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On Giving and Getting
Senior year at my high school was when I experienced something so powerful, so profound, it turned me into a completely new person.
...I’m kidding. That wasn’t what happened. Nothing that grand-scale happened, to be honest. It was more like a series of small events that altered a series of small sentiments within me.
It’s all very simple, really. It started with a trip to the orphanage and retirement home, for part of my senior year’s community service project.
It’s easy dealing with kids. They’re rather see-through, in a way. They vacillate between two opposing ends of the attitude spectrum—either very happy and hyperactive or sulky and annoying. We went to the kids’ orphanage feeling prepared and optimistic. We baked muffins, we brought storybooks, we had the toys, we had the enthusiasm. Now all we needed was for the kids to be enthusiastic with us, too.
And by God, did they deliver.
We brought hand puppets, soccer balls, and badminton rackets, and I watched with no small amount of smug satisfaction as a young boy held his own against a seventeen-year-old badminton player from my class. We taught them card games, checkers, and chess, which finally culminated into a chess battle between one of my smartest classmates against a thirteen-year-old boy. We pulled out a Scrabble board, which started out okay but eventually devolved into the kids sliding random words on the board, some of which were distinctly not English. One of the boys spelled out “Ronaldo” (“Cristiano Ronaldo?” I asked him, and he smiled and nodded). We let him have his way, and then we had a good laugh about it on the bus back to school because our English teacher would blow a fuse about Scrabble being played that way.
We brought out a “funchute”—a toy resembling a parachute that I, along with seven other students, flung unto the air while the kids darted, giggling, beneath the giant cocoon of fabric as it slowly floated down upon them. We threw the parachute up, again and again, and the kids never tired of dancing inside the descending parachute. But I remember some of us having to switch out because we were getting tired, and all I could think about was how can one piece of fabric make these kids so happy?
Because they were. So happy, despite the fact that we were at a loss, at first, on what to do. Happy despite the fact that what little entertainment we carried with us was, for all intents and purposes, not on par with what the average child should have.
It wasn’t until we left the orphanage that I realized—maybe they were happy; maybe they’d always been happy with what they had, even before we came.
So that was the kids, and we left feeling accomplished, figuratively patting ourselves on our backs. The trip to the old people’s retirement home was more subdued, not just because we’d worn ourselves out attending to the kids. I think we all realized, subconsciously, that while children see the world through rose-tinted glasses, adults are cynical and realistic.
And old people... well, even more so.
The principal reassured us with words of comfort. He said we’d done a good job with the kids, and the old people would appreciate us just talking to them, would appreciate our presence itself.
It didn’t work, but he kept that up as we reached the retirement home.
I say “retirement home” in the loosest sense. Maybe it would be too much to ask for proper entertainment facilities or nurses to greet you at the door. But there should at least be clean walls and floors. That was probably how most people see retirement homes. Now, whatever preconceptions you have about retirement homes—throw them out. They don't apply to the country where I live in.
I say “retirement home” in the loosest sense, because the first thing we noticed upon entering was the smell. The second thing we noticed was that all the elderly were in a living room without chairs, sitting on a floor that had most definitely seen better days. The third thing we noticed was the abysmal interior condition of the rooms. Suffice to say it was not pleasant.
We came into the living room with nerves aflutter in our too-clean clothes, too-sweet perfumes, and too-expensive cell phones. We came reeking of better education, better homes, better lives. I remember cringing and turning away infinitesimally, feeling guilty about simply having more than them.
But these people.
These aged, wonderful people.
They greeted us at the threshold. They babbled excitedly, smiled too much, laughed too much with missing teeth. They reached up to us, looking for all the world as if we’d made their day simply by shaking hands with them.
How did they not resent us?
There was a man who learned English through a book. One book. It was well-worn, dog-eared, and yellowed, and he held it as if it was a baby bird. We brought him a box full of books from our library, and I don’t think I need to tell you how happy he was. There were mentally and physically disabled people, who regardless sat still and listened to us as we struggled through a rendition of Marching On by One Republic that we’d been practicing in school. And as we sang, one man, who’d been struck by lightning some years before, got up and danced in front of everyone. We distributed the leftover muffins. When a middle-aged man bit into his muffin, his eyes lit up and he gesticulated wildly in marked disbelief, saying it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.
(The muffins were actually too sweet and clumpy. We’d tried.)
It was brilliant.
How did they not resent us?
And so we settled down, feeling gradually more and more at ease with the people we were visiting. I wandered around, sitting down and chatting with someone whenever it looked like they had nothing to do. And then my friend tugged at my shirt sleeve, saying she wanted to introduce me to an old woman.
Her eyes were rheumy. She had stained teeth and wispy hair. Her hands were mottled with liver spots.
I was about to meet an amazing woman, but I didn’t know that yet.
I sat down and introduced myself. The standard questions—how old are you? How long have you been here? Have you got any family? When we touched upon the topic of family, that was when the old lady really started talking.
She told my friend and I about her past. She used to work in a sugar cane plantation. An average job for that time period, nothing too fancy. Then there was an accident, and she hurt her leg, and she couldn’t work anymore. She walked with a limp, even after the physical injury itself had healed. She walked with a limp, even after she started living in the retirement home. And even now, she walked with a limp, after so many years after the accident.
She had family, she said, but they’d left her for the retirement home.
How could she not resent them?
Maybe at that age, you just don’t care anymore. Maybe at that age, you’ve had enough time to live and let go.
God is good, she’d said. He gives us suffering, but He is All-Mighty. He gives us the suffering He knows we can move past. And she was grateful, she’d continued, grateful for the remaining leg God gave her. The leg she now used to walk with a limp, to help the other elderly folk in the retirement home.
But this isn’t a story meant just for Christians, Catholics, or people of the religious order. No, this story goes so much deeper.
This was a woman who had nearly everything taken away from her—body, health, family, the basic human necessities. This was a woman who’d been left in a retirement home with a pervading stench and less-than-stellar living conditions. This was a woman who had limped and would limp every day for the rest of her life.
She had all the right in the world to give up and lay down her arms, but she kept going. She lived, went about her daily chores and helped her housemates even though she had nothing. And she was grateful, she was happy.
And then, the way I’d realized something about the children before, I had another sudden epiphany.
This woman had something after all.
This woman, with so little, had a heart fuller than most.
This woman, whose name I don't quite remember.
Ushtiya, I believe it was. I’m not sure.
It’s funny. For the life of me, I can’t say I remember her name with a hundred percent certainty. But as I sat there and listened in my too-clean clothes with the blood pounding in my ears and my eyes overflowing, I swear I can remember the wispy gray hair, the stained teeth, the mottled hands, the wrinkles around her eyes.
Before we left, I told her I’d pray for her every night. She clasped my hands and thanked me.
We are pushed to participate in community service and giving to the less fortunate. But it’s funny, too, how it ends with them giving to us much more than what we give to them.
She told me that she used to have people praying for her. She used to have her family, and they’d pray for each other every day. That was back when she still had her leg. When she was still... able to work. Worth something. Not a burden. Take your pick. I used to be somebody, she’d said.
I stood up with tears in my eyes, feeling like what I’d given paled in comparison to what I’d received. I wish I’d managed my head better or been more successful in keeping my tears at bay, because I should’ve said something.
No, I wish I could say. You’re wrong. You are somebody.