The Children Carmen Loves

  • These are a few of the children Carmen loves.

    These are a few of the children Carmen loves.

  • Some of them are very young.

    Some of them are very young.

  • Others are teenagers.

    Others are teenagers.

  • Some of them have lost their hair.

    Some have lost their hair.

  • Some have lost limbs.

    Some have lost limbs.

  • They all have something in common: cancer and Carmen's love.

    They all have something in common: cancer and Carmen’s love.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta tilted her blue and white veil-clad head upward and locked onto the eyes of her Cuban interpreter. What she spotted through the hot and fume-laden air rising from the tarmac was not a mirage. It was real; it was despair.

When the diminutive nun reached up to grasp Carmen Vallejo’s hands it seemed to be a signal. The tall blonde bent low nearly pressing her ear against the future saint’s lips. “Love the children,” Mother whispered.

Those three words didn’t fully register with Carmen but they kept replaying in her head.

Only the prominence of her family allowed Carmen a return flight to Cuba after her defection in the early days of 1981. A prodigal welcome it was not. She and her husband, Rey, were spit upon, branded worms and only her mother, Maria, would speak with them.

Carmen remained mired in a pit of depression for seven years.

In 1988, weeks after Mother Teresa’s departure, Carmen climbed from the depths of her depression long enough to visit the children’s cancer ward at Instituto Nacional de Oncologia y Radiobiologia in Havana. As she walked past the sterile green beds that seemed to envelope the bald-headed, small people she smiled from deep within for the first time in years.

With moist eyes, the mother of one four-year-old fretted that her son would not survive until his next birthday. At that moment, Carmen recalled Mother Teresa’s three simple words. Carmen was born again. Her pit was sealed.

She volunteered to throw a birthday party for the youngster. It would be an unforgettable celebration with balloons, banners, and cake and ice cream on the following Saturday at the hospital. She announced the party aloud and invited everyone within earshot.

And thus began Carmen and Rey’s simple ministry of loving the children.

Now the couple never misses an opportunity to celebrate. Sometimes they invent reasons. Parents and children gather in the library of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Vedado every Saturday afternoon. There they find love and they rediscover hope. And there they find help, solidarity and consolation.

At times there are tears and sadness when a child departs this world. But there is never despair because Carmen continues to live the words of Mother Teresa.

“Love the children.”