I fully realize that in the Católica post, I sounded like I really didn’t enjoy the study aspect of my abroad experience. But, I want you all to know that despite my childish temper tantrum, I am truly eternally grateful for the opportunity I was given to be so immersed in a language and a new form of academia. However, the part of this past semester that I feel was the most irreplaceable, indescribable and so incredibly life changing was my volunteer program with ELAP. To be honest, I have been putting off writing this part of my blog because I knew I would experience a certain frustration in not being able to fully communicate just how important it was to me. Anyway, here goes. I primarily worked as a volunteer with a program called Aprendo Contigo at the Children’s Hospital of Lima. The programs goal is to bring the classroom (and of course fun and happiness) to the children who occupy the hospital either temporarily or long-term. I worked with the girls of the Intensive Care Unit with muscular dystrophy. I’m still learning about the disease: what causes it, what types of it exist, what can help it, but honestly still feel that I hardly understand anything about the complicated illness. But, from my understanding, it is a genetic disease that affects muscle/organ strength and control and can show up at various ages. There are various forms of it; some more severe than others and some are degenerative, meaning they get worse with time. Because it affects the strength of both muscles and organs, it causes problems with both things like walking, heart strength and breathing. For example, my three “princesses” in Intensive Care are all hooked up to breathing tubes because without them, they don’t have the strength to breathe in sufficient amounts of oxygen for more than a short period of time.
Once upon a time there were three little princesses. The first was 5 and named Alexa. She had a beautiful smile and a way of making silly faces when small Americans dance and sang to her in English. The second was named Creysi and she was 6. She had the talent of memorizing ANY song that she heard, whether in Spanish, English or French. She was an expert at putting glue on her paper “solita” during homework time. And the third was named Analí. She was 9 years old but she understood more than anyone in the whole world, whether they were 1 or 100. The three princesses reigned in their kingdom of beds, songs and books and brought strength and happiness to all who came to them. One day a stranger came into their royal court, scared, eager and speechless. They observed the newcomer with caution because she appeared to be like them but her strange way of speech and mannerisms suggested she was from a kingdom far away and very unlike their own. Months later, long after the princesses had accepted the stranger as a good friend, she would later admit to herself with embarrassment that she was originally intimidated by the princesses royal aids. You see, the three princesses had such special powers that they constantly needed the help of royal attendants to control them. First, a family of beds made sure that they never grew uncomfortable. The baby bed waited on Alexa, the mother bed on Creysi, and the father bed on Analí. Second, three brothers were in charge of guarding the princesses’ necks and chest for it was known that when either of the princesses cast an extremely strong spell to help someone in need or shed light onto somewhere that only knew dark, it would affect them in such a way that their lungs would almost give out. And so the brothers manned their post twenty-four hours a day to make sure that in case it was needed, they could blow new air into the princesses’ tiny lungs. Because Analí was older, she was able to learn to control her powers in a way that the two did not. The younger two did not yet know how to control the quantity of their Joy Spells. Once either of the two said the magic words, Joy would go spilling out of their wands and all over the kingdom without stop. Once, Creysi let out such a powerful Joy spell that a tidal wave of happiness went rushing through the kingdom. So many giggles, dances, and games erupted in the realm that no one got any work done for weeks! But these eruptions always left the younger two very tired. Therefore, Princess Alexa and Princess Creysi were given two more aids: a husband and a wife of their kingdom were assigned the job to always provide a steady stream the food and nutrition to keep them going.
The stranger, upon seeing all these royal subjects crowding around the princesses, grew nervous that they would reject her, wouldn’t let her get close to the princesses and their beauty, and cast her out of the court. However, after a few days, the assistants warmed up to her, and she warmed up to them and so began the friendship of the princesses and the traveler. The four spent hours, then days, then months together. They talked about nothing and they talked about everything. They joked, they danced, they sang. The stranger taught the princesses words and songs from her home or other kingdoms she had traveled to. And the princesses welcomed her in with open arms. Before long, they grew to love each other like sisters. They built bonds as strong as every bridge in the kingdom combined. And at night, when the younger princesses were asleep, the traveler and the oldest, most curious princess, Analí, would stay up talking. They talked about their hopes and fears. About what they already knew and what they still wished to learn. They practiced each other’s language and never once laughed at the other for making a mistake. The stranger taught Analí and Analí taught her. Analí would draw her pictures and write her “I love you”s. The stranger would sing her songs. She asked herself, as Princess Analí recited words of her language perfectly from memory, how can anyone be so perfect?
Analí has changed my life in a way that I know I can never thank her for. Although my oldest princess, my queen, has spent her whole life in her hospital bed, she has dreams bigger than anyone I have ever met. And a spirit to match it. She is less than half my age; one of the smallest most delicate beautiful creatures I have ever seen and I want to give her everything. She is stronger than I could ever hope to be. And smarter than I can describe. I came into her room in the ICU with the plans of being her teacher of English, Math, Spelling…But she took my plans and flipped them upside down. She became my teacher. My Spanish professor. My professor of life.
A couple weeks ago, a boy in her unit named Randy passed away. He was like a brother to her. They had lived in the hospital side by side almost her whole life. I didn’t know him well. But when I heard the news, I and every one of the volunteers were shattered. Before this, I guess I never realized that I was going to a hospital 3 times a week. My 3 girls were just wonderful kids, exactly like everyone else. After this happened, I realized that they were in hospital beds. For a reason.
Although he was on the top floor of the hospital, confined to his bed, everyone knew of him. The kids in the lower, less serious floors looked to him as inspiration. “If Randy in ICU can’t move but still does his homework, then so can I.” Randy, like Alexa, had a more severe case of muscular dystrophy. He could only move his eyes and talk. (Alexa can only move her hands, eyes and mouth. She doesn’t talk.) Randy was extremely smart. He won a hospital-wide writing competition with a poem he wrote called “Lima from My Window.” He passed when his heart stopped on a Thursday while I was on a trip. And it was terrible. Analí was there and saw everything. I usually come to the ICU on Mondays and Fridays. But this Friday I wouldn’t come because I was away. When I don’t come on my usual days for either sickness or travel, Analí is always a bit weary of me when I come back. “Why didn’t you come on Friday?” she always asks with a sad face. She waits for me. And this day, the day that she needed me most, I wasn’t able to come. After, she told another volunteer that she was scared of God. “How could he do this to my friend? He must be bad. I don’t want to believe in God anymore.” This horrible event, seeing her friend pass away from a disease that she had herself, made my baby not believe in something that she once was so sure about. I remember a couple of weeks before she told me that she thinks that if you do all of your prayers for God, he’ll keep you safe and make you okay. After what she saw, after all her prayers, when that still happened she must have been so confused.
That weekend I hardly stopped crying. I knew she would ask me questions that Monday when I came back. But how could I explain something to her that I didn’t even understand myself? My Analí, this tiny fragile wide-eyed butterfly of a person saw something that I couldn’t have even handled seeing. When the day did come, and she asked me what I thought, I swallowed my sadness for her, to try even a little bit to protect her, and told her the truth. “I think that now he can rest. Now he can run as far as he wants, and play soccer, and jump so high. Now he doesn’t have to feel pain. I think he is free.” Analí said, “Is that really what you think?” “Absolutely.” Then she said, “I guess that can be what I think. But you’re right. He suffered a lot here. Before I was really sad. But now I am happy for him.”
Over the past few weeks from time to time, she still says things or acts differently than her old self. Like stopping me before I leave, looking at me seriously and telling me to ‘take care.’ But overall she is getting better. She sings about bumblebees with me again. Once a volunteer told me that during the bad week, they were having a conversation about her kids and Analí told her that she was sad because she won’t be able to have any. Sometimes things like this confuse me. I don’t understand why Analí, who deserves everything in the world, who is so filled with dreams, is immobile in a bed on the 8th floor of the Children’s Hospital of Lima. I don’t understand why whoever is in charge of this world won’t let me give her everything that she wants. Analí deserves the world. My princess deserves to explore other kingdoms. To meet her prince. To spread her joy spells. So can someone please cast a Joy spell strong enough to make the tidal wave that washed over the kingdom look like a puddle? So I can give all of that to her?
Analí has made me realize how incredibly unthankful I am for my life and my health. Are any of us grateful enough? For every step that we can take because she has never been able to take one? For every breath that we have been able to take without our special royal aid to help us? For Analí, I vow to be grateful. And to use every breath and every step that I was so lucky to be given to its fullest. I want to do something. Everything. Because I am lucky enough to be able to leave this room and explore other kingdoms. After what happened, I am eager to learn more about her illness, to do SOMETHING for her and kids like her. To help change things. I live my life for her. Because she knows how important life is.