I open the door and lean out into the corridor, trying to get a glimpse. Within moments I hear the elevator bell clang, and then a group of people steps off holding three babies, and my eyes lock upon the smallest little face, a baby, wrapped in a bulky padded suit with a hood covering her head, being carried down the hallway. I know instantly that this is the baby, the baby from the photograph. I don’t even look at the others, though they are right behind in the arms of the two of the orphanage workers. Her face…I can’t take my eyes off of her, there is something hauntingly familiar, and yet so strange about her. I can’t tell in this first moment, if she is beautiful or ugly. It is an unusual face, and I like it so much, it is so right and belongs to no other. She has big round eyes that hold the very serious expression of an old soul. It is just as I imagined; a complete self, not merely a “baby,” worthy of respect surely, and perhaps more. What I am feeling in this moment is akin to awe, this person who has been rejected and abandoned being carried down the hallway, toward a fate she cannot guess, toward people she does not know, maintaining an expression so serene it is as if she were expecting to be crowned queen.
I hurry back inside the room and tell Alex that they are here, the baby is here. “You’re kidding,” she says, as if surprised.
“No, I’m not kidding,” I answer, and go back outside, the door closing behind me. I have my camera so that I can record this moment when Alex first meets her baby….
Alex turns with the baby and I follow her inside the room and close the door. The baby is crying very hard now, her face red, her mouth opened in a circle of fear. Alex halfheartedly bounces the baby up and down on her hip, saying, “Shh, shh,” while I stand and stare at them; the attempts to calm her are ineffective, and the baby keeps crying.
Fear. I had not been expecting fear. But now I know I should have, this baby has never seen us or anyone who looks like us in her life. We must look like aliens to her, with our big noses and round eyes and not-black hair. This is so obvious to me now and I am sobered by her reaction, and by my own lack of sensitivity to this possibility….
Alex lays her on the bed and begins removing the heavy padded suit. It is dirty, and it smells musty. Underneath, the baby wears a bright green cotton sweater and heavy pull-on pants. She is still crying as Alex removes each article and throws them in a heap next to the bed. As each layer comes off, it becomes increasingly clear how small this baby is, how tiny. Alex takes of the baby’s T-shirt, and we look at her in silence as she lies on the bed in a diaper. She is so skinny, her arms and legs spindly and undeveloped.
“Oh my God,” Alex says. “This baby can’t be the age they said!” The agency told her the baby she was matched with was thirteen months old, but Alex is right, she does look only about the size of a seven- or eight-month-old.
Alex begins looking her over, takes off her diaper, turns her onto her stomach. She smells; a close damp odor rises from the bed. Across her shoulders and back is a red rash, and tiny scars. “What is this?” Alex asks, to no one in particular. Certainly, I don’t know, but to see a baby in this condition makes me feel sick. I am used to big, robust American babies, and this is a shock. Alex seems stunned, murmuring "oh," or "God" or "no," under her breath.
The baby lies quietly on the bed in front of us, not crying now, and looks back at us with an expression of grief and resignation. Neither Alex nor I say a word. I am thinking, Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, there is real sadness in this world, and it is represented here in this room by this child. This is no blithe adventure, and the excitement I felt just moments ago seems callow now in the face of this reality. Time stops as the three of us attempt to absorb our new realities, to find a way to accept that from now on nothing will be as we thought it would be.
In the transparency of this moment, Alex’s feelings vibrate across our silence. They do not feel like love, or compassion. They feel like disgust, and I can sense her judgment of this child as she fails to reach out to touch or comfort her, the naked, vulnerable child upon the bed.
What happens when one is suddenly confronted with the sick, the neglected, the dirty? Either the heart opens, or it slams shut against the assault. Is this a choice, or a reaction born of a million prior choices?
What happens when love does not come?
What happens when it does, so unexpectedly that it takes your breath away, and leaves you with a heart that aches, and longs for justice?