By Amanda Dums
My heart has once again been ripped out of my chest. In the midst of seeing other people’s pain I find myself looking more and more selfish. We pulled up to the orphanage today in our little red tuk-tuk like we always do every morning at nine. Before we could even get out the kids had jumped into our laps squealing “Mommie!” in delight and practicing their favorite English phrase, “How are you? I am fine, thanks. And you?”
I usually love this exchange of love right away with these precious kids, but this morning I was more annoyed than anything.
I didn’t want to be the jungle gym today. I didn’t want kids grabbing the back of my arms and pinching my “muscles.”
They’re so amused with any bit of fat on a person, as all of us can attest to, they love pinching the back of your arms. We on the other had don’t love it so much. Usually you just sort of laugh a little and pull away or give them a hug so they stop doing it.
I finally managed to get out of the tuk-tuk which only made the chaos build. Mind you this is no different than any other day at CPCDO, but today I just couldn’t do it. I felt empty in the loving kids department, like I had been used up and couldn’t even fake my way through another hug. I had to get out. So I headed towards the baby room.
I thought at least there I won’t get poked and prodded at, I’ll just get cooed at by beautiful little faces. The worst that could happen is that I’ll get peed on. I sat down and picked up Peter, one of my favorite babies. I was craving a place to just be alone with this kid, so that I could escape everyone else and not have to give everyone something: hug me, touch me, give me a smile, play that hand slapping game with me, hold this baby, come over here, draw this picture, let me squeeze your gut and let’s laugh about how fat Americans are. I just didn’t want to deal with it. So the babies were my refuge.
And then it happened. I glanced up from the mini-circus surrounding me and I see a big commotion outside. They’d pulled up the truck and are packing little backpacks inside with bed rolls. I set little Peter down so he could nap, and I strolled outside to see what was going on. It’s not every day that the truck pulls up: either more kids were going to the hospital or something else was happening. I spied a few of the older boys looking like they were going to burst into tears any minute as they placed backpacks inside the trunk. The other kids were looking on trying to piece things together.
I headed inside to find Malis and Una, some girls from the church who have been joining us at the orphanage this week. They’re fantastic translators so I asked them what was going on. Malis said that today seven of the boys are being transferred to another orphanage in the province of Battambong, over 3 hours away from Phnom Penh. She told us that it was because this center was too small and that they were getting so many new kids that they couldn’t all stay. And so the seven packed up their things and loaded up the truck that would send them away.
By this time many of the kids had figured out what was happening and had started to cry.
As I looked out across the room I could see little pockets of children sitting and whimpering.
The seven boys were fed an early lunch in the kitchen area as their friends looked on. Many couldn’t even eat because they were crying so hard. Everyone stood around looking on solemnly with tears. As I watched this process I couldn’t help but catch a wave of tears too. This was their last meal with their family as they’ve known the word family’ for probably their whole lives. It was like they were getting ripped away from their one security, this dirty little overcrowded orphanage that they all call home.
Everyone gathered outside to see the boys off and as I watched everything unfold my heart betrayed me. I wasn’t going to cry. I was merely going to try and offer consolation to those who were crying. I needed to be strong. In reality, I barely knew these boys, but images of them running up the stairs at the water park with a tube and flying down the water slides with glee flashed through my mind. I saw them now with large tears streaming down their faces as they had to say goodbye to their friends, their brothers, their family. And I knew I couldn’t just console, I needed to grieve too.
I watched as little Brad, whose pants are always sliding off, place in one of the boys hands his only possession, a little pink ceramic elephant. This little toy was cracked and broken in more than one place but it was Brad’s pride and joy and it was perhaps the one thing that was truly his own. I know how much he loved that thing and I knew what it meant for him to give it to his friend as they parted ways.
I saw another boy give up a bracelet that he had and place it on the wrist of a boy heading off to the province. I remember him a few days ago proudly shoving that same bracelet that was on his wrist in my face beaming and awaiting my approval. I remember shaking my head and laughing about how silly it was then, just a simple braceletbut it was anything but silly now. This was an exchange of love and of sacrifice. That boy loved that bracelet, but he gave it up for his friend with tears in his eyes, not because he was losing a bracelet, but because he was losing a friend.
The sniffles and the whimpers and the tears flowed freely as they bade their goodbyes.
We gathered around them to pray and I huddled over a group of young children who clung to one another as if the only things they had in the world were each otherand now they didn’t even have that anymore.
There came a point where I could only pray silently as the tears and the pain raked me, as well.
I watched as this little shaking huddle embraced each other in sweat and tears and knew they never would have let go unless they had been forced.
After awhile the driver made them separate and load into the truck. The sound of grieving children had never been such an assault on my ears before. I closed my eyes and felt their agony. It was unbearable. And I remembered how only hours before I had felt such a sense of annoyance at their very presence.
Lord, forgive me. I know not how to love and I know not this kind of grief. I know not this kind of life and the suffering I see before me. I cannot even bear to look at it.
I want it to stop so badly, yet I feel powerless to change it. So I do the only thing I know how to do and that is weep and pray. I grieve along with them. I hug them with the same tears strolling down my face too. I wipe away their tears and just hold them. Words are unnecessary now, all they need is love. And I have to give it. The only thing required of me is love.
Amanda is a true Wisconsin girl through and through (she loves cheese). She grew up in the small town of Rib Lake, went to college at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse where she studied Sociology and graduated in May 2005. After graduating, she moved to Cairo, IL where she worked at the Two Rivers Community Development Center. In January 2007, she left America to go on an 11-month pilgrimage .