Tuesday, 22 November 2016
I know it was not love at first sight. It was fear at first sight. And at second, and third, and fourth. It was fear that informed my relationship with my daughter from the moment the four of us became a family forever. The very moment we left the orphanage, that closeness, her belly and chest pressed to my bosom in the marsupial carrier, was already too much for her. And then the world outside, the walk to the hotel, new places, new spaces, new odours, new faces, the hall, the room, the pool, the caressing, the kissing, the cuddling, this woman wanting her to get asleep in her arms. It was too much.
It had been fine during our first and second visit, almost one year back and five months before respectively. She had been hesitant towards her future dad but quite relaxed with me. But then she had not known we would eventually take her away from the world she knew, and that she would not be in control. She was not in control at the orphanage either, though she might have felt she was. She was the strongest child among the little ones and the favourite of Madame Mimy and the nannies. She had gone through hunger, distress and physical pain, yet she had survived and seemed as lively as children who have enjoyed good health and love and care from the first day of their life and even in the nine months before. She had a rough start. And she did not have the privilege of being wanted. When that finally happened (I wanted you so badly, I met you thousand times in my dreams, I travelled all around the world to find you), when that really happened, a man and a woman wanting her to become their daughter (you are our child now, this is forever), it was too late. She had become a warrior, ready to react before she was attacked and wrapped in an invisible armour specially designed to protect her from love.
I should have read the signs. The first time I held her in my arms she was so tiny, much smaller than she looked on the pictures sent by the adoption agency, and yet she seemed so detached, as if with her twelve months she could already be self-sufficient. All through the week and all through the month during my following visit she was careful in avoiding eye contact. It was fine to have me satisfy her basic needs (she would stretch her arms out for me to get her out of bed, she would drink her milk bottle on my lap, she would suck my necklace), but there was to be no more than that, a means to an end. She would not let herself be mothered. I should have known. But I didn't. (Nene, will you ever forgive me for not seeing, for not being attentive enough, for worrying about your brother more, for thinking that you were stronger and that you could wait, for mistaking your distress for cheerfulness, for not trying to pierce your shield earlier?)
The first night together we were all four in tears. We had left the orphanage in the late afternoon. Madame Mimy had refused to take a photo with the kids. She and I had hugged each other and cried together with Nene between us. We had said goodbye. We had walked to the hotel, mum holding daughter, dad holding son. We had sat on the big bed of our hotel room and stroked our hands and faces and played with dolls and taken pictures. We had taken our dinner undisturbed in a deserted hall. We had changed diapers and wiped and creamed and given the bottle and sang and kissed and done all you are supposed to do to prepare for the night. With Ayo one could see he was tense and afraid. He had his lips pressed very tight and held on his grip for hours and hours, but he let us cuddle and console him and finally slept for a couple of hours on his dad's chest. Nene was playing and exploring around, looked as if she was our host and as if she was in charge of entertaining us. Her only visible sign of distress was her concern with our feet. She stared at our naked feet and was careful not to come too close. In the following days, from the way she walked, limping on one side and kicking on the other, we would know she had witnessed something. For the moment we were happy that we were together and that, typical toddler, she looked both aloof and egocentric. Then the night came, the time of closeness, the time of confidence. It was too much to ask for the first night.
Ayo was awake again. Both he and Nene were scratching themselves frantically all over. Their skin was in a very bad condition and the anxiety of the moment did not help. We were supposed to sleep in the same bed, as there was no additional one. We had decided to spend the first night in the hotel close to the orphanage and to move to one with more comforts the day after. So we settled to sleep. I don't even remember if we switched off the light or kept it on. We started singing, the same soothing songs we had sang when visiting them at the orphanage. But Nene would not be soothed. She would not be in my arms. She wanted to get away and she could not. I think she felt trapped. I kept rocking her and singing softly. I talked to her and stroke her cheeks. It was too much. She started screaming. And it went louder, and louder. And Ayo, who had bravely held to his pressed lips even in his brief sleep, started crying. And he cried and cried. It was okay. We were prepared for this. We had never expected it to be easy in the beginning. We were calm. We were moved. After a while we were exhausted. We looked at each other, thought the same thought and started weeping. We wept for our children and their distress. We wept for what we had seen a few hours earlier.
Before picking up Ayo and Nene from the orphanage, we had visited the state hospital in Port-au-Prince. There they had spent the first months of their life. Not inside the hospital, as I had deceived myself to believe, but in an external ward reserved to abandoned children, an open aisle on the road side sheltered only by a thin roof: welcome rain, welcome hurricanes, welcome voyeurs, welcome child traffickers. Take a deep breath before getting in. Keep your eyes open because you want to know what your children went through, because you want to tell them a few years from now how strong they were. Mat doesn't make it. He glances inside, a grimace of pain draws itself on his face, he turns his head and withdraws from the threshold. I walk slowly along the aisle. My memory registers no sound and no faces, only pairs of thin and tiny arms and legs of a faded brown, one little bed after the other. I have the impression I am looking at an exhibition of spiders through a glass. But there is no glass. I could touch them. I could reach with my hand and touch the babies. I don't. I swallow and turn my head, ready to slip away. My eyes meet those of an older child sitting on the floor. A woman explains: abandoned because retarded. I blink. I leave. Here were my children. This was their beginning.
I have to recall this place in my head every time I get upset with my daughter because she is still fighting, three years from then. It is me she is fighting, her mother, the possibility of love. That first night was only the beginning. In the beginning it was the screaming. It could be handled. Then it was the head banging. Nerve-racking. Then it was the moaning and groaning during the most intimate moments, like changing diapers or washing. Hurting. It was the pushing away and scratching me when trying to cuddle her to bed. Irritating. It was the arching and turning away. Exasperating. It was the absolute absence of eye contact. Disheartening. And a few months later it went worse. Once the fear of the new environment was overcome, Nene started offering herself to strangers, going open arms towards people she must have found more attractive or less threatening then her mum and dad. And she was all smiles and tenderness with them. Three years later my daughter is still not mine. She has progressed and learned a great deal. She knows what a family is and that her place is with us, forever, but she does not feel it. And she fights over and over. She asks me to help her dress, but her body resists and becomes stiff. She asks me to lie down with her until she gets asleep, but she kicks and pushes me away. And she can cuddle with a stranger with a tenderness I might never get from her. I'm learning to live with it without giving up. She's a warrior. I must become one too.