[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 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.