Nastia in my heart

Susan Life in Russia

Is it already Saturday? Where has this week gone? I spent it, I think, in my comfy chair writing a new book. I joke that this is hermit mode…when my kids eat Ramen noodles and turn their brains to mush on television. But last night, we packed up our sleeping bags and went down to Lake Superior, built a campfire, roasted dogs and laid out under the heavens. We talked about dreams and memories, and Sarah brought up one that tugged at my heart…a memory that helps me remember than even when I’m writing a book, or overwhelmed with life, I should never be too busy to give my kids a hug…

Nastia in my heart…

Two hours surrounded by screaming, hungry wet babies just didn’t sound like a pile of fun—to Andrew that is. To me, it sounded like the perfect dose of therapy—for my harried, overwhelmed, mother’s heart, there is nothing better than wrapping my arms around an infant, tucking her in close, cooing songs of love and reminding myself to slow down and enjoy the peace of a baby.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to volunteer weekly at a local infant orphanage. They were understaffed anyway – one nurse for twenty babies – and needed volunteers to change, feed and rock.. I could do that.

What I couldn’t do was prepare my heart for the onslaught of despair. The orphanage was no more than a long hallway of rooms located on the second floor of a local hospital. It was conveniently located just across the street from a maternity center, where the mom could give birth and then dump ‘em off, so to speak. The orphanage has this convenient deal where the child isn’t adopted out for two years so that the mom can come back and get the baby if she changes her mind. The infant hospital keeps the babies until they are big enough to go to a real orphanage. There are a growing number of them in the city of Khabarovsk.

I stared at a room of ten babies, packed into bassinets – some up to 11 months old, and the “convenience” of it dug a hole of anger in my heart. About half the babies were healthy, with pudgy little arms and velvet brown eyes, reaching out to squall, “hold me!” And their smiles! Can there be anything more delightful than the lopsided, toothless grin of a four-month old? I bathed and changed babies – they had no diapers, so there were wet up to their armpits. Every single one had a terrific case of cradle cap and diaper rash, and there wasn’t a bottle of Desitin on site. Then we fed them, 3 oz. of formula each, rocked them and put them down, still hungry, for a nap.

The next room was the same: hungry eyes, wet bottoms and enchanting smiles. Two-month- old Rystam nestled into my arms as if he belonged there, and I wished he did. Making our way around the room, I noticed a larger child, over a year old, in the corner crib. Her wheat colored hair had been sheared at odd angles and her chocolate brown eyes were saucers of palpable fear.

“Who is she?” I asked. Alla, the Director informed me that she had only just arrived, three days prior. Her mother was an alcoholic and didn’t want her. She was two, but couldn’t walk, didn’t talk and could barely sit up. And, she screamed when someone held her. I walked to her crib, and she stared up at me with those wide terrified eyes, and I wondered what could happen to a child two years of age that would make her fear human touch.

Sarah was with me, and slowly snaked a hand into her crib. I read the name badge: Nastia. Nastia’s hand was limp, but Sarah took it and began to sing, “You are my sunshine.” Nastia’s face was glued on mine, but her eyes flicked to Sarah, and then back. After a bit, I gathered her into my arms. She was stiff at first, and then I did what I do to my children when they seem to be worn out with the problems of the world: I prodded her head down onto my shoulder.

In a moment she had her arms around my neck in a death clamp. Her little atrophied legs were limp and I held her tight against me, and sang.

The desperation of this child swam over me, then, and for a brevity of time, my own heart mirrored her hopelessness. “What future does this child have, Lord?” My heart, and eyes, brimmed with tears. Then, as I rocked her, I realized that I could not save this child. I could offer her nothing but this moment, this embrace…and a prayer. Although no one may ever pray for this child again, I could pray for her now, and that could make all the difference. I believe in prayer, and I believe it changes lives…I’ve seen it in my own life.

So, I turned away from the nurse and prayed for Nastia as I would my own child. And, just like my own, I asked the Lord to allow me to see her in eternity.

Nastia cried when I put her down, an hour later. Sarah stayed by her and sang to her until Nastia fell into an agitated slumber. And then Sarah and I went home, back to our family, our safe and loving worlds where we aren’t afraid to hold and be held.

But Nastia has written her name upon my heart, as has Rystam and Andrei with the big brown eyes and bouncy Boris who did jumping jacks on my lap, and while I may not be able to offer them a home, or parents that love them, or even a safe future, I can pray for them, and entrust them to the Father who will never abandon them, who gave up “convenience” to offer us all a home in heaven.