Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Reunion

I was riding in the back of one of the pick-up trucks (one of my favorite things about living in Honduras) with the other volunteers returning from our vacation weekend when Levin spotted us. He sprinted up to the side of the car with his giant smile on his face. "My hermanito (little brother) is coming!" he squealed. My heart was bursting. "I know!" I laughed with him, and we collided in a hug as I jumped out of the truck.

Levin is the eight-year-old boy who ran away from the hogar on his very first day (you can read about it here). He was trying to go to the city where he had been living a state-run temporary children's home to get back to his little brother. He agreed to stay at the hogar on the condition that we would bring his brother. The team here had been working on bringing his brother even before Levin arrived at the end of August. Levin had adjusted to living at Amigos and seemed happy, but he never stopped asking about his brother. Now finally, at the beginning of November, he was coming. 

I had gotten the news before we left for our vacation and thank goodness we left. I wasn't allowed to tell Levin, just in case it didn't work out, and I don't think I would have been able to contain my excitement all weekend if we had been here at the hogar. When one of the volunteers told me the news, I surprised myself by instantly beginning to cry. I hadn't realized how much I, like Levin, had been hanging on to the promise of his brother coming to the hogar, how I had been storing up in my heart all the times Levin said something like, "He's very very little, my little brother. Much younger than me; he's 6. When is he coming?"
That Sunday night after dinner, I learned that I had been given the day off from teaching so that I could go into the city with Levin to pick up his brother from the court. I was elated. The next morning we were on the road by 6 a.m. I've never seen Levin sit so erect and still for so long in his life, but for the first half hour of the car ride, he barely budged. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, his eyes were glued out the window as though he could hardly believe we were going, only moving to throw grins back at me over his shoulder every few minutes. Levin is a challenging child in a lot of ways. He doesn't like to listen when he's told to do something, he whines for what he wants when he's not given it, and he throws terrible fits over absolutely nothing, things like not getting his way immediately. He's gotten a reputation among the other boys his age as a cry baby. As I've gotten to know him better over the last three months, it's been hard to see the unpleasant side of him come out, even as he continues to adjust to life here in this safe, stable environment. But I'm still crazy about him. As we drove, I thought about how having his little brother around might help him grow up a little bit. I could see being a good role model as a powerful force in improving his behavior.
As we drove, the driver noticed something wrong with the car. By the time we were in the city, it had started making terrible noises, squealing brakes and grinding gears. We barely made it to an auto-repair shop. While our driver stayed at the shop with the car, our lawyer, Levin and I took a taxi to a neighborhood half an hour outside of the city where the court was where we would be meeting Levin's brother and signing off on the paper work. Even with the delay of the broken down car, we arrived in the town early enough to have Levin eat breakfast and to be waiting on time at 9 a.m. for our appointment. Levin's brother's guardian was supposed to bring him and we were to meet him and take Wilbur with us. The lawyer had hoped we could leave at 10 and be back at the hogar by noon in time for lunch.

We waited and waited and waited. There was a box of toys in the waiting room and Levin and I played. He didn't realize we had an appointment time; he thought the waiting was normal. Throughtout the morning, he would throw out bits of information about his brother that began to break my heart more and more as it got later and later. He was blissfully unaware, occupied with the toys in the waiting room as I began to hear talk of police escorts and force. As it turned out, the people in the office who had the current address for the guardian were on vacation and the threats of a police escort coming to forcibly remove the child hadn't worked. Our hands were tied and it was already after 12. We had to admit that there was no use waiting around and head home.

Levin took the news like a champ as we got back into the taxi and drove back to the city. We had just entered the city when the taxi began to make strange noises. Just then the lawyer got a phone call. The guardian had shown up with Wilbur. We pulled over and the driver began to examine the front of his car. He called a friend to come get us and we sat in the hot cab waiting for him to arrive so that we could turn around and drive the half hour back to the court.

We pulled into the familiar parking lot and walked back through the familiar foyer into a waiting room that had been transformed. The toys, which I had made Levin keep neatly in the box, were scattered about the entire perimeter and smack in the middle was a child like a tornado. Levin was suddenly  a little shy, but went up behind to tap him on the shoulder. For a second Wilbur stared blankly at Levin, then suddenly recognized his brother. They hugged. With barely a pause, Wilbur was back to yelling happily at his toys (his one volume is loud) and for Levin to check out all of the things he had found.

Wilbur has a face that makes you want to laugh, no matter what kind of trouble he's making. He has an enormous personality. He's like Dennis the Menace meets Dori from Finding Nemo meets the Energizer Bunny. And he comes up to about my knee, so it's all packed into a tiny muscular body that walks with a swagger and grins up with a smile sans its two front teeth.

Levin hung around me at first, watching. Wilbur is an overwhelming child. "He's very little, isn't he? I didn't lie," he kept saying. Gradually he started chiding him a bit, trying to get him to meet me, his friend the gringa, and make a little less noise. By the time we were leaving, he had already cleaned up for his brother several times. 

We were a long time in the office until it was time for the goodbye between the guardian and Wilbur, which I will never forget. We took the long familiar road back to the city, but our adventures were still not over. The car couldn't be fixed that day so after spending hours buying the parts it needed and driving back and forth between the auto body and the parts store and doing some price haggling and buying food on the road, we weren't headed back to the hogar until 5:30.

At first, Levin was the best I've ever seen. He was super patient with his incorrigible brother, modeled good behavior without being asked, held his brother by the hand and told him to be well behaved. But somewhere during those long, hot, hungry hours his patience ran out. At one point he was sitting on the floor crying outside of the car parts store while I chased Wilbur through the parking lot. In my hot and tired state it was hard for me to not take to heart the "He's not my brother" that Levin had adopted like a mantra. But by the time we were all in the back seat of a borrowed car for the two hour ride home with fast food in hand, things had reached equilibrium once again. When Wilbur fell asleep on my shoulder, I knew I had fallen in love again.

I'm sorry to bore you all with the details of the whole day, but it's just so typical of so many of my experiences here: the frustrations of institutional failures that are so common, the million tiny things that always can and therefore do go wrong so that I've begun to expect them, the emotional intensity of being let into the kids' world, the infuriating bad behavior, the immense love.

You can't help but love Wilbur. He's stolen a lot of hearts already in the time he's been here. He's also an exasperating kid. I've already told you his height. Tonight he took a running jump from a step onto my back with his hands in a vice around my neck. Sometimes I think he's all rubber and springs. Levin is still Levin. He's at his best when he's the protective big brother and he can be counted on to encourage Wilbur to do the right thing and listen to his Madrinas and Padrinos. Levin himself, however, still has trouble with the latter. 

The two brothers sleep in the same room now. They eat at the same table at dinner. They'll grow up here, safe and loved, together, a little family within the bigger family that is Amigos de Jesús.


  1. Joanna,

    You're the best!!! We miss you. Be safe.

    Uncle Steve & Aunt Judi

  2. Your posts always make my day, "gringa". :)