Although the passage of time has put considerable distance between my childhood years and my middle aged present, I remember that the five or so years when Mom, my older sister, and I lived in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, were almost idyllic.
We lived well in Colombia because my mother was from a wealthy and influential family (my maternal great-grandfather once owned one of the country’s largest breweries, and a distant relative was a one-term President of the country early in the 20th Century).
My grandfather Enrique was the Parker Pen Company’s sales representative for the entire country, and our family connections made it easy for my widowed mom to rent nice houses in the ritzier areas of the teeming city with a population of nearly seven million. We even had two live-in maids, and a woman went to our house every Tuesday to do the laundry.
From 1967 till the spring of 1972, I lived in a bubble of love, privilege, and security. Mom never treated me as if I had cerebral palsy and encouraged me to dream (as many boys growing up in the 1960s did) about going to the Moon or becoming an aviator. (My father, who died shortly before my second birthday, was a cargo plane pilot.) In fact, no one in my family treated me as if I had any disability; if any of my cousins or family acquaintances ever did treat me differently, I didn’t notice.
However, this wasn’t always the case with outsiders. When I attended private school, I was exposed to teasing and even some bullying. Although most of my classmates were nice and didn’t tease me about my spastic cerebral palsy and its related involuntary movements, some did.
One boy in particular made it his mission in life to try and trip me with his foot. Others snickered behind my back and made sure that I didn’t get picked to play on a soccer team during recess. And although I may be mistaken, I don’t think I was invited to many of my classmates’ birthday parties.
Maybe if I hadn’t had 11 first cousins (five from my Aunt Martha and six from Uncle “Tayo”), I would have felt isolated, sad, and angry. I’m sure that many disabled kids who are teased, bullied, or excluded from social gatherings or games suffer from depression and have anger management issues. That I wasn’t among those kids is a testament to the wisdom of my mom and extended family.
I don’t have a crystal ball (no one does, really), so I don’t know what path in life I would have taken had I not suffered from the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after my ninth birthday.
My memories about that incident are mercifully hazy. I recall being at a party at a family member’s house, then getting a headache so severe that I puked whatever I had had for lunch that day and then passed out. When I came to, I was lying in a hospital bed, an IV stuck in my left arm, in the pediatric ward of Bogota’s Hospital Militar, which had the best pediatricians in the city.
The doctors told my mom that the damage to my brain was negligible and that I’d only need a couple of weeks of physical therapy to recover fully. However, the attending physician strongly suggested to my mom that we leave Colombia and return to Miami as soon as possible.
“Why?” Mom asked.
The doctor explained that although Colombia’s pediatricians were skilled professionals and learning more about cerebral palsy and how to treat it, they were light-years behind their American counterparts. PROPACE, Colombia’s equivalent of United Cerebral Palsy, was in its infancy, and its facilities were small and understaffed. Besides, since Mom had permanent residency in the U.S. and I was an American citizen, moving to the States would require less red tape than for the average Colombian citizen.
My mother wasn’t without human flaws, but she was smart enough to accept this advice. In less than six weeks, she sold or gave away everything that we couldn’t ship to Miami. We then spent a week in Bogota to take leave of the family, including my older sister, who wanted to stay in Colombia for a while.
With tears in our eyes and hope in our hearts, we said goodbye to our old life in South America to begin a new one in the United States.