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Chandra's Blog


Entries in Ceausescu (2)


Examining What Remains (Part 2 of 2)

[Continued from previous post]

After leaving my belongings with the children in the evening, I would stop by the post office and collect letters from my boyfriend and family, my lifeline. Sometimes, if I had any extra energy, I would run up and down the steps at the dilapidated soccer stadium behind my apartment bloc with my yellow walkman blaring Talking Heads. "You may ask yourself, HOW DID I GET HERE?"

At night, I'd bring my Romanian/Enlgish dictionary to the tiny kitchen and struggle through conversation with the woman who rented me her only bed. While she taught me how to roast eggplant over the gas stove, I learned about the politics of Ceausescu's regime.

She told me how she, an engineer with her masters degree from a good family was relocated to two hundred and twenty square feet of crumbling bloc housing so that her home could be razed for Ceaucescu's private playground Herstrau Park. She explained that the government still controlled them, even five years after the Revolution. The fact that we had no hot water in our district? They hadn't voted the right way in the last election--we boiled pots on the stove to bathe or do laundry.


It embarrassed her that I worked in the orphanage, 'our country's shame'. She slammed furious pots in the kitchen when I told her a man had come to visit one of my fifteen babies that morning, Iona's uncle. I watched him play with her for a few minutes, and when I begged him, in my halting Romanian, to stay longer, he explained that she was one of six babies from his extended family he was visiting in the orphanage.

It was becoming clear--the children in these orphanages were not technically orphans. Only a handful of people died in the revolution five years earlier, and yet the year I was there, one hundred thousand children occupied the state's institutions. In his communist craze, his desire to build a massive empire after a visit to China, Ceausescu outlawed birth control and mandated a minimum of five children from each woman, even as his Minister of Health decreed that a person could live on 500 calories a day and Bucharest's shelves were bare. If one could not raise these children, Ceausescu said, bring them to the creche (in Romanian the word for cradle is what they call the orphanages) and let the state raise up good little members of the future Securitate. The system had changed, but the mentality was slower--the orphanages were foster care at its worst, and the children were not orphans. Some had kind-hearted uncles like Iona's who visited; most did not. More than likely, Romi had a family somewhere near Brasov--perhaps they would come for him after the country got back on its feet.


Then one day while I was upstairs with Maimuta, Romi, my special seven-year-old piggyback passenger had been roughly dragged, kicking and screaming from the hospital back to his orphanage, leaving a depressing pall on the preschool floor. Marian and Radu reenacted it for me, complete with the clutching at crib bars, head banging the floor as he was dragged down the hallway. What child doesn't want to leave the hospital? But I had seen a few rural orphanages on trips to pick up patients--I knew why he fought.

Upstairs, Maimuta was gaining weight, enough to be transferred across the city. Some days, she smiled at me, fussed when I put her down. Who would care if she cried in No. 1? My fifteen infants, her future crib mates, continued to show pathetically slow progress. Daniela, thirteen months, could now push up and hold up her own head. If no relative came to visit, who would lift them out of their cribs?

I decided to leave. I could see no solution, short of filling my suitcase with children, and even this wasn't the answer. I was just one person, and this problem was too huge, culturally pervasive. Holding babies and bottles, singing songs, buying toys... I wasn't really making a difference. The country was on the cusp of transition from relief to aid. It was time for them to learn how to fish, to be educated, to care for their own, and for me to return to Cornell and finish my degree. Letters from my friends assured me that this was the right thing to do. My parents flew to Bucharest with a suitcase full of toys to donate in order to ease my transition back to the US, to ensure that I would come home with them.

On the weekend my parents were there, we took a trip into the Carpathian mountains and found the countryside beautiful, fields and fields of sunflowers that really do turn to face the sun. I ran out and stood in the middle of them, arms wide, marveling at parts of this stunning country I had never seen, ensconced in its gritty, post-communist institutions. 


On my last day at the hospital, I drew a map with the preschoolers, then an airplane flying between Bucharest and New York. I drew me inside the plane, tears on my cheeks.  Some of them understood. Marian, the five-year-old boss of the preschool floor, put his forehead against mine and said somberly, "It is because of Romi." It was, and it wasn't.

I dumped the contents of my backpack on the playroom table, let them choose their final pieces. "I won't forget you," I whispered to each of them as we hugged.

"You'll come for these tomorrow?" they asked and I shook my head, shutting the glass door to their ward, then the iron gate to the hospital. I moved on, went back to Cornell, and worked in US adoption for several years before having three children of my own.

They were coloring, playing Legos and piano around me when I read this morning about Ceaucescu's remains being exhumed. There is an old, faded picture of me and Romi on our refrigerator--it has moved with me wherever I go. It was taken the day I took Romi out to the hospital courtyard, our hair styled in ridiculous matching high ponytails. 

My sadness over abandoning Romania's smallest victims sifted to the surface this morning, has stayed with me all day. What I said was true--I have never forgotten any of them. 




DIGGING UP THE PAST (part 1 of 2)

I learned today that Nicolae Ceausescu was 'trending' on my Yahoo news and had to discover why--his was a name I haven't thought of in years. It turns out they exhumed the alleged remains of the former Romanian dictator and his wife for verification this week.  All day I have been digging around in my own past, reliving the memories of the months when I was a witness to the tragic ripple-effects of his communist regime. 

 I arrived in Bucharest in 1995, five and a half years after the revolution, as a relief worker to a country still in chaos. I'd flown over alone under the premise of orphanage and pediatric hospital work for a relief organization founded by adoptive parents. I was a soon-to-be graduate of Cornell University's social work program, didn't speak the language and knew nothing of the country's tarnished past. I only heard that there were babies to be held and I knew I could do that. 

My first day in the infamous Orphanage Number One, of the 20/20 exposé and the Michael Jackson playground, I was given fifty infants. I thought I'd misunderstood the number, surely she'd said five, or fifteen? Fifty. No, I stood firm, if I was to do any good, fifteen.

I arrived every morning to find my charges listless in their cribs, often doubled up because of crowding. One eleven-month-old boy's head was severely misshapen and I figured out why: taped to the oatmeal colored wall over his crib was a cut-out from some wrapping paper: a faded Santa Claus. His head had flattened diagonally as he craned to see it.


I carried them all to a dingy supply corridor with industrial carpeting, the INFANT STIMULATION CENTER and dumped a bag of toys on the floor.

I learned to feed four babies at once by putting them head-to-head alongside my lap and managing two bottles in each hand. I used rolls of blankets or my own legs to augment the physical therapy wedge. They were all severely delayed from hours unattended in their cribs--one-year-olds who could not roll over or even hold up their own heads, muscles stiff or atrophied.

I sang to them, held them, manipulated their bodies, and bought toys from the street vendors that disappeared if I didn't take them home with me at night. At noon, I carried them one at a time back to their cribs, where I kissed them and promised to come back in the morning.


On my lunch hour, I ate bread and goat cheese from the market as I rode the rattling trolley across the city to the pediatric hospital. I had met an infant there--her name was Veronica but I called her Maimuta, which means 'monkey' as she looked just like one of Dr. Harlow's infant rhesus subjects. She was two months old, barely five pounds, abandoned by her mother at birth. "Shameful; gypsy," the nurses told me when I asked about the circumstances. They said when Maimuta was healthy enough, she would be transferred to Orphanage Number One, where I was already familiar with her fate.

Something in Maimuta scared me; she had an angry tension in her wiry, eight-week-old swaddled self. She refused to meet my eyes and I thought of something I'd learned in basic child psych--children have roughly eighteen to twenty-four months to decide if the world is a good place or not, if they want to be active participants or sociopaths. Already Maimuta seemed to be making up her mind. So I held her every lunch hour. I sang to her. I got right up in her face, so that she had to work hard, crane her neck, NOT to look at me. I insisted they let me hand-feed her the bottle of vegetable soup they hung, like a guinea pig's water bottle, in her crib for nourishment. The nurses rolled their eyes. I cradled Maimuta, stroked her cheek with my fingers, walked her over to the window and showed her the giant noisy crows lined up in the tree outside, mocking us. She set her stubborn little chin, no bigger than the pad of my thumb, and looked the other way. 

 I unwrapped her while I was there, my fingers milking her stiff limbs, the best I could remember from a nanny job where the mother had shown me infant massage. I asked the nurses to leave one of her arms unswaddled, tried to teach her to suck her own thumb. 


But I only had an hour, and then it was on to my job downstairs on the preschool floor of the hospital. One day, after I had been there several weeks, I caught Maimuta sneaking looks at my face when I was pretending to talk to one of the premature twins on the other side of the room. And then another day a few weeks later, I reswaddled her and put her back in her chicken-wire crib, and her face crumpled, and she cried. The nurses were furious--now she was going to make noise if she wasn't being held! I counted this as a victory. But the next day when I arrived, excited to reconnect with her, I found a nurse holding Maimuta upside down by her ankles as she vomited, tomato broth shooting from her nose and mouth. 

"What are you doing?" I cried. 

"I just changed her swaddles," she said in defiance, pushing past me for a mop to clean the floor. "This way I don't have to change her again."

When I scooped Maimuta up, used my pinky fingertip to clear the vomit from her tiny nostrils, her eyes darted to mine and then away, furious. We were back where we had started. 

Downstairs, the situation was somewhat happier. I adored the sun-filled afternoons with the preschool patients, generous with me as I struggled to learn their language, delighted to see what my backpack, my Mary Poppins bag, might hold. I'd arrive as they were supposed to be finishing up their 'naps', tied by their ankles in their cribs while the nurses huddled around an Italian soap opera in the back. It was refreshing to see that they could all untie themselves, and then post a three-year-old sentry at the door to keep watch as they jumped between their cribs and paddled in their pee pots. If Marius spotted a nurse, they would leap back into bed and retie their ankles, feigning sweaty, smirking sleep.


To be fair to the nurses and aides, they worked hard and the conditions in the hospital were miserable. The hours were long, the plumbing cranky, the medicine in short supply, and a nurse could expect to take home the equivalent of $15/month. The midday soap opera and a cup of Nes, instant coffee swirled with evaporated milk and sugar, were their escape.


After naps, I unlocked the hospital playroom, stocked by the fledgling US-based relief organization sponsoring my time there, and it would be proper preschool mayhem. Sometimes, if I bought bubble solution and the nurses agreed, we could go out to the courtyard and play, but this was where the hospital incinerated their trash and medical waste, and 'find the needles in the ashes', their favorite game, wasn't really safe with the high AIDS rate in the country. 


The children were patient and eager to teach me their language so that I was able to understand perfectly when a seven-year-old boy was transferred from an orphanage in Brasov in near complete kidney failure, weighing just twenty-five pounds. "Make a horse," Romi told me so that he could be carried to the playroom on my back. 

"You're so light!" I said as I galloped down the hall with him.

"Yes," he sighed matter-of-factly. "In my orphanage it is like with the dogs--the big ones eat, and the little ones don't."

After that, whenever I was on the preschool floor, Romi was my miniature jockey, whispering instructions and encouragement into my hair with his sweet, milky breath. I started to think... maybe, though I was only twenty years old and single, hadn't even graduated from college, just maybe I should look into international adoption, or if he couldn't leave the country, making Bucharest my home, getting certified as a foster parent for Romi.
At the end of the day, the preschool children raided my backpack for anything--a pen, an envelope, a roll of stamps, a punched trolley slip, a spoon. Romi slipped a black hair band around his wrist like a bracelet. They snatched these objects back to their cribs, "So you will have to come back tomorrow."



(TOMORROW: Part 2, "Examining What Remains.")