If it was 120 degrees outside, the museum was approximately, umm, twice that.
We made our way through a series of exhibits that looked like they had been discarded from a 1950’s science fiction movie and by the third one I stopped trying to wipe the sweat dripping down my arms and legs. My left hand held Sangita’s, and Mohit held the pinky of my right hand. He wasn’t ready to let me all the way into his world, but I think he was intimidated by the dark, winding exhibit and I loved the opportunity to walk with him. It was my second time with him, and my heart was desperate to connect with him-the little boy whose teacher told me he hardly spoke or smiled. In fact, the only way we could get him to smile for the camera was to tell him to show his teeth, hence the hilarious photos of him on my blog. I was totally intrigued by him from the moment I met him because he had a streak of independence behind these huge, gentle eyes, and I wanted to see him laugh and play like a child. As we walked, I pointed to different displays and smiled, trying to get him to smile back. He didn’t. He looked at me momentarily and then stared straight ahead.
Sangita immediately took on the role of big sister, despite the fact that they had never met and would probably never see each other again. She understood that I was caring for them both, so we were a little unit traveling around. They actually spoke different dialects, but that did not prevent her from communicating with him as any big sister would. As Mohit stared ahead, loosely holding onto me, I looked at Sangita, who had been watching me try to win him over with my dramatic pointing and over-the-top smiling. I shrugged my shoulders at her and she covered her mouth in a stifled giggle.
He was totally not impressed with me.
And I took it as a personal challenge.
Unfortunately, my funny stories were lost in translation. But I knew that somewhere in there was a real smile, and I was determined to break through to him. At the same time, I wanted him to process the whole thing the way he needed to, because how weird would it be to meet an American woman (when you have never seen an American) who tells you that she is going to help take care of you and then, days later, takes you out to a science museum and proceeds to make goofy faces for six hours straight.
I think he was ready for a new sponsor.
But Sangita was highly amused by the whole thing, so it became a team effort. She would put her arm around him wherever we went, and if he started to wander off, she would give him the look that simply said, “Not a good idea,” and he would drift back to where we were. When she thought he might be thirsty, she opened up his little bag, unzipped the front pocket and took out the only possession he had with him. It was an old, dirty coke bottle that looked like it had been refilled for years, but it was his and he took great pride in it. She would unscrew the top gently, hold it to his mouth, and then wipe his face, put the top back on, and put it back into his bag. He nodded slightly in recognition and then kept moving. I squeezed her hand and smiled at her, and asked a translator to tell her how special she was. Her face lit up. She was so easy to love, and when I would let go of her hand to wipe my sweat for a moment, she would walk a little closer and let her hand graze on mine, not confident enough to take hold, but wanting to let me know she was there. It made my heart swell to be able to meet these two children, so different from each other and from me, and yet, we made the perfect team.
After the exhibits, we made our way to the planetarium for a movie. The room was filled with itchy, decades-old chairs that squeaked when anyone made the slightest movement. It smelled like a combination of dust and smoke, and it was filled with the raucous sound of laughter as people settled in for what was sure to be the experience of a lifetime for some of the viewers.
Mohit, on the other hand, sat down in his seat like he had been there a million times, and looked at me like I had just pulled a dead bunny out of my magic hat and shouted, “Tah-Dah!!!!”
The seats reclined completely so that you could look up at the giant screen, but he did not like the feeling of that at all. When I heard him whispering in a fearful voice to the translator, I asked if he was okay. She said he didn’t want to lean back and he was feeling a little afraid. I asked her to ask Mohit if he wanted to sit on my lap. She asked him, and he looked at me like I had just shot the bunny in the magic hat.
No such luck.
And with every protest, every grimace, every solemn look, I just fell more and more in love with him because I could see what was hidden deep in his spirit. He was a boy, trying to be a man because that’s what he had learned to do in his world. And here I was, trying to teach him about how to be a kid.
Little did I know that he was about to teach me the lesson of my life.
As the lights dimmed, I saw his tiny hand grip deeper into the worn armrest and I looked at him helplessly. He didn’t want my comfort, but as a mother, it was all I could do not to gather him in my arms and explain it all to him. I asked his translator to explain what he was going to see, and after she did, he nodded again, but he continued to sit straight up with his eyes boring a whole in the screen.
Suddenly it filled with light and instead of watching the movie, I watched him.
His eyes grew wide as images of Mount Everest filled the room, and at one point as the snow tumbled down the screen, he put his hands in front of his face repeatedly to protect himself. As the camera panned out and showed the whole mountain, Mohit jumped out of his seat and started speaking quickly. The translator settled him back into his seat and whispered to him. He seemed to accept whatever she said for a few minutes, but then he jumped up again and I could hear the agitation in his voice as he spoke. She shook her head, which made him shake his head, and then he sat back down again.
I leaned my chair forward and asked her if he was afraid, volunteering to take him out of the theater if it was too much for him.
She smiled softly and spoke a sentence that I have been processing since that moment.
“Sister, he is not afraid. He just doesn’t understand why he can’t climb the mountain.”
I was speechless.
Despite the fact that he was five years old, he had just given me more to chew on than I thought I could handle.
Because the truth of the matter is that I saw how peculiar it must be for a child who lives in a village of devastating poverty to watch money be exchanged, only to walk into a crowded room and look at something you couldn’t even touch.
And the sad part was that it didn’t strike me as odd at all, because it is how I have lived my entire life.
I’m not a climber, after all.
I have perfected the art of spectating.
In his economy, it was pointless, and as I took the whole scene in, I made a promise to myself that I pray I will be able to keep.
No more living from the third row.
The fact of the matter is that my kids would have been satiated by the graphics, just as I am in many other aspects of my life.
But it isn’t real.
And as I watched him move constantly as the screen changed, I smiled to myself. He just wanted to climb it. And why not?
Nobody ever told him he couldn’t.
I touched his head gently and prayed over him, but his eyes remained fixed on the dancing movements all around him. I asked the Lord to help him grow into his full potential, and to give him the strength and wisdom to grow into a man who wasn’t intimidated by the climb.
We shuffled out of the theater and eventually went to a large mall in the area to feed the kids. While Sangita looked around like she was in a dream, Mohit kept one hand on his bag strap, seemingly unfazed.
He sat in the booth and told his translator that he would like to eat a lot of rice. A tray was brought to him that contained a heap of rice and about ten other kinds of food. He dug right into the rice and ate some of the bread, but didn’t look real excited about the rest of it. When Sangita urged him to try a piece of bright red meat (some kind of spicy chicken), he gently put his tongue on it and immediately his face contorted into an image of total disgust. Sangita’s eyes opened wide, fearful that this may be taken as a sign of disrespect, and she looked to me questioningly. I burst into laughter, so she did the same. We giggled our heads off as Mohit smiled slightly and I reassured him that he did not have to eat anything he didn’t like. I watched as a woman a few tables away tore her child’s bread into little pieces, so I did the same with his. He nodded.
Another woman brought over a tray of fresh bottled water and I remembered how Sangita had helped him drink, so I confidently opened one up and motioned to him. He didn’t move. He had to be thirsty, so I started to put it up to his mouth and he turned his head away slowly. It wasn’t an act of defiance, but I couldn’t read the situation and I looked around for someone who could ask him what was wrong. Before I had the chance, Sangita touched my arm and I watched her open his bag, unzip the zipper, and open his water bottle. He gulped it down and set it in front of him as he went back to his food.
The next time, I left the fresh bottle alone and lifted his water to his mouth and he kept his eyes on me while he accepting the drink. There were no words exchanged, just a simple understanding that permeated the silence.
I am not here to change you, or to take from you what is important.
I am here to respect what is yours and to care for you in the way that is comfortable to you.
As Compassion says, “We don’t want to mold children into people they aren’t. Our goal is to love them enough to see what is hidden in them and then work to help that blossom.”
In that moment, I think he understood my heart better, and as we finished our meal, I wiped his messy face while his eyes searched mine.
As everyone started to leave, I put the top back on his water, gingerly opened his bag while watching for his approval, and slipped it back into the front pocket. I replaced the front flap and snapped it shut.
When we stood to leave, I felt his hand brush mine and instead of taking it, I simply extended my fingers to him.
This time, he took two.