pressed his thumb and forefinger to the corners of his eyes. “My dad died before I could make amends with him and I will regret that for the rest of my life. Second chances are rare. That’s a blessing I wasn’t afforded, and I hope you know how lucky the two of you are.” He looked down and got out a cigarette. We gave the stranger a hug. We were both moved by his words and struck by the boldness of them. He told us to enjoy our trip and not to take one minute of it for granted, then walked down the steps and disappeared.
That week was full of new experiences and story telling. I got to try boat drinks and overpriced beer. My bio-dad introduced me to the casino, and taught me how to play Blackjack. I won more than $300 at the Blackjack table in one evening! In Jamaica, we went zip lining through the jungle and tried jerk chicken. In the Cayman Islands, we swam with stingrays and found a secluded island where we held starfish and swam with a wild dolphin. In Cozumel, we tried authentic Mexican food and visited ancient ruins.
One evening before dinner, my bio-dad asked me to meet him outside our rooms. We walked together to the shopping area, and he told me he wanted to give me something to remember the trip by. We went to a jeweler, and he pointed out a couple pieces he’d been looking at all week. They were dashed with blues of the ocean – blue topaz and Australian opal. I was stunned at the beauty of the ring and necklace he’d selected, and a little speechless by the generosity of the gift itself. He said it was the trip of a lifetime, and he wanted me to have something for the rest of my life.
More important than all of those things though... the reason we were there. It was my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. At dinner one night, I watched them gaze into each other’s eyes and slow dance between the tables. In Cozumel, while my bio-dad, uncle and boy cousins went deep-sea fishing; Ximena, her mom and I joined my grandparents for an authentic Mexican meal. One of my favorite photos with them was taken at that table. I listened to stories of what it was like to serve in the military and where their families immigrated from. I got to learn what my bio-dad was like as a kid, and hear about some of their favorite trips. I shared some of my childhood experiences. I told them about the relationship I had with my grandparents, and was comforted by the smiles that lit up their faces in hearing that.
At the end of the week, I was ready to be in my own bed at home to process all of the newness I’d just experienced. I had let myself be vulnerable all week. I opened up and shared stories of my childhood; I even talked about high school and an abusive relationship I was in once. I was sun-drained, emotionally full and ready to be back in my comfort zone.
After we got off the ship, saying goodbye to his Oregon family was difficult. I felt like I actually knew them now, and I didn’t want a good thing to end so soon. My bio-dad and I drove back to Little Rock together… he even let me do the driving. We talked about the cool things we got to see and do that week and promised to do a better job staying in touch. It was the start of a real relationship.
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