I’d seen the girls only six months ago and yet, it felt as though it had been much longer. Too long in fact. They grow up so fast that I’m loathe to miss out on anything. Along with a sizable check to augment their educational needs, this year, I’m giving them several board games. And of course chocolates.
As is my custom, I arrive early enough to have breakfast with the Sisters. It gives me a chance to decompress after a long car drive fraught with traffic as well as catch up with recent developments regarding the children. While on the one hand there is the joy of seeing them mature and develop, there is always the underlining concerns regarding their health and future. The shadow of HIV is ever present.
On the day of my visit, six of the girls were sequestering themselves from the others as they were in full study-mode. Their 12th grade final exams were fast approaching. This is a national exam and requires much preparation and focus. I’d know, I’ve been there. So I was certainly not going to disturb that lot. I’m just so proud of how far they have come.
Six others who had completed their school final last year were now getting technical and/or vocational training in another city. They were being supported and housed through the grace of NGOs. How exciting it is to know that these girls are on the verge of embarking life journeys of their own making. Finally, they get a chance to integrate into society. A society that has thus far chosen to keep them at bay. Deliberate ignorance is one of humanity’s biggest faults.
The remaining kids were at school which is in the same building in which they reside. To give it the gravitas that learning deserves, they wear uniforms and conform to the regulations all schools in India follow. Besides, they too ought to have similar school memories that ‘normal’ kids have.
The sisters have already informed me that as a side-effect of their medications, several of the girls were now sporting glasses and hearing aids. In addition, a few were currently receiving the second line of defense drugs as the first line had ceased to be effective. One girl was currently recuperating in the sick bay following blood transfusions she’d needed after her hemoglobin count had dropped dangerously.
At present, HIV by itself is not the biggest fear. The real threat is now multiple drug resistance tuberculosis (MDR – TB). Being already immunologically compromised, this is plainly super scary for the girls. When a couple of them contracted it in recent months, treatment naturally included isolation which in turn made them feel even more victimized. The psychological ramifications of growing up HIV positive are unimaginably difficult.
The effects of growing up with HIV are not manifested only physically. There is a huge mental and emotional aspect that takes its toll. The anger, fear and resentment from having to bear this burden through no fault of ones own gets expressed in many ways. From rebellious attempts to reject the need to study to self-mutilation and outright insolence, the nuns see it all. Understandably, even the need for help to see or hear better is met with deep reluctance. Just when a girl is getting interested in looking her best but is going through a very self-conscious phase, comes the necessary evil of spectacles and hearing aids.
I get it. I’ve been there. I recall through much of high school hiding my glasses whenever cute boys were around in school. Contact lenses came to my rescue only when I turned 18 as my parents didn’t think I’d be responsible enough till then. They were probably right but that’s not how I felt at that time.
These girls are not aware of contact lenses so, I explain what they are, that I wear them as does my daughter Mira and that they too could look forward to getting them in due course. Even as I am reassuring them, my mind is taking into account the efforts needed to raise the monies to fund those lenses down the not-so-long road. I have to make it happen. There is no way the nuns can afford the cost over and above the prohibitive price of basic needs, education and medications. Caring for the children is not easy and yet, they do so with so much patience, empathy and kindness.
(Even as girls are nurtured to grow and fly this nest, new arrivals move in. This past year, four children have joined this family of sorts. The youngest is barely three years old.)
This visit, my conversations with the girls deals mostly with me emphasizing the need for them to take their studies seriously as a sound education was their path to independence and empowerment. I so want them to know that they truly can have some if not all dreams come true. It is an ongoing effort on my part to provide them the tools they need to feel strong and capable. Compared to what they have already endured and must cope with every day of their lives, my task is the easiest by far.
As I bid them goodbye, they blow kisses, asking me to come back soon and to be sure to bring Mira as well. I am so touched by their genuine warmth. In the end, the children are the ones that teach me about life and how to keep it in perspective.
A piece of news that has given the girls real hope – one of their first “graduates” recently gave birth to an HIV-free baby. Given the necessary prenatal care and treatment, the girls now feel that they too can look forward to being mothers one day. Hope gives strength and these young ones need all the strength they can muster.
P.S. The support I receive from my friends and community to continue my work with Mukta Jeevan is my abiding pillar of hope and strength. I am blessed.
(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar