Wednesday, April 28, 2010
It was two Saturdays ago. I have thought about it each day since. But I haven’t written anything down about it until right now. Because if it’s not written down, if a story isn’t told out loud, it will eventually pass, like so many memories, out onto the rapids. But there is a reality in putting it down to paper. A reality, witnessed and written, turns a story into a decision: you must then either decide to let the reality be swallowed in the fleeting rapids of memory, or lift it to shore with you, where it becomes part of your story.
I didn’t write it down because I don’t think I am strong enough to lift this. But I think we might be. And I think, just maybe, we could make this part of our story. And, just maybe, we can change these children’s reality a little as we write ours.
It was two Saturdays ago when I knocked on the double blue metal doors of the Mother Teresa orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda. A Sister came to the door and ushered us in. We were unknown, unscreened, unannounced. And yet there was just one direction: No pictures – it steals the children’s dignity. I was proud of the Sisters for refusing photography; one should not come to hold these precious, forgotten children for purposes of a moving photo spread tucked within their Gorillas and Lake Kivu album. Plus, I was relieved at the no-photo rule, because I know that part of me would be tempted to have a picture with me and the babies – the part of me that is vain and self-serving and memory-hogging. And I didn’t want to serve the part of me that believes moments matter because you have documentation you were there; I wanted to live in the place where moments matter just because they do.
It was two Saturdays ago, and we walked down the cement ramp into the mass of tiny precious babies covered in rashes and rags. The Sisters beckoned our group on a tour of the orphanage – where each room was a wall-to-wall sea of tiny blue cots, and then even tinier blue cots where the children slept, thirty or more to a room. But another girl and myself never made it past the shoreline of the children. We plunged into the wave of them, holding our breath and suspending our hearts for the next two hours, until we emerged, soaking wet with this new reality.
There are 127 children at Mother Teresa’s, from one day to 6 years old. They are here because their parents were killed, because their parents died of AIDS, because their parents or caretakers cannot afford to feed them. They are here because everyday they are left outside the gate where we entered, as unknown, unannounced, unscreened as we were. They are here because the orphanage takes every one of them.
I sat at the shoreline of this sea of children. And they literally clawed and screamed and elbowed their way onto my lap. There was rarely a moment when there were not three on my lap – one closest to my chest, one further down my knees in the middle, and one dangled at the edge of my knees. The ones who were not closest to my chest wailed and scraped and fought to get to the prized spot – where they would be held, close to someone’s heart. It was as if they instinctively knew the way a baby deserves to be held – even if they had never been held that way – and they craved this cradling above anything. They wanted to be a baby that one person holds and protects. They wanted to be touched.
They wandered around in plastic bags for diapers, some with no pants or no underwear, some in adult T-shirts to their knees. They had no toys. There were a few balls or pieces of bike in the cement yard where they ran – one 2 year-old boy was pulling around the broken handle bars that must have once been part of a bike. When it was taken from him by another child, he wept and screamed and threw himself on the ground.
One child did not ever have a ball or a bike piece for more than a few moments – they were always taken by another. And the one left without would invariably weep and scream and throw herself on the ground. As I watched, it occurred to me that these children had never had anything that was theirs. Not a ball, not a bike part – not a mother or a father – that was not violently stripped from them in a moment. They had nothing that was theirs to hold. And so, as I watched them weep, angry, uncontrollably, it made perfect sense to me. There was nothing that they could hold onto, nothing they could cherish and call their own, nothing to comfort them, which had not or would not be ripped away in an instant. Their wailing made perfect sense to me and made me want to throw myself to the ground as well.
When I started noticing that this was happening – all over the cement ground it was happening – and not knowing what to do, I started walking over to each weeping child and put my hand on his back, or ran my fingers across her head. And the child would stop. The child would catch her breath and breathe. The simple act of a human touch to their precious, scabby skin soothed them instantly. Because they want to be touched. They want to be a baby. A baby who someone holds and protects.
When it was time for the littlest ones to go into their room, they were gathered in. And then, from the inside of the locked screen doors, they stood, faces crushed against the screen, wailing to come out, to come out where there is holding and touching. But that also was ripped away, and they wept and screamed into the screen. They cried the way I think only babies who know they are not allowed to be babies, held and protected, can cry.
The child I held for about an hour had a heart that reminded me of Chase. A lot. Among the children who were feigning for themselves for balls and bike parts and anything they could call their own for even a moment, he noticed. He clung to me with a fire. And when someone had a ball stripped away, he would look me straight in the eyes and point to the child weeping on the ground. And so we’d walk, him clinging to my neck, to the child, and he would remain there clinging while I rubbed the child’s back. When another one wailed, he would point across the cement yard, and we’d walk there, to touch the baby’s face and wipe her tears. And together he pointed and we walked and we touched for an hour.
When the Sisters said it was time to leave, I had to unwind his clinched wrists from around my neck for five minutes and force him onto a bench, where he wailed, alone. With no one to point to him. With no one to reach for him. With another precarious comfort ripped from him in an instant.
These babies want to be touched. By something that will not be ripped from them.
It was two Saturdays ago.
I can still feel Gabriel's wrists clinched around my neck.
And I am beginning to believe that there must be some way we can lift part of his reality to the shore.