Years ago during my study abroad, I volunteered at an orphanage. I can’t imagine something like this being legal or allowed today, but there was a ‘recess period’ or playtime in the afternoon on the weekends when volunteers were allowed to go in and play with the kids. All you had to do was show up. No background check, application, nothing.
The kids ranged in age from newborn to about 8, and volunteering there was one of the most affecting experiences of my life. I still think about it all the time.
Recently I was digging through some journals and came across a letter I wrote to a kid there, and one distinct memory came flooding back to me.
She must have been 3 or 4 at the time, younger than my older daughter is now, and now I wonder – where is she? What is she doing? Is she safe? On the streets? Does she have a family? Is she…exploited?
The first time I met her during that playtime, she was sitting in a play car and wanted to be pushed around by one of the adult figures in the room. She liked that.
Over the next few weeks, she warmed to me. I don’t know what caused her to open up, although I suspect the bar is lower for small children, and she asked to be picked up and held. And she didn’t want to be let go. When other kids came by and begged for their own turn, she kicked and lashed out at them.
One week when I arrived, she was staring out the window when I arrived. She didn’t see me – or rather she was looking past me. I entered and approached her, and she didn’t respond. Her eyes were faraway, like she was imagining something. Or waiting for someone.
And that day when I picked her up and let her down again, she in a very small voice tugged at me and said, ‘don’t go.’
She and I both knew the rules. It was an orphanage. It was a place where none of the kids had an adult. Only a group of aunties that took care of them in the collective. But something, whatever it was that causes people to trust each other, had caused her to break and imagine, maybe to be filled with hope for the first time in a really long time.
Leaving was always painful, but especially so on that day. I quelled her with promises to come back next week. I’ll be back, right? Let’s play again then.
But for two weeks I was held up successively with first, a school event, and the second time, I’m ashamed to say, with a hangover.
When I returned, she was nowhere to be seen. As I gave the other kids a ‘ride’ I caught her out of the corner of my eye. She was standing there angrily, her entire body in a stricken pose.
That day the flood of kids was so great that I couldn’t get to her until a good 15 minutes later. But when I did, she wouldn’t look at me. She stared straight ahead, not responding to me even as I knelt down and called her name.
I didn’t know what to do. Eventually I moved on to the other kids, noticing that she retreated to a corner, by herself. I said bye to her, thinking I would try again the next week.
But that was the last time I saw her. To where, I don’t know.
I knew on that day I had destroyed something for this child. Once again, to her, I was just another adult: adults left and didn’t come back. Adults held out promises and didn’t keep them. To her, in the purview of a small child, she had held out hope and offered a boundless, pure trust. Opened her warm little heart.
And I realized leaving on that day, what I had done. I had completely broken that trust. Disrespected it. Yet again. Maybe for the last time.
I understood her actions. She was protecting herself, as she should have. They were actions of a world she did not yet understand, and should not have already been exposed to – of lies, excuses, of broken promises, of ‘let’s-meet-again-but-not-really’, of words taken lightly and tossed out.
To me, school had seemed so important at the time. In the schemes of things, it absolutely wasn’t. Drinking? Let’s not even get started with that. How could I have not known what was important? The most important, human, life thing by a million times?
Should I have picked her up anyway, even when she was wrapped up in that hurt and loneliness? To reassure her that someone cared? Or would that have just delayed the inevitable, the eventual parting?
Whatever it was, what I had done to this poor little kid was wretched and ugly. You don’t break promises to little children. They trust you completely.
I’m sorry, I said in my letter. I’m so, so sorry. But she’ll never read it and will never know.
Happy f***in’ holidays.