Humility, Perspective, Love and Hope
Zombie (Sombie) is a Voodoo word in Haitian Creole used by Dominican locals in describing poor Haitian street children who are so gaunt, so undernourished, that their vacant gaze gives them the appearance of the walking dead. Among that throng of children was a little five-year-old boy, a boy with no shoes who would walk into my life never to leave. The locals called him Sombie.
There was something compelling in that little boy’s eyes, something innocent, sad, yet hopeful. His daily routine was to find a home where some work was going on and join in, unsolicited. When the work was done he would simply reach out his skinny little arm, an open hand hoping only for some food. Sometimes he was rewarded and sometimes not. No matter to Sombie, he would simply offer his labor again on the next available occassion. He would survive.
In the village of Los Blancos, I lived in a little wooden shack. There were no conveniences. None. That shack was a world away from my previous life both in space and in time. It seemed rough and inhospitable to me until I came to realize that on many a night I had unknowingly shared my new home with Sombie. To him the floor under a chair in the corner of my little shack was literally a godsend.
In the evenings, Sombie would come to visit. He would ask humbly for un poquito de comida, a little bit of food. He soon became my constant companion.
Everywhere I went, Sombie went. I would go up to the mountains on my horse and he would ride behind me. I would jump on a motorcycle and, before I could hit the throttle, he would just hop on. I was sharing my life with what felt in some ways like a little brother and in other ways like a son.
Despite his willingness to work and ask for food, his manner was much more timid than the other children. He was soft-spoken, honest, and never demanding. When the other children were causing mischief, Sombie was merely looking to be of help.
One night, Sombie and I had hiked up the mountain to try to get a signal on my analog cell phone. If the sky was clear enough, the wind was blowing in just the right direction, and the stars were properly aligned, I could get just enough signal to make a brief phone call home to my college sweetheart Mary (soon to be my wife). As I struggled with the phone, Sombie waited patiently for me, looking at me as if I were from another planet, speaking this odd, incomprehensible language.
On that warm, Dominican winter’s night, when I had finished my call, Sombie asked me what we had spoken about and I told him eagerly that we had talked about Christmas. Temporarily forgetting our circumstances, I began to muse about the wonders of the season and the traditions of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, decorations, and gifts. When I looked down, rather than the customary holiday delight in the child, I was stricken by the somber look in his brown eyes.
“Eduardo, why has Santa Claus never come to me?” he asked. “Is it because I’m so black? Is it because I’m so ugly? Or, is it because I’m so poor?”
My heart sank. I had described something seemingly unatainable to him, something of which he felt himself undeserving.
Instinctively, I picked my boy up and hugged him close. Although I had accrued enough leave days for a trip home for Christmas, I decided in that moment to stay in the Dominican Republic with my community.
“I happen to know for a fact that Santa will be visiting you this very Christmas, mi hijo,” I told him. “And I’ll be here with you, too.”
That Christmas I gathered the children up and, with some flour and a small gas stove, together we made a Christmas cake for Jesus. We all sat down to eat it and Sombie got the first piece. Humble and austere by American standards, this celebration was a delight for the street kids of Los Blancos and for me. Most importantly, Sombie came to understand that he had as much value as anyone else in the world and that someone truly cared about him. And, that someone was me.
I journey back each year to my community of Los Blancos and every time I see Sombie I’m reminded of those moments.
One day Sombie told me he wanted to go to college and I said I would help. Still as industrious as ever, he is now attending university in Santo Domingo and, true to form, also has a part-time job.
A few months back I had the honor or seeing Sombie in the Dominican Republic and having him meet my eight-year-old daughter Caroline. Watching them speak together was a moving experience and in that instant I came to understand that I wasn’t sharing my life with Sombie, he was sharing his life with me.
After all these years Joseline (Sombie’s given name) had become a young man and was fending for himself. He no longer needed me, but I still feel like I need him. I’ll never forget the night we spoke about Christmas and I will never forget the little boy with no shoes.