“God sets the lonely in families……….” Psalm 68:6a
The next day was filled with laughter and Creole chatter from Claudine. She seemed to be embracing me as her “Mommy” and Roseline as her little sister. She was surprisingly affectionate with Roseline, considering they had been at separate facilities since arriving at the orphanage almost 2 years before. Somehow, they sensed they belonged to each other. In a world where everyone around her was dark skinned and she was ridiculed for her light complexion, it must have met a deep need in Claudine to look at her sister and see a face so much like her own.
After breakfast that morning, I decided we would go downstairs to visit the babies since I had promised some other waiting families precious snap shots of their little ones. With my camera around my neck, and my girls in tow, we descended the stairs to find only one house mother and twelve babies and toddlers. The young woman was moving at break neck speed in an effort to meet the needs of so many children. Roseline spotted her friends and immediately ran off to join them. Claudine stayed close to me as I approached a baby lying on the bare mattress of a bottom bunk. He was staring expressionlessly at the children playing on the floor. His body was completely listless. I sat near him, placed my hand on his back and smiling, looked into his eyes.
“Hey, sweetheart.” I said.
He avoided my gaze and turned his face to the wall. A little boy came up to me and began to hit me in an effort to get my attention. Another little girl approached me, placed her thumb in her mouth and lay her head on my lap. I was not ready to give up on the baby on the mattress however, and I picked him up and held him so I could look into his face. At first he looked away but gradually, I drew him out. He began to smile, then giggle at the silly faces and noises I was making for his entertainment. Slowly, he came to life and began to look around him with interest and then began to wiggle in an attempt to get down on the floor. I placed him on the floor and he attempted to crawl around and play. It was like recharging a battery and I was struck by how much children need not only clothing, food and shelter but nurturing as well. Human beings were created for relationship and although we may survive without it, we can not thrive.
A tiny baby in a nearby crib began to cry and I picked her up. She weighed about 6 pounds. The young house mother brought me a bottle and I sat back down on the edge of the bed to feed her. When another baby boy on the mattress spotted the bottle, he began to wail. She brought me another bottle and showed me how to feed two babies at once then disappeared into another room to tend to other children. During this time, the older house mother who was partial to Roseline drifted in and out without helping and eventually disappeared to sit outside in the morning sun. The babies finished the bottles rapidly and about that time, the scent of feces filled the air as one of the babies on the floor began to wail. I placed the tiny baby back in the crib and as she began to cry, I went to the other child. I lifted her and found that she was covered in watery diarrhea. It was all over the floor as well. I panicked and began to search for the words in Creole to call for help. There were babies everywhere and I could not take the soiled child to find means to clean her and keep the other babies out of the “spill area” at the same time. I began to shout the only word I knew that might be helpful.
“pwoblem! pwoblem!” (Problem! Problem!)
The young house mother came running and with a cry of dismay took the child from me and rushed to the bathroom to put her in the tub. I desperately looked around for something to clean up the diarrhea but found nothing close. Despite my best efforts, I could not keep all of the babies out of it and here and there, they crawled through it, trailing it behind them as they went on to other play. In the middle of it all, I looked up and spotted Claudine who had wandered away in the fray and was standing on the stairs looking sad and lost.
Again, I shouted for the other house mother.
At last, she slowly walked into the room. I pointed at the puddle of diarrhea on the floor and she reached over to the bed and grabbed a stray bib and tossed it into the middle of the feces, all the while chuckling, mocking my desperation and broken Creole. “pwoblem! pwoblem!” She said, as if it were all some colossal joke.
Anger flared through me. Anger not so much that she would mock me but that she would be so undisturbed by the situation. Then, on the heels of anger, marched panic.
“I have to get my baby out of here!” I thought.
Feelings of guilt and remorse swirled through me for the babies I was leaving behind as I grabbed Roseline and Claudine and fled upstairs. We went to our room and shut the door. I place Roseline on the bed and rushed into the bathroom to scrub my hands. When I returned, she sat there on the bed rocking back and forth as Claudine looked up at me, her face awash in longing, need, and sorrow. She began to cry.
I picked her up and placed her on my lap. She sank into me and sobbed deep, rending sobs. I grabbed my Creole dictionary and flash cards and asked her what was wrong but her only response was a cry of desperate, crushing grief. I began to pray, asking God to help me know what to do and then he revealed to me that she had been so wounded by her need for a family that when I was absorbed with all of those babies it seemed as if perhaps I was not mother to her after all, but just another woman caring for a multitude of children of which she was only one. Seeing me there, surrounded by all of babies and distracted by their overwhelming need, she felt forgotten and abandoned. It unearthed some raw, primal need in her. She needed a mother, not a caregiver. She needed to be a daughter, not just another child.
So, I did what I always do when I hurt one of my children unintentionally. I apologized. It was a commonplace thing, just one of those things a mother does.
I grabbed my dictionary, looked up the words and said, “I am sorry. I stayed with the babies too long. You are my little girl, not those babies. I love you. I will not stay long with the babies again.”
It might have been commonplace for me but for Claudine, it was anything but ordinary. What I saw in her eyes was remarkable. Surprise flickered there and then peace. An alien comfort embraced her.
Mother. Child. It was all so strange and foreign to her, but the need for that relationship was a familiar thing and until that moment she had not known its name.