Through the bars on the tall, uncurtained windows the garden looked invitingly cool, syringa trees providing a shifting shade that the women and children chased with their blankets on the kikuyu grass. Inside, the room smelled of sour milk, butternut squash and diapers. Tattered posters of zebra, wildebeest, lions and springbok littered the whitewashed walls; cardboard boxes overflowed with building blocks, dolls with no clothes or hair, chewed rubber rings, and toy telephones with broken dials or missing receivers.
The baby girl turned her head away from the approaching teaspoon of pap and got an earful of it instead.
"She's one of our sicker little angels," explained Big Jane, who had agreed to my interviewing her for South Africa's National Broadcasting Corporation radio news. She wiped away the porridge with a damp cloth. "If you come next month, she might not be here."
Shrieks of laughter floated in from the garden, where the other angels of the Soweto Home for Orphans had piled onto one of the helpers. I wondered how many of them would be gone, too. Most of them were three years old or younger, but there was one little boy of five who, said Big Jane, had surprised everybody by surviving that long. Although the name on the wooden plaque outside didn't indicate it, this was a place of refuge for children with AIDS, a place where they lived out the rest of their lives — often only a few months, because, as Big Jane explained to me, the disease moved quicker through tiny bodies than adult ones.
She lifted the baby girl out of her high chair and slid the infant over one broad shoulder and onto her back. Then, hunching forward, she wrapped a plaid blanket around them both, tucked the end in over her enormous bosom and secured it with a large safety pin.
"Thula baba. Be quiet, baby," she cooed, as the baby started to whimper.
As I followed Big Jane outside, I noticed that she wore her penny loafers as though they were backless, flattening the brown leather under her broad feet. The calluses on her heels had split open, and I could tell from the raw pink patches that she'd been peeling them like onions.
"Sies." Yuck, she told a little boy of about three, taking away the garden snail he was about to put into his mouth.
His bottom lip began to quiver, but then she hauled him up under his arms and his face brightened, as though he knew what was coming.
"Fly, my little one," she said, spinning around slowly.
The baby on her back stopped whimpering, and after about four turns she deposited the little boy onto his feet. He staggered like a drunkard, giggling and begging for more.
The top half of his left ear was a crimped ripple of pinched skin, a pink seashell against his dark brown complexion.
"His mother abandoned him in the veld when he was two days old, and the rats got to him," explained Big Jane, noticing that I was staring.
"Why would she do that?"
"Probably because she knew she didn't have long to live herself. And if her family had shunned her, why would they take in a child with AIDS?"
I could not answer, could not make any comment on something I understood so little. Yes, I'd seen the glossy news magazines with their maps and percentages, Sub–Saharan Africa colored deep red to indicate its status as the disease's hot spot, with seventy percent of the world's cases. I'd studied the specifics for South Africa: 250,000 people died each year from AIDS, and 420,000 children had been orphaned. I knew the dire projections for the impact AIDS was going to have on the underfunded health system, as well as the entire economy of the country. But I'd never seen the disease up close, seen its too bright eyes, its feverish brow, its thin wrists and overfull diapers.
Being with Big Jane and her group of five women volunteers made me feel selfish, as if I were breathing oxygen I didn't deserve.
"Why do you do it?" I asked her.
She untied and then retied the floral scarf she wore on her head, all the while looking at me as though this were a strange question, one she'd never thought of before.
"I don't want God's little angels to be frightened and get lost on their way to heaven," she said finally. Seeing the confusion on my face, she continued, "So I hold their hands and love them, and they fly right up with no trouble."
She picked up the little boy and kissed his ragged ear. Grinning broadly, he nuzzled his head against her shoulder.
I began to feel an unnerving envy of this woman and her quiet conviction. She allowed herself to love these children even though they would be taken from her. I never allowed myself to be vulnerable, which was clearly why I felt such an af-finity for my profession as a journalist. Wrapped up in my cocoon of objectivity, I lived a perfectly insular life, one that made me fairly content — or so I'd thought.
The love Big Jane talked about could be seen in her eyes, in her fingers as she stroked the children's hair while she talked, in the turn of her head every time a child cried. I loved my boyfriend, Anton, but the depth of my feelings for him didn't come close to this. I loved that he made me laugh with his droll observations of life, that he knew when to back away and allow me to let off steam, that he always called to check that I'd made it home safely. Like secret agents we always reported our movements to each other. "Yes, Mr. X, I've reached the site." I couldn't go to sleep at night if he didn't call to let me know he was home and hadn't been attacked getting out to open his garage door in the dark. But I never looked at him the way Big Jane looked at this little boy.
"How do you endure the heartbreak?" I asked her. "And the physical demands of caring for such ill children?" Surely the ebb and flow of life in this home would tax even the strongest love.
Big Jane did not hesitate. "This is what the Lord wants me to do, and so He gives me the strength to do it."
I hadn't thought of the Lord for a long time, not since my brother died and my father "withdrew" our faith. That's how he'd put it: withdrew our faith, as though we were entered in a team triathlon and had to retire due to injury.
He'd never been happy with me attending my mother's Afrikaans church, even though he'd agreed they would raise any children they might have in her faith. A devout Catholic he was not, but it was the way in which his father-in-law had decreed that he marry my mother in their church or not at all that had rankled him.
My mother didn't argue with my father. We just kept going to church, albeit under the pretense of visiting Luca's grave. But then the pills started to make Mom act strangely, and after a while we really did end up at Luca's grave on Sunday mornings. Instead of being in our usual pew at the Kerk van die Goeie Herder, the Church of the Good Shepherd, we'd lie on the grass next to Luca, sipping diet cola, eating licorice, "keeping him company," as my mother called it.
Excerpted from The Road to Home © Copyright 2011 by Vanessa Del Fabbro. Reprinted with permission by Steeple Hill, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved.