I was on a beach in Acapulco for my 30th birthday some many years ago now. I had made the trip by car with my boyfriend (now husband) and his mom and aunt. At a certain moment, the three of them had gone off somewhere and I was sitting under the umbrella by myself.
A little boy, maybe age 3 or 4, approached me. His arm and hand were slightly deformed, twisting unnaturally to one side.
As he arrived to my chair, he started to say, softly, “Agua,” requesting water.
I didn’t have a water bottle with me and I felt too shy to take my future mother-in-law’s bottle from where she’d left it, so I told him I had nothing to give him and I tousled his hair. It was the silky hair of a small child, thick and bristly from his cropped cut. So sweet and soft.
I expected him to take my refusal, and walk on to the next sun-bather. But he didn’t. Instead, he insisted and insisted and insisted, repeating over and over again, “Agua, agua, agua,” with growing desperation.
Finally — and I’m now surprised it took as many seconds as it did — my sense of human compassion overcame my shyness about taking la Señora’s water, and I reached for the bottle and handed it to him.
He guzzled it with such a thirst that I wondered if he’d had anything else to drink that day, despite the hot Acapulco sun and the sand and ocean wind.
And then he walked on. And I sat sobbing uncontrollably (I weep now, years and years later, at the memory).
When my boyfriend and his mom and aunt came back just seconds later, they were naturally bewildered at my weeping. I either managed through my sobs to explain what had happened, or they saw the boy wandering along, and surmised. I can’t recall now. I do remember that they took in the whole situation with tenderness at my reaction, and yet with a certain stoicism, having themselves been forced to become more hardened than me, by years of similar experiences.
That little boy is probably 13 or 14 now, an awkward, gangly teenager. I fear that his disability, combined with his poverty and perhaps abandonment, has probably led him to involvement with crime and terrible wrongs, if indeed he is still alive. He could be an unaccompanied minor, wandering the world, asking for hand-outs. He might be selling drugs or using them. Human traffickers might be forcing him into unspeakable things.
But I think of him as my spiritual son. He comes to my mind frequently.
I hope that the tears I’ve shed for him over the years might somehow be prayers rising to our merciful God, requesting of Him extraordinarily efficacious graces for the boy’s protection and well-being. They would have to be powerful, mountain-moving graces, given the life that child was born into, with his crooked hand and his thick, dark hair.
My little “son” is for me an icon that represents every face behind every headline and political debate. I’ll never forget the softness of his hair.
“[R]efugees are women and men, boys and girls who are no different than our own family members and friends. Each of them has a name, a face, and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future for their sons and daughters.” ~ Pope Francis, Sept. 17, 2016