When I was much younger, I high-fived the normal way, joyously slapping my palm against another’s, and I shared this celebratory custom in that expected way with everyone. This still holds true, but with one exception. Around the middle of high school, and I don’t remember why I did it at the time, my mom held out her hand to high five me and without giving it much thought, I simply strayed from the norm—I casually and serenely rested my cheek in it.
We laughed, and thus began a new era of high-fiving for me. It was only with those who are closest and most dear to me that I spontaneously pillowed (pillow can be a verb, how cool is that!) in their hand. There was just something about it that I loved so much more than the regular high five. Perhaps the fleeting moment of support from them. Or the small relaxed rest in busy lives.
A small toddler named Ana taught me more about it a few days ago in San Jose, Costa Rica. Ana is frequently very sad and upset, slow to trust people and inclined to cry many times a day. I don’t know her story prior to arriving at the orphanage, but something really must have impacted her negatively. My first 2 weeks around her, she was almost never happy around me. But I didn’t give up on her. So she gradually began to trust me—to need me. I had a few small victories with her, like when I handed her a small plastic ball and pretended to be comically flustered and exasperated when she would throw it in various directions, laughing and shrieking with delight while she watched me wobble to retrieve it.
On my second to last day, Ana did something so unexpected that I felt a spike of awe and joy, barely able to believe it. While she sat upright in my lap, I was stroking her small tufts of hair and tracing her face with care, when suddenly, she laid her head in my palm. I was so touched that I could almost feel a lump in my throat. I wasn’t the only one! It was just like how I pillowed in my parents’ hands.
It was then that I realized that everyone pillows. Of course, I’m using what Ana and I have done to be an umbrella term: I mean to say that everyone, maybe even without realizing it, needs and actively finds a way to be loved more than just hearing a few “I love you”s from time to time. Ana relaxed her whole body in my lap and hand, so that I was her total support. Not everyone pillows or melts like this, but in some way every person needs someone who won’t ever give up on them. No matter how untrusting or troubled a person is, they need someone who will be there with physical love and support when it’s time to pillow.
Ana lives in the orphanage in Costa Rica I worked at for three weeks, wordlessly surviving each day among a dozen or so of her makeshift, rambunctious siblings. She is not blood related to anyone in the building, but as she grows up it will undoubtedly be important for her, and for all of them, to feel as if they really are family. I say she survives not because the orphanage is severely unbearable–on the contrary, the place is much nicer to live in than many similar facilities: they have a small swimming pool, a TV, nice beds, and nutritious foods. Rather, there were inevitable psychological issues held by most of the children. The orphanage is for children who were abused or abandoned by their families. They are safe, schooled, and well-cared for now, but I know it must be so, so hard to spend your childhood among about a dozen other children who are struggling emotionally and mentally. Volunteers are always present to play with and care for them for about 6 hours a day (a few in the morning shift and a few in the afternoon shift, in addition to the 24 hour staff), which of course is important and needed, since the children are getting the individual attention that every child deserves.
There were so many victories I experienced when I was there. A boy named Diego, who for the first few days seemed to be angry that the new volunteers were there, beckoned me one day to lie down next to him on the warm pavement by the pool after he swam in the cold water; a few minutes later after I sat up, he crawled into my lap and pulled all my limbs around him to feel both warm and loved. A boy named Esteban was one that I learned had both Asperger’s syndrome and a severe anger disorder—he had many outbursts while I was there and for the most part didn’t want to have anything to do with me; yet I didn’t give up on him and one day when I brought a parachute he hung it up and made a tent out of it, afterwards leading me inside to sit in my lap and whisper into my ear that he didn’t want me to leave. A young girl named Paola seemed to lack good social skills that most children have, and despite many of my failed attempts to connect positively with her, I told her on my last day that I would miss her and she bashfully looked down with a smile, hugged me tight, and said that she would miss me too.
I don’t yet know what I want the future to be like in terms of career—but what matters most (as I learned in California) is my purpose, something which I have been so fortunate this summer to learn about. It is not unlike that of many other peoples’ purposes around the world. To love and support through touch, through words, through actions. To strengthen hope and increase joy. To be there when people need to pillow and to be grateful for those who allow me to pillow on them.
As a quick wrap-up I want to say my thanks to all who make the Eve Carson Scholarship happen for giving me the opportunities. This summer was incredible and I have learned so much from so many different experiences. Thank you… to infinity and beyond.