(You can see pictures here.)
We left the orphanage in the morning, eager to meet Sarah. I’d prayed for her for so long, ached to hold her in my arms and wipe away her tears. Stephanie is her mother, but I’ve prayed for Sarah before I ever met Stephanie, and she has always been “mine” in a different way – not my daughter, but a deep burden on my soul and now my adopted niece. My arms were empty waiting for her, and they would soon be empty again, for months while we waited for legal processes.
You can’t see the orphanage until you are right on top of it. It’s quite effectively hidden away off of a little side street. We’d turned down the street and seen the babas out with children in strollers, and then there it was! An enormous gray, concrete building loomed out from behind the other houses and the trees. Set in regimented rows across its sides were dozens of identical, soulless windows. The bleak, colorless sides were in stark contrast to the cheerful pastels of Anna's orphanage. The babas (not the orphanage nannies) were out enjoying the sunshine with a dozen or so children, most of whom were non-mobile, in strollers. They obviously cared about them, even if the nannies didn’t, but I can only guess how many dozen children were left to lay inside in cribs – there will never be enough babas, although I counted probably 25 of them during the week. We don’t know how many kids the building holds, probably at least a hundred.
(Visit this page for updates on the baba program and the kids left behind in the orphanage. You may have to scroll through some posts first.)
We entered the lobby. They have been making changes in this orphanage too – they have a new director who is trying, but it is a huge job with a resistant staff, and the mindset towards special needs is just so, so different over there. They seem very defensive, like they are hiding things. Some of the children are gaining weight. They are fed more, real food and more often, and they are changed and bathed more often. Sarah had surgery for her clubfeet, but no one gave her the necessary follow-up therapy, so it wasn’t very effective. We were not allowed to tour the orphanage. Our only contact with the children came when their babas would bring them through, and you had better believe we snatched each precious moment that we got. We were blessed with almost a whole hour after our Friday visit, when we stood outside and chatted with the babas and a doctor (?) who was on staff.
But anyway, back to our first visit. They led us upstairs to a very small playroom. A huge ball pit, which they are hopefully using more than they used to (which was never), filled almost the entire room. We shared the room with another adoptive mom. So there was her, her friend, Stephanie, me, our translator, the social worker, the other mom’s three children, and Sarah, in the same hot, small, dark room throughout the week.
They brought in the other children first. We waited with bated breath for our girl's arrival. Finally what we had been waiting for – a nanny carried in sweet Sarah Beth, carried her rather carelessly, facing outward, like it didn’t really matter.
Stephanie of course took the little girl in her arms instantly and I’m pretty sure we both started to cry. We sat down on the tiny preschool-sized chairs and turned on some music for her – a kids’ song about family. She started making kisses to us. She said “ma-MA?” We were head over heels and ready to do anything to get this girl home.
But it was not all joy. Sarah was tiny, so tiny.
Even at six years of age, her arms and legs were mere sticks, skin over bone. She weighed about 24 pounds.
At six years old, she could fit into a 2T toddler shirt (short sleeves). She was dressed in layers of baggy clothes, to keep her “warm” in the 75 degree weather and presumably to hide her emaciated body.
We changed her into different clothes, and after that the social worker decided to sit in on us, so we must have been breaking some unspoken rule.
We peeled off tights, pants, shoes, a onesie (yes, she still fits in a onesie), a longsleeved shirt, and another shirt on top of that. All in the middle of summer. She did not smell so great and her teeth stunk to high heaven. They did give her a bath later, which makes me think they understood more English than we thought and were listening in on our conversation.
Sarah has retinopathy of prematurity (blindness), CP, microcephaly (small head), and the lingering remains of Guillan-Barre syndrome from when she was two (it paralyzed her for a number of weeks.). She could army crawl and pull to a crouch using a beach ball, but she could not sit unassisted.
The doctors said she couldn't see, but she could easily track an object with her right eye, so I think they were wrong. Even the orphanage staff thought they were wrong. Add to that laundry list of health problems the horrific neglect she suffered the first four to five years of her life and the institutional setting she grew up in, and she had a lot of delays.
She could say mama, dada, layla (aunt), and we taught her to say Abbie! She mimicked kisses and other noises and consonants. We practiced counting to three then throwing the ball, and she started to say, “too, TRE!” She had so much potential. She will never be the world's definition of "normal" but that's ok. She was (and is) beautiful.
She loved physical touch, playing with us, beach balls, and toys with music and lights. She hated most anything new or different, like riding in the car to get her visa photos. When something like that happened she became absolutely, heartwrenchingly terrified.
Her orphanage was HARD. Everyone asks me if I had a good time or a fun trip. It was good, and worth it, and I would do it again and again if it would help. Sarah started getting bronchitis a few days before we left. She’d been refusing to eat. They gave her antibiotics and ran blood tests, and her poor little finger got bruised up and turned purple when they had to extract blood multiple times.
Our visits became shorter as the poor sick little girl couldn’t handle that much activity – she needed to go lie down. Stephanie and I waited out on the balcony for the other mom to finish her visits. It was so hard. I’d look at leftover cribs out on the porch, and wonder how many children had lived out their entire lives and died in them. I could hear a baby crying through the window, and it went on and on for what seemed like forever and no one came, until a nanny finally shut the window so we couldn’t hear. That seems to be the mindset. If you can’t hear their cries, they don’t exist. That baby’s cry haunts me to this day. I know kids cry, but this was different. It’s the kind of cry that makes YOU wake up and weep at one in the morning. I haven’t gotten over that place, and I pray I never do.
I still pray over those children in the dead of night, here in Africa while I rock my babies, turn on the heaters to warm them, cover them with an extra blanket, give them warm midnight bottles, rock them, sing them lullabies. I pray for those children I met, and the many I didn't, who don't have that love, never enough love.
I met another little girl who had been listed for adoption but whose file had been sent back because no one wanted her. (So glad to report she has a family now!) She, although much older, was the size of a three year old and stuffed in a stroller. She couldn’t really move. We did our best to communicate with the baba, even though we spoke two different languages. “[Child's name?]” “Yes, yes.” “Mama or daddy?” “Nyama (no) mama, no daddy, no [family.]” “So sad.” I touched my eyes to indicate “sad.” The nurse misunderstood and said something which I came to realize meant, “No, no, she doesn’t cry.” She used to. I went home and found an old picture of her, noticing for the first time the tearstains near the corner of her eyes. No, baba, she doesn’t cry. Not anymore. She'd given up – she is so young to give up.
Friday finally came. Sarah was feeling a little better, but her breathing was still raspy and she was feverish. I don’t really know how we said goodbye.
Stay tuned for part 4, the happy ending and update on my girls who have now been home for six months! =)