There are some stories that are just hard to write.
I’ve come across a few of them over my time here in Ecuador and each time I sit down to try to put into words what has happened I find myself struggling to know where to begin.
This is one of those stories.
Does it start with the flames? With two young boys forgotten in the moment and abandoned to their own devices? Or does it start with a troubled mother, mentally unable to care for her young son? Or perhaps with a family and a community feeling too burdened with their own problems to notice those of others. Or does it start with that first swig of alcohol, burning the throat as it goes down, a feeling savored and desired by a broken man?
So many elements competing to be the defining factor of the story, but we’ll start with the latter, the broken man, the one who craves a burning throat and a foggy mind.
There is a man, a broken man – because very few people end up like him by way of natural desire – and this man, as with many broken men, has a long and darkened history. No one is exactly sure what happened to make this man into what he is but they all speculate it must have been something sad from when he was a boy. But that kind of stuff isn’t talked about openly in a place like this, not even behind closed doors, so the mystery remains, a cloud darkening his every move. All that we know for sure is that whatever happened in this man’s life made him prefer to live in a drunken haze than in a clear reality, even a reality populated with a wife and children… at least it was for a while.
It wasn’t just the drinking. It almost never is. When the punches started to become an everyday occurrence the wife left with all of her children, leaving the man behind. But men have perfected the art of fooling women into believing that what happened in the past was the past and the man soon found another woman who, unlike the first one, never found a way to leave the broken man behind.
Enter the troubled mother.
She wasn’t always like she is now, they say. She was a gentle, kind woman who loved her family. Ironic, they almost whisper, that it’s this same love that has probably led to her becoming “la loca”, as many call her, the crazy one.
They explain her sudden and rapid mental deterioration as the result of the years of abuse at the hands of the broken man. The immense trauma of over twenty years of suffering has made of her a woman who is no longer able to even recognize her own family members, let alone take care of them, despite not being advanced in age, as if a switch was suddenly turned off, or a fuse suddenly burned out. A mother unable to leave yet unable to take any more.
Enter the young son.
A boy who has never known a loving father and who struggles to remember what his mother was like before the fuse burnt out.
“But like the David who became king, these are only our young David’s lion and bear…”
David is his name. Fitting considering the giants he’s had to fight in his first 10 years of life. He has managed thus far to slay the giants of anger and bitterness and despair and in a beautiful example of childish innocence and tenderness this soft spoken boy has assumed the role of father and mother, taking care of those who have been unable to take care of themselves or him.
But like the David who became king, these are only our young David’s lion and bear, trials and tests before he faces Goliath.
Enter the flames.
They come while two boys are playing. An accident borne of childish curiosity and mischief combined with what is not so much a lack of adult supervision but rather a complete black hole of adult concern and care. A jerrycan of gasoline, an unfortunate spill, the mystery of how it was set alight and the time for our young David to face his Goliath arrives. The battle with the burning flames takes its tole: severe burns over David’s entire body from the neck down.
Just 10 years old.
But there is good in this world and sometimes a story has to get to its darkest point before that good is able to infiltrate it.
And so enters the good.
There is another man. A younger man. One of the sons of the broken man and the wife that managed to leave. He was sent away at a young age and raised by loving grand-parents who showed him how beautiful life could be if steeped in love. This man found God and chose to live his life differently than most in this hidden part of the world. He met a girl who’s father was also like his but who had also found God and desired a life steeped in love. Together they became one and lived like beacons of shining light to so many living in darkness around them. Their home always open to those in need, laughter and joy always spilling out into the muddy pathway outside. Despite having not been able to have children of their own the house almost always has one child or another living in it with them, invited there for a time until a troubled relative or friend gets their lives back in order and can again take care of their own child. The children always leave reluctantly when the time comes, knowing that few places in their world offer the kind of love found in that house.
Sometimes life gives us unexpected gifts and after years of living steeped in life altering love, the young man and his wife receive an amazing gift. A baby of their own, soon to come and permanently bless the already joyful home.
And then one day a frantic phone call. The young man answers and listens as the tragedy of the flames is told to him. Our young David, his little step-brother from the community upriver, in need of a beacon of shining light. The young man and his wife listen as family member after family member say they can do nothing to help and make the only decision that ever crossed their minds: they will do whatever it takes to help the boy, even if it’s by themselves.
So young David, his body charred, is quickly put on a canoe and heads downriver where the young man gets on and takes him the rest of the way. A three hour canoe ride to the nearest hospital.
“Of course he’s thought about it but if he left his house who would take care of his father…?”
It’s here where the severity of David’s burns are fully discovered and doctors send him on to the capital, Quito, where doctors in a special burn unit can help. Before he leaves though, a psychologist who happens to be at the hospital that day takes a few moments to speak with young David, who’s been fully conscious during the entire ordeal. It’s in these brief moments that she realizes some of the reality of David’s life. She asks the boy if he’s ever thought of living somewhere different and he, true to his innocent and tender nature, so contrary to everything he’s experienced in the world, replies that of course he’s thought about it but if he left his house who would take care of his father who clearly can’t take care of himself?
Let that answer, coming from the mouth of a severely burned 10 year old with the story we now know, sink in for a moment.
We have much to learn from our children.
The psychologist tells the young man of the boy’s answer and recommends that the boy, when healed, not be sent back into the situation he came from. If he returns, she says, with such a warped sense of what the responsibilities of a child really are, who knows the levels of personal damage he may incur over the years.
But the young man is the only one out of the entire family, out of all the children the broken man fathered over all these years, that was even willing to travel to the hospital with the boy. And now, with a baby of his own soon to come, and his wife’s young brother already living in the house with them, the decision of opening the door to yet another child, one in David’s condition, isn’t an easy one.
But the young man never hesitates. He calls his wife to let her know that he’s going on to the capital with the boy and tells her to get an extra bed ready for when they return. The wife, with a kicking baby in her belly, doesn’t hesitate either.
And just like that David has a new home, a beacon of shining light amidst all of his darkness.
It has been about a month since David’s accident. He stayed in the hospital in Quito for a few weeks as the doctors gave him skin grafts and allowed the body time to heal. The young man and his wife, despite everything going on in their own lives, took multiple trips to Quito to be with the boy. Knowing they couldn’t be by his side the entire time, they offered to pay other family members’ travel so that they could go and be with him so that he wasn’t alone. Only one took him up on the offer.
David’s father, the broken man, in what for me is the saddest part of the whole story, didn’t once ask how his son was doing the entire time he was in hospital, nor has he inquired of David since he moved into his new home.
David’s mother remains unaware that anything even happened.
But the power of redemptive and transformative love is a truly incredible thing! David is still facing his Goliath as he works through dealing with the trauma and everything else he’s endured over his 10 years, but now he is no longer alone. He has people who love him and want to see him steeped in love as they walk alongside him in his recovery process and beyond. His new home is truly something remarkable and it’s a place that David can now call his own, a place he doesn’t have to worry about leaving where he can grow in the knowledge that he is loved and has tremendous value.