“Have you seen Biyah?!”
All the little girls in the van stared at me.
“Myhur? Nong?” I gave two more names of little girls I had lost moments after they had been assigned to me. This was starting off spectacularly.
It was Christmas morning and we were all heading off to Tesco. A kind lady from Singapore had donated money so that each of them could buy something they wanted for Christmas. Each of the volunteers and older children had been assigned three or four children to look after during the journey. I had sent them to get their shoes and that was the last I had seen of them.
I went to the next van and the next but I didn’t see my girls anywhere. The engines started and I felt that rushed feeling. I stood there, wondering where to look next.
“Teacher Eliza!” I heard a tiny voice and turned to see all three of my girls running towards me.
Instant relief. So let’s do this.
I was riding in the truck in the back seat with another volunteer, Judy and our six combined girls. All the way we sang. Nong sat in my lap and her little head constantly moved, looking at every new sight along the way. Nong is the type of child who seems to be in her own little world. When you interact with her, her only response is an adorable smile and this laugh that bubbles up and sets you to laughing as well.
When we arrived at the store, we poured out of the vans and trucks and people in the parking lot stopped and stared at the straight line of children stretching out along the front all the way to the side, where we were parked. This time, I grabbed Biyah and Myhur’s hands immediately. Nong was right beside me… no, no she wasn’t.
This toddler had to be all of five years old and I didn’t want to be straining to spot her little overalls and ponytail in the crowds of Tesco all day. I followed the flow and soon saw her pert little head in front.
“Nong!” I called.
She did not even pause her little steps. She was in her own world. I tried not to compare this little girl to myself. I was reminded of something my mother would do when I was too far a-field in my mental or physical wanderings. She would pretend to cast a fishing line and reel me back. I almost did the same in that moment. I refrained and instead sent someone to corral her and bring her to me.
When she came, that tilt to her head and that smile on her face, I immediately put them all in a shopping cart.
The teams dispersed and I took my little charges straight to the shoe section. Now, I am not terribly experienced at teaching English as a second language, neither am I exceptional at breaking up fist fights between little boys, however, I was raised in a family of seven girls. When it comes to shoe shopping, I am in my element.
They each picked shoes totally in keeping with their personalities. Nong chose an impractical pair of kitten-heeled shoes. Sweet and quiet Biyah selected a more practical pair of pink sandals and headstrong Myhur picked out candy-apple red flats with a silver buckle that glittered with ferocity.
We also bought more practical clothing items they needed and each got a bottle of bubbles. They clutched them close and beamed from their seats in the cart. My heart felt like it might burst. What a perfect way to spend Christmas Day.
We finished off our shopping with an ice cream cone that we enjoyed as we waited in line at the register.
The manager at this particular store loves our kids and has brought meals and snacks for them in the past. He reserved a register just for us. Our line stretched along the side of the registers and down one of the aisles. It was so special to see people realize who we were and where these children were from. They would smile and speak so kindly to them.
After we were finished checking out, we gathered at the front of the store and sang a Christmas carol to the employees as a way of saying thank you. It drew much attention, of course, and cellphones came out and videos were taken of our motley crew. The manager noticed one of our boys was wearing a broken pair of sandals. He took the boy to the shoe section and told him to pick out any pair he wanted.
I will never forget the way I felt standing with all those precious kids, watching them rejoice over their simple treasures. I purposed in my heart that my Christmas Days from now on would be spent giving like this.
We said our goodbyes and the kids bowed and waied the employees and the manager.
All the way home I sang Christmas carols quietly to the window, a special warmth in my heart as I dwelt on the words. His was the greatest Gift.
The girls all fell asleep and I watched them as they slept. My eyes went to Nong’s adorable ponytail atop her head. Then I noticed something peculiar.
Little white dots, like dander, all through her hair. I touched one and it clung fast to the shaft of her hair.
Oh merciful heavens. Lice.
Her head was way too close to mine. I strained away from her and looked over at Judy.
“Lice!” I whispered.
We automatically started checking the sleeping heads and out of the six in our crew, four were infested. All four were from the other dorm room. Jesa would have to be alerted.
Merry Christmas, Jesa! Your girls have lice.
I was glad that the girls from our dorm appeared to remain unscathed.
Our next activity was walking to Ma’am Gik’s house to help prepare the meal for Christmas dinner. I had been asked to prepare traditional spaghetti and I had been told that the ingredients were already purchased. Judy and I came in through the back door of the kitchen, into the warm smells of garlic and onion and parsley.
It smelled just like home! Even though through the wooden-framed windows I could see the banana trees and the flowers still blooming in December. We jumped into the soul-healing activity of cooking. As I prepared this familiar meal, watching the meat sizzle and smelling the fresh garlic, I felt a strange melding of my two worlds that I hadn’t experienced before.
It’s me, Eliza, cooking here as the fresh breeze dances through the rubber trees and refreshes the delicious heat of a kitchen in Thailand. I’m the same, even if I feel like the person who lived in Pennsylvania, in the lush farmland of America is someone else.
I asked for the sauce and my mental wanderings came to an abrupt halt when someone handed me two 64 oz. packages of ketchup. Yes, you heard me right. It was straight-up ketchup.
“I-I…” I stared at the pouches. I can’t add this. This is ketchup.
It was many moments, but once I came to the firm realization that I was going to add this ketchup to my spaghetti, I braced myself and cut the corner. It oozed out, bright red and glossy. I could smell the sugar. I stifled that part of me that was starting to refuse to have any part of this culinary disaster, and squeezed harder. Let’s get it in there and get it over with.
Judy tried to be optimistic and reminded me that we had fresh cheese to add to the pot. I’d never added cheese straight to the spaghetti, we usually sprinkle it on top after serving, but neither had I made sauce from ketchup, so… yeah, throw it in. The whole bag.
We added fresh tomatoes and the cheese. We rummaged through the spices and added what we could find. When the time came to taste our concoction, we held our spoons and stared solemnly at each other. This was the moment of truth.
The sugar hit me first, of course. Then came the cheese and the Italian seasonings. To be honest, it was not bad at all.
When we served it at dinner, I smiled to see it there, looking so deceptively like authentic spaghetti. I enjoyed a plate of it and we all agreed that things could be worse.
Yes, things were about to be worse.
The next day, heart still aglow from the special Christmas we had, I sat down at my laptop and typed out a blog post. I hit post and pushed back from the desk. I had to go get something from another classroom.
When I returned, the screen was white and a stark no-entry sign was firmly in place. Dead. Turns out my hard drive went bad. The man who worked on it had to do a factory reset. All of my pictures, all of my documents were gone. I had pulled them from my icloud to avoid having to buy more space so I had no back-up.
By New Year’s Day, I had it back. On New Years Day though, the last thing I wanted to do was re-write that blog post and report to the world what was going on in my life.
I woke up that morning and opened my Bible. As I read I played with the ends of my hair. Something wriggled against my fingertips.
I pulled my hand away and in my palm, writhing, was a single louse. So the first thing I did in the brand new year of 2018 was have an episode in my room. I felt so dirty. I ripped apart my room and killed that single louse with all of the fury I had in me.
The warmth of Christmas Day was so far away. All I wanted to do was go home. Well, first I wanted to shave my head and bleach everything I owned, then I wanted to go home. I went to Rose and told her. She gave me shampoo and a lice comb. I retreated back to my room and sat on the floor, a white sheet of paper under my head, combing through my hair.
Tiny eggs landed on the page with each stroke. I even found more adult lice and killed them with the edge of my finger-nails.
This was the part I had not anticipated. I had never thought of this, how I would feel or what I would do. I had pictured adorable kids with emotional issues, not hygiene issues.
That entire week after New Years, I would jump when people touched my hair. I would walk through the grocery store or the market and feel constantly conscious of it. Don’t touch me and don’t look too closely. Unclean.
That same week, I noticed a funny, rose-shaped rash on my arm. Another appeared on my shin. Then another on my shoulder.
I was so overwhelmed with my lice-problem that when this appeared, I figured that they should just burn me with my clothes. I obviously was a carrier for too many diseases. I looked it up and added ring-worm to my list of maladies.
Just in case you were wondering, ring-worm is not a worm, but a bacterial fungus that eats the keratin in your skin. It is common in children, but in adults it is rare. It is usually due to a compromised immune system, which explains the constant colds I was having.
Skin-to-skin contact is a no-no, so I was turning down hugs right and left, which explains my emotional state.
It got bigger and bigger and kids started asking to see it. I showed them once, thinking they’d seen plenty of things like this. Apparently I had a bad case. They were horrified. I started wearing long-sleeves. I would not show them, even if they asked.
I wandered around, cringing when they would touch me, refusing hugs and feeling rather like a leper. I have a new sympathy for lepers now.
You can imagine that I wanted to be as far from that week as possible before concluding part two of this chapter. February seemed far enough. Now that the ringworm is a mere scar and the lice are long gone.
The first few weeks of January were a blur of mistakes and moments of despair. I was deeply homesick. I also had been asking God to make it easier somehow, to reverse my mistakes by a miracle and grant me wisdom.
I remember a moment where I came to the end of a day and cried into my pillow, asking God why. Why did He bring me here if it was to fail so constantly? I told Him I didn’t understand. That I couldn’t see.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I am not owed an explanation at every point of this journey. Yes, I am Eliza Rogers, with her besetting sins and her tendency to love herself very dearly. However, I am not God.
I know that seems obvious. Especially with the wonderful contrast I have provided you, but to me, it was something that I needed to grasp.
So I submitted.
I must tell you, nothing about my circumstances changed. For once, the consequences were not removed. Every day was still pretty hard. Oh, but every day had a moment of beauty! Moments where a child squealed with laughter, clinging to my hand as we danced, moments where a boy would see my need and sweep in to give me a hug or carry my bags.
I realized that the hardship of my every day is the way days are. Days are hard. I have a lifetime to look forward to of hard days. I cannot collapse in despair and demand comfort and constant happiness. I cannot measure success by how blissful and sun-shiny the days are. I cannot accuse God of not loving me and not caring for me because I am not comfortable.
My hard days will be. So I must depend on Him.
When I accepted this, a deep calm entered me. God is in the midst of me, I shall not be moved. He will help me and that right early. He will keep me in perfect peace when my mind is stayed on Him, because I trust in Him.
Good days, bad days, it is all the same. Whether I’m staring down a room full of rowdy Thai students or smelling flowers in the middle of a festival, He is with me.
So yeah, my month has been a bit of a disaster. But God has this uncanny ability to turn disaster into a lesson and failure into beauty.