We always knew there would be an end to our time with the orphans. I imagine it kept the relationship at something of an arm's length from the beginning, knowing that there was no future together that we were building toward. A little detachment has proven to be a good thing already, what with six of the kids having vanished from our lives during these two years, whisked off to what we will have to hope are better lives with no hint to us (or them, I suspect) that the next time we came to the hogar, they would be gone.
Still, it's a strange thing to walk away from children after all this time. Just because I say I have guarded my heart doesn't mean I actually have. It's not love that we have between us - really, it would be irresponsible and unethical to seek love from children when you know from the start that there's a time limit. But they have come to count on us, and we have come to feel responsible for them. And that's its own kind of love.
I think we may have changed each other's lives through all of this. By my rough calculations we have spent 300 hours together, mostly at the pool but also shopping for clothes, kicking the ball around in that empty dirt lot above Angelitos, buying sno-cones in the park. We spent one memorable afternoon at a little carnival last year, sweltering in the heat and surrounded by crowds of other children from poor families who saw the gringos buying kids fair rides and drew close in hopes that some tickets might come their way, too.
They have learned to swim. I have learned to child-wrangle in two languages. In the early weeks, I cried for them, but time passed and I saw that they didn't see themselves as deprived. They are, of course: stunted from inadequate nutrition; behind in school; virtually no medical care; no champions in their lives to step in when things get rough. But that describes so many of the impoverished children in Honduras that I guess the Angelitos kids just feel like everybody else.
I have seen no obvious signs of abuse at the orphanage, although I suspect that some of the impatient, frazzled staff - most of them broken single moms with no place else to go and slim hopes of getting paid for their work - do hit the kids sometimes. Certainly one broken mom is not sufficient for 14 robust children, especially the crazy little boys who find all kinds of trouble to get up to in their boredom. Dona Daisy, the woman who owns the orphanage, always talks about the need to find "Christian people" who will take that round-the-clock job out of the goodness of their hearts, but I stand inside that dark place with all its bad smells and endless heaps of dirty laundry and think, Who could ever be good enough to stay here for any longer than they had to?
We've tried to make the children's home better in our time here. There's a water system now, a better floor, a wood stove that doesn't poison the air with its smoke, beds and mattresses and sheets for all. But with its hopeless and haphazard management and the complete lack of transparency in how donor dollars are used, Angelitos will always be something of a disaster. My long-term hopes are all pinned on Emily, the young American whose Casita Copan will one day be a replacement for Angelitos. Her dream is big enough for the 14 Angelitos kids, too, although she'd be in for the fight of her life.
I don't expect the younger children to remember me for long. I've seen for myself how quickly they forget others who were once in their lives, the price of having grown up with a string of well-meaning but ultimately transient foreigners passing through your doors with their gifts and their cuddles and their tearful goodbyes. They hug easily, these children, but I fear it's because they know to get it while the getting's good, and that nothing lasts.
The older ones, though - they'll remember. I've already talked to Rosario, the 9-year-old who I feel the most attachment to, about the little box that I'm going to buy her, and how I'll put my email inside it for the day when she wants to find me again. Hide it under your mattress, I told her, knowing how rapidly treasured things go missing in that place. When you're ready to come looking, I'll be there.
If she could be tucked inside a kennel and whisked off to Canada as easily as the street dog we're bringing home for one of my daughters, I think I would be tempted. But of course, adopting from Honduras is nothing so easy as that, and in fact I'm already seven years past the age cutoff in the country anyway. She's the most independent minded (and stylish) of the Angelitos gang, and I am choosing to take that as a sign that she will be OK.
"But who will take us to the pool when you're gone?" asked one of the girls, long gone now, when I first mentioned last year that our positions in Honduras weren't permanent. I think that will be the question on most of their minds when we do our final outing at the end of this month.
I don't know, kids. Let's hope for other travellers with $30 jangling around in their pockets who want to make some children very, very happy. Let's hope that some of the wealthier Copan families wake up to the fact of all these poor kids right in their own community, and make a decision to bring some along next time they head to the pool.
Let's just hope for the best. For all my little friends at Angelitos Felices, that's all I can do.