I close my apartment door, and my eyelids droop from weariness. I would heat up a tin of milk to have with my crust of bread, but I am too tired. Sleep first, and then a bite to eat, I promise myself. I embrace my pillow, adjusting my body to the lumpy mattress beneath me. Sleep doesn't come. The images from my day's work smother dreams.
If I were to dream, what would my unconscious mind conjure? Children groaning, screaming from an internal torment too horrible to endure. A baby with a tumor the size of a cantaloupe protruding from her spine. Eight- and nine-year-old boys and girls slithering along the hallway floor because they can't walk or weren't taught how. My everyday reality.
I squeeze my eyes tight but tears dampen my pillow. Why, oh Lord, did I accept this position?
Today was the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown. Aren't anniversaries a cause for celebration? Should we have donned party hats and applauded? Instead, we spoke in hushed voices all day working in unity like a well-maintained machine. The established routine of dressing and feeding our charges didn't allow for contemplation.
All day long I tended to the needs of children who may never live to the age of twenty. They will either die or be institutionalized for life.
They once lived in the shadow of Chernobyl. They splashed in puddles of black rain, wore clothes dried in breezes laced with radioactive fallout, ate food prepared in houses that could not keep out the poisons. They are orphans. Some of their parents worked as liquidators, assigned to clean up the nuclear waste inside and around the reactor in the months following the disaster. Most of them died. Some, upon seeing the hideous gift Chernobyl bestowed upon them, turned their deformed babies over to the state to be warehoused in orphanages and asylums.
All day long I spooned broth into mouths that gape open, throats that are losing their swallowing reflexes. The broth pooled in the back of the mouth, then either dripped little by little down the esophagus or gushed from the side of the mouth.
Natalya, the first of the older children to have responded to my care, has thyroid cancer. She has a photo that she took from her bedroom before she and her family were evacuated. When I first arrived here a year ago, she showed it to me. Gone are the blond curls she once had. A fine wispy fuzz replaced them. Her hair was a sacrifice to chemotherapy, the poison given to fight the poison inside her. But her smile, no matter how weak she has become, is the sunshine for which I grope in this prison.
My coworkers have warned me, "Don't become attached no matter how much they bond to you. Just care for their needs, no more, no less."
My mind protested. Isn't love a basic need? At first I believed my workmates to be hardened to the misery and death around them. Maybe they are. Who wouldn't become that way in the same job? But looking into the eyes of my coworkers, I can tell that each of them broke that rule before they learned it.
A child awoke from a tormented sleep. She flailed at imagined monsters with broomstick-thin arms and legs. Lifting her to myself, I rocked her in my arms. When I hummed and crooned to her, did she hear the mother of my childhood? Is that what it takes to comfort the condemned? I wonder.
Once I was in a more wretched state than these children. Capable of realizing my sin and yet clinging to it, my life may have ended without a Savior. As steady as my hand spooning broth, as patient as my mother's instruction, the Lord taught my mother to teach me to call to Him. That's why I'm here. To impart in some way to ears that can't hear, to minds that can't understand, the love of the Lord. To prepare those I can for their place in Heaven.
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