Living in Africa was a struggle, but the most fulfilling, wonderful things I’ve ever done. I volunteered at an orphanage with over one-hundred little treasures, all under the age of two. Many were abandoned, premature and sick. Some were abused. They came to us with hollow eyes and stomachs. Maggot filled wounds. AIDs. Can you imagine it?
What a poverty it is, here in America, to be able to understand the destitution of the world – and yet do nothing. What a tragedy it is.
While in Uganda I worked with a group of twelve 6-9 month olds. I fell in love with them all, their sweet smiling toothless faces. But then one of them fell in love with me, too – Lucas. And he changed me, forever.
How can a six month old, malnourished baby change a life? Here, I’ll tell you, but it is going to take a while.
Male, 5 months, severely malnourished. Infected with malaria. Abused. Lacerations on genitals, burns around anus. These were the first words I read about Lucas.
Lucas was the youngest and tiniest babies in my group. His little body wriggled like a noodle. His neck wasn’t stable, and his head bobbled when he sat. He was amazingly handsome.
So of course I fell in love with him. It was two weeks after meeting him that I arrived at the orphanage to find he had been taken from my group and placed in the clinic, a separate room for the sick children. Something choked my heart, and at the time I didn’t know what it was, but I gave up the rest of my time in Africa to sit in a small, sour smelling room, to rock one small, sick baby as his body burned and froze.
We bonded in that room, Lucas and I. We were the only one the other had. In the dim, quietness of the morning I would come in for my shift, pull back the mosquito netting, and lift him from his crib. His onesie hung from his tiny waiflike body, yellow up the front and back from diarrhea. He slept alone during the night with a feeding tube taped to the side of his face, which was flakey and scaly like a fish.
At ‘The Surgery’ in Kampala, I held Lucas on my lap while the doctors took test to find out what was poisoning his little belly. I held his fragile body tightly to me, whispering promises in his ears. “Don’t you worry, Lukie Lou. I won’t leave you here alone. You will be okay.”
How wrong I turned out to be.
Lucas couldn’t eat. I held him on my lap while he vomited up warm liquid that splashed from the tile floor to my bare feet and legs. I cried for him. “God,” I whispered, “I don’t understand your plan.”
No one seemed quite sure how to care for this little orphan, and so some time later he was placed back with our group. I knew my time in Africa was running short, and time with Lucas flew by in fast-forward. I didn’t have enough time. I told myself that if Lucas was in the clinic when I was scheduled to go home, I would call and have my flight changed. I was terrified to leave him. I was terrified to break my promises to him, to go home and leave him abandoned once again.
The day before my flight I contracted food poisoning for the second time during the month. Though weak and exhausted, I returned to the orphanage. “Lucas,” a nanny spoke softly to the frail baby in her arms, “your mom is here.”
I knew in an instant that she was right. I had come to Uganda with an unknown purpose, but in the past month it had become perfectly clear. A sick abandoned baby needed a mom, and he had chosen me.
I held him carefully in my own skinny arms, and once again breathed my promises into his ears, “I won’t forget you Lukie Lou. You hold on. I won’t leave you here alone.” I laid him on his belly, and he peered out at me between the wooden bars of his crib, white vomit dribbling from the corner of his mouth. That was the last time I ever saw him.
But our story together was far from over. There is a grand author of perfection- one who orchestrates families and hopes and dreams. It is easy to see when you look closely, when you see the sun rising like a burning ball of flame on the horizon. It is a bit harder when you leave your son alone on foreign soil. Lucas, my baby. Lucas, my tiny little son.
I returned from Africa in ruins. Weighing twelve pounds less than when I left I must have looked like a waif, drifting around with what was once my everyday life. But in my mind, everything was different. In my mind, everything was Lucas. I tried my best to keep track of him, my little boy from across the ocean, and every once in a while, on a good day, a small detail about his life would trickle in through my email. It was all the same: Lucas is hard to keep track of. He is constantly in and out of the clinic. No one has took to him quite like you did, and he doesn’t seem too fond of us either. My heart was broken, and I couldn’t forget him; I felt like he was mine. “Lucas, your mom is here,” continually echoed through my memories. Lucas, my tiny little son.
Day by day it took me over, Africa, like a festering wound. It refused to give me up. I spent any free time searching for pictures and information about Lucas. In September I received an email from a friend from the orphanage, letting me know that Lucas had been moved with another little boy, Alfie, to an adoption home. “They have no known relatives,” the email said, “so they are able to be adopted. They are being moved to a new home.”
I cried that night against David’s shoulder, sobbing into him. I felt empty, squeezed out like a sponge. My heart ached. With this move I lost the small amount of contact with Lucas that I’d had. At twenty-one years old I began researching legal guardianship in Uganda.
In November I began looking into adoption agencies and visiting with a set of close relatives I knew were interested in international adoption, always putting in a good word for Lucas. I showed off pictures of him and plead his case. My mother started thinking about adoption as well. She could sense my love for this tiny, foreign child, and Lucas started pulling at her heartstrings also. I knew that Lucas was my son, but I also knew the chances of a single, twenty-one-year old in-debt college student adopting a seven month baby boy from Africa was slim to none. The more people that wanted Lucas home, the better his chances were.
In December a new online edition of the adoption home’s newsletter came out, and I scoured it frantically, my eyes darting across the words to find just one: Lucas. There was nothing. I checked the new arrivals: Douglas Opio, Victoria Namutembi, Humphrey Okello... no Lucas. The deceased: Jacob Ssuna. I realized I’d been holding my breath, and I released it, relieved. The fostered: Elijah Kasule, Raymond Mugalu, Mercy Nankya… nothing.
Nearing January I became frantic. I measured my moments in the time that I was wasting. I veered away from organizations and sought the help of individuals. I joined forums, blogs and Ugandan adoptions groups, always simply stating that I was looking for information about a little boy in this adoption orphanage, and if anyone had been there, please… help me.
I backed off of my search over the holidays, hoping that 2010 would be a new start and a new chance for good news. On January 5, 2010, I returned to my forums and waited anxiously as the page loaded, scared to see a blank white box in place of a reply. I caught my breath, because instead of what I’d feared, someone had answered my request- someone who had been in Uganda during November. Someone who was willing to help. I stared intently at the small photo next to her reply: a beaming dark-haired woman, pale cheek pressed against the black skin of the smiling baby boy in her arms. A small hope inside me flickered and rose.
We spoke back and forth, via the internet.
“I might have adopted that little boy!” she told me, but looking at my pictures quickly realized, no, she hadn’t adopted Lucas, but Alfie, the other little boy I had looked after in Africa.
Elated to have found such a close tie to my little boy, I questioned her again about my baby. “Yes,” she said, “I knew your baby.” She wrote about her contact with Lucas in her blog here.
“My heart hurts to tell you this.” She wrote.
I covered my mouth with my hand, sucking in gulps of air through the cracks between my frozen fingers. Reluctantly, I continued.
“Lucas was re-named Jacob.”
Salted tears streamed warmly from my eyes, over my lips, off my chin.
“He passed away during the first week of October.”
I cried for hours which turned into days. My heart was broken.
I returned to the December newsletter, skimming until I came to the words I was looking for, the ones that created such an immense sense of relief only a month ago. They now glared off the page at me. The deceased: Jacob Ssuna. Sadly, on 3rd Oct, baby Jacob Ssuna went to be with the Lord after struggling with Sickle Cell Anemia. That was all it said.
“You knew and loved our boy before we did,” she said, and I could sense her excitement as she asked for the single picture of her baby. “I'm so thankful that you wrote me,” she continued. “When you become an adoptive parent, especially from Africa, you know some things you will just have to always grieve. One of those, for us, was baby pictures.”
The empty, broken pieces of me began shifting back into place as I read her words. I understood the feeling of helplessness. I knew what it was like to lose. With a renewed sense of urgency I pulled up files of Africa on my computer screen, setting pictures of Alfie aside as I found them, one by one. An hour later I was finished. I sent the folder I created to Lovelyn.
The death of Lucas brought with it the restoration of another family grieving the loss of their son’s history. “What a gift you have given us.” Lovelyn wrote me, “I will always be thankful.” She mentions the gift, here.
I think of Lucas every single day. Nearly every moment, if I let myself. I think of his story, and how I am so privileged to be able to tell it. I think about how proud I am of him. I think of what I’ve learned, the things Lucas has taught me:
-To Never give up
-To see the beauty in the sadness
-That you don’t need to give birth to be a mother
-The loveliness of Africa and the worth of an orphan
-That God orchestrates all things together for good