The Boy Who Called Me Back To Haiti: A Reflection On Where It All Began
I was hot. So. Incredibly. Hot.
The cement brick church I was sitting in was packed full of people and the breeze from the nearby windows was minimal. The air was stale. Stale and hot. And I, a day away from my seventeenth birthday, was stuck in a pool of my own sweat.
I knew I should focus. There were sick and desperate people all around me. Mothers, children, men, and the elderly waiting for their chance to see a doctor. But I couldn’t. It was just too hot. And that darn hand held fan I bought at a dollar store back home had broken just hours before. What a waste of a dollar, I couldn’t help thinking.
I was in Haiti on a medical mission trip, although not by choice. My parents sent me with our church on what they called a “reality check”. In other words, I was a stuck up teenager who needed to see first hand just how blessed she really was, despite the fact that her parents did not get her a new car for her birthday. I had never been out of the country before, so the excitement of travel overshadowed my negative attitude about the whole thing. Nevertheless, there I was stuck in this hot little church building praying for God to miraculously speed up time.
At age sixteen, my abilities were pretty limited for a medical clinic. Other than playing with children while their mothers spoke with the doctors, I felt like just another sweaty body in the way. But on this particular day I was placed with a doctor. My job was to take notes of what medicines he prescribed onto a paper bag, which would then move on to the pharmacy. Although I tried, I was pretty awful at the task. Poor doctor, had to spell out every antibiotic for me like twenty times.
By midday my boredom transferred into hungry and between patients I reached for the lunch I had packed in my backpack that morning. Crap. The bread to my sandwich had turned moldy. Stupid heat. So I settled on a piece of beef jerky instead. 5-6-7-8. I tried running through the steps of my latest cheer routine as I chewed. Anything to take my mind off the heat. But before I could make it to the last eight count I was handed a little boy.
He was frail and his clothes tattered and torn. I couldn’t make out how old he was, but I could tell his eyes were much older than his body gave away.
The woman who placed him in my lap appeared to be older than most in the church. By the way she held her back as she bent down, I could tell carrying the boy to the clinic was more than her frail body could handle. As her rigid back rose, she looked deep into my eyes and started speaking in a language I did not recognize. She waved her flimsy arms all over as though her rapid gestures and desperate expressions would help me better understand. I could tell she was troubled. I could see in her eyes that the story she told was a painful one. But I couldn’t make out a single word. Looking to the translator beside me, he explained that the woman had been taking care of the boy after finding him alone in the street. He had no father or mother. No home to call his own. Now too old to continue, the woman was giving him to me.
I was speechless. I mean, what was I supposed to say? Did she realize I was only a teenager from America? What did she really expect me to do with this child? A million thoughts began running through my head. But before I knew it, before I even had a chance to formulate a response, she was gone.
I held the boy in my lap as the doctor examined him. It was clear that he was severely malnourished. I may not have been a doctor, but for that I was certain. I tried speaking to him, as if he could somehow understand my English. He didn’t even look me in the eye. I tried offering him candy. What kid doesn’t like candy? But he wouldn’t take it. He just sat there, starring out the window nearby, lifeless.
With every passing minute I found myself holding the boy just a little bit tighter until eventually his head made its way to my shoulder. His eyes finally shut and he calmly slept to the quick and anxious beating of my heart. And for the first time all day, even though I held a sleeping child in my lap, I didn’t notice the heat at all.
Who are you dear child? How old are you? Why were you alone in the street? What happened to your parents? When is the last time you ate anything?
As I rocked him, my mind filled with questions- questions that I was sure I would never actually know the answers to. But questions, nevertheless, that I couldn’t help but to wonder.
Underfed and deathly ill, the doctors decided to take the boy to a nearby hospital for further treatment. As a young girl, I was obviously left out of all the medical discussions, but I could tell by the doctor’s body language and facial expressions that they questioned whether the little boy would even survive the night. As they picked up his resting head from my shoulder and his limp body off of my lap, I felt the tears began to roll down my cheeks. This child, this little boy that was handed to me on the eve before my seventeen birthday, would I ever get to hold him again?
The little boy from the clinic lingered in my head for the next few years. I dreamt about him often. Gave him names. Pretended we could speak to one another. Imagined he was happy, healthy, and loved. I couldn’t explain it- the way my stomach formed into knots whenever his face rushed through my mind. Where was he? Was he even alive? Why was his face imprinted on my heart? I wasn’t sure. In my young teenage mind, questions like those were far too complex to understand. Still his face, his deep, sunken eyes, and his frail little body curled up onto my lap haunted me, almost like he was calling me back, back to where I belonged…
On the photo above: The little boy did, in fact, survive and was placed in the orphanage in which I would move to Haiti to oversee year later. This picture was taken during a Lipscomb University trip in 2007, four years after I first met Ridlin- the boy who called me back to Haiti.