I tried to make them stop, but the tears kept falling. Sitting on a muggy tour bus as it drove through the Bulgarian cityscape of Sofia, its capital, I watched the regal government buildings and wide sidewalks whizz past. I’m not sure what an epiphany feels like but I think I came close to one that day.
The usual Eastern European techno music wasn’t playing from the bus’ speakers.There weren’t any impromptu Bulgarian dance lessons. It was silent. That’s because our group of American, Canadian and Eastern European teenagers had visitors.
Thirty orphaned Bulgarians had been taken to our hotel for the day and were now scattered throughout the bus, on their way back. Some were napping, some were quietly laughing but most were gazing out the window with true wonder in their eyes. It was their first time in a moving vehicle.
Buadi, a rambunctious orphan, laid his head against my forearm and looked out the window. I rubbed his back and tried to hide my emotions because he seemed so care-free. I didn’t want to burden him with my own emotions. It was the first quiet I had experienced all day. I was essentially in the eye of the storm. It was a quiet break from trying to keep up with a 5-year-old; playing catch, feeding him lunch, the exhausting task of trying to communicate with someone who spoke no English. That’s when it hit me. All the dust settled for the 30 minute ride, and I got a chance to think.
For the first time in my entire life, I felt what it meant to take something for granted. The phrase gets tossed around all the time, but I never fully understood it. And who could blame me? Every evening since I was born I have sat down to a home-cooked meal with my parents and my brother. It’s all that I’ve ever known, so of course I took it for granted.
On the first day of the trip, when I boarded the plane at JFK International airport, I sincerely doubted myself. What was I doing, boarding a plane to spend six weeks abroad, in Israel and Bulgaria, knowing no one? A cross-cultural experience with American and European teenagers in Bulgaria to do service projects. A month hiking through Israel. I was petrified.
This trip was a leap of faith to say the least. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just wanted to do something that scared me. The closer it got to the trip though, I began to wonder if I loved the world so much that I needed to look it right in the face for six weeks. I was comfortable with my Johnson County bubble, because it contained everyone I loved, and everything familiar.
Our staff lied out the ground rules the night before. Don’t over-feed them, they haven’t had a full meal in a long time, they will throw up. Don’t cry in front of them, it will confuse them. Don’t take pictures of them because it could end up on the internet, and make them more volatile for child trafficking. Also, they don’t speak English.
The next morning, 5-year-old Buadi gripped my hand and tugged me through the mountains of toys and books that we had brought over for them. My Bulgarian friend Aaron acted as a translator while Buadi bounced around the room in elation. He didn’t leave my side the entire day.
The longer he kept his resilient smile on his face, the more I couldn’t help starting to feel regret and guilt. Here was a kid who didn’t own pants that fit. Here was a kid who was so hungry that he would eat until he threw up, given the opportunity.
On the bus, I thought about the days I had spent last year wallowing in my own pity. I was busy, and I was so stressed about my workload that some nights I couldn’t sleep. But then a horrifying thought crossed my mind, I tried imagining what it would have been like without my parents.
It’s impossible to describe the relationship I have with them. I’d probably try, but never be able to put into words the bond I share with them. It’s the most love I’ve ever felt for any two people. I thought about all of the lunches my mom had made, the random mid-day “I love you” texts, the tests I would have failed without my dad quizzing me the night before.
I felt the immediate after-effects of the moment on the bus, but have seen them last long term. Every time my bookwork gets unmanageable, every time my day is going poorly, I think about Buadi. Every time I hug my parents, I hug them a little tighter, because I’ve witnessed what it’s to not have them around.
I remember calling my parents that night. I just said thank you to them, because there was nothing else to do but be grateful.