The first time I saw her face, she was crying.
I knelt in front of her, wiping her tears with my thumbs. When I see a child cry I need to hold her. To protect her from the cause of her tears. But in some way, I was the cause of her tears.
I’m not used to a child crying for reasons other than fear or sadness. Her tears were different. They looked the same, leaving salty, dry tracks down her face. But they came from a different place. From feeling overwhelmed by so many strangers. From, as hard as it was to admit, gratitude. Gratitude for me.
Still, I reached out to her. She came into my arms and I lifted her up. She buried her face in my shoulder, her tight brown braids against my chin.
When she cried, she trilled like a little bird in my ear, as she blew air between her lips.
That is the sound that I can’t forget. While the other memories of the day have already faded, I can’t forget that sound, a distraught sigh, a melodic sob.
We sat at a table and I kept refilling her bowl of popcorn, her cup of slightly flat cola. She held a doll in her lap.
“She wants you to know what her doll’s name is,” the translator explained. I nodded. “Her name is Brandy.” I smiled.
I gave her a teddy bear, and she immediately named him Pablito. I pointed to the stitched heart on Pablito’s chest.
“Do you know what this means?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“It means that I love you very much.”
We went to play on a giant inflatable slide. In the crush of children, we were separated. I saw her sitting alone, her little brown braids quivering. These were tears that I recognized—of fear. It took everything in me not to toss other little dark-haired children aside as I tried to get to her. Finally, we sat together, and she slipped her hand in mine. I wiped away her tears before we hurtled down the slide.
“Let’s just do the swings,” she said, pulling on my hand.
I stood in front of her and pushed the swing, making faces, trying to make her laugh. I grabbed the swing and held it mid-air.
“Mas?” I asked.
“Si,” she replied.
We eventually went to a smaller slide, and she climbed the ladder. She sat at the edge of the slide, placed Pablito between her knees, and inched her way down. Over and over. I chatted with her mother. Found out that my sweet girl had almost died as a baby. That she had been in a coma for three days. No explanation of why.
I watched her meticulous slide technique. And I was glad she was alive. Glad that she had woken up from her coma. Glad that she and Pablito were enjoying the day.
We played with bubbles and ran around a field playing a soccer/rugby hybrid. At lunch she slumped in her chair, her eyes fluttering. I plied her with more soda, sugar and caffeine to the rescue.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked.
“Jugar,” she replied.
“She says, she wants to play when she grows up,” the translator said. We laughed.
“More swings,” she said after lunch. I obliged. Anything to make her smile.
Later we found a spot in the shade so I could give her gifts. A backpack and school supplies and toys. When she pulled out a Dora doll her eyes lit up. Poor Pablito had been replaced.
I gave gifts to her mother and grandmother. Wooden spoons, towels, crisp sheets and plastic plates. They cried and wiped at their faces with their red and green skirts.
“We want to sing you a song,” they said. I fumbled with my phone, trying to record their singing. I hit record and stared at my girl on the screen. Her face grew red, her lower lip quivered, and tears slipped down her sweaty face. I had to look away.
I held her hand while we prayed, her whispered Spanish in my ear. I hugged her mother, her grandmother, felt their hot tears on my shoulder.
“Our hearts are breaking,” her mother said. I nodded.
“You are a part of our family,” her grandmother said. I closed my eyes, dizzy with the heat and the literal pain in my chest.
I didn’t want to leave my little Guatemalan family. I wanted to wear a colorful red skirt made of rough fabric, a bright sash tied around my waist. I wanted nimble brown fingers to braid my hair. I wanted to learn to wrap pale yellow tamales in green leaves. I wanted to eat beans and rice for the rest of my days. I wanted to walk to a home down a twisting path in the middle of a corn field. I wanted to learn to weave blankets and carry them on my head to the market.
My little bird brought me back to reality. I knelt in front of her.
“I love you,” I said.
“Me llamo,” my translator repeated.
“You are beautiful”
“I will never forget you.”
“Nunca te olvidaré.”
I held her tight, then hugged her mother and grandmother. Then I walked away from my little Guatemalan family.
But all the way home, I could still hear her in my ear. Even today, it is there.