I first noticed the colorful walls and the fun artwork as I passed through the wooden gate. To my left was a small garden, vibrant with flowers and a playground entirely made out of tires. I grinned like a child, thinking, “wow, we can do that on the rez!” I know every family has at least 5 cars they keep saying they will fix one day, and a stack of tires. Anyway, I walked down the winding brick stairs into my new job. I took a deep breath, prayed for a good day, and opened the door.
In front of me sat 10 babies with their faces covered in orange peelings. Oh, their beautiful smiles! They were all gathered around a small round table, completely blissful as they slurped their orange slices. I grabbed a chair and sat down next to the cutest little boy I have ever laid eyes on. He smiled and showed me his food, “mira, mira, mira!” and then he slurped away. A few minutes passed as I observed, broke up a few fights between hungry babies, and searched for more fruit whenever I heard, “más, más más”.
I still remember that first day. I was so scared. For 9 weeks I would be caring for these babies. What if I’m not good at it? What if they hate me? I don’t know how to make a baby stop crying, or how to make one laugh? I didn’t even want to think about the changing and bathing stations. I had zero experience with childcare. Now is always a good time as any to learn right? But my real question was, it too late to run? It was one of those moments where I literally asked myself out loud, “Shandiin, what have you gotten yourself into now?”
And then a little girl ran up to me and wrapped her little hand around my finger, “vamos!” and pulled me out of my thoughts. It was really too late now. The first week of work I repeated names and memorized drawers. I watched intensely when others changed diapers and cleaned dirty hands and faces. I took so many mental notes, I was not going to be the volunteer that created more work for everybody. I was going to be great!
In the mornings from 9 am to noon, I was feeding, changing, and befriending the curious babies in the guardería. I wiped little noses, and dusted little pants and shirts off when my babies fell. I listened to imaginary stories, and reassured concerned eyes that everything will be alright. We sang songs every morning in a small circle-always together. This was their incentive to participate so we could all go to the park. My favorite was Buenos Dias…
El sol dice hola, la luna dice adios
El gallo canta, es mi despertador
Si canta con ganas ser un dia mejor
(10 babies screaming with excitement)
It was the moments when a child would run to me when they were crying and I picked them up and held them in my arms. When they chose me to change them, I believe that to be the highest honor. Or when they laughed and laughed when I whispered, “hola cariño” into their soft ears. With their little palms, they’d run up to me as I sat on the ground surrounded by building blocks and grab my face and smother me with besitos, besitos, besitos! I miss my babies.
That moment of victory after sitting for 15 minutes massaging their soft heads and they finally drift off into a slumber, has given me more gratification than anything else I could remember. When I would check on them, I’d see a little body pop up and look around, well rested from their nap.
“Hola mi amor, como dormiste, bien?”
A little head nod.
And I walked over and lifted him out of his crib so we could play some more.
I did this for nine weeks. I could have done it for nine years.
From 12 pm sharp every day I took a small stroll a few blocks down to the jardin, where three of our kids attended. And every day they ran full speed to the little metal door shouting, “Shandiin esta aqui!” They handed me their bags and books, and we walked home together enjoying the warm sun and avoiding big dogs. Some days they’d ask me their favorite question, “Tienes los dulces con azucar y limon?” Of course. We colored, painted, wrote our names, ate candy, played on the glorious tire playground; we had the times of our lives. They were so full of energy and positivity. They made me want to be 3 years old again, and chasing mariposas in the park.
“Ok niños, vamos a almorzar y despues necesito salir.”
“Pero te vas a regresar mañana, no?”
“Si, mi amor, mañana voy estar aquí con ustedes, y voy a tener los dulces con azucar y limon.”
I always gave every single child a big hug before I left work for the day. As my days winded down, each hug was a little tighter and a little longer. They didn’t understand.
It didn’t matter what kind of day I was having. I could have been exhausted from a sleepless night or grumpy from a bad breakfast, but once I saw their little faces the world was perfect.
They were perfect.
My last day was the hardest. I couldn’t believe how fast time had passed. I had become a part of the family, yet my time was up and I would be returning to the USA. I promised to always remember my time in that house. It was the best 9 weeks of my life. These children taught me so much. They helped me improve my Spanish. They were patient as I learned our routine. They showed me love, endless love. They proved to me that life is full of hidden treasures and happiness that can be uncovered in the sounds of laughter and comfort of love. I uncovered a bit of happiness on that mountainside in Peru. Happiness I will never forget.
And then this happened,
“Necesito salir ahora, me voy. Voy a extrañarte mucho mi amor.”
“Si, me voy a mi pais. A mis casa. Tengo que ir a mi escuela como tú”
“Vas a regresar mañana?”
I wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. When would I be back? They would all grow up and forget all about our time together. What if they asked for me the next day? Even worse, what if they waited for me and I let them down. Nobody warned me about this part. Everybody guided me on starting my work here, but nobody warned me how hard it would be to leave.
I have never spent a more meaningful summer than this. I haven’t felt this much growth before. I feel stronger and abler to love than I ever had before. I have those children to thank.
To my babies:
I think about you all every day. I sing our songs every morning. I know you are all doing well and still shouting, “Hola!” whenever someone enter the room. I know there are new volunteers there every day scared, but ready to love you. Give them time, be patient, as you were with me. They’ll get the hang of it. Just know that I will always be here for you. I love you.
As I walked up those brick steps one last time, I looked back on this house that held all of our memories. The kids were all running around playing as I made my way through that wooden gate. As it slammed behind me, I realized that morning was the last time I’d hit the buzzard to enter,
Is it weird to say that I felt more at home and in peace in Peru than I often do in my own country? I am back on the reservation, but a piece of me is waiting for the time to read 8:30 so I can catch the bus to work. A piece of me is longing to have a conversation with sweet Spanish voices. A piece of me stayed in Peru.
One day I will go back and smile at the old me who was brave enough to create these memories. This is a painful memory. This is beautiful.