March 27, 2011
Sometimes I see them again. I am walking around the orphanage, wearing my daughter in a baby carrier. She is looking out, seemingly disconnected from the familiar scenes. My arms are around her. I kiss her shorn head from time to time and softly stroke the bug-bitten pale face. My husband is close, quiet, and only I know that he struggles for composure.
We have been allowed into the welfare institute. We wander and take in the essence of this sterile environment five stories above the concrete paved lot just outside and under the small iron balcony that holds a wire contraption that resembles a complicated antenna. Cloth-rag diapers and permanently discolored baby clothing hanging from the contraption, slowly drying in the humid south China autumn. We are in the nursery where my daughter spent the first year of her life. I stand next to the crib that she shared with another—bundled under quilts, padded jackets, and split pants, out of the sunshine and other elements.
I wander down the wide hall and peek into a room. A TV is on and turned up high. Children with birth defects and disabilities fill the room. Some are playing games. Others rock or move repetitively; some lie without any kind of stimulation or contact. Some just stare at each other or nowhere. Young children, several around the age of my eight year-old son, appear to be watching these children. A door opens behind me on the other side of the hall; a girl with a stunted leg and arm shuffles towards me, determined to get where she is going. I feel caught, witnessing something I’m sure I shouldn’t. The girl disappears into another room and shuts the door.
My husband escorts me downstairs. We arrive in a baby-filled playroom with a puzzle-pieced primary-colored rubber mat covering the floor; my daughter’s referral pictures were taken here. I walk a few steps and see the dirty, cracked plastic pink pony that she sat on in one of the pictures. The girl I saw upstairs comes into the playroom and sees me, but doesn’t acknowledge me. She quickly looks away, bending to take a baby who held its hands up in the global language of “pick me up.” She smiles and rocks the baby; she is a well-seasoned rocker. Did this young girl hold my daughter and rock her? Did she coo and sing to her and share exciting folktales of dragons and monkeys? I think so because my daughter is watching her and smiles. I catch the young girl’s eye and smile. She looks away.
Our Chinese facilitator tells us the young girl is an orphan like the other girl in the room, who I hadn’t noticed because she is even older. I thought she was one of the regular caretakers. This young girl was never adopted. The welfare institute kept her on because she was good with the younger children. She will remain with them for the rest of her life, caring for others. The facilitator tells me she is fortunate because she has shelter, food, and a basic education. Many of the older orphans have to leave. When I ask where, he just shakes his head.
I turn away and pull my precious baby deeper into my arms. She is safe, loved, and going home. I think of my older daughter, safe, loved, and at home, and the tears come. My husband is hugging himself in the corner, tears coursing down his cheeks. I walk to him, we put our foreheads together, needing to connect in our anguish for strength. He strokes our daughter’s sweet face and kisses her. After I have calmed down, I look up and around the room. I see my daughter’s face on the young girl and I see my older daughter’s face on the older girl’s face.
I struggle up from the dream gasping for air. Too real. I run to my daughters’ room. They sleep every which-way in their bunks. My heart begins to quiet and I am overcome with tears. They are home, safe and loved beyond measure. But those, the not adopted, what of them?
photo by PaperChild