My modus operandi was
- Kid runs away.
- I look for said kid on the street.
- Upon finding said kid, we’d go eat, chat, and I’d finagle an agreement to return. Usually.
- If said kid refused to return, I’d begrudgingly respect his decision. Knowing that we’d repeat steps 2 and 3 asap.
But Richar was different. We were playing basketball one day when this topic came up. We talked about how I always let kids choose. But then I informed him, “The rules don’t apply to you. If you’re on the street when I’m in the country and I find you, you’re coming back. You don’t get a choice.” We both smiled. Richar threw a colossal airball.
And then it happened. I spent much of my first week in Honduras searching for him. And when I finally did find him, he wouldn’t let me get near enough to hug him. It broke my heart, but I figured he was remembering that conversation. A hug could easily turn into a wrestling match to get him in the car. Better to keep his distance. I left him that night with a Big Mac combo and a strapping 40 something year old man named Rambo who regaled us with stories of his old life. They were quite a pair.
Two days later, I repeated steps 2 and 3. This time, when I invited him to eat he nearly skipped over to my car. Well, this is a good sign. I asked him what he wanted and he said that he wasn’t hungry. Hmmm, he ‘knows’ I want him to go back. He ‘knows’ that he ‘doesn’t have a choice’. He got in my car without hesitation and doesn’t want food. What is the only logical reason for this? He’s ready to go back. Obviously.
I started the 45 minute drive from San Pedro to Progreso.
He babbled throughout the entire drive. About a woman who feeds people on the street, a cut he had on his leg that landed him in the hospital, how he worked for a while as an assassin. (Remember that whole parceling out fact from fiction thing? Very important when talking to Richar.) We crossed the bridge that welcomes us to Progreso and he stopped talking. Pressed his face to one window. And then the other. Then started breathing like a bull about to charge. Oh snap. “Where are we?” (Progreso) “Why?” And then it was my turn to babble. “I thought you knew!! You got in my car and didn’t want to eat. Remember how you have to come back when I’m in the country!! I promise I wasn’t trying to trick you…it just happened!”
He sat in stony silence as we bumped along the dirt road leading to Proniño. When I pulled to a stop in front of Nueva Vida, he refused to get out of the car.
Come back in time with me for a minute. Remember that first extremely significant interaction I had with Richar? A huge part of that story was when the four biggest and strongest kids each grabbed an arm or a leg and dragged him, kicking and screaming, up to the boy’s dorm. (Read: Richar was being treated terribly and I would never do that.)
Let’s return to Richar in my car in front of Nueva Vida.
I spent time trying to convince him to get out of my car. Nope. Then I tried to soothingly hug him/lift him out of the car. This child. Super strong. I cajoled. I tickled. I begged. I bribed. Then I phoned a fried.
“I don’t know what to do. He won’t get out of the car. I don’t want to force him. I don’t want to drive him back to the street.”
Friend. “You have no choice. You will not drive him back to the street to suffer and potentially die. You have to get him out of that car.”
So I did what I promised I would never do.
I, along with three of the biggest and strongest boys, grabbed an arm or a leg and carried him, kicking and screaming, inside the building. I sobbed the entire time.
This is not why I’m here. This is not how a child should be treated. This is not what he deserves. But did he deserve to be returned to the street that night?
I still don’t know what I would do if I could do it all over again.
I got there as early as I could the next day to talk to him. He smiled. I apologized through tears. He said he understood why I did it and he wasn’t mad. We compared battle wounds. (He seriously turned into the Hulk when he was angry.)
As the cycle predicts, some time later, he was back on the street.
And here’s where I get caught up in my head. That night marked a change. I did something I think is wrong. It filled me with guilt. And even though we talked and ‘fixed it’, I felt like I had betrayed him. He didn’t say that. I do. And that feeling of failure made me pull back. I could not do again what I said I would never do. And without realizing it at the time, I kept that promise by creating distance.
I ensured that I would never hurt him again by making myself let go. But now I wonder…was I protecting him from getting hurt? Or myself?
I do not think that we ever ‘save’ a child. We make varying degrees of impact and we strive to make the biggest impact possible. But in the end, the ball is always in their court. We cannot make them do or want anything that is not in them. I don’t think that Richar’s death was my fault. But I do believe that I chose (consciously or not) to withdraw my impact.
If I was sitting outside Nueva Vida right now, with a huffing and puffing Richar in my car, I think I would still do what I did. And I would sob through the whole thing. But then I wouldn’t punish him a second time by withdrawing because of my shame. Richar’s demons were fierce. And dying on the street probably still would have been his destiny. But I would be able to tell you more about his last days because I would remain in integral part of his life. I would know what had happened soon after it transpired. Not a year or more later.
Because I loved him. And because that is what he deserved. Because being there (mentally if not physically) was my responsibility. And my privilege. And I let my pride rob both of us of that.