Hincesti Orphanage, Moldova, May 2008
All volunteers were assigned one child to feed, twice daily, for each day we were at the orphanage.
You start out timid, choking on the smell, scared of hurting your girl, unsure of whether she hears you, sees you, notices you. Can she chew? Swallow? Will she have a seizure and choke? Does she even want your attentions? You try and fill her silence with songs and nervous chatter. You might get bullied by the Nanas who take care of her. You and she might cry in frustration. You're sure to get her food all over her.
But within a day or two you realize you've started developing a bond. You figure out the most comfortable way for her to eat, that she doesn't like the tea after dinner and would rather take her pills dry. You learn what songs she prefers (Rawhide, My Girl and Yellow Submarine)
That's when you start getting this reaction just by walking into the room.
Ladies and gents...meet Elvira. (Elveera) She is 21 and according to the doctors has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and severe mental delay.
You learn the word for up (zuus!) when she starts slouching in her chair. You give a little dramatic fake cough each time she clears her throat and you both crack up.
She lets you know with her hands that all she wants is to GO OUT!!!
'Vira ate like a champ for me twice a day just to get to the prize at the end: a nice long walk around the grounds. You learn how to say "Eat. Walk." (Mancari, Plimbari) as you mime each thing so she knows one will follow the other if she complies. She knows what you mean but still thrusts a demanding finger under your nose, indicating the door, where she wants to go NOW!!
But for all her demands Elvira's a good girl and she'll eat and be the first one done every single day.
You sing silly songs at the top of your lungs as you run her up and down the paths. She likes when you race really fast on the down ramps. Until, of course, you break her wheelchair on the second to last day. (Oops!)
She beams at the little gifts you bring her.
Pretty soon she's insisting to Nana that you accompany her to the toilet and you willingly agree, rewarded by making her laugh as she makes her business.
She sulks when you bring her back from her walk and say goodbye, but forgives you and beams again when you come back for the evening meal.
You get to know the girls the other volunteers feed each day as they bond with each other.
Volunteer Linda and her Katusha.
Theresa (aka Trees R. Green) with her Rodica.
Me with Peter's Irina (a cheeky little chatter bug that EVERY SINGLE PERSON at the orphanage knows and adores.)
Christina the Screamer.
She's the little one in the chair and she eats next to Elvira. She's a little devil and will pinch, bite and scratch as she screams for her dinner (I've got the bruises to prove it.) She's a handful and I think they wouldn't dare assign her to a volunteer. But she doesn't need one because another of the girls has "adopted" her. Christina and "Mama" Luda above.
Luda arrives at Christina's group for every meal time. She's not compelled to, she just does.
Luda is in one of the more functional groups and can do what she wants while the girls that need more help get fed first. But she chooses to spend her time taking care of Christina and she does it better than anyone else can.
She manhandles Christina with the firmest, sweetest affection I have seen and gets her to quiet down and eat like nobody else can. Luda got such a kick out of it when I called them Mama Luda and Baby Christina - these were the moments that made me laugh and cry simultaneously.
So anyway - there's a slice of life for you. Just a sliver really. Doubt I'll be able to describe it adequately. Definitely not today or tomorrow. It feels surreal to be home. To be back at work, in my own bed, at my own computer. It feels like I am in the wrong place. The wrong time. There is some relief in coming home, of course, even the best vacation is nice to come home from. But if I could go back, I would in a heartbeat.
In the meantime, I miss you Elvira. I hope someone in the next group of volunteers falls in love with you like I did.