The next few days could have been called insignificant. Of little consequence. Definitely less dramatic or draining than the days before. Wednesday, we had another long day. But it wasn’t as hard, I suppose. We spent most of our time with the kids, keeping them cool by playing water games outside, and keeping them happy inside with crafts and snacks. It was that same day that I didn’t get any lunch. I was a tornado of activity, trying to take as many pictures as possible. After taking around five hundred pictures the previous year, I was now their professional and official photographer for any event that I was able to attend. If it was craft time, or snack time, I was taking pictures mindlessly. Children posed with their painted rocks and paper crowns, scarfing down a cookie with frosting covering half the table, or waving a balloon around with sticky hands and a sugary smile.
I spent a lot of time singing. It was my job, after all. I would give my camera to one of the older kids, and have them take pictures of people singing and dancing. I couldn’t stop smiling, standing there on the tarp by the fence, flailing my arms and legs wildly and jumping carefully around people with all the ridiculous hand motions. I’d watch everyone else, Lucas teaching Walter how to dance, Karah with a baby on her shoulders. Nick was having problems with his anxiety and started a bad habit of telling everyone, “Dance freestyle time!” between every verse and each chorus. During that time I took to square dancing with people, because I needed to save my breath for when Nick decided it was time to sing again.
Wednesday was also the day I gave Phil a ride on my back across the entire church yard. It was a competion, to see who was strongest. I won, obviously, being the only person who made it the entire way across. But having already injured my knee before the trip, I had foolishly worsened the situation. I convince myself it was worth it, just to remind people that I am stronger than they assume. I know now that this strength is a weakness, that by showing them no vulnerability left me high and dry when I actually needed help.
Thursday was the last day. We showed up to the church hours earlier than usual, with everything packed into the vans and the trailer. Two steps out of the van, I was met by a scene that immediately broke my heart—for the first time that year. Benny was crying. Benny was a mentally disabled man, who had been abused as a child by his siblings. They would get him drunk and watch him make a fool of himself. Thus, he had terrible brain damage, causing him to have the emotional state of a nine-year-old.
I stepped a little closer to put my hand on his shoulder, to listen to him. He’s hard to understand most of the time, but I managed to hear something about how we were leaving and he wanted to leave too. He felt that he didn’t belong without us, even though it was his own church. Dennis was there, encouraging him to stay, reminding him of all the good he’d done for the church. It was true: the church wasn’t whole without Benny. The conversation is a murky memory, but I remember Benny’s eyes as he reached out a large, dystrophied hand and gripped mine. Saw the soft tears running from his dark eyes. He said something about my singing. And I feel bad now because I don’t remember what was spoken, but I won’t forget how it made me feel, how I realized the endless depths of Benny’s heart and that even if I hadn’t touched one child that year, I would always have that morning behind the church. My insides glowed with some bright fullness, something all consuming and joy-inducing.
The rest of the day was like any other of the last days we spent there. The last day is always most difficult, emotionally to say the least. Few children come because they’re angry at us for leaving, and the children that do come are morose and more troublesome because they’re angry for the same reasons. We meander for a few hours with a feeling of hazy accomplishment and dizzying half-guilt. We’re dirty and exhausted. No one wants to leave. But everyone wants to go home. There’s this conflicting thing hanging in the air, a great sigh waiting to be rushed out of our spiritual lungs.
At noon, we stood in the gravel road and said goodbye to everyone. I got to meet Benny’s mother. Took a few more photos, my fingers shaking on the buttons. Then we all loaded up the vans—weighing them down with our now heavy hearts—and prepared for the second half of the trip, starting with revisiting the desert.