As many of you know, I served a mission in Romania (Feb. ’92 – Jan. ’94). Yes, I worked with orphans. But I can’t write about that. Not yet. This one comes first…
Shortly after I arrived, my companion, who was also the district leader, successfully arranged for our district to perform our community service at the children’s hospital in sector 1 in Bucharest. Twice a week we would hop on the metro (subway) to Piatsa Victoriei, walk through a construction site, nod to the gatekeeper and enter the n-shaped building where the children who were well enough to receive visitors, but not well enough to go home were housed. We would enter on the bottom right side of the building, walk up the corridor — which had a couple of patient rooms — turn left and walk down the corridor past the administrative offices and supply rooms, turn left down the left corridor and enter a small washroom. After washing and drying our hands with antibacterial soap, we would start our visits. There were 4-5 medium- and large-sized rooms on the left side of the corridor. These housed children ages 7-15 (or so) of both genders. Most of these children had a parent or grandparent with them and were the ones most likely to not be there the next time we visited. There were also 3-4 small rooms on the right side. These rooms usually held boys ages 7-12. Some of them had parents. Several of them were children who had had a reaction to an infant inoculation and as a result their knees had turned to the back of their legs, bowing them. They couldn’t walk. They would get around by dragging their bottoms along the floor with their arms or rising up on their feet and hands and crawling like a bug. I found out later from an American doctor that the inoculation could have been done orally, but because it was done with injections in Romania some children had the reaction. We spent a lot of time with these kids. They were a lot of fun.
In fact, our visits were always fun. I think we were shielded from the more difficult cases (these children must have been in a different building). We would show up with crayons, pencils, paper, photocopies from coloring books, puzzles, checkers, a couple of packs of cards and draw and talk and play for two hours or so. There were three companionships in our district. We’d do the large rooms together and then split up to make sure we could cover the smaller rooms.
The rooms that were in the right corridor often weren’t occupied, and generally, another companionship would go to those. But one day, all of us decided to visit one of the rooms over on the other side. I think it was because one of the missionaries had received a pack of LAPD promotional baseball cards in the mail (his father was on the force), and we wanted to help him give them out. That day the room in the right corridor was filled with orphan boys ages 8-12. These kids weren’t bad, but they were filled with energy — they were loud and active. It was never quite clear to me why they were there. I think they may have fully recovered from whatever ailed them but their respective orphanages had stalled their returns. As we entered the room, the boys crowded around us, talking, shaking hands. Most of them were wearing light cotton pajamas, but one boy was dressed only in one of those horrid, thin, light blue hospital gowns. It was stained with urine. I believe he was barefoot. He was 9 or 10 and had short, light brown hair. He jumped up and down when he saw us and let out squeals of delight. He would come up and tough our arm and then run away. We tried to ask him questions, but he didn’t seem to understand what we were saying, and he couldn’t speak Romanian. All he could do was squeal and grunt. He also was unable to focus on anything and was in constant motion. He smelled strongly of urine.
I admit that I thought of him as ‘urine boy’ in my head. But I liked him. We all liked him, and we tried to entertain him and relate to him as best we could. In fact, it was impossible to not like him — he exuded such joy. It’s hard to describe, but it was something that went beyond his hyperactive behavior.
I can’t remember for sure, but I believe I hung out in that room a couple more times when he was there. I can’t remember if his gown had been changed. I hope so, but the wild boys room did receive less attention than the others so perhaps not.
Then one day he was gone. This wasn’t unusual — only the kids with the backwards knees seemed to stay for more than two or three weeks.
A few weeks after the baseball card visit, I was assigned a new companion. We lived in an apartment that overlooked Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main train station. It was one subway stop away from the hospital, which we continued to visit.
That day we got off at the Gara de Nord subway stop. As was our custom, we had boarded near the front of the train — two to three cars back from the first car — so that we could avoid all the people going to the train station. We headed for the north exit — which was 50 yards or so from our apartment building. We must have stopped for a minute to discuss something or perhaps we had been firmly ensconced in the back of the car because as we walked to the exit there were only a couple of people between us and the escalator.
As we veered right in the direction of the exit, we heard a squeal of delight from farther up the platform. We turned to look. It was urine boy from the hospital.
He had exchanged his stained gown for a green crewneck cotton-poly sweater and green denim pants that looked a lot like the pair of green toughskin jeans I wore as a boy. The clothes (and the boy) looked new and clean.
He scampered toward us his arms waving in excitement. There was no one between us and him. He was about 20 feet away.
Instinctively, I shoved my hand into my pocket to fish out whatever coins I was carrying. I wasn’t in the habit of giving out money to street kids, but if it was obvious that they weren’t part of a begging gang run by an adult, I’d give them a little something. Often we’d try to give the kids who were part of a gang something to eat, a pretzel, apple, candy bar. But they’d almost always refuse them. If their handler, their pimp (I’m sorry but I don’t know another word to use) saw them take food, they’d be punished.
The first week or so I was in the country, my companion tossed a coin to an eight-or-nine-year-old. He had two younger kids with him — they must have been no older than five or six. The boy went into the nearest shop and bought a piece of gum — one the size of the Bazooka Joe gums that come with the comic. He carefully unwrapped it, bit off a piece for each of the two younger ones, tucking it carefully between their lips, and then popped the rest in his mouth.
I had quite a bit of change and as I brought my hand out of m pocket I glanced down for a second or two. I don’t know why. It’s not like I wasn’t going to give him all of the coins. I don’t remember exactly what my companion was doing, but I believe he looked down at my hand too.
When we both looked up, the boy in green was gone.
I stepped forward in disbelief then swung a 180 to see if he was somehow behind us. He wasn’t. No train had come. He hadn’t gone to the exit because we were closer to it than he was.
The platform was empty from where we stood all way to the wall. Some of the street kids would brave the metro tunnels, but there’s no way he could have run down the tracks and into the darkness in the few seconds I had taken to look at the change in my hand.
Not only that but he clearly been headed toward us. I saw the look in his eyes. There was no way he wasn’t going to come and greet us. The boy in green had simply disappeared.
I’ve tried to come up with a rational explanation. I still don’t have one.
He was just … gone. The boy in green was fled.
I glanced down, and he was gone. I looked away for only a second.
I can’t believe I looked down.
Two of the things I love most — literature and doctrine — completely fail in helping me process many of my mission experiences. That both troubles me and pleases me. Who am I, middle class, comfortable, middlebrow, to feel such pain or even guilt? What right do I have to use these things in any way whatsoever? To co-opt and corrupt with my lazy, dilettante narcissistic focus on narratives that haunt me. To haunt is to make a ghost of that which is all too real.
A better man would translate experiences into action. Do something that might actually help the conditions he observed. I am no such man.
And I haven’t even used whatever gifts I might have. For years my pen has lay silent. Late at night as I lie in bed or in the early morning as I walk to work, I plunge in my arms and wash myself in memories. Try and tease them awake, keep them alive. I fool myself into thinking that that is enough. That once they have crystallized, once I have compacted them into something precious enough, that once I am ready, they will be ready, and I will be able to use them. All the while names are forgotten. Faces blurred. Sights, sounds, smells lost. Even on my mission I practiced deliberate amnesia, freezing up every time I tried to write in my journal. Somehow I’ve always thought that the important things would remain in reach. That I would see through a glass starkly. Now I prism two years of experience and the results are faint, the colors faded.
This. This is a start. It’s not even close to a beginning.