Young adult makes pilgrimage to orphanage in India, her childhood home
My heart feels heavy and pounds so loudly that I'm sure everyone around me can hear it. My palms are clammy and sweaty, and my fingers are gripping the carpet-like material of the bus seat so hard that my knuckles are almost white. I keep my eyes peeled to the window, peering out to see if anything looks familiar.
"Look for a park with beautiful, big, red roses and hedges in the shape of an elephant," I tell my bus companions, as we travel down the dirt-bumpy road.
As we get closer, a smile creeps across my face. I become jittery inside, like the feeling you get when you kiss a boy for the first time.
Suddenly, I see a sign that says "Holy Cross" and I yell, "There it is!" My heart is beating so fast; it feels as if it's going to pop out of my chest.
As I step from the bus, I realize the park is not as alive, plush, green or beautiful as I had remembered it. Instead it looks as if it had been turned into a dump - just brown dirt, paper, plastic bottles and dead trees.
"Was it always like this?" I think to myself. Perhaps. Maybe I had just imagined it to be my own magnificent "Secret Garden." Or, since I had last lived in this place, was it that I had experienced a world far richer than this, where unimaginable parks and gardens really do exist?
Or maybe, to a 6-year-old girl, even a run-down park can be beautiful.
I'm finally back, 15 years later, at the orphanage in Delhi, India, the place where I once spent my earliest years hoping that a loving family would take me home.
As we enter the building's main room, I look forward to being in the presence of Sister Herman Joseph, who was like a mother for five months of my life. I remember her so well. But she is nowhere to be seen except for a picture on the wall that depicts her beaming smile. So sweet, and with a big heart full of love.
My own heart aches as all the memories come back.
"She passed away not too long ago," says an unfamiliar nun, who now heads the orphanage. "She was a wonderful woman."
I look at the small square brown table before me.
"I remember eating one cookie after another off of this table," I tell the others. They laugh, because they all know I have a sweet tooth.
Everyone's attention remains focused on me, as I talk to this nun about my experiences in this orphanage and where I am now. She glows with happiness for me, knowing I am in a much better place. And my story provides hope for the other orphans.
My companions have joined me in India for a month-long period of study in a country far different from their own. The Catholic sister asks about their experiences thus far, and many say they love it and are learning so much because it's a country far different from theirs.
The nun asks if we would like to go upstairs. And, without any hesitation, the word "yes" leaves my mouth before she could even finish her question.
I found myself remembering how I once spent my time upstairs, as a child, playing hide-and-seek and causing mischief.
I think back to one hot, sticky night in particular. Radika - a friend of mine - and I quietly snuck into the kitchen after everyone was asleep to get some sugar. I believe our mission was accomplished successfully, although I can't remember exactly.
Now, as a young adult, I climb up the narrow twisting staircase and follow the nun into the baby room. About half of our group is following behind me.
Even before we enter, the sound of crying babies surrounds us, and my heart skips a beat. This isn't a baby's hospital room where mommy and daddy will take them "home" in a day or two. These babies are orphans found in garbage cans and dumpsters; they are the ones left to die on the streets of India, except for intervening police who bring them to this orphanage.
In the back of that room stands a beautiful woman with long, dark hair and a crooked smile. She looks at me and, for a moment, I feel as if I am 6 years old again.
It was here, I remember, that I was an orphan. And she - giving me a long look and a smile - acknowledges, without saying anything, that she remembers me.
She approaches and asks if I remember her. This moment doesn't seem real. I feel as if I am dreaming.
'Please love me'
As each of the visiting adults leans over the babies' beds, itching to reach out and hold them, I want more than anything to take each and every one home with me.
These infants are mentally retarded, we are told, and each has some degree of brain damage due to having been beaten. There is only a slight chance that just one or two may get better, their caretakers tell us.
I cradle 5-month-old Adiana, who has brain damage and shows no hope for improvement. Dressed in a blue-and-white shirt, she looks at me with a smile on her face. She giggles as if to say, "Please love me and take me home."
My vision becomes blurry as salty tears run down my face. I think about my own life experience. I suddenly become full of sadness and anger, recalling the papers my parents had given me just before I left my Cleveland home for this trip.
How could my real mother have just left me here at this orphanage? Just because I was stricken with polio, did she not want to take care of me? Did she not love me?
Then I thought to myself, "No, she did love me and she wanted the best for me, so she decided to bring me to the orphanage." She knew I would not be treated right in this country because people that are disabled have no chance at life; they are seen as the lowest class. She wanted a loving family to adopt me and give me the best life, because I deserved to have a chance at life.
I plant a soft kiss on Adiana, as I put her delicate body back in her crib. I hope she will be as fortunate as I have been.
It's feeding time for the babies, so we head back downstairs, where we are greeted by 30 little orphans. Many of them are girls, but a few are boys. It is hard to decipher their genders because they all have bowl haircuts, just like the one I once had, in order to prevent lice.
They all are fascinated by us Americans, although I look like them so. They try to talk with me, but with no such luck of hearing a response in their own tongue.
They climb all over us - chattering and clinging on - almost as if to say, "Please take me home." This makes it difficult to know we have to leave them all behind.
'A fortunate life'
Our time here is almost over. As we prepare to leave, I sit down to review some records that a nun had found. The page is open to a black-and-white picture of me. I look like a boy - with my bowl haircut. The page also contains information about my biological mother and the reasons why she chose to leave me here. It's similar to the documentation that my adoptive parents had already provided me.
I try to get up, but the little girls just keep piling into my lap, giggling, full of curiosity. I wonder if they think I'm a new orphan, or if they realize that I once had been. At last, we say thank you and good bye.
As I take one last look, I notice the children are pulling out mats and getting ready to watch Sunday cartoons. I smirk, realizing that not much has changed.
Back on the bus, everyone talks briefly about how they would like to take these children home. But the rest of the ride is mostly silent. I wonder if others are thinking, "Rajee was once an orphan just like the ones we just hugged, held and played with?"
Did this make it a reality for them? I believe it did have an impact, because many tell me how much they admire me for the life I have gone through.
I take one last look at the orphanage, but my eyes rest on the park across the street.
For a brief moment, I can smell the beautiful, big red roses again. I can crawl through the cool, plush, green grass. I glance at the large hedge in the shape of an elephant; it's so green and full of life, almost as if it's real.
For the rest of the ride I think about how lucky I am and how privileged I have been to have such a loving family to adopt me, knowing that I had polio.
Yet, they still wanted me and took care of me; because they made sure I received medical care upon arriving in the United States.
I have a better life now, than if my biological mother had not given me up for adoption. I would have probably been thrown out in the street, crawling and begging for food.
I thank God for giving me such a fortunate life and such a wonderful family.
Rajee Aerie, 22, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, is the daughter of the Rev. Cliff and Jan Aerie. She is a senior at UCC-related Elmhurst College in Illinois, where she will graduate in January with a degree in communications. She traveled to India with 10 fellow Elmhurst students.