His face was smudged with dirt. He wore a red and blue striped shirt and no pants. When I stepped off the truck, he immediately engaged me in a childlike version of patty cake. Because of the language barrier, I used only my hands to show him the mechanics of how to cross our arms and clap opposite hands instead of mirroring each other. It took him several failed attempts to catch on and master the hand/eye coordination and pattern we were creating. He finally got the three actions all in a row, repeatedly, and wouldn’t stop for fear of forgetting our new game. The look of intensity on his face captured my heart. More than his lack of clothing, his face and intelligence is what I will remember.
She was older than the rest. More physically able, but less mentally so. She wore corn row braids in her hair and a tattered sundress, the strap constantly slipping off her shoulder. She hung back when the boys were passing the soccer ball in the courtyard, but I knew she wanted to join. Once I invited her in, she picked up the ball with her hands each time it came to her and then drop kicked it to the next person. Each time it went over their head they were frustrated further. She tousled with a boy in a wheelchair when he tried to intercept the ball to prevent her turn in our little passing game. The boys finally grew disinterested and she and I had the soccer ball all to ourselves. I caught her attention, placed the ball down on the ground, and demonstrated how to pass it on the ground without picking it up. At first she picked it up and drop kicked it again, right past me. I repeatedly showed her how to stop it and gently pass it along the ground and finally she got it! From then on we passed the ball back and forth only using our feet – no hands or drop kicks. I can still picture her sweet, shy face and her tenacious look of concentration.
Faces of babies and children peeked out of cribs around the crowded room. As we began holding, snuggling and rocking them, one of the Sisters came in and firmly spoke in crystal clear English, “Put down the bigger babies and pick up the littlest ones.” I happened to be standing next to the crib of the smallest baby in all four combined rooms of ailing children, so I obeyed. Her frail, bony frame spanned only the distance from my elbow to the end of my fingertips. As I held her, I measured her tiny foot – it was no longer than my pinky finger. She couldn’t have weighed more than 7 lbs. The oversized plastic hospital tag on her leg stated her age as 5 months old. Her size contradicted reality. A nurse handed me a bottle to feed her, and she barely swallowed the formula, gagging at almost every sip. We made slow progress but when the bottle was half gone, I stopped to give her a break. It was then she began to convulse, and immediately spit up every last drop of our hard work onto her petite patterned dress and down my apron. Just after I got her into dry clothes, visiting hours began. I was overjoyed when her mama came to her bed, and we exchanged a knowing look as I handed her over. I didn’t know her language well enough to speak to her. No matter. Words weren’t necessary.
His shirt was yellow, and shone as bright as his smile. He was a fierce, energetic competitor, and I was glad we were on the same team. Our half-court game of 4-on-4 took place on a concrete basketball court, with a kickball, in the blazing, midday Haitian sun. But these boys were unfazed…we played a full game to 21 that lasted over an hour. Despite the fact that our Haitian teammates were deaf, they didn’t need to hear us calling for the ball, or celebrating with our voices when we scored. Our silent “air fives” and our motions for passing and eye contact were enough. When our team won, my yellow shirted friend’s face beamed with pride as we hugged and took our team picture. That afternoon, we spoke the universal language of “hoops”—transcending culture, age, language and even, sound.
He wore a look of concentration. His pressed oxford and jeans were immaculate, like his posture, as he walked by carrying a tray laden with coca colas. I would recognize that face—that walk—anywhere. My first trip to Haiti, over six years ago, I remembered watching him strut confidently around the orphanage at the tender age of 13 wearing a famous player’s soccer jersey, the name embroidered on the back coincidentally matching his own. His compatriots deferred to his unspoken authority, on the soccer “field” or in the schoolyard. He had a surety about him, but it was apparent that he was broken in places too deep to see, hardened by circumstance, and guarded his heart and emotions. But, now, this. Watching him as a 19 year old, diligently, pridefully, waiting tables with such respect and care. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I didn’t even try. Now he strode proudly for good reason. He had a job! And an opportunity to make a better future for himself and his own family someday. What a story of victory! What a testament to the power of God!
These are the faces that I see each night as I go to bed, and each morning as dusk turns to bleary eyed awakening, in these days following my return. Haiti remains close. Her people’s faces click through my mind like a slide show, these precious ones a few of hundreds I see. I wonder what they’re doing at this moment. Is it raining there as it is here right now and does my blue and red striped shirt boy have a dry place to sleep? Are those boys including my sundress girl and allowing her to showcase her new found passing skills? Is my wee malnourished girl keeping food down yet and is mama still coming each day? Does my basketball friend have a home to go to for the summer? Is the waiter friend getting good tips and being treated well?
I see those faces, and reflect on what I saw in their eyes.
Perseverance. Faith. Adoration. Love. Determination. Joy. Beauty. Hope.
These faces. These moments. I don’t, and won’t, forget.