Tuesday, 17 September 2013
In the morning the place looked clean and pleasant. The children were nicely dressed and smelled of almond oil. The girls had newly braided hair and the boys shiny scalps. Their bellies were full of the first daily meal – a pap of cereals and milk with added vitamins – and they looked content. Some of them were given small toys to play with, others were placed on the sew-saw, the smaller ones lied on a blanket in a shadowy corner of the balcony and sucked their fingers or made noises, in conversation with the bluest sky I had ever seen.
It is difficult to say if our children recognized us when we came into the room that second day. They gave us a puzzled look: either they had no clue who we were or they were surprised we had showed up again. The nounous had left them in their cradles for us to pick them up. Nene was lying on her belly and playing fish, bobbing her head up and down and kicking the air with her thin legs (too thin for a baby of her age). Dele was standing still, holding the bars, his head slightly falling to one side. Dele's legs were even thinner than his twin sister's, almost bony, but his belly was not as swollen as hers. They had suffered heavy malnutrition in the first months of their life. Madame Mimy told us that when the social workers brought them to the orphanage the little ones were almost at the last stage. Nene had to be immediately hospitalized and when she came back she was fed personally by Madame Mimy, what apparently was a very special treatment. In fact, among all the children, Nene had become her favorite and now and then she would be allowed to sleep in the big bed with Madame. I was immensely grateful to Madame Mimy: she had saved our daughter's life, and that was something I would remember even when our relationship would start to get rocky. She could have all the faults in the world, but none of her faults could invalidate the fact that she had been a great mama to my baby.
It felt good to see our daughter's eyes following Madame Mimy's every movement. For us it meant that she had at least some experience of love and care, that she had an attachment. We had read so much about post-abandonment and deprivation trauma and had come across the most terrifying reports of so-called 'failed adoptions' that what worried us most was not to be strong and competent enough to parent a child with reactive attachment disorder, a child most likely to be unable to form bonding. But that this would not be the case was something we knew for sure after only a few ours with our children. Their eyes carried the weight of long and deep suffering, of loneliness, fatigue and resignation. Yet at moments there was a sparkle in their look, and for us that was the sparkle of recognition and expectation. True, we had been waiting for them for years, while for the little ones we were something new, unexpected and unpredictable, but we felt they sensed somehow that we were there for them and that this was going to be forever.
The moment I held my daughter in my arms for the first time, the world around me ceased to exist. It was only the two of us, looking straight into each other's eyes. I was so overwhelmed with tenderness – Ou belle oui! Ou belle anpil, ti fi an mwen! – that I missed the second precious moment with Dele being placed in his dad's arms. It was only a few minutes later that we could sit together on the couch, the four of us, in Madame Mimy's living room, and I could touch my son and feel his body getting warm from emotion. My son and I – I would realize in the following days – have this in common: our body temperature rises and we sweat heavily when thrilled or scared. This is the only tangible sign of anxiety. Otherwise, our features might appear unmoved, as if we were not concerned a single bit. Dele had the same frozen look and warm and sweaty body for the following three days. Then, he slowly began to relax and look around and play, and when that evening I brought him to bed, he looked into my eyes so long and deep that I knew that was the right moment to whisper my promise: I'm your mom now, timoun an mwen, and I will never ever let you down.
They don't call it orphanage. They call it crèche. To me, though, being used to the meaning of crèche as day-care, it sounds like a bizarre euphemism. True, most of the children there are no orphans, not in the literal sense of the word. Most of them have at least one family member (usually a young mother), who has gone the legal way to give up her child for adoption. Not so for our children. Nene and Dele's parents are unknown. Sometimes I wonder how they will live with this huge gap in their history and if we will be capable of accompanying them in grieving their loss. Their parents do not feel completely unknown to me though. In the first pictures we have of them, Nene and Dele are four-months old and yet they do not look like babies. Maybe because they are so small and have already been through so much hardship in life, they look like miniatures of messed-up adults, the features of their mother and father resurfacing here and there. Nene has a look of terror and outmost loneliness, a look of a woman helpless and distressed, wondering what will become of her. Dele's contorted expression seems to echo the grimace of pain of a man carrying a load much heavier then his strength allows. When a child's history has been erased from the records, their body speaks volumes.
In our first family picture only two of us look cheerful. The paradox of adoption is that in the moment of the first encounter feelings do not match. While parents have a reason to celebrate, children are mourning a new loss. We knew our children were terribly scared, even if they did not show it (so small and already adroit at hiding their emotions), but we had been longing to become parents for such a long time that we couldn't restrain from rejoicing in their presence. The sheer touch of their tiny fingers holding ours, the softness of their bodies on our lap, the sweet taste of their breath brought a sense of wholeness and peace and renewal, like coming to life again with strong roots and powerful wings.
We stayed with them for a week. A week of kissing and smelling and caressing each other, a week of cuddling and babbling, a week of unprecedented bliss.
We knew that leaving would not be easy. The adoption process would take approximately nine more months (same as with a pregnancy, only your child is out there, with a whole big ocean in between). Nene was standing up in her bed and cheerfully waving bye-bye with her tiny hands. Dele was with nounou Denise, sweating heavily again (and so was I). We kissed them goodbye – stay well, little ones, we love you ocean wide – and disappeared down the stairs hand in hand, gave a hug to the older children in the yard, stepped reluctantly into Madame Mimy's car and there, in the heat and dust of the long drive to the airport, our resolution to stay strong collapsed and we realized that for the following nine months we would be living in limbo, waiting for the final bliss, but with the constant fear that something might go wrong.