The story below happened many years ago in an Asian orphanage. At the time, I was single and lived alone. And when I say “alone” I mean “the days before social media” alone. I grew up in rural Mississippi where most of our neighbors lived miles away, but I had never known isolation like this before. Of course, I was in close proximity to many people and made some dear friends there, but there was always a barrier — both in language and culture. So, aside from using Gchat once or twice a week and getting a periodic email or phone call, I was completely disconnected from family and friends.
But before I jump into the story, please know that despite my struggles, I was truly privileged to know these children. I remember one little boy in particular — he was severely disabled, but I have never met another child who exuded such excitement and anticipation of life. To see him smile was to see joy manifest itself in the severest circumstances. I don’t know what has happened to him or the other children since then, but I haven’t forgotten them. And I hope this story will serve to honor their memory.
My rusty bike clanked down the road as I hiccuped over bumps while weaving through a sea of man-powered and motorized wheels. I had just left the orphanage after my weekly visit, but I have no memory of the ride to my apartment. I’m sure I passed the same prostitutes lounging under blinking hot pink lights and I’m sure the pimps shouted, “Hey! American!” as I lurched by. Perhaps I waved and smiled at the women as usual or perhaps I ignored them. It’s all a blur. Maybe I stopped by McDonald’s for supper (a rare treat) or maybe I nibbled on roasted peanuts, dragon fruit, and oranges while returning the blank stare of my apartment wall. That was normal. Maybe I did that, but I can’t remember. I do remember returning to my apartment a different person than I left it, though. Perhaps better, perhaps worse, but indisputably different.
That particular orphanage visit began as any other—with a flurry of noise and immediate interaction. The orphanage housed beautiful children whose crippled bodies and minds only illuminated their desire for life and love. But these desires did not negate their conditions, most of which were terminal. Regardless, they loved to play with the pasty freckled anomaly who magically appeared every week.
I was about to conclude my visit that day when a worker motioned me toward the door. They were about to feed the babies, would I like to help? Without a second thought, I followed her down the hallway.
The babies lay in a row, swaddled and silent like tiny mummies. She handed me a bottle of formula as a baby let out a low wail of protest before rooting desperately for her ritual nourishment. The worker had finished feeding her bottle and re-swaddled another baby by the time I was done. Curious about the process, I had watched her swaddle him. A baby’s arms and legs aren’t supposed to be that skinny, I thought. Where is the muscle? The fat? After eating, the babies lay silent once again.
As I prepared to leave, I noticed an older child alone in a crib. She was in a coma, lying so still that the trace of death already marked her. She was almost flattened on the sheets, as if her bones had been absorbed by her flesh. I reached out to touch her, but was chided by the worker. She would be gone soon, she said, it was not good to touch her. Then she motioned for me to leave the room. Reluctantly, I walked away. I was never allowed in that room again.
I wanted to forget that moment, that room, that experience, but it trespassed into my heart, broaching walls erected to combat sorrow. Silent babies, a helpless child dying alone and (to my knowledge) unloved exposed my heart to the suffering of humanity: a suffering that until then I recognized more in theory than reality. I remember so little of the ride home that day, yet one thing I will never forget: my desperate need to weep and my eyes’ refusal to comply. The face of tragedy held my gaze; I could not look away to mourn.