Friday, April 17, 2009

The One That Got Away...

Gardy looks terrific. He’s in excellent health. His long hair is thick and full and dark. He’s wearing new tennis shoes and very expensive looking T-shirt with a foil embossed design. The rest of the design was of a face looking up wearing sunglasses and a swirl of smoke. Gardy himself was smoking when I stepped out into the street to invite him in. He flipped the cigarette stub hidden in his hand into a pocket the moment I appeared. I insisted he pull up the baggy pants which were perched precariously above the danger line before I let him into the house. I can get away with that because I’ve known him for so long. If I hadn’t, I’d probably be afraid of him.

He’s wearing a watch that isn’t a real Rolex, but he shouldn’t be able to afford such a big and brassy knockoff. Or the new Nikes. Or the flat brimmed baseball cap set at such a jaunty angle on that tall afro. He didn’t want to talk long – he was just hoping to pick up a pair of soccer shoes I was supposed to deliver to him, a gift from my son back in the States.

The boys were the best of friends when my son lived here at the orphanage. Gardy was the son of the house manager, and he was here often. When I first met him he was fourteen years old and full of himself. He liked to alternately tease and play with the smallest children in the house. I liked having him come by because I felt having such a normal ‘big brother’ added to the family atmosphere in the house. I knew he was a little bit rough around the edges, but he minded his tongue around the kids and he gave really terrific piggy back rides.

Gardy was trying very hard in school. He wanted to learn English well enough to teach it someday. I managed to get him to call me ‘darling’, a word from his schoolbook, for a whole day before I let him know what he was saying. We all had a good laugh over that, and I called him ‘darling’ to tease him for years afterwards. Gardy always had a fine sense of humor. He was an ordinary kid. Pretty good at soccer, average intelligence, doing alright at school, hanging around with some friends that we all thought questionable and some that we liked a lot. The kind of kid that finishes high school with average grades, gets some sort of a job, and eventually falls into something that works out for him. I could picture him marrying, being a good husband and a very good father. A typical, middle class, perfectly satisfactory American life. Except that this is Haiti.

There is no ordinary job here for Gardy. In a country where the woman begging for change in the parking lot of the pharmacy I visit speaks seven languages and tells me she is starving in crisp, correct English, Kreyol, and Spanish, there is no construction company ready to take on an ordinary kid because he’s a nice guy and he needs a job. There is no trade school with great deals on student loans and grants and an employment referral program for graduates.

This could have been my son’s lot too. He’s just a few years younger than Gardy. Gardy had a very strong and well educated mother. No one in my birth son’s family can read or sign his name. But my son is on the honor roll as a high school junior. He’s worrying about which college he should choose. I don’t want to think about what Gardy must worry about.

Gardy was smoking, but I don’t smell any tobacco. He doesn’t have a job, but his shoes are a brand I can’t afford for my kids. I have a starfish tattooed on my arm to remind me why I do this work. I’ll spend my whole life walking down this beach, throwing back starfish one by one, but where do you throw a starfish when there is no ocean to catch him? How can you help one lost child in a sea of lost adults, lost chances, lost hope? This one has fallen back in the sand to die in the sun, and there is nothing I can do about it.

We’re doing all we can to help in this struggling land. We have over 150 children safe within the gates. Our women’s literacy, education, and microgrant program will restart in the fall. We’re building our second free school in Jeremie. But none of that will help Gardy. He has already fallen. Forgive me, darling.

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