When I left Pennsylvania, ten months ago, I remember feeling this ache in my chest. How would I be able to leave my home, my country, my friends and stay in a place I didn’t know for so long?
I remember thinking that this was the hardest goodbye I’d ever said.
Three days ago, I looked out my window that last evening. The wooden frames were thrown wide, the curtains pushed back, the musky evening creeping towards us but the sun still shedding this golden glow that warmed your heart.
I was packing…. I was supposed to be packing. That is what I told Saw I would be doing. I couldn’t bring myself to take everything out of everything and put it into the final black holes that are my suitcases.
I had left him, planting beans with Pastor Pratuan and the other kids. Before I left him we had talked for a while. I ran him through three things that he had to promise me he would never do.
#1. Don’t hit girls.
“Would you hit me?” *vehement head shake*
“Would you hit her?” *I point to his sister a distance away* *very firm nod*
“No!” *head shake with less purpose than I liked*
Big eyes look up at me and he smiled and nodded.
#2. Do not smoke.
Disgusted look. *what do you think I am?*
#3. Do not drink.
“Bleck!” *nose wrinkles* “Mi arroy.” (not delicious)
“How do you know that?”
“You are ten.”
“Only one taste, it was disgusting.” he says through google translate.
My heart aches. How I wish things had been different for you, Saw.
Now I was in my room, preparing to leave him and all the kids I loved with every fiber. It didn’t hit at that moment. I felt a touch of panic, but just a touch. I brushed it away. I still had tonight.
I heard voices coming up the hill from the pond. I looked out and saw Pastor Pratuan’s head and next the lovely heads of the kids.
No way am I staying in here.
I grabbed my camera, only to have it confiscated by the kids after I’d taken a few shots.
I don’t know who started it, but I think it was Pastor. I think it was him because he looked incredibly pleased when the riot erupted.
The daisies here are in full bloom, which means that their seeds are ripening, which means burrs. I distinctly remember Pastor pulling one off of his shirt and chucking it at one of the kids.
Suddenly, they were all pulling burrs off the daisies and throwing them at everyone. A mad scramble occurred for the daisy patch.
I became the target. I also became an arsenal. Which means I had so much on me that I never had to go to the daisy patch to reload. I had it everywhere, as you can see.
Then we heard the dinner gong. We walked to the mess hall. I walked with Jee, my girl. She put her arm around me and I recalled one night, months ago. We had been talking about me going home.
Jee is one of my fourth grade girls and she used to bite me instead of saying hi. She wasn’t the only Hmong girl to do that. I used to yelp and tell her that she couldn’t do that! My American sensibilities were beyond offended at this practice. So instead, she would sit as close as she could and lean against my back. That was ok. She would still bite occasionally though.
That night, she was standing with me on the porch of the girls’ dorm and she was hugging my waist and resting her head on my shoulder.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
I sighed heavily. “So happy, Jee.” It was true. Some days, the joy of my work and the love for the kids would just course through me.
“But you go home.”
She was silent, then reached for my phone. She spoke into the google translate, then walked away. When I read what she had said, I felt physical pain.
“I love you. I want you to stay, but I want you to be happy with your family. So you go.”
Now, I was hugging her just like that, the last evening we would have. Tomorrow morning, it would be finished, my work would be done. My little sister from another land. The biter and the fighter.
We went to dinner and I started snapping pictures of the kids. I was harvesting moments. They would be all I would have tomorrow.
After dinner, I went right back to my room. Saw was acting very strangely, so I gave him space. In my heart, I was hoping that it wasn’t me.
Packing… Ugh. I tried, I did, but when Channon knocked on my window and told me to come, I wasn’t sorry. We walked up the stairs together. I paused, he paused, then he reached out, squeezed my arm gently and was gone.
I walked to the mess hall with Baithuey, Cee, Rose and Jesa. We laughed and sang. I was pretending that it wasn’t happening. That this place that felt so much like home now would always be where I was. How is it possible to love two places so much?
They were preparing a mass birthday celebration for the kids with birthdays in April. I looked for Saw and when I saw his face, my heart plummeted. His eyes were puffy. He wouldn’t look at me.
I sat in the back and looked over at Nai. He didn’t look happy either. He just stared.
I tried to ignore the growing pain in my chest and scooted up to the front to take pictures. They sang happy birthday, clapping and smiling.
When the finished singing, Pastor sat down at the front of the group and the girls started cutting the cakes. He started speaking to the kids. I kept catching Saw’s eye but he would look away quickly, sober and steadfastly staring at nothing. What had I done?
I was startled out my regret by my name. Pastor was looking at me. They were all looking at me. He said I would go home tomorrow in Thai and kids near me reached for my hand. I felt that steady rip in my chest.
“Would you like to say something?” He asked.
“I don’t think I can, Pastor.” I answered, swallowing the lump in my throat.
He nodded. “We will pray for you.”
I bowed my head with everyone else but looked up at their faces as they prayed for me. Do you know how much I love you?
When they finished, I scooted to the back. I couldn’t escape this sense of unreality. Saw looked at me again and I saw he had been crying. All around me, kids happily ate cake, handing me some as well, and I threw myself into the night. Taking a video of the beautiful girls and all the handsome boys, snapping pictures right and left.
After cake, the boys challenged me to an arm-wrestling rematch. I had accidentally been caught up in a whirlwind of armwrestling before dinner and now I was paying the piper.
I will not tell you who won, in order to preserve dignity.
After I finished with the indignity, I felt two arms encircle my waist. It was Saw. I breathed in and sighed out, gathering him close and thanking God that I would have no regrets. Whatever it was, he had forgiven me, or sorted it out. I was thankful.
This boy has been my shadow from the day he arrived, before Christmas. Kids would make fun of him for always carrying my things or for sitting outside the office while I worked, but he steadfastly ignored it. When I would tell him to go play and make friends he would look at me like I was crazy.
“I have friends.” google translate read to me, “A lot. I just want to be with you.”
He once handed me my phone and it said, “I think I love you the most in the world.”
Touching. Devastating. I take full responsibility.
We sat down and settled in for a cartoon. Saw snuggled close and leaned against me.
Jesa came and told me Kru Bua had made dinner for us and to come quietly. I rose to go and waved Saw down when he looked like he would come too. I left my things in his care and went.
The entire time I fought tears. I didn’t want to be out here, eating this meal while moments passed away. I tried. I was able to joke and laugh, but I would cast glances over my shoulder to the other building. My heart was in there. As soon as it felt polite, I excused myself.
I slipped into the group of kids and felt the weight of their little bodies as they leaned into me. Relief. Tinged with something that I didn’t want to think about. Right now, they were here. My heart and my arms were full.
“Teacher Eliza!” I heard a whisper from the row of big boys behind me.
I turned, it was Gluay. He had a grin.
“One more time!” he made an action like arm-wrestling.
“No!” I whispered back, blushing.
“Yes!” he nodded.
I paused. It wouldn’t hurt. “After the movie.” I told him.
The movie was long. I was so glad. When it was over, I rose, and tried to sneak away. Gluay was there, grinning.
Which arm? Left? ok.
I finished, (once again, details are withheld for the dignity of those involved) and left, shaking my hand and making sure all the wrist-bones were still operational.
We walked home together, my hand in Saw’s, kids bunched close.
The last night. I was so tired. I slept.
In the morning, I went down to my room. Since Song’s passing, I have stayed with Rose in her room.
It was 6 o’clock. Four hours.
“Teacher Eliza!?” like that first morning so long ago, I heard the title that is now familiar through my window. “You sleep?”
“No Saw.” I answered, I threw open the curtains and the window. He leaned in and looked at everything. I know, I know. No difference from yesterday.
He stayed with me while I packed. Baithuey came and Rose, with little Honey sitting on the bed.
He came in when the little girls came, playing in my empty wardrobe and looking through my treasures. He found a ring. He took my hand and slipped it on. I’m still wearing it. I pray for him every time I think of it.
He sat on my suitcases to help me zipper and carried one of them out. No small feat.
Noi and Grace played with my suitcases until Pastor called them to the mess hall.
There they stood, silent sentinels, testaments to what I was about to do.
I went back to the mess hall with Rose beside me and Saw in front of me, matching me step for step, holding onto my hands.
“Do you know Teacher Eliza is leaving?” Rose teased Saw, “How does it feel?”
He didn’t answer.
“Rose!” I punched her shoulder gently. “You’re so mean!”
She laughed. I stood with the kids in the mess hall, waiting for the moments to pass and the fateful hour to strike. Eleven o’clock.
“Can you go tomorrow?” Saw asked me, arms around my waist, looking up at me.
“Cannot.” he repeated and shook his head. “Mi Dai.”
“Mi Dai.” I answered. I took off my necklace and slipped it over his head. “You keep this for me till I see you again.”
He fingered the jade stone through his shirt and nodded. His smile was like a light. “You come back?” He asked.
“One day I will see you again.” I dodged. I didn’t tell him that it isn’t up to me. God has my life in the palm of His hand. He brought me here. He is taking me away. If He calls me back, I will come. If not, I will pray for them all in any case.
“I love you so, so much.” he said, looking up into my face. “You, mom.”
Something bloomed. It wasn’t what you think. It was guilt. How could I do this to him? His real mom is in prison, I don’t know where has dad is. His greatest compliment to me has been that I don’t hit him. Of course not. I’d rather hit myself. How will I leave you? How could I make you give this precious gift to me, then walk away?
I looked at my phone. It was five minutes till eleven. I felt nauseous. Like I was about to stand up in front of a million people and speak without planning a letter of my speech. That is the only thing I can equal it to. My neck prickled. My arms felt like they were made of lead. I was hot and then I was cold.
I remembered a shell decoration that Achee had made for me in the office. I left Saw there and went to get it.
I was in the office and Rose was too.
“Can you take pictures for me?”
“Yes.” she looked at me strange.
I grabbed the shells from where they have dangled for nine months and tried to lock Pastor’s office. I heard singing. It was the kids. It moved up the hall towards the office and towards those bags. My hands trembled as I tried to lock the door.
“I’ll do it.” Rose said gently.
With a snick it locked. I straightened and handed her the key. I wanted to tell her I couldn’t bear this feeling. I’ve never felt so scared in all of my life.
What if I never see them again? What if this is the last time I hug them? The last time I tell them I love them? The last time I look into those eyes and glimpse their souls.
I had asked God to give me a love for these kids. Many days were hard, other days were effortless, like it sprung up from an infinite supply of patience and sacrifice. I would do anything for them. It brought me such joy, such purpose, and such passion to be with them. To pray as I watched them, to pray at night when the fear came and I fought back, wanting them to be free of fear.
I would stand in the gap for them. I would plead for their souls to my God. Through this, my confidence in God grew. He loved them more than I did. This prayer did not originate with me. This burden and passion and love came straight from God. If He had burdened me, then He intends to answer my prayer. They would be saved. They would love God and shine like lights in their corner of the world.
With or without me.
This was the catch. They are my heart. But right now, God is calling me home. He might never call me back.
Submit. Submit your passions and your imaginations to God, Eliza.
I walked out. They were singing the saddest song I’d ever heard. They sat on the ground and as I walked towards them, they reached out and handed me letters, pictures they had drawn. I took them and put them in my bag, smiling with the last shred of control I had.
I slipped into the midst and hid with Baithuey and Cee. They put their arms around me.
Then I heard the crunch of gravel. Anne and Nat.
My breath caught, my whole head began to throb and I went to the little ones. I will never forget you. I will love you. I will pray for you. God will keep you.
My time was up.
Tears burned and flowed without permission. I felt that rip and then they were in my arms. I was saying their names and they were crying.
I know people leave you. I know that is all you know. Please forgive me. Please understand that I love you always even when I’m gone.
“God bless you.” and “I love you.” from these kids meant more. Thank you. Thank you for giving me such a gift. Through all of this, I have learned more from you than you probably learned from me.
After many precious moments, I went to go get my shoes from behind the mess hall. I’m glad I did. Channon was working back there. I went right up to him and gave him a hug.
“Goodbye Teacher.” he said solemnly.
Then I walked through the mess hall and up the long school hall for the last time. So many mornings, greeting and being greeted by the children. So many precious memories.
Then I was back in the entryway, staring at the white van. I was walking towards it and I reached out for Saw. Last time buddy. We stood behind the van and I hugged Baithuey and so many more. I was putting off the inevitable.
I saw how painful this was becoming for Saw. I couldn’t drag it out. I kneeled there. The cameras left and I pulled him close.
“I love, love, love, love you.” I said into his ear. Every ‘love’ I tried to put everything in. Please believe me. One day, God will be my witness for how much I’ve prayed for you.
He wasn’t letting go. I couldn’t either.
Ma’am Gik saw it and came out, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. They took him away.
I got into the van. We drove away.
I looked back and I saw some run to the other side and wave. I strained for every last glimpse of them. Like someone drinking the last drops of water before stepping into a desert place.
For two days I lived in the midst of it. I tried to reach back and get in touch, but it seemed that no one was responding.
Someone messaged me and asked if I would talk to Saw before I left. I tried to but it seemed like every attempt was thwarted. I began to sense that something was wrong. I had done something. They were trying to block contact. Saw. They were upset with me over him.
I didn’t blame them. I was upset with me. How could I have changed it? I didn’t even notice it. I was in the middle before I knew I began.
The third night away, I called them. I couldn’t get anyone until I called Ma’am Gik. I asked her about some things casually, then asked if there was anything I had done.
“No! We love you!”
When I got off the phone I started going through pictures. Mistake.
“Let go, Eliza.” I felt an echo in my mind.
I don’t want to.
Let it go.
“Ok.” I said out-loud. In my heart, I released.
My phone rang. I looked down. Pastor Pratuan requesting a video-chat. That can only mean one thing.
I jumped out of my bed and opened the video. There they all were. I said their names as I saw their faces, they were smiling and they were chatting, like I hadn’t left.
“I miss you, ah! You come back, ah!” Baithuey said, laughing.
Then Abigail. “I miss you, you come back and P’Jesa!”
I was telling them all the things I had been wanting to. I love you, I miss you, I am praying for you, I will never forget you.
Anne knocked at my door and I was so disoriented that I knocked back. I heard a chuckle and then I opened.
“A little quieter.” she glanced towards the kids’ room.
“Sure, sure!” I promised, closing the door. I don’t think I was any quieter.
I saw Wah, Gluay, Fongming, Noi, Jee, Lisa, Mare, Gla, Tey, Channon, Chaiyan, and so many more. Then someone handed the phone over and I saw a little face.
Saw. He took the phone a ways away and said into it, “I love you very, very much Teacher Eliza.”
Gales of laughter from behind him. He isn’t that quiet. Then he took it further away. Yapoh followed with Wah.
I delighted in the entire exchange. Where are you? when do you go to America? is it raining there too? Then Pastor Pratuan took the phone back.
“We have a big hole, with all the volunteers gone. The electricity is on and off tonight too because of a storm.” he told me. “The kids miss you. Saw especially has told me every day many times.” he laughed.
My entire being breathed a sigh of relief. No upset over anything. The electricity was out, that’s why I couldn’t reach them. I am such a drama-queen.
“Well, that’s fair, I have a huge hole too.” I smiled, “Tell them to pray that God will call me back. It’s up to Him, not me.”
He turned to the group. “Do you want her to come back?”
Then more in Thai that I couldn’t understand. I knew he was telling them to pray for it.
When I said goodbye, I sat in this warm glow. I was healing. I had been asking God to help me and He gave me exactly what I needed. I just had to let go. God couldn’t even wait five minutes to answer the need of my heart. As soon as I obeyed, He granted me this gift.
I thanked Him over and over. His kindness was so evident. I still see it.
Leaving you all was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m seeing Him like I’ve never seen Him before. I know that my work for those kids is prayer. I will pray for you.
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.