Monday, 17 October 2016

The Visitor

Gustave walks me home every evening. The hotel where I'm staying, which truly feels like home by now, is only a few blocks away from the orphanage, but at dusk I feel safer with Gustave on my side and I cherish his company. We exchange a few words with a lot of giggling in between, and get to know each other a little more day by day. Gustave talks very softly, almost whispering. I have to make him repeat things four or five times until I finally catch a familiar word, guess the general meaning and respond in my hesitating and broken Creole. He finds pleasure in teaching me, points a slim finger to a house, a tree, a mule, a rock, a car and spells the word slowly for me to repeat it. We shake hands at the gate and say goodbye, a demen. Gustave has a beautiful smile.
He is fifteen years old, the youngest employee at the orphanage, yet he is not an employee, not in the proper sense. In fact, Gustave does not receive a salary. His father died and his mother is too poor to take care of him. Madame Mimy took him over a few months ago. Here in Haiti children like him are called restavèk. Gustave is a slave child, offering domestic services in exchange for food and a roof. Madame Mimy promised to send him to school next year, but when she gets upset she hits him and threatens to throw him out. That is something I am not supposed to know. This is why I sense I have become an uncomfortable presence for Madame Mimy. My knowledge of Creole, however limited, is opening doors meant to be kept shut for foreign visitors.

I had planned to stay for only a few days days, but I couldn't bring myself to leave, so I decided to change my return ticket and stay for a month. My son had a blank look when I came for my second visit, the look of someone who is losing touch with the world around him. I hadn't seen him in three months and he hadn't made any progress since. His twin sister was walking her first steps, arms up towards the sky, her bright eyes eagerly looking around. Nene was preparing herself for the big world outside. I was reassured that my little princess was healthy and strong. But Ayo looked lost. His tiny body conveyed a sense of remoteness. I had to stay, no matter what.
Madame Mimy did not seem annoyed by my decision. On the contrary, she looked genuinely pleased, as if that were the proof that I appreciated the place and her work. This is true in spite of all. She does a great job in many respects. Madame Mimy is a strong and cheerful woman, runs the place on her own and takes care of the children the best way she can. There are many moments in which we enjoy each other's company. She is a powerful and naturally authoritative woman. She could do without abuse, but she takes pleasure in exercising power in this tiny world of her. The small children look at her in awe, whereas the older ones are simply frightened and do not dare utter a single word in her presence. Sometimes she humiliates them with harsh remarks. This is something I find every day harder to take. We've had arguments on the topic and she got upset. She is the kind of person who does not stand any hint of criticism, therefore I couldn't tell her the true reason why I'm staying. She is truly persuaded that her educational methods are the most appropriate, that it is enough to feed the children and keep them clean, and she does not see the need of cuddling and letting them play. I like her nonetheless. I was brought up by women as crude, still I don't feel I have missed anything. Only, I was not an orphan, I was loved and I had the privilege of a rooted existence. And here are my children, and I can't take them home yet. And other children are waiting, craving for affection. That makes it all different. For most of the time the small children are kept in their beds. It makes me mad to see them banging their heads against the bars. Sometimes I want to scream.

Some children have developed effective strategies to attract positive attention from the nannies. These are mostly girls. They offer big smiles and stretch their arms, eyes open wide in expectation. And sometime they succeed. They are the ones who are mostly taken out of their beds and placed on the balcony, and even get a little cuddle now and then. Nene is one of them. She knows how to flirt, my little fighter. The ones who scream and bang their head don't get any reward, let alone attention. They can go on for hours in a row. The noise leaves the nannies undisturbed. When Madame Mimy is not around, some of them have got earphones plugged into their ears with loud music playing. Who cares that some children are gasping for air from so much crying? I wonder how these children will make it through, until a family comes for them. I wonder how they will make it through even later, with such a burden of suffering on their small shoulders.
Other children are resigned. Either they sleep all day or stare into the emptiness. My Ayo, needless to say, is one of them. He's gotten used to his needs not being attended upon. He has detached himself. True, dissociation can be a defense strategy, but what if it goes too far? I sense that my son is in danger. That's why I decide to stay. I know that once I leave he could suffer a new abandonment, but I tell myself that if I make him into the kind of child who succeeds in being taken out of bed now and then, I will have rescued him at least until the time I come again and take him home for good.

I come to the orphanage every morning at the same time, stay until lunch is served, then come again in the afternoon and leave only after my little ones have drank their milk bottle in my arms and are ready for the night sleep. I've adjusted to this routine so swiftly as if I had been doing that for a long time, and I've become a familiar figure for all the children here. The older ones greet me at the door, wait in cue for their daily cuddle, and sing Ti Yaya pa kriyé, the song I taught them the first time I was here. It is a soothing song for crying babies and among all the ones I've sang with them, their memory retained this one in particular. The children are excited when adoptive parents are around. Visitors often have their pockets full of balloons and candies and sometimes devote some of their time to play with them. Yet, much more than entertainment, these children need soothing, the kind of comfort that comes from sheer affection. It is reassuring to know that most of these children already have families who are waiting for them across the ocean, but it is distressful that it should take so long to come together. Each further day in the orphanage is a day without a loving family, one more day of deprivation that leaves a scar on the soul.

The older children know I am not here for them, and it is good so. They have no expectations except for a little attention now and then. They know I will eventually leave with my twins. When I knock at the door I hear them screaming: “Mama Daphnée la! Mama Daphnée la!” (my daughter is Madame Mimy's favourite, so I've become Daphnée's mum both for the older kids and the nannies). No expectations, no deception. However, it is not so for one of them.
Christian has watery eyes, a halfhearted smile and the light touch of a butterfly. His silent presence materializes in our pictures, like a forgotten family member. He is eight years old and carries the sadness of a hundred years. His slim silhouette hovers behind us at a small distance. His whole body seems to say: “I'm there, but I won't annoy you. You won't even perceive my presence”. I know he wants to be my child, too. I know it from his gaze on my arms when I hold my little ones, his breadth in my hair when I bend to attend them, the longing in his waving hand when I leave in the evening. He refrains from taking my hand and touching my hair like other children do. I know he wants to sit on my lap and be cuddled, like Ayo and Nene. He looks so innocent and lost I often have to resist the temptation to hug him. Yet sometimes the thought comes to my mind that he might harm my children once I'm gone. The more time I spend in this place the more I find obvious and understandable that the older children should resent the small ones and that this resentment might easily take a physical form. Babies in particular, the perfect projection of parental desires, are targets of revenge. I've seen a baby being taken away his milk bottle more than once by an older toddler and the bottle being thrown on the floor, as if to make clear that the motive was not hunger. I've seen small children being pinched and hit by an almost adolescent girl. Everybody suffers here, and one learns quickly to vent frustration by hurting others. The educational model at hand, after all, is provided by Madame Mimy and the nannies.

Some of the nannies are no more than teenagers. Monise, maybe only a little older than than Gustave, is here in order to attend school. It is clear that taking care of children is not her vocation. She does not even try to conceal her hostile looks. Quite unsurprisingly, mistreating the children comes all too easily. A shove, a slap, a kick. These are her ways. And she looks unhappy and resentful. I wonder what her childhood must have looked like.
The other nannies show different degrees of unhappiness in various combinations. Some look unhappy and resigned, others unhappy and indifferent, and some others unhappy but somehow cheerful at the same time. These young, unhappy nannies come and go in the space of a few months. Magdala, on the other hand, older, unhappy and down-to-earth, and with a regular monthly wage, is there six days out of seven, has been there for years and loos like she's going to stay for quite some time. Madame Mimy trusts her and doesn't seem to bully her around as she does with others at her service. Magdala is wide and soft. The little children lie on her legs belly down when she makes their hairs and belly up when she feeds them spoonfuls of midday purée. This is probably the most intense body contact they are conceded. My Ayo is one of the very few small boys who get braided instead of shaved. I insist that they keep his hair long. I want him to have his share of warmth, however limited. Some other kids look for it more actively. They know they have low chances of getting a cuddle (they might not even know what a cuddle is), so they do the way cats do: they crawl between the nannies' legs and rub their face wherever they can reach. Ayo doesn't even get taken out of bed and, if he does, he doesn't seem keen on attracting the nannies' attention.

It was painful. It was intense. It was good.
Now I know it was the right decision.
I don't think I've done any harm to my children by staying so long. My daughter barely noticed my presence. I must have felt like one of the nannies to her, and I've tried my best not to change that perception. Nene flirts a lot with white people visiting the orphanage. She wants to seduce them. She wants them to choose her over the others. She did not flirt with me, maybe because I did not speak to her in a foreign language, because I interacted a lot with the personnel, and because I'm not blond enough. Her predicament, the same as with any nanny: take me out of bed, feed me, change my diapers, full stop. It is good so. I didn't want her to feel that a potential mum had come and gone again. We would have our special time for the two of us later on, when this prolonged waiting would finally end.
Not so for my son. I had to get that blankness out of eyes. I wanted him to know that he has a mum and that mum would come again. I took the risk. He started to attach. He was afraid. He slept in my arms and woke up screaming. It happened several times, this very scary thing called love. And then he was awake, but truly awake. After a few days of my being there he started to look around and giggle and play and smile. And by the end of the month the blankness had been replaced by the deepest gaze I've ever experienced on and inside me. The morning I went to say goodbye before leaving for the airport his eyes were open wide, piercing mines as I was speaking to him. I told him to be strong. I promised him I would come again soon and I would take him home, for good. He was only sixteen months old and his sorrow was already so deep. Yet he looked inside me and I know he knew how I much I loved him and he knew how much I would love him for the rest of our life as mother and son.

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