01 Sep Within the Walls
By Don McPhee-
It is an early Saturday morning in August, mid flight between Guatemala City, Guatemala and Houston, Texas. My head is resting against the inside shell of the plane, looking out the window, staring at the blank sky. The tears are a steady flow down my cheek as I look away, hoping no one will notice.
It had been an incredible week; a family mission trip to Guatemala. So many adventures with people I love. And we carefully recorded each one with photos and videos, excited to get back home and tell our story.
Yet in one particular outing pictures were not permitted. But this experience was the most vivid. A haunting snapshot forever planted in my mind.
It is almost five days to the hour that we had arrived at the gates of “the walls”, neatly tucked away outside of Guatemala City, out of sight, out of mind. Our trusted and enthusiastic guide, Joel, was well connected here, as with all other points of entry in Guatemala City and beyond, and was welcomed in by the guards. This well fenced and well protected facility was not a prison, though it seemed, but the Guatemala National Orphanage.
Erika, the on-site physiotherapist, was our guide for the day. She was bright and happy, and it was soon revealed, the shining star of the entire place. She led us through some incredible activities. We did crafts and cake with special needs children. Being so touched by these miraculous gifts of God, that the drool left on your shirt from a hug, or the distasteful aroma from a body, was easily overlooked. A random soccer game continues to be a humbling experience for any Canadian. I was so moved by the teenage moms who gracefully accepted the gifts we brought. Your heart goes out to a 14 year old breastfeeding her baby, with that undeniable love. And of course five year-old Crystal, a beautiful creation, who I got to hold while we toured her quarters. The whole while she smiled as she exhaled thought her breathing apparatus dug into her neck. Not to forget 15 year old Wesley. In his mind still an American, though illegal, who somehow went from McDonalds to rice and beans after being found out. He appreciated speaking English again with us.
But it was the barracks of the toddlers that put me back like no other. The large multi-purpose building was new, but dull and lonely. In the large open room were rows of cribs. There were no Mickey Mouses or those hanging baby things. I don’t remember seeing a doll. In the centre of the room there was a padded gymnastic mat, maybe a place for play time on occasion. This was their bedroom, their back yard, their home.
And there she was gazing at me between the prison bars of one of the cribs in the maze. Her name is Debbra. She is two years old. Her dark eyes drew me. She has a rounded face and straight cut signature black Guatemala hair. Her oval smile revealed perfectly spaced and tiny proportional teeth. I knew she was mine to pick up. She was waiting for me.
The Guatemala National Orphanage is the government’s attempt to centralize the care of those with no place to go. In many ways it makes sense, and I certainly cannot condemn efforts to eradicate a
desperate situation. International adoptions are now closed due to the corruption of a few. Unfortunately Guatemalan parents are not drawn to abandoned children. We were told there were four adoptions since the facility opened two years ago (The orphanage currently houses 900, and growing). There are many reasons for this including poverty and culture. This, absolutely, is not a judgement.
Funds will continue to be limited as there is no political issue here. Hired help is lowly paid and over worked. Donated toys may be intercepted by the staff and brought home to their own desperate children. There are too many children and not enough love to go around. Maintaining physical needs is priority one.
In Debbra’s case, Erika told me later, she had an under developed and twisted leg from being restricted to her crib. How could she run and play with the current staff to child ratio? Let alone have her hand held while she learned. Come to think of it, I don’t know if Debbra can walk. I just held her the whole time.
She was hesitant at first because men, especially tall white men, are not common here. Yet I believe Debbra knew I could be trusted. I held her as I walked around the facility, and we got to know each other. Then, spontaneously, I placed her high over my head with my outstretched arms and let her fall quickly but securely, then slowing so our noses could touch. “Hola!” “Hola!” I said with glee. She giggled. She smiled. She tapped my head with her little hands. Her smile made me smile, her laugh, me as well. It was so rewarding.
We had a good 10 minute streak going when I saw a house mom approach and call her name. It was a scheduled diaper change. Disappointed, I handed her over. Debbra’s dark eyes looked intently at me from over the lady’s shoulder as she disappeared into a back room. I guess we were both saddened. Yet I scanned the area looking for another special friend. I picked up a few here and there, and shared a few smiles. After a bit, I turned around to glance to Debbra’s crib. She was back and standing with her hands on the top horizontal bar. This time there was no hesitation from either of us. She raised her arms and fell into my hands.
Now I had a new program. I lied on my back on the mat in the centre of the room. My hands held her firmly but gently as we played the games I remember doing with my own children. Airplane, horse, tickle! I tried to plant seeds of hope into her little heart with the few Spanish words I knew. “Tu es bonita” (pretty)! “Tu es especial” (special)! “Jesus te ama”! We had a glorious time. She was such a treasure. Her giggle, her smile, her sparkle, all so engaged me. I had forgotten I was the conservative and introverted kind. It was our moment. I don’t know how long we played.
Then it hit me hard! An eerie and distressing sensation came over. What if this was the first time in her short life she felt loved by a male figure? When will she laugh like this again? I have to go soon, what if I break her heart? Will she ever have a Dad? Am I giving her false hope? What have I done?
My sorrow was well founded. I soon heard a voice saying we have to move on. This was only one bullet in an auctioned packed agenda. I stood up and walked, and like our time before, I never let go of that precious little girl. Debbra was joyful and unaware until I placed her in her crib.
Immediately, tears began to flow. Her dark eyes watered. Her countenance shattered. Her arms automatically went up over the bars signalling me to again pick her up. It was haunting. It was gloomy. It was so heartbreaking. I had to walk away before I did more damage. The picture I could not take could not be more engrained. As I turned I saw an adorable little angel sobbing out of control, hands up in the air, desperate for me to save her from this hell. Every wail is now an echo in my heart. I know what she was saying. “Please don’t leave me!” “Please save me!” “I know you love me!”
Everything that happens within the walls, stays within the walls. School is within, outings are few if any. Even when they leave the walls, what do they know about life and love? Internationals can’t adopt, Guatemalans won’t. They say a life sentence is 20 years, with maybe a few years off for good behaviour. This is a prison for “lifers”. Debbra seems like no exception.
My flight has landed. Debbra, I’m so sorry…
Within the walls,
Amongst the rows,
You found my stall,
My dark eyes glow.
I have no baby doll,
Or little pup,
My smile is all,
To pick me up.
I once felt free,
You loved me,
Please find the how,
With you I’ll roam,
Save me now,
Please take me home.