Typically, there are 90 or more children at Xela (SHAY-luh), but most of the younger children have been sent temporarily to a warmer climate. There is no source of heat in their concrete, uninsulated 200-by-200 concrete compound. I say compound. What I really mean is prison.
A friend of mine who went on the trip said she came home, but a piece of her is still there. I believe it's that way for most of us. A piece of me is still there. What I brought back was a heart full of aching, desperate joy for the time I had there ... in that awful place, with those beautiful children. And stories. I have a head full of stories.
Here's one I wrote while I was still there.
The first time I saw Hector, it was in one of the dingy little classrooms on the upper floor of the orphanage. We brought in some t-shirts that read: Tu eres especial (you are special) for all the kids to have and decorate. I asked the teacher who in the room would be able to write their own names on the shirts. She pointed to two kids out of some 15; one was Hector. The first thing one notices about Hector is his awful bowl haircut and too-short bangs. The next thing, at least for me, is an intangible quality that speaks of something deeper, something special about this child.
I took a liking to him right away, and I think the feeling was mutual. But there were several children those first two days whom I particularly noticed. Those were difficult days for me for different reasons, mostly having to do with being ill prepared spiritually and not giving myself over completely to God’s guidance. I played with the children, hugged them, kissed them, loved them. But both days I felt an inner disquiet that suggested my actions were on target but my heart wasn’t.
Wednesday morning, I asked God to meet me where I was that day and show himself to me. “Give me something, God,” I said. “I need to see you.”
That afternoon, while several of the children were out on field trips, I stayed behind with others to oversee the afternoon activities. Eventually, I found myself in the inner, concrete courtyard-area of the orphanage where a few kids wandered around. I kicked a soccer ball a while with a few before eventually Hector and I found ourselves passing a football back and forth. We played for close to an hour, sometimes involving other children, but always going back to just the two of us. After a while, he decided to spice up the game, and when I passed the ball to him, he tucked it under one arm, stuck his other out in a Heisman Trophy-style pose and ran at me, smiling and growling. I ducked out of the way just as he passed. We did this over and over.
He came at me again. I grabbed him this time and – at my orchestration – we tumbled to the floor. We found ourselves both stretched out, me on my back, Hector on top of me, his head on my chest. I laughed. He laughed. Then something happened.
Our laughter quieted. I didn’t get up. He didn’t get up. We lay there together, breathing heavily from exertion. I patted his back. He patted my arm. We stayed together on that concrete floor.
“Te quiero, Hector,” I said. I love you.
“Te quiero tambien,” he said. I love you too.
We lay there a little longer, just long enough for me to know God had shown himself to me.
Each afternoon for the past three, we’ve taken a portion of the kids to a nearby McDonald’s so they can get out of that walled-in building, have some ice cream and enjoy the outdoor playground. Today was my day to be a chaperone. Providentially, it also happened to be the day Hector was going. I was excited about that, but when it was time to go, I found Hector sitting in a chair, stone-faced, arms crossed and refusing to talk or budge.
“Hector,” I said. “Que paso?”
He didn’t budge, wouldn’t meet my eyes. It doesn’t take much for any of these boys to get angry, either turning inward or lashing out violently. He had turned inward.
“Hector. Por favor.” I tried pulling him gently into a hug. He resisted. I kissed his head. “Por favor.” I knelt in front of him. “Hector.”
Whatever had caused this reaction had nothing to do anymore with his behavior. He was full of despair.
I took one thin wrist in my hand and placed it behind my neck, then the other and pulled him toward me. He didn’t embrace me, but he didn’t pull away, so I pulled him up into my arms, this nine-year-old boy, and held him. I took him to a corner of the room, with his face turned toward the wall and I started to sing to him the song I sang to my children when they were babies and cried.
He couldn’t understand the words, of course, but the melody, it’s repetitiveness and my swaying eventually melted him, and he began to cry. He cried and cried on my shoulder, keening with grief.
He wept for a long while: when I took him to the front door, when we passed into the courtyard. Just before the front gates of the orphanage were unlocked, he calmed. Holding his hand, I led him in front of the rest of the kids waiting in line so that he and I could get a prime spot at the front of the bus. I sat him by the window, and while everyone else loaded up, I put a seat belt on him and pulled from my backpack the little iPod Shuffle Madeline had loaned me for the trip.
I placed one earphone in his right ear, the other in my left. I clipped the Shuffle to his shirt and hit play, finding a song for us to listen to as the bus started moving.
It was almost unbearably sweet, unbearably heartbreaking to see the longing on his serious little face as he stared out the window at the world he’s been rejected by, listening to sad, beautiful music and clutching my hand in both of his. I scooted down a bit in my chair, pushed my shoulder up next to his and memorized forever the look on his face, the feel of his hands around mine, the sounds of the city passing as we both remained mute and cocooned in the certain knowledge that this moment was beautiful and fleeting.
Hector and the other kids had a wonderful time on the playground. They laughed and played and made a mess of the ice cream the way all children do. In no time, we were back on the bus, sitting side by side. I pulled out the iPod and hit play as the bus started moving. I felt him pulling at my arm. He wanted me to hold his hand again. So I did. We were silent again. He stared out the window. As we were nearing the orphanage, I began to sing the song that was playing. It’s a popular song about a boy pining for a girl. Silly in the context. I found though, as I sang the words, the meaning changed for me. I began to sing to Hector.
“I came from miles and miles to stand outside your door … And you will be loved. You will be loved.”
Neither one of us moved until everyone else had unloaded from the bus. He watched me while I sang. Finally, I shrugged. My shrug said, “It has to end now.”
He handed me his earphone with an almost imperceptible nod. We understood each other.