The Children Who Lay Down
Here comes yellow bus number 36, loaded with children, who’ll spring through the door, eager for another day at Central Primary School. I’ve played this scene five days a week for the past 14 years. Like a rock star, I’m rushed by a pack of kindergarten and first graders, attaching themselves to my limbs, like an out of control mob, screaming “Mr. Pommer (Palmer) with the mole.”
The infamous mole, centered on my forehead, is my trademark with the pint-size groupies, who take turns pressing it, button-style, triggering my tongue to pop out, evoking giggles and beggings to “do it again.”
At age 62, I’m grateful that I can drag my limbs, each dripping with a child, through the double doors, down the halls, while grunting Frankenstein style. When the bell rings, the hall clears and quiets, like someone flipped a switch. Normally, I welcome the brief solace in my office before the first behavior problem of the day appears, but today I dread the inevitable nagging tape of last night´s phone call playing continuously in my head.
“Andy? This is Susan. I have some bad news. Due to budget cuts, your position as our counselor will be eliminated for next year. I’m sorry.”
Six months later …
“Pazhalsta?” beg Artur, Stefan, Ivan and Luka in unison.
“Da, Da, Da,” I say, moving close to the bed where they sit, fingers extended waiting to press the world renowned button on my forehead. Soon twelve boys, age six to 15, pile on the bed for a turn.
In brief, after a moment of – I’m too old, no one wants me, Diedre, my wife of 35 years, and I, sold our belongings, packed two suitcases and moved to the small village of Komarovka, located 170 km from Kiev. We said yes to God, taking the demographic whim, after meeting a young couple at our church, who opened our eyes to the need. With their help, we found and accepted volunteer positions in a state run orphanage.
Diedre, a former nurse, works in the profound and severely disabled children’s east ward; a slipshod add-on from the 1930s. In the west ward, where I work, you can hear every sneeze, cough, gurgle and cry through the slapped together wall boards. As grateful newbies, we work the unwanted night shifts, after which we sleep like euthanized stray cats until late afternoon when we sip decaf and have a routine conversation.
“I can’t do this. My heart is breaking. I feel helpless, and I can’t take it one more day,” she says. “It’s too much. It hurts.”
“You need to quit and work in one of the other wards. Please let me talk with Mr. Dolgorukiy. He can get you transferred,” I say.
And every day she refuses, saying “No, they need me.”
With nothing left to say, the argument ends. Two Americans, approaching seniordom, whom together, could barely speak one word of Russian, were only granted volunteer attendant positions at the orphanage because, they were desperate for help. In a country the size of Texas, Ukraine has over 100,000 orphans.
Serving as the lone handy man, I start my shift two hours early. Winter has bellied up to the bar, a time when the children sleep in sweatshirts, pants and stocking caps to sustain the drafty, brutally cold wards. Handy man status allows privileged visits to all the wards, including where my Diedre works. She too, usually starts her shift early to help relieve the overworked staff.
I’m never prepared for the ever-present blast of odors, or the hovering presence of the blue devils upon entering the ward for the profound and severely disabled. Carrying a tape measure and tool box, I meander over to Diedre who’s changing a despondent child’s diaper.
“How’s your day? Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows … ” I sing.
Receiving a sarcastic grin, I inspect the walls needing repair, measuring and noting for supplies. A voice in my head yells hurry, don’t look or get involved, while a convincing whisper encourages my eyes and heart to open. There are 20 cribs lining the room, not with jumping, rowdy toddlers cooing and finagling to get out and play; no, these cribs hold children who should be going to school, playing ball, and riding bikes, but instead, they lay in outgrown cribs, growth stunted like a gold fish raised in a shot glass. Yet, the disheartening physical and mental disabilities are not what’s hard to gaze on; it’s the eyes of hopelessness and despair.
“See ya later. I love you,” I say slipping out the door, inhaling the welcome fresh air before heading to the west ward, where, although it’s no tea party, compared to the east, it’s Disney World with sugar on top.
“Andy … Dude … Sup?” yells Oleg, from across the courtyard.
Hearing Oleg’s Russian accent speaking American slang gives me a chuckle. “Hey dude. Sup?” I answer, holding out my ear buds for him to grab.
Oleg is my Godsend, as he speaks good English, Ukrainian and Russian. He was assigned to me when I agreed to take on a group of Russian orphan boys transferred here after an already overcrowded ward lost its roof to a heavy snow. Obtaining his trust is my only venue to any relationship with the other boys. Without his approval, I’m a generic brand with nothing to offer but a cheap price.
“A real treat today Oleg, ‘In A Gadda Da Vida,’ Iron Butterfly … 1968. Enjoy dude.”
Grabbing the buds he prances next to me, looking like a Russian bobble-head doll, singing, free of inhibitions, “Innergobderdaveeder Baba.”
I’m in charge of a dozen boys, who live dorm style, four to a room, with a common area for recreation, meals and classrooms. After dinner, the common area is cleared, with tables and chairs stacked neatly around the edges for game time. When we walk through the door we’re rushed by the other boys, all wanting a turn with the buds, but they must wait, because there are 90 boys and girls to organize into two long lines encircling the 30 by 50 foot room. Oleg and I grab the metal waste cans, hanging them by their handles on hooks placed high on the wall. Each child takes a turn shooting the ball into a makeshift basket, while the nine other attendants cheer and rally. After each turn, we lift the waste can off the hook, retrieving the ball for the next player. With nine foot ceilings, the challenge is simple for some, but many are physically frail and have little, if any athletic ability.
At 9 o’clock, the children are dismissed for quiet time, while the attendants set the tables and chairs for the next day’s breakfast and first teaching session. My boys know to wait for me quietly in the room where Oleg, Boris, Vlad, and Ilia bunk.
Preoccupied with Iron Butterfly, they pass the buds around like crash survivors sharing oxygen, unaware I’m standing in the door, savoring the moment, studying each face. For many of the boys, smiles are rare, and even an unrealistic expectation. Their stories, typically, are riddled with neglect and violence, and all share the scar of being pegged “the unwanted.” So when they are together, stacked in the bunks, arms waving every direction, waiting for a turn to listen and bob to the music, I breathe it in. It’s as good as it gets here, and I need these times to endure the frustrating language barrier, the overwhelming sense of helplessness, and that ever persistent voice that tells me; just give up.
Voices raise, and I don’t have to understand Russian to know that a ruckus over sharing has spun out of control.
“Knock it off you bunch of crazy hooligans,” I say, listening while Oleg interprets, using the word hooligans and laughing.
Motioning for the boys to listen, I wait for the hush, and begin our nightly ritual of bible readings, sharing and prayer. The older boys help with interpretations, especially Oleg, my right hand man, or my Tonto, as I like to call him. The crux of tonight’s questions are:
“What is In A Gadda Da Vida Baby? Do I know any more knock knock jokes? Why does my tongue fall out when the mole button is pushed?.”
Prayer time is my reward for the tough stuff. I’ve little, to no idea what they’re praying. For all I know, they’re plotting a mutiny. I revel in their lowered faces, as the crowded room’s fragrance turns from childish mischief to caring, love and grace.
When heads raise, I announce that tomorrow morning I’ll be working in this room replacing loose boards, but that it will be finished within a couple of hours. Oleg pauses before interpreting, and I wonder if he understood, when all eyes turn wide eyed to the wall and an awkward silence falls over the room.
Not sure what was said, I send them off to their own rooms for the night. “Good night hooligans. Sleep loose,” I say, listening to them scurry to their bunks.
Back in the common room, I set up a makeshift office and begin writing case notes. I am not required to write them, as I am officially only an attendant, but it’s a habit I find productive, being an opportunity to focus on each boy. Normally, within 10 minutes, I hear whispers, shuffling feet, and giggles, to which I shout out a warning, but tonight there’s an eerie hush. With great stealth, I sneak down the hall between the rooms to find them all piled back in Oleg’s room, whispering a chorus of “ittergotterderveeterbaby.”
They’re huddled in a stack on the floor, with arms extended, looking like little Dutch boys with fingers stuck in the dike.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
They jump, tumbling into a heap, gasping, and I see that a board is completely off the wall, exposing a dim light through the clapboard. Sergey, a twelve year old, poker faced, cool-handed sort, calmly replaces the board over the hole, hammers each end with his fist and stands to leave, as if this never occurred. All eyes are upon me as I place a hand on Sergey’s shoulder, intercepting his escape. “Oleg… what … please explain.”
“We visit with the others. The ones we pray for, that have no fun. We sing the songs you bring to us,” he says, adding “Please, we beg you not to fix this wall.”
“Pohshzahloostah (please)!” they beg, in unison.
Like herding cats, I try to move each boy out of the way, but they return to their post protecting the wall.
“Out of the way, now!” I say, motioning for Oleg to interpret.
Hesitating, he evaluates the foreign look on my face and motions for the boys to move. Removing the loose board, through the dim light I can see the familiar rows of cribs, and eyes staring back at me through the hole in the wall.
“We sing and talk with them. We like to make them happy … smeshnoy (funny), like you make us laugh,” says Sergey, who’s sporting a black dot in the center of his forehead. He sees my questioning look, pressing the dot with his finger and sticking out his tongue. I stuff an urge to laugh, followed by one to cry.
“There’s nothing we can do for those children. We do all we can. This cannot go on. Tomorrow, I will fix the wall ….”
“Nyet, nyet, nyet!” interrupts the noisy ensemble, followed by Oleg pleading the heart of each boy.
“We won’t let you. They have no one. We must do something. They need us. We beg you to help us, help the children who lay down.”
“I can’t. No one can. Everyone wants to, but no one can. Go get in bed. It’s late,” I say, leaving the room.
The remaining hours of my shift are spent telling my thoughts to shut up. Thankful, my shift ends before the boys rise, I greet my replacement and slip out the door to meet Diedre. At home, over our scheduled date time breakfast, I share what the boys have been doing, under our noses for who knows how long.
“They can nyet, nyet, nyet, all they want. I’m fixing the wall before we both lose our jobs. Don’t worry, Diedre, I promise to handle this. Can you believe it?”
“Yes, I believe it. I’ve known all along. What do you think I’m doing over there? Napping?” she asks. “The children in my ward look forward to the night, because of your boys. Only a few can even hear them, but they all know the boys are there and it’s all they have. Please don’t take it away,” she sobs, running from the room.
With Diedre behind a slammed door to our bedroom, I choose the sofa, on which I toss and turn for hours, until, too tired to fight for more sleep, I rise. Not wanting to wake, or deal with Diedre, I select today’s classic oldie and head out the door. The sunshine and mild breeze convince me to walk through the park and visit a few shops in the village.
When I arrive at the orphanage, instead of the usual rush and greet entourage, I see them standing, arms crossed, lining the front of the common room entrance, looking like the Gestapo. I approach, extending my hand holding the ear buds.
“1963, The Kingsmen. Louie Louie,” a real treat dudes. Have a listen.” I beckon, holding the buds out again.
Artur, the youngest, who’s always the last to listen, holds his hand out, head down in shame. The rest resist, continuing the Gestapo evil eye through dinner and game time. Later, they gather in the room with the removable board, linking arms, accepting the challenge for a duel.
“Somebody wants to meet you,” I say, retrieving a box hidden behind me in the doorway. “You were all so upset with me, you didn’t even notice the box I’ve been toting all day.”
I open the box, out leaps a ball of yellow fur, wagging and greeting each boy as if they were long lost litter mates. I watch as the golden lab puppy saps each rigid face with a sloppy wet tongue to the cheek.
The moment ends like a guillotine slicing down when Oleg grabs the puppy, pushes it back in the box and says “We refuse your bribe. The wall stays as it is!”
“I won’t fix it yet. That’s all I can promise,” I say, taking the pup out of the box. “He can visit you every night. You can take turns sleeping with him. What do you think we should name him? Uh.. Zavoot?” I ask, meaning name.
“Louie, Louie,” said Artur.
Later, attempting to write case notes, my mind replays their voices, automatically translating the foreign words to livid hearts rising against injustice. Looking in on them around 3 AM, I chuckle at Artur, the winner of the puppy lottery for the night, slumbering peacefully with Louie Louie on his belly. Suddenly, I feel shaken, as if struck by lightning, my brain scrambled telling me; what is … is not; what mattered … does not; and the time … is now.
Running next door, I whisper to Oleg. “Get up. Go wake up the boys, but keep them quiet.”
The boys gather in the hall, wiping sleep from questioning eyes. I place a finger to my lips, a universal sign for hush, and motion for them to follow. With twelve boys and a puppy in tow, we trail through the common room, out the front door, and across the path toward the door leading to the attached building where the “children that lay down” reside. We corral around the door where I signal Oleg to interpret.
“I was wrong. You are right. We have about a half an hour while my wife, Diedre is alone with the children. Let’s show these children what God’s love can do.”
I wait while Oleg interprets, watching eyes liven with excitement. Then Sergey says “zhdat’!” running back into our building.
“He wants us to wait,” says Oleg, ceasing my attempt to stop him.
Shortly, he returns, ear buds in one hand, a black sharpie in the other. Taking command, he assembles his comrades, dabbing each with a black dot in the center of their foreheads.
“Khorosho,” he announces when finished, meaning okay.
Manned with “Louie Louie, the pup, and the song, we, soldiers of the matching forehead moles, proceed. I knock to the tune of “shave and a haircut, two bits,” a secret code between Deidre and me, and listen for her familiar pace.
“We’re here,” I sing, mockingly, as the door opens to my stunned wife.
“What’s on their faces?” she asks finally, pointing to her forehead, queuing the clan to press the moles, invoking a parade of tongues popping out of their mouths. “And, where did the pup come from?”
“Louie, Louie,” says Artur, holding the pup out for her to see.
“May we come in?” I ask.
“Welcome … all of you. Come in,” she says, shaking her head, confused.
While we worry on regulations and threats of life sentences in a Russian prison, the boys intuitively act, approaching the cribs, tenderly nursing each child with their first aid kits of song, puppy and mole buttons. We’re humbled by their wisdom as they seem to know, when to linger or move on to the next crib. Likewise, the children, labeled profoundly disabled, respond to the boys, beyond our wildest expectations; some smile, a few laugh, all have grateful eyes.
That night, we received arcane rites, and access to a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. A place where the wisdom of children reigns.