A Vulnerable Boy

Earlier this month I ended up hospitalizing one of the older boys at Aunty’s.  He was  already in a government hospital, refusing to eat, and no one seemed to know what was wrong.  Aunty took him out of that hospital and brought him for me to see, and I sent him to a nursing home where Shanti Devi used to work.  The doctor there is not only respectful of me, but seeks my advice.  I’ve used that home as respite care for girls who have become out of control — a stop short of mental hospitalization, which I’ve also done.   This boy was on anti-psychotics which had been discontinued several months ago. Then there had been staff problems and we presume he was beaten.  It’s what he kept gesturing to us.  When I saw him he was terrified and shaking.

We got him back on his medications, and other than the first night when he screamed all night, he did fine.  But then the question, what to do with him?  Over and over people would say to me, “But he will be beaten if you send him back there,” as if I had any other solutions.

The bill ran up, $12 a day for the bed and $6.00 for the 24 hour aides.  I had a CT scan done to be sure he didn’t have any acute head injury.  It showed only mild abnormalities associated with Schizophrenia.  I’ve been in crisis mode for multiple reasons, including money woes, school enrollments, grants, website development, doctor visits, and all the regular things that go on in a home with 14 children.   But basically I didn’t know what to do.  Then a sore on his foot became infected and swollen so we started him on antibiotics but also did some blood work checking liver and kidney function.  That added a few more days.

We have had occasional times of girls hitting or pinching others, and I deal with it harshly.  Last night after evening prayers we had a meeting and I talked about violence, torture, pinching…. I told them that this is a sad thing that happens in almost most homes.  I talked about the boy in the hospital, whom they have all met, and the problem of what to do with him.   And we talked about how even little things get out of hand.  I think our home is one of the safest places there is for children.    I have friends who beat their children, friends who pinch their children, friends who look away when one sibling hurts another.

I was the Director of a Tufts Day Hospital for mentally ill in Boston and our patients were sometimes beaten up on the street coming to the Center and going home.  We tried to get transportation but the politicians didn’t want to acknowledge the danger so the patients walked the gauntlet to come for care.  You see, Boston, New York, Kolkata, all on the same spectrum of human behavior particularly with respect to cruelty.

I lived part of my childhood on a farm.  My parents were city-dwellers who decided to be farmers.  We were poor; our crops didn’t do well; droughts came and then floods, but I loved that life.  I drove a tractor when I was 12.  I could manage a plow at 14.   I had a horse I rode in competitions of barrel racing and pole bending.  I also tamed horses for other people sometimes.  I kept a blanket roll under my bed so I could jump on my horse and run away from home in the night.  However I was sensible enough to know that a young girl wasn’t going to get very far on horseback in New Jersey.  It was a wonderful fantasy life I had.  One day when I was about thirteen, I was looking out the window to the field where Stormy (the colt) and Twinkle Toes (his mother) were grazing.  Suddenly Stormy playfully came up behind his mother and bit her hard on the rump.  She kicked out at him with both hooves.  Pow! He backed off!  I don’t think he ever bit her again.

Well, it was an epiphany for me, having been raised on Spock, and reason, and guilt, and suddenly I thought, “Wow, her job is to socialize him, and she just did it!  No scolding, no explanation of goodness, no guilt trip, no judgement that he was a bad colt who didn’t appreciate his mother…. No, just a good kick and he learned his lesson.  I believe there are times when this is appropriate.  But here in India, as a white woman raising Indian children, I can’t do it.

Today’s newspaper talked about torture in the schools.  Keeping children from going to the bathroom is replacing caning as corporal punishment is made illegal.  We had that, one of our girls who needed to go to the bathroom and was refused permission and soiled herself — that was in the school that had NO water in the bathrooms, and further humiliated her by telling her in front of others to ask her mother for Rs. 10 for the clean-up.  No mercy in the schools.

Well, back to today and bringing this boy out of the hospital.  To all the people who reminded me he may be beaten, I just asked if they would take him.  You see, I don’t know anyplace I could guarantee his safety.  He is vulnerable and has impairments and whether in a government institution, or NGO home or even in a family, he may not fare well.  The Child Welfare Committee was of no help.  The politicians walked away.   I can’t keep him in a nursing home forever, and nor can I bring him here.

Safe places…. the heart of the matter, so hard to find, to build, to maintain.  So this is part of what has been on my mind a lot.

Cancer Is A Special Clock – A Personal Post

 

This morning I heard from a friend of mine who is living with cancer, and that started me thinking, remembering, and wanting to write about that part of my life that was really the beginning of my life in India and what I am doing now.  We just don’t ever know what is coming next, what will be presented and what we will choose.

We all live with clocks in our minds, how we see the span of our lives, knowing it is all a guess anyway because mostly we don’t have much control.  But some events, like Cancer for me, changes our perception of time and we make different choices based on a sense of time running out, and of the preciousness of life as we live it.  For me, January 1999 when I discovered I had cancer forced me to take a new look at my “To Do” list, short term and long term (the big “if.”)  With one child still in high school all I wanted was to live to see her graduate.  My older daughter was married and I trusted her and her husband to do everything necessary and possible to take care of her (except making sure she did her homework!)  Yes, I really worried about that.  In some ways we never change.

Below is a poem I wrote in 2001.. then a two-year “Still-Alive’r”

I’m a Cancer Still-Alive’r

  

Why do they call me a Survivor —

When I’m just a still-alive’r?

Really now, truth be told,

You don’t outlive your cancer

‘Til you die of something else.

One year, two years, five years, ten years, six months,

Who’s counting?

I am

Every day in fact.

Survival is for things that are Gone,

Done, Finished,

Kaput!

I survived rape once… long ago…

Lived through that night with a knife at my throat.

I survived, and

It’s over and done with,

Except for the part that never goes away,

But that man doesn’t still lurk in my shadows, he is gone.

My cancer cells though,

They lurk,

That is how they are,

They rape forever.

Some tell me Cancer isn’t such a bad disease anymore,

They know,

Because a good friend of theirs, a Breast Cancer Survivor,

Just died,

A “good death” though –

Family and friends around, and peaceful music….

Frankly, I just want to scream – or maybe throw-up,

I do not want to hear all of this!

Are they crazy!

There is no “good death” when all you want is to live.

Anyway, if I don’t have such a bad disease,

Why are all these other people dying from it?

Some tell me I’m so lucky to have it now,

In this time of great new medicines, and

Public Awareness

(Like my cancer cells really care about public awareness!)

If I’m so lucky to have it now,

Instead of yesterday,

Can’t I just trade it back, be “not-so-lucky” for now,

Instead have it in five or ten or twenty years, or

Never?

Well, what more can I tell you?

I still walk among the living, me and my cancer cells,

My heart does beat to a different time clock,

Every day counts —

And every day happens to be

More beautiful and

More treasured

Than the one before,

I may not earn that title of Survivor

Since only time can tell,

But I’m sure happy just to be

A cancer Still-Alive’r.

Cancer freed me to look at my To Do list and say it was now or never, and thus began the journey that led to the founding of Shishur Sevay.  It was a dream since high school when I’d written in an essay called, “The Meaning of Life”.

I wake up every morning grateful to be alive.  My life has always been filled with meaning, and with love.  This was another chapter waiting to be lived.  At the time of my cancer there were some other terrible things happening in my life.  I remember thinking to myself, “If I survive all this, I’m sure going to be one tough lady.”  

Kolkata: A Wall of Resistance

To make something happen in Kolkata, you have to look for cracks in the wall, work quickly, and get out before the crack closes.  I’m not talking about the usual corruption, bribes, money under the table.  Those are paths, not cracks, and each has its price and conditions.  The cracks are more about what is not expected, feats of perceived impossibility.  It’s how we got the kids.  We found a crack, and got them before this route was closed again.  But most of the time we are hitting the wall.  When I took eight children by ambulance to the Child Welfare Committee and said they needed care, we were told there are no facilities available, take them back.  We found places for three that day; the others went back.  It was a wall, with no shame.  Walls have no shame.

The following are pictures taken over the past ten years here in Kolkata, where time stands still and the walls get thicker.

Infected scabies infestation of child in a licensed home 2004

Infected scabies of the hand of a different child in a different licensed home 2012

Time stands still.  Conditions at the first home above were reported to the Department of Social Welfare, Department of Education, and the Human Rights Commission as girls there were being severely abused, and were not attending school.  Everything was documented.

In the case of the first picture, I was sponsoring this child at the “orphanage” as it was called.  I was asked to sponsor her as her mother was severely mentally ill and in and out of the hospital.  The grandmother had been taking care of her but found it hard.  What a delightful little girl she was.  I paid Rs. 1200 a month, roughly $25.  When I saw her hand I INSISTED a doctor be called.  The doctor came.  The little girl called him Uncle.  I learned she was actually the child of his servant and he wanted the child out-of-the-way.  The doctor owns a nursing home, a private school, and is a known expert in his field.  I said to him, “So you are a wealthy doctor and I, the foreign lady is supporting the child of your servant?”  He grinned and said yes.  No shame, that’s what I find over and over, no shame.

2006 I visited an adoption orphanage run by people who knew people I knew, and we “stopped by.”  I had already been told that the children were kept tied to their cribs, so I was curious as to whether we would be invited in.  We were invited in, and asked to sit for a while.  I figured they had gone to untie the kids.  But no…

Baby tied to crib, straining to look too.  Sometimes she rocked so hard I worried the crib would go over.

Three point restraint, plus around her waist. Her crib is too small for her to stretch out which I learned when I tried to examine her liver. She was Hepatitis B+ and considered non-adoptable.

And when these children are adopted, and they act strange, no one will know what they have been through, how they have lived, what they have missed.

This home’s license had expired and had not been renewed.  I showed these pictures and others to several government officials.  The home received its license and was scolded for letting me take pictures.  There is no shame.

I tried to buy these children, and I think came close to success.  We were negotiating…. For a long time I kept their pictures with me, kept two spaces for them.  I heard several different stories about their fate, so all I can tell is that I was not being told the truth, because not all the different stories could have been true.

Our children arrived at Shishur Sevay in February 2007 from a government home, with infected scabies, malaria, and bleeding gums.   There were no records of immunizations and none were given during their time in government care.  We immunized them at Shishur Sevay.  I had trouble getting them immunized for polio because most of the girls were over five years.  The doctor said, “Over five even if they get polio it will be mild.”  The government scheme only goes to five years.  I had it done privately.

It’s easy to be a critic, harder to find solutions.  When we started Shishur Sevay we needed a way to contain and protect our little ones — and so I had two “play pens” built.  That’s really the best way to describe them.  And I thought, “This is easy.  Why didn’t they do that instead of tying the children?”  It’s a mindset.  The children were inventory.  It didn’t matter if they were tied up.  In fact, several officials were impressed with the weight of the children.  “Necessary but not sufficient”

Why do I write this when “everyone knows?”  I write because I have hope; I always have hope.  And I write because I cannot be silent about what I see.  I also write to show my credentials for what I am doing here, not the past achievements of my life before India, but the sweat equity I have put into looking for solutions for the unwanted children.  I’ve been at this since 2000.  I’ve been up against that wall over and over, and sometimes I’ve found cracks, more often I’ve not, but each attempt has been a lesson.  I’ve learned to lose battles and come back a different way, a different strategy.  I like to think of myself as a good loser.

I started Shishur Sevay with a fantasy of showing what could be done and then shaming the government into doing something.  But I think the government is more like that wealthy doctor whose servant’s child I supported.  There is no shame.

I know there are others also trying so I write to reach out to them, to find them.  Maybe they will have ideas, and maybe they will be able to do things to make it better for the children. Maybe we will just all weep together at Kolkata’s wall of resistance, or better yet we will all go hunting for the cracks, and putting in wedges to keep them open, and celebrating each time we are successful.

Hello?

Sisters, And The Bonds of Love

Sometimes I forget to say what moves me the most about our home.  When I am looking through pictures, I notice most faces, and connections.  I had a dream before I started Shishur Sevay.  I was near a pond, with children there, a very quiet place, and I thought to myself, “It’s a place where a sister can bring her little sister and care for her.”  That was a dream.  This is Shishur Sevay:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above, bringing home Kalpana

Sanjana, our newest little sister, sitting on her own (well, until she topples over)

Shishur Sevay, fulfilling the meaning of love of each other.  We are a family.  Apparently we are still a growing family!  It was a wonderful dream I had that night, and a more wonderful journey that makes it real.

 

 

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