This isn’t news to most people in my life, but in case I haven’t had the chance to talk to you, I’ve decided to stay in Bolivia until mid-August instead of going home in May with the other student missionaries as originally planned. I left campus with the other student missionaries for a short four-day trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s famous salt flats, and took a few more days of vacation to myself after they left in Santa Cruz. But now I’m heading back to campus for another three months. This decision was, of course, difficult. But it was also easy. It definitely wasn’t a simple decision, but it almost wasn’t even mine to make. When people have asked me why I’m staying, I’ve often come short of a fortified and definitive answer. I began this decision with uncertainty and hesitation, and that privation of confidence certainly followed me throughout the decision process. But with the finality of the decision, my confidence in the situation is starting to petrify like the reality that I will definitely be here for another three months. So now I’m here. Now I know why I stayed.
I’m staying because of Roger. He’s one of the older boys, and one of the only three who were here last year. He’s been at Familia Feliz for several years now, so he has a rudimentary understanding of how a home for children functions. I don’t mean to entirely presume what’s going on in his head, especially because he’s not one to reach out and connect, but I think I might have an idea. Because when I interact with him, it seems like I’m not a real person in his head. I’m just here. Just an entity. Of course, I don’t expect more than this, but it makes me think he’s had one-too-many guardians and caretakers and pseudo-parents.
He prefers to go about his day as smoothly as possible. He doesn’t cause a ruckus at night unless he’s joining in with the others. He comes to worship and breakfast on time. He knows the boundaries and he knows how to get away with being lazy. He knows how to avoid negative attention from us, the teachers. And so he knows how to avoid us altogether.
And why would he bother interacting with me indeed? I’m just another person from a far away place with strange traditions, values, and habits and even stranger Spanish. When he’s disrespectful, I get the feeling it’s not just because I haven’t earned his respect (although I’m sure I haven’t). It feels like he might be the tiniest bit angry: his generally apathetic demeanor slightly chipped. Angry, maybe, that there’s no one there for him. That he has to be here, that he can’t do what he wants, that with his older brother gone away to a boarding high school, he has three younger brothers to watch after and defend here at Familia Feliz. Maybe he feels like there is no one left to do the same for him.
When he’s disrespectful and defiant, it’s rare. He pushes the boundaries on verbal disrespect towards us house parents, and when he goes to far the stubborn streak that runs through him and all his brothers is ready to defiantly withstand whatever retaliation he encounters. Usually it seems about in line with the cliché of teenage behavioral patterns. Sometimes it seems like maybe he just wants to check and see if anyone cares that he’s there at all.
I’ve heard rumors that the lady who came to visit him and his brothers last year and once this year isn’t actually their mother like she is portrayed to be. I’ve heard their mother is more affluent than the average Rurrenabaque citizen and pays this lady to take care of her kids that she doesn’t want. I’ve heard the lady would rather leave the kids with us and take the money for herself than be a nanny.
Maybe it’s not true. Personally, I am extremely doubtful. Maybe the mom is their real mom and is ashamed she’s too poor to take care of her kids, so she created a sweet lie for her children when they were young. Maybe it is true and the kids don’t know. Maybe it is true and Roger does know. It’s probably just a rumor from a joke or misinterpretation story. But what if it isn’t. What if Roger doesn’t know how to respect because he’s never had someone worthy of respect. If he doesn’t know how to respect, how will he know he’s worthy of respect? How will he know he’s worthy of love?
I started house-parenting in February. Three-and-a-half months is not long enough to teach someone they are worthy of love and respect.
I think Leonel is the only kid in our house that ever goes out of his way to say thank you. After every meal he thanks each house parent, no matter who cooked. When I make banana bread, he actually can’t stop saying thank you, even when I run out of sugar half-way through the recipe or forget to put enough baking powder or I add too much chocolate powder to make it special and it comes out a bit of a pancake-like brownie.
He’s the skinniest kid alive. He used to eat the most food of any kid I’ve ever seen, sometimes six heaping plates of rice and beans. Then one day Sierra, the campus nurse, decided it was finally time to give everyone parasite medicine all at once. The next day at lunch Leonel was served an overflowing plate as usual per his request. Towards the end of the meal, he came trudging back over to Zoro and me.
“Teacher, what happened to me. I’m so full I can’t eat any more and I only had half a plate!”
I’m pretty sure we’ve already made up the cost of the parasite medicine in the amount we normally spend of groceries for Leonel. Now he’s still skinny but he eats like a normal human.
In addition to saying thank you, I can usually count on Leonel to ask for a hug at least twice a day. He’s started calling the house parents Papa Treson or Papa Carlo instead of just teacher. He says I’m more related to him than the other house parents because we’re both so skinny.
Do I sometimes take his hugs and gratitude for granted? Too often. Does it feel nice to receive positive affirmation that what I’m doing is actually appreciated? Of course. But every time he says thank you and the other kids don’t, I remember this is his first year here. His mother only died last year. He’s already lost one real parent, then he came here with only a further fraction of his family, and then he lost his first set of house parents after only a month, and now he’s loosing all the student missionaries. Will he still be grateful when I’m gone? Every time he gives me a hug or calls me Papa Treson, I have to remember something the Bolivian house parents and Roger know too well: the thicker the relational tie, the more it hurts when it’s cut.
Three-and-a-half months is long enough to form a bond. Three-and-a-half months is not long enough to carefully, surgically, gracefully dissolve it, just a tiny bit, to prepare both sides for the severance.
Alvaro has been a terror since he got here in early March. He’s six, our youngest Guerrero, with his seven-year-old brother Adrian taking close second. He arrived here with three sisters as well, one of whom has an identical twin that still lives with their uncle. He’s too young to understand why he’s here, and too energetic to sink into hopeless apathy and silent resignation like his brother. So he has the perfect personality to fight authority at any opportunity. I’ve spent many hours holding him down or corning him while he screams to prevent him from hurting available objects, children, himself, or me.
One time I had to hold him down and it wasn’t even because he was intent on giving other kids black eyes with hurled rocks or throwing other peoples’ clothes in the mud. Dixon had accidentally cut Alvaro’s knee open with a machete and stitches were in order. He was traumatized, shocked, and quite understandably angry with all of us afterwards, but the next morning he ran up and gave me a hug.
The thing I’ve learned about Alvaro is that he loves negative attention. Try to put him in time out and you will have to physically restrain a screaming banshee for the better part of an afternoon. Carry him to school or complement his unintelligible but very diligent digging in the garden and he’ll run on that positive energy all day with compliance. You can always tell he’s not obeying because he has to but because he wants to. You can also tell he wants you to know that.
After a particularly difficult day with him, I was fed up and guiltily overjoyed when he knocked out on his bed around 7:30, not to be seen conscious or ill-behaved for an assured 12 hours. But the next day I carried him to class, the only way to motivate him to go at all. He asked if it was my day off and I said yes, I’d be leaving for town soon. I told him to enjoy his day, and he did something no other kid has ever done. He told me to enjoy my day off, without asking for a gift from town or anything in return. A free compliment. Unheard of.
I even heard a rumor that the next day when he didn’t want to do his homework in class, the teacher told him that he couldn’t go home and see me, of all people, until he finished, and for some reason, that worked.
He’s grown so much in the last three months. Despite the punishments I’ve had to give him and the number of times I’ve had to physically restrain him, he has started running up and giving me extremely forceful hugs. At least I interpret them as hugs, he might just be testing his strength to see if he can strangle me.
If I’m gone this summer, who will tell him he’s doing such a great job restraining himself from throwing rocks at other kids or beating up the twins who are a year older and much larger? Who will carry him to school on their shoulders and remind him to listen to his teacher and to have a good day? Who is he going to jump on, climb up, and attempt to crush the life out of with his tiny but surprisingly strong arms? Who’s going to be there when he gets home from school? Whose attention is he going to get when he is about to throw his spinning top which he has been feverishly practicing throwing with a string for the last three weeks?
I never would have thought three months was long enough to see a hellion change into a slightly more domesticated hellion. But three-and-a-half months is not long enough to convince an angry and confused six-year-old that he’s safe, worthy of love, and not forgotten.
If you know about any of the kids here at Familia Feliz through me, it’s probably Ricardo. He’s one of the three Guerreros that was here last year, and the only one that took the time to interact with an ignorant, Spanish-illiterate gringo such as myself. When I arrived back from vacation in January and he wasn’t on campus, I was initially a bit surprised. His family almost never visited and as far as I had known no one was coming to pick him up over vacation. It turned out he had convinced his older sister to take him in for some number of weeks.
When he finally arrived back on campus, he was most assuredly different. I had completely forgotten how much a couple of months can change a teenager. This semester he’s seemed more resigned. As the oldest Guerrero both in age and time here at Familia Feliz, it seems like he views himself as the responsible one.
At dinner one night the boys were ranking themselves by various metrics, and someone asked me who the most well-behaved Guerrero. Before I could even think of an appropriate response, all the boys simultaneously answered that it was obviously Ricardo. He looked at me and the others with a smug grin. And to be fair, he has yet to get in trouble this year.
This year he’s been a little more distant and less likely to start a conversation, at least with me. Some of it is because I know just enough Spanish to make it seem like I can have a complicated conversation or remember obscure Bolivian vocabulary while actually making deep conversation a nightmare for native speakers such as Ricardo. Some of it's because he’s a teenager. Some of it might be because he changed over vacation. Some of it might be because he really is different and older.
Every night when I go upstairs to coax the boys into sleepy silence, I go around and give each one a hug. Every night, Ricardo has gone to bed long before the others. I ask the others one by one if they want a hug, if they haven’t already asked for or given me one. Every night I say good night to Ricardo through his mosquito net and opaque blanket barrier around his bed, the only refuge of privacy he has in the world. I never know if he’s asleep or just silent. Occasionally when he’s still up with the others I ask if he wants a hug too and he always says no. He’s just too manly and grown-up for hugs at fourteen.
But leading up until the days we left, me for vacation and the others forever, Ricardo imperceptibly started spending more and more time with the teachers. I’m not sure he believed me when I told him I was coming back after a week.
On the SMs last Friday night together, I was shaving in the falling light outside the house at the outdoor dining room, away from our dismal bathroom while Luis shakily and distractedly held a mirror for me. The boys enjoy the spectacle of us shaving and trimming our beards, maybe because they like the technologically-advanced look of our beard trimmers, maybe because they hope to catch a glimpse of their future, maybe because Bolivians don’t really grow beards.
Either way, this evening Ricardo joined. When I looked over at him in the golden-hour light of a partially-cloudy sunset, I realized his face had already grown so much since I met him. He even had a few dangerously long mustache and chin whiskers. I told him I would have to teach him how to shave when I got back. He reminded me that after I went to the States, I would never come back. He wasn’t wrong. But I reminded him that I would be gone for a week and then back again for three months. He nodded at this common-knowledge revelation and sauntered inside to finish getting ready for worship. Maybe even to think about my offer.
Right before we left, after goodbyes were said and the truck was loaded with suitcases and backpacks and student missionaries, Ricardo came over and gave me a hug and might have even accidentally said he would miss me.
If I leave for good, who will teach him how to shave? Of course he can teach himself. But who will teach him how to grow up? Who will teach him how to get it right and not have a child in the next two years who ends up in the same situation he is in? I know I didn’t get it right when I was a teenager and have very little wisdom to pass along, and I had some of the best privileges the first world has to offer. How will he even get the chance? I know I am terribly underqualified to help someone grow up. Isn’t that still better than having to grow up all alone?
I’ve known Ricardo for nine months. Nine months is long enough to begin to know someone. It’s not long enough to say goodbye.
If there is one thing I have endured in Rurrenabaque it’s got to be the heat. I prefer cold weather and Bolivia has provided exclusively the opposite. The average temperature vaporizes the humidity into steam to make room for more humidity. I have been promised that “rainy season is coming” by a variety of strangers, children, staff, and volunteers since I got here, and said rainy season is always just a month away.
The week before we left, it was really getting to me. It was impossible to escape the sweat. My top bunk was a furnace. But one evening, a delicious breeze blew across the trees, this time doing more than move the heat around like a soaking rag. Instead the skies clouded and a burst of rain came roaring across the field. And instead of only increasing the humidity, the temperature finally dropped. That night we celebrated by turning off our nearly-constantly running fans and unfolding the neglected blankets from the feet of our beds.
Nine months is long enough to experience chronic heat stroke. It’s not long enough to experience the beauty of blankets and breeze.
A couple people have asked me if one of the reasons I decided not to return home is because of fear. You can tell this question came from other SMs because only they will ever understand how you could be scared of returning home.
The truth is, it’s a valid question. There is a part of me that’s afraid of going home. It’s not that I’ve grown too comfortable here or that I won’t know how to reenter American society. It’s what happens if I walk out of the airport and wake up from this dream, and the dream turns fuzzy and difficult to remember, and maybe it wasn’t worth remembering in the first place. What if I go home and I forget the wisdom I’ve learned here? What I if go home and forget how to live without worrying about tomorrow? How to live with just enough. How to rely on God not because I’m being intentional and making time, but simply because I have to just to have a good day. What if I go home and forget about Roger and Leonel? Alvaro? Ricardo?
They’re just names on a list to you. I don’t ever want them to be names in a list for me. I don’t want to go home and forget Who has brought me through this year and this life. I’m afraid I haven’t overcome any of the temptations of excess and comfort and greed, only that I just haven’t been presented with them. I’m not afraid of the world when I go back, I’m afraid of losing touch with the One who left that fear behind in the World’s Tomb.
So that’s why I need to stay. I know my time will come to an end. I will have to go back home to excessive everythings and paralyzing comforts. I know Roger is going to lose yet another authority figure and guardian. I know Leonel will have to find someone else to make banana bread and that he will learn to stop calling house parents “Papa.” I know Alvaro’s life will be wound around a thread of abandonment and that he’ll come to think of it as his fault. I know Luis will borrow a cell phone from some future house parent and ask me the same question he asks his mom every week: “Are you coming?” And I’ll have to give the same response she gives him every week: “No.” I’m not coming back. I know someone will replace me in every single way that I provide for these kids, because God is really the one providing for them, and I am not the important one. I know one day I will have to say goodbye to Ricardo forever, and he will pretend that he doesn’t care, and I will pretend like I will ever be ok again.
Jesus had to say goodbye after only three short years. But He didn’t say goodbye after only two short years. I’m no Jesus, but I think He’s told me my time is not up either. The Good News is that Christ didn’t have to say goodbye forever. I don’t have to say goodbye forever either. I have to pretend that I will be ok because I never will be ok again. One day everything will be so much better than just ok.
That promise is why I came, and that’s why I have to stay. Just a little longer with these beautiful humans who I’ll miss the rest of my life. The rest of my life is a long time to miss these people. The rest of my life is nothing at all in the blinding infinity that comes after.