(Written Saturday, July 11, 2015): Two days ago I found myself signing the now-familiar paperwork in Honduras’ child protection agency after having received an entirely unexpected call from the agency’s lawyer the day prior.
Our 11-year-old daughter Jackeline and our eldest, 14-year-old Dayana, had asked to come along with me for what promised to be a “wild card” event. Jackeline had gone to use the restroom in the child protection agency’s small downtown building after all three of us had been waiting upon the arrival of the newest member of our family in the case worker’s office. As I flipped through the thin manila folder that contained a pending blood test and a typed letter from the Honduran government legally placing the child under our custody along with zero personal or background information, 11-year-old Jackeline suddenly appeared from her trip to the bathroom with somebody quite small connected to her right hand. Jackeline looked close to tears as she told me that while using the bathroom she happened across our new family member in the hallway en route to the room where we waited.
Jackeline, who has only been with us five-and-a-half months and who has not yet been subject to the generally extreme shock waves that come with receiving someone new into the family, looked proud and gentle and sensitively joyful in a way that I had yet seen her. I gazed upon Jackeline, who is quickly becoming a young woman, and smiled in awe of the work God is etching out in her before I crouched before the little angel connected to her arm. We had been told she was seven years old but looked to be more like five or six (the agency later told us that no one knows her real age because she doesn’t have a birth certificate). Before I could say anything, Jackeline bent down and said to the little angel in the white dress, “This is my mom,” pointing up at me. “She will be your mom too.”
Jackeline told me in an urgent whisper that our new little friend was hungry and that Jackeline wanted to walk with her over to the little window shop on the agency’s property to get her a snack. I sensed that this was a beautiful prompting from God in Jackeline’s heart, a simple expression of God’s love flowing through Jackeline as a vessel into the life of an obviously-overwhelmed (and hungry!) little girl, so I gave Jackeline some money and felt a bubbling sense of joy in my chest as they walked off, still hand-in-hand.
Less than two minutes later I found Jackeline without the snack and instead in tears as she squinted her eyes shut and rocked back-and-forth in my embrace, telling me that in the distance of a few dozen yards as she was on her way to the window shop one of the building’s maintenance men or guards had inappropriately approached her. He had worked at the women’s shelter where Jackeline had previously lived with her mom and little brother for a few months, and he had, in Jackeline’s words, “treated [her] mom as a prostitute.”
So that was the beginning of the story that seems to already have so many details even though it is still so overwhelmingly new. For now she sleeps on a mattress on the floor in Darwin’s and my bedroom until things settle down a bit. Every night – for the two nights she’s been here, that is – I sit on the floor next to her mattress in our small bedroom and stroke her head and rub her feet and sing to her about Jesus’ love until she finally dozes off to sleep. And then I climb into bed and pray for her life and listen over-attentively throughout the night at every little sigh or toss or turn or cough or her occasional sleep-talk as she dozes somewhat acrobatically but profoundly on the mattress not six inches from ours.
Because, you see, this angel has not known what it is to be a little girl; thus far in her life she has been used as her stepfather’s sexual plaything and possibly that of other men as well. Our little angel with a shaved head that reveals more than a couple dozen bald spots on her scalp has experienced the same things that a jaded prostitute has.
Height-wise she doesn’t even reach my belly-button.
The first night our new little angel (Gabriela) was in our home, Gleny, our 10-year-old fireball who has been with us almost two years, was saying things that a generally care-free 10-year-old should say as all of us sat around together. Gleny was explaining somewhat dramatically how her nose is the most sensitive part of her body, and if she bonks it on something, her nose will start to bleed. Immediately, smiling and wanting to join in the quite normal conversation, our newest little angel stated simply: “I bleed from down there,” pointing to her vagina.
So she is understandably aggressive and talks way too much and way too loud and doesn’t listen and hasn’t yet learned how to make eye contact. She makes sexual comments in normal conversation, has to be under constant surveillance because she will try to touch the boys and men around her, tried to undress in front of my husband, typically struggles to follow a simple train of thought, takes her clothes off in public, steals and lies.
On her second day here – yesterday — she, our seven-year-old special needs son Josue and I were up early as I swung them back and forth on two of the wooden swings hung from the porch on our property’s Education House. Darwin had already left at 5:30am that morning to head to work as a music teacher in the nearby city of La Ceiba, and I gazed out across our large grassy property as our cows – the second of which gave birth about a week ago – roamed about in the quiet morning hours. I whispered a prayer asking God for strength and couldn’t shake the notion that this would prove to be a grueling day after having slept only three hours that night and less the night before.
Gabriela generally talks on and on to no one in particular and I’m not able to understand most of it because she has a lisp and dreadfully mispronounces a good deal of the words she uses, but this time I realized she was asking me a specific question so I squatted down in front of her and asked her to repeat what she had asked me. “When’s he coming here? Am I goin’ back there next week?” I asked for clarity, and, yes, she was talking about her stepfather. Having to call her focus back to me several times, I told her a couple inches from her face: “You’re not going to see him right now, and he is definitely not coming here. What he did to you was not okay, and I am so sorry. You can rest now because here he cannot touch you.”
She seemed to miraculously follow that train of thought after having always previously answered me with a far-off and really loud, “Huh?!” Whether I had said, “Time for dinner” or “How are you feeling, Gabriela?” or given a slow, thoughtful explanation of what we would be doing next in our schedule, she always seemed to answer with a bewildered, “Huh?!”
But not this time. This time she went on a rant, saying that she’s gonna put him in jail, she’s gonna jail him. Never getting up from my squatted position next to her swing, I apologized again for everything she had been through and told her that she didn’t have to worry about enacting justice because that was not her job, that God would ultimately do justice in the situation, whether that is eternal condemnation or repentance and transformation. We can trust in God because He is just and good.
She continued yelling about putting him in jail, swinging past me back and forth on the front porch swing, and I gently said, “Gabriela, I know you are mad at him, but it is my hope that God will enable you to forgive him. Rather than hating him, we can pray for him.”
Entirely unexpectedly, she put her short legs down to stop the violent back-and-forth of movement, and looked at me, again without a “Huh?!” and simply said, “Ok,” then looking expectant of something.
Caught off guard, I asked, “Ok…? Oh! Do you want us to pray for him right now?”
That was, in fact, what she wanted, so I put my hand on her shoulder and began praying for the Lord to do a work both in her heart and in the life of the man who took what was not his.
About three minutes later, she asked to pray for him again.
So she calls me “Hey you!” whenever she wants to talk to me (which is about 89.73 times per day) and does a guttural shout to get people’s attention in normal conversation. She holds my hand in tender moments at bed-time when every other waking second of the day seems like full-on warfare. Friday I left her side for under 45 seconds to run and get a toilet brush for Jackeline, and when I came back she was manhandling Josue over a petty fight to see who would get the porch swing (and there are two swings). So Darwin and I stay up until past midnight praying together and I tell her about a savior she can’t see and we don’t stop clinging to the belief in a God who makes all things new.
Thursday, her first night here, as she was changing into her pijamas and I stood in the bathroom with her at her request, holding up a towel to give her both privacy and company, she said from the other side of the towel in her usual straight-forward, aggressive tone, “Hey you! Isn’t it right that you like me?”
I laughed and said, “Yes, I really like you, Gabriela.”
She asked abruptly, “I’m leaving here next week, right?”
Me: “No, you’re going to be here for quite some time. We’re your new family, and we’re not going to mistreat you.”
Gabriela: “Oh.” And then, equally abruptly, almost interrogatively: “You’re my mom, right?”
I laughed again and said, “Yes.”