It’s been nearly a month since my Journey of Smiles adventure, and although I’ve settled back into my normal rhythm of school runs, creative work, family life, etc., part of me is still in Guatemala.
I often think about the children I met there; Sandy and Evelyn, baby Juan whose operation I watched, the girl with Treacher Collins, the baby boy I cradled in my arms and with whom I fell head over heels in love. Their beautiful faces are forever etched in my mind and heart.
As excited as I was to visit Guatemala and observe first hand the vital work Smile Train does there, I felt somewhat anxious in the week leading up to the trip.
How would I react when faced with a room full of cleft kids and infants, I wondered. Would I feel sorry for them? Would seeing them bring back painful memories from my childhood? Would I cry? Break down?
If only I’d known just how much I’d treasure every moment I got to spend with the children at the surgical clinic, in the village where Sandy, Evelyn and their family live and at Tessa’s nutrition clinic and how I’d wish the journey wouldn’t end.
It’s true I did get teary eyed in the recovery room following Juan’s operation, but – and this might sound strange so hear me out – I never felt sorry for the children on account of their clefts. After all, I know from personal experience that being born with a cleft is no tragedy.
It wasn’t that I took solace in the knowledge that these children would have their clefts ‘fixed’ by skilled surgeons; no, the reason I didn’t feel sorry for them or pity them, was much more profound, for I was truly able to see and feel their wholeness.
By wholeness, I mean that intangible essence within us, which is what makes us fully human. It is an innate wholeness that is separate from the physical body and isn’t broken by a cleft or any other disfigurement.
We come into the world as perfectly imperfect human beings and children born with a cleft are no exception.
We are all born whole, but many of us become disconnected from our wholeness as a result of social conditioning, other people’s responses and our lack of awareness.
Although surgical intervention is essential for the long-term health and wellbeing of a cleft baby, focusing exclusively on how to ‘fix’ a physical anomaly such as a cleft, mustn’t get in the way of the deeper truth that this baby too was born whole.
So, never pity a child whose appearance doesn’t conform to what’s ‘normal’; beneath the surface, that child is no different from you.