Almost two years ago, just before Christmas, I went to Guatemala with a friend. Her family was nearing the end, finally, of their process of adopting their daughter and she wanted to go visit her and get in a couple of weeks of language school. She joked with me in an e-mail one day, “Want to go to Guatemala with me??”
I’m sure at first she thought I was joking by my enthusiastic “Yes!” but I wasn’t at all. I had been studying Spanish on my own for a year and a half by then and I would most definitely have jumped at the chance to go to language school. Not only that but I was dying to get out of the country and see a different place and culture. Ramsey travels occasionally and, though it’s always all work and no leisure when he does, I have to admit to having a slight case of travel envy, anyway. So, yes, I absolutely wanted to go to Guatemala.
Ramsey so generously agreed to let me go and worked out arrangements for childcare. I drove three hours to apply for my passport instead of mailing in for one, in order to expedite the process. My friend and I spread the word that we were going and that we planned to visit an orphanage while we were there, then collected the school supplies and Christmas presents that were donated, to bring along in our luggage.
It was hard to believe that I was really going, and so all of a sudden, too! I hadn’t set foot on an airplane in over ten years or left Ramsey and the kids alone overnight, let alone left to go traipsing around in another country for seventeen days. But I was and soon it was the night before our trip.
The kids were in bed and Ramsey was in our bedroom with me while I did my last packing. “If you find our kid, start filling out the paperwork while you’re down there,” he said. That’s not really how it works, but I loved the attitude that was behind the comment. Rams and I had talked about adopting for years, since before we were even married. Now our youngest was almost two and we felt like it was finally time to really do it- we would adopt our next child. I don’t remember what I said to him in reply but I do remember thinking, Out of all those children, how could I possibly just pick one? How would I possibly ever know which child was meant to be ours? But it didn’t really matter anyway, because I knew it was impossible. The world of international adoption is complicated and even if you choose to adopt a child from a country where the process is relatively smooth sailing, there is still always the possibility of everything turning upside down overnight and being a royal mess by the morning. At the time, Guatemala was having its own issues and even families that were well into the process of adopting their child, as my friend’s was, were in danger of having their process disrupted. No new applications were being accepted, anyway. It just wouldn’t be an option for us.
Guatemala was such an adventure. Language school was wonderful, everything was beautiful and warm, and volcanoes erupted nearby, drifting ash on our heads while we studied in the school courtyard, like Central American snow. We ate authentic Guatemalan meals at the school for breakfast and lunch, then ate out at nearby restaurants for dinner. We haggled over prices in the nearby mercado and, after being suckered once or twice, I prided myself on not getting taken in again, at least not too badly. December is an amazing time to be in Guatemala, there are pre-Christmas festivals every other day, the only downfall is not being able to sample the enticing food offered by vendors all around the plazas.
And in Guatemala, everywhere, everywhere, were the poor. There were people begging for coins on the sidewalks and there were women and children who would follow after us in the streets, trying to get us to buy their wares, everything from cheap pens to lovely jewelry.
Midway through our trip, we were ready for our orphanage visit. Our original contact didn’t pan out. My Spanish teacher told me about another orphanage across town, home to a dozen girls. No success in making a connection there, either. Somehow my friend heard, through another friend, of another orphanage. Attempt number three. The American man who answered the phone told us we could come by any time and gave us the address, then hurriedly got off the phone. Well, all right then.
We felt a little awkward just showing up unannounced at an orphanage that we’d only made a random connection with but what could we do? We hired a car, loaded our two bulging suitcases and ourselves into it, and headed off to Casa Aleluya. We pulled through a mural-painted gate into a large central courtyard and parked. Unsure of where to go or what to do, I saw a man near a building on the other side of a playground and decided to go ask him if he could tell us where to find Mike, the director of the orphanage and the man we’d talked to on the phone.
I took four steps from the car, then, somehow right in front of me where she hadn’t been a moment before, a small girl stood, reaching her arms towards me for me to pick her up.
I didn’t know what to do- my first impulse was simply to pick her up, of course, but I didn’t know how the staff at the orphanage felt about complete strangers just scooping up the children. I took her by the hand instead, and she walked with me across the playground. The man, another American, helpfully pointed out the building where we’d likely find Mike. I told him that the little girl had wanted me to pick her up and asked, hesitatingly, if it would be all right if I did. “Sure, of course!” So I picked her up and she immediately wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist.
I and my friend and her two children did find Mike and his wife and they led us, towing our two suitcases, to their “Christmas building”. The building was full of gifts that they’d bought with money that had been donated for that purpose. As they shared with us the history of the orphanage, a couple of teenage girls swiftly sorted through the items in our suitcases and stored them in the appropriate places throughout the building. The suitcases were empty in minutes.
Casa Aleluya had been started by Mike and his wife 20 years earlier after Mike, a pastor, returned home to the U.S. from a short-term mission trip to Guatemala. He’d only gone on the trip to placate a friend of his who’d been harassing him to go but, while there, his heart had been broken by the sight of so many children in need. He and Dottie had started the orphanage in a house with just a few children but within a year they’d received more children than the house could comfortably hold. They moved to their new location and the orphanage had grown and grown- it was now home to five hundred children and he told us that, if they had room for them, the government had another two thousand that it would like to place with them.
This sweet little girl still clung to me, her glossy dark brown hair pressed against my cheek. I asked her name. Mike didn’t know and asked one of the teenage girls who followed along with us. Her name was Rosmery 2 (the “2” because the orphanage was apparently home to more than one Rosmery) and she was four years old.
Mike gave us a tour of the whole facility, showing us the school, the cafeteria where older residents received training in food preparation and which doubled as the chapel, the “Baby House”, and construction projects that were currently underway and waiting for the next group of volunteers who would visit and continue work on it.
To be honest, though I was impressed by the orphanage’s amazing organization and structure, I was most definitely distracted during the tour. Little Rosmery never loosened her hug on me except when I once set her down to get my camera out of my backpack. Then she reached in and rummaged around, finding one of the flashlight pens I’d bought on the street from a little ragamuffin boy. She was intrigued by it and of course I let her keep it. Then she was back in my arms again, her fingers winding gently through my hair. I asked her questions and called her sweet things in my faltering Spanish and she smiled back at me but never said a word.
I held her the whole time we were there. More than an hour after we’d arrived, our tour had ended and another little girl had come to say it was time for Rosmery to have a shower. We needed to leave, too, and, really, there was nothing more for me to do there except to hold Rosmery and claim her as my own. Instead, I walked with her to her little dorm where a dozen other little five-year-old girls were stripping down in preparation for their showers. I crouched down to let her go and she scampered off among the other little girls, obviously less impacted by me than I was by her, and moving on with her life.
My arms ached a bit on the ride back to school and, though my friend and I had both been impacted by our visit to the orphanage and discussed it at length, my mind was largely on Rosmery. The rest of our stay in Guatemala was as interesting and delightful as the first half had been and, finally, two and a half weeks after our arrival, we were on our way home again.
Back at home, it was almost time for Christmas. As lovely as our stay in Guatemala had been, it just hadn’t felt like Christmas when we were walking around in short sleeves every day. Home was cold and snowy, as Christmas should be, and our house was cozy and familiarly decorated. It was so wonderful to be greeted by my four children, who all ran to hug me at once, and so fun to hand out the souvenirs I had brought them. I enthusiastically jumped into last minute Christmas shopping and baking and I sipped eggnog in the evenings, cozied up on the couch with Ramsey, only the fire in the fireplace and the Christmas tree twinkling in the corner softly lighting the room. It was so good to be home again.
I’d told Ramsey all about little Rosmery and I showed her to him on the orphanage’s website- the orphanage had a sponsorship program so it was possible to find specific children. From the website, I learned that Rosmery’s mother had died and she had no other relatives. We discussed the “what ifs” and were both in total agreement that, if it were possible, we would adopt her in a heartbeat. But it wasn’t possible.
Finally, a few days before Christmas, I found myself alone in my room, and thought again of Rosmery. And, finally, all my thoughts and emotions that she evoked came to the forefront and I let myself go with them. All along, knowing that adopting her would never be possible, I’d held myself back. As I’d held her in my arms, I’d held back. As I’d talked with Ramsey about her, I’d held back. As I’d thought of her, I’d held back. Because, really, what is the point of letting yourself connect when you know that it will only cause you pain? Keeping a safe distance is just that- safe.
And so now I finally let down my guard and stopped keeping myself safe. I wept and wept, grieving over a little girl that I’m sure never gave me another thought but that I couldn’t get off my mind. I grieved over the fact that I would never see her again. I grieved over the fact that she would be unlikely to ever have a mother. I grieved over the fact that I would never get to be her mother. And I grieved over the fact that, when I’d had the chance to just full-out love on a little girl who so clearly desperately needed it, even if only for the brief time I had with her, I’d chosen to keep myself safe, instead.
I checked in on the orphanage website from time to time, just to see her and to find out if anything in her situation had changed. Much later, I went to check in on her and she wasn’t there anymore. I e-mailed the orphanage to ask about her and never got a response. I’m sure the staff there has more to keep them busy than to answer inquiries from former visitors about their children.
I know I’ll never see Rosmery again. But I also know that she will always be a reminder to me to love lavishly, for whatever time is available, in spite of the risk of pain.