TANZANIA, WEEK 3: I do not know she will be the one to haunt me.
The one who slips into bed with me at night in a dark and pregnant silence, and flutters into the most ordinary of moments, a tiny yet potent tap on my unsuspecting heart. I do not anticipate the number of times I will rifle through my too-meager memories, calling up her wee fingers clutching the sleeve of my johnny, the repetitive sucking motion of her mouth, as if she is worrying the words she cannot speak, the smile that is a swiftly passing tremor of light on her often-solemn features.
Throughout my afternoons volunteering in the nursery at Cradle of Love, one of two orphanages where I spend my days in Usa River, I will have the chance to hold every baby. And I will adore them all, from Ndanini with her chubby, infinitely kissable cheeks and ever-grasping fingers, to Richard with his dark, curious eyes and easy-going personality to Costancia, with her babbling ebullience and wide, gummy smile that breaks out like a blossom across her rash-pocked face.
Yet it is Claira, with her somber, soulful features and frequent fussiness, whom I will call mine, without even realizing the distinction I make. I will tease her often, this “Little Miss Fussbucket” who seems to constantly waver between contentment and crankiness, grave reticence and bold curiosity, a placid acceptance of her circumstances and a stubborn resistance to them. She is the one who never wants to go to sleep, who screams when I give her a bath and every time I put her down at the end of the day when the volunteers must go home. She is “My Claira Bean,” and though I do not hold her every day, I find her always, shooting my smile across the room to wherever she is, drinking her in with my eyes, calling to her with a sing-song softness.
There are seven babies in the nursery during my placement at Cradle, including the preemie Mlihati, born two months early. Her mother died in childbirth and her father is unknown. But not all the babies here are true orphans. Some have dads who have promised to return for them, unable to care for a newborn or little one so young. Others have family members trying to find a means to take them in. Surviving parents are supposed to visit their babies, I learn. But they don’t come often, and the orphanage does not have a policy in place to ensure consistent contact. Many of the children, after age 3, will find themselves placed in another home if they are not adopted or reunited with family.
Claira’s mother, I am told, is “crazy.” The whereabouts of her father are uncertain. All the babies have their own similar story, steeped in aching sadness. But Claira is the only one who appears to wear her sorrow, to own it as the unfathomable fount of her tears. Her old soul eyes suggest an awareness not only of the path she’s journeyed to get here but of the love that has eluded her.
Yes, the nursery trills with affection every day I am there with several other volunteers from my house along with a student from South Dakota. We give ourselves to the silly enchantment that only babies inspire. We also observe as their caregivers cuddle them, float their warm, nurturing voices above their cribs. But these women are short with them, too, and occasionally detached, letting them cry without holding them and when they do, pulling them up by a single arm. I watch time and again as efficiency trumps tenderness, though I can hardly fault the staff when there are sometimes only one or two of them in the room
when we arrive. One afternoon when I happen to be the sole volunteer in the nursery, I am left briefly with all seven babies.
Though they can be happy sitting on the floor, playing with rattles or lovies from a scanty collection of toys, or crawling around the room, the more volunteers there are and the more frequently we visit, the less interested they are in entertaining themselves. They do not all get held in the time we are there. One afternoon Costancia is the last to awake from her nap. I am holding Claira and Ndanini, the other two volunteers are trying to get their little ones to sleep and the “mama” on duty has her hands full with the preemie.
Costancia simply watches us all from her crib, chattering to herself. But I long to pick her up, press her close. When it is time to leave, she launches herself up as I walk past her crib, her expectant eyes on me. I reach for her small hands and clasp them in mine, stroke her face and kiss her forehead. “I hope you were held today, sweet girl,” I whisper. “I hope someone loved you. I hope you’ll be held tonight.”
My benediction and lament pierce me with sorrow but the very next day I am shattered anew as I take my leave. I have not held Claira, as she’s been with Sarah, another volunteer. But when I make my way to the door, she starts crawling after me. I pause, surprised by her determination and fast-moving limbs when Sarah alerts me to her intention. Soon she is beside me, tugging on my pant leg, and though I know I will have to put her down as soon as I sweep her into my arms, I cannot resist. Her cries trail after me when I leave.
They will also be my final memory of her on the last day I hold her. While the other babies are asleep in their cribs, she, as usual, is fighting “lala (‘sleep’) time.” I have been cradling her in the rocker, walking around the room with her, feeling her limbs grow heavy with exhaustion. Her eyes fall shut only to open repeatedly, finding my own, as if to reassure herself that I have no intention of releasing, as if she has equated sleep to a sure and objectionable aloneness. But five o’clock comes, and I must go.
Though her eyes are again closed, they fly open as soon as my body dips to lower her into her crib — and she begins to bawl. I put her down reluctantly, turn away, knowing she won’t be comforted.
“Claira, she likes a lot of attention,” I was told one day by a mama who overheard me playfully chiding her about her constant need to be cuddled.
As I leave, I want to tell her it’s OK to keep crying.
Because her mother is crazy.
Because she may never know her family.
Because these walls are not home.
I want to encourage her to wail as hard and long as she likes.
For the life lost to her and the life that remains hidden.
For not knowing the blessing of her birth.
For being without a single sweet promise to inherit.
Cry, my Claira Bean, cry.
For you deserve to be the center of attention, in this moment and the next.
You deserve to be the spark of sun and moonbeam shimmer in a steadfast, loving gaze.
Every day, upon waking, this is what I wish the hours would stitch upon your soul: that you are the hope of the deepest longing, and the grace of a thousand thanksgivings. You are wanted, with love and joy beyond measure. And you will soar and know wonder, as a light to behold in this world.