Babies come into the world unaware of their circumstances. They do not care if their parents are rich, poor, royal, commoner, Black, White, Brown, geniuses or illiterate. They have no need for religion, political party or social status. All babies come out of the womb with the same basic needs: To be fed, to be held and to be sheltered. I came to this universal truth, when I went to Haiti in 2009 and met Baby Belle one minute after she was born.
I was visiting a small village in the southern part of Haiti for one week, where my friend Marie worked as a nurse. She took me to a small clinic with bare walls and a dusty cement floor. The women trailed lots of children after them and held sickly babies in their arms.
That afternoon I witnessed an unexpected delivery -- one of the women gave birth to a beautiful baby girl with ebony skin and a head full of dark shiny hair.
I was moved by the conditions under which she arrived into the world. No fanfare. I sat next to her mother on the thin mattress, hastily thrown on the floor to receive her baby. Her weight was estimated at around six pounds. There was no baby scale.
"What's her name?" I asked the mother with excitement in my voice.
She looked at me for a long time and I saw sadness in her deep brown eyes.
"I don't like to give them names until they're older," she replied with resignation in hers.
"Why?" I asked, confused.
"When they die ... it hurts more when they have names."
She handed the baby to me and lay down. With a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and went to sleep. She had alternately walked and been carried by two local men for over an hour to the small clinic. She had been in labor for forty-eight hours.
The mortality rate for mother and infant during delivery was high in this part of the world.
I looked into the baby's bright dark brown eyes and I named her Belle. She was perfect and beautiful. I gave birth to two daughters in the US and I couldn't help comparing the event that I just witnessed with my personal experience.
I fell in love with Belle. Maybe it was because I knew what life had in store for her. There was no baby shower for Belle. No prenatal care for her mother to make sure Belle was healthy before she made her unceremonious entry into the world. No sonogram that would reveal her gender, so her parents would start reading name books and decorate her nursery in pink.
Belle was just another body that would occupy space in the tiny hut the family called home. Another mouth to feed. But Belle was oblivious to all this. At the tender age of one minute she was like all the millions of babies in the world.
She needed to be fed. She needed to be held. She needed to be sheltered. She did not have a fancy nursery with mobiles and stars painted on the ceiling. She had no car seat, no stroller. The trails that meandered around the village were rocky and steep. Belle was not registered at Toys-R-Us, in fact her birth was not registered anywhere.
I walked the rocky trails to visit her every afternoon that week. Belle lay in her makeshift crib, fashioned from a crate that her fifteen-month-old brother had to relinquish to her. I held her a lot. Her mother was busy gathering wood for cooking, washing clothes, collecting water, cleaning, mending clothes and planting. Belle had a father, but she had no daddy. He was a shadow in her life passing through like the clouds.
Her mother hoped that Belle would survive. She had buried four children. In that culture, children were like insurance policies. Women had a lot of them for many reasons. Babies grew up and took care of aging parents.
The last day before I left the village, I held Belle and breathed in her sweet baby smell mingled with the burnt charcoal her mother used to cook. At six days old, Belle smiled at me. Maybe it was gas. What would Belle be happy about in her life? I wanted her to know that I would not forget her and I hoped to see her again.
In 2011, I found Belle living in the same one-room hut. She had had to relinquish her "crib." She was a big sister to a baby brother with no name. At age two, Belle was small. Her shiny black hair had turned reddish brown. Her belly button poked out of her distended stomach. I called her name, she got up from the pile of rubbish she was playing in with her siblings, dressed only in a torn pair of panties. She ran on spindly legs and encircled mine with her arms as if she really remembered me. I picked her up. Her baby smell was replaced by urine, dust and sweat. I held her tight and silently cried. When I tried to put her down, she held on to my neck with a strength I did not expect.
Belle was barely fed, held and sheltered. The hut leaked when it rained. She had to compete with four older siblings and a baby brother for everything -- food, space, love, all scarce commodities in her short life. She had no toys, no play dates, no picture books, no playgrounds, no story time. No one monitored her growth and her health. Nobody tucked her in to bed.
For a week, we spent time playing with the dolls and reading the picture books I'd brought for her. She loved the bright colors in the books. Belle's vocabulary was quite extensive. She had to learn early how to express her needs and be heard. She was unlike any typical two-year-old I knew. I found her every afternoon waiting for me alone on the side of the road. Grabbing my hand, she'd pull me behind her with eagerness in her steps.
"She knows the exact time to go wait for you," her mother said.
"But ... how?" I asked, incredulously.
"I don't know. She gathers her books, crayons, dolls and puts them on that chair," her mother answered, pointing to the three-legged chair leaning against the hut mud wall. "And she heads out the door."
"Is it safe to let her wander that far from home?" I asked wearily. The road was not visible from the hut. "You know they steal babies where I come from."
"Oh yeah! What they steal them for?" She asked in amazement. "Who'd want more kids if they weren't theirs?" Disbelief laced her words.
I had no response for that. I thought about the anxiety I lived with when my babies were born. I worried about illness, good nutrition, sleep pattern, vaccinations, side-effects, and definitely abduction.
Well, Belle's mother might have all the same worries but they all merged into daily survival for her family. Like a typical toddler, Belle threw tantrums when I stopped playing and reading because it got dark. With no electricity in the village, Belle, like all the villagers, had developed night vision. She couldn't understand why we had to stop because it got dark. So I started to teach her about the stars.
They were bright and numerous in the dark sky. Belle giggled as we looked up and I named and counted them while walking in circle. We'd both get dizzy. She grabbed my hand for support and we laughed. I'd give her a piggyback ride and could not get her off. Nobody had ever done that to her before. She begged for more.
At the end of the week, I was overwhelmed by sadness at the thought of leaving Belle once again. I explained to her as best as one could to a two-year-old that I would return in two years. She kept asking if it was tomorrow. The early morning of my departure I went over to Belle's, knowing she'd be asleep. I sneaked a peek at her small figure curled up in sleep on the straw mat she shared with three of her siblings. The left thumb in her mouth gave her a look of utter innocence.
I lightly kissed her forehead, brushing the smudge of dirt off her left cheek. I left a special book next to her that I had saved for that occasion. It had pictures of a lady getting on a plane waving good-bye. Belle waved good-bye to me every day when I left.
In 2013 I was excited to see four-year-old Belle and I brought her all sort of goodies. But Belle was gone. The family had moved after a severe storm destroyed their hut, the local school and the little church they attended. They had relocated to the northern part of the country. Belle had a set of twin sisters born the year before. I could only hope that Belle would have a better life there. She would have to fight for her daily survival against forces of nature and humankind.
The birth of my daughter Liz was planned four years before she arrived. I read tons of books on how to be the perfect mother. Liz came into the world in a sterile hospital environment, where specialists were available in case she needed special care. She weighed 8 lbs 10 oz. Her footprints were forever recorded on an ivory embossed certificate with a gold border. She was perfect and beautiful.
Her nursery was pink and white with shelves of books and toys. Her closet overflowed with beautiful dresses.
Liz did not fuss much, but then her every need was anticipated and met. She was very curious about her surroundings. She loved to be carried on her daddy's shoulder -- her Mount Everest. She would smile and waved her plump arms in the air, pointing at everything. From that vantage point she could see her world.
One day I took her to the local store and placed her in the shopping cart. In the time it took me to read a greeting card, Liz was gone. I was convinced that someone had snatched her from the cart. Fifteen long minutes later, I found her in a broom closet in the back of the store, drinking from a can of soda she had picked up from the trash can. Somehow, she had managed to stealthily get out of the cart. I scooped her up off the filthy floor before I threw up all over it. I was convinced she'd pick up some horrible disease from the person who drank from the can last, the dirty floor, or the garbage itself. Liz was thirteen months old. I drove home with shaky legs and a pounding heart. I scrubbed her in the tub with such vigor that her soft skin was raw.
She was two when her sister was born. She felt displaced from her throne and we experienced a period of tantrums and rebellion. But even at that young age, she realized that she did not have to give up anything material to the new member of her family, and there was enough love from Mom and Dad to share. She soon accepted her little sister.
Liz was raised with all the modern conveniences of a middle class baby in America. She had access to shelter, nutrition, health care, education, security, social interaction, mobility and technology.
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My experience with Belle opened my eyes to our complacency and culpability in the gross disparity among us. Each birth gives us a potential leader for the survival of our civilization. Every baby should have the opportunity to grow up healthy, happy and safe. Let us feed them, hold them and shelter them.