In the movies, directors sometimes use “timepieces.” A puppy is a good example of this. As time advances in the film, we see the puppy grow to a frisky young dog, a reliable mature dog, and a slow-moving older dog. This tells us the human characters are getting older as well. We never need a date or year. We understand how much time has passed.
At the orphanage, I have my own timepieces. They are the handful of kids who were there when I took over operations nearly 12 years ago, in 2010. Two kids in particular.
Appoloste and Nahoum.
I lump them together because when I arrived, they were always together. A pair of five-year-old boys, constantly playing, wrestling, eating and napping in unison. Nahoum was quiet, almost to the point of silence, staring at me and the others I brought down to help, until I caught his glaze and he lit up with a guilty smile that crinkled his eyes.
Appoloste was a clown from the start. He made faces. He stuck out his tongue. And he never stopped following me around. Some kids just attach to you. There’s no explaining why. You become a pair of magnets. Appoloste was mine.
“You hungry?” I would ask.
He didn’t understand the words, but he definitely understood the location (the kitchen) and the chocolate chip cookie in my hands. He nodded enthusiastically. This went on for a few days.
Then, one afternoon, we were out in the yard, and he pulled on my pants leg and looked up with a gap-toothed smile.
“Me hungry,” he said.
His first words in English.
Over the years, I would mark my time by how Appoloste and Nahoum were growing. I went from reading them books and kissing them goodnight to them reading their own books and asking if they could keep the lights on past 10 p.m.
Their bodies changed. Their voices went from squeals to sopranos to the inevitable downward tug of puberty. Appoloste sprung up like a reed, and every month he would measure himself against me.
“You're going to be taller than me one day,” I’d say, and he’d smile, but always say “Nah.”
Nahoum matured into a stockier frame. I remember one time hugging him, he must have been 12 or so, and feeling the newly bulging muscles of his back and shoulders. What happened to the scrawny, silent kid, watching me from afar? He became a voracious reader and developed a real talent for art. I’d see Nahoum sitting at a table by himself, engrossed in a paperback or a drawing pad. I’d go over and rub his head and say, “Look at how mature you are” and he’d turn and flash that smile that crinkles his eyes and makes his face all young again.
Appoloste became a performer. He earned the nickname “Apple Sauce.” He was always dancing as he walked, or singing the chorus of a song, bursting out the words as if showing the world he knew them. At Christmas pageants he’d try for a plum part. During devotions, he sang with gusto.
But deep down he remained the same kid I first encountered: sweet, loving, shy in his own way, hungry for attention, and devoted, for some reason, to being around me as much as he could. When he finally grew taller than me – not by much, but he did – I congratulated him and he smiled, but he didn’t seem all that happy. I think part of him never wanted to reach that milestone.
Part of me didn’t, either.
Lately, I have been talking with Nahoum and Appoloste about college. For years, each time I’d depart, they’d ask to go to the airport with me.
“Not yet,” I’d always say. “But one day, you’re going to get in that car with me and come to America for college. And I’ll visit you all the time and we’ll have dinner at my house every Sunday night and I’ll be so proud of you both.”
That day is actually coming. I cannot believe how speedily it has arrived. Appoloste — who is one of our two lead singers in the boys band the “Hermanos Brothers” — has developed a real skill for fixing household devices and designing mechanical things. He wants to study engineering.
Nahoum, whose art talent is good enough to warrant a special school, has lately been talking about becoming a chef. I told him “Fine, but you’re going to college first.”
In blurting that out, I became my parents.
And in so many ways, these boys had become my kids.
They have marked my life, month by month, since they were barely old enough for kindergarten. I can look at photos and know what year it was by the softness of their faces, by their haircuts, by the long pants they are wearing, or the way they fill out a tight t-shirt.
Appoloste and Nahoum turned 17 this year. By next fall, they’ll be legal adults. Gone are the days of lifting and carrying them, of their high-pitched giggles, of chocolate chip cookies and “Me hungry” and putting them to bed at night with a story and a kiss.
They are my timepieces. And time, which can move so slowly in this hot, impoverished country, still races by with children, faster than you realize, faster than you want.
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