Tears came to her eyes. I had just asked Alejandra* in my limited Spanish, “Dónde está bebé?” The question seemed to crush her spirit like a giant vice squeezing every ounce of joy she had mustered. Pain and sorrow and heartache flowed from her facial expression. She spoke quietly in Spanish to my interpreter. Oh I wish I could remember the interpreter’s name. But his name escapes me right now. I do remember his words stated very bluntly to me and in plain English. “The baby died.”
A few weeks prior to my trip to Veracruz, Mexico to meet Alejandra and her son Jose Manuel, (a child I have sponsored through Compassion International since he was four-years-old), I spent over an hour or more wandering the aisles of the baby department in Walmart.** And, I must tell you that Walmart is my least favorite store and not because it has everything you could ever need and at very reasonable prices. Walmart is my least favorite store because it doesn’t cheer me up. It has long lines, unhappy employees (one even confessed her misery as she scanned my purchases), and zero ambiance (Walmart could learn a lot from cheerier Target). But my dislike of Walmart is not what I’m writing about right now. I’m writing about Daniel, the baby born to Alejandra, mother of my sponsored child Jose Manuel Lopez Barrios who is now 12-years-old. Manuel, the name he goes by, lives with his mom and dad in a village somewhere outside the town of Tapachula in Chiapas, Mexico.
If you have been reading my blogs, you already know of my journey to Mexico, a sponsor tour hosted by Compassion~a worldwide ministry that includes tours to visit your sponsored child wherever in the world your child lives. In the beginning of my sponsorship, Alejandra wrote letters to me until Manuel learned to write. One day, a short letter arrived in Manuel’s child scrawl. More followed, telling me who his best friend is, or how he loved to play soccer or swim in the river near his home. He included crayon drawings. I recall the drawing of his home and his smiling stick family. His letters, written in Spanish, go through a translation process so I can see both his letter and the English translation.
Last August, Manuel wrote to me with happy news. He had a new baby brother. Manuel didn’t know that I planned to visit him in January, 2017 (Compassion doesn’t tell the children until the last minute, in the event the trip doesn’t work out for some reason). I hoped I would see his new baby brother on my visit to see him.
Back to Walmart. A few weeks before my trip to visit Manuel, I strolled the aisle in Walmart searching for baby items to take to Daniel, who would be around 6 months by the time I arrived to visit. I bought a plush blue snuggle blanket attached to a blue teddy bear, one of those comfort, security blankets. I picked out a plastic car with lots of open spaces for baby to grasp with bright yellow wheels and a red, Volkswagen Beetle-like body. I also plopped baby sock into the cart; tiny socks striped in red or blue or printed with blue ducks.
After I arrived in Veracruz (and before meeting Manuel and his mother), I spoke to our Sponsor Tour Guide asking if I could sponsor Daniel. She told me once he became a toddler, maybe at two, I could sponsor him. It was settled in my mind. I would talk to Jerry about my desire to sponsor Manuel’s baby brother Daniel in addition to our sponsorship of Manuel.
The day arrived when I met Manuel and his mother, along with other sponsors meeting their sponsored children. I didn’t see a baby in Alejandra’s arms. Maybe Daniel stayed home with his dad, I thought. That’s when I inquired about the baby.
I never expected to hear, “The baby died.” I didn’t ask how or why as I didn’t want Alejandra’s pain to increase with my questions. And she didn’t offer any further explanation.
In Chiapas, Mexico—which is down by the Guatemala border, 81.7% of children live below the poverty line (I looked that up online). Who knows what happened to Daniel? But lack of sanitation and fresh water and medical care are not readily available to Alejandra. Children in squatter communities often suffer parasites, malnutrition, respiratory infection, and dehydration. Simple items we take for granted like soap, toothpaste, band-aids cost as much as the daily wage and survival becomes the priority.
I recall my own son at five months struggling to breathe, a cold developing into pneumonia. I rushed to the phone to call the doctor, who immediately phoned a prescription to the pharmacy. Jerry raced our funny red Datsun we named “Twinkie” to the nearby drug store to get the medication for our son. Within hours, our son could breathe again and I wonder now, did Alejandra have a similar situation but no doctor to call or a pharmacy to race to?
I donated two of the presents I had for Daniel, the snuggle blanket and the plastic car, to another needy family in Mexico. One of our tour guides from Mexico said she would see to it that a child in need would receive them. I returned the baby socks to Walmart. I felt sadness as I handed them to the Walmart employee, knowing the child they were meant for would never wear them. I really thought I might cry right there in my least favorite store.
Several weeks after my Mexico trip, I received a letter from Manuel~ a letter he had written in December, a month before I visited him. “My baby brother Daniel has died. I am sad,” he wrote.
Letters from Mexico take up to three months to get to me as they need to be translated and go through several hands within Compassion departments before they reach me in Arizona.
As I read Manuel’s letter, “I am sad”—I recalled Alejandra saying to the interpreter after Manuel opened the gifts I had brought him, “He is happy.” She said this with a smile beaming so wide I can only think of Roald Dahl’s comment that good thoughts will shine from your face like sunbeams. I hadn’t seen Alejandra smile until that moment.
I sent cards to both Alejandra and Manuel expressing my sympathy for their loss. I told them they are in my prayers.
I had no idea whatsoever that a family in Mexico would touch my heart so profoundly. Their loss is my loss. Their happiness is my happiness.
No one tells you when you sign up to sponsor a child living in poverty in a faraway land that it will affect your life in ways you could never imagine.
- *Alejandra is not her real name.
- **Walmart is the only major store in our desert town.