I swing the curtains wide open and pull the most annoying stunt known to children.
“WAKE UP! IT’S GOING TO BE AN AMAZING DAY!”
They are less than thrilled.
A few minutes later we stand in a row, all watching our toothbrushes move in the mirror.
“Where are we going today?” Abby asks.
“Today is the day we get to meet Fernanda!” I’m substantially over-emoting, but we’re a little road-weary and I think if I act as tired as I feel we might be in trouble.
Ellie spits out her toothpaste, wipes her mouth, and leaves the bathroom without saying a word.
A few minutes later I ask her what’s going on and she tells me she doesn’t really want to meet Fernanda.” I can tell she’s nervous.
“You know, I think you’re going to have a really special connection with her.” I say, rubbing her back while she stares at her hands.
“Well, then you’re going to be disappointed.” She answers.
Both of my girls have this part of their personality, where they will do almost anything socially unless they sense its forced. I don’t blame them, honestly. I knew without her explaining that she had a couple different fears going on. On top of the basic, “We don’t share a language or basically anything else” thing, she doesn’t do well in situations where there is an expectation she feels like she won’t be able to meet.
She doesn’t do the whole “connect because I think you should” thing. If she’s not ready, she isn’t budging.
So the fact that she knew this “meeting” was a big deal was starting to shut her down emotionally. I remind her that there is nothing expected of her, and she should act however feels comfortable. She nods, worry still clouding her eyes.
As we arrive, our trip guide steps off the bus and calls out Fernanda’s name. I’m walking in her direction as a teacher leads her to the front of the children and encourages her to come to us. I see the teacher’s arms push her in our direction, and then she claps and celebrates in spite of the fact that Fernanda has clearly been more “propelled” than she was “actively choosing direction.”
She tucks her head and hugs me, but as the cameras flash and people cheer, the irony doesn’t escape me.
We are strangers.
She is a nine year old girl whose teachers are urging her (lovingly, of course) to hug me and speak to me. She does as she is told, but she’s scared, and I know it.
She’s digging her feet in the dirt the same way Ellie is.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” I say, waving my hand and smiling at her teachers. “This is so weird for her…don’t worry!” I shake my head at her as if to say, “No problem!” and she smiles a little.
I point to the twins, telling Fernanda their names and she smiles a tiny bit more. Her teachers both speak at the same time, no doubt telling her to greet Abby and Ellie properly out of respect.
All three move toward each other, not out of love, but rather obedience. They embrace tentatively, unsure of what happens next.
A voice tells us to come inside the church, and we settle in the sanctuary as the toddlers perform routines and the Pastor welcomes us.
I am sitting by Fernanda, but Abby and Ellie have chosen the other side of the church, and I wave to let them know they are free to stay there and don’t need to feel bad. It’s okay, I say with my eyes.
Fernanda’s teachers sit nearby, and they explain that she is very, very timid. She was transferred from another program in August so she’s relatively new to this one. She is sweet, they say, but she doesn’t express emotion. Fernanda’s eyes study the floor and her feet swing back and forth from the pew while she listens.
I watch her shoes move while her teacher talks, and I am suddenly struck by the deep affection I have for her.
It’s beautiful to just be in her world, and I want to see what she sees, take in the spaces that make up her days. I feel a protectiveness over her, an affinity that makes me feel inexplicably knitted to her. I expect nothing in return, and mentally acknowledge that I will likely not win her over today. It doesn’t matter…I’ve fallen for her.
As we stand to leave the church, I giggle and call the girls over so we can get a picture. I tell Fernanda that we bought these shoes for the trip, and she tells us that she got hers three days ago.
They’re just laces, but they bring me a smile as I imagine each of the girls here pulling their new shoes onto little feet this morning, looping them one lace over another, until they’re woven tight, tied, and ready to meet a stranger.
They don’t share a language, a country, or a worldview, but in this moment they share shoes.
We follow Fernanda as she disappears down corridors that would have made my kids cringe a few weeks ago. In her classroom, Fernanda’s teacher is holding her recent artwork up for us to see and I tell her she’s a very good artist. Ellie tells her she wishes she could draw that well and Fernanda appreciates the compliment. She speaks quietly to her teacher and her hand points to a table behind us.
“She would like to show you her chair.” The teacher explains.
She walks in the direction of her seat and I look at Abby and Ellie to see if they are going to move. They take a few steps closer to her, but stop short of her chair.
They show her that they are paying attention, but they aren’t ready to sit where she sits.
It’s no problem, my hands translate. Go as far as you feel you can.
We’ll get there, loves.
I’m busy making sure Fernanda has a toothbrush in the cabinet, scouting the walls for her projects, and wondering where she hangs her coat when she gets to the center. Clearly I have some control issues. Noted.
After a few minutes, Ellie starts asking questions about her school and the translator works her way back and forth for a few minutes, both girls now openly smiling at each other and making eye contact. They are learning each other’s ways, and for a moment I forget we don’t understand her words. Suddenly one of my girls jumps in the air and says, “Jump! Jump!” and Fernanda giggles tentatively. They point to her and repeat the jumping.
In an empty classroom. in a desperate corner of Peru, a little girl begins to trust us.
They’re all legs and gasping giggles and I watch it like I’m watching a favorite movie.
Moments later, a woman peeks in to tell us we need to move into the next area together, and Fernanda makes a beeline for the door. She stops abruptly as she gets there and turns her head to Abby and Ellie. Her teacher listens and then translates what she says to them.
“She wants to know if she may take your hand.” She says.
Fernanda looks shyly, hopefully at Ellie.
Ellie nods and I watch tiny brown and white fingers intertwine as they leave the room.
I can only see the backs of their heads as they walk, but I believe they’re smiling as they go. I take a few photos because it strikes me as a significant moment, only to realize my eyes have teared up and I can’t see them through the lens.
We end up in the area where moms and teenage girls are completing training in cosmetology, and they are mesmerized by the intricate braids they are able to do. One of the women asks Abby if she would like her hair braided and she nods yes while Ellie shouts, “ME TOO!” While the girls do a dance of excitement over their soon-to-be hairstyles, Fernanda laughs and laughs. I see a dimple in her right cheek for the first time and I celebrate another milestone. We all squeeze in the tiny room and watch as a woman creates the most intricate, beautiful braid I have ever seen. I ask the translator to tell her I want to learn, so she instructs me as she goes.
“This one to this side, but not too much…” Im watching her fingers and I know mine will never be able to recreate it. “And then this one over, then this one, then this…”
The teachers are whispering and pointing to me and the kids, so I ask the translator what she is saying.
“They are saying they have never seen Fernanda show this side, and they believe that you all have brought out a special kind of affection. They are saying they are so happy to see her laugh and smile.”
I turn, tears stinging, and watch as the hairdresser holds three separate lengths of hair and then begins to braid them together. The symbolism makes my knees weak, and I thank him in advance for what He is making one.
I don’t want to push you while your feet dig into the dirt, and I promise you I have no intention of making this choice sound like a “photo-op” for your faith.
I’ve seen enough in one day to pen volumes about what love really looks like when it bends toward another.
It loops, one lace over another, until what was once foreign feels familiar.
It intertwines heart and hand, and what seemed an impossible path simply becomes the only way.
It weaves our very lives, and what was separate is more beautiful whole.
It blurs the line between grace and glory, and it lives only to bring life.
Risk is relative when the hours are this short…
We can continue as we have been-that’s always an option I suppose.
Or, we can jump in an empty room, knot our lives with the lives of others, and finally understand the power of being woven by the hand of the Lord.
I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
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