The Light of Hidden Flowers

A story by Rebekah Morris //

I am driving south with my friend Ruthie, along with six teenage girls and three babies, to Fort Myers Beach in southern Florida. The GPS displays an arrival of 6 o’clock – ten hours from now. I cringe thinking of the endless diaper-changing, bottle-feeding, and pit stops for gas and big gulps that will delay us. I bite my lower lip as we thread through the traffic on I-75 South.

We are not even outside the city limits when Evelyn, my twenty-month-old daughter, pipes up.

“I food!” she says, over and over, to whoever will listen.

Catalina, one of the girls who was lucky enough to be next to Evelyn’s car seat, volunteers to feed my daughter – one of many times the girls gets saddled with this messy task. She doesn’t even complain as she rubs her eyes, puts her pillow down, and unpacks some crackers and juice for Evelyn. The rest of the girls continue sleeping.

During the car ride, I ask if Catalina and her best friend Wanda are excited about seeing the beach since this will be the first time they will have seen it. They smile and say “Yeah,” and we keep driving. I find it hard to imagine being a teenager and having seen so many of the dark sides of life, like they have, but never having seen the ocean.

Once we arrive at the beach, it takes a few minutes of trying to convince Catalina to not be self-conscious about wearing a bathing suit. Finally, she decides to don her bathing gear and lather up in sunscreen and head for the water. I try not to stare at the cuts on her legs.

When I was younger, I used to cut myself.

Sometimes I did it because I couldn’t cry hard enough, or I couldn’t scream loud enough, or I couldn’t feel anything enough. I wonder what it is that makes Catalina feel as though her voice is unheard.

“Are there sharks in the water?” Vanessa asks.

“Yeah, but you have a better chance of getting in a car accident than getting attacked by a shark,” I say.

“But still. What about stepping on a crab?”

“They’re scared of you,” Susana responds.

I try to coax my almost two-year-old to get into the water, but she keeps saying “No?” like it’s a question. We end up sitting right beside the water while Catalina and Wanda timidly wade into the ocean.

“Evelyn,” I say. “Do you want to go in the water with Mommy?” She peeps up at me from underneath an oversized sun hat.

“No?” she says again.

After a few minutes, Catalina splashes up to the two of us.

“Rina!” Evelyn exclaims.

“You want to come in the water with me and Wanda?” she asks, stretching out both her arms.

“Yeah?” She scoops up my daughter.

“Bye bye, Mama!”

As I’m sitting there with my baby Elisa and the other two adults and their babies, we watch the girls playing in the water, chatting loudly, laughing.

“You know, a girl like Catalina — she’s so beautiful and smart and she doesn’t even realize it,” Ruthie’s sister says. “I bet if you were to take her and put her into a different life, she would be the most popular girl in school. Her biggest worry would be which boy to date.”

“She doesn’t even realize how incredible she is,” she continues. I nod and mmm in agreement. I notice Catalina showing Evelyn how to splash Wanda in the face. Wanda looks back in mock horror.

Catalina’s family moved from San Luis Potosi, one of the more populous states in North-Central Mexico, to the U.S. before she was born. They’ve lived in small apartments like the one they live in now. They’ve moved from school district to school district.

A couple weeks ago, Catalina came to the girls Bible study we hold at Ruthie’s apartment every Sunday night. She had her headphones in, her bangs hanging over her eyes, and no make-up on. Her eyes were red and she looked tired.

“C’mon, Catalina, tell us what’s going on,” Ruthie said pushing her shoulder into Catalina’s playfully.

“You’re never this quiet.”

Catalina started crying.

“I’m just sick of this,” she said.

“Does your mom know you and your dad have been in contact?” Ruthie asked.

“No, I know it would be too hard on her.” The chatter in the room died. The other girls looked at Catalina and listened.

“The text said that he never meant to have me, that I was a mistake.”

“Maybe it was just his wife that sent that? She’s probably jealous that he is talking to you,” Susana suggested.

“You know you’re not a mistake, right?” I said. We talked that night about the story of Joseph and how God is weaving together a story even when the characters are unaware. The lessons that Joseph’s life teaches – that God can make something beautiful out of an “accident,” that He has a greater plan He is working behind the scenes – bring some measure of comfort, I’m sure, but in those moments of pain, I’m always afraid the comfort might not be enough.

My mind wanders back to the present. I see Evelyn toddling alongside Catalina, holding her hand tightly as she pulls her toward the flock of seagulls. Catalina laughs and she picks her up as the seagulls disperse, their cries filling the air and their wings flapping all around the two of them. I try to reconcile this image of Catalina with the Catalina I remember from a couple weeks ago.

The girls start drying themselves off and we decide to head home for naps, hot showers, and homemade hamburgers by the pool.

Later in the afternoon, Catalina, a voracious reader, wants to visit a thrift store to buy books. We find a Goodwill in an old shopping center, descend upon it with our babies and teenagers, and spend at least half an hour reading through different titles and covers. The store happens to be across the parking lot from one of the few K-Marts left, so we decide to stop in. The girls head off in pairs in search of souvenirs, and Evelyn again insists on being with Catalina, who graciously takes her along.

Ruthie and I head off to the baby aisle where we find the food we forgot to bring. I sit down in the middle of the aisle and start feeding my five-month-old Elisa from a squeezable fruit pouch. Nothing says “well-prepared moms” quite like that.

Catalina and Wanda find all of us sitting on the ground in the store.

“Want to see what I got?” Catalina asks.

She shows me a bottle of perfume and these delicate sand dollar earrings and matching necklace that she explains are for her mom.

“And I got some blue and yellow decorative letters for my nephew’s nursery.” I peer up at her from my space on the floor and smile.

“You have such a generous heart, Catalina,” I say.

“I also got this for Evelyn,” she says, proudly showing me a toddler cup with two Disney princesses printed on the side. “I thought she might want the Dora one, but she chose this one. It matches the one I got for my little sister.”

I smile again and say thank you, you’re so sweet, and you didn’t have to do that and I so badly want to say something that doesn’t sound so trite, but that’s all that comes out.

She smiles back at me and shrugs her shoulders.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores…

(I love you as the plant that never blooms
But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers)

Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde…
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera…

(I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
So I love you because I know no other way)1

Momentarily I’m lost. I start thinking about how a flower such as Catalina blooms in such a place – a place where often the darkness seems to eclipse the light. She teaches me in that moment that the love of God is something quiet and unshakeable. It’s something that she has experienced in the midnight hour of the soul that she simply can’t hold onto. It breaks through. It persists, like a flower pushing itself up through the cracks on the road and the overlooked places.

And I wish that I had that same strength of character that could somehow understand the darkness and yet simultaneously push itself towards the light; to be able to swim in the sea, knowing there may be sharks and crabs, but still able to expose my scars because enjoying the water depends on it.

I wish Evelyn could remember this moment, could experience Catalina’s light and keep it with her.

We load up the cars. Catalina laughs as she places Evelyn in her car seat and jumps into the back seat of the van. We drive home ten hours and return to our lives, our jobs, school, families. Life sets in. We’re reminded of our scars. And how they don’t exactly heal completely. But somehow Catalina chooses to use those scars as the source for compassion and empathy and generosity.

She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.2

A new day is coming. But it might not be that different from the last. A couple weeks later, Catalina tells us one of her close friends has been shot and killed during a botched drug deal. And somehow she still smiles, still loves, still laughs.

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1 Taken from Pablo Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets), “Soneto XVII”
2 Proverbs 31:25

Some names have been changed to respect the privacy of those included in this story.