There was a small playground at the ‘Baby-house’ – which is what they called the orphanage we were visiting in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Tucked inside a plot no bigger than half a tennis court, they’d managed to fit a rock garden beneath some beech trees, a plank bridge, a puddle-sized pond, a little swing, and a slide. The pieces were all hand-carved, as were the four or five figure-posts that stood sentry throughout – a bunny, a cat, a bear.
The whole set was a donation, most likely – a gift of some appreciative parent-- and a thoughtful one, but maybe more picturesque than functional. During the three weeks we were there, I never saw a single child on it other than Theo, our son, and even his attentions drifted. Raised on the noisier, more ‘hardcore’ playgrounds of Central Park, he paid lip service to the swing – gave his pretend friend ‘Ding a few pushes – but soon enough he’d gravitate to the adjacent lot to inspect the wheels and windows of whatever car happened to be parked there.
We were there to find him a sister, and ourselves a daughter. Two years had passed since my wife and I had brought Theo home from Siberia. They were the two happiest years of our lives, so we’d returned to that general neck of the woods, looking to press our luck.
We prepared Theo as best we could, warming him to the idea, nugget by nugget. At first we told him that we were all going to take a trip together to meet some babies, and he was all for that. He likes planes, and babies too. But now that we were actually there, now that we were visiting the same baby girl every day and sprinkling our conversation more liberally with that word – “sister” – it was beginning to dawn on him what was really going on here.He had shown moments of characteristic largesse – offering hugs, smiles, and some uncommonly vigilant supervision of the babygirl’s pacifier (we weren’t allowed to use her intended name yet) – but there were other moments when he reacted the way you might expect any two-and-a-half year old to react, dragged half-way round the world to watch his parents coo and oogle and dote over a complete stranger – with his old toys, no less – and all for reasons which remained completely mysterious and therefore a little painful. He was dismayed. I was dismayed. I think we were all a little dismayed at first, the baby girl included.
So that’s why, for a certain portion of every visit, either my wife or I would take Theo outside to burn off some energy, get some fresh air, but really just let him know he had nothing to worry about. We loved him no less and beyond all measure. Hearts have room, that’s the great thing about them.
This morning was my turn. Theo had found a fairly large dump truck the day before, in the corner of the visiting room, so we took that down with us because, as I say, that windswept little playground offered only so much consolation. There also happened to be only car to look at that morning, and it was occupied, so Theo and I ventured over to the far side of the carport that divided the lot – a chevron ‘T’ cobbled together from concrete, plywood and corrugated tin. We found some rocks and soft dirt and loaded up the bed of the truck. I was suggesting we find a good construction site to dump the stones, but Theo didn’t seem all that interested. He’s still more in the hauling-for-hauling’s-sake stage, but even that proved more frustrating than fun. The pull-string on the truck was too short, so the fender kept barking against his heels and spilling stones, and none of that was the point anyway. He wanted to be held. I wanted to hold him, so after a few minutes we set aside the truck and I picked him up.
We were just standing there in our coats and hats, swaying in the wintry air, when a troop of children came round the near side of the building – orphans. Weather permitting, the caregivers at the Baby-house liked to take the toddlers outside once or twice a day. Here there were maybe a dozen of them, all bundled up in parkas, hats and scarves, and all moving very slowly, as I’d seen most such troops do – hand in hand, or mitten in mitten, looking down at their boot-tips as they walked, heal-toe heal-toe. It’s the caregivers who set the pace, of course – there were two in this instance, walking backwards – but I suspect the reason the children comply so readily is because they know these outings are precious: two times around the building and then it’s back inside, so no need to rush.As they came round the turn, one by one they lifted their heads and saw us, me standing there with Theo on my arm. They all appeared to be at least three years old, which is older than most parents like to adopt. I know that first-hand, and that the chances of any of these children being plucked from this place, and far grimmer futures, were growing slimmer by the moment. On some level, the children understood this too, but their expressions remained hopeful, entirely free of bitterness or self-pity.
There was a very pretty little blond girl who even used the word, “dada.” She smiled at us and waved. I waved back, thinking to myself how on earth, how on earth a jewel like that slip through, and how much longer could it shine?
The boys, just as precious, were a little more divided in their attention. They saw Theo and me, but they also saw the truck, loaded up with dirt and stones and abandoned there, so tantalizingly close to the path they were taking. A few of them stopped to gape, crouching down with yearning, pointing at it. Machina! Machina! they said, almost involuntarily, but still keeping an obedient distance. They knew - not theirs to play with. Not today, anyway. They made due with the view.
There was one boy, though, standing straight up, and he wasn’t looking at the truck. He was looking at me. He was wearing a black parka, dark green sweat pants and boots, and a bright red ski hat which clung tight to his head except for a knob at the top, which was flat like a spade.
He was a very handsome boy who would be a handsome man, strong and stout, I could tell from his posture – which resembled a sprung genie, or a lumberjack posing for a portrait. His chest was puffed out. His chin was high, and his expression as he looked back at me was entirely winning – like an old friend, like someone I hadn’t seen since college and hadn’t expected to, but here he was, of all places, taking great pride in his surprise appearance.
Yes, it’s me, he grinned.
I replied instinctively with an old in-joke – puffing out my cheeks like a blowfish. He laughed in recognition and did the same, at which point the caregiver called to him in Russian – Come along now. Let them be.
He took a step or two to leave, but he couldn’t resist. He looked back. I couldn’t resist either. I puffed out my cheeks again. He laughed again. The caregiver gave a firmer tug, and off he went, disappearing behind the cement side-wall of the carport.
I didn’t think he was quite finished, though, so I waited. A moment passed. Another moment, then sure enough, his head popped from behind the wall again. I responded with mock surprise – “You!” – and he ducked from view again, giggling.
I figured that was probably enough, even as much as I liked him. I didn’t want to disrupt the group’s walk any more than I already had, and I’m sure the caregiver wasn’t too keen on our game either, or my leaving the truck out there to tempt the children.
But of course it wasn’t only up to me. There was a ply-wood door in the middle of the wall, and through the slim crack I could now see the bright red of the boy’s cap, and his eye beneath. He was peeking through to see if I was still looking.
I pretended I wasn’t. I turned my attention back to Theo, who’d abided this whole exchange quietly and without jealousy. There was no threat here, just a nice little boy playing peekaboo. And when I did look back at the crack in the wall, the red sliver was gone. The caregiver had prevailed.
It was the truck that now beckoned, still bearing its load of stones and dirt. As Theo and I started back over to fetch it, I again suggested we find a place to dump it – maybe the playground on the other side. There was a spot next to the swing that looked like it could use some filling in.
Theo’s interest was still only mild. He didn’t object, but he clearly preferred to be held, so I obliged. I bent down and took up the string myself and started pulling the truck behind us. It was actually a fairly an awkward maneuver, given the length of the string, the fact that Theo – in parka and boots – probably weighed forty pounds, and that in order to get back through to the playground side of the carport we had to duck through the small opening that had been busted – literally sledge-hammered – into the concrete wall separating the two sides.
I took it slow for all these reason, but also because I wanted to give the three-year-olds time to move on ahead of us. I was hoping they might have rounded the far corner of the Baby-house by now.
Unfortunately, they were still very much there – still creeping along their little lane – as Theo and I emerged into view again. Worse, the sound of the plastic truck wheels on the pavement was intensely loud for some reason. The concrete was rough, and the carport must have been acting as a speaker, but all the children were looking back at us now, and the caregivers, and the boy in the red hat obviously, hoping this meant I’d come to resume our game.
I hadn’t. I kept my eyes straight ahead. I’d made my decision, but there was still a fair distance between me and my destination, the playground – maybe twelve paces, but twice as many of the slightly crouching mini-steps I was taking. I didn’t see any other way, though. With Theo sagging lower and lower in my arm, and the dump truck rumbling and thundering at my heels, I crossed the lot painfully slowly and in full view of the curious children. I could feel the confusion of the boy in the red hat, waiting to see if I’d quit acting now and look up at him; wondering why I’d turned so cold. Had I forgotten? Did I not see him?
We reached the playground finally, but there was a curb. I did my best to finesse the truck up and over, but I couldn’t. The truck bed flipped. The stones and dirt all spilled out into a neat little pile on the pavement. I could have scooped it up, but instead I left them there as if that’s what I’d meant to do. My arm was giving way, and I’d nearly made to the softer, quieter dirt the playground, where I knew I could take cover behind the posts, the trees, and Theo’s passing interest in the little swing.So that’s what I did. And at some point, I assume the boy in the red hat gave up on me and caught up with the others. Knowing him, I suspect he shook off his disappointment fairly quickly and turned the bright beam of his personality onto the next fortunate stranger.
But I’d been stung, reminded again, for all the talk of boundless hearts, how limited we are in our capacity to exercise them. I wondered if it was just me and something I still didn’t get, or could it possibly be true – testament to the dastardly rigging of the human condition – that sometimes, often times, what keeps us from extending ourselves further, giving more, loving more, is our sense of compassion.
Because that just doesn’t sound right.