Riding the ferry at 5:00 this morning, I awake from a short nap and look around at the other passengers. Far in the front of the boat, I spot a young woman carrying four bags who is alone and appears rather sad. She has the same hair and profile of my 9th grade student, Rose. The same black and white jacket. The same headband…but it couldn’t possibly be her, or could it? Just then she lifts her hand to cover her face, and her long, slender brown fingers are unmistakable. How many times have I seen that same gesture repeated in my class?
I approach Rose and call her name. She looks up, and it is exactly like a scene from a movie, when a child is caught running away from home by just the person she never expected to see. She sits there, speechless, and her face is a mixture of consternation and surprise. A few moments pass in silence – each of us shocked that the other is here on this very boat – until I take courage and ask, “Where are you going?” It seems she has been crying, and she is still a little slow to respond, so I move her bags and sit down on the bench beside her. Finally she explains: she is going home to her grandmother and her baby, the two-year-old child she has not seen since she left them on the mainland and moved to Camiguin.
It has not been an easy life for Rose as a working student, living with her employers, with no free time even to complete the homework that I assign every day in class. And now, five months to the day, she is returning to the life she knew before, which is by no means an easier one. Living in her Lola’s home together with the father of her child, who is deaf to her pleadings – no one would argue that this is love, when a man’s affection is forced upon a woman who desires to escape it.
The rain blows hard against the tarpaulin, and Rose shivers. “Come, all your bags are getting wet,” I insist. So we change seats and I gently ask, “You will not be coming back to Camiguin?” “Oh, ma’am! My show and tell…,” she exclaims, dismayed at the thought of disappointing both me and her classmates. Her presentation was scheduled for next Tuesday. “I don’t care about your show and tell!” I respond a little too quickly. “I am just sad because, if God had not put us on this ferry together, I might never have seen you again.” Such is the case for almost everyone she is leaving behind, I realize, as she explains that only her class advisor, her employers, and now I know of her decision to move home. We ride the rest of the way to the port and then make our way to the bus terminal. Both of us are west-bound, so there is still some time before we must part ways. I ask the Holy Spirit for inspiration, for an encouraging word to leave with her if, indeed, this is the last time we will meet. In between bus stops – first to load additional passengers, later to pick up a few barrels of fresh squid – I lead us in a prayer.
As we pray, I consider what I know of Rose’s story. Pregnant at 15, unwanted by her parents, she tried her utmost to care for her child. But living every day in dread of the young man she once loved – who later refused to move out of the house and leave her and the baby in peace – sounds rather like a complicated form of slavery to me. Having to choose between her freedom and her child, Rose did what she thought best and left the baby with her grandmother, as she set out to complete her high school education, hoping to someday be able to provide for her daughter. How unbearable is the heartbreak of a mother forced to give up her child! And remarkably, she grasps the tragic irony of it all, that she who was abandoned at a tender age by her mother has now repeated history by leaving behind her own small daughter.
What a relief it is to pray with her, because it is only the Savior of the world Who can save Rose from the circumstances that she is facing. The words of the prophet Isaiah come to mind, and I turn to my Bible to share with her the passage that has so often comforted my own sorrowful heart. For her, however, the words are not merely metaphorical, because she has lived them. Indeed, they seem to come to life on the page as I read them aloud:
“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ ‘Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.'” -Isaiah 49:14-16
I close the book and turn to see her weeping. Hers is a face of strength. You may perhaps condemn her for leaving her child, or even for giving up on her education, but there is no condemnation in the words of Our Lord. There is only love, deep love, and His promise of unending fidelity to His precious Rose.
A few minutes later and we have arrived at the crossing – this is her stop. They have no Bible at home because her Lola cannot read or write, so I’ve hurriedly copied the verses and scribbled a note assuring her of my continued prayers. I hug her goodbye, and she flashes that same brave smile I have come to expect every afternoon at 2:30pm when I enter her classroom. But this is the last time I will see it, and I hold the image in my memory a little longer so I will not forget her. And you, my child, must never forget how dearly you are loved.