Bao Bei, you are sleeping now as I write this. It’s midnight, and I should be sleeping too, or at least cooking something for your lunchbox, maybe wrap some salmon dumplings, your favorite, so you’ll have plenty of energy to enjoy your summer camp tomorrow—Go Girls camp, where you are learning to speak up and do the right thing, to stand up for others, to be a good ally.
But I can’t sleep. Or cook. Or seem to do anything except surf the web and both look for and try to find ways to not come across a photo I saw today. A photo of a man and his daughter that reminded me so much of you and Baba. Except they were lying face down in a river, and they were dead.
I hope you are at peace, little one. I wish I could write this to you in Spanish. I know a few words. Niña. Te amo. Lo siento.
But I don’t know: I wish you never had to leave your home. I don’t know: We owed you a chance to make your home here.
I hope you are at peace with your father.
Right now I’m looking at a photo of the three of you: you, your father, and your mother. It’s your first birthday party. Pink balloons taped on the wall surround rainbow-colored streamers. A huge speaker sits on the stage; I can almost hear the music. You’re dressed in a frilly dress with white tights on, rocking some Minnie Mouse ears and a slight smirk. Your parents look so young. Your father, in his black cap and fitted black shirt, has sensitive eyes. I recognize a shyness, like maybe he’s one of those guys who grew up lanky and awkward as a kid and didn’t realize that he had turned into this guapo young man. Your mama is carrying you on her hip. She’s got a gentle smile on her lips, her makeup and brows done perfectly, black hair down to her waist, a spark of pride in her eyes. In another photo I found, of you and your father when you were a baby, you’re wearing a shirt that says, in English: Beauty runs in my family. Just look at Mommy. I wonder if she bought that for you because she knew it was true. I wonder if it made her laugh to see you wearing it.
I wish I knew how to say: You all deserved so much more.
The first time I saw that photo, I couldn’t bear to take it in. My mind instead superimposed you sleeping next to Baba, just like you still love to do even though you’re almost eight. The way the toddler was found inside her father’s T-shirt so their heads are together and she has one chubby arm slung over his shoulder, I immediately flashed to seeing you and Baba wrestling. I thought about you and your “special move,” how you crawl inside his shirt to try to flip him. It never helps you win but you know how much it makes him laugh. I felt immediately ashamed: how could I be thinking of laughter at a time like this?
Then I took it in. Really let myself feel what I was really looking at.
At first I couldn’t understand how the child got inside the T-shirt. But then it dawned on me: the father must have quickly grabbed his daughter and slipped her into his shirt to keep her safe, to keep her from being pulled away.
My hope is that your mother can survive this and not wish she was pulled in by the current with both of you.
My hope is that the image of your body, and your father’s, will stay with as many of us as possible for as long as possible, rising up against shopping lists and summer plans, Facebook ads for shoes and Netflix, selfies and pictures of what friends had for dinner. That perhaps some of the people who have been holding fast to arguments like “if the parents wanted to keep them safe, they should have stayed home” can see your family’s brown bodies as not quite so different from their own. That they can understand your parents loved you so much, wanted to keep you as safe as possible, and that’s why they left El Salvador.
I want to tell you about them, about Valeria, her father, Oscar, and her mother, Tania. I want to tell you about why this happened to them. I also want to tell you about the other children—the babies, toddlers, and kids your age—who have been separated from their parents at the border by our government. These children don’t have blankets, just pieces of foil-like material to keep warm. They have to sleep in buildings where the lights are on all day and night. They sleep on mats on the floor. They cry. They don’t know what is happening or when they will see their parents again.
Remember how, after your first weekend sleepover, your first time without us, you were so relieved to finally see us? Remember how hard you hugged us and fought back tears, saying “I missed you guys, a lot.” I’ll never forget, because I felt the same way.
I want to tell you the truth about what is happening, but I’m afraid. You, with your sympathetic and vulnerable heart, will wail and cry, will demand answers from me. I will have to admit that I have not been doing much, if anything at all, about any of it. I will give you the facts, agree that it’s sad and wrong, then continue on and busy myself with work and cooking, the gym, surfing my phone. I will stay distracted.
I am afraid if I tell you, you will see me for what I am: a person, like so many people throughout history, who has witnessed crimes against humanity but did little to fight. These people felt overwhelmed and helpless at best, unconcerned at worst. I worry that I will reveal myself as someone who finds it easier to stay busy and wait it out, wait until history crosses over to the other side, wait for things get “better.”
I tell myself you are too young to know the truth. That it would be too painful, for you.
In a few days we will go watch fireworks for the Fourth of July. I will try to act happy, like we are not celebrating a lie.
K and Valeria,
I no longer question as I used to: how did people witness and carry on during slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese American internment? Now, I know.
Someday you will learn about this time in our nation’s history and you will ask me: What did you do? I am hoping I will find the courage to do more than I have done thus far, to do enough so that my answer will not be: mostly nothing. I might show you this, this midnight scribbling, and you might say: well, that’s not much. You’ll be right, as usual. It’s not much, but one could also say that about a prayer. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
This prayer is for you and so many children like you. I pray for your safe passage. May the other side be kinder to you than this side was. May you forgive us. May you never let us forget.
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.