Truth is stranger than fiction, especially in the broken realities of broken children. Indeed, do these poor creatures have stories to tell! I am about to share but a handful of them with you now. Beginning with Little Emily.
On my first day on the job at the Apple Tree Orphanage, I found myself sitting on a couch in the main area, the living room, of a locked residential unit. I was naturally shy, and I had that nerve-wracking first-day-on-the-job anxiety that hovers in your throat and, from there, tenses your entire body. A pail, frail little five-year-old girl sat next to me. Her red hair was a tousled bob atop her head, her big blue eyes vast puddles of life. She wore a pair of pink shorts and a matching T-shirt, white ankle-length socks, and white tennis shoes. She seemed a normal little kid. Her name was Emily. In her hands Emily held a four-ounce milk carton embellished with multicolored shreds of tissue paper and clumps of dried Elmer's Glue.
"What you got there?" I asked quietly, timidly with my head slightly lowered. Emily handed the milk carton to me, and said it was a feelings box. Inside the feelings box were little tabs of paper with words handwritten in black ink on them. She reached into the feelings box and handed me a tab.
"What's this say?" Emily asked in a voice soft like fresh snow and just as melancholy.
I cleared my throat. "It says, 'Afraid,'" I answered.
Emily reached into the feelings box again. "What's this say?"
And on went the exchange, until all the tabs were exhausted from the feelings box and they sat on the cushion space between us. "Let's put these back in," I suggested.
At first, we returned the tabs in silence. Then I uttered, "Cha-ching," while returning a tab. Emily smiled at me for the first time, revealing chalky, gapped teeth. She then returned a tab with a "cha-ching" herself. All the tabs returned with "cha-chings" and smiles. I then removed a tab and uttered the phrase in reverse: "ching-cha." And the activity turned into a game of "ching-chas" and "cha-chings" and lots of broad, unrestrained smiles.
"Emily, it's time to go. Get your stuff," a female voice punctuated our game. One of my new coworkers looked down at us with a faint, purse-lipped grin, the kind of grin that says, "I regret what I had to say, but it had to be said."
We returned all of the tabs with a finale of quiet "cha-chings." Emily picked up her feelings box and then jumped down from the couch, took a few steps, and stopped. She turned around and raised a pale hand. "Bye," she said quietly, and then walked out through the electromagnetically locked front door of the unit.
I never saw Emily again. That day -- my first on the job -- was Emily's last, the day of her discharge from the facility. I was with her for her final moments on the unit -- two strangers spontaneously connecting and forging an apparent friendship; but in actuality the exchange was as ephemeral as a dandelion clock blown apart by a child's breath. Poof! -- and the swiftly but solidly forged rapport was gone, water droplets embracing but then disbursed by some external force into the vast oblivion of disparate worlds forever. Paths crossed and simultaneously lost. There went Emily, strolling off into her unseen destiny ... While I sat on the couch in the orphanage, awaiting mine.
I later read Emily's file, which lingered a few days on the unit in a binder on a shelf in a closet. What I discovered was endearing. A psychiatrist evaluating Emily described her as "a very cute girl with large, wide-set blue eyes."
However, the file was also shattering, transforming me, giving me a new purpose. It told of Emily's stunted cognitive development and of her vicious abuse: alleged, but unconfirmed, sexual molestation by her father. During a recent therapy session, the file disclosed, this six year old stripped the clothes off of a Barbie doll, pretended to shackle it to a bed, and placed Ken on top. (Unconfirmed? What other evidence was necessary?)
The pain I felt for this poor child was overwhelming. How could anyone do such horrible things to such an angelic little girl? The depraved psyche capable of raping a child -- no less one’s own flesh and blood! -- was unfathomable.
These children suffered so tremendously. My heart bled for them. I wept over the horrors they had to endure at the perverted hands of others. I ached to heal their wounds, mend their worlds, and change them from tragic victims into triumphant victors.
I knew, from that moment on, that this work was my destiny.
© 2007 David Lee Cummings