The little girl clung to her father’s leg as he tried to disengage her, tears sprouting from her eyes and rolling down her face instantaneously. He looked over at me with a heartbroken expression. Though we didn’t share a language, words weren’t necessary in this moment. He looked a little embarrassed as he held his daughter far enough away that she couldn’t grasp him again, and I swooped the sobbing little girl into my arms.
As he walked across a hot, dusty courtyard to the gate that led to the street, the girl started screaming and writhing in my arms. I turned my back to the gate, both so the girl could catch a last glimpse of her father as he left, and to hide the tears that were streaming down my own face from the rest of the children at my feet.
My fellow volunteer looked at me with sympathy, and I bit my lip to keep myself from breaking into sobs. I busied myself with murmuring calming things in a language this girl didn’t understand, kissing the top of her head and rubbing her back in a vain attempt to console her.
It was my second to last day volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity, a place where nuns ministered to the poorest and most needy in Siem Reap. Part of that ministry involved taking in children who couldn’t be cared for by their families. This four-year-old girl had just lost her mother to untreated cancer, and her father had to go to Thailand. The work was in Thailand. Better money was in Thailand. He had two daughters to provide for: the four-year-old he’s just said goodbye to and an eight-month-old who was so malnourished she couldn’t sit up on her own. But there was no room for them in Thailand. So they were here.
I only spent a week with the children at the Missionaries of Charity, but the profound impact that week had on my life will be reverberating through my soul for the rest of my life.
It was more than learning to tie cloth diapers, battling a stuffy nose and eye infection from the myriad illnesses circulating the children, and finding the odd poo on the floor throughout the facility.
It was teaching bright brown eyes how to count in English, singing the alphabet song with my friend and fellow volunteer (though it turns out Australians and Americans end that song quite differently), giving hugs and cuddles on the bad days, chasing squealing kids around on the good days.
It was hearing two adorable twin boys, who otherwise didn’t know a word of English, parrot “Okay! Okay!” after hearing me say it five-hundred times per day.
It was the joy on the face of mentally impaired boy, which could dissolve into tears without any reason or notice.
It was the bashful smile of a child with cerebral palsy as he was cheered for walking on his own with a walker, relishing the attention he rarely got.
It was feeding a little girl who hadn’t had enough to eat for months, and didn’t really know how to feed herself.
It was watching a five year old girl touch the polish on my toes, then touch her own unpolished toes. Or sitting very still while I applied lip balm to her lips, then touching them with a smile once I had finished.
It was spending the morning with a normally-rambunctious three-year-old clinging to me for cuddles, because it was just one of those days when he needed to be held.
It was the unceasing cry of “Sistah! Sistah!” (which the volunteers were called) whenever we wheeled our bikes into the courtyard.
It wasn’t all moments of joy, but the painful moments that were so common throughout the day made those bright spots that much brighter and more beautiful. Often, my heart contracted, closing in on itself as I witnessed lack, pain, and sadness. But even more often, it was expanding, swelling to proportions that threatened to crack my ribs. It was here, in a hot courtyard on a back road in Siem Reap, where I realized that my body was a poor vessel to contain all the love I could feel, and I was certain I would explode from the pressure of it trying to pour from my body.
On my last day at the house, I brought some necessities for the Sisters: formula, diapers, clothing. But I also brought along a play tool set, because the kids had been chirping and pointing at a man hammering away at the roof next door all morning. The squeals of excitement and complete absorption of playing with a new toy filled the yard for the rest of day.
And though I may have been the one bringing gifts that day, I received far more than I gave.