Last year my daughters and I read a book about a group of horses that were abandoned overboard, ruthlessly thrown into the sea by their ‘master’. They needed to escape the cold, dark water, follow the smell of the sweet grass, attempt to return home. There was a passage where the mama was trying to explain what the outside world is like to her filly, Estrella, who had never yet seen the light of day…
How do you explain the feel of dewy grass under your feet to someone who has lived their entire existence in a sling and unable to touch the ground? How do you explain the twinkle of a star to someone who has never seen the night sky? How do offer the strength to a child when the journey seems too tough to bear? How do you describe to her the end of darkness, the beginning of hope, the meaning of ‘the just before?…
Estrella: “What is the just before, Mama?”
Mama: ”… it is a time of day very early in the morning… it is as if the darkness has grown tired and it becomes dimmer and dimmer…”
Estrella: “…sounds sad -the just before…”
Mama: “ No, not at all Estrella… it’s when a new day is about to foal and sunshine is coming. There’s the promise of the sun rising…”
Estrella: “There aren’t any promises in here, are there Mamita?”
Mama: “…there are still promises, even in dim light… there is always hope in the color of the light just before the dawn… The voyage will end. We shall get to land. You will run and buck.”
Estrella: “And see the sky?”
Mama: “And see the sky and the night and the stars for which you are named.” (Horses of the Dawn, The Escape by Kathryn Lasky)
Just before I met Them, I obviously knew there was a cruel side to this world; a side that was exaggeratedly brutal and unfair. However, never before had I met it so intimately, never before had I allowed it to touch me so intensely. Through the years my family and I have come across many stories of hardship, always witnessing them from a near, empathetic distance… illness, abandonment, alcoholism, verbal and physical abuse, depression. However, never before did a story involve so much innocence dissolving into so much destruction. Never before had I let it in, opened myself up to feel the wounds, absorbed it from every pore, possessed it… Never before had I decided to make it mine.
The first few times we met them – Camila, 4 (not in photo), Sharel, 6 and Kelynn, 10– we didn’t know their story. We didn’t know who they were, where they came from. We didn’t know that their mother was a woman of the streets and had conceived each of them and each of their three older siblings with estranged men, a different man for each child, none of them hanging around long enough to be called Dad.
I had no idea that their willingness to stay for hours with us, roaming the blocks after school without a phone call home, was actually an unwillingness to return home, a desperate desire to be anywhere except home.
Just before I actually knew them, I still wasn’t looking so I still didn’t see…
The first day, we walked them home– tracing the same steps their little feet take every school day, unaccompanied – 30 minutes to school early each morning, 30 minutes back home on a curvy, paved road – they chattered incessantly like most little girls do, full of questions and curiosity, wide eyes, carefree smiles, full of life… but, then again, I still didn’t know…
It was just before nightfall and I had no idea it was just before everything that I would inevitably discover not so later on.
The first day we said ‘goodbye’ everything still appeared normal for Costa Rican standards. They were simply one of the less fortunate children living in a tiny, rundown house right outside the center of a small town.
Yet, as we walked home I thought to myself: “Something isn’t right”.
I felt this just before…
Days later, Camila, Sharel and Kelynn started knocking on our hotel door at odd times of the morning and the afternoon, sometimes hours after school had let out, sometimes in the dark, still wearing their uniforms, dirty and worn…
And that is when I started looking, and of course I started seeing…
This is when I started to follow my gut feeling and I started to question if: “Something truly was wrong”.
“Tengo hambre”, repeated Kelynn every time she saw us. (I am hungry)
“Perdì el dinero para el taxi”, she often said. (I lost the taxi money)
“Mi mamá va a pegarme”, she once blurted out. (My mom is gonna hit me)
Were these confessions or mere attempts for attention?
I didn’t know because there was still too much dimness in this just before…
However, as I began to look into the black, coal-like eyes of this pretty, 10 year old girl and the wavering enthusiasm of her younger sisters, I finally saw it…
the fierceness and the hurt, the aggressiveness and the innocence, the fear and the lies… and most of all, I also saw the Truth.
I knew that everything in their short existence had been wrong.
The greasy hair, full of knots on a Monday morning.
The chipped teeth, dirty and stained on Tuesday.
My daughter’s best friend, Sharel, on Wednesday, left waiting alone at school. Unlike the other children, there was no mami with a kind word, a smile or a great big hug there to pick her up. So we waited and waited, we waited with her. After 2 and ½ hours we walked her home.
And on Friday… on Friday, Kelynn, dropped off her sisters at school, then turned around and walked the other way… to wander, to sell what she had secretly stuffed into her backpack all week long, to find a snack, to make a ‘friend’ (with her stealing and lying and all the unkind rumors she didn’t have many at school)- no one noticing or warning her, no one to respond to, no one to care or to question… Where would she go?
Yet, just before I knew it ‘All’, people spoke and casual, petty gossip was dying to let me know…
that they had too much freedom and very little food, that they lacked good manners and that they didn’t have beds… that they lived in a dark and dingy, basement apartment, all 6 kids and their mom in only one room…that they had a mother with problems- a mother that we barely knew except for a polite voice on the other end of the phone, a kind wave from across the road…
that we should be careful – extremely careful – not to get too close.
And, that is when I started actually asking:
Who is She?
I became obsessed with Them, with Her… and this is what I learned….
Her name is Zulay, only 36 years old, but already extremely ‘used’. She has problems… lots of problems, with alcohol and drugs…prostituting herself between 4 flimsy walls for all ears to hear, for all eyes to see. Everybody knows her and her nasty ‘habits’, often seen drunk in the middle of the night. Nobody wants her or her children so it is difficult to find a decent place to live, a dignified job. I learned that she herself had grown up in the same kind of ‘home’, that no one ever taught her to read or to write, to set a table or prepare a bath… that she has never believed in fairytales. I learned all these things, and I also learned that she loves her children more than her life even though no one ever taught her how… to love them or herself.
I asked and I asked and I asked. We got to know Them better, Her better, saw things that nobody else was able to see. We offered them what little we could for as long as we could…
We crossed over the line. Testing our boundaries in a country where anyone can accuse anyone and without any proof anyone can be taken away. We invited them for a picnic at the park: avocado sandwiches, carrot sticks and potato chips under the shade of a humble tree. They arrived with their hair perfectly combed, dressed in their best clothes and their huge smiles. However, they didn’t know how to eat their veggies or to sit still. They hardly knew how to play. The two older ones bickered most of the time. The youngest one cried. There was an inflatable bounce house set up at the park that day. The lady had been especially nice. She let all 5 girls play and jump for free. After 45 minutes she politely requested for them to get off – “my boss will be coming to check up on me”, she unnecessarily explained.
My girls thanked her and put on their shoes. Camila and Sharel did the same. Kelynn and all her suffering refused. An overpowering aggressiveness took over her and stole the sweetness, the gentle side of her that I had gotten to know; took over her laugh and her smile in less than the split of a second.
The nice lady requested again and again. My husband attempted to ‘gently’ threaten and command… I reasoned. I pleaded. I painfully watched…
until we were forced to make that dreaded phone call home…
and, this was just before Kelynn suddenly got down and without a word sat her slim, trembling body on the hard concrete, covering the tears that filled her lost, fear struck eyes… tears that washed away the aggression and left the innocence of this little girl behind. I sat myself on the ground in front of her, pressing the palms of her hands against mine as we looked at each other, ignoring the spectators we shared the tears.
Together. Still and silent and completely alone in the crowd… “Vamos a pasear un poco?” , I finally suggested. (Would you like to take a walk?)
She nodded as she wiped away the large drops of desperation and defeat.
We slowly walked, hand in hand, silent, steady steps… then she spoke:
“Puedo venir contigo y quedarme al hotel? No puedo ir a la casa. Mi mamá esta enfadada y va a pegarme duro. No puedo ir a la casa.”, she repeated.
(Can I come and stay with you at the hotel? I can’t go home. My mother is angry and she is gonna give it to me good. I can’t go home.)
Still and silent – moving slowly and steadily – I had to remind myself to exhale.
I don’t know how I got up the courage to say she couldn’t, but I did…
How could I explain how complicated things were, that I would stay in a heartbeat if only I could…
that if only I knew that they and all their laws would allow us to really be there….
that these laws, with all their legalness, have nothing to do with kindness or compassion, that they often strip children of their rights to be children, to feel safe, to be truly loved, that the legality of a law has little to do with morality or what the world really needs.
What good was it to remind her that her life is unjust because life is unjust?… For her they were just words.
How could I leave them to face the consequences of an afternoon gone wrong in a world where nothing was right… not even them?
How could I tell her that if I could- if we could– we would take her and her family home… that I would keep her safe forever and ever?…
The thought of all that darkness- never getting tired enough to dim and turn to dawn- closed in on me, suffocating me to the point that I could barely breathe.
And this is when I searched for even more answers…
in the way she walked, through her blank stare… her words and her non words. We walked and in my fractured Spanish I searched – delicately asking questions on tip toes – those questions that nobody wants to ask and nobody wants to share – those things that way too often remain a young girl’s hidden secrets.
I don’t know how I got up the courage, but I did… I asked:
Is your mother kind to you? Does she hit you? Do you ever feel scared? Does she drink and then stumble? Spend money for pills or funny herbs? Do the lights go out for weeks at a time? Is your refrigerator empty or full? Can you tell me what type of people come to your house and how long they stay?…What have your beautiful eyes seen? What has your skin felt? What has your body shared? Do you have any bruises, any scars? What do you dream?
Around and around the park we walked – hand in hand – between the silence she spoke and I listened trying to memorize every single word that she was courageous enough to say and that I was courageous enough to hear…
So now, just before leaving Costa Rica, not knowing when or if we will ever return, I wonder…
To be continued next week…
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Until then, wishing light and hope… the type we can all experience every single day just before the dawn,
This post is dedicated to my three little girls – my daughters’ new sisters – their older siblings, and their mother, Zulay. It is dedicated to my new friend Dawn and her daughter Terra who magically came into my life while I was finishing this post. It is dedicated to my childhood friend Randi who is going through a period of intense loss. Each of them are radiant and inspiring branches of our family. May we help each other in finding a patch of light, allowing all of us to feel the peace and happiness and hope of this brand new day.