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Sarah D's Stories

writings on life and faith

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   In the fall of 2005 I returned to Mother Teresa’s Children’s Home in Port-au-Prince Haiti, unaware that I would soon meet one of the greatest loves of my life. A tiny little one-year-old girl had been left at the gate n a threadbare blanket: abandoned, HIV+, and crawling with scabies. She was incredibly malnourished, and immediately admitted. There was no note or parent/caregiver around, no name for her, and I recall someone describing her as “unlovable” in her soiled and sickly state. But my heart was drawn to her -- I didn't want to leave her side.  

   I watched one of the Sisters efficiently bathe and powder this tiny little person, leaving behind a layer of grime in the basin. The baby didn’t make a sound and only occasionally blinked her eyes throughout this process. I wanted to know her story. I wanted to name all the failures of humanity and systems and states that led us to this present moment. I wanted to make sense of and understand her life; but instead I just watched as the Sister dressed her in fresh clothes and a diaper, trimmed her nails, and then handed her to me.

   “What shall we call her?” I asked.

   “She will need a strong name”, the Sister replied. “We will call her Augustine”.

   “Augustine, as in the 3rd century Saint?” I inquired, but the Sister had already turned and walked away, calling over her shoulder to remind me that "before a child will eat, they must know they are loved", and instructed me to "hold her close".

   So there we were, this tiny little person and me. I sat on a bench on the porch and held her out for a moment to see if she could sit up on my lap, facing me (so we could look at each other and build a little bit of trust). She looked like a wrinkled little old man with sparse patchy hair. I throught being named after a male saint from the 300's kindof worked for her. But she had no muscle tone to sit, refused to make eye contact, and let out a tiny squeak of a cry. So I held her close, her little boney body hard against my chest, and she exhaled deeply. That little sigh broke my heart and made me wonder how long it had been since she had any sort of relief. I wasn’t sure what to say or do, so I just started singing over her. The skin sagged on her tiny 5lb frame and her little fingers scratched and itched, while her lungs fluttered short little shallow breaths. I was afraid she might die while I held her.

   The Sister returned shortly with a mixture of F-100 therapeutic milk (used to treat severe malnutrition) but Augustine refused and turned her face away from our many attempts to feed her. I poured it into a cup to see if maybe that’s what she was used to; but she wanted nothing to do with this nutritious mixture. I carried her into room 1, where the sickest kids were eating lunch. For the first time Augustine focused her eyes. When I looked to see the object of her intense stare, I saw a bowl of rice and beans. She couldn’t start eating that kind of food in the state that her body was in…it would be too much of a shock for her little system. So the sister attempted to rehydrate her through an IV and laughed at her display of will and focus.

   I had seen other children like this and I was certain she would die. So I made it my goal to help make that process as comfortable as possible for her. Each day my friend Sarah O and I would bathe her with grape smelling soap and then lather her in scabies medications—she itched constantly but the cream gave her some relief. Before I left for the States, Augustine was still emaciated but ready to try some solid food. She was ravenous for the rice and beans. And yet she stubbornly would only eat one grain of rice at a time. If I tried to sneak more than that onto the spoon, she would spit it all out. So she and I would sit together, for almost two hours, as she ate an entire bowl of food, one grain of rice at a time. She continued to refuse eye contact and any other forms of nourishment.

   I eventually said goodbye and left that trip livid about the state of her life, about how unjust things were for her, and how it’s just dumb luck where any of us und up being born. On the plane ride back to the States I wrote an angry letter to God about the unfariness of Augustine's life, pleading with Him to do something; but convinced the odds were stacked against her. Hot tears fell down my frustrated face as the plane descended into my prosperous American life; and all I could do was place her back into His hands and pray for a merciful death.

   In those days, I would occasionally communicate with the Sisters in Haiti by letter, but other than that, we had no contact while I was in the States. Since I received no news, I tried to push thoughts of Augustine out of my mind and prayed that she was with Jesus and no longer suffering.  You can imagine my surprise when I returned to the Children’s Home in December of that same year and the Sisters greeted me by saying “Your baby is waiting for you”.

   I was truly so convinced that Augustine had died while I was away, that I wracked my brain and said out loud, “What baby?”

   She replied, “Ti Tine” (Augustine’s affectionate nickname) and pointed to room 3. Sure enough, I rounded the corner into her room, and there she was: sitting upright, holding on to the crib to stay balanced, and eating a banana. I was stunned. I could not believe that she survived. She smiled and shoved the banana into her tiny mouth, and I lifted her out of the crib…by that time she weighed just over 10 lbs, doubling her weight since I had last seen her.

   As the years passed, Augustine and I shared many wonderful reunions.

   She will always have developmental delays because of the severe malnutrition she experienced in her 1st year of life. But as she continued to grow, hitting so many milestones: learning to walk and to talk up a storm, creating works of “art”, even spending three years in kindergarten before graduating into 1st grade, my heart would overflow like a proud mama.

   It is not often that I can hold in my arms an answer to the deepest prayers of my heart. And Augustine was such a tangible reminder that God did hear my prayers—at least that once!

   And I’ll confess, I don’t love Augustine because she the smartest, cutest, most well behaved kid in all of Haiti (she’s not!) I love her because for whatever reason God planted those seeds in my heart so many years ago. I love her little voice, her crooked teeth, the way she points with her middle finger. I love that she’s so creative and naughty and always tries to sweet talk me into breaking the Sister’s rules. I love her because we both have a slightly obsessive attraction to all things shiny.

   It’s not what Augustine does or will do that ultimately makes me love her, it’s who she is…and eventually my little workaholic self connected the dots and realized that God feels the same way about me. If I never achieved another milestone or even got out of bed to serve him, God would still love me in the way I love Augustine. God would smile the way I smile when I think about that little girl a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida.

   God used this little 5 lb nugget to teach me so many things about Him, about myself, and about true life and joy. She taught me by example that I’m valuable not for what I do/produce/create, but simply because I exist. Who knew the gift in falling in love with the “unlovable”, would be to find out that it was me all along? Because I am Augustine. At my most “unlovable” and “rejected” moments in life, she helped me see all the parts inside of myself that were covered up, or busy trying to earn love. And also to recognize the love that was there, is there, even when I'm not aware. Sweet, spicy little Augustine is a tangible reminder to me of what that love looks like-snaggle teeth and all!

  (*Edited to add: Augustine lives in the mountains above Haiti now, in a home with 11 other orphans and a “mom” and “dad” in the house.
I don’t get to see her when I return to Port-au-Prince anymore. The Children’s Home was heavily damaged and had to be torn down in 2010, and she was relocated a couple of years after the Earthquake.)

  I'm blogging with a wonderful group of writers this month. Click here to read Susan's blog and follow around in the circle.