The journey by car to Cahul, Moldova, from the capital city of Chisinau is apparently not often attempted in December. But we were scheduled to perform at an orphanage that day, so we loaded the van with our equipment and pulled out of the heavily gated courtyard of the Baptist College just as the snow turned to rain. The unplowed streets were icing fast. Mercifully I fell asleep as we bounced around the city gathering supplies and people for the journey south.
When I awoke everyone’s nerves were on alert. Oleg spoke quickly in Romanian to his friend Peter and gestured to the road. Peter was silent as the wheels struggled to gain purchase. Beyond the frosty front window the terrain was an even white and grey. Iced-over, uncut branches of ancient trees extended into the road like ghost fingers.
I fidgeted with my BlackBerry. Matt, my husband, filmed with his iPhone.
“We have excellent cell service.” Oleg glanced at us in the rearview mirror. “We get cell technology before the rest of Europe. They test it on us first, in case it causes cancer,” he said, chuckling. We passed barns, cottages, a herd of sheep with a switch-wielding shepherd close behind. A dog shivered in the freezing dusk, chained to a pole. No electric light warmed the windows of the homes. No street lights lit our path.
“If you don’t grow it and can it,” Oleg continued, “you don’t eat. You starve. People starve every winter out here.”
We were only beginning the second leg of the journey, and it was getting dark. We inched slowly north, tractor trailers sprawled across the road, paralyzed by the ice. The orphanage would be hosting 20 or 30 deaf-mute children from another home. They’d all be waiting, eager for the rare chance to laugh, enjoy; eager for the chocolate we were bringing.
It would be our second orphanage visit on this trip, and we had little idea what to expect. The first orphanage felt like a rundown inner-city school, until I visited the restroom. The smell of untreated sewage nearly toppled me before I made it to the outhouse door. The little girl who was guiding me looked nervously at her feet.
After seven hours in the van, the city lights of Cahul began to warm the night sky, and I exhaled, relieved. We quickly unloaded the equipment to start as soon as possible; we’d have to head back before it started snowing again. We would be singing songs from our Christmas album, Come + See, while others led games, contests and drama. There were about 40 children; many older kids had little ones on their laps.
In the first row, to my right, a tiny girl sat alone, folding herself neatly into a plastic chair. She sat perfectly still, and her wide brown eyes met mine. She wore a pink sweater and her reddish brown hair was cropped close to her head. I wondered if she could understand what we were singing.
On the right side of the room, the children who were deaf and mute watched our translator expectantly. Olga, a missionary from Cahul, signed everything we said and most of the song lyrics. As we finished, I suddenly felt an unfamiliar anxiety. Did we really drive seven hours to be with the children for an hour? Were we really doing any good?
As we packed up our equipment, I felt a tug at my sweater. I looked down into the same brown eyes I’d met earlier.
“Thank you,” she said in perfect English, chocolate bar in hand. “Thank you for coming all the way from America. Thank you so much.”
In that moment, I felt the emotions I’d held in check throughout the journey rush at me. I felt the miles we’d traveled. I felt the distance between us—between me and this tiny girl who could easily be my sister, my daughter—suddenly, and unmistakably narrowing.
I leaned down and asked her name.
“Christina,” she said, smiling.
I put my arm around her as someone took a picture. Her sweater issued a strong smell of sweat and onions.
“Thank you, Christina,” I said, as the miles suddenly and completely made perfect sense.
Featured image by Constanin Samoila, used with permission via Flickr. Post by Cameron Hammon.