Who Can I Blame
Leonardo is Leonel’s four-year-old brother. Leonel’s father sent him and some of his sisters here when he finally realized he couldn’t take care of them after their mother died from COVID in 2021. But after the children that were sent started talking to the social worker, Bolivian’s Child Protective Services decided they should all be here and away from their father. So after midterm break, little Leonardo arrived. He’s tiny. He’s helpless. He uses his hands like little paws, and they’re too weak to turn the shower handle. Common sense tells me he wouldn’t survive a day in our cutthroat house without someone to protect him. But he’s got the biggest grin on his face. And he wants to help with everything.
I’m watching him with the other kids while I cook yet another pot of lentils and sartén of rice. He wants to be just like the big kids. Just like the big kids climbing up the underside of the stairs by grabbing onto the backs of the step boards. He manages to get a considerable distance off the ground. I nicely ask him to get down and to stop playing over there, he’s going to fall and get hurt. He clasps his hands together like he’s been caught committing crimes. He nods his head slowly and grins off and on, unsure of what exactly I’m saying and absolutely clueless as to how he should respond. I ask him to go play outside or somewhere that isn’t right under the stairs where the temptation to injure oneself is so strong. He nods again in compliance and then doesn’t move. Finally he realizes he’s actually supposed to walk to another location. A few minutes later and he’s swinging high off the ground again, Jhoel cheering him on.
I keep trying to warn him. I want to believe I can tell that he understands me, and I know that I know that he doesn’t. He doesn’t know the word for beans when he wants to ask for more food at the table. He doesn’t know the word for window when I try to explain to him that he can’t tear down the screens that keep out stray cats and mosquitoes. I decide to have at least a little grace for his dumbfounding ignorance when I realize he spent most of his life in Brazil learning Portuguese. He’s also probably never been treated like more than a doll to be spoiled and silenced. He tells me so.
Now I’m trying to have morning worship before everyone is fully awake, my notebook and Bible laid out on the table like a good little Christian. And Leonardo is scream crying. Again. For how imperceptibly quaky and minuscule his voice is when he tries to speak, it quakes the house when he screams. Usually he does this from the middle of the kitchen like a tiny tornado siren punctuated with dramatic pauses before gasping for air again, his mouth stretched wide in the middle of his drooping cheeks and button nose. Usually it’s because someone hit him. Usually it’s because he wouldn’t stop annoying them after being asked a dozen times. Usually it’s because someone wouldn’t give him something he said he wanted. Like the snacks from someone whose family remembered to visit them on Sunday. He doesn’t know the world isn’t his. He doesn’t know people don’t like getting punched and spit on just because he thinks it’s funny. Granted, the punches are frail and the spit is so poorly aimed that it mostly lands on his shirt, but the ethos remains. And just like the lack of vocabulary, I have to have a little grace. Because he told me. He told me his mom used to put dirty sandy socks in his mouth when he bleated and that his dad used to hit him in the stomach when he was drunk.
So this time, I try to start with a little pity in mind. However, this time he’s not posted at attention, blaring from the center of some notable thoroughfare. This time, to my unholy satisfaction, he’s on his back under the staircase. Just like I said. What did I tell you. This is the holy grail of parenting moments. I warned you about bad consequences, you didn’t listen, now look what happened. And I didn’t even have to enforce the consequences! Gravity did it for me. I prepare my speech as I pick him up from the floor and dust him off and calm him down. I tell him to breathe and he puckers his lips and sucks in several short quivering breaths, like a recently divorced middle-class mom at a yoga session.
I try explaining that this is why we have to be careful. Why we have to listen. He’s not listening. He’s nodding his head when he should be shaking, and shaking when he should be nodding. I’m trying very hard to be patient, even though I need to cook breakfast. He’s trying very hard to figure out if he should nod or shake. I try predigesting the content down into simpler concepts.
“What are we going to do next time?” I attempt at the end of my briefest of syllogisms. He looks penitent and understanding with his pitiful eyebrows drawn together in a perfect upside-down V.
“Yes teacher. I fell down.” Hmm. Very true. Not the intended takeaway, but very true.
“You didn’t like falling down, did you? We’re not going to climb again, right?”
“Yes teacher. It hurt.” Well, again, thank you for speaking from your heart but not exactly the intended takeaway. I try a few more times to help him connect the dots between warning, action, and consequence. But then I realize no one’s ever given him a pen to draw the lines between the dots. No one’s ever taught him to count far enough to know there are three dots to connect.
I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated with him, but I’m really not frustrated with him. I’m frustrated someone brought him into the world. Someone brought him in and said good luck and goodbye. Paradoxically I pat him on the back and tell him the same thing. I hope he doesn’t fall again when I’m not looking. It’s clear nothing I say will be understandable to his alien mind.
But I sit down at the table again. And I pick up my pen. And I don’t want to realize it, but I have to tell myself to accept that I know that I’ve realized that I’m the one with the pen to connect the dots. And I’m the one who has to teach him how to hold it. Because there is no one else here to blame. There is no one else here to be responsible. Every day I get another chance to pick up the pen from my Teacher and try again to connect the dots. If I can’t give that opportunity to this innocent and blameless one, then I haven’t learned anything at all.
Now it’s nighttime. Leonardo is sound asleep with his butt up in the air and his chubby face smushed into the mattress. I’m so grateful we’ve finished worship and I can finally go lay down. My spine hurts like an eighty-year-old professional trampoline tester. I haven’t drank water since the last rainy season. My skin is cloaked in mosquitoes. But the fourteen-year-old is asking about God. Unprompted. And even in my selfishness I know I’m not allowed to end this conversation before he does. He’s telling me why the Bible is just another book and that no matter what people do, their traditions and systems and religions will never be truer than any other because they’re just systems and traditions and religions like every other culture. And I have my answers. And I tell him I know what it’s like to doubt and to feel superior to every other philosopher in history. And he has everything figured out and is only choosing to impart his perfect wisdom with me out of pity. He tells me it doesn’t matter to him whether other people give him their trust or not because he’s tired of being responsible for making other people feel like they can trust him. And he doesn’t care about trusting others, because he knows no one is perfect and everyone will let him down. Because everyone has.
I’m not falling into bed mentally before physically anymore. I’m awake now. I’m gripped with dread. Because now I know I have to tell myself that I am now responsible. For every word that leaves my mouth. He came to me with this conversation. He is more vulnerable now than he has ever allowed himself to be. And what I say is now important. I’m not allowed to make a mistake. I have to choose every word correctly. I don’t want this power. I want to end this conversation with a magical phrase that will wrap up everything nicely and then hope he figures everything out on his own and I never have to look back in regret. But I don’t know what to say.
But I know I have to tell myself I have to open my mouth. The only way to pry my teeth apart is to pass off responsibility to something more Powerful and Wise and Perfect than me. I hope that what I say matters. I beg the Word that the words that leave my mouth will be Words of Life and not words of my lying mind or false heart.
Now it’s a hot afternoon and I’m sitting at the table intently staring the thirteen-year-old in the eye. I’m so fed up with this kid. The level of disrespect! I feel like telling him he’s grounded, but we both know he doesn’t respect me enough to be punished. So I ask him why he doesn’t respect me. And he tells me it’s because he’s not scared of me. He says it’s because I don’t follow through on what I say. I want to let myself tell him that we do get to watch movies when they clean the house, they just never keep their end of the deal. I want to let myself ask him if he wants to be afraid of me, if all the effort I’ve been putting in to form a relationship out of love instead of fear was worthless. I let myself ask. But then I have to let myself realize that I’ve failed, too. There is no one else here who can take responsibility. No one else to blame.
So for what it’s worth, I apologize. I apologize for not being the person he needs. I apologize for not being his dad or his mom. It’s obvious that I can’t be what he needs. But for what it’s worth, I’m here. And those other people are not.
You Don’t Always Have to Be Sorry
I’m making pizza. I’m stressed. I’ve diverted the cortisol by skipping Friday night worship to boil tomato sauce over our one tank of propane before switching it to the oven with logistical grace that’s taken months to hone. I think I hear someone shouting my name from the sacred circle of benches in the field. I dismiss it because I’m sure my absence has gone pleasantly unnoticed; my moments of stolen silence will never be accounted for. But then someone is on the doorstep telling me my temporal theft has been reported. It’s the last Friday when all the student missionaries will be together of course. The director wants to say something and she wants me to be there. Another blow to my dehydrated and throbbing temples.
I surgically scrub pizza dough off of my arms and step into different pants while rolling up the sleeves on a button-down on my way out the door. I carefully tilt my sore head and parse the monologue as the director gives a miniature speech about each student missionary that has come, and now will be gone. They’re presented with a mug as a present and a memory. She gets back to me, my fault for skipping worship for the first time forgiven for the occasion. She says nice things. I’m appreciative. Crickets whine under the dull pound of my headache.
She’s saying something about how hard it was for me to adjust to becoming a house parent. It was. She says she appreciates that I communicated how frustrated I was with the reality of the situation. I did. She details how overwhelmed I felt. It was a lot. It’s all nice things. My pizza sauce is reduced by now. The dough is risen. It’s all nice things; I don’t need to hear more. She says she knows the boys are difficult and overwhelming. They are. But Ricardo turns around and catches my eye tracking his sudden movement. He’s laughing at the director’s well-meaning jokes, but it’s not irreverent behind his smile. For what it’s worth, he says through his grin
In a blinking moment, he has apologized. For being overwhelming. For being difficult. For frustrating me. For being a problem someone has to deal with. For existing: he apologizes.
For what it’s worth, I tell him it’s ok.
Thanks to some generous donations we were able to take the boys to the pool shortly before I left. They looked forward to it for months and had the absolute time of their lives.
It’s my last day off before my last day off. For the last two months, I’ve spent my free days with two or three of my boys in town. We eat something delicious and coveted. Usually something prohibited on campus. We sometimes swim. We sometimes look at clothes. We sometimes get ice cream. It’s always different. I hope they know they’re special.
There are three boys this time, and we’re evenly displaced around a table in a plastic-ware restaurant counting the exactly eleven french fries on each of our plates. I’m not sure what to do next. They’ve begged for everything that’s caught their attention today. They don’t know why I don’t buy everything with my obviously inexhaustible wallet. They don’t know I don’t buy it for them, each in specific, each more important than the other. I’m not sure what to do next because they’re eating like we eat at our house. And even though this restaurant probably wouldn’t pass any sort of formal inspection, they at least have tablecloths, napkins, and metal cutlery.
So for what it’s worth, I try to teach them table manners. No licking ketchup off the palms of your hands. The tablecloth and napkins are separate for a reason. The knife is for cutting not throwing. The juice pitcher is for everyone, not just you. And for what it’s worth, they eat their burgers with forks and knives, and they ask if they’re doing each thing right. And they giggle when they dab their mouths with their napkins, and they giggle when they throw away their trash in the flower vase. But they sit up straight and maybe I’m hallucinating from a day of concrete convection baking my brain, but they seem proud of their meal when they leave.
A week has passed, and now I’m down to the last two. The last two on my last day off. Maybe they’re last because they were the least likely to fight if they were put last. Maybe it was selfish to put them last. Because I knew they wouldn’t complain. They don’t beg for every shiny toy in the window. They don’t complain if we don’t do something I did with someone else last week. They won’t complain tomorrow that I haven’t dropped everything to do it all over again but with more extravagance. Maybe it was selfish to seek a semblance of gratitude. They don’t complain. They watch the cowboys and mountains and jungle scroll past from the window of the luxurious three-dollar taxi. They’re too transfixed by Animal Planet to know what to ask for at the barbershop. They enter the pool with cautious awe, unsure if they really can. They pick pizza, overwhelmed with such a foreign responsibility of getting to choose a restaurant, or even what to eat at all. I want to think they’ve maybe never been to a restaurant where there are options, so after dyslexic stares at the menu, I order.
We sit in a silence as cloying as the stagnant urban air. Maybe it’s because they’re obsessed with the neon light and novelty of intentionality. Maybe because our lives are so far apart I don’t know how to ask about what they care about or because I don’t know how to say that I’m trying to say goodbye. I don’t think one medium pizza will be enough. I don’t think it will be enough. I don’t think I’m enough.
But the pizza is enough. There’s one slice left. Even I am full. I tower over them after returning from the payment counter, trying to adjudicate the final piece of such a holy dish. I start by asking who’s still hungry. But they twist in their seats like puppies looking to be scratched on their stomachs ready to detonate with an afternoon of treats. And I don’t know what to do next. I don’t have to split pizza between two selfish animals. I don’t know what to say in either language. Because they don’t want to fight over the pizza. And they don’t want to throw it away. They want to save it for Leonardo. They want to save it for the four-year-old who showed up in July. The crybaby and the tattletale and the one who is too helpless to turn on the shower or serve himself dinner or cover himself with his blanket at night. They want to save it for the one who showed up too late to get a day off with me in town. The one I just didn’t feel a connection with. The one I decided wouldn’t notice anyway. And I don’t know what to say. I want to say something to make me feel like I am responsible for this generosity. I feel like I know I should tell myself something to remind me there’s no way I can claim fault for this kindness.
I don’t know if the pizza ever arrives in Leonardo’s hands. But for what it’s worth, they carry the slice all the way home.
Please Just Let Me Go, Please Don’t Let Me Leave
It’s a week before I leave. Everyone needs to go to sleep eventually, and it’s been dark long enough that the older boys go upstairs without a fight. I look over at little Jhoel, sitting softly at the table, swinging his feet under the bench, his head waiting in the crook of his crossed arms. My ridiculously hairy hombre lobo five-year-old. He’s waiting for me to carry him to bed. We say prayers and I give him a big hug. Every night. But not tonight. Tonight is the night. One week before I leave. I tell him that Teacher Daniel has to put him to bed from now on. I’m leaving. I won’t be here to put him to bed anymore. I hope I think I’ve made the right decision. To begin surgery to sever this bond a little bit early. To fade out my presence from his life.
He’s stopped swinging his legs under the table. His expression hasn’t changed but my almost four months with him tells me he’s building up a wall. He doesn’t move when Daniel calls him to bed. He doesn’t move when I encourage him and reassure him. He doesn’t move for fifteen minutes as Daniel puts our other little kid to bed and I clean up.
I want to hold him tight. I want to do all the prayers and hugs he wants. I need to believe I know that I can’t.
He doesn’t want to go. For what it’s worth, neither do I. I pick him up and tell him I’ll take him to his bed, as if that’s some sort of deal. He starts swinging his legs again. He’s trying to kick me. He starts trying to push away. And the whole time all I can hear is his tiny pleading voice.
Déjeme, teacher. Déjeme. Let me go. Just let me go.
It’s not loud. It’s not whining. It’s not even angry. It’s just so heartbroken. And I’m heartbroken. Please don’t let me go.
For What It’s Worth, It Isn’t
I’m talking with the director of Familia Feliz. She’s asking me who the problem in my house is this time. I’m telling her that this time, it’s me. Because I’ve been here eleven months, and for what it’s worth, well, it hasn’t. No matter what I do and how hard I try, they are still selfish ignorant heathens. And I’m the only one left to blame. They still talk about girls like they’re a commodity, they still think God is a joke, they still grab fistfuls of shredded cheese I was going to use to make their favorite food the moment I turn my back. They are still so, so selfish because I haven’t shown them that there’s someone besides themselves to look out for them. They still leave after I share tea with them and stay up late and answer their questions and they still leave and never come back. They still plead and cry so much that they just have to form scars in their eyes. They are still so defiant because making people mad is the only way they will ever be noticed. They still only know respect through fear. They still need someone to teach them about windows and beans and falling off the stairs. They still need someone to pick them off the floor and put band-aids on their knees not because they’re bleeding outside but because they’re bleeding inside. They still think they have to apologize just for existing.
Nothing I have done will ever make a difference. The void is too great, and I cannot fill it. I am not enough. I will never be enough.
No. For what it’s worth, it isn’t worth anything at all. You will never see results. You can pour out one million droplets of tears and sweat and blood and every ounce of your existence for decades and never see a single instance of something you could convince yourself to call a success. There will always, always be more heartache and heartbreak, and you will never be enough to mend those wounds. Your slowly dripping faucet of love nor your unbound waterfall will ever be enough. You will never be enough.
I will never be enough.
You don’t have to be enough. You were never asked to be enough. You just have to be here. Just for one moment. You will never be enough.
There’s only One who will ever be enough.
Only One Solution.
Only One Remedy.
Only One Hope.
I am not even worthy to untie His shoe. I am not even worthy to wash His feet or His clothes or serve Him rice and beans or put a band-aid on His knee or to look Him in the eye or to sweep the broken concrete on which He treads. I’m not worthy to take Him on a hike or take Him to the pool or teach Him how to bake banana bread. I am so hopelessly unworthy.
What strange and mighty Love is this that He would give me that privilege, anyway, in spite of my unholy heart.
I’m saying goodnight one last time. Never has the liturgy of the ordinary been more important. Never has it been more normal. I don’t want to break the spell. Maybe they don’t either.
I give Zacarias one last nighttime hug. His tiny thirteen-year-old form perfectly meshed in my arms. A few months ago he didn’t even know how to give a hug. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to make the mundane more sacred than it already is. For what it’s worth, I say buenas noches. This time, he doesn’t say hasta mañana. Like all the other times. He grins and softly tells me he’s caught my mistake as he tucks himself under his blanket.
“No teacher. It’s not buenas noches. It’s adios. You’re leaving tomorrow.”
He’s right. And I don’t know what to say.
We’re moving around the table as we prepare for dinner. If our house could be a well-oiled machine, this was as close as we will ever be. We’re laughing. The boys are cleaning the first time they’re asked. Zoro is here again and they feel like they need to make him proud. I know enough Spanish to join in the joking. The winter breeze is carrying the scent of something abnormally delicious from the stove in the kitchen. The boys are playing but not destroying. I think I might be in a Hallmark movie. Because this doesn’t feel like a job or a chore or a challenge to survive. It just feels like a family.
It’s everything I’ve been working towards for eleven months. It’s exactly the maximum belonging we can give these forgotten ones. It’s exactly what they need every day and more, and it happens exactly once.
I stop with something in my hands on the way to the table and I realize this is what I want to remember. Jhostin is laughing. Daniel is poking the little kids and they love it and aren’t crying. Luis and Roger and Ricardo are all helping to cook and they are all proud of what they’ve done. Ivan is belting out a song about Zacheus that’s playing on the speaker, and Zacarias is joining in from the shower. They’re listening to Zoro talk to his mother on the phone, and they’re making fun of him because she said “I love you,” and according to their collective life experience, you have to make fun of someone when a girl says I love you.
I’m saying a prayer over a meal one last time. I’m trying to step into the waterfall of moments and not let them roar past when I say that I’m grateful for every seething second with each of these little reflections of divinity. I’m trying but I just can’t feel the pressure and the violence of time and the overflowing overwhelming everything. I’m reaching and stretching and all I can feel is the cool spray of the waterfall on the winter breeze that’s quenching the eternal summer heat. One of them is laughing in my face, trying to make fun of me because tomorrow night I won’t be there with them. It’s probably because they’re thirteen and don’t know how to make a joke. It might be because they don’t know how to cope. For what it’s worth, neither do I.
One Million Moments with No Less than a Thousand Ways to Feel
I’m driving away. I’m folded up in the back seat of a taxi and dusty gusts from the window are sandblasting muddy drops out of my eyes. I’m leaving. I feel like I’m in a Wes Anderson movie. Red and orange convolutions of architecture are scrolling past my window seat under an unnaturally tinted sky. Non-euclidean emotions are rolling around in my mind. Caffeine rushing in my veins is making dialogue faster and more unrealistic. And I’m watching part of Asteroid City to feel the emotions of anyone other than myself. And then there’s a seventy-year-old woman in the seat in front of me and I’m eighty percent sure she is going to give birth before we reach our destination. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I want to share my emotionally cathartic character arc scene with this ancient pregnant lady and her newborn. So for what it’s worth, I have my scene in my head in the back seat of the taxi, a world to myself.
Luis is holding on to me for dear life. “Don’t leave teacher!” I think it’s because he still hopes I’ll give away my last piece of luggage and he hopes he’ll be the recipient and he can use it to hide his dirty clothes. I think I hope he wants me to stay more than he thinks he wants the duffel bag. Jhoel is climbing up me for the fifth time this morning, just to make sure I can see him. I’m chasing down Ricardo because he’s just too cool for hugs, but he lets me catch him. I’m holding on for dear life too. Now it’s too late and I’m sitting in the back seat and my last connection is my madly waving hand through the barely open window.
I feel raw inside. I feel stressed. Did I get everything? Do I have my passport? My camera? The things I can’t replace? The things I meant to leave? Did I give enough hugs? Did I ask enough questions? Did I make sure they know I care? That they’re important? Not a burden? For what it’s worth, I know that I have to tell myself that the answer is no, and I know I have to tell myself that I have to believe that the answer is yes.
I’m sitting in the taxi clutching my water bottle. Maybe I should take a sip. Maybe I’m scared of the waterfall. It’s the wrong moment to be thirsty. I’m leaving.
Charlie has been sick for three days. He can’t sleep or eat from throwing up. He’s too sick to shuffle across the field and saunter into my house and beg for food. My environment feels vacant without his humor and lack of personal space. I’ve said goodbye. We’ve had a talk. I can’t promise I’ll come back, but I promise to try. I’ve given him a going-away present. But now the taxi is here at the gate, blaring a horn for me to hurry up. An entourage is escorting me out. Four ungrown men are cooperatively dragging my bag away from my home. It feels like the paparazzi are pursuing me. But Charlie’s not here. Maybe he’s asleep. Maybe he’s too weak to walk. Maybe he doesn’t want to say goodbye.
I drop my backpack and ask them to wait. I trot across the field to the big house, dodging toddlers and dogs and parrots. He’s dazed and glossy eyed but I think I need to believe he’s fully conscious. I grab him by the shoulders. I tell him things, anything I can think of, because I don’t know what to say. In either language. He solemnly nods his head after each unbound phrase. He utters his characteristic nervous laugh. He looks tired. He looks scared. I need to want to think that what I say will be enough. I know it’s not. I know I’m not.
I give him one last hug and I tell the truth. I’ll miss him. A lot.
I run back across the field. Each impact of my untied boots on the naked sun-dried earth carved by tradition through the jungle grass sends tiny shockwaves of force up my legs and through my chest. Just enough strength with each jolt to dam up the waterfall in my heart. One million droplets with no less than a thousand ways to feel them. I hope I’ve felt each one for what it’s worth. For what they’re worth as they’ve slipped through my fingers. I’m slipping away now too. I’m leaving. The dusty jungle gusts rush through the taxi as fast as the months have disappeared. There’s a crack in the dam in the far corner of my right eye. For what it’s worth, one last drop escapes, shimmering with one million moments before it vanishes in the Bolivian breeze.