Several years ago my stepmother sent me an email from India where she and my dad were serving as missionaries. On their morning walk they happened across a group of children combing a garbage pile for their breakfast. The oldest girl carried the baby, and when she found a bit of discarded food, she fed the baby rather than herself.
I’ve carried this image ever since and thought very hard about those who jab their fingers at the unfairness of life and proclaim it proof that God couldn’t possibly exist. We started off equal, Adam and Eve running around buck naked without the faintest notion of what a Louis Vuitton handbag might be for–can’t eat it, won’t haul much. Throw that down and help me remember what I named this thing with the eight foot neck that just pooed polka dots all over my foot. Life was simple, until the day Eve handed over her apple, opening man’s eyes to the essential symbiosis of good and evil. Lots of people hate her for this. Life’s not fair because Eve got us kicked out of Paradise.
A few weeks ago I started volunteering in a Chinese orphanage here in Suzhou, a beautiful, brand new facility where the babies are eerily quiet and hardly ever wet their pants. In the baby rooms the cribs are arranged in rows, cute rosy babies up front, bouncing against the rails, the next row a little more handicapped and/or a little less attractive, more handicapped and less attractive, a little more and a little less until you find yourself in the back row with a girl called Violet. In the finite world of the crib, too many of these children retreat into some private universe where the hunt and peck volunteers have a tough time reaching them. The first time I saw Violet’s blank expression I was trying to give her the bottle the attendant had just thrust into my hands. I dribbled milk before I realized her hands were too palsied to take it, but more than that, she didn’t even react. She had to have been hungry, but she didn’t move. She was larger than the others, with thicker hair and more defined features, so I figured her for an older toddler. I wrapped her in the towel that serves as her blanket and hefted her in my arms to carry her to the baby activity room which is only heated because the expat volunteers won’t make do with less. Settling into a chair, I fed her the bottle which she guzzled almost instantly before curling into a tight, safe ball like a pill bug.
Violet suffers from sandpaper hair and irritated scalp. She smells a little sour and her teeth are coated in the kind of plaque that takes months to build up. Her arms are the size of two of my fingers and her legs aren’t much bigger. She looks to have something in the neighborhood of cerebral palsy with her limbs all bent inward, a back crib child for sure.
“How old is Violet?”
“Eleven or Twelve.”
Like most of the children in the orphanage, Violet was probably found outdoors in the middle of the night, wrapped in blankets, like the nine day old boy found last week with blond hair and Chinese eyes. It’s illegal to throw away children, but it happens sometimes. It could be poverty, death, the stigma of single motherhood, or the complicated issue of a handicapped child. In a land where you can only have one child, and the younger generation is supposed to support the older, there is precious little margin for one who will never work. All these factors combine to fill the orphanages, cute babies in the front, ugly babies in the back.
I rubbed Violet’s curved spine and massaged her limbs until she relaxed into me. She can’t talk, but she likes music, even if it’s only me humming.
On Wednesday we got an early call–government officials are touring the orphanage and they want to show off the expat volunteers. Most people are gone for the holidays, so you can even bring your family. Can you be ready in half an hour?
We were ready, and two hours later my husband stood holding a baby and chatting with the Communist equivalent of the state governor. The rooms were warm. Emma smelled better and her teeth were brushed, everyone smiling and laughing, taking pictures, the film crew recording everything for posterity. I did what I do, which is hide in a corner to watch. But they found me anyway and came over to say hello and thank me as I sat stroking Violet’s sandpaper hair. They genuinely seemed well-meaning, and our foreign faces meant foreign eyes and foreign internet access . . . which means more investment in the orphanage.
My son Chase stood next to me as I held Violet. Chase just turned eleven, and I couldn’t begin to lift him.
It’s not fair that a twelve year old girl is spending her life in a crib instead of with a physical therapist. It’s not fair that the perfect infant with the blond hair and Chinese eyes was left on a pile of rubble. And it’s not fair that a young Indian girl was picking through the trash to feed herself and her siblings. Freedom would be such an easy master, if it weren’t for all those pesky consequences. It’s not fair when one man’s choices bloody another man’s nose, or worse, when a string of people bloody the children.
Yet I keep going back to that Indian girl who chose to feed the baby ahead of herself, a bit of soiled food and a moment of choice, a grand choice, a golden choice, a chance to decide whether to live in the dirt or wear a queen’s crown. Satan must have raged when he realized he’d tempted Eve to usher the god-like power of Agency into the mortal world, the very thing he sold his soul campaigning against. Because of Eve, every individual human is endowed with the capacity to choose for himself whether he is more comfortable under the hand of God or the whip of Satan, choice by choice, back and forth, good and evil warring together in every soul, every day. Such a battlefield cannot possibly produce a fair world, yet victory is assured for those who Choose it. Mortal life is short, hardly a blip in our eternal timeline, and Paradise, it seems, is one of the last geographic mysteries, a place that cannot be found unless it is first lost.
I’m not a queen. I’m a fat American wearing a diamond that’s too big and holding children that are too small. I know nothing more of the Indian girl, but the blond Chinese boy is healthy and has a chance of being adopted into some country where his mixed race won’t matter, preferably before he learns to hoard his food. Violet probably won’t make old bones, but when this brief mortal test is over and she towers strong and glorious, I believe her true character as Teacher will be revealed. In that day when we stand woman to woman, I hope I get to thank her for giving me the chance to stroke her sandpaper hair. She will smile and tell me I sing off-key.