Everyday, the Lord gives me a single straw. This is my Last Straw. The Last Straw may be removed from my possession by various events. Becoming house parents to 12 boys with four hours of warning could be my Last Straw of the day. Having the power supply to my refrigerator stolen does the trick. Or perhaps a child screaming for a few hours.
Last Straw: Moved Again
Close to two months ago I felt under the weather and decided to stay home at Max’s house instead of going into town for my day off. I wanted to enjoy my new personal space, faster phone signal and therefore usable internet, and the ability to relax without spending money in town. While I sat, eating carefully hoarded Kraft Mac-n-Cheese from the US with Carlo, Melissa brought us exacerbating and frustrating news: after four days, we’d be moving again! This time back on campus to the Guerreros. Their new house parents – a family of five – had been decently great for the first few weeks of us being back, but for complicated and developing reasons, they were all abruptly leaving. Evidently, the prospect of free room and board plus a paycheck had originally been quite enticing, but after living in the house for almost a month, they realized taking care of the Guerreros might be more than they could handle and so they came up with a very elaborate and dramatic situation that forced them to leave.
So now I’ve become a full-time house parent! I lasted almost five whole days at Max’s house before having to pack up everything and move again. This was a Last Straw for me. While I was hoping to be a house parent to the eight older and generally well-behaved Guerreros of last semester that I’d come to know, this year, only three of those guys returned, along with NINE other younger boys between seven and thirteen.
The house-parent family literally got up and left in the middle of the day, so Carlo and I drove back to campus on our day off to take care of them, and then went back for our hammocks and bug nets to sleep in the kitchen that night, since the house parents had left everything in their room with the door locked. The next morning they came back for their stuff, and then were gone.
The house during our first day there stayed in a decibel range of chainsaw to flock of angry howler monkeys from 6:00 am until 10:00 pm. We knew we were in for a wild few months.
Last Straw: It's Me I'm the Last Straw
Suddenly becoming parents to 10+ children was about exactly what you’d expect. It was weird being the ones who got to come up with the rules, and weird now being the ones in charge of discipline. We now get to call all the shots instead of just following the guidance of the house parents when they leave on their day off. This has led to some interesting conflicts and occurrences. We spent the first week disciplining. I spent three straight hours one afternoon coming up with and enforcing various punishments for hitting other kids, going into other people’s rooms, stealing food without permission, going places they’re not supposed to be, and so on.
For example, I had my Last Straw taken when Bayron, one of the fourteen-year-olds, had repeatedly opened the refrigerator without permission and taken stuff out, a cardinal sin. He was already punished for this infraction by having the privilege of drinking yupi taken away for a week. Yupi is an off-brand Kool-Aid which every child on campus suffers withdrawals from if not provided at least every other day. During the second day of his suffering, I watched dumbfounded as he spread butter from my carefully hoarded one-half cup on his pancakes.
“Where did you get that butter?”
“How did you get it out of the fridge?”
“I opened it.”
“Why did you open it without permission??”
“… Someone else did.”
No. Absolutely not. Now he was not allowed to eat bananas, another bihourly staple snack, and sent to school without the rest of his breakfast, which I ironically saved in said fridge. That afternoon, he was eating a stolen banana on the porch. I repeatedly told him to stop and spit it out, and instead he watched my eyes as he continued to take another bite. I told him to spit it out again. He continued. I smacked it out of his hand and mouth. At that point I was pretty much ready to go home. I’d had equal days with three or four other kids in parallel.
On a similar occasion, seven of the boys crossed the bridge to one of the other houses without permission and were punished with incarceration within the walls of the house for 24 hours. During this period, the entire campus celebrated baby Jose’s first birthday, an event almost as important as a quinceañera. We made an exception and allowed them to attend. On the way to the party, Zoro asked Roger and Erlin to bring our benches that we had forgotten so that we would have a place to sit at the event. The two continued without response. Zoro asked again. No response. Simple defiantly carefree strolling. I stepped in front of them. When they still refused to turn around to get the benches, I manually adjusted their direction and shoved them back towards the house.
That’s when Zoro and then Erlin confusedly told me the benches were in the direction they had been going, sitting in the field where they had been left during campus-wide worship a few hours ago. Shame and regret shoved me with much more force than I had shoved them. I profusely apologized, but they were too indignant for a response, and nearly completely refused to go to the party at all.
Last Straws: an Evening's Rest
We’ve been trying to combat the fifteen-hour work days by coming up with ways to occupy the boys for at least a little bit of time during the afternoon in a way that doesn’t require all three of us to supervise and enforce rules and punishments. We decided that after lunch they would have thirty minutes to rest before doing their chores for the day. “Rest” normally involves them thundering around upstairs and screaming like hogs. One particularly humid Sabbath, we begged them to be quiet long enough for us to take a short nap. After ten minutes it was obvious no one would be sleeping, least of all us who were right below their paper-thin floor.
This was my Last Straw. I couldn’t take the heat of my midday top bunk and the stampede upstairs. I launched out of bed in frustration and rounded everyone up for a hike into the jungle. We would be back just in time for Jovenes Adventista (Adventist Youth) worship and Bible games in the evening. I hope Zoro and Carlo got some rest because I marched them all over creation. First, we went to the Garden of Eden, a small fruit orchard a mile down the road, in humid sweltering heat. After they collected their fill of oranges, cacao, passion fruit, and grapefruit, they were ready to go back. Unfortunately, it had only been about an hour and I needed these boys to be out of the house for as long as possible and begging for an early bedtime when they got back, so much to their dismay we kept marching out into the monte. I knew the trail from last semester when Saray had taken me and the old set of Guerreros far out to a stream in the woods, so we went as far as I could and have time to get back.
At first, it felt good to make them pay for their crimes of hooliganery. Then I started to feel a little bad when the clouds of mosquitoes started to obscure the kids at the head of our single-file line. I also felt bad when I realized Cristian, one of the seven-year-old twins in our house, was still wearing his church shoes because he hadn’t had the wherewithal to change them before we left, even though I had told him to twelve times. I told them “only ten more minutes” three times until one of them realized they had a wristwatch and loudly announced I was a liar and cheat. Mutiny was afoot. Eventually, once most of our blood had been sucked out, I told them we could turn around. To ensure we couldn’t go any further, Luis hit a bees nest next to the trail with a stick and we all went running.
The next time I drug them out into the woods, we went prepared with bug spray and proper footwear and made it all the way to the river which had been recently been filled by a torrential downpour. A perfect afternoon swimming in a shallow eddy and building a dam. A perfect memory I hope we can always share.
In the midst of all this madness, my family arrived in Rurrenabaque! They visited for a week and got to experience our nascent routine, and I was able to go with them to La Paz for a couple of nights to show them the city. They were a huge help while they were here and gave dental exams to all the kids on campus.
Last Straw: Over Capacity
We started with eleven kids. Raising eleven irresponsibly deranged preteen boys is, respectfully, not the move in terms of self-care. There were even rumors we might be cramming a twelfth boy in some corner of our house. We generally disregarded these rumors until a twelfth boy did arrive at our door. This, surely, was our limit. There were no more mattresses left. All the bed frames had been cobbled together that could be. There is only so much rice you can cook in a pot of finite size at once. We dismissed further rumors of more boys with the simple impossibility of stretching any thinner.
So when a week or so later, Melissa arrived at our door, I assumed it was for some unfathomable reason. Unfortunately, it was to help us clean our house. We had stopped cleaning for about six hours to cook and let the boys enjoy their Sunday free from school, and therefore the house had immediately devolved into a level 5 biological and chemical environmental hazard. We were informed we were cleaning because two new boys would be joining us that evening: a six- and a seven-year-old. Speechless.
Taking care of preteen and teen boys is one thing. They can do things, they just don’t want to. They mess things up out of neglect more than active destructive will. The seven-year-old twins got drug along into this demographic simply because they had no choice. But now with four six- and seven-year-olds, we would have an entirely different demographic in our house. One that can’t clean themselves, wash dishes, do chores, avoid breaking everything, you get the idea. Melissa had arrived for an unfathomable reason: it was unfathomable how we were going to do this.
Straw of Strength
Oddly enough, Alvaro and Adrian arrived over two weeks ago and I’m still alive. I’ve been given the strength to do what I thought was impossible. Zoro and Carlo step in when I’m maxed out and remind me that the reason I’m here is to give my love, especially when I feel like I don’t have any left to give.
To give you an idea of how things have been going, here’s what a typical day looks like for me. First I wake up at six, speed read a chapter of the Bible and pray with the force of a battering ram and hope it makes up for the rapidity, and then start cooking around 6:30. If Carlo isn’t around to wake up the boys (which praise God rarely happens), I blast hymns on the speaker at 6:50, frantically run around upstairs shaking bunk beds as hard as I can without actually bringing the rickety jury-rigs crumbling to the ground, and then run back downstairs to keep pancakes or banana bread from burning. Carlo and I basically take turns with morning worship, which involves blasting more hymns, reading a story from our Bible storybook with enough personal comprehension to ask some questions, and then serving breakfast hopefully before 7:30.
While the kids complain about the food they take turns leaving the table to change, collect backpacks, and do homework they procrastinated on. The little six-year-old twins, Cristian and Dixon, have one brain cell between the two of them, so we usually spend a good fifteen minutes explaining they do in fact have school today, no they can’t wear pajamas, and yes they do need to wear shoes, and yes, for the fifth time, go to school!
After the twins scamper off, I have to convince Alvaro and Adrian to change their clothes and put on their shoes. However, I have discovered their weakness. The only way to get them to school is if you promise to carry them on your shoulders or back. Then they will happily put on their clothes and shoes and jump into your arms. They take a little coaxing to get them to stay in their classroom, but they’re usually only ten minutes late to school.
Typically parenting things, but multiplied by fifteen.
By the time everyone is at school by 8:15, I brush my teeth, do dishes, clean up, change, and try to get over to the Hardings as soon as I can to try and give Charlie some sort of education. We’ve heard about Charlie. Educating him involves begging him to get up off the floor, to put down the food, to sit down for multiple seconds, all with construction work, screaming babies, and the cooking of lunch all around us. It’s unfair to him because his attention disorders aren’t his fault, and neither is the environment, and it makes learning to read an essentially impossible task. This is especially true if we’re interrupted for an hour and a half to transfer the house’s trash heap – literally overflowing with maggots and black bilge – to the truck to be taken to the dump.
When the other kids start returning from home, Carlo and the Harding house volunteers are usually almost done cooking lunch for the Hardings and the Guerreros. We cart pots of food back to the house, scream our meal liturgy, and start eating while someone spits out a prayer.
In the afternoon, we spend hours dragging the kids away from marbles to do chores that would take a fifth of the time to do ourselves or enforcing hours and hours worth of time-outs and other punishments for spitting, hitting, stealing, screaming, fighting, swearing, and disrespecting. During that time we start cooking dinner and try to maintain a constant stream of boys – who usually prefer to smell like the pigs they sound like – through the single shower one at a time. During dinner I struggle to take my first few bites of food while serving seconds and thirds to bottomless chasms walking around in twelve-year-old skin.
We have another worship after dinner and dishes (and a few speed rounds of marbles during the last few showers). Then comes my favorite part of the day. During the first few weeks, it was a struggle to get the older boys to go to bed, stay in bed, and be quiet enough to fall asleep. Carlo spent many collective hours sitting at the top of the stairs and conscripting any troublemakers into standing at attention in the middle of the floor like silent soldiers. While I love tucking in the little twins and praying with them and giving them hugs, I will admit sometimes I like letting Carlo put the little kids to bed so I can go say goodnight to the ten older boys. A few weeks into being house parents it finally occurred to me that the big kids need good-night hugs too. The first time I went around giving them all hugs, there was a wide range of responses. A couple of them always give hugs and so it felt normal to give them hugs, but a few were more skeptical and just said no when I asked if they wanted one. A few said yes but didn’t seem to know how to respond; their bodies just didn’t have any sort of familiarity with receiving hugs.
Now a few weeks later they all seem to like the tradition and I’m glad I have a chance to connect with them. It’s also somewhat helped them go to bed faster: Carlo doesn’t have to stand guard at the top of the stairs for nearly as long anymore. However, sometimes getting involved in their little lives makes getting them to sleep even more difficult. When the hilarity of their hijinks contagiously spreads to you, it’s very difficult to tell them to stop giggling and go to sleep when you yourself can’t stop laughing. But now they all like hugs.
After they’re finally silent upstairs between 9:30 and 10:15, we have a chance to finish any chores the boys neglected, and around 10:30 we can finally shower ourselves, sit down, talk, and have personal time, if we can keep ourselves awake for it.
Disclaimer: no day is actually like this. Either classes get canceled due to a downpour flooding campus, or a co-house parent falls ill, or the government decides to show up and we have to speed clean, or the boys spend the afternoon playing marbles at a different house, or I accidentally promise to take them to build a dam at a creek three miles into the jungle.
Sure, things are getting into a routine. But part of that routine is my cycle of growing frustration: of lost Last Straws. My frustration builds while I tell the twins over and over again the need to pick up the clothes on the floor while they nod at me and climb back on top of their dresser or I have to snatch a kitchen knife out of Luis’s hand that he’s using yet again to cut up sticks. It builds when I tell little six-year-old Alvaro for the sixth time to stop digging into the sack of flour and powdering the other boys (and he then grabs more and throws it at me) or when seven-year-old Cristian steals marbles out of my room and snacks out of the fridge that the other boys put there for safekeeping, even though he’s promised time and again before to stop stealing and never do it again.
In these moments, sometimes God answers my morning prayer and gives me the slightest chance to realize in the moment that I’m frustrated. It’s the slightest whisper but when I choose to take it, I get the opportunity to take a step back. I get to actually look into his eyes and away from the dishes he’s not doing. I can ignore the messed up house and look at the messed up kid. I can see he’s so tired of being an object of frustration. I can see I’ve become just another grown-up that he can’t please, who he’s a burden to, who just wants him to shut up and do what he’s told.
Do I want to be remembered like that? Do I really want to be an unremembered drop in the roaring torrent of an anchorless life? I want to be remembered as someone who loved them, why is it so easy to let my frustration at insignificant symptoms completely obfuscate that goal? Will they talk about me the same way they don’t talk about the student missionaries who were here years ago, the same way they never talk about their parents?
I pray God can remove from their minds the times I’ve lost my temper. If God blots out my Last Straws in their memory, will they remember me at all?
Last Straw: Shower Time
One of these Last Straws I was fully prepared to throw away and obliterate, and yet God took the opportunity to reach down and redirect my frustration.
Zacarias is always last. He’s always in the bathroom when the others have gone to school. He’s always running down the stairs as we serve dinner. He’s always at the back of the line when we go hiking. He may be thirteen but he’s barely any taller than the 7-year-old twins. He hates showering, and he seems to hate wearing clean clothes. So one afternoon, when I’d met with considerable resistance getting the kids to shower (a two- to four-hour process), I decided to direct my vendetta at Zacarias.
I was pretty sure he’d gotten out of showering for the last three days, either by wetting his hair and saying he’d showered or simply being forgotten. Not today. Today it was my Last Straw, and this boy was getting cleaned. I fourth time I told him to get in the shower, I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to get in his face and shout that he needed to obey because showering is good and you can’t live your life without every getting clean. But God held my tongue and instead I went over to him playing marbles outside and gentle directed him by the shoulders towards the house. He tried to hold on to the door frame while gently protesting. I guided him upstairs and explained as calmly as I could that he needed to finally take a shower. He leaned with all his tiny might against me, and finally stopped by his bed and became unresponsive with his head down.
Inside, I was ready to snap. I had to get everyone showered. It was getting dark, dinner, worship, and bedtime were coming. They had school in the morning. I had to get up early to make breakfast. This kid was standing stubbornly in the way of all my good intentions. I stood for a moment dumbfounded as he refused to move.
His arms hung at his sides with is face bowed in defeat. He started sniffing. A tear fell off his chin. He started sobbing. We sat on his bed for a long time. He couldn’t catch his breath enough to do more than nod or shake his head. He was just too scared to get in the shower, and he had no were else to run. He could only nod when I asked if his fear was from something in his past. Whatever memories he has locked away have broken his heart, and it broke mine too to think about what happened to him to instill that kind of fear.
It was my Last Straw, but this time my anger was for whoever had carved those scars on Zacarias’s face and on his mind.
Although the Rocas have been together for years and have five children together, they were officially married last month. During the days leading up to the wedding, Ricardo procured a small point-and-shoot camera. On one day he asked me for a charger. On another he asked me for help with his memory card. He wanted it to be ready for the wedding so he could take pictures. I thought little of it. It was another toy that surely wouldn’t last long. During the wedding, while I was trying to remember how to be a professional photographer after being a parent and missionary for so long, I saw him pointing it around at various table clothes and floor tiles.
After that day he kept using it. He takes pictures of his homework so he can work on it after the lights are out at night. He even tried convincing me he got a movie from one of the other teachers on his memory card so we can watch it in bed at night. One day while I was going through my own photos on my laptop, he asked if I could put all the photos I’d taken at Familia Feliz on his memory card so he could look at them on his camera. After putting it off to selfishly focus on whatever I was doing, I finally got around to his request.
While I was copying over the photos, I saw some of the pictures he’d taken at the wedding. It was an irreplaceable flicker into his perspective. There were photos of the table where he had sat with the other Guerreros. Of the Harding’s quite filthy dog that I normally try to ignore. Of baby José. Of things I hadn’t even thought to take photos of during the wedding. There was even one of me.
Maybe the camera isn’t just a toy. It might be the only thing he has to help him hold on to things in the relentless current of his life. Maybe he wanted my photos because there are things he wants to remember and hold on to. Selfishly, I hoped that he took the photo of me making a stupid face in his direction not just because I looked stupid, but because I might be something he wants to remember.
Last Straws: Returned
Every day I start with a single Last Straw. Every day it’s taken away. And every day, if I listen and watch closely, it’s given back with a whole haystack of extra.
For example, after my mistake of shoving Roger and Erlin around, I wrote them an apology note and gave it to each of them with a pack of American fruit snacks. During the chaos of making breakfast, Erlin came over and gave me a big hug, a shining smile, and said I didn’t need to worry about it.
When Alvaro and Adrian showed up, it was the most emotionally overwhelmed I’ve ever felt. But the next day, Alvaro ran home from school during recess. He wouldn’t allow himself to get caught and I didn’t want to scare him, so I tempted him into sitting down next to me with an extra pancake from breakfast. He sat in reticence, not responding to any of my coaxings. I fed him the pancake, one hungrily devoured bite at a time, while we sat in a rare moment of silence. I was completely overwhelmed by this lull in my life. I’m a complete stranger to him. And I’m the best he has. And that is so inconsolably dismal. I had thrown away my Last Straw with impatience and frustration at the situation the day before, and now it was being offered back to me through the fear and uncertainty of a little displaced six-year-old.
Alvaro turned out to be a terror and often my Last Straw: I spent several hours chasing him around during which time he tried to run away down the road a few times (he burned his feet on the molten asphalt and had to turn back for his shoes he’d angrily kicked off), and then Carlo spent the evening with him after he got stung by a bullet ant and screamed for three hours. But every night after prayer he jumps up to give me a hug, and that makes my little fragile Last Straw feel like an unbreakable tree.
For every time I feel like I’m on my Last Straw because there is a line of ten boys asking for seconds and thirds of food and I can’t even take my first bite, there’s a moment where Leonel hugs me and thanks me for cooking banana bread, his most favorite thing in the world I’m pretty sure. For every time the kids are stretching our evening dangerously into the night because they don’t want to take a shower, there’s a time when I get to here Justin call someone feo and laugh his laugh that I will never forget because it just makes me too happy to hear. For every time I’m on my Last Straw of having to tell Adrian to stop throwing rocks at the house and/or other children, I will get to carry him to school on my shoulders. For every time I’ll have to spend hours cooking all day, Ivan will give me a hug for no reason at all. For every Last Straw where I’m tired and want to go to bed and they are not tired and do not want to go to bed, there will be a movie night with all of their mattresses on the floor where we roll around laughing uncontrollably during the credits.