We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
How does a 3-year-old child who lies dying in a crib find the one person in the world who will rescue her? A 3-year-old abandoned child so mentally impaired she cannot organize her thoughts or direct the movement of her body any better than a newborn—how is she able to telegraph to Mary her desperation?
Mary is walking by, dressed in the white uniform of a practical nurse, glancing here and there at the cribs in the Hospital for Sick Children, studying the charts, checking the machines. She stops at “Gina”‘s crib. With fear and amazement she sees the little stick legs, the misshapen face. Mary turns away, moves on, but something about that child….She hesitates, and returns. Gina’s great eyes look right at her—they are focused, urgent, and they carry a message so powerful that Mary can hear the words: “Mother, take me home.”
There must be a language that has nothing to do with words, and it must be one we are born with, one that we can use before we can think. Gina will never be able to say more than a hundred words—but she can hook you, stun you, reel you in with no more than a deep glance.
Right off, Mary wanted Gina to be cleaner. She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t feed herself. She lay in her crib and messed. So as soon as Gina soiled herself, Mary changed her. At meal times Mary sat at Gina’s crib, patiently holding her in a sitting position and pressing her fingers around a spoon, showing her the rhythm of bringing food to her mouth. After weeks and weeks Gina could hold that spoon. She began to scoop food into her mouth. Mary bought her some pretty dresses and asked the supervisor if she could take her home for the weekend.
That’s when John first saw her. What did John think about this strange little being dressed up for a Sunday outing? The diagnosis was fetal alcohol syndrome—the worst case her physician had ever seen. Thin, agitated, odd…but intense, as if the great energy that couldn’t be directed to control her waving arms and legs or stop the shaking of her head was concentrated instead on getting this point across: “Mother, take me home.”
Mary is clear-sighted and quick. She certainly had the power to reject that message. She and John had already raised three children. They weren’t looking to fill empty spaces in their hearts. Maybe they just forgot to pose the question, “Do we have room for this child in our lives?” In the way of children and cats, Gina just moved in, and Mary and John moved over to make room for her.
If they had asked the question, “Do we have room for this child?” wouldn’t they have had to say no? John had a heating/plumbing business to run. And there were relatives, church associates, dozens of people who already had a claim on their time. Gina, had they thought about it, would be just too much for anyone. Had Gina laid out the map of her future, they would have seen open-heart surgery, two spinal operations, three eye operations, and surgeries for a cleft palate and hernia. They would have seen frantic ambulance rides to the hospital to quell asthma attacks in the middle of the night, and they would have seen, every day all day, Gina being reminded to dress, finish her food, brush her teeth, spell her name…
And then they would have said no. And if they had said no, Gina’s physician says she would be dead. So perhaps this language that doesn’t use words—perhaps it doesn’t allow Gina to ask questions. And perhaps Mary couldn’t respond, “Do we have room?” but only, “Come in. Wipe your mouth off when you’ve finished eating. Sit up straight.”
Because Mary and John didn’t ask questions, today, 18 years later at the age of 21, Gina dances to the music of Michael Jackson awkwardly and joyously. In church, her voice, raised above all others in the congregation, praises the Lord. If lost she can find her way home. She is scrubbed and exquisitely dressed. She can answer the phone: “Hello. My Daddy’s not here. Call back later.”
Mary seems unaware that Gina mirrors her every mood, that Gina is shocked and depressed when Mary is sick and screams with happiness and claps her hands when Mary laughs. And John seems unaware that Gina extends to him the tenderness and awe that parents no longer experience in children. To Gina, John is wisdom, John is father.
All this simply flows to John and Mary as Gina promised from her crib in that language that has no words.