Over the years, in life, I have had the experience of meeting many such people from different walks of life. The sex-workers from red-light districts from different countries I traveled to, patients who were terminally ill and had lost hope, friends and acquaintances who were going through terrible heart-break and cheating or had lost a child/spouse/parent/other loved one to death suddenly and so on.
But this answer is about the little girl who gave me my first such very intense experience by almost doing nothing.
Many years ago, when I was still a college student, I was a part of an organization that conducted charity events regularly and I used to volunteer there. We were once visiting an orphanage for HIV+ve children. These were mostly children who were born with it as their parents had had AIDS and they were simply abandoned at birth.
I knew we would be spending the day there helping around whichever way possible -cooking, babysitting, cleaning, teaching, donating money, whatever! We reached, had a little introductory talk from the person running the place. He introduced us to the children and his colleagues who work there and then the place was all back to routine.
I went and joined a group of children and started playing with them, while asking them things about their daily lives – How do they like it there? Who their favorite person was? What do they study? Do they like the food? Turned out, the care-takers were doing an awesome job.. The group had children of all ages, 3 to 15!
While chatting, I had noticed this very quiet little girl, of not more than 4 years of age. Something about her was very unsettling. She would simply not act like a child, even though she was one. Very quiet, considerate, no-tantrums, very caring towards other children…But very dead, on the inside. I kept looking into her eyes, I saw no person there. Dead.
I now put all my attention on her and tried to discreetly claw my way towards her without grabbing any attention. I asked her friends what her name was and then went and sat next to her, starting up a conversation. She was very polite and answered everything, but wouldn’t open up. One of the older girls told me she’s the most sick there (advanced stage of AIDS) and doctors haven’t given her much time to live. And that she has always been this quiet and never talks much.
I asked the child if I can hold her in my lap – she didn’t know how to react. To be nice to me, she sat in my lap for like a minute and then went back to sit on the floor. I asked her if she didn’t like me, to which she had an expression which said “I don’t want to hurt you, but please don’t come near me…for your own good!” That adult expression from a 4 year old completely stumped me!
The older girl told me that the child is aware of her disease and the stigma around it and she avoids humiliating situations. And that she currently has a big open wound on her foot (lower sole part) which is why it is better if I keep away from her.
This was crazy! I was very young (20 yrs), but an educated adult.. I knew there was stigma around even touching AIDS patients in India and an exposed wound was risky…But this whole situation was a bit difficult to digest! Nobody touched that child ever, because of this. She never got any loving hugs, nothing…
I just went to her, scooped her up in my arms and told her that we were going on a tour of the place and she was going to show me her favorite places and which room is for what! I could tell she loved being in my arms and I was determined to open up her rigid body language. I made her rest her head on my shoulders and hug me around my neck with her other hand – we were not going to play ‘touch me not’ anymore. Come what may.
Within only a few minutes, the very texture of her voice changed. Her body language started changing too. The child in her was slowly coming back.. It was as if some invisible source was pumping some life back into her. She started sounding like a child again. I saw her giggle at my lame Marathi jokes for the first time! I chatted her up so much that she was now speaking non-stop. It looked like we were competing on “who can blabla more”!
We then entered the main building where most of my group and the children and caretakers of that Home were. The adults fell silent seeing her perched on me like that…I could see slight visible concern on their faces. One of the caretakers was staring at her feet and a girl from my group let out a gasp when she saw the bloodied open wound.
I just continued my chattering to her and though her giggling was gone from all the seriousness in the room, there was still a lingering smile on her face. I kissed her cheeks and cracked the same joke again and she laughed. I made a few others join in too, in the buffoonery!
I then asked the guy (who had been staring at her wound) if I could bandage it. He said ‘we take care of the children like our own, the wound was open because she developed infections when it wasn’t left open’. I also saw some gratefulness and respect in his voice that I had dared to break the norm. They had visitors, but all their niceties were usually cosmetic, from a distance. Nobody really bothered so much. Not on this level. He tried to convey this as diplomatically as possible so as to not sound ungrateful towards whatever help they received from other visitors.
I spent the whole day with the girl held (literally) close to my heart. She didn’t want to let go of me either. She ate food from my hands (Indian food, chapati-sabzi-daal-rice, normally eaten with bare hands), sitting in my lap. She drew her pictures sitting in my lap. She took a nap, also in my lap. We put her ointment on the wound together. She sang her songs and told me stories their warden told them!
I learnt simply how very powerful and life-giving a human touch can be.