Published on December 20th, 2016 | by Becki Melchione0
Becki Melchione on DESPERATE MEASURES and Savior Fantasies
I knew that I was desperate when I began to contemplate kidnapping a baby.
I’d notice a child and immediately, my heart would build a case for why that child would be better off with me. Look at the squalid conditions this baby lives in, I’d tell myself – her mother hardly has enough to feed her. She’s six or seven months old and only looks about three. She lives on the streets. What sort of life will she have? I can give her a nice home, her own room, three healthy meals every day plus organic fruit snacks, whatever she wants. It would only take seconds to convince myself that grabbing that baby would be best for her.
Let me say this now. I didn’t do it. Either time. But I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted.
The first time, it took me by surprise. We found the baby in a remote village in the Amazon rainforest. My husband Luc and I were on a trip to Peru where he was studying tropical infectious disease at a university in Lima. Part of his training included a weeklong stay in Iquitos, a Peruvian city in the Amazon River Basin, and a one-day journey to set up a clinic in a tiny community that had grown up next to the river. I was a hanger-on, volunteering my amateur photography skills in exchange for tagging along to places I wouldn’t normally get to see.
The warm thrum of altruism made the two hours by boat and hour and a half hike to a tiny native village feel more like an adventure. But once there, among the first patients the medical students saw was a listless baby who was deathly ill.
The mother, her skin wrinkled like soft leather though she was probably younger than me, was seated on a bench. She wore a thin dress, nothing on her feet. Her back was hunched over the baby, who lay across her lap limp as a dishcloth.
“How long has the baby been like this?” Pedro, a medical student, asked the village chief who translated to the mother, as he pressed around the baby’s stomach. No response from the baby at all – no squirming, no cries. The student’s brow raised. Luc stepped up. The baby was warm with fever.
“Can you bring this baby to San Andreas to get medicine?” Luc asked the mother.
“But it’s so far, I have no money, and I have six other children,” the mother said.
“Everything will be free. We can help. Please come,” another student piped up. The exchange continued and it seemed that the mother had no intention of leaving her village. What is wrong with her? How could she not want to get medicine that could help?
“I don’t know,” she looked down.
“If you don’t, your baby could die.” The chief had stepped in to encourage her. Maybe the honest approach would stun her into action.
“I know. This baby has never been strong,” she said, shrinking into herself.
I couldn’t watch. It was like seeing someone drowning in a riptide far offshore – disaster was imminent and yet there was nothing I could do. I was in a place so foreign, so impoverished, so unfair, a place built on greed where industrialists erected a waterfront boulevard with magnificent mansions along paved walkways, even a building by the architect of the Eiffel Tower, and then left everything to decay once the precious resources had been exhausted. I’d tried to acknowledge the disabled and blind locals begged on the streets, including children who angled for the scraps from our dinner. But a baby, a sick baby whose mother seemed apathetic. I just couldn’t.
I walked away.
“What happened?” I asked Luc afterward.
“She said that she would come.”
“Good,” I nodded.
As we walked back to the little town of San Andres, any excitement from the beginning of the trip was gone. One of our guides, a thin woman who looked to be in her early twenties and spoke English, Spanish and some of the local dialects, said to Luc and me, “You have to understand. People here have lots of children, eight, nine, ten, sometimes more. They don’t expect them all to survive.” At 35, I was on the cusp of their average life expectancy. I’ve never felt more grateful for or completely undeserving of the life I have.
Back in San Andres, a transformation had taken place. The village’s center, an open courtyard surrounded on three sides by long concrete buildings had been changed into examination rooms, a research lab, and dispensary. The group of medical students and staff had unpacked two boats of supplies such as microscopes to examine blood and stool samples, and medicines to fight the typical bacteria and parasites that plagued the area’s inhabitants.
What had been an empty plaza when we arrived was now teeming with people. Children ran back and forth across the square playing with some of the balls and toys we brought, while others waited patiently in lines to be seen or to get their medicines. I roamed around doing my job, taking photos of the doctors and their patients, while I checked on who was in line and peeked in exam rooms, looking for the mother and baby.
They never appeared.
I wasn’t the only person who noticed their absence; Luc commented on it too, as well as several of the medical students who had seen them earlier. “She didn’t have long; maybe a few more days,” Pedro, who first examined her, noted on the return boat ride. A thought had passed through my mind, “I should have grabbed the baby, done whatever it took to save her,” but I ignored it. The ache of wanting a baby was a longing, something I could manage because I thought that I’d be with child soon enough. It was not the unrelenting desperation that would come, not yet.
That time would come about two years later after we had exhausted every avenue available for having our own child. We’d researched fertility clinics and interviewed doctors, going to the places with the most advanced technology and the best outcomes for my type of infertility. I jumped into two in vitro fertilization cycles, believing despite the dismal statistical chance of success, that if I pumped myself full of hormones, my ovaries would be coaxed into production, and we would have our baby within the year. Both times, doctors only retrieved one egg. Neither resulted in our baby.
After months of devastating failure, we visited Luc’s parents in Los Angeles. Away from the dreary Northeast winter that trapped us in our apartment with snow and ice and freezing temperatures, and armed with a new prescription that promised to alleviate some of my interior darkness, we opted for basking in the light and the warmth of seventy-degree days. For a brief few minutes, I forgot about the impossibility of a child who blended the qualities and characteristics I love about Luc with those I like about myself. With the sun on my skin and the antidepressants in my blood, I almost felt okay. Luc and I played with our nieces with half-smiles, relishing seeing the joy on their faces as they swung high in the air, and then feeling that twinge of pain that we wouldn’t have those moments with our own child, as they swooshed back toward the ground.
One afternoon, Luc’s parents took us on a walking tour of downtown toward Los Angeles’ Art Deco Union Train Station. Having commuted through Penn Station in New York, its hard plastic chairs lined up in rows and thousands of people standing to wait for their trains, I was enamored by the pink 1950’s architecture and amused by the cozy leather upholstered chairs set in small seating groups like a furniture showroom. Union Station appeared to be outfitted by Crate and Barrel and populated not by commuters, but by travelers seeking adventure.
But I noticed at every entrance, gigantic signs blocked the middle of the walkway reading, “No trespassing. No soliciting.” We exited a side entrance and saw the homeless who lined the outside of the station. They sat, stood, and leaned in front of us. At the far corner, two kids, a boy and a girl, were seated on a low cement wall. The girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, held a baby up from under his arms, her arms wrapped around him, embracing him in a big hug. The baby filled her lap, limbs dangling. The boy was smaller, maybe 5 years old, wearing a frayed Spiderman t-shirt, with a weary look on his face. Their skin was a dark bronze, similar to the Peruvians we saw in the Amazon. Parked next to them were a shopping cart and a stroller piled high with grocery bags filled with clothing, bags of stale bread, blankets, jackets and half-drunk water bottles.
Not three feet away stood a waiting cab.
Their mother was nowhere in sight.
“Look,” I whispered to Luc before my brain reacted to my heart, “we can take that one. You block the boy and I’ll grab the baby and hop into the cab. I’ll meet you at the airport.”
He held my hand tighter, as if logic and reason could be transferred through his grip. As if he could stop me if I really thought it would be that easy. There would be a police chase, an alert for a kidnapped child, an airport ticket person becoming suspicious when I explained that I needed a plane ticket back to New York on the next available flight while holding a baby but no diaper bag or luggage. Seconds passed as I thought of other scenarios. I could rent a car and drive cross-country; I could take a train from right there. We were at the train station!
The girl looked up and the baby’s dark brown eyes watched as we slowly approached her little family, step by step. Luc held on tighter. My heart leapt, then collapsed on itself, and the tears and the emptiness and the frustration returned.
“It’s just so unfair,” I said as I pressed my head into my husband’s shoulder. “We could give that baby a home and a future.”
He started, “I know, I know. We’ll…” but never finished. Instead, he wrapped his arm around and held me tighter. Maybe he was thinking about our life with a baby, maybe even that baby, just for a second or two.
I could never do it, steal another mother’s child. I couldn’t imagine the dark abyss of losing a child — the pain of wanting a child and not being able to have one was enough. Maybe I just projected my own fears, hopes and desires onto the families I saw. Maybe what I witnessed in those moments was temporary, in the process of being resolved. Maybe someone brought medicine to the baby instead of the mother having to come to us. Maybe the small family’s mother or father was off securing a job or a ticket to bring them to someplace called home. As Luc and I walked on and the distance between us and the train station stretched, I looked back at the baby and his family one last time before we got back into the car and drove away.
There had to be another way, for all of us.
All photos not otherwise credited are by Becki Melchione, rights reserved