She had the darkest, saddest eyes I’d ever seen. Her name is Maria and she lives at the home for elders in Juigalpa, Nicaragua. I first met Maria on my trip to Juigalpa in January 2011.
Maria was hard to miss among the elders who lived at Juigalpa. First, she’s not an elder. She is only 30-something and seemed a little out of place. More than that, she lived in a dark, almost detached emotional state. Maria lost a baby during childbirth and went into a deep depression — a true catatonic state. Her family, unable to understand this or care for her, eventually brought her to the Juigalpa center where they took her in.
During my time in Juigalpa in 2011, I saw Maria often but I never saw her smile, laugh, make eye contact, or show any other sign of conscious reality. You could stand directly in front of her and speak or wave your hands and there would be no response or even acknowledgement that she saw you.
So when we arrived on January 13, 2012, for my second visit to Juigalpa to start an activities program, I spotted her. There she sat, wearing a brightly colored dress, with those same blank eyes staring straight ahead into nothing. The colors of her dress were such a contrast to the darkness she seemed to live in. My first thought was that this woman is truly alive in body only.
We had 50 residents to see, touch, and hug, so I moved on — we had an activities program to teach. And frankly, that was much easier for me than looking at Maria.
I learned so much on this trip. For one, I learned that activities for elders is, well, organized chaos — a beautiful disarray. To see poor, abandoned elders who have never tossed a ball, danced, or glued little glass jewels on painted wooden boxes do it for the first time, then laugh and point with pride at what they’ve done is amazing. I also learned that I was WAY outside of my comfort zone. As my team members were very fond of pointing out, I’m apparently a control freak. But, in my defense, I’m used to managing people, not being managed. I wanted this first-ever activities program in the Nicaraguan hogares to work, and I wanted everyone to have a great experience. My team just laughed at me lovingly and repeatedly said, “Ken, let go. This isn’t law. It’s activities and this is how we live! Just look, the elders are having a ball!” And, oh my, were they ever having fun.
Somewhere in the midst of the pandemonium, I saw Jamie Phillips from Avante of Wilkesboro carrying a life-sized baby doll. She was headed straight for Maria. Jamie didn’t know that Maria had lost a baby and gone into some dark, unknown place ever since, but I did.
Every ounce of my being was screaming, “No, Jamie, don’t give Maria the doll! She might go into some darker place, or a wound she has buried deep could reopen.” But I couldn’t get to Jamie. From the corner of my eye, I saw Dona Hana, the remarkable Nicaraguan woman who chairs the volunteer group supporting the center. She had seen Jamie, the baby doll and Maria, and her eyes were as wide as mine in horror.
Before anyone could stop her, Jamie knelt down beside Maria, handed her the doll, and began rubbing Maria’s hand, talking softly to her, and showing her how to hold the baby and rub it’s bottom. Maybe it was my imagination, but for a moment that seemed like an eternity, time and all sound and all movement stopped as I waited for the moment when we unintentionally sent Maria into some deeper catatonic state.
I looked back at Dona Hana, unable to speak or move, and Dona Hana began to smile. She pointed toward Maria. When I turned, I saw it: the Miracle from Eden. Maria, who I’d never seen show any signs of life, was holding Jamie’s hand, smiling, laughing, and petting that baby doll’s bottom just like Jamie showed her. She smiled and laughed for the next hour, and our team members momentarily left the other elders to be with Maria.
If I told you that I saw the hand of God in that moment, or if I told you that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, or if I told you that my logical, linear, lawyer’s heart melted, I still couldn’t convey to you the magic of that moment.
The funny thing about that baby doll is that it was the very last thing I packed. It was donated by Brian Center of Eden (hence the title Miracle from Eden), but I was worried about two things: 1) the fear of treating elders like children by giving them a baby doll, of all things, and 2) our already bulging and overweight luggage that we had to get on an airplane. So, I thought, the doll can stay in NC. At the very last second, it hit me. “This doll was given in love and it has to go with us.” So I stuffed it into the very last bag we had that would hold it.
Thank God I did. And thanks to Brian Center of Eden for donating that doll.