I looked around at them, still amazed that I had really brought teenagers to a foreign country. Amazed at the level of trust and confidence that had been placed on me. Amazed at how much I loved them, and how much the events of the day tied my heart to theirs at a deeper level than I thought possible.
These were first my students, but now, I was beginning to show them my heart. They were seeing the place and the people that embody my passion. I was anxious for their thoughts.
It had been a rough start. Our small team had left Atlanta on Saturday afternoon and been delayed overnight in Ft. Lauderdale. We arrived in the DR a day late.
Monday, we were scheduled to drive into Santo Domingo to meet our Compassion sponsored children--mine, my co-leader's, and those sponsored by a family from our school.
Monday was a whirlwind. Up at 6:00, and home at 10:00. We were exhausted, mentally and physically. But I think we all felt the urge to talk the day out.
I asked just one question. I asked them who surprised them the most.
The answers varied. We arrived at the last person in the small circle.
Josh Wagner had a rough day. Of all the people on the trip, he had surprised me the most. His quiet, unfailingly patient attitude had turned a series of difficult (and even disgusting) circumstances into joy.
"Enrique," he said simply. "His joy surprised me. I mean, he never stopped smiling."
I can't remember all of his words now, but I can remember how his face looked in the dark.
I can replay the day in my mind, and I am sure Josh can too.
How we drove out to Batey Consuelo at sunrise, me giving them their first taste of poverty. It was harsh, this stepping within hours from an airplane to a slum, from the Ft. Lauderdale Hilton to Enrique's shack of scrap metal. Flip-flops squishing sickly in the mud, I had introduced them to the first truly poor person they had ever known. In spite of the mud and the squalor, Enrique made it hard to believe that he was poor. His smile said otherwise. His smile spoke of a rich joy.
My team was dazzled by him from the beginning. Enrique hardly ever spoke. We loaded him up into the van. His eyes drank in everything. Outside of his stay in the hospital last November, Enrique had never been out of Consuelo, out of the mire of crushing poverty. As we loaded more bodies into the already squishy van, Enrique eventually made his way onto Josh's lap in the backseat.
The hour drive into Santo Domingo seemed much longer. Early morning traffic and the fact that we had 18 people in the 12 passenger van didn't help matters.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. My daughter, Leah, threw up. Her too-early chicken nuggets and pancakes, the swaying of the van, the humidity that creeped into the packed cabin proved to be a sickening combination.
And she threw up on Josh's lap.
Neither he nor Enrique had much to say. We stopped at the nearest store to clean up the mess. The damage was undeniable. Enrique had somehow escaped getting anything on him...but it was clear that we needed to go shopping for Josh.
Unfortunately, the store we stopped at was of the high-end Euro-American variety. With Enrique's tiny brown hand in mine, we walked in. Enrique was distinctly out of place. I felt sick at the contrast. Excess was meeting want in a big way.
I felt more sick when I saw the total for Josh's new shorts and underwear. 2,000 pesos could have fed Enrique's family for a month.
We finally made it to Compassion's office where we met up with the rest of the children. It was amazing to have my Dominican children together. Jeffry, Julio, and Andrea met Enrique. At 7, Andrea appeared larger and healthier by far than Enrique. I remembered the day I had met her in a Santo Domingo slum, sickly and malnourished, and hoped for a day that I could see such a marked improvement for Enrique.
Most of our large group got onto a bus with the children. My kids drove in the van with me...except for Enrique, who followed Josh onto the bus. They had been united by the bond of throw-up.
Our adventure continued at Burger King. The three level playground seemed a paradise for the kids. Enrique never hesitated. He was a whirlwind, everywhere at once. For a long while, we saw here and there a flash of white--his smile--as he wound through the maze of tunnels and slides.
We gave him his first happy meal. Probably one of the happiest he ever had.
Trampolin, the children's museum, is amazing. With all kinds of hands on exhibits for the children, it combines learning and fun. It was an incredible opportunity to take a group of impoverished kids into a place like this. Enrique quietly blended in with all of the other children. One thing stood out.
It was on his face on the earthquake simulator.
On his face in the dinosaur room.
On his face in the submarine.
On his face in the exhibit of the human body, where you could climb hair follicles, slide down a tongue, and hold a brain in your hands.
It was on his face in the Dominican culture room, next to the lurid Mardi Gras costumes, skipping up and down the hopscotch board, and playing the instruments.
It was on his face when I handed him his backpack full of gifts. He never opened gifts in front of me, as if he wasn't really sure what gifts were for.
And it was on his face as we said goodbye to the other children. As they headed for there faraway homes, Enrique knew he was staying with us. The group was quiet after an emotional day of meetings and leavings. The answer seemed to be obvious.
I took them for ice cream.
Our fabulous translator/guide, Marcel Minaya, led us to Cristopher Columbus square, dominated by a ridiculously gorgeous Catholic church and a statue of the late, great, Christopher Columbus himself, who first landed on Hispaniola.
The square was covered with pigeons. Marcel showed us how you could hold out your arms and the pigeons would come and land on them. The next 45 minutes were sheer delight. Everyone was soon covered in pigeons. Laughing and squealing, Enrique, Leah, and the two other small ones we had with us would run through the groups of pigeons, scattering them. They jumped. They were trees. And for that time, they were just kids. Not poor kids or rich kids, hungry kids or full kids. They were just kids.
After a while, we remembered the ice cream. We got bread and meat at the corner store for the little ones, and set up an impromptu picnic in the corner of Bon (the world's best ice cream shop). After the sandwiches, we indulged on large cones of chocolate, caramel, and chinola.
Enrique was enraptured. Chocolate and caramel dripped from his chin. He had never taken off the Burger King crown. Enrique and Josh walked hand in hand to the van.
It was a satisfied and thoughtful group that drove back to San Pedro that night. Enrique was dropped off last. We watched him jump out of the van, still crowned.
Josh was right. The smile had never left Enrique's face. I felt sure his face must have hurt.
Our circle broke up and we went to bed.
That Monday was the first of several days with Enrique. Josh and I would get up earlier than everyone else. We would roll chicken nuggets up in our pancakes and take off through the cane fields to Enrique's house. They were quiet trips. Josh and Enrique never said much. They didn't really have to.
In those days, we sat in an old church and taught Enrique to write his name. We made creatures with play-doh. We smushed them just to see the brilliant smile. We watched Enrique and Leah chase lizards. We watched the girls on our team carry around this almost 13 year old like they would carry around my children.
We never really did anything spectacular. But now, as I think of it, something truly wonderful happened that week.
We treated Enrique as we would have treated any child. The things we did were things we do everyday at home. But for Enrique, I believe those days were the best day of his life.
We all have that kind of power. We all have the opportunity to invest in someone's life in that way. For someone, somewhere, you can be their best memory. You can be what gets them through when it is dark and cold, when they are sick and hungry, when hope is lost.
It was hard, that next Sunday afternoon, to drive Enrique--no longer my boy, but our boy--back to Consuelo for the last time. He had fallen asleep against Josh's side in the backseat.
In his muddy front yard, we stood in a circle and prayed. Words failed me. Tears betrayed my heart. Josh stepped in and prayed.
And as we turned to walk away, Enrique was still smiling.
The days we had spent together, the moments and memories, could not be taken away by a temporary goodbye.
My team members will never see Enrique again. Ashleigh, Josh, Japeth, Lauren, Daniel, Jennifer, and Cambria did not have the opportunity to return in November when I did. But they all sent their love. Each family sent a gift that bought Enrique his bed, his food, and his medicines. They sacrificed their allowances and fast-food paychecks for the boy with the smile.
In April, we will go back to DR. We will visit a grave this time. Those days of joy we spent with Enrique were followed all too closely by days of sickness, of pain, of fear.
When we stand there together, at Enrique's grave, I hope I can honor him with a smile.
Because I think we will all remember those happy days as Enrique did--as some of the best days ever.