The day had passed like a dream; the kind that stretches through the entire night, mixing the worlds of life and slumber, so that in the morning, you question whether you are awake at all.
The visit to the orphanage had been like the fitful part of dreaming where one tosses and turns, tangled in sweaty sheets and the workings of an unruly subconscious.
Crossing through the iron gate into the orphanage marked the beginning of my nightmare, yet my entry was the interruption of a reality.
The building seemed to swell with noise– the smacking of feet on tile, the high wail of children’s voices, and the deep, hollow clanging of tiny fists on locked doors.
It was as if the clamor had a life of its own, and sought to burrow its way into your ears, your mind, and your heart until you collapsed under the pressure.
Even the smell of the place– a somewhat indescribable wall of urine and tired, filthy bodies– seemed tangible, threatening to knock you over. I stumbled weakly into the yard and alongside the building, blocking out the shouts from the inmates of the neighboring jail.
Nothing about the place seemed real. The children running around the yard were a figment of a cruel imagination. Their scars and scabs, their fingernails clawing at itchy heads, their diapers full and needing changing, their hands reaching for anybody, anything to touch them, acknowledge them–even for a second! These things were a nightmare and I wanted to wake up. I had become a conscious participant in a dream I wanted nothing to do with.
And yet, I was pulled in deeper. Pulled in by the feeble calls of, “Tia, atuto, Aunt, lift me up!” And so I did what my heart told my hands to do, and I lifted them. Their arms clasped onto me with a hunger for touch that had not been satisfied in years, maybe a lifetime. I lost count of the children I threw over my shoulders, as I carried them around the yard, running faster and faster at their command. The yard became a blur of begging smiles and all senses fell away except for the feeling of their tiny bodies on my back.
As I climbed on the bus to leave, I felt their weight imprinted onto my spine and shoulder blades like physical memories.
Later, back in the village, the sky was fingers of pale golden light, closing into a fist above the mountains that watched over it. The air fell loosely over my body like the throws of a blanket, the pressure of the heat like a gentle invitation to sleep. Draped around my neck and shoulders were the limbs of a young child, heavy with exhaustion.
I was tired too, but still gliding through my dream world with a heavy head and heavy heart. Next to my ear I could feel the soft, warm breath of a tired child, his smooth face buried in the nape of my neck.
I grasped his wrists to my chest to secure him as I crossed the field towards the tree line. I breathed in the dusk and exhaled the words of a Spanish song, the only one I knew by heart.
Then I could feel his body melt into mine the way the sun folded into the mountain range, slowly and quietly, with a silent push through the amber clouds.
I felt his pulse against mine, his breathing become gentle snores, his tiny arms droop with sleep. He was asleep, and in that moment, I was awakened.
Suddenly the weight of his body on my shoulders was the weight of many from the afternoon before, his hands in mine the hands of those that reached and had asked to be lifted. My lullaby was his call to sleep, and his unconditional trust was my wake up call. I was never asleep, I was awake all along. I had just been walking through life, my eyes closed tight, blindly floating. As his lids drooped shut, mine had flung open.
That evening the sun lingered just above the tip of the mountain, long enough for me to make it a promise. I paused to watch it hesitate in the distance, as I held the precious burden tight around my shoulders. I vowed to believe in this moment, in him, and to wake up for him everyday, because it is when we wake up that the world changes.