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Chapter One: Sister

Hope was waiting at the top of an uneven flight of stairs.

Her eyes, long limbs, and braided hair were all deep shades of brown, and the middle and forefingers of her crippled hand were flitting gently like the wings of an alighted butterfly. She saw me. Her eyes flew open with a happy gasp. I reached the balcony. She clung to me – sweet and at the same time needy. Like she was hungry.
She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t.
That’s why I had come.
“Akaaaaa!” The wail was piercing. I turned, with Hope still clinging to me, to see that small girl flailing toward me – like she was being chased by death.
A running leap. She thrust herself into my arms. All the while weeping, “Akaaa! Akaaa!”
Sister. Sister.
I took a deep breath.
I was a sister.
When I was eleven, everyone near my age in my congregation went to Africa. Except me. My mother was struggling on bedrest to stay alive. So, I held my newborn sister in my arms – dressed her, taught her, sang to her, and rocked her each night to sleep.
The girl who wailed in my arms now didn’t know that. She called me sister out of custom.
But when I called her sister back – as I held her – I meant it.
Her wailing was a custom too, but a custom of her own. I’d heard different explanations for it: She was vying for attention. She was this way from her disability. She was tormented by demons.
I didn’t know for sure.
But if I was this small girl, wouldn’t I wail?
Her father and mother had left her – as a baby – to die.
They thought she was bad luck.
“Naomi?’ I called out. It was odd. She hadn’t come out onto the balcony. The huge door beside the stairs was closed.
I searched for her, Hope clinging to my side, the small girl now softly weeping into my shoulder.
Past the closed door was an open one.
The marble-floored room was filled with dark metal-framed beds of children lying limply, breathing shallow breaths. The heat this summer in India was record-breaking. The death toll was rising.
A middle-aged Indian woman in a Punjabi stood up from the table near the air conditioner when I walked in.
She pulled the girls off of me and motioned to them to play by making necklaces with the beads on the table. Hope squinted her eyes in concentration and tried to pick up a large bead with the fingers of the one hand she could barely use. She struggled to slip it onto the string.
“Where is Naomi?” I asked the woman.
She smiled and with sweeping gestures babbled in Telugu. The syllables tumbled over her tongue.
I understood nothing.
A slender boy lying on one of the mattresses rolled his head till his cheek was against the pillow and stared blankly at us. He was like me. He understood nothing.
Or maybe I was becoming like him.
“Naomi?” I repeated – as if that would help.
She continued to talk. Her voice rising and lowering, speeding and slowing. Her lips bounced. Her tongue backflipped. Her hands made waves between us.
Maybe this was what it felt like. I couldn’t understand. And I couldn’t be understood. It was like being trapped in a vacuum of glass. Maybe this was a glimpse of what it felt like to be Hope and the other children I had come for. Maybe this was what it felt like to be deaf and without language.
With each word I couldn’t comprehend, I felt the temperature rising, the humidity building. The heat constricting tightly like a scarf around my throat.
I smiled. Nodded. Turned away.
I had to find Naomi.
I had to keep myself from running.
I searched room after room. All of them the same. Beds and beds of Indian children sweltering in the record-breaking heat. All of them were like Hope and the girl who wailed. They were born deaf or disabled – or both – and their parents did the only thing they knew to do. They left them for dead. Here at the children’s home – where I searched through the halls for someone who could understand me – there were over a hundred of them.
“Naomi?” I could feel it rising inside me – the panic. I went back to the huge door by the stairs. It was thick and overlain in metal. I tried to open it. I couldn’t. Was it locked? Maybe it was just stuck. That’s it. It’s probably just stuck. The handle had a loop that swung. I rattled the handle. The metal of the door was embossed with floral designs. It was reminiscent of an ancient fortress. That’s what it felt like. If I could get inside this fortress, I could make it.
The heat was suffocating. Behind this huge door was a small room. I remembered it being dark and cool.
“Naomi?’ My tone was rising as high as it could without raising alarm. I yanked at the handle frantically. I drew in a breath and with both of my white hands threw all of my strength against it in one final shove. Nothing. The door remained – unmoved, unphased and indisputably shut. I leaned my head against it, my light auburn braid slipping off of my shoulders. The ends of my cotton scarf swung at my sides.
I didn’t bring any clothes with me when I went to India. From all the research I had done, it was best to buy clothes while I was there and immerse myself in the culture. So, I wore an old, blue button down shirt and pair of jeans when I flew from the snowy capitol of the United States to a sweltering Delhi. I bought Indian clothes when I arrived, and I left my American ones somewhere behind.
Funny thing about immersing yourself in a culture. It’s like immersing yourself in water: When you jump from a great height into the deep, it will feel like you may drown.
The small girl clutched and tugged on my tunic and climbed back into my arms. Hope returned and stood close beside me.
A few days earlier, when I had first met Sarah – the white woman who founded and ran the covenant home – I sat on the floor with two of her young daughters. We were eating in the Indian custom, mixing the rice and curry with the tips of our fingers. “So,” one of them asked, bobbing gracefully in curiosity, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She tilted her head as she waited for an answer.
“Well,” I laughed. “I kind of am grown up.”
“Well, yeah,” she giggled. “You know what I mean.”
I smiled and nodded.
“I want to do this,” I said. “I want to write and teach sign language… and eat with my hands.”
Both of the girls giggled.
Now, Hope clung to me in the blinding morning light.
The small girl in my arms wasn’t wailing. She looked at me. She tugged the edge of my thin, blue cotton scarf and pulled it over her head. It meant something. I had read about this. I tried to remember. She lifted up her soft, dark little hand and placed it gently on the crown of my light-haired head. She began to speak. She spoke Telugu like the woman by the air conditioner with the beads. But as the syllables tumbled gently over her tongue, I understood her.
She was praying for me.
There are some things that transcend language. The children taught me that: Laughter and wailing and dancing and prayer.
The first time I met the children, there was no sun. The sky was the deepest, dustiest purple and we walked through the beautiful metal gate into a sea of smiling children, reaching out their hands. Some of the other volunteers lagged behind, feeling claustrophobic, but I waded into them, smiling and resting my hand on each one of their heads. We walked to the middle of the courtyard where the children who could not walk were already seated on colorful cloths, dressed in bright colors, the rhinestones, and glitter of their celebration clothes glinting in the artificial lights. The covenant home wrapped around three sides of the courtyard with those balconies watching high above us.
There were so many children. After I had first seen the request on the children’s home website for someone to come and teach a little American Sign Language, I looked at the children’s profiles and found that about five of them were deaf. When the money came in on such short notice, especially from people who were really sacrificing to offer it – twenty dollar bills from college students, fifty and a hundred dollar checks from families who were just making ends meet – the gravity of it only grew stronger. As much as I knew that going out there even for just one child would be more than worth it, I didn’t want to only help five children. I wanted to help a hundred.
But when I was realistic with myself, I remembered what a stretch it would already be – just to teach five when I had never worked with deaf or disabled children before, and I only had taken one semester of American Sign Language.
It was Easter. They were celebrating the Resurrection because there is no newness of life without death. There was worship music, but around half of them couldn’t sing along.
Hope couldn’t sing. But she could stand. So she joined the other girls who could, and Hope danced.
The girl who was no longer wailing finished her prayer, now. She returned my scarf. I took it instead. And placing my light hand on the small crown of her dark hair, I prayed for her. Then I prayed for Hope.
One by one, room by room, I put my hand on each child’s head and prayed. Some of them didn’t understand and pushed my hand away, confused. But most of them lit up. They knew. One girl, afraid that I would skip her, grabbed my hand and pressed it to her black-brown hair. But by the end, I had prayed for every one of them.
The night I met Sarah, before I ate with her daughters, I held up a bowl for her as she dipped a ladle into hot soup. “You’ll probably want to know what you’re doing here,” she said, her blond hair slipping past her ear as she leaned over the stove. “Because of various disabilities,” she continued, lifting the ladle “About sixty of our kids could use your help,” she poured it into the bowl. It filled it. The heat overwhelmed my hands. I tried not to flinch. “So, I think you should teach all one hundred and twenty.”