There are ones you never forget. Mine is the little girl in the green room with the curtains drawn against the sun, which presses against them in bright vertical rectangles. Those blocks of light are veiled evidence of a world outside this room. Inside are two rows of green and pink cribs, five on each side of the room, with an aisle down the middle. She is on her back in a pile of blankets in a pink one at the end of a row.
Some days there were toddlers in the other cribs, attempting to nap, or refusing, depending on their toddler moods. Other days, they were in a playpen in another room, climbing over and on each other like puppies. “Hey,” my sister whispered to a group of them one day. They were in a huddle on a little boy’s back as he sprawled face-down on the floor of the playpen. He was crying. “Don’t stand on him. That’s not nice.” The huddle stopped jumping and looked at her, blinking. “La la la,” she tried again. Blink. Blink. Jump.
Back in the green room, the little girl was staring at the ceiling. Something was wrong with her—she didn’t seem able to move—she was too old for a crib—her limbs were sticks–her eyes was wild and lost—but I never ventured through the doorway for fear of upsetting the nurses shuffling past. Instead, I stood on the threshold, trying to catch her eye. I’m not sure why I wanted her to see me standing there with my forced smile. I wasn’t staying. I wasn’t taking her home. At the end of the week, I would be on a plane to Paris, then to Philadelphia, and she would go on lying there in her crib until she wasn’t lying there anymore. Sometimes she whimpered and grunted. Sometimes she cried with her mouth wide open, only no sound escaping. That is how she comes to me in the quiet spaces before I fall asleep: a little girl buried in blankets in a stuffy room, her mouth a circle of soundless sobs, as I instinctively shush her from the doorway, the way I do when my own children cry.
One day everyone at the orphanage seemed cranky. It was over 100 outside—a boiling spring day, even for Morocco—but the babies were still dressed in their requisite three layers. Maybe they were hot or their afternoon bottles were late or they hadn’t slept well or it was just one of those days, but the entire orphanage reverberated with MAMAMAMAMAMAMAMA. It would have been easy to hear something that wasn’t there–a long, deep cry for the bodies that had left them somewhere else–but I was trying hard not to form metaphors from my own narrative of emotion. That’s not easy to do in an orphanage, for anyone, but especially when you are adopted.
As a child, orphanages haunted me. They were one of the boogeymen of my nightmares. My sister and I were in foster care briefly between mothers, but the possibility of the orphanage still hung in the air of my childhood like a barely missed threat. The only still operating orphanage I knew of was in nearby Assumption, Illinois, a small rural community along I-51 that we passed through heading somewhere south. As we drove by Kemmerer Village, I gave in to my imagination, populating the insides of buildings I couldn’t see with sad, parentless Oliver Twists and Orphan Annies and Pips and Pollyannas. As an adopted kid, I didn’t take family for granted. Family wasn’t an inevitability, an expectation. It was a gift.
In reality, by the 1970s, orphanages in the United States that remained open were not filled with healthy, white newborns-in-demand like my sister and me. They had become places of shelter for older troubled and abused kids. Orphanages were for the unlucky children, the ones who were not chosen, who were cast off or taken. It seemed entirely unfair that some of us got families and some of us didn’t, and the orphanage symbolized for me the fragility of my own good fortune.
On the other side of the world, in the orphanage where my nephew spent the first four months of his life, he had a First Mama, a nurse who was his primary caregiver, a nurse he might have called MAMAMAMA some day in the future when he was hot or hungry or bored. But another mama chose him before he could speak. Whenever my nephew’s First Mama brought him to my sister during visiting hours at the orphanage, my sister took him in her arms and said, “Hi, baby! It’s Mama.” He smiled as soon as he heard my sister’s voice.
One afternoon, while my sister bounced her baby in her arms before settling onto the mattress to give him his bottle, I slipped out into the hallway and looked in on the little girl next door. She was lying in her crib with her eyes on the ceiling. Her mouth kept opening and closing in silence, like a guppy trying to breathe out of water. I wondered if she was here because she was broken or if that would have made no difference anyway. Whatever the case, I knew that she would likely not be adopted, not if she were this old already, not this disabled. The odds of one of those amazing and brave parents who adopt children with special needs finding their way to this girl, in this orphanage, in this country, were slim.
I realized that I was standing in the doorway to one of my greatest childhood fears, facing the bullet my sister and I had dodged. I watched it strike this little girl instead, bypassing my sister and me, bypassing my nephew, too. We all got a family. She probably would not.
Yes, here in the flesh, was the orphan destiny I so feared. She wasn’t in a book or in a movie or in a brick building flying by my window in a red blur . She was right here, just feet from me: a child who would never be chosen, a child whom I, too, was about to turn away from.