A Surreal Moment
Life is made of moments strung together, a collection of essays that create the novel of our lives. ~Kay Bratt
I sat on the scarred, wooden floor with one child cradled in my lap, one on his belly in front of me, and two more directly in front of me (within touch) in walkers tied to the large metal kid corral. For the millionth time, I wished the toddlers could be freed from their post and allowed to scoot around the room. But here, in an orphanage, the staff preferred the children to stay immobile as long as possible. They didn’t encourage learning to stand or walk, as it only caused more work for them sooner.
Regina, another volunteer, stood at the window with a child over her shoulder, swaying her to and fro as she sang her a lively German nursery song. Without looking I knew what Regina saw through the tattered curtains—a sad scene across the way from the orphanage, a large, foreboding building that housed adults deemed mentally ill or unfit to live within society. Most days the men and women clustered to the windows, putting their hands through the bars as they vied for a position to see something—anything—to help their minds escape their dire circumstances. We held up babies for them to look at occasionally, to bring a tiny spot of cheer to them when possible.
As a human being, I couldn’t imagine a worse fate than living the sort of institutional life they did, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that some of the very babies we cared for and played with who lived in this very room might one day be transferred there as a way to move a problem out of sight and out of mind, a prediction that ran a shiver up my spine.
I looked at my watch and saw that we only had a few minutes remaining, confirmed when an ayi whisked by and picked up one of the toddlers, took her to a bed and dropped her like a heavy sack of potatoes. She then returned for another but I held mine close as I stood, at least one would be put down gently and with a comforting smile.
As I moved closer to her bed, her tranquil expression was replaced with a nervous one. It made me wonder how many hours the children laid there in the afternoon, bored without any type of stimulation, just waiting for the next scheduled changing or feeding as they stared up at a water-stained ceiling. I put the little one down and covered her with the lone sheet in her crib. I touched my lips to my fingertips and then to her head with a kissing noise. She watched me thoughtfully as I slowly moved away.
For my first year working as a volunteer in the orphanage, I questioned everything with a neatly hidden indignant attitude. However, over time I’d come to understand many of the reasons things were as they are, and now even though I’d prefer to implement a different way of raising children—one with color, laughter, affection, and stimulation—I’d come to accept that in an institution, it just wasn’t always feasible to do it my way. This was their country and their culture, not mine. I didn’t have to agree with it, I just had to accept it and take the opportunity to make small changes when possible.
My back ached as I made one more round through the lines of cribs and toddler beds, checking to see that all tiny brown hands and feet were free from the rungs—even if only temporarily. I breathed through my mouth, filtering the strong blend of floor cleaner mingled with a lingering cloud of feces, vomit, and perspiration. Bath day would be tomorrow and not a day sooner.
I met the eyes of one child, a dark-skinned baby girl who could have been only months old or possibly even years, so hard to tell in an environment where the lack of nutrition and interaction could delay milestones and even stunt growth. It was clear that she knew I was easing toward the door and though that made her unhappy, she had been a child in the orphanage long enough to know that no amount of pouting or crying would give her what she wanted. She faced her disappointments somberly without any sound, though she quietly followed me with her gaze and lifted a tiny hand as if to say goodbye.
I picked up my backpack from the counter and with one final glance behind me, I left the room that housed over twenty something children. I was only allowed a few hours each day and I made every minute count, but every minute also cost me. When one thinks of spending time with children they imagine looks of affection and sounds of laughter. I was lucky enough to experience some of that, but I also collected memories in my mind of children too weak to cry, bodies too painfully dehydrated to touch, and eyes too vacant to reach. I consider myself a strong woman but even the fiercest warrior would have been moved by some of what I’d witnessed in my time at the orphanage. Any human would—it was inevitable unless they were made of stone.
But though my heart ached for those I couldn’t help, it also soared for the ones we were able to make a difference for. The child who would’ve died if not for a heart surgery we provided, the baby who needed her lip grafted to repair the cleft that left her unable to take in nutrition, the boy who could hear for the first time when we were able to secure a hearing aid to fit his tiny ear. For every obstacle we came across, another hurdle was overcome.
If I’d learned anything in my journey to this place in my life—China—it’s that life is simply moments strung together, a collection of essays that make up the novel of our lives. How I got from being a small town Kansas girl to standing in a dismal room surrounded by abandoned and emotionally bankrupt children is a miracle in itself. One that consisted of many long and winding roads—a few detours—and more than my share of heartache and tears. As a game a few days ago, I counted and have lived in at least twenty-seven houses on two continents, comprising of close to a dozen American states and even more small towns. But now—this was my life and the journey to get here is unforgettable.
In the hall I passed an elderly woman pushing a mop. The duties in the institute were very black and white. If you were hired to clean floors, that’s all you did—even if you saw a child hanging out a window, you walked on by. At least that is the impression I had gotten in my time there, though sometimes I caught the same woman looking wistfully through the nursery windows as if she’d like to be a part of their group.
“Ni hao, Tai Tai,” she greeted me with a wide, toothless smile. Her short Mao pants fluttered around her legs, drawing attention to the ragged slippers she wore. This was a happy woman, one of the few I’d seen in the orphanage, as most tended to act as if they didn’t like being a part of such a sad place.
I returned her greeting and continued to the stairwell. Today I wouldn’t be lingering long. It was shopping day and I had a very eventful afternoon ahead of me. Traversing the huge two-story supermarket was not a favorite activity of mine. Even after all our time in China, the packed aisles, atrocious smells, and overly-curious town people competing to get closest to a blue-eyed foreigner made it one of my most overwhelming experiences to combat. I’d much rather stay between the aisles of cribs and beds then the aisles of the local market.
As I walked past the curious security guard and through the imposing stone gates of the orphanage, I marveled to myself how I had come to be given the chance of a lifetime and found that only in the mysterious land of China and looking into dark and beseeching eyes, I’d finally found the place that God intended for me—the place that just might heal the scars on my own heart.
Some would say it was a miracle I’d made it to this new place. But isn’t everyone’s life a series of small miracles? Whatever it was or whatever they wanted to call it—I planned not to waste one moment of the gift I’d been given. It was my second chance at life and I was taking it.
Read more in my memoir of our time in China. [Download Silent Tears Now]